Evolution and the Gift of Wisdom

Posted: February 9, 2022 in Uncategorized

Proverbs 8:1-7a, 8-9

Evolution and the Gift of Wisdom

Almost all evidence points to the fact that the mystery we call God insists that existence should prevail. The question we might have though is how and what do we have in common? I want to explore the idea that nature is the best example of existence and that it might be human wisdom that insists we look there. It is just possible that the future of the planet and the human race depends on getting a handle on the human to nature relationship and it might just be that it is one and the same with desire and the how.

“Whether or not we believe that there is something more, nature is so significant that all our beliefs
must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.
Whether it is our view of the world, our image of ourselves, or our beliefs about God – everything
must be rethought in response to our knowledge of how deeply we are rooted
in natural processes” (Philip Hefner 2008:x).

“God is not a being but a process: God does not create the universe;
God is the process of creation (Karl Peters 1989: 481).

Around this tie (12 Feb) some of us celebrate Darwin Day.  The reflection begins by reminding ourselves that: “Darwin Day is an international celebration of science and humanity held on or around the day that Charles Darwin was born on in 1809.  Specifically, it celebrates the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin – the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor.  More generally, Darwin Day expresses gratitude for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity” (JShuck. Shuck&Jive blog site).

And to honour his birth, in much of the progressive religion network throughout the world, this day is once again being recognised liturgically as ‘Evolution Sunday’ The compatibility of science and religion. Not the pseudo-science of intelligent design – ID, or its earlier incarnation called ‘creationism’. But real science.

The church, historically, has had a hard time with evolution. It is the church – or perhaps more accurately – it is religious people who go to church, who build Creation Museums (in the USA and Queensland) and fund authors to write books to attack evolution. And attack ministers who embrace evolution. There are stories that in the USA people have been attacked over this issue usually in Letters to the Editor, by another minister (of a different denomination). And all because they signed ‘The Clergy Letter’. The attacking minister wrote: “What you have espoused and embraced and have now taught others is nothing short of outright apostasy.  The signatories of the ‘Open Letter Considering Religion and Science’ have affixed their names to an apostate document.  It is a damnable denial of the biblical gospel.”

Charles Darwin, 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).

Darwin’s book quickly became the topic of conversation in both scientific and church circles.
Indeed, one of the more persistent tales of the relations between science and religion
is the story of Thomas Huxley’s encounter with Samuel ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford.

In June 1860, following one particular presentation at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Wilberforce was, so the story goes, invited to make a response. “Addressing a crowded meeting, the bishop paused during his monologue, turned to Huxley and asked whether it was on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’ side that he was descended from an ape.  Huxley was ready with a reply… that he would prefer a miserable ape to a man who employs his great faculties and influence for the purpose of ridicule” (Wilson 1998:44).

“It is a story”, writes Karen Armstrong, “that brilliantly encapsulates the ‘warfare’ myth in its depiction of intrepid Science victoriously triumphing over complacent Religion” (Armstrong 2009:243). The outcome is that the impact of Darwin’s thesis, which 12 years later he called ‘evolution’, was felt in most parts of the world. And most scientists today still accept Darwin’s theory as foundational to the modern scientific study of biology.

What is interesting is the claim that Charles Darwin eventually jettisoned any notion of a God
“let alone one that might be involved in the process of evolution” writes Canadian Bruce Sanguin (Sanguin 2007:120). But who or what was the ‘God’ Darwin rejected?  Sanguin continues: “Clearly, Darwin rejected a designed God, who was in absolute control of the universe; in other words, the God of supernatural theism… This continues to be the God and the ‘Christian faith’ most atheists and agnostics reject” (Sanguin 2007:121).

 And despite the millions of people leaving the traditional church and the growth of the none’s when it come to religious adherence the church still persists in its supernaturalism which condemns nature to a tool of human power and control. Domination is the driving desire as humanity seeks to become the sacredness itself.

Prior to modern science, most Christians, following a literal interpretation ( a recent phenomenon) of the Genesis stories, believed the flat earth was created only about 4000 years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (another recent phenomenon). Or, if they followed a certain Archbishop Ussher literally: at 9.00am on 3 October 4004 BCE. Today, based on many controlled observations combined with rational theory, we have mentally constructed another universe.

The most widely accepted modern estimate of the earth’s age is approximately 4.5 billion years.  While the universe – that whole “complex, interrelated and interacting… matter-energy in space-time… of which humans are an integral part…” (Gillette 2006:1), is approximately 14 billion years old.

And: “if we put our fourteen-billion-year universe on a clock of one hour, humanity appears in only the last few seconds” (Peters 2002:127).

