Sunday, February 14, 2016

Evolution Rocks!

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, Feb. 14, 2016
Last week, as I listened to Kjirsten and sat and talked with her during our social hour, I was struck by how much she and I have thought about the same things---the ways religion has shifted attention and understanding away from the philosophical ideas which originally undergirded many religions.  My thoughts today are somewhat connected to last week’s topic as the conflict between evolution and fundamentalist theology has underscored that divide. 
I’m one of the signers of the Clergy Letter Project, which I signed several years ago, I have spoken on the interface between religion and science a few times.  Kjirsten’s words have given me more to think about!
Let me start with a story from an earlier life.
     I wondered what my Dad was thinking as we sat side by side in the tiny theatre on the Linfield College campus, my freshman year. It was Parents’ weekend, and my folks had driven from Athena to McMinnville to spend the weekend with me. I was excited about the opportunity to introduce them to my college life, to some of my professors and my new friends, and to walk with them around our beautiful campus.
     One of the highlights of the weekend was to be a theatre production by student actors, so I bought three tickets and after dinner on Saturday night in the campus dining room, we entered the small space and found our seats.
     The play was “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee, a dramatization of the famous Tennessee trial, in which Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan squared off over the state law which prohibited the teaching of evolution in school classrooms.
     I had had no teaching about evolution in my high school biology class. Somehow the creation of the earth had been skipped over entirely and we’d gone straight on to dissecting earthworms without considering where the earthworms came from.
    Every church in the county taught the story of Genesis as historical fact and I had never heard a dissenting voice on the matter. Nor had I heard any voice dissenting with the Genesis story.
     Or should I say stories? Because there is more than one Genesis account of the creation of the earth and its creatures. We’ll get to that later.
     But for now, I sat there oblivious, watching the play. I was more interested in the friends I had in the cast and how they were doing, than I was in what seemed to be yet another story about how we all got here. I was not a very adept theologian—or science student--at that point in my life!
     The characters sparred over Biblical references that lacked logic, with one character needling the other with questions like “where did Cain’s wife come from if Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel were the first humans?” and “what would happen if the sun stood still as it is written in the story of Joshua who needed more time to win a battle?”  The other would answer that he believed God had his own ways of making these things happen and that he believed firmly that these things were God’s will, even though he couldn’t explain them any further.
     I wonder what my mother thought as she listened politely, knowing that my father’s beliefs were being systematically questioned and deconstructed as we sat there.
     It took me long years to recognize how hard it must have been for both of them to sit quietly and not get up and leave the theatre. It may have been a relief to them that I was more interested in pointing out my friends in the cast than discussing the topic of the play.
            Of course, it looked like Genesis came out on top at the end of the play, as Scopes lost and the law won, at least temporarily.
    I didn’t realize at the time that “Inherit the Wind” was making another point as well: condemning the recently concluded anti-Communist investigations of the House Unamerican Activities Committee, headed up by Senator Joe McCarthy.
     The play was about intellectual freedom, of course, not specifically about evolution, but for my parents, it must have been a shock to see that the nice Baptist college they had sent their innocent daughter to was a hotbed of modernism.
To their credit, they did not yank me bodily out of school and make me go to Multnomah School of the Bible instead. They continued to help with my tuition, gave me encouragement at every turn and never criticized when I’d write home about all the exciting things I was doing.
     But somehow I figured out that my parents and I were on two different tracks when it came to the Bible and Christianity.
And I began to be very careful about what I revealed about what I was learning. I did my best to stay within the lines they’d drawn, at least at home. My dad’s health was an issue and I was afraid to upset him, for fear it would trigger a heart attack or other setback.
And I loved my parents deeply. I could not bear the thought of being estranged from my family.
     So I got adept at finding the metaphorical meanings of the scripture, rather than the literal meaning, and when we did talk, I thought metaphorical truth while they undoubtedly thought literal truth. The Genesis stories were metaphorical and mythical, not historical, in my mind, but I was not going to tip my hand.
