We Do Believe

This is the text of a sermon I gave at All Saints Episcopal Church, Sacramento on February 12, 2012 as part of Evolution Weekend. Please see my standard sermon disclaimer.

An Audio Version is also availible.

For those of you who missed the article in the Bee[1] we will be observing Evolution Weekend today. Evolution Weekend is a project started by biologist Michael Zimmerman who felt that:

For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith. - Michael Zimmerman[2]

We set aside one Sunday each year to talk about Faith and Science, and so I hope you will understand if I stray a little farther from today’s lections than I might otherwise.

Let’s begin by asking the question: How did we end up here? Why is it that we now feel we need to devote some point in our year to the idea that religion and science are compatible? When did the question even arise and why?

In the history of human endeavors, science - at least science as we now think of it -is a much more recent phenomenon than religion. Oh certainly, some of the activities we now associate with science: the cataloging of direct observation, the advancement of fine and technical art through repeated experimentation; these have existed as long as humans have been curious about the world around them. They have existed throughout history as a sort of descriptive form of science.

On the other hand, the ideas of analysis, deduction, prediction and reasoning out what the world ought to work like form core principles, these are all relatively new endeavors. Natural History became Biology; Alchemy became Chemistry; Astrology became Astronomy.

There are lots of ways you can date when this started to happen, but I as a Physicist point to a gentleman named René Descartes. Descartes was a Frenchman who lived in Holland most of his career. In 1637 he published a work call La Géométrie – On Geometry in which he connected the previously distinct disciplines of algebra and geometry; math and physics. This work spurred a whole host of innovations. A generation latter people like Isaac Newton would take his ideas and build calculus on them and from there build up what we know today as the “Laws[3]” of classical physics.

Now the interesting thing is that in 1644 – seven years latter – he also published another widely read work this time in philosophy called Principia Philosophiae which is perhaps his more famous work. Descartes, like most of the thinkers of his day was both a scientist and a philosopher. In this work he starts out[4] by questioning whether he can believe anything. Can anything be known to be true? He doubts everything, and the first thing he decides he cannot doubt is his own self – the famous line Cogito ergo sum; “I think, therefore I am.” He goes on from there to describe all the thing he sees, he hears, he touches and wonders if they can be real. He concludes that since God exists and since God is gracious and loving, that God would not let him be so deceived that the entire world of his perceptions should be fake. He concludes that by his faith in God he can trust that all the science he is doing is also valid and useful as well.

It is the power of rationalism - the power of the mind that is in vogue at this time. It is a real switch in theology. During medieval time, the world was a bad, cruel and disordered place where floods ruined crops, famine killed children and disease killed off one in every three people in Europe. Theologically the world was this chaotic, incomprehensible place and order and reason were the realm of the Holy and the Heavens. Starting with the Renaissance – with René Descartes and his contemporaries – philosophers begin to talk about an ordered world. God had created a world that runs mechanically and predictably, and it is in fact rational to believe in God. Theologians would now prove that God exists by showing just how ordered the world is and explaining that only an Intelligent Creator could have produced a world with such order. In fact, it would be irrational not to believe in God. This is known as “The Argument by Design” and it remained quite popular and is still heard today.

Now rationalist theology is kind of boring. And Christian Theologians were kind of looking at this, but they were really preoccupied with something called the Reformation. You’ll remember that we all started out – at least in the European sense – as part of the Roman Catholic Church and at this point in time, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin are looking at a corrupt Roman church and saying, no it is not the Church which is the foundation of our faith, it is the Bible – it is the inerrant scripture – it is the Word of God not some guy sitting in the southern part of Italy[5] that is the core of our faith and the foundation of Divine knowledge. And so we begin at this point to think about the Bible as much more central to faith. This is also the point in time when the printing press is really getting rolling.

