Sunday, August 23, 2009

Feeling Darwin’s God’s Politics

Ephesians 6: 10-20
Psalm 84
John 6: 56-69

Well, here we are, in an un-air conditioned nave in the peak of the Boston summer. And, after nine weeks of sermons on Darwin and faith, we are almost to the end of our summer series, turning to our second string as we round the last bend. We feel the heat and humidity. We feel the intellectual weight of our topic. We feel, yes, let us confess it, a bit distracted by the national debates on health care reform, by our preference to be at the beach right now, and by the prospect of the Red Sox trouncing the Yankees at least as badly as they did last night. Today, dear friends, amidst the heat and humidity, the gravitas of evolutionary theory, and our myriad distractions, we attend to our feelings. Let us pray:
O God, when I speak, may a message be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Amen.

That religion has primarily to do with feeling, not knowing or doing, was a central claim for Friedrich Schleiermacher in his Glaubenslehre, perhaps the founding text of liberal theology. We would do well to remember this as we consider the struggles of the last century-and-a-half between religion and evolutionary theory. To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution raises a number of conceptual problems for theology, many of which have been discussed throughout our Darwin and Faith sermon series. But as faithful people, our solving the conceptual problems does not resolve the tension between religion and science. The tension is not merely thought but felt, and we must be attentive to the feeling of the tension, and the feelings the tension produces, if we are to have any chance of such resolution.

What is this feeling?

I remember, about a dozen years ago, traveling from my home in Silver Spring, Maryland up to Princeton, New Jersey for a visit with Uncle Doug and Aunt Helen. This was a regular occurrence for my brother and I. While my immediate family were and are avid churchgoers, Doug and Helen were not. I distinctly remember, at one point, my brother asking Doug if he was a Christian. Doug replied that he was not. After pondering this for a moment, my brother looked up with raised eyebrows and pronounced, “Oh! You’re a Helenist!” Given that her own lineage was Greek, Helen was simultaneously delighted and amused by this naïve conclusion.

On this particular trip, I found myself browsing the copious bookshelves that lined the walls of their Princeton home. I came across a book making the case for evolutionary theory over against religion. This discovery led to a lengthy discussion with Doug about the merits of the theory of evolution and its discrepancies with biblical descriptions of creation. In spite of the fact that Doug is a professor of politics, or more likely because of it, he did not argue his case with anything like the stridency we see in typical political discourse. Instead he made his points clearly and calmly and invited me to consider and question them in a similar spirit. Indeed, it was not Doug’s argumentation that led me to experience for myself the tension between religion and evolution but the real tension that is there. Coming, as I was, with what I will charitably call a Sunday School conception of faith, my experience of the life of faith, of God, and of religious experience had very little way of coping with the implications of Darwin’s theory.

In fact, the tension between religion and science does in part arise from the contradiction between biblical images of creation and the theory of evolution. But this is still a conceptual problem and does not yet get at the feeling. In the face of contradiction, the normal human response is doubt: one of the two views, if contradictory, must be wrong. Religious doubt is especially deep. It reaches to something like what Descartes meant when he said that he doubted everything except that which cannot be doubted, namely his own existence. If he doubted then there must be a self that doubts and so he must exist. This is the meaning of his famous statement cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. Arriving at this fundamental conclusion, however, required doubting absolutely everything else, all ways of knowing and thinking and understanding the world. At this point, the entire world of meaning, and all ways of meaning-making, must be completely reconstructed from scratch. Moreover, there must be a process of letting go of the old ways of understanding and finding meaning in the world. There is a loss here, and loss is accompanied by grief.

It is no different with the confrontations between religion and science in our own time. The truth that the world comes to be the way we find it, and that we come to be the way we are, as a result of evolutionary processes, requires doubting the Sunday School conception of faith. This is what Professor Wesley Wildman was pointing to in the first sermon of the Darwin and Faith series. There is no simple adjustment to the Sunday School faith, such as saying that the Sunday School God creates through evolution, that does anything like justice to Darwin’s theory. Conceptually, Dr. Wildman hit the nail right on the head. But now we must continue on to understand what letting go of a Sunday School faith implies, to see what the process of grief looks like, to examine our own feelings in the tension between religion and science. We are, after all, human beings, who have evolved to construct for ourselves worlds of meaning made up of truths that we can depend on. We have not evolved to simply let one world of meaning go and pick up another. If we had, those worlds of meaning would have no value. No, we are tenacious in our beliefs and cling to them precisely because they are valuable. They give us meaning and purpose, direction and confidence. And so, when they break down, we feel the loss and we grieve.

