Perhaps the most controversial topic surrounding science and religion is the “evolution / creation” discussion. That’s why, 11 years ago, Professor Michael Zimmerman started “The Clergy Letter Project,” an attempt to have religious leaders say, strongly and clearly, “Evolution does not contradict faith, and evolution — not creationism — is what should be taught in schools.”
As the open letter from Christian clergy states:
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.
Currently, almost 13,500 Christian clergy, along with over 500 rabbis and 450 Unitarian Universalist Ministers have signed such the letter.
Every year, on the weekend closest to February 12th, hundreds of clergy from across the nation celebrate “Evolution Weekend.” Why that day? Because February 12th is the birthday of Charles Darwin. And what could be a more powerful statement about the relationship between religion and science than to have a priest, minister, or rabbi deliver a sermon about the importance, power and value of science?
This past weekend, Sinai and Synapses Fellow Reverend Mark Goodman delivered a sermon about how scientific language and religious language both differ and complement each other. It is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics, and connected to our Winter 2017 series, “How Science Influences Religious Language.”
It is a wonderful celebration of Darwin, of faith, and how we need both in our world today.Read transcript
What is the purpose of language? What is – think about that just for a moment – what is the purpose of language? Surely one of the purposes of language is to communicate meaning at a very fundamental and literal way.
If I say to you, “I’m hungry,” I’m communicating a truth with language. If I begin to talk to you about the diet that I have and the cuisine that I enjoy, and perhaps some of the culture out of which that food comes, then language becomes much more than a simple vehicle for basic communication. It becomes a way to inform, it becomes a way to disclose, it becomes a way to communicate the reality, the entirety, of one’s self and one’s relationships.
Language is very, very important indeed, and so, that’s why it’s such a problem, for example, when two people meet and there’s a language barrier. Not only can they not communicate the basics, but they can’t tell one another about their background, their family, their culture, none of that can be communicated. And so an ability to talk in more than one language is becoming more and more important as the world becomes smaller, and smaller, and smaller.
I know the United States is not unique in this way, but certainly the United States statistically has the greatest percentage of people who only speak one language: English. And when we go to other countries – and I include myself – when we go to other countries, we expect people to speak English. And we’re relieved when we find a shopkeeper, or a hotel manager, or someone on the street at the bazaar who can speak English. That is just an expectation that we have.
And yet that’s not so in much of the world, where in Europe, many Europeans of whatever nationality speak at least two languages, more likely three or four. And imagine what their view of the world is as a result, how more expansive that view becomes when you have a multiplicity of languages that you can fall back on. That’s what language does. It allows us to see the world in a different way, it allows us to have a more holistic view of the world, if we are able to communicate in more than one language.
In the Scripture passages today there are difficulties of language that concern me. In Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians, for example, he speaks of this dichotomy between flesh and spirit. And at first hearing, you can very well imagine that these two languages that he’s speaking, the language of the flesh and the language of the Spirit, cannot communicate with one another. They’re diametrically opposed. And so over time, in the history of the church, that’s exactly what has happened. So that we come to this point where we’re almost dualistic in our understanding of God’s creation. Part of it is earthly and fleshly, and bad and sinful, and to be shoved aside and the other the spiritual, which is wonderful and beautiful and glorious and to be sought after.
But of course we know that if you can speak both languages, somehow translate, and come to the center, that’s where the truth actually lies. And so much so, that the person of Jesus Christ himself is found at the center of those two languages. Jesus, the only Son of God, spiritual, and Jesus incarnate, the Word made flesh, come to dwell among us, very earthly, very fleshly, in the same person. Translating these two languages – bringing the two extremes into an understandable whole. In the Gospel passage, likewise, we have this seeming opposition of language. We have Jesus saying, “you have heard it said in ancient times” – that’s one language, a language of the past – but he says “I say to you,” now that’s the language of the present.
And immediately in our minds can be set up this opposition, this tension, between the past and the present. And we forget that the law he is referring to is something that is organic, something that evolves, something that changes from the past to the present. After all, Jesus said, “I came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” And that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s giving new meaning to it.
