Sermon, "Hot Topics: Evolution: Out of the Dust," August 12, 2018

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

This Sunday is the first Sunday in our "Hot Topics" sermon series, beginning with evolution.

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
— Genesis 2:4-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

Today is our first Sunday in our sermon series “Hot Topics.” Today we begin with the topic of Evolution and Christianity. Which is a hot topic for some.

But I’d like to start today with what we’re not going to be saying or doing.

First, I’m not going to be making an argument for the theory of evolution. So I’m going to assume that the scientific consensus is true. It’s not my area of expertise by far, and there are plenty of other places to go for that information. The Public library, Wikipedia. I’ll send some resources in the weekly email as well.

I realize that for many Christians, including some of us, this could be a controversial statement. However, the truth is that the largest Christian denominations throughout the world see no inherent conflict between the two. For example, Narnia author and Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis[i]. Popes John Paul II,[ii] Benedict XIV, and the present Pope, Francis.[iii] And perhaps, most surprisingly, the late Billy Graham, probably the most influential Christian evangelist of the 20th century.[iv] Francis Collins, the scientist who led the effort to map the human genome is also an evangelical Christian.[v] Throw in the fact that Charles Darwin, the “father” of evolutionary theory is buried in Westminister Abbey, one of the world’s most notable Cathedrals. So it’s safe to say that evolution and Christianity are not incompatible in the eyes of most Christian authorities. Meaning the conflict between the two is seriously exaggerated.

Okay. Now, with that out of the way, I’d like to offer a simple way for us, people of faith, to think about Christianity and evolution. And to talk about it with our children, our friends. And those who don’t share our convictions.

To begin the conversation, the most helpful metaphor I’ve found for talking about it is what the medieval Christians called the difference between the “Book of Nature” and the “Book of Scripture.”  Medieval Christians saw both of these as sources for the knowledge of God. As two distinct ways that God discloses herself to us. Pope John Paul II once said this about the two: “Research performed in a truly scientific manor can never be in contrast with faith because both profane and religious realities have their origin in the same God.” These are not the same, though they do overlap. They have points of contact. Because they both go back to the source.[vi]

The book of Nature is the created universe. It’s the world we can see with our eyes, touch, taste, and smell. It’s a book in the sense that we can learn from it. If Christians believe that the universe is the creation of a loving intelligent creator, then the world should be put together lovingly and intelligently. We humans have the unique capacity to examine and understand the makeup of the world by stepping back from ourselves as part of the natural order and look at the bigger picture of things. Because human beings have this gift, the text of this book is universal, it’s open to all of us, believers and unbelievers alike. Whether it’s how the universe began with a big bang, how plants process sunlight into energy, or how a single celled organism grew in complexity and variety until human beings as we know them emerged. Science is a way we can “read” this book for a deeper understanding of how the world we can see and touch and experience works. It’s all about how.

The second “book,” the book of Scripture, though, works a bit differently. Where the Book of Nature teaches us how to understand the world that we can observe, the Book of Scripture teaches about what we can’t see. The ancient Nicene Creed talks about God as the Maker of “all things seen and unseen”--the book of Scripture is the unseen part. It brings us into contact with the invisible, mysterious reality of God that has been disclosed to followers of Jesus throughout the ages. Unlike the Book of Nature, the Book of Scripture can’t be read as a science text book, nor was it intended to be. The Book of Nature offers us a glimpse of the “how” things are the way they are, but the Book of Scripture discloses to us questions that the other simply can’t answer by observation.  Questions like “who?,” why?” and “for what purpose?” They aren’t something we can see, touch, or taste--at least not face-to-face.

The great Protestant Reformer John Calvin once said that “the heavens sing to the glory of God,” that the natural observable world was the theatre of God’s glory. That God is active in creation. But we need scripture (and I would add the great tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit) that acts as spectacles that enable us to see clearly. The holy is invisible to the naked eye and the electro-microscope. So like 3D glasses that allow us to spot the work of divine in the world, the book of Scripture brings that “unseen” truth into focus.

So two books: The book of Nature, the reality that we can see that science helps us read. And the book of Scripture, that brings what is normally unseen in to focus. They’re two different things, but they compliment and illuminate eachother. If we read them together.

Now, often, when we think of human origins, we’ll says something like “people came from monkeys.” But according to the Book of Nature, according to evolutionary theory, the stuff that makes humans possible begins back way further. Even before earth itself came in to being.

For about 500 million years after the big bang brought the universe into explosive existence, there was a period of cooling, when stars began to form thanks to the pull of gravity. As they grew in size, they began to heat up inside, creating nature’s version of nuclear reactors. Eventually, as these stars grew old, they collapsed in on themselves, creating so much heat that they became supernovas, releasing more energy than all of the other stars in the universe combined. And as they did, they scattered the whole universe with oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen. And if you know your biology, you’ll know that these are all the building blocks of human life, what our bodies are mostly made of. Basically, the only chemical difference between us and any other living being is how these elements are arranged within us. But it all began with the collapse. With the death of stars.[vii]

According to the Book of Nature, we not only “came from monkeys,” but our origins are even more ancient. We not only came from monkeys, we came from the scattering of celestial ash all over the cosmos. We humans got our start in star dust.

