‘An Evolutionary Life as Cantor of the Universe’

Posted: February 10, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 1:40-45

Why is a sermon on evolution important? Well I think it is important because having an integral philosophy is essential in todays world This is a claim that the evolution of consciousness is a central factor in the process of evolution overall. The attempt of a sermon in examining the historic texts is itself an acknowledgement that it is important to have a perspective on what constitutes an evolutionary life.

The use of the word ‘cantor’ is an attempt to claim that each one of us is an integral part of the evolutionary process, in other words our song, our solo has an integral place in the evolutionary process as a catalyst, a participant in the evolution.

The biblical world our readings arise from was a very different time to the one we find ourselves in today. The readings may seem to stand in contrast and that’s because they do. They are shaped by thinking hundreds of years old, and from a time without the benefit or not of both the natural science world of the 19th century CE and of today. The readings also offer us an idea of the ways many religious people think today when the differences are highlighted. Some ideas have evolved considerable and others very little and this is possible only when there is little or no integral philosophy to challenge the thinking.

Leprosy, in the time of Jesus, was sometimes regarded as divine punishment for sin.
It embraced a wide range of disorders, including rashes, acne, eczema and other forms of dermatitis. It made people ‘unclean’.  Dirty. And when you were dirty you offended God’s standards. Indeed, there was an explicit connection between being clean and being holy. When you were ‘unclean’ you weren’t ‘holy’! This was the culture into which Jesus was born. This was the culture that was learned and cultivated. In a string of stories commenced a week or two back, Mark’s Jesus is confronted with a series of ‘unclean’ people usually captured by ‘unclean’ spirits. As modern 21st century people, who both accept and rely on modern medical science, even if reluctantly we find it very difficult to believe in the existence of unclean spirits or demons, even though there are some moderns as there were ancient folk, who do. Much thinking these days goes into the connections between one view and another and nobody is sure enough to make exclusive claims these days.

So, what are we to make of this and other stories? Following the thoughts of some scholars whether Jesus was or was not a genuine shaman“ or whether he simply embraced the company of the unclean, the meaning of his memory is the same: in Jesus we have come to know a God who renders impotent the power of dirt to keep the unclean outside the human community” (Patterson 2002:210).

And I come to a similar conclusion as a result of modern critical biblical study, established some 300 years ago, and given exposure in the late 20th century through the pioneering work of the Westar Institute and its founder, Robert W. Funk. Also by reading many scholars who are writing about the developing human mind, and integral spirituality as well as scientist who are seeking the overall meaning of human life and existence.

The second point to make also is that today is Evolution Sunday and once again
many of us continue to be a signatory to The Clergy Letter, now in three variations, which supports the validity and merit of evolutionary science as “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.  To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children” (UUA Clergy Letter. www.evolutionweekend.org).

And while the term ‘evolution’ was in use dating from 1647, and there were certainly others with similar views, it is English-born Charles Darwin who is now recognised as the ‘founder’ of the theory of evolution, leading the way to the modern study of genetics and molecular biology. Charles Darwin, whose father once said of him: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family” (Wilson 1998:16).

Charles Darwin, who first studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but left after only 18 months “partly because of the barbarity of 19th century surgery long before the days of anaesthetics” (Wilson 1998:18) and went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, because his father determined that he should ‘become a clergyman’. Charles Darwin, who graduated in 1831 from Cambridge – in natural history and geology! Charles Darwin, who, as resident naturalist, sailed to the Galapagos Islands on the HMS Beagle, where he encountered evidence “of great diversity between animals of the distant past and those of the present” (www.progressivetheology.org).

It was following this trip and as a result of him unable to reconcile his fundamentalist beliefs with his speculations about the origins of species, that “…in the months following his return… his new scientific theory was born and his faith in religion was dead” (Birch 2008:116).

Charles Darwin, born 206 hundred years ago (1809), who gave us his most famous major work called ‘On the Origin of Species’, “a treatise providing extensive evidence for the evolution of organisms and proposing natural selection as the key process determining its course” (Ayala 2007: 61) which Darwin published 156 years ago – on 24 November 1859.

In that book Darwin introduced what lies at the heart of an evolutionary world view. He suggested that the world or universe was:

(i) unfinished and continuing ;

(ii) involved chance events and struggle, and

(iii) natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint” (Birch 1965:29).

I would say today that the power of ‘fear’ in pour religious response is misplaced at best and horribly disabling of participating in a relationship of value with our planet. Evolution theory says that the whole universe is alive and changing, continually co-creating with each of us, new possibilities of life. Change is! Evolution and if you like you can use my idea of a serendipitous creating as the biological, philosophical and real world we live in. The unexpected, ambiguous serendipitous opportunity is our engagement in life.

Or put another way, change is the core of: cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004).

What we do know and believe is that in every age the worlds of theology and religion interact with the cultural and scientific worldviews of that day. Such interaction between the two, in the words of feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, “is essential to make religious faith both credible and relevant within a particular generation’s view of the world and how it works” (Johnson 2007:286).