And so if we can find a way to understand and bring these two opposing positions into the center, we come to a place where we understand that the law is there not to restrict, not to punish, but rather to inform our life in God and to give life in the Spirit.
There are lots of these pairs of languages in the world around us. We have the language of Democrats and Republicans. We have the language of Progressive and Conservative. We have the language of openness and of restriction. And in all of these languages, the danger is that we end up at the edges, not speaking the same language, and not being able to communicate at all who we are, what we think, or the reality about us. Somehow there has to be that seeking after a common language while still maintaining our own, but to find a way of a common language, so that we can come to that center and understand a more holistic view of the world, a view that is healthier, a view that is more life-giving, a view that is more loving and merciful.
Today is an important day. Besides being Sunday and Septuagesima, which is three Sundays, count them, three Sundays away, from first Sunday in Lent, February 12th is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. And if there ever were languages that didn’t speak to one another, it’s the language of faith and science. That wasn’t always so, you know. That wasn’t always so. But through the ages, through Scholasticism and the Middle Ages, and through the Enlightenment, and through the Industrial Revolution and various scientific revolutions, we’ve come to the point where these two don’t talk to each other at all. In fact, they see each other as diametrically opposed to seeking after the truth. And so scientists speak science and those of faith speak faith.
And somehow, somehow, the entirety of the truth of what the world is must be found in the center, and so we have to find a language – a common language whereby these two schools can speak, one to another, and find that deeper beauty in the world that God has made. In order to do that, though, first of all we need to recognize a truth. This is the Bible. It is the Word of God, inspired, we believe, by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not a textbook of science. You cannot read the Bible and understand the progression of geologic ages. You cannot read the Bible and come to an understanding of quantum mechanics. It simply cannot be done. What you can do though is you can read the Bible and you can come to an understanding of our place as children of God. You can come to an understanding of God’s Love for His creation, His love that was so great that in that first chapter of Genesis, He created all that is, all that we see, even ourselves. To be in community with one another, that’s what you can learn from this book, and much more.
On the other hand, this book, the title of which is “On the Origin of Phyla,” is not a book of faith. You cannot, by reading this book, find anything out about God – well, at least not directly. This will not teach you any spiritual truths. This will not inspire you in prayer. This will not inspire you to go out and serve God and your neighbor, reaching out in mercy and kindness to those less fortunate among the margins of the world. This will teach you about facts, and hypotheses that are proven by accumulation of data.
But – they can come together. And the way they can come together is that they are both addressing the same thing: they are addressing the created world as God has made it, simply from different vantage points. And where do they meet? They meet in the center, and what Rudolf Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy,” called the numinous. And the numinous is that experience of the Holy that brings an expression of wonderment and awe, that experience of something outside ourselves that speaks to a greater truth. Science does that. Think of the first time that you looked through a telescope at the moon and saw the beauty of that detail and how it took your breath away. How in awe you were at seeing that sight.
Think of that first time, from a faith perspective, when you first came to the realization that God loves you. That first time that it dawned on you, “God really does love me.” And think of the awe and wonder that that created in you. It is that center, it is that place of awe and wonder, where science and faith meet, and can illuminate the world that God has made in a way that is spectacular and gives much more meaning and much more expression to God’s immense creative power than we could ever imagine or see by only looking at one or the other.
What I’m suggesting to you today, by all these various examples, is that we live in a world where we have to learn to communicate in more than one language. We cannot hide ourselves off or close ourselves off in little cubicles. If we ever could, we can’t anymore. In order for the world to come to that beauty with which God has made it, we need to open our minds, and open our hearts, and learn to speak the language of others. And have them hear the language that we speak as well.
Where does that happen? I believe it happens in places just like this, where people come together, the people of God, people of faith, come together seeking community, seeking engagement, seeking acceptance, seeking love, seeking guidance. This is where that communication happens, in places just like this, around your table, in your workplace, amongst your friends, on a walk through the park. Let’s learn. Let’s learn to speak the languages that God has given us, so that we can speak one language that we all share: the language of love.