‘Evolution, God, and an Unfolding Connectedness…’

Posted: February 9, 2023 in Uncategorized

‘Evolution, God, and an Unfolding Connectedness…’

Today in the progressive religious world, is Evolution Weekend and I want to recount a story by Rex Hunt that reminds us that there is a difference in talking about the nature of God and the Nature and God.

Rex tells of the time he bought a recommended book and when he got it home he realised he discovered that it was not called Nature of God at all. But instead, Nature and God. Nevertheless, the book and its author, L Charles Birch, former Challis Professor of Biology at the University of Sydney, became a valuable travelling companion with him on his personal theological journey. The very first sentence in Birch’s book is: “The concept of God’s operations in the universe as a series of fitful interventions from a supernatural sphere overlaying the natural is quite unacceptable to science”. (Birch 1965:7). While the third sentence said: “On the other hand, the traditional thinking of science, sometimes called mechanism, is quite unreconcilable with any reasoned Christian position”. (Birch 1965:7). Rex noted that since reading Birch an interest in communication, regular eye tests, and as a self-described ‘religious naturalist’ the relationship between science and religion, has remained with him! On the latter: the relationship between science and religion, three major views exist:

(i) the ‘conflict’ view – that science and religion are inherently, and perpetually, in opposition;
(ii) the ‘contrast’ view – that science and religion are different because they ask different questions;
(iii) the ‘integration’ view – that science and religion can be integrated into a self-consistent worldview.

Unfortunately, what emanates from many pulpits is more likely to represent the ‘conflict’ view than the ‘integration’ view. Which is why, on Evolution Weekend, many clergy try to speak personally about God.

God’ spelt G-O-D is a symbol or word known and used by nearly everyone who speaks the English language. But it is also a word which has many uses and meanings attached to it. The Macquarie Dictionary for one defines the word as: “the one Supreme Being, the creator and ruler of the universe”. (Macquarie Dictionary 1981:763). And this way of speaking theologically is called ‘classical theism’. This ‘God’ is supernatural, interventionist, and nearly always couched in male anthropological (or human-like) language and images. And for many this is still the way they think when they hear the word ‘God’.  Increasingly however this way of thinking no longer works. With inclusive language, pronouns critique and  dare I say it shifts in the human relationship with nature and the cosmos people’s thinking has and continues, to change.

Many have come to think of God as the creative process or ‘creativity itself’, I have used the term serendipitous creativity to try to embody the changing dynamic relationship rather than persist with terms that depict an impersonal machine maker who made something and then stepped back to watch it work and who only intervenes when asked to or when something needs fixing. Many clergy use the label of Christian Atheist to signify their difficulties with Theism. I prefer the term ‘Anatheism’ which suggests that this God is through and beyond and more than theism. Or as what might be terms as Love itself.

  • Many have tried, in the main, to use non-personal metaphors rather than personal ones to avoid the mechanistic and embrace the relational.  And let’s be honest the thoughts of many have been including those positively influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and his 1859 publication, On the Origin of Species.

In that book Darwin suggested that the world/universe was:

  • unfinished and continuing;
  • involved chance events and struggle, and
  • natural selection took the place of “design according to a preordained [divine] blueprint”. (Birch 1965:29).

Put another way more inclusive way might be to say: cosmic evolution, biological evolution, cultural/symbolic evolution. (Peters 2002, Kaufman 2004). Or yet another way: “In the beginning was creativity and the creativity was with God, and the creativity was God.  All things came into being through the mystery of creativity; apart from creativity nothing would have come into being. (Kaufman 2004:ix).

I would dare to suggest that we have mentally constructed another universe in recent years. Both in science and in religion/theology. Not as some sort of revelation by by evolution in keeping with our reality. In science, 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 or web, participates in this wonderful web of life.

This is further supported by recent neurological understandings and experimental outcomes of the human brain at work. Iain McGilchrist’s work on the brain and the mind supports this interdependent dynamic relational reality. No longer is it sufficient to argue that each part, put together makes a whole like some sort of mechanical entity is rather a living organism that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a whole first and foremost.

As one overseas colleague of Rex’s has said: “This science is public and cumulative and open to anyone who wishes to pick up a book and read”. (John Shuck). This is a challenge to the definitions we use for God.

And just in case you think this is new there are a few books, such as: Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution”, David Sloan Wilson, Evolution for Everyone. How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives, and
Lloyd Geering, ‘From the Big Bang to God’. Our Awe-inspiring Journey of Evolution. That support this view.

The ‘naturalistic’ strand of theology shaped by former (now late) Harvard Divinity School theologian, Gordon Kaufman, presents God as a non-personal ‘serendipitous creativity’
“manifest throughout the cosmos instead of as a kind of cosmic person.  We humans are deeply embedded in, and basically sustained by, this creative activity in and through the web of life on planet Earth”. (Kaufman 2004:58).