To be sure, this process of loss and grief takes place at the personal level. Darwin himself may be the best example of this. Being in training for the Anglican priesthood at Cambridge University when he made his journey on the Beagle, eventually leading to his landmark theory, Darwin had read the leading natural theologies of his day. Most of these, and especially the natural theology of William Paley, are versions of the teleological argument for the existence of God. The argument is to the effect that a world exhibiting such complexity, order, purpose and beauty as ours must have been created by an intelligent entity. Darwin’s theory of evolution, however, is precisely a demonstration of how complexity, order and beauty come about through the natural process of evolution, which only purpose is survival. Darwin saw and knew the contradiction explicitly. And for the remainder of his life Darwin remained ambivalent about faith. A letter from 1879 to John Fordyce is revealing. Darwin says,
[My] judgment often fluctuates.... Whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term ... In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. -- I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older), but not always, -- that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.

Clearly, Darwin could no longer tolerate his earlier beliefs, but neither would his grief at its loss allow him to abandon faith entirely. Not all grieve in this way; many do abandon faith.

The grieving process takes place at the social level as well. We see this as many Christians resist the teaching of evolution in public schools and advocate the teaching of creationism based on their belief in a personal, purposeful god. We might diagnose this response to the challenge Darwin’s theory poses for such Sunday School faith on the Kübler-Ross grief cycle as somewhere amidst the stages of denial, anger and bargaining. Denial: such Christians continue in their faith lives as if Darwin had never published On the Origin of Species. Anger: Sunday School Christians express anger at the social adoption of evolutionary theory by challenging it in court, by denying that Christians who accept evolutionary theory are true Christians, and by attempting to keep politicians who accept evolutionary theory out of office. Bargaining: Recent advocacy of having creationism taught alongside evolution and the shift from strict creationism to intelligent design theories are attempts at bargaining with evolution. Given that Darwin’s theory was published 150 years ago and we are socially only at the fourth of seven stages, half-way there, we can see that the grieving process at the social level, especially where religious beliefs are concerned, can take a very long time indeed.

This timeframe should not be entirely surprising. After all, the feeling with which Schleiermacher identified religion is not just any feeling; it is the feeling of absolute dependence. But it is hard to understand how we can absolutely depend on God if God turns out not to be who or what we thought. Sunday School faith tells us that God is a person, often imagined as a white man with a beard resting on the clouds, who relates to us as persons, giving us meaning and purpose in our lives. Dean Hill gave us three tools the Boston Personalists provide us for engaging with evolutionary theory, but Darwin’s theory contradicts Personalism’s central tenet, namely that personhood is the fundamental category for understanding reality. Evolution points out that the only purpose inherent in the ongoing development of the world is survival. Evolution as a process is tragic, as Alfred North Whitehead understood the term, pointing toward “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” As Dr. Wildman pointed out in relation to Darwin’s own struggle with faith,
Surely such a loving, personal deity would have created in another way, a way that involved less trial and error, fewer false starts, less mindless chance, fewer tragic species extinctions, less dependence on random symbiotic collaborations, fewer pointless cruelties, and less reliance on predation to sort out the fit from the unfit.

If evolution is true, as it surely is, then that upon which we absolutely depend is certainly not personal.

