The Epic of Evolution
A sermon by Douglas Taylor
Each year in the spring, the 8th graders from our congregation have an opportunity to take the Coming of Age course which is designed to guide them through their search for understanding as they navigate the transition of becoming a youth. Each spring there is a Coming of Age worship service presented by these youth and their mentors, and without fail it is one of the highlights of our church year. The youth are encouraged to present a credo statement during the service, a statement of personal belief. Every year I hear at least once if not several times in these credos the statement, “I believe in science.”
I imagine that in some other houses of worship such a statement would be seen as at best an odd non sequitur or misstatement in need of correcting, “One does not believe in science. One believes in doctrines, in God, in love, but science? No.” Quite likely such a statement would be met with a good deal of resistance and possibly open hostility. I am afraid religion has largely continued to distrust and oppose science in general and evolutionary science in particular. Religion still today feels threatened by science. And, science has often returned the sentiment in kind!
Over the ages, there have been attempts to reconcile science and religion. To appease one or the other, to grant victory of one over the other, to declare one obsolete or meaningless when compared to the other. I wrote an article a year or two ago for the Press & Sun Bulletin advocating a view that is something of a compromise, but in effect sends each boxer back to his corner.
“Science and religion are natural allies,” I had written. “Science asking questions of what and how, religion asking questions of why and what for; together they lead us into deeper understanding of nature and human nature. The challenge is to not confuse the two and to understand the real limits of each. Science cannot explain suffering or hope or the mystery of existence. Religion, on the other hand, is a poor guide to understanding how old the earth is or how to cure disease. Science may someday find a way to explain it all, but don’t hold your breath waiting for science to explain what it all means!”
If I had it to do over again, I would offer something a little bolder and less mincing. I see now how entwined religion and science are. Sometimes I catch glimpses of very deep meaning from nature and science, rather than from what is traditionally considered ‘religion.’ I begin to see that the search for truth and meaning is the work of science, and therefore the work of science is religious work. I think it may be possible to approach concepts such as suffering, hope, forgiveness, and what it all means through the scientific study and understanding of the universe. The writings of Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard; Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, Loren Eiseley and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd; the work of these and so many others leads us into a deeper understanding of the sacredness of our scientifically observable world.
Unitarian Universalist minister Ken Patton wrote, “This house is for the ingathering of nature and human nature. It is a house of truth-seeking, where scientists can encourage devotion to their quest, where mystics can abide in a community of searchers.” Rather than separating science and religion, we should invite them both into the search for truth and meaning. Unitarian Universalism is an evolving faith. As new and better understandings of the world around us emerge, so our statements and beliefs adjust to match our new understandings of reality. Consider this: when all the world’s major religious traditions began the basic understanding of cosmology was that the earth was flat and stationary at the center of everything. There was a dome of the heaven where the sun and stars in an unchanging pattern moved around the earth. Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, all began before microscopes and telescopes could enhance our sight enough to see in detail the fabric of life. If the religions of the world can not adjust to the new understandings of the universe and our place in it they are doomed to fight a losing battle against reality.
The history that science tells about the origin of the universe and the origin of life has been seen as a cold recitation of fact and detail lacking beauty, awe, reverence: robbing nature of its awesome and inspiring beauty. What is called the “Epic of Evolution” or ‘The Great Story” tells the history of the creation of the universe in a way that is simultaneously scientific and sacred. The Great Story does reduce life down to details and simple facts, but it also lifts up the profoundly sacred elements of the story and the deeper meaning to be found in existence.
Ursula Goodenough, writes in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature about the trouble with reducing the Universe down to its base components: a series of chemical reactions encoded in DNA molecules. For a long time many scientists insisted there was “something else”, some vital force also present within or beyond the basic building blocks of life. “We are told that life is so many manifestations of chemistry and we shudder, a long existential shudder. … That does to life what astrophysics does to the night sky. Life reduced down to the component molecules is life demeaned.” But then she resolves that argument with what is called the Mozart metaphor. “A Mozart sonata,” she writes, “is a wondrous thing, beauty beyond belief, sonorous, resonant, transporting. But it is also about notes and piano keys. Mozart’s magnificent brain composed the work, to be sure, and then he translated it into black specks on white paper to be translated into strings hit by tiny hammers.” She says we can be deeply moved by a Mozart sonata without ever looking at sheet of music. But we can pick up the score, follow along, and perhaps even learn to play it ourselves, without the sonata being demeaned or diminished. So too, life can be reduced “to its most spare rendering.” We can look at the chemical responses – the tiny hammers and strings – and the DNA encoding – the notes on the pages if you will. We can look at the science within the natural world and still be drawn in reverence to its beauty. Indeed, perhaps more fully drawn than otherwise.
In the beginning, about 14 billion years ago, there was a Great Radiance, or a Big Bang as some have called it; a rapid expanding of space and everything with it, which at that point was pretty much just hydrogen. Hydrogen was present at the start it seems, and everything else grew from it, starting with stars. Stars form from hydrogen. As things heat up, the hydrogen is built up into helium, and over time, when the hydrogen is used up, the star of mostly helium explodes casting out stardust of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. When a star goes super-nova it spews out dust comprised of heavier elements like iron and zinc and gold. Brian Swimme sums up the Epic of Evolution like this: “Take a huge cloud of hydrogen gas and just leave it alone and it becomes rose bushes giraffes, and human beings.” So as stars form, grow, decay, and explode, the stuff that eventually becomes “us” is created. We exist only because stars die. We are stardust. We are stardust in a literally and scientifically accurate way; and also in a metaphorical and profoundly religious way.
