Science and Miracles

December 11, 2005
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

(note: the sermon was preceded by the performance of a scene from Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence' s play "Inherit the Wind." Please inquire at the church office for a copy of the scene).


In the beginning…

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth in six days, taking one day off to rest.

In the beginning, Tiamat the goddess of chaos, battled with Apsu, the god of the fresh waters, and chaos was defeated.

In the beginning, something light and transparent rose up from the boundless, shapeless mass and formed the Plain of High Heaven, in which materialized a deity called Ame-no-Minaka-Nushi-no-Mikoto (the Deity-of-the-August-Center-of-Heaven).

In the beginning, there was the First World, which was red (or perhaps black) It was inhabited by the Holy people and the Air Spirit People, who misbehaved and who were therefore unwelcome wherever they went, so they circled upward and ascended thru a hole in the sky to the next higher world, the Second World.

In the beginning was the first cell, and the first organism, and then came the first hereditary genetic variants of those organisms, and the first process of natural selection. In the beginning was a big pond with stuff in it, and soon after that was biological evolution -- a fact which was not fully understood until a man named Charles Darwin began a scientific revolution in 1859, with his publication of On The Origin of the Species. This revolution of understanding was as dramatic in its effect on human self-understanding as was the revolution caused by the scientists Copernicus and Galileo in the 16th century, who dared to suggest that the Earth was not literally the center of the universe, and that the universe was not a closed bubble but an inconceivably vast reality beyond human comprehension.

While Galileo and Copernicus were brutally punished for their insights, Charles Darwin was not himself punished, but his ideas were, and still are.

The latest incarnation of this punishment comes in the form of the Intelligent Design debate raging in the United States right now, and just as you might expect, particularly virulently in our nation' s schools and boards of education.

This isn' t an eccentric little episode being played out just in, say, Dover, Pennsylvania – a town the Rev. Pat Robertson recently warned would earn the Lord' s wrath for refusing to teach intelligent design. A poll taken just a year ago found that "half of Americans polled not only do not believe in evolution by natural selection but do not believe in evolution at all." (Edward O. Wilson, "Intelligent Evolution," Harvard Magazine, Nov/Dec 2005)

Let' s begin right there. Not believe in evolution at all? How could this be so? Evolution is, by all of our current scientific standards, a fact. Respected scientist Edward O. Wilson says that "nothing in science as a whole has been more firmly established by interwoven factual documentation… than the universal occurrence of biological evolution."

What can we then conclude? That people are just stupid? That people prefer to live in la-la land rather than to respect the work of the biological sciences over 150 years?

I prefer to think, as an initial response, that, in fact, most people don' t fully understand what "evolution" really is. In other words, I' m not sure that everyone was paying attention in science the day evolution was taught, and today they' re too busy working, raising kids, and everything else to think about what they believe about the origins of life at all. That' s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that people of all cultures cherish their creation stories (we just heard a snippet from the Hebrew creation story, and the Babylonian, and a Japanese creation story, and a Navajo) and although they may intellectually understand and accept the persuasiveness of theory of evolution, they have a heart commitment that overrides their head commitment.

So when a pollster comes around asking, "Do you believe that God created the universe in six days, or do you believe that life arose over a slow process of evolutionary biological mutation over millions of years," people might say, "Hell, I like that first option better. It' s more poetic. I know we are descended from monkeys, basically, but I much prefer the story about how God fashioned us out of clay on the sixth day."

Let me expand in this point for a moment. There is a common perception that science and religion must always be in hostile, suspicious relationship to each other. I believe this is a straw man argument, and that religious people and scientific people suffer for it, and especially those who are religiously and science-minded. I believe that much of this tension between science and religion is not so much about an argument about how people see Truth, but how and where they look for it.

For some people, Truth is a material thing you can find by working hard in a lab or studying the stars, and truth is something you can eventually find and prove. For others, truth is more of a moral reality; something you find by an interior process of seeking and reflecting on, for instance, the teachings of spiritual leaders. In my experience, most religious people accept that you can never have a final report that proves the reality of this kind of Truth once and for all. Religion gets into trouble when it tries to pretend it is science, and science get into trouble when it tries to pretend that moral, spiritual truths aren' t just as important to the human endeavor as provable, scientific truths.

