Sunday, February 10, 2013

Stargazing As A Sacrament (2/10/13)

Stargazing As A Sacrament
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Evolution Sunday
February 10, 2013

Welcome to Evolution Weekend.  The weekend closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday is celebrated in hundreds of congregations around the world as Evolution Sunday.   Evolution Sunday, now Evolution Weekend is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Zimmerman.    His goal is to break down the barrier to learning that has been erected by certain forms of religion that deny science.   He thought if he could get ministers and churches publicly to endorse evolution that perhaps the resistance would decrease.    

Over 13,000 clergy and hundreds of congregations have signed on to support the teaching of evolution in public schools and to declare that evolution is not incompatible with religion.  This is the seventh year that we have acknowledged Evolution Sunday through worship services, classes, and field trips honoring the contributions of science and in particular evolutionary theory to human knowledge.   

Today we will take a field trip to the Bays Mountain Planetarium for a 2 p.m. show called “Appalachian Skies.”   You might consider stargazing as a sacrament.

Is Christianity compatible with evolution?   Many will say no. That is why there are creation museums everywhere.    Certainly it is true that from their standpoint, evolution is a threat to Christian truth.   When someone understands evolution and acknowledges its claims, the truth of Christianity is denied.    So for them, Christianity is incompatible with evolution.  

Someone wrote the following comment on my blog yesterday:
Although not a Christian I fail to see how a Christian could ever agree with evolution, if we evolved from apes at what point did we acquire a soul?  The core belief of a Christian is to believe in a literal Adam and Eve because without Adam and Eve there would be no sin, without the existence of sin there would be no need for Jesus to die on a cross, as I see it Christianity falls apart for a Christian who accepts evolution. 
The commenter touches on the real problem that evolution has presented to Christianity.   Many of us in this room self-identify as Christian.    I would guess since you are in this church that you affirm evolutionary theory and if a non-scientist like me, you understand it as best as you can.    So we don’t really understand what the silly creationists are going on about. 
But they are probably right in that evolution is a major threat to their faith.   As that commenter said, without Adam and Eve and original sin and Jesus dying on the cross to save from sin, Christianity falls apart.    Why doesn’t Christianity fall apart for the rest of us?    I think the reason is that for many of us Christianity has changed, evolved if you like.

There are many variations of Christianity alive today.  While this congregation may have some similar traits to the Presbyterian congregation up the street from us, there are differences.   Think of the similarities and differences between this congregation and a Roman Catholic congregation in Brazil or a Pentecostal congregation in West Virginia.   What differences and similarities might there be between us and Augustine’s Christianity of the 4th century or that of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, or John Calvin?   What about the Mormon Church of Mitt Romney or our nearby friends at the Unitarian Universalist church.   Similar yet different?      Many Christians don’t call other Christians “Christians.”  

For the coming two weeks on the radio program, Religion For Life, I speak with philosopher, Daniel Dennett.  He said that dinosaurs in one respect have not died out.   You find many of their traits, for example, in modern birds.    Similarly, religions change or evolve, taking on some characteristics of their ancestors and leaving others behind.    At some point we wonder if what we see really fits our definition any longer.   Can what has evolved be called religion?   Or in the case of Christians who care little for Adam and Eve, original sin, and the substitutionary atonement theory.    Is it Christianity?  

These questions are intense and they involve a great deal of skirmish.   Congregations split from one another and new denominations form because of the perception that one group or another has crossed a line and has given up on an essential tenet of the faith.   Eventually new “species” of church develop.    Obviously I am playing.  I am using biological evolution as a metaphor for religious change.    I think that metaphor can be helpful.   

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Greatest Show On Earth:  The Evidence of Evolution, suggests that Plato and the Platonic ideal has made it difficult for us to accept evolution.   Plato’s concept of forms and ideas has been a barrier.  We think of a rabbit, the form of a real rabbit, and the idea of a rabbit.    In evolutionary thinking there is no idea of a rabbit.  There is a rabbit and if you were able to trace its ancestry you find imperceptible changes from one generation to the next until you were able to compare say 100,000 generations and the current rabbit and you would see that they different animals altogether.

I have photos of my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather.    While there are some changes between my great-grandfather and I, we are still of the same species.    What if I had a photograph of every ancestor back to my 1,000 great- grandfather.  Different?  Yes but still the same species.   Back further to my ten millionth great-grandfather?   That “great to the ten millionth” grandfather would look quite a bit different from me, in fact, not even the same species.    Imperceptible changes from generation to generation, yet over generations, different in kind.     Yet what we call “kind” is based on our snapshot of time in the present and how we categorize “kind.”    

That change in thinking away from Plato “for every form there is an idea,” to “imperceptible changes over generations” is changing the way we think about all kinds of things.    We are connected and fluid.  We are related, that is everything on Earth is related.    When you can acknowledge that you and the banana you had for breakfast have a common ancestor we have moved a long way from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas who had everything in hierarchical order from god to angels to humans to animals to plants to rocks.   