Upon what, then, can we depend absolutely? Who is Darwin’s God? Darwin’s God is a creator god who creates us not personally but as part of a world that exhibits complexity and beauty and change and chance and order and that presents us with myriad choices, the decision among which make us who we are. Darwin’s God is not scaled to human concern; God is the creator of the H1N1 flu virus just as much as you and I. Darwin’s God creates a world not of predetermined outcomes but of competing interests. Darwin’s God creates not the world of utopic idealism, exhibiting a nice, neat, orderly progression, but the messy, mean and infinitely interesting developments in life. Darwin’s God, like Anselm’s God, is that than which nothing greater can be thought. As human thinking develops, as it has with Darwin’s theory of evolution, that which is greater than human thought and presses it to its limits must also expand. We can absolutely depend upon God to be more than we could ever imagine or comprehend. Darwin’s God is not as attractive as the personal God, because Darwin’s God does not care particularly about us, but Darwin’s God is more honest about the God we discern in the world God creates, whereas the personal God tells us more about our own desires and selfishness than about God in Godself. Darwin’s God is absolutely dependable to resist our selfish interpretations and demand humble submission.

We can see the unattractiveness of Darwin’s God when we consider the present debates about health care reform. Darwin’s God looks much more like the death panels that conservative politicians and pundits impugn upon reform proposals than anything any Senator or Congressperson could ever dream up. From the evolutionary perspective, human flourishing would certainly be greatly improved if societies were not encumbered by the old and infirm; humanity would be much more suited for survival. But none of the proposals in Congress suggest any such thing. Last week, Dr. Rodney Petersen warned us of the dangers of social Darwinism. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to make wise decisions with regard to health care reform such that those who need care are cared for while also stewarding resources responsibly. But these wise decisions must be made in light of the human needs of our present historical moment. They cannot be attributed to a personal divine will and given ultimate cosmic significance. Darwin’s God will not accept such responsibility.

We stand in the same relation to the teaching about God revealed to us in Darwin as the disciples did to the teaching about God that Jesus offered them in our gospel reading today. With them we ask, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus knew that accepting it would be difficult, that there were some who did not believe. And Jesus asks us today along with the twelve so long ago, “Do you also wish to go away?”

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we need not turn away. Like Peter we can both address the conceptual contradictions and take up our grief at the loss of our Sunday School faith. And so with Peter we can say, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Time, Eternity and End Times

Psalm 106: 1-12
Jonah 1
2 Peter 3: 14-18

I was quite excited to hear, in his invitation to me to preach today, that Rev. Hawes is preaching a series of sermons this summer on “questions of faith.” He offered that I did not have to participate in the series and could preach on whatever I liked, but I find that it is always better, as a guest preacher, to fit myself into the ongoing life of the community as much as possible. So, I requested the list of questions that he had compiled from your input. Then I began thinking that attempting to step into the middle of a sermon series might not be such a good idea after all. You all ask tough questions!

At Marsh Chapel, the architectural and spiritual center of Boston University, we are in the midst of our third annual national summer preacher series. This summer we are tackling the theme of Darwin and Faith in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication On the Origin of Species. Many of you probably know that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Christian theology have been in significant conflict since that publication. Our hope at Marsh Chapel is to help those who find themselves caught between these ways of understanding life in the world discover ways of being both authentically religious and honest about the truths revealed in the light of modern science. One of the questions on your list of “questions of faith” was about creation and evolution. Given that my contribution to the Marsh Chapel series comes next Sunday, I thought about giving it a trial run this week. But in the end I decided to settle for a slightly lighter topic from your list: time and eternity.

The notion of turning to the front page of a daily newspaper to catch a glimpse of what is going on in the world is fast becoming obsolete. For example, I get my news by following national news outlets like the New York Times and local news sources like Boston News Now on Twitter. However you get your news, it is hard to look at the goings on in the world today with overly much optimism. The war in Iraq seems to be quieting down somewhat, just in time for a resurgent conflict with the Taliban in Afghanistan bleeding over into nuclear armed Pakistan. Almost 10% of U.S. citizens are unemployed, and while there are some signs that the recession is slowing, economists suggest that there will be a long road to recovery. The culture wars continue, perhaps in softer tones than in recent years, with debates over gay marriage, abortion rights and gun control continuing to be contentious. Of course, the most pressing issue in the news these days is health care reform and the many problems surrounding its cost and implementation. More on this later.

