A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on February 10, 2002
The very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible contains several ideas which have disturbed people throughout history, and caused a great deal of distress. I refer, of course, to Genesis, and its description of how God supposedly created the world and everything in it in six days, resting on the seventh. That description has generated more controversy than probably any other simple story; and it still does.
In the Genesis description of creation, God looked at what he had done, and declared it good - excellent, even. God would not muck around with his creation any more; things would ever remain the same as they were when God finished his handiwork. This has led to the belief that since God was satisfied with things as they were, we should be also. Creation is closed.
Another problem with Genesis is that God decided to make "man" in "his" image; after the likeness of God. So, in the course of human history, the image of God came to be that of a male -- a white male at that -- usually with a long beard and the whole ball of wax. This meant, of course, that females, and non-white males, were not like God, and therefore came to be considered inferior. So inferior, in fact, that it became acceptable for the "Godlike" white males to enslave inferior humans. Yes, Genesis was used to support slavery. (Genesis also laid the groundwork for the suppression of women -- but that is another chapter!)
To make matters worse, after creating humans, God then gave them dominion over all other creatures, and the earth itself. He declared that these human creatures were to be the masters or rulers of everything else. Worse still, these humans were to go forth and multiply themselves -- so there would be more of them to rule the world. This directive only added to the justification of slavery and the dominion of one race over another. It also, of course, has contributed greatly to the degradation of the environment, overpopulation, and the depletion of natural resources by humans. Ah, yes, a bothersome little book, that Genesis.
On the very same day, February 12, 1809, two men were born whose ideas emancipated humans from the narrow compartments that Genesis put them into. One man was Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves, although he was quite clear that his ultimate goal was to save the union, and he would end slavery in America only if it aided that goal. Still, his profound and prophetic language in the Emancipation Proclamation stirred the souls of moral men, and ever since it has been considered wrong for one group of humans to enslave another. Lincoln was the great emancipator.
The other man born on that momentous day was also an emancipator. He freed humans from the little compartment that had isolated them by connecting them to the richly intricate biota on our fascinating planet. In so doing, he showed us that humans are part of an ever-changing web of interdependence, and our relationship with the rest of nature is a creative, evolving, process. He freed us from the bonds of Biblical literalism and showed that there can be progress made in human knowledge, even knowledge about God. He taught us that revelation is not closed; that we can and must seek after the truth ourselves, and think our own thoughts. He showed us that there are many paths to the truth, that science is one fruitful path, and that the truth shall make us free. He gave us permission, as it were, to wander beyond the bounds prescribed by the Bible and the church, and to explore the world around us with fresh eyes.
This man was Charles Darwin, and his emancipating contribution was the theory of evolution. In his Origin of the Species, the great work that shattered Victorian certitudes, Darwin argued the case for evolution so persuasively that Thomas Huxley exclaimed, "How stupid of me not to have thought of that!"
Evolution, of course, is the theory that life has evolved from simpler forms, which have survived changing conditions by adapting through natural selection. Human beings, like all species, have evolved -- in our case from more primitive primates, or monkeys. Natural selection is a process fundamental to evolution by which any characteristic of an individual that allows it to survive to produce more offspring will eventually appear in virtually every individual of the species, simply because, in the long run, the strong genes that contribute to survival will be passed on to the offspring.
Realizing how revolutionary his theory would seem at first, Darwin cautiously said nothing about humans in his first book on the subject except, in the understatement of all time, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." In fact, he delayed publication for sixteen years, and only did so when it became apparent another scientist, Alfred Wallace, was about to publish a similar theory. So, reluctant as he was, Darwin published his theory in 1859. Unaware of Mendel's genetic experiments and lacking any homonid skeletons, Darwin nevertheless had the vision to grasp that humans, like the planet's other inhabitants, evolved from earlier life forms. He decided that if evolution was a revolutionary doctrine, then it was nature's fault, not Darwin's, but he needed, for his own peace, to tell the truth as he saw it.
Darwin's theory also evolved, however, and he came to believe that species change! New species will exist in the future, and many others will become extinct. When he realized this, he also realized that to propose such a thing would really put him at the center of controversy. For if he were right, then he knew very well that the biblical creation story of Genesis had to be wrong! And if the Creation story were wrong, then other things in the Bible might also be wrong, and where would this lead?
It led, of course, to the suggestion that the whole notion of the literal, infallible Word of God, as found in the Bible, could be called into question. So, for those who vest their spiritual authority in a literal interpretation of the Bible as the holy Word of God, the stakes in this issue were, and are, very high. People attacked Darwinism as if they were fighting for their lives -- and they were, for their spiritual lives.
This would not be the first time, of course, that a new idea was not accepted easily, although it may be the most difficult one for people to accept. Indeed, it seemed that whenever new scientific ideas were put forth, the church and its followers have felt the need to persecute those who wandered beyond the bounds of Biblical literacy. This classic conflict between dogmatic faith and science goes back hundreds of years, and is still very much with us. Galileo met the same resistance when he proved that the earth circles the sun, and not the other way around. Those who believed that the earth was the center of the universe found this idea very disturbing, and urged Galileo to give up his idea. Galileo then asked: "The truth, the truth; doesn't that mean anything?" To which one of his antagonists replied, "No, I need my peace and happiness. Why do you want to shake my belief and poison my mind with doubt and conflict?" And Galileo responded: "To me, peace and happiness have always meant one thing: to seek truth and admit what I found."