When Einstein said, "science without religion is blind, and religion without science is lame," he may have been kidding. But facetious or not, I think he was suggesting an important idea. Although he was not a traditionally religious man, Einstein was a reverent man, and I like to think of reverence as the bridge that can connect the aims and methods of science and religion. I don' t think Einstein meant it at all sarcastically when he said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." When we think of what Einstein comprehended – cosmic equations that no one else had ever fully grasped before – it' s easy to see how he felt that something miraculous was being revealed through the laws of science. He probably didn' t believe in a supernatural origin for the realities he was uncovering, but he was deeply awe-struck by them nonetheless. Belief in supernatural causation is not a prerequisite for reverence. A person can be both reverent and religious without believing in a supernatural being. For some people, the merely natural is miraculous enough. It was for Einstein. It was for Walt Whitman.

Both science and religion have their prophets, both have rituals, both have fanatics, both have skeptics. They are often in such tension, I think, because they mistakenly believe that their worldviews are inherently opposed. To me, science and religion are no more naturally opposed than cooking and poetry. Cooking is about earthy transformation, alchemy and practical application, but still requires vision and creativity. Poetry is imaginal and emotional, intangible in the ways it connects human beings, and nourishes the human organism in a different way, but no less valuable, than cooking.

All this said, I' m afraid that the debate raging about ID and evolution is far from reaching a truce of mutual understanding. Although arguments about the teaching of evolution in the classroom have been loud and constant since the early 20th century, the new theory of "Intelligent Design" presents a new twist. In previous times, the debate was between evolution and creationism, the Bible-based theory that the creation of the universe happened just as it says in the Good Book. Intelligent Design is somewhat different: it claims that "some living things are too complex to have arisen through natural selection, as suggested by the Darwinian theory of evolution. It states that there must be some intelligent agent involved in their creation." (Lucy Sherriff, The Register, http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/11/07/id_trial/).

When I hear about the debates around Intelligent Design, I just want to sigh and lie down for a nap. It seems so exhaustingly esoteric, so impossible a thing to decide, so futile a thing to bring before the courts: should we teach this or should we not? Can we prove this or can we not? Exhausting.

This past October, such a debate was held in a courtroom in Harrisburg, PA, about the teaching of intelligent design in the Dover, PA schools. In this case, eleven parents, the plaintiffs, challenged their local school board' s decision to allow intelligent design to be taught in science classes. I feel sorry for Judge John Jones, who has to rule whether or not the teaching of intelligent design is constitutional in the public schools, and who had to sit through a 21-day trial (13 days longer than the 1925 Scopes trial) full of questions of what is theology? what is science? what is evolution and who is an evolutionist, and what is creationism and who is a creationist? The trial achieved some heights of ridiculousness, such as the amount of detailed testimony on scientific facts on everything from "retroviruses to molecular clocks, cells, the mammalian middle ear, whales, the Tasmanian wolf… and blood clotting." (Larry Witham, "Intelligent Design on Trial," The Christian Century, November 29, 2005). Witnesses for the defense were accused of being religious people! Witnesses for the plaintiffs were accused of being scientific humanists and atheists!

Although the court verdict is yet to come in, voters in Dover, Pennsylvania announced their verdict in early November by voting out eight of nine school board members who supported the teaching of ID to ninth graders.

Four things seem true to me about this particular trial: first and foremost, if parents think it' s important for children to develop a sense of reverence for a creator God, why not do that at home, with the support of a religious community? Second, because there' s no scholastically sound reason to inject specifically religious reverence into any of the academic disciplines, this debate smacks to me of a larger political agenda: part of the culture wars waged by the religious right. Third, although this political agenda is obvious and offensive to me, I am also offended by the extremes of the plaintiffs in the case, who went so far as to claim that it was unconstitutional for the school board to put a textbook called Of Pandas and People, which teaches intelligent design, in the school library. Even if the book was paid for by a church, no group, with any agenda, should be about the business of censoring library holdings. We should know that by now. We should know better than to be afraid of anything a book has to say.