So, modern science is saying and has been saying, again and again: the universe must be regarded as a whole; it is of intrinsic value, and each part, galaxy, organism, individual atom, participates in that intrinsic value as each part participates in this wonderful web of life. Each part, rather than one species or organism separating itself out as more important than the rest.

Which is why a growing number of people around the world are beginning to recognise that our modern life-style is: harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns. We can no longer think and feel that humans are separate from the ‘environment’…  “we must think and feel that we are part of and at one with the whole holy system we call the global ecosystem” (Gillette 2006:4).

Progressive religious thought calls each and every one of us to ‘dance with’, to live in harmony with, nature.  For such is to live inspired (in-spirited, in-the-Spirit) lives. And progressive religious thought names that creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms… Galaxy. Organism. Individual atom… And this demands that we approach what we understand as ‘God’ or ‘the sacred’ differently. Some of the new challenges centre around renaming God as a verb as opposed to a noun, a dynamic or ‘serendipitous creating’. Or as John D Caputo argues a God that does not exist but rather insists and might be known as ‘perhaps’. I prefer the word ‘almost’ as a definition, or descriptive in trying to protect the positive, intentional understanding of love’s impact on reality.

Rex Hunt reminds us of a poem he discovered in 2005. It is called: “A short but true story of you”.

You are made of star-stuff.
You are related to every other living thing on
You breathe out a gas that gives life to plants,
and plants breathe out a gas that gives life to you.
You are part of a wonderful web of life on a planet spinning in space.

When you die, someday, the elements of your body
will become a part of clouds and crystals,
seas and new living things.

You can think and wonder, love and learn.
You have the gift of life 

(Anderson & Brotman 2004).

Likewise, environmentalist John Muir has also offered this comment: “Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another” (Quoted in Peters 1989:478).

This weekend is the 201st anniversary celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin.
And to honour his birth, today is recognised as ‘Evolution Sunday’.

It needs to be said that Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist many religious folk like to berate, has been a catalyst for some new thinking around the topic of evolution. He
has written a book, The Greatest Show on Earth.  The Evidence for Evolution.

In it he says evolution is a fact.  He writes: “Our present beliefs about many things may be disproved, but we can with complete confidence make a list of certain facts that will never be disproved.  Evolution and the heliocentric theory weren’t always among them, but they are now” (Dawkins 2009:17).

He then goes on to say: “In the rest of this book, I shall determine that evolution is an inescapable fact, and celebrate its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty” (Dawkins 2009:18).

Evolution is the greatest show on Earth.  “Perhaps the greatest story ever told”.  And as an American Minister colleague of Rex Hunt goes on to say: “we should be teaching it and celebrating it in school and in church with religious fervor.  We need to sing hymns to the glory of natural selection” (Shuck&Jive, blog site, 1/2010).

Dawkins and number of scientists and theologians wrote a letter to the British Prime Minister regarding teaching evolution in school. Great Britain, it seems, is being hounded by the superstitious – ‘creationism’ and ‘intelligent design’ as is other parts of the world.

For instance:

• 44 % of Americans believe that God created Earth as it is 10,000 years ago;

Only 42% of Australians ‘believe in evolution’.

Now while Dawkins is happy that enlightened bishops and theologians are writing letters, they need to do more.  He says:

“To return to the enlightened bishops and theologians, it would be nice if they’d put a bit more effort into combating the anti-scientific nonsense that they deplore.  All too many preachers, while agreeing that evolution is true and Adam and Eve never existed, will then blithely go into the pulpit and make some moral or theological point about Adam and Eve in their sermons without once mentioning that, of course, Adam and Eve never actually existed!  If challenged, they will protest that they intended a purely ‘symbolic’ meaning, perhaps something to do with ‘original sin’, or the virtues of innocence.  They may add witheringly that, obviously, nobody would be so foolish as to take their words literally.  But do their congregations know that?  How is the person in the pew, or on the prayer-mat, supposed to know which bits of scripture to take literally, and which symbolically?  Is it really so easy for an uneducated churchgoer to guess?  In all too many cases the answer is clearly no, and anybody could be forgiven for feeling confused”.

Dawkins isn’t finished.  He pushes his point: “Think about it, Bishop.  Be careful, Vicar.  You are playing with dynamite, fooling around with a misunderstanding that’s waiting to happen—one might even say almost bound to happen if not forestalled.  Shouldn’t you take greater care, when speaking in public, to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay?  Lest ye fall into condemnation, shouldn’t you be going out of your way to counter that already extremely widespread popular misunderstanding and lend active and enthusiastic support to scientists and science teachers?” (Dawkins 2009: 7-8).

