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9.09.2012

In the beginning was the big bang and God said that it was good!



Creation Cycle 1 - Planet Earth

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and earth. . .”; so begins one ancient story of the beginning of things.  “In the beginning was the big bang”; so begins Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne’s story of the ancient beginning of things.(1)  Both stories are true.

Biblical accounts of creation have become a bit of an embarrassment for Christians, especially when we are asked to defend our beliefs to non-believers or skeptics – to friends, co-workers, and even family members.  This morning we’ve heard two such biblical accounts of creation – the first from Genesis and the second in the poetic prologue to John’s Gospel.  But, there are others:  there is, the second story in Genesis – the one which includes stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, there is a brilliant exposition of God’s great acts of creating in the book of Job, and yet another in the book of Proverbs which sets Lady Wisdom at God’s side as co-Creator.(2) 

Beautiful as these many stories are, filled as they are with rich imagery of a loving and creative God, these same stories have frequently taken center stage in public debates of creation or intelligent design vs. evolution.  These often very public debates and the related Christian embarrassment has been ongoing since at least the 18th century when Carl Linnaeus realized that the animal kingdom appeared to be a family tree and developed the system of kingdom, phylum, class, and so on down to species to classify animals by shared characteristics. The debate heightened with the work of Charles Darwin and the 1859 publication of his Origin of the Species which led to the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial’ after the State of Tennessee prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools.  More recent still have been attempts to force public schools to give equal time to the theory of evolution and so-called “Creation Science” and current efforts to seek inclusion of Intelligent or Divine Design in science curriculums or to mandate disclaimers as to the factual nature of the theory of evolution.(3)

I will leave it to the lawyers to expound upon the ways in which teaching intelligent design in our schools does or does not violate the establishment clause of the first amendment which mandates government neutrality between religion and religion and between religion and non-religion.(4)  But what I do want to address is how we might faithfully respond to those who think we are slightly off in our thinking as Christians.
For starters, I find it helpful to know where our denomination stands on this issue.  When others ask me about my views on creation, I find it reassuring to be able to stand on the shoulders of Episcopal men and women throughout our country who have been studying and responding to these questions for some time. Two pieces of legislation which have come out of our church’s General Conventions in the past 30 – 35 years include:
  • Resolution D-090 passed in 1980 which “Resolved… [that we] affirm [our] belief in the glorious ability of God to create in any manner, and [that we] … reject the rigid dogmatism of the ‘Creationist’ movement.”
  • And Resolution A-129 passed in 2006 which “Resolved … that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the ancient Creeds of the Church; and … further Resolved, That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith; and … further Resolved, That Episcopalians strongly encourage state legislatures and state and local boards of education to establish standards for science education based on the best available scientific knowledge as accepted by a consensus of the scientific community; and …Resolved, That Episcopal dioceses and congregations seek the assistance of scientists and science educators in understanding what constitutes reliable scientific knowledge.”

So, this is our denomination’s official position: we say yes to evolution AND we say yes to God as Creator.   We say yes to Scripture and we say yes to our scientists.  Could it be that those who would malign Episcopalians as “wishy-washy, fence-sitters” are on to something? I don’t think so. And here’s why.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to hear United Church of Christ minister, Michael Dowd, teach his “Gospel of Evolution” – yes, gospel of evolution. Dowd suggests that there are two types of language: day language and night language. The first “describes the realm of what’s so: the facts, the objectively real, that which is publicly and measurably true.  Night language evokes the realm of meaning in inspiring ways . . . by way of metaphor, poetry, and vibrant images.”(5)

Day language is the language science, the language of evolution, a language of truth.  Night language is the language of dreams, of rich imagination, a language of truth.  When we look to texts like this morning’s creation stories and expect them to answer scientific questions – or worse – to assume that they are, in fact, scientific, we have misclassified the stories and have rendered them all but meaningless. Harold Schulweis, in a passage from his wonderfully insightful book, For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles of Faith, reflects on the first Genesis account of creation and writes:
“The Bible is not geology. The Bible is concerned with the spiritual implications of an event, not with its physical cause and effect. . . . There is hardly a verse in the Bible taken verbatim that is exempt from embarrassment. Take the statement: ‘And God said, ‘Let there be light.’’ If God speaks, does it mean that God has a larynx? In what language or dialect does He speak? Did He speak these words before the creation of the universe took place? How could light have been created before the fourth day when the sun and moon and stars in the firmament of the heaven were created? Blinded by the literal text, the symbolic meaning of light and of the spoken word is invisible.”(6)