Now jump forward a little bit to the gentleman whose name gets attached to the subject for today. Darwin published his work The Origin of Species in 1859. Like other scientific works, it was well reasoned, it was rational, but the problem was it contradicted the plain reading of the creation story at the beginning of Genesis. More than that, it threw into question whether humans really had a unique place in God’s creation. But, what really got every one upset was that it subverted this really wonderful proof that everyone had in which anything ordered had to have an intelligent designer. Darwin claimed that evolution by natural selection was a process that created an orderly variety of interrelated species without the need of some overarching intelligence. So in other words, the proof of God that everyone had been hanging their hat on for the last 200 years … well let’s say the rational humanists got a hold of this and just started shaking it!

Again Christian theologians aren’t so worried about this right at the time. They are preoccupied with what is going on over in Germany. You see German theologians along with others have been exploring the Holy Land and the near east, and they have come up will all these ancient texts from Mesopotamia, and Assyria and Babylon, and they are starting to analyze them, and they begin to analyze them to the Bible in the same way. It is referred to as “Higher Criticism,” asking questions like who wrote these things and why? So, skip Darwin and a few questions about one chapter of Genesis; here were people questioning whether Moses actually wrote that book or any other book in the Bible. Or worse whether he actually led an Exodus out of Egypt; or saying that Isaiah is actually three different people; or that Paul didn’t write Romans; or that David wrote only a handful of the 150 psalms. It was a really devastating criticism of the Bible that had become so important as the new foundation of faith.

And so in 1915 here in the U.S. a group of Christian ministers got together and published a “pamphlet,” actually a 12 volume work called The Fundamentals. It laid out just exactly what you had to believe to be a Christian – in excruciating detail. If you want to know more, we are having a forum on the history of Christianity in America, which just happens to be covering this period in history, but for now let’s just say that it asserted the literal truth of scripture with all the traditional authorship and interpretation arguing against both higher criticism and modern science.

Science none-the-less continued to advance. In 1929 Edwin Hubble looked through his telescope held up a diffraction grating and discovered the further away a star was from us, the faster it was moving away from us. This led him to conclude that the universe was expanding, and it wasn’t long before other astronomers ran the movie backwards and concluded that at one point everything must have started out in one place. Thus we get big bang cosmology – modern cosmology, which I must admit is still a younger science than is evolution. In 1953 Watson & Crick discovered structure of DNA; set of what is still just the beginning of the genetic revolution in motion; and gave us the mechanism for evolution. One that allowed for a far more detailed analysis of ancestry and the process by which species came to be.

So we come to today and we have people asking, “Is it possible to be a faithful Christian without denying the obvious truth of modern science?”

Clearly it must be, we’re all here.

And yet when we make that statement, fundamentalists like the Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, who was quoted in yesterday’s Sacramento Bee article say to us, “If you are a Christian and you believe in evolution, then you are undermining biblical authority.”

We know that biblical authority does not flow from a literalist, elementary school reading of Scripture but from a community of believers faithfully interpreting the living Word of God with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is after all unrealistic to think that God, even had he been inclined to do so, could have explained – for example – cosmology to Moses. Imagine if the Book of Genesis began:

Construct the Stress-Energy Tensor (T) of order 4 for the system of an infinite point mass located at the origin by implicit solution of the Continuity equality: Zero equals the covariant derivative with respect to nu for T mu nu plus T sigma nu applied to the Christoffel transformer for mu over sigma nu plus T mu sigma applied to the Christoffel transformer for nu over sigma nu at a time t = 0.[6]

I think we are all happier with “Let there be Light”

As far back as 205 AD the Christian Theologian Origen found that there were, “certain passages of scripture which have no [literal] sense at all.” [7]

“But,” say our critics, “if some of the Bible is untrue how can we trust any of it?”

Origen’s answer and the answer for 1800 years and more of Christian tradition is that scripture which is spiritually inspired has spiritual truth. As Origen put it, scripture has a “soul” and that goes beyond the plain meaning of the words to get at deeper truths.