Now at first this all sounds pretty different from what we read in the other book, the Book of Scripture.

But if you listen this portion of the book of Genesis, you’ll hear echoes, you’ll see connections from the book of Nature. Listen:

“The Lord God,” it says. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

“The Lord God formed man from the dust, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” Now, clearly the timeline here isn’t the same. But in our scripture passage, God forms the human being out of the dust. Out of dust, dirt, the inert matter of creation. Out of this God forms, God shapes, God molds the human being. The word human actually comes from humus. That’s what Adam’s name means in the Bible, too. Hebrew, adam. Dirtperson. Earthling.

That’s the overlap. That’s the connection. I mean,  sometimes people are offended at the idea that we “came from monkeys.” But if you read both the book of Nature, and the book of Scripture, you’ll hear that we came from something even lower: dirt. Creatures formed out of dust. Doesn’t get more elemental than that.

The major difference, though, remember is that the book of nature only tells us the how. If you were to ask many evolutionary scientists, our best scholars of the Book of Nature, they’d tell you that’s all there is. That the human being is simply a product of this natural process. No more. No less. Which, to be fair, is pretty amazing, wonderful, and fantastic as it is. But it’s only part of the story.

The Book of Nature tells us how we came in to being, through billions of years of evolution. But when we look at it through the lens of the book of Scripture, we get an answer not just to how, but to who, and why.

According to the book of Scripture, the answer to the “who” question isn’t a cold, purposeless, or impersonal universe, but one teaming with spiritual meaning. The book of Scripture says that God breathed life into the human’s nostrils. “And the man became a living being.” It’s talking about God’s Spirit, God’s breath. The energy, the engine, the fuel, the animating force of all reality. That God is the architect of evolution, the artist of the cosmos, taking nothing but the very basic elements, the nothingness of dust and over billions of years shaping it in to our very human bodies. And filling us with consciousness. Filling us with life.

According to scripture, the Christian story, the reality that creates, sustains, and upholds all things is a benevolent Creator whose very nature is self-giving Love. A Love that  is most fully revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A Love so deep that it gives itself up to death for the love of living dust. The late Rev. Glenn Jackson, a retired minister once told me that the Good News is that “you’re a speck of dust on a speck of dust. But the Creator of the universe would die for you.”

Earlier in the chapter it says that God created humankind in God’s image. Which leads us to the “why” question. We were created by ancient Love out of Love, and for the purpose of Love. To love our Creator with every fibre of our being, and to love each other as fellow divine sculptures fashioned out of holy stardust. And like the Apostle Paul says, “love is patient.” Like, you think you have patience with your parents, your friends, your kids, the people you love? Think that, but in terms of billions of years of steady patience. Think of that and you’ll begin to understand God’s glorious love, God’s mercy. For every inch of us and creation.

So there’s our first “Hot Topic.” While some may see evolution and Christianity as incompatible, the largest Christian traditions and authorities have come to embrace it. Because the two are not only compatible, they give us a richer vision of human life. And the scope of God’s glory.

As you leave the church today and walk out into Nature’s pages, I pray you’re caught up in the age, scope, and wonder of the created universe. But also, I pray you put on your spectacles, the book of Scripture. May you also come to see that, undergirding this wondrous mystery, is the Love that created us for Love. For:

All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful:
it might have taken billions of years,
but in love, the Lord God made them all.

Amen.

 

[i] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 77.

[ii] “Research performed in a truly scientific manor can never be in contrast with faith because both profane and religious realities have their origin in the same God.” Quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor, the Luminous Web: Faith, Science, and the Experience of Wonder (Atlanta: Canterbury Press, 2017), 30.

[iii] "Francis inaugurates bust of Benedict, emphasizes unity of faith, science". Catholic News Agency. 27 October 2014.

[iv] “The Bible is not a book of science. The Bible is a book of Redemption, and of course I accept the Creation story. I believe that God did create the universe. I believe that God created man, and whether it came by an evolutionary process and at a certain point He took this person or being and made him a living soul or not, does not change the fact that God did create man. […] whichever way God did it makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” David Frost, Billy Graham: Personal Thoughts of a Public Man (Chariot Victor, 1997), 72.

[v] See Francis S. Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2007).

[vi] G. Tanzella-Nitti, "The two books prior to the scientific revolution," in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2005): 4-5.

[vii] Taylor, Luminous Web, 38-39. I rely heavily on Taylor’s wonderful book to tell the scientific story of human origins.