What are we to make of all of this? How are we to interpret wars and recessions and cultural upheaval and societal change in light of the gospel? One of the ways that religious people the world over have taken these “signs of the times” is to cast them onto a vast cosmic canvas. On this canvas, these mundane events are signs of evil ascendant in the world. We have seen in the past decade how some fundamentalist Muslims have taken this ascendancy as a call to resist modernizing forces through violent resistance and militant offensive actions. Christians have also been all too keen to read divine intent into such events, seeing the interpreted ascent of evil as a precursor to the final destruction of evil by God followed by the reign of Christ. Just read Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind novels. In other words, religious people have a tendency to interpret events in the world as signs of the coming end of that world.

One of the interesting things about people who make such predictions is that they seem to think that the confluence of wars, recessions, cultural upheaval and social change are novel; that they have never happened before. A cursory review of history will tell us that this is simply not the case. Take the New Testament for example. The gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four gospels, was written right around 70 A.D. when the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. In fact, the purpose of the gospel of Mark seems to have been to convince people to repent and follow Jesus ευθυς, immediately. Mark understood the destruction of the Jerusalem temple as a cosmic sign that Jesus’ return was immanent. From our vantage almost 2000 years later, it would seem that Mark was wrong. Paul, whose letters were written before any of the gospels and are the earliest literature in the New Testament, encouraged Christ believers in Corinth to “remain as you are,” i.e. single, because of the “impending crisis,” i.e. Jesus’ return. This is why Peter, in our reading from his second letter today, written after the destruction of the temple, says that some of the things Paul said are “hard to understand.” Peter was writing at a time when Christians were struggling to come to terms with the fact that Jesus had not returned as soon as they had hoped. Suddenly, a lot of things early Christians had claimed made less sense. This is also one of the reasons the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, based on Mark but addressing the particular needs of later communities.

Living in the early centuries of the Common Era, the understanding of the biblical writers of the way the world works was distinctly disparate from the modern worldview. The earth was flat. The sky was a vast dome, above which were the several realms of heaven. Below the earth were the several levels of hell. The end of the world was when hell was defeated and the earthly and heavenly realms would be merged. Of course, today we know that the earth is round and that the sky is not a dome but a series of levels of atmosphere beyond which is a vast universe of stars and galaxies. If the atmospheric levels were to break down, as some of them are because of human produced pollution, we would not find earth merged with heaven but an entirely unlivable planet with no air to breathe.

In fact, Christian history is riddled with claims that the world is going to end. Still, here we are in 2009. Empirically, none of these claims has ever come to pass. Nevertheless, the fact that the world has never ended does not necessarily mean that the world never will end. One of these days, the prediction just may turn out to be right.

Actually, any claim that the world will end is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of time and eternity. Claims that the world will end, be they claims in the Bible or claims made by modern Christians, are based on the idea that some sort of cataclysmic set of events will bring time to a close and then we will be in eternity with God. Unfortunately, this conception gets both time and eternity wrong. It gets time wrong because it assumes that time is made up of individual moments, like water dripping from a dropper, one after another. But this is not time as we experience it. We experience time as a flow, like a river in which no one drop can be distinguished from the whole movement of the water. Being in the flow of time, in the river as it were, we experience some events as past, some as present, and some as future. Furthermore, as we move along, the flow of time moves some events into the past and other events from the future become actualized in the present. Present events limit some of our future possibilities.

Human history is nothing if not a long list of wars, recessions, cultural upheaval and social change. These are normal parts of human life, not signs that the world is about to end. Casting the events of our daily lives onto the vast cosmic canvas of divine purpose says a lot more about our own sense of our importance than it does about what God is actually doing in the world. It is also a way of escaping from our responsibility for doing anything about it. Human predictions of the end of the world are a lot like Jonah fleeing God’s work for him in Nineveh. Why should Jonah go to Nineveh if God is just going to destroy the city anyway? Why should we worry about all of these things that are happening if the world is going to end shortly anyway?