Fourth and finally, I have concluded for myself that the theory of intelligent design is not science. It is a theological idea, and although it has what seems to me to be many merits, it is not our practice in this country to include theological ideas in academic study -- except as part of historical studies in order to understand the context of certain important events. To approach academic study through the lens of theology is not, to me, without value. However, this approach has no place in a publicly funded educational institution. I believe that parents who want their children to receive a religious education as part of their academic training should enroll their children in private religious schools, where they can be sure that the teachers can accurately represent their faith tradition' s worldview.

You and I may not like to think that children are being educated within the narrow confines of one religious worldview, but we should keep in mind that not only is this part of what we preserve as part of the freedom of religion, it is also true that you and I are considered to have a narrowly confined worldview! Yes! If we are people of tolerance and peace-making, we have to be among those who seek understanding and friendship between the dividing lines of labels that polarize communities and that have polarized this nation. We' ve got to keep wading in there.

I think my favorite quote from the trial came from theologian John Haught of Georgetown University, who testified for the plaintiffs and who said that science handles the ‘how' questions of nature, and religion handles the ‘why' questions of existence. That seemed very conciliatory and wise to me.

Until this past few weeks, I have never understood why the teaching of evolution so upsets people even as late as the year 2005. It can' t just be that the Bible tells us that God created the world in six days and that science flatly denies this: there are plenty of things taught in the Bible that are contradicted in the textbooks of the average public school kid. What is it about evolution that so particularly upsets these people?

I think what most upsets them, frankly, is the possibility that human life arose out of a random accident of genetic mutation and natural selection, and not out of a divine plan, where we are the fulfillment of God' s dream. Not only is this a scary thing for some people to contemplate, as they believe it leaves the whole human species floating alone in the cosmos, utterly alone in creation, but it' s ego-smashing -- and human beings are nothing if not creatures of great ego. Darwin' s work, and the work of all evolutionary biologists, asks us to consider that humans are not the apex of all creation and are, in fact, just a group of primates with really advanced consciousness who are truly sisters and brothers with all other living organisms. For some people, that' s a beautiful invitation. For others, it' s an insult, and perhaps worse than that, it' s just not miraculous enough.

It' s not miraculous enough that we should have this extraordinary mechanism called a brain, and an opposable thumb, and the ability to ponder our own existence and to yearn from our souls for someone and something to love, that we can' t live without Love even though it has nothing to do with our physical survival. It' s not miraculous enough that we should have survived lo these millions of years, moving our way up from blobby sea things to weird bird things to hairy primate things to upright human things who fly around the world, and even to other planets, in enormous machines contrived by our own unquenchable curiosity.

That' s not miraculous enough, and I don' t know why. I don' t know why, especially at this time of year, why it' s not miraculous enough for one of us – one of those very advanced primates—to come along and try to totally re-order society based on the values of justice, radical hospitality and love -- instead of the values of power-over and competition and suspicion that we still live by today -- and to risk his life doing so, and to heal and inspire people just by his presence.

That' s not miraculous enough, so we' ve got to have his mother be a virgin and we' ve got to have angels singing in the skies at his birth, and we' ve got to give him a halo and put him on a throne in heaven instead of here among us. It' s not miraculous enough that this advanced primate felt close enough to the great "I Am" to call it Father, to pray to it as a beloved parent, to trust that this immortal, invisible, eternal presence he knew as YHWH wanted us only to love one another, to share what we have, to put away our swords, and to live by an ethic of love and brother and sisterhood. That' s not miraculous enough?

I believe in miracles. I believe in a great number of miracles that many of you would find ridiculous, and that' s okay. I have had too many miracles whispered into my ear by awed, amazed human beings not to believe in them. I have seen miracles change too many people not to believe in them. Some miracles are flashy productions that can' t help but get your attention. Others are quieter, more eerie, leaving people wondering, "Did that really happen?" Still others are sneaky, and so tiny that we almost miss them. But every miracle has one thing in common: it draws us toward love, it draws us toward awe, it draws us toward the contemplation of the great mystery within which we live and move and have our being, and it draws us closer together in reverence.

"How do you know God didn' t ‘spake' to Charles Darwin?"

I don' t. And the whole thing is still pretty miraculous to me, either way.