So, what of wisdom? My title suggested that Evolution was and is a gift of wisdom. This I suggest implies that wisdom is essentially that which is always the most learned response to anything and that it arrives new and creates awareness. It is more than the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement. It is an example of insight, good sense, judgement, and challenges the status quo while at the same time confirms what somehow, we already know. It is the quality of being wise which is somehow an accumulation of philosophical, scientific and common knowledge. This is why in many cultures celebrate the aged purely on the assumption that the older one is the more one has learnt about the meaning of life and subsequently what it means to be human. The marker is that it is a heartwarming experience for the recipient even when seemingly challenging the traditional thought or belief.

An example of a wise person in the context of religious or Christian thinking is that of the life and work of Rachel Held Evans; a young brilliant theologian who died at the age of 38 in 2019 and Adam Twining and Tom Cantwell wrote an article giving us an idea of her thinking about the Progressive offering to the new world we are living in. Below is a transcript of a conversation she might have had in response to a question about her journey in thinking. She is responding to the fundamentalist evangelical tradition that she was brought up in and gave her ministry to and for. For her the arrival of wisdom was heart-warming in its discovery and devastating in its challenge.

“They, said that if I questioned a 6,000-year-old earth, I would question whether other parts of Scripture should be read scientifically and historically.

They were right.  I did.

They said that if I entertained the hope that those without access to the gospel might still be loved and saved by God, I would fall prey to the dangerous idea that God loves everyone,  that there is nothing God won’t do to reconcile all things to Himself.

They were right. I have. 

They said that if I looked for Jesus beyond the party line, I could end up voting for liberals.

They were right. I do (sometimes). 

They said that if I listened to my gay and lesbian neighbors, if I made room for them in my church and in my life, I could let grace get out of hand.

They were right.  It has.

They told me that this slippery slope would lead me away from God, that it would bring a swift end to my faith journey, that I’d be lost forever.

But with that one, they were wrong.

Yes, the slippery slope brought doubts. Yes, the slippery slope brought change. Yes, the slippery slope brought danger and risk and unknowns. I am indeed more exposed to the elements out here, and at times it is hard to find my footing. 

But when I decided I wanted to follow Jesus as myself, with both my head and heart intact, the slippery slope was the only place I could find him, the only place I could engage my faith honestly.

So down I went.

It was easier before, when the path was wide and straight.

But, truth be told, I was faking it.  I was pretending that things that didn’t make sense made sense, that things that didn’t feel right felt right.  To others, I appeared confident and in control, but faith felt as far away as friend who has grown distant and cold.

Now, every day is a risk.

Now, I have no choice but to cling to faith and hope and love for dear life.

Now, I have to keep a very close eye on Jesus, as he leads me through deep valleys and precarious peaks. 

But the view is better, and, for the first time in a long time, I am fully engaged in my faith.

I am alive.

I am dependent.

I am following Jesus as me—heart and head intact. 

And they were right.  All it took was a question or two to bring me here.”

Biological, Philosophical, Scientific, Intellectual, evolution is a gift of wisdom that comes when the big picture holds the primary role and when community, human relations with everything and collective agency are valued as the imperative. And this is not to belittle the individual but rather to value it as an individuality vital for wisdom. Wisdom is more than the sum of its parts.

Right about now the reader might be thinking yes this is common sense is I not, and that would be true but since the 18th Century we in the west at least have not acted as though that is so. Amen.

Anderson, L. & C. Brotman. Kid’s Book of Awesome Stuff. Biddeford: Brotman Marsh-Field Curriculums, 2004.
Armstrong, K. The Case for God. What Religion Really Means. London: The Bodley Head, 2009.
Frame, T.  Evolution in the Antipodes: Charles Darwin and Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2009.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. 2006. (An online journal).
Hefner, P. “Forward” in J. A. Stone. Religious Naturalism Today. The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.
Hunt, R. A. E. & J. W. H. Smith. (ed) Why Weren’t We Told? A Handbook on Progressive Christianity. Salem: Polebridge Press, 2013.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology and God. Harrisburg: Trinity International Press, 2002
Peters, K. E. “Humanity in Nature: Conserving yet Creating” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 24, 4, 1989. 469-485. 
Sanguin, B. Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos. An Ecological Christianity. Kelowna: CopperHouse/Wood Lake Publishing, 2007.
Wilson, Louise. (ed) Charles Darwin at Down House. Britain. English Heritage, 1998.

Dawkins, R. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth.  The Evidence for Evolution. NY: New York. Free Press.


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