     That metaphorical meaning of the Genesis account was underscored by my Old Testament professor in seminary many years later when he pointed out that there were actually two different stories of the creation in Genesis, not just one.
     The first story is the poetic tale of seven days of work, six days of separate physical acts of creation, and ending with a day of rest on the seventh day. This story runs from Genesis 1, verse 1, through Genesis 2, verse 6, and then seems to change and tells a much different version of the creation, with no mention of seven days and with an extended description of Adam and Eve and the life given to them in the garden of Eden.
     This version brings forth the ancient tale of Eve’s being created from Adam’s rib and describes the story of the serpent’s temptation and betrayal, resulting in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden for disobeying the order of God not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
     If you read the King James Version, which is all we had for centuries, you would miss the distinctions between the two stories; it would look as though the author simply took a different tack and decided to retell the story from a new angle.
     But Biblical scholarship over the past century has noted the use of two different names for God, one from Canaanite culture and one from Judean culture, two different emphases, (the first on physical creation and the second on moral issues), and two different orders of creation (the first naming plant creation before humans, the second naming human creation before plants).
     These differences led most scholars to believe that these are two distinct stories, written down centuries apart, by two different sources. One story seemed clearly to be the sort of tale told around ancient campfires, a way of explaining the existence of human beings, the creatures who lived in proximity to those humans, the usages that humans were to make of those living things, and the need for rest after many days of hard work.
          The second story is of moral importance, whereas the first is an oral legend of physical creation. The second story describes God’s relationship with his human creation; this story is of a parental figure who commands obedience, gives many gifts and requires discipline and resistance of temptation, temptation he has set before them. When his children succumb to that temptation, he punishes and curses them.
     The first story describes a benevolent creator; the second, a paternalistic, vengeful figure.
     Today, the Sunday nearest the date of Charles Darwin’s birth on Feb. 12, in 1809, 207 years ago, we are celebrating The Clergy Letter Project, founded by Dr. Michael Zimmerman, a professor at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, which has had as its goal, for the past several years, proving that science and religion are not incompatible, that thousands and thousands of clergy from all faiths understand the importance of science and religion in human lives and believe that the two disciplines do not have to be mutually exclusive.
     Dr. Zimmerman has written the following: Ever since the Scopes Trial in 1925, evolution has been under attack by those who think it is more important to promote their narrow religious perspective than to understand the natural world. In the immediate aftermath of the Scopes Trial, virtually all traces of evolution vanished from American science textbooks and evolution remained missing until the early 1960s, when Americans realized that Soviet science education was fast outpacing American science education.
     Creationists, in the name of religion, first outlawed the teaching of human evolution and then, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional, they began to use a number of ruses to promote their religious doctrines by claiming they were in favor of freedom of inquiry.
They pretended to turn their religion into science by calling it "creation science" and when that too was ruled unconstitutional they changed the name again and promoted "intelligent design." The U.S. courts also ruled that strategy unconstitutional.
        Despite all of these legal setbacks, creationists have kept up their relentless attack on evolution, the most important concept in all of biology. It has been termed a religion. It has been portrayed as nothing more than a "theory." And it has been characterized, by those with precious little biological background, as pseudoscientific claptrap.
     Despite the lack of intellectual and scientific substance to the attacks on evolution, the constant refrain from creationists that evolution is responsible for virtually all of modern society's ills has largely shaped the public's perception of the issue.…
     (The Project) purposefully brings attention to (an) issue that religious fundamentalists find most abhorrent. (Project) participants are not looking to deify Darwin, however. Instead, they are simply attempting to demonstrate that his ideas, reshaped enormously in the 157 years since he published On the Origin of Species, are important to a modern worldview and are fully compatible with modern religious teachings. By doing this, they are proudly taking active steps to publicly define religion in a positive manner.
     Other authorities support and amplify Zimmerman’s case. Paul Horwitz, a physicist turned education researcher, in an online article published by Education Week, says this:
     “My opinion is that creationism in all its forms, including intelligent design, is not science; and that it is vitally important that we not teach nonscience as if it were science… Creationism is not science because it introduces causes outside of nature in order to explain observations of nature… Theories like that do not foster inquiry; rather, they close off discussion…That’s why creationism shouldn’t be taught as science,  because it isn’t science.