Getting caught up in debates that pit creation against evolution runs the risk of our missing some of the beautiful truths of the Night Language of our Scripture.  Spending our time debating whether creation or evolution are true, might cause us to miss the scriptural truth of the intrinsic goodness, of all that is – the biotic and abiotic aspects of the world in which we live.  The light, the Earth and the Seas, all sorts of vegetation, the sun and the moon, living creatures – sea monsters, fish, birds, cattle and creeping things, and wild animals of every kind - “And God saw that it was good.”  God declares the goodness of creation – the value of creation – and invites us to share in that delight.  We humans have a tendency to bias our value of things based on their relative benefit to us.  But, this is not God’s way.  Writing in the 4th century, John Chrysostom said:
Among the growth springing up from the earth it was not only plants that are useful but also those that are harmful, and not only trees that bear fruit but also those that bear none; and not only tame animals but also wild and unruly ones. Among the creatures emerging from the waters it was not only fish but also sea monsters and other fierce creatures . . . Among the creatures produced from the earth it was not only tame animals but also snakes, vipers, serpents, lions, and leopards. In the sky it was not only showers and kindly breezes but also hail and snow.”(7)
All of this, God declares to be good.  And, if you and I can hold on to this truth – to the goodness of creation – and hold it along side the truths of science – then maybe, just maybe we can begin to create inroads to addressing some of the harsher realities of the day language world in which we live: issues like “global climate change, scarcity of fresh water, threats to biodiversity, degradation of the world’s oceans, unsustainable agricultural practices, and deforestation” – issues that threaten the very viability of life, the sustainability of life, on our planet.(8)  Once we reorient ourselves to God by valuing the earth as God values the earth, might we be more apt to recognize our responsibility and our role as earth’s stewards? 

According to systematic theologian and ethicist, Jame Schaefer of Marquette University, the answer is a resounding, “YES!”  Schaefer suggests such a reorientation toward God, toward caring for our planet, can lead us to recognize some of the “functional, historical, and evolutionary limits to the physical world” and God’s abundant grace can give us the ability and the willingness to make changes in our lifestyles that are “compatible with those limits.”(9)  Such a reorientation toward God and toward our planet, can help us to see ourselves “as citizens of” our world “rather than conquerors of [it].”(10)
 
As faithful followers of Christ, we can say yes to evolution AND we can say yes to God as Creator.  We can appreciate the complexities of our language and acknowledge that the language of the day – the language of science – AND the language of the night – the language of creation can, in fact, inform one another.  

“By the word of the LORD were the heavens made,
     by the breath of his mouth all the heavenly hosts.
He gathers up the waters of the ocean as in a water-skin
     and stores up the depths of the sea.
For he spoke, and it came to pass,
     he commanded, and it stood fast.”(11)
 
YES!

“In the beginning was the big bang!”

YES!


[1] John Polkinghorne, One World: The Interaction of Science and Theology (London: SPCK, 1986), 56 in Sallie McFague, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 43-44.
[2] Cf. Job 38-39; Proverbs 3:19-20; 8:22-31; 14:31; 16:11; 17:5; 20:12; 22:2; 29:13; 30:2-4.
[3] American Civil Liberties Union of Utah Foundation, Inc. “The Teaching of Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Divine Design in Public Schools,” (January 2006) accessed online at http://www.acluutah.org/ on September 8, 2012.
[4] For one who will take up this argument, see Anne Marie Lofaso, “White Paper: The Constitutional Debate over Teaching Intelligent Design as Science in Public Schools,” (American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, December 2005) accessed online at http://www.acslaw.org on September 8, 2012.
[5] Michael Dowd, “A Story Big Enough to Hold Us All,” in The Whole World Kin: Darwin and the Spirit of Liberal Religion, ed. Fredric Muir, (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2010), 19.
[6] Harold M. Schulweis, For Those Who Can’t Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith, (New York, Harper: 1994), 66.
[7] John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, Homily 10, translated by Robert C. Hill, Fathers of the Church 74 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1986).
[8] “Valuing the Goodness of the Earth: Lesson Plan,” Study Guides for Caring for Creation, (Waco, TX: Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, 2012), 13.
[9] Jame Schaefer, “Valuing the Goodness of the Earth,” Caring for Creation (Waco, TX: Center for Christian Ethics, Bayor University, 2012), 17.
[10] Ibid., 18.
[11] Psalm 33:6-7, 9