But Johnson goes on:  She says “In sum, theological reflection today should endeavour to speak about God’s relation not to an ancient nor medieval nor Newtonian world, but to the dynamic, emergent, self-organizing universe that contemporary natural and biological sciences describe” (Johnson 2007:287).

Scientists tell us the ‘Great Story’ as we understand it today, begins with the ultimate mystery of the Big Bang (this is now perhaps a misleading term. Current thinking is that there wasn’t really an explosion but an ‘expansion’, some 13-15 billion years ago.

We also think that life on earth originated some four billion years ago. Homo habilis (our ancestors) began using tools 2.5 billion years ago. Symbolic language emerges between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago. Classical religions emerge around 3,000 years ago.

One of the things I need to tell myself is that I emerged just over 74 years ago – or about 27,375 days ago. Billions of years of cosmic evolution have produced us. The ancestral stars are a part of our genealogy. “Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity,
here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space”
writes American Unitarian poet, Robert L Weston (Weston 1993)

I wrote the following in an attempt to say just how important an understanding of one’s own place in the cosmos and also how fragile, agile and alive an evolutionary world might be.

A Pale Blue Dot

It enters as a pale blue dot

Incredibly beautiful against the dark it inhabits

Both lost in contrast and confirmation of its place

a perspective of scale emerges

the pale blue dot takes its rightful place

the evolution of visual wonder

It enters as a pale blue dot

Carrying with it our existence

In the shared blue dot is the product

our bodies the outcome of an alchemy,

forged in stars billions of years ago.

An evolution of an incarnational beauty

It enters as a pale blue dot

a special planet that is evolving
a dynamic, living event
at once our home and yet fragile

it demands reverence, care, and respect.

An evolution the is serendipitous and participatory.

It enters as a pale blue dot

Reveals its part in the ageless cosmos,
offering reason for our standing in awe and reverence
inviting our participation in the process

which lured and shaped its evolution,
an evolution, wherein our existence has purpose

It enters as a pale blue dot

streaking through space at a great rate

joined with galaxy and the solar system.
It loops around the sun.
It moves through sunlight, around and around,

An evolution of revolutions and revelations

It enters as a pale blue dot

north to south to north It spins, wobbles, and tilts…

a wonderful moving kaleidoscope. earth.
Our world.
And this world invites our endless wonder.

an evolution of call, insistence and beauty.


“Everything in the universe is related.  Can you feel that umbilical cord to the  cosmos?  Can you feel the strands of connectedness – the interpendent web – of all existence, even with all human beings?” writes Mary Louise DeWolf in her 2008 Evolution Sunday sermon (DeWolf 2008).

When it comes to valuing the past ideas we have proposed as human beings we have to see that “The traditional model of life with God as king and ruler, described as omnipotent, sustaining the world’s development through pre-programed attributes, and 
intervening miraculously from the outside when and wherever, is “less and less seriously imaginable” (Johnson 2007:291).

On the other hand, Alfred North Whitehead, the Anglo-American process philosopher and mathematician, describes life as an adventure.  He felt that: “novelty and surprise made life interesting.  The open-endedness of life provides opportunities for the exercise of creative freedom, which gives life meaning” (Christ 2003:171).

I agree with him and that is why at the beginning of every service I write the threefold statement is the prelude.

In honouring the mind, we begin the journey toward Christian wholeness with a life-changing recognition of the power of one’s own choices.”, In “Living the Questions we are revisiting the questions to apply them to the Christian present and increasing the measure of freedom so that one can live more fully. And in “Exploring the adventure of Humanity we are about enjoying an unshakable Christian love, walking with confidence into the future and doing it in divine intimacy.

That is also why I have encouraged the celebration of Evolution Sunday, for some years now. It is also why I continue to:

• think of God as the creative process or ‘serendipitous creating’, rather than a being who creates and watches, and

• search for non-personal metaphors and verb-like descriptions for God rather than personal, anthropocentric ones. My theology of ‘Almost’ in my book summarizes this exploration.

As contemporary progressive theology reminds us time and time again, G-o-d or the Sacred does not reside in some other place called ‘heaven’. Nor is heaven our goal.  The world is our true home. Indeed, our only home. It is our co-creation that we participate in and that is a responsible co-activity we are responsible for.

“This life is meant to be enjoyed,” writes Carol Christ. and “To enjoy life is to cherish the beauty of each living thing, to be interested in diversity and difference in the web of life…”  (Christ 2003:116).

So, we can say that we read the story of the one who renders impotent the power of dirt
to keep the ‘unclean’ outside the human community… And we share in that activity with the Cosmic Christ. And the story of the ones who discovered the whole universe is alive and changing, continually, enables us to see what that means for us today and that the novelty and surprise of evolving makes life interesting, rich and purposeful.

As McIntosh writes: “When we begin to appreciate evolutions larger meaning, this does not replace or invalidate the teachings of existing spiritual tradition; rather it it conforms much of what these traditions have been teaching all along, while also refining and improving their essential message.”

I think that’s important why a sermon that claims our task as a ‘Cantor’ of the universe is important for an evolutionary life. Amen.

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