Although the orthodox rejected the concept of evolution, clinging to their Biblical literalism (as some still do today), Darwin's evidence was repeatedly and abundantly confirmed, and bestowed an expanded and exhilarating view of life. Discoveries since his time, especially in the last few decades, have given us a pretty good idea of how our species, with its huge and complex brain, developed from the small hominid who, four million years ago, walked erect but whose brain was the size of a chimpanzee's. The "theory" of evolution is now accepted as truth by the scientific world. Darwin has been upheld. As John Tyndall wrote in the late 1800s: "Charles Darwin is the Abraham of scientific men -- a searcher as obedient to the command of truth as was the Patriarch to the command of God."
It has not been easy, however. As our reading showed, the Biblicists have fought the notion in many venues, including the courts. The famous "Scopes Monkey Trial," as it was dubbed, was but one example. I am proud to say that the freedom-loving Unitarians played a key role in that trial, and significantly influenced the outcome. The father of Clarence Darrow, the leading defense lawyer, was a Unitarian, as was the Rev. Charles Potter, who was the primary clergy-person for the defense in the trial. Constantly at Darrow's side, it was Potter -- a Unitarian minister from New York City and one of the leading Humanists of the day -- who was the one to prepare the fateful list of questions and Biblical inconsistencies which so thoroughly befuddled William Jennings Bryan when he was called to the witness stand in a surprise move by the defense. And once he admitted that a day was not necessarily 24 hours, Darrow had him!
And yet, the controversy does not go away. There are still those who want, or need, to believe in the biblical chronology of the creationists, as originally set forth by the 17th century Irish Archbishop James Ussher. Ussher, by painstakingly working his way back through all the begats and begots of the biblical patriarchs, determined, with remarkable precision, that the Creation had occurred on October 23, 4004 BC, beginning precisely at 9:00 a.m. Now that's about 6000 years ago.
Then, through a similar set of calculations, despite overwhelming fossil and geological evidence to the contrary, the creationists fix the age of the earth at 10,000 years old. In contrast to this number, most scientists fix the age of the earth at about 4 billion years. That is a considerable difference! Having been raised by two geologists, and gone with my father when he pulled core samples from the depths of holes drilled by oil rigs, and watched him date and explain the different strata the cores revealed, I was always in awe of the age of the earth! To think of it as only 10,000 years old leaves me feeling cheated. Yet, I remember once taking a core sample to school for "show and tell" in a science class, and having the teacher tell me I was mistaken when I said how old the strata were!
Herein lies a problem -- and an opportunity for we UUs to continue the legacy our forebears left with their participation in the Scopes trial, and their contributions to science ever since. For the creationists still want to make their biblically-based views the basis of a science curriculum in our schools. At first, they simply passed laws making the teaching of evolution illegal, but the Supreme Court finally struck these laws down in 1968 -- yes, that recently!
Since the fundamentalists could not then simply ban evolution, they tried a new strategy of legislating equal time for religious creationism along with the teaching of evolution. These statutes were also soon struck down because creationism is religious doctrine, and this violated the Constitutional provisions of separation of church and state. So the Biblicists invented another approach -- calling creationism "creation science," or "scientific creationism," and suggesting that evolution is not a fact, but just a theory, so why not teach "creationism" alongside of evolution as alternative theories?
To those who don't understand that scientists speak of any group of related assumptions about the world as a "theory," this seems to make sense. Never mind that scientists call 99.9% of the theory of evolution fact; although as we learn more, some of its points get refined. Because scientists are still discovering new evidence about the exact mechanics of evolution, however, in no way discounts the fundamental fact of evolution itself. The creationist idea that life was essentially created as it is today sometime within the last 10,000 years, on the other hand, has virtually no -- zero-- standing within the scientific community. Still, school districts all over the country are continually bombarded by conservative Christians who would have them teach that story as the only true one about the beginnings of the universe. Sheldon Reike told me he had received such a call only recently.
Now we are in a new millennium, and we are still engaged in a conflict over the theory of evolution. Evolution denies the doctrine of a special designer who singlehandedly created the whole universe and everything in it. As such, it is threatening to those who need simple explanations, want to believe in absolutes, and find comfort in the idea that everything has a purpose. Most of all, they see the descent of humans from the animal kingdom as a degradation, as though it made humanity less wondrous. But to the seeker after truth, the evolution idea is a master key that opens many doors. It is a luminous interpretation of the world, throwing the light of the past upon the present. It is an unspeakable exultation. Everything is seen to be an antiquity, with a history behind it -- a natural history -- which enables us to understand how things have come to be as they are. This is the gift Darwin gave the world -- an emancipation of supreme proportions.
It is too bad that the creationists cannot see the awe and beauty in the idea of evolution. It is sad that they need to deny that we can learn and expand our horizons, that things can and do change and that we, as humans, can influence how change happens. It is, most of all, too bad that they try to put the minds of our young people in a biblical vice, denying them the opportunity to explore and discover and know the truths about the world they live in. For we UUs, however, it is an opportunity to spread a religion that stimulates human inquiry, not repress it. I believe the church can only live as it aims to become one of the educational forces of society. We have a special task to help open the minds of men and women and children to the wonders of the universe. The scientists have taught us better ways of worshiping life and loving our fellow-humans than the ministers have, for they have shown us the truth of the creation of the universe, following the emancipation of the mind given us by Charles Darwin.
Note: Some of the quotes and ideas in this sermon come from a sermon by Rev. Andrew C. Kennedy of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee: "Not in Kansas Anymore: Evolution and Creation Redux," 1999.