First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Evolutionary Theology

February 1, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

Each person has a birth story. We each have a narrative about how we came into this world. Our story includes facts and figures. There is the day we were born, who are parents and grandparents are, how much we weighed, and who are siblings are, among other things. Just think about your own story for a moment.

Here’s a bit of mine. I was born on the last day of May in the last year of the 1950s in Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. I weighed 8 lbs 10 ½  ounces. My mother told me that when it was time to go to the hospital, she sat on the bed and cried. She never explained why. Maybe she knew what was coming – that I was going to be 8 lbs 10 ½ ounces. I am the youngest of four children in my family. When I was born, both of my grandfathers were already deceased. These are just a few pieces of information I know about my family as I was coming into the world.

Knowing about my birth and the family into which I arrived isn’t just trivia or purely entertaining, as it turns out. It isn’t just about my own fascination with myself. Having this information also provides a context. It offers a source of purpose, meaning, and identity. Being aware of one’s personal history is one way that each of us can discover how we fit into the bigger scheme of things.

In the mid-1990s, psychologist Marshall Duke developed a scale to measure children’s knowledge of their family’s history. The results confirm the importance of understanding our personal narratives. Children were asked 20 “Do You Know?” questions. Sample questions included: “Do you know how your parents met?” “Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?” And “Do you know the story of your birth?”

The children who were best able to answer these questions turned out to be more resilient and more emotionally healthy and happy. Why? The reason is that knowledge of one’s personal history, including some of the difficult parts, gives a person a sense of place and perspective. It helps us see how we belong.(“The Stories That Bind Us,” www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-...)

The same idea can be applied to the larger cosmic narrative. Understanding how the cosmos was born and how we humans came onto the scene also gives us a sense of belonging in the broader context of all life.

Most cultures have a creation myth that provides this context. Creation stories explain how the cosmos was created, including who or what created it. Did the cosmos form from a cosmic egg or the mating of cosmic parents or a great watery abyss? Many creation stories describe not only how the cosmos came into existence but also how the earth was born, and how humans and animals arrived on the planet.

These creation stories tell us if the cosmos is on a trajectory that moves from simplicity to complexity. They tell us whether existence emerged from emptiness or chaos. Are we moving toward greater order, greater good and kindness, or is existence all random? Did God create the world? Will there be some end to the world as we know it or is that an open question?

As science became more and more sophisticated, it brought into question the answers that were offered by the traditional creation myths. Some religions respond by rejecting the evidential findings of science. And some religions struggle to find ways to embrace both the old myths and the new science.

Unitarian Universalism synthesizes science and religion. Science is not seen as undermining our faith, but rather as informing it. In fact, science is recognized as one of our sources of faith. It’s our fifth source, which you can find on the back of your order of service, and in the front of your hymnal. Our faith draws from the wisdom of “humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.”

This doesn’t mean that traditional creation myths are irrelevant. They have truths to teach us. But we Unitarian Universalists don’t accept them as literally true. The reason is simple, of course. They are not based in evidence.

That also doesn’t mean we don’t have a creation myth. We do.  Liberal religious people have a cosmic birth story of their own. Evolutionary theology is that story. It integrates evolution and religion, just as the term suggests. Theology means the study of God. It carries also a broader meaning as the study of religion, and that’s how I am using the term today. Though we will get to the God question in a minute.

Evolutionary theology is the birth of the cosmos told from a scientific perspective. If you think that means it is dry and boring, think again. Reverence, wonder, and awe are as much a part of this story as any other. Perhaps more so.

Listen to this description by Brian Swimme who is a professor of evolutionary cosmology:

All the matter of the Earth was created by the Grandmother Star that preceded our Sun. She fashioned the carbon and nitrogen and all the elements that would later become all the bodies and things of Earth. And when she was done with her immense creativity, she exploded in celebration of her achievement, sharing her riches with the universe and enabling our birth.

This “immense creativity” begins with the formation of the galaxies and the origin of earth. It includes the development of our human consciousness and culture as well as our efforts to live as part of the larger web of life. This ever-unfolding “celebration” is 14-billion years old, and as sacred as the cosmic egg or the biblical creation myths. The difference is, evolution is a narrative based in science and evidence.

Where does this modern creation story leave us in terms of God? Can there be God in this “Great Story” of evolution?

Charles Darwin didn’t think so. We of course have Darwin to thank for our understanding of evolution. February marks the anniversary of Darwin’s birth on February 12, 1809, making it a good month to explore the role of evolution in our lives. Darwin is sometimes identified as a Unitarian, having attended a Unitarian congregation in England. He was a naturalist and agnostic.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, on the other hand, saw God in this great story of evolution. Our responsive reading this morning was written by Teilhard de Chardin. In it, he writes of “mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever new-born.” By “shattering our mental categories,” he says, nature reveals to us “the dimensions of God.”

Born in 1881, Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit mystic and paleontologist – a scientist and theologian. His spirituality integrates evolution, consciousness, and the divine. Not surprisingly, but unfortunately, the Church condemned his writing and ordered him to stop publishing. His work has thankfully survived and been posthumously published. It expresses the belief that matter is divine and evolution is an ongoing process.

His tribute to matter comes from the book, Hymn of the Universe, in which he describes nature as “the divine milieu.” He writes:

I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim … as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life….

Many of us would agree with him that nature is indeed “the divine milieu.”

Including Rev. Michael Dowd - whose thinking has been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin and who has written extensively about evolutionary theology. Dowd says that “evolutionary theology offers an undeniable God.”

Talking about the nature of God, Dowd says: “Nobody would ask, ‘Do you believe in water? In life? In the universe?’ Those are absurd questions. God is another word for universe, and the divine imperative is evident in the properties of emergent and symbiotic systems." (qted in RSEvolutionary Theology: How to Love God and Science by Brandon Keim, www.wired.com/2007/12/evolutionary-th/)

Ultimately, evolutionary theology doesn’t affirm or reject God. Evolution does invite us to reinterpret how we understand the meaning and nature of the divine. In this new science-based creation myth, God moves from being a separate supernatural being to being part of creation. God becomes a way of naming the whole of reality – whether we call that Ultimate Reality, Spirit of Life, Nature, the Divine, the Universe, or simply God. (“Welcome to the Ecozoic Era: Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow offer a new vision of reality, evolution, and the divine,” UU World Magazine, Amy Hassinger, Spring 2006)

What matters most isn’t what name we give to that reality. What’s important is that we have evolved out of that whole. All existence has evolved from a larger reality which we all share in common. We share it with all that has ever been and all that will ever be.

As we learn more and more about the birth of our cosmos through science, we learn more and more that we are part and parcel of creation. This is a fact of our existence – and also tremendously inspiring. Each of us is small in the scheme of things. And yet, we are an undeniable part of it. We are part of the evolutionary trajectory of life. We belong. We matter.

Each person has a place in the human family and also in the larger family of all living beings. Each of us has a place on this planet and in this universe.

As Brian Swimme says,

You have awakened in a great epic of being …. The intelligence that ignited the first minds, the care that spaced the notes of the nightingale, the power that heaved all 100 billion galaxies across the sky now awaken as you, … and permeates your life no less thoroughly.

That’s what evolutionary theology teaches us. We have awakened in a great epic of being. The power and intelligence and creativity that created the stars and the nightingale permeates our lives as well.

This month, as we consider what it means to live a life of evolution, may we look to our own families, to the stars, to the nightingale, and know that we belong. May we know that we are at home in this cosmos and on this pretty planet.

May we awaken to our place in this great epic of being.

Amen. Blessed be.