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.”


DavidJSpuria said...

I am an evangelical christian who listens to these sermons on my way from my home church in CT out to my job in Framingham on Sunday. I was intrigued by this series when I heard one of the first sermons a few weeks back. I am from a very different theological perspective. However, I have struggled for years with this notion of simple faith versus an intellectual faith. How did you reconcile your Sunday school faith with your current understanding?

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