     The intersection of religion and science has become a political issue, pitting those who would ban these scientific findings in classrooms against those who see it as an issue of intellectual freedom and a violation of the separation of church and state. Creationists tend to see the issue as a denial of God and often call their adversaries “atheists” and “heretics”.
      Charles Darwin himself had doubts about his faith, as he explored his findings and the conclusions they led to. He struggled with friends and family who tried to get him to set aside his work and cleave to a traditional faith. But he could not set aside his reasoning and his integrity in order to stay within the bounds of his culture and society.
     Charles Darwin was one of us, a Unitarian from birth, though in later life he attended Anglican schools. Eventually he married Emma Wedgwood, a strong Unitarian herself, who accepted his ideas but feared that his radical beliefs might separate them in the afterlife. (I guess she wasn’t also a Universalist, or she would have known better!)
    Though Darwin’s findings were revolutionary and controversial, they gradually found acceptance across the scientific community and even among liberal clergy in the Anglican tradition. Darwin had started out an orthodox believer, but after his voyage on The Beagle, where he collected much of his information and knowledge, he became an avowed agnostic and no longer attended any church.
    He died a wellknown, if not completely well-accepted, scientist and philosopher. He was wrongfully associated with the proliferation of such ideas as Eugenics and Social Darwinism, theories which invoked ethical concerns about treatment of the poor and sickly. He himself did believe that females were less eminent than males because of sexual selection, but a woman named Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first woman ordained to parish ministry in the United States, disputed that claim eloquently in her own writings.
     In recent years, I’ve become more and more concerned about what I see as the creeping miasma of distrust of and resistance to science and other intellectual contributions to human life and understandings.
     It’s probably a good thing to be critical of science, to investigate for ourselves the claims of research and to be aware of the many temptations scientists have, as they scramble for funding of their research and deal with the promises of money in exchange for certain findings, particularly as our economy has been stretched tighter and tighter and research is often paid for by corporations, not unbiased regulatory agencies.
    But it feels to me like a place where Unitarian Universalists can contribute to a greater understanding of the scientific process, the findings of science, the ethical issues involved, the intended and unintended consequences of each new finding. It might be a possible topic for us as a congregation to present in community forums and dialogs about science issues, using instructors from Clatsop CC or other higher education institutions.  We did this one year on Whidbey Island, with some real success.
     It felt like a social action project of sorts, to offer to the community an opportunity to discuss with women and men who are deeply involved in their various scientific discipline, to ask them pointed questions about the ethics and consequences of their discoveries, and to dispel some of the suspicion which is so prevalent in society.     
     But, returning to the evolution debate, I am convinced that the issue for the fundamentalist community is one of fear, fear of changing beliefs, fear that the consequences of that change will be a crisis of faith for individuals and congregations.
     For after all, humankind’s understanding of the power beyond human power, which many call God, has changed radically as science has advanced our knowledge of the universe. Our little world was once considered to be the center of creation and we believed that the sun, moon, and stars revolved around it every day and night.   
     We were the most important place in the universe and under God’s special care. As our knowledge of the sun, moon, and stars grew, we began to understand that we were only one of billions of planets and solar systems, our sun only one of millions of suns, our world a speck in the sky to somebody else.
     Change is hard. Change is scary. And though I still wonder about my parents’ thoughts on that night in 1960, I am confident that, if there is any consciousness left to them after death, they have more understanding of it all than I do. I can only do my best to comprehend the mystery of creation and what it means in our world today. And I think that, if they were able to tell me anything today, they would tell me that they love me and trust me to do my best to understand and to serve the world with my understanding.
     Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
As Tim extinguishes our chalice, let’s close with the benediction.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that Science and Reasoning are foundational to our religious life but that they are not deities to be worshipped. They are tools to use as we discover the meaning of life. May we be gentle with those who disagree with us and may we serve our world with compassion and strength. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.