What might this do to Adam and Eve?   Think of Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, and John Calvin all in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, 500 years ago.    For these three highly educated men, the creation of Earth had taken place about 5,500 years before them.  Adam and Eve were real people.  There would have been no reason to doubt that.    In fact, Columbus in his trip to China, not knowing that North and South America were in the way, thought the globe was much smaller.   When he was traveling up the coast of what is now Venezuela, he thought he was approaching the Garden of Eden, literally.  

We look back at that and find that amusing.   Their understanding of the world is 500 years different than ours.  Imperceptible changes over time have occurred since then.   Between the time of Columbus and Calvin and our time, the advances in knowledge have been so profound that we hardly appreciate them.    In their time, they are just starting to get their minds around the possibility that Earth was not the center of the universe.    Darwin was yet to come, several centuries ahead.    Chemistry, biology, geology, physics, and cosmology might as well have been science fiction for them.    Of course, our Christian faith will evolve as well and it has.   How we look at the Bible, the concept of God, Jesus, everything will of course evolve and they have.  
The struggles that we have either within ourselves or between us have to do with this struggle between evolutionary thinking and essentialist thinking.     
I remember when my son was about eight and he asked me if dinosaurs were mentioned in the Bible.   Apparently, his friends were having this discussion at school.  I told him no, that dinosaurs were not mentioned in the Bible.  He asked me why and I told them that the people who wrote the Bible didn’t know about dinosaurs.    That is an obvious answer when we look at religion from an evolutionary point of view.    The Bible is not a revealed word from a divine being.   It is a creation of human beings writing their story as they know it from their point of view.  
From an essentialist viewpoint, the Bible, like God is unchanging.   The doctrines are unchanging.    The world must be explained in light of an unchanging Bible.   The idea of looking at religious doctrines as essential tenets makes it difficult for Christianity to change.    
“We must hold on to this.  We cannot let go of that.” 
Yet the ‘this’ and the ‘that’ might be different from one person to the next.   I am sensitive to this.  I understand the angst that change brings.  However, I think if we accept evolutionary thinking, the metaphor of imperceptible change through time, we can navigate this with more grace.

When we apply an evolutionary point of view to Christianity, we see that no doctrine is unchanging or essential.   We can be all along the spectrum without a particular need to classify if some view or another is “Christian” or not.     You can let go of original sin and substitutionary atonement if you like.  You can let go of an inerrant Bible and of Jesus as a divine being.  You can let go of supernatural theism.   You can let go of all of the doctrines and focus on the ethics or the community.   You don’t even need to make conscious decisions about it.  You can notice that it is simply happening.  

You can do all of that and still retain your Christian identity if you wish.   Or you can let that go too.   It is really OK.  You can take a breath and evolve.    We can allow others to evolve as well.    We can all interact and influence and learn from one another in a non-essentialist, evolutionary community.   Or one group may take a different direction and in a different environment will evolve into another “species” of Christian, like the new denomination that is now breaking away from the Presbyterian Church in order to retain certain essentials they perceive as important.  

My biologist friends must be cringing that I am being so loose with their terms.   I am using this fascinating and important theory of biological evolution and seeing through it a way of looking at other aspects of life including our faith.   Again, I am highlighting that imperceptible change over time leads to something quite different but only when seen from the perspective of many generations of change.    

Since this is the season of the via creativa, the way of creativity and imagination, I am taking that seriously and imagining and creating and mostly just noticing how the Christian faith has evolved.   I speak from my experience.    This isn’t just about me.  In being forthright as I can be about my experience, I trust that others will resonate.    

One of the changes I am seeing is the notion of sacrament.   I remember learning in seminary that sacraments, which for those of the Protestant evolutionary stream include baptism and communion, are quote:  “visible signs of invisible grace.”    The water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion are visible things, yet they signify an invisible reality of grace.    They confer belonging, community, embrace, forgiveness, a sense that we count, that we matter, that life is worth taking another breath for, that we can be loved and can love.    There is more to say, but my experience of spending time with communities that practice these sacraments has done that and more for me.  

I’d like to add a sacrament.   Maybe I can secure your vote on this.    I would like to vote in stargazing as a sacrament.   The trick is we have to do it together.   This is that Protestant evolutionary stream speaking, but sacraments are those things we do in community.    We have to stargaze together or watch the moon together.     I think stargazing in silence with others followed by camaraderie, good cheer, and maybe even a song, give us a sense of grace and belonging.    Stars are a visible sign of invisible grace.    I think it is our Christian duty to take sacred time with them.

This amazing universe that science is presenting to us can be overwhelming in a negative way if we don’t put our energies into making it and those who inhabit it sacred.   The beauty of religion is that at its best it does take the time to notice the sacred and to provide rituals for the sacred.   If our religions can evolve out of their doctrines and into the world, into the universe, into life, we can do a lot to help offer a sense of the sacred and a sense of sacred ritual to the beauty that surrounds us and to help us embrace even that which is not so beautiful.

On this Evolution Sunday, I honor the patron saint, Charles Darwin, and I honor the world that he opened up to us.  I honor stargazers and scientists, poets, artists, and music-makers, pastors, priests, and parishioners, all of us, who open minds and hearts to life in all its splendor.


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