Rex argues that Kaufman clearly names the problem with traditional religious language and thinking. Likewise, his alternative thinking and language embraces both our scientific knowledge and the reality beyond the symbols of biblical faith.

What is happening around the world is that a growing number of people, religious and scientifically minded, and conscious of this ‘web within a web of life’, or this dynamic more that is both organic and material or spirit and matter interwoven are recognising that our modern life-style is: harming other creatures, diminishing the functioning of ecosystems, and altering global climate patterns.

The earth is under assault!  Indeed “we are killing our very life support system in a manner unprecedented in human history.  And yet, most of us go about our daily lives more or less blissfully indifferent to the devastation”. (Hill 2008:10). Thus, progressive religious thought calls each and every one of us to ‘dance with’, to find and live in harmony with, our world.

And progressive religious/christian thought seeks to name appropriately that creativity which indwells and sustains all life forms… galaxy organism and individual atom… ‘God’ or ‘the sacred’ or ‘serendipitous creativity’.

Meanwhile, Karl Peters, retired professor of philosophy and religion, has a couple of interesting and detailed comments. They are like that which I have often been accuses of, a bit technical and a little wordy, but they are an attempt to revisit interpretations and concepts of the past in a new way.

To the question: ‘How old are we?’ Peters says: “phenomenally, a few decades; culturally, a few centuries or millennia; biologically, millions of years; cosmically, about 15 billion years”. (Peters 1992:412).

To the additional question: ‘How long will we continue?’ he adds: “phenomenally, a few more decades or less; culturally, maybe a few more centuries; biologically, millions of years or, if we do not destroy ourselves first, perhaps until our sun dies five (5) billion years from now; cosmically, until the universe ends, which may be never…”. (Peters 1992:412).

Peters, answers are a kind of cosmic recipe for the functioning of all things. And reminds us that nature is in us as much as we are nature. “We are webs of reality, woven out of the threads of culture, biology, and cosmos…  As webs of reality each of us is a manifestation of a larger part of the universe as a whole…  We contain in us… after many cosmic, biological, and cultural transformations, the radiation that was present at the origin of the universe”. (Peters 1992:412).

For Peters and for many the evolutionary epic is a religious world view. All of this and more, is why, on Evolution Weekend, we might talk about God. The capacity of the natural world to inspire a religious response from humans has long been recognised—even before the new level of stunning cinematographic visualisations as in David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet 1 & 2 and before that, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

Thus, there is no good reason to believe that taking nature to heart leaves a person with any fewer spiritual benefits than taking to heart the teachings of supernaturalist traditions.  “If we can go to special places, built by humans, which are designated as sacred,” writes Jerome Stone, “surely, we can go to special places, shaped naturally, which are recognized as sacred… 

J A Stone reminds us that there is a strong monotheistic tradition of cutting down the sacred groves. What we need is to realise that to have a sense of sacred place is not tree worship… but is rather the acknowledgement of the awesome, and the overriding and the overwhelming.” .(Stone 1997)

One of the important things to understand and embrace is that religious orientation only lives while we are making it up, while our imaginations and creative juices are firing and we are ‘composting’—crafting—new angles, new narratives, new metaphors within the particular context of the moment because these things are liberating.  And such ‘crafting’ is today, much more than embarking of a salvage operation!  What matters most for the religious life, is imagination and experimentation.  Honouring and engaging the mind, living the question as dynamic, dialectic, not just intellectually thinking and by exploring the adventure of being human, using intuition, imagination as the mode of becoming. 

Birch, L. C. Nature and God. London. SCM Press, 1965.
Birch, L. C. Science & Soul. Sydney. University of New South Wales Press, 2008.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for Religious Naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6. (An online journal).
Hill, J. A. Ethics in the Global Village. Moral insights for the post 9-11 USA. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.
Kaufman, G. D. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 2004.
Macquarie Dictionary. McMahons Point. Macquarie University, 1981.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Harrisburg. Trinity International, 2002.
Peters, K. E. 1992.  “Interrelating Nature, Humanity, and the Work of God: Some issues for future reflection” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 27, 4, 403-419.
Zimmermn, M. “The Evolution-creation Controversy. Why it Matters”. Part 1, in The FourthR 23, 6, 11-15, 26, 2010.
Stone, J. A. “On Listening to Indigenous Peoples and Neo-pagans: Obstacles to Appropriating the Old Ways” in (Ed). C. D. Hardwick & D. A. Crosby. Pragmatism, Neo-Pragmatism, and Religion: Conversations with Richard Rorty. New York. Peter Lang, 1997

R E Hunt


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