To give an example of this, how many of you took your kids or grandkids to see the Lion King movie from Disney? I’ve seen that movie dozens of times on the VCR with Brin and Keenan over and over again and now with Piran. There is a scene during Simba’s exile, Simba is The Lion King. He is lying back in the grass with his friends Timon the meerkat and Pumbaa the warthog.
Pumbaa asks Timon “Ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?”
Well, Timon says, “I don’t wonder. I know. They’re fireflies that got stuck up on that big, bluish-black thing.”
Pumbaa then says, “Oh. Gee…. I always thought that they were balls of gas, burning billions of miles away.”
To which Timon says, “Pumbaa– with you, everything’s gas.”
Then they turn and ask Simba what he thinks and at first he says, “Oh, I don’t know.” But they press and finally he says, “Well… somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.” If you know the story, you may remember that it was Simba’s father who had told him this.
And Timon says “You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?” and he and Pumbaa burst out laughing. And Simba goes off thinking about his father, and then has an experience of his father in the stars which sets in action the rest of the movie with Simba going back to challenge his uncle and reclaim the throne.
Well, if you ask anyone which of the three had the correct answer, they will tell you the warthog had it right: stars are balls of gas burning billions of miles away. How many think that’s right? Yeah! Well how many here think Simba was right? Simba was right! You and I have a common ancestor, and it is not just the ape, but back through the ages you and I and the oak tree and the meerkat and a gold band and little Pluto the ex-planet; we all have a common ancestor. We are stardust; our bodies and our earth and everything are a result of generations of the birth – death cycle of stars. The stars are our ancestors watching over us. And they serve as our guides in more than just the obvious ways. As we learn more about the life of stars and their place in the story of the universe, we learn more about ourselves and our place in the universe.
Sometimes we use metaphors to describe what is going on. Sometimes we speak in scientific fact. Stars are balls of gas burning billions of miles away and stars are our ancestors. Both are important ways of passing on the information. To say that God took dust from the earth and breathed life into it, as the account in Genesis reports, is a wonderfully dramatic metaphor to describe what really happened. We grew out of the earth the way peaches grow out of a peach tree. Carl Sagan wrote “We are the local embodiment of a cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering the stars.” When we first launched probes and people out into space and we took pictures of the Earth, the blue green ball floating in the vast dark of space, you could think of it as the earth sending forth a small bit of itself to look back and say, “Ahh, so that is what I look like.” We are the universe becoming aware of itself.
The UU World magazine recently published a feature article on the work of Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd, two Unitarian Universalists who have a mission to bring the Great Story to the public, to raise the awareness of this sacred and scientific story of evolution. Much of what I’ve offered this morning is based on their work. I have a very nice DVD I’m thinking of using for an adult Religious Discussion course. And I am trying to get Michael and Connie to visit Binghamton in the spring or next fall. I think a key understanding of the mix of faith and fact, of the sacred and the scientific, is in the way they describe a new metaphor of the universe. An old dominant metaphor is the mechanistic one, usually using a clock as an analogy. The old bit about the pocket watch found in the field implies that there is a clock maker out there somewhere who created this complex thing of beauty we call a pocket watch. Science refuted that theological proposition, but in many ways bought into the mechanistic concept and began taking the pocket watch apart to discover how all the complex pieces fit together. The new metaphor sets the mechanistic idea aside and says the universe is organic. Where the mechanistic metaphor rested on dualism, the organic metaphor is thoroughly monistic, which appeals to me. The universe is a living dynamic whole made up not of many little parts, but of many sub-wholes. Forget the pocket watch.
A better metaphor for the universe, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow say, is a set of Russian nesting dolls, made up of levels of what they call nested creativity: subatomic particles within atoms, within molecules, within cells, within organisms, and so on. Each level is uniquely creative, that is, has the power to bring something new into existence. Stars create atoms; atoms create substances like the oxygen we breathe; human cultures create art, religions, and technology.
You, yourself, are a whole and complete creative entity. You are made up of organs, cells, molecules, atoms, each of which is whole at each level. And you as an organism are a part of organizations, nations, planets, galaxies, and more. Each level, like Russian nesting dolls, is not simply a part of the next higher level, but a complete whole with creative capacity. This sort of begs the question: how small do the nesting dolls get, and how large? What do we call the largest nesting doll? Michael Dowd offers this:
The largest nesting doll is God—or Allah, Adonai, Source of Life, Ultimate Reality, Nature, the Universe, whatever name describes the divine whole for you, the ultimate creative reality that includes and transcends all other levels of reality. God is not outside of creation. God is an integral part of it—in fact, is it.
Starhawk, in her book entitled The Earth Path, writes, “We are not separate from nature but in fact are nature.” I absolutely love the theological implications of this line of thinking. And the concept of ‘nested creativity’ is scientific fact. No one refutes it. Atoms form molecules; molecules form cells; DNA is encoded to create protein; peach trees form peaches; we’re on an orbiting planet among other planets in an intertwined solar system; the Sun creates helium from hydrogen. Again and again, the creative whole at each level contains and is contained within a creative whole at another level – all the way down and all the way up.
So what does it all mean? It means we are kindred with all of creation. It means we are not the pinnacle of creation; rather we are one current expression. We are not only for ourselves; we are here as a participants in a greater dance. Annie Dillard says, “We are here to abet creation and to witness to it, to notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.” We are nature uncovering its own nature. We are the universe becoming aware of itself. What is the meaning of life? I think the Great Story, the Epic of Evolution tells us that we are one with the good earth and that we are here to take part in the creative process. We are here to create. We have a supporting role to play; to aid and abet creation – to ensure its furtherance. Indeed, when I see science infused so with sacred meaning, how can I but testify: I believe in science.
In a world without end
May it be so.