A lot of you recently told me about going to see The King’s Speech. I hope that you are at least familiar with basic plot of the movie about King George VI overcoming a studdering problem. Now, this is a true story, based on actual events, but I ask you, Would you site it in a research paper about the history of the Monarchy during WWII? Might there be some parts that the screen writer had to condense to make it fit into the the running time of a feature film? Or parts that had to be elaborated or made up because even with unprecedented access to the royal family, there is simply no way of knowing what went on in some of these private meetings. I am sure that there are historians out there who watched The King’s Speech and went, “eh, this is completely untrue. We have documented evidence that Winston Churchill was never at such-and-such an event” – or what have you.

So, since some of the movie is clearly fabricated, and other parts are proven to be historically inaccurate it just ruins the whole movie right? I mean there is no point in looking for the message of triumph over adversity or the value of dedication over destiny. Clearly this movie has no more value than Snakes on a Plane.

(Pause here for laughter and to turn the page)

I’m sensing some disagreement here.

In fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. Without all the dry details that a historian’s paper would need to contain, we are more readily able to grasp the meaning of the historical events. At a personal and emotional level, we can more clearly find the truth at the “soul” of this film.

It is the same with the Bible. The Bible has a soul – has a message, and that message need not be obscured by needing to be literally true. Rivers don’t clap their hand, hearts don’t have eyes and yet the psalmist clearly communicates a message far deeper than a lesson on fluid dynamics or human biology.

So often it is thrown in our faces what is not true, what is inadequate or inaccurate; what we don’t believe.

It is not about what we don’t believe, but what we do believe.

We do believe – In Scripture inspired by God and overflowing with the Good News of God’s Love, not limited by the failings of ancient knowledge nor by the dusty ghosts of primordial history, but alive with hope and justice, with righteousness and grace. It is the foundation of our hope in Salvation.

We do believe – In a universe created by God to grow and evolve and in humanity who in the image of God: creates, explores, reasons and who grows in wisdom and understanding as well as in faith and holiness

We do believe – In a triune God at once both mysterious and intimate who is found in both beauty and reason who speaks both through the prophets and through our hearts who opens our eyes to see the truth with in the words of scripture who is present wherever two or three are gathered and who guides both those who study and who pray.

We do believe – and our faith is strong strong enough not to fear questions or suppress doubt strong enough to not just allow but to encourage science and discovery strong enough even to welcome our brothers and sisters whose faith still trembles in the shadows of unquestionable and unquestioned dogma.

We do believe – and we need not hide our belief for fear that it is ungodly or unreasonable We instead proclaim with humble certainty the glory of God which pervades every jot and tittle; every star and atom we live in the knowledge and love of God our heavenly Father free to bare witness to the Truth.


1. “Sacramento-area churches participate in Evolution Weekend” The Sacramento Bee, Feb 11, 2012. http://www.sacbee.com/2012/02/11/4255443/sacramento-area-churches-participate.html

2. “Background” The Clergy Letter Project, accessed Feb. 10, 2012. http://www.theclergyletterproject.org/Backgd_info.htm .

3. There has been much made in popular culture of the difference between a “law” and a “theory.” In spite what you may have been taught in school, the difference is merely linguistic and represents the hubris of early scientists who believed that they were discovering God’s infallible rules for the universe. Anything called a “law” in classical physics has been proven wrong by either the theory General Relativity or the theory of Quantum Mechanics.

4. This is actually the beginning of the section “Mediations on First Philosophy” I cut a lot of detail in order to stay as close to the point as possible.

5. The concept of “Italy” as a modern nation-state is of course not historically accurate, but the point is more easily made with to a modern audience’s knowledge of world geography to elide over this fact.

6. This is the beginning of the derivation of an expanding universe using Einstein’s notation for general relativity typed out as it might need to be spoken. In reality, this is the first relatively simple equation of a much longer proof. In the end it was more than enough to stop at the colon to get the point across.

7. “Origen: The Threefold Sense of Scripture” Readings in Christian Theology. P. Hodgson and R. King. p33. His actual word was “bodily” and comes form an extended metaphor where scripture, like people, has body, soul and spirit. This was cut for length, and in order to make the relevant quote work without explaining the metaphor I changed this word.