Claims that the world will end also get eternity wrong. For those predicting the end of the world, eternity is a continuation of the drops from the dropper forever and ever. The only difference is that in eternity God is in charge and so there are no more wars or recessions, no more cultural upheaval or social change. In other words, eternity is time without change. It is as if time is frozen in one drop of water forever. The inadequacy of this conception is apparent when we consider the resurrection. At what age will you be frozen in that drop of water? Will you be an infant, with all of your future possibilities ahead of you, but not knowing your children or having grown up and learned the skills of a profession? Or will you be elderly, when life has been lived fully but the body may not work as well as you may want if it is going to be forever? Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that we will be resurrected at age 33, the age Jesus was when he was crucified. But is this not just as arbitrary? And what about the people who do not live to the age of 33?

No, time is not drips of water from a dropper and eternity is not the continuation of a single drop forever. The river of time flows, and time is our conception of the river from within it, understood as the three modes of past, present and future. Eternity, on the other hand, is all the modes of time together, the God’s eye view from outside the river. It is not even the case that God sits on the bank of the river at a particular point, a particular present, judging our pasts and knowing our futures. God sees all of time together as fixed pasts and as open possibilities in the future realized in present moments. This is what it means to say that God is not in time; time is in God. Visions of the end of the world assume that eternity is something that intercepts and interrupts the flow of time. But that misses the point of eternity. Eternity is all of the modes of time – past, present and future – together. Time as we know it is our view of time from within the flow. Eternity is God’s view of time from outside the flow from past into present into future. Eternity does not interrupt time; it suffuses time with life and meaning.

There is a very practical implication to all of this: time has no beginning and no end. There is no end of the world. There is no cataclysmic moment when the world as we know it falls apart. And while we are searching the future for signs of the end of the world, we are missing eternity all around us. After all, we are in eternity just as much as we are in time and our present actions have eternal consequences. A choice, once made, is fixed and is past but also limits future possibilities. Choices, actions in the present, have eternal consequences.

The upshot is that we should worry about wars and recessions and cultural upheaval and social change. Our choices about how we handle these events in human life have eternal consequences, not at some point in the future, but from the eternal perspective of God in which our choice, once made, is past and fixed and our future is a kaleidoscope of possibilities.

Now we can get back to the health care debate. More than any issue since the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the present debate about health care reform is being cast onto a cosmic canvas, claiming that change in the health care system signals the end of the world, replete with the four horsemen of the apocalypse schematized as death panels. We do this because in a culture thoroughly inculcated with the idea that time is like individual drops of water, there is enormous pressure to escape the incessant dripping. We seek to escape from embarrassments of our past and from terror in the face of the future. Like Jonah, we seek to escape from the eternal vision of God. Stuck within the narrow vision of our present drop of water, we fear death and so we cast discussions of end-of-life issues with our doctors onto the cosmic canvas and they become death panels, deciding our fate for us. We are embarrassed by the past failures of our healthcare system to treat patients equally and effectively and so we cast the past onto the cosmic canvas such that any change signals the end of the world. From the perspective of eternity, however, the need for health care reform is about facing the fact that we live in Nineveh. Our wickedness is denying care to those who need it most who God calls us to serve. Our wickedness is our own selfishness causing us to fear conversations with loved ones and doctors about end of life issues. From the eternal perspective of God, this sort of behavior is going to land us in the belly of a very large fish.

The good news of Jesus Christ for us today is that we do not live in a world of dripping present moments but in the eternal flow of the river of time. We need not fear death, because faithful people trust that God holds us in the eternal divine embrace, and so we should welcome conversations with our loved ones and doctors about end-of-life issues. We are indeed responsible for our past failings, but that does not mean that we can neglect the present obligation to improve on past decisions into the future. We are responsible for wars undertaken in our name and we are obligated to do everything we can to avoid them in the future. We are responsible for living beyond our means, setting the stage for the present recession, and we are obligated to live within our means into the future. We are responsible for those neglected by and mistreated under the present health care system and we are obligated to improve it. When we see life from the perspective of eternity, the glimpse of which is a sure sign that we are made in the image of God, then we can step out in confidence without embarrassment or fear. We should catch a glimpse of eternity in our midst, accept responsibility for the sins of our past in our society, and walk out in hope that the future we live is the future God eternally creates. The most profound theological statement thus far in the 21st century was spoken from the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2009: “This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.” Amen.