A Sermon by Dr. Robert S. Rice, 9 January 2005
First Presbyterian Church, Norman, OK
(First in a Four-Part Series: A Christian Response to the Religious Right)
We’ve all seen the bumper sticker wars. On one car’s bumper there is the Christian symbol of the Fish. On another there is a fish with two little legs and “Darwin” written across it. On still another, there is the Christian fish swallowing the Darwin fish. Thank God for the right to free speech that we have in America, even if freedom of speech is no guarantee of speech that is either thoughtful or informative!
In the latest Gallup poll in which Americans were asked whether evolution is well-supported by the evidence, roughly one third of the respondents said that it is (35%); roughly one third of the respondents said that it is not (35%); and the final third said that they did not know enough about it to reply (29%). These percentages have not changed much since the early 1970’s when the question was first asked in a nationwide survey. But what has changed is that in recent years, in State after State, legislatures and school boards have been pressured to put disclaimers in biology textbooks, saying that the theory of evolution is merely “one” theory of human origins. And that other theories, based on the Biblical creation account or on “intelligent design,” need to be studied and considered by children and youth in public schools.
This past October, the School Board in Dover Pennsylvania required biology teachers to present “intelligent design” as an alternative to the scientific theory of evolution (even though this was not supported by the Dover High School science department). The state of Ohio has approved a lesson plan for teaching “intelligent design” in its public schools.
For the past four years, the Oklahoma State Legislature has defeated legislation to put evolution disclaimers in its public school science text books. Year before last this legislation was defeated by one vote in the Senate, with senators for voted for the measure saying, “I am voting for this, because my preacher told me to.”
Across Oklahoma, there have been reports of the intimidation of teachers who have taught evolution science in the public schools. The University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, although its exhibits are informed by evolutionary science, does not use the word “evolution” in its displays for fear of alienating many of the visitors that come to the museum each year. There is a book on sale, in the science section of the national park bookstore at the Grand Canyon, entitled, “Grand Canyon: A Different View,” in which the author argues that the Grand Canyon was created 4,500 years ago by Noah’s Flood, not 6,000,000 years ago as geologists tell us
What is going on? What is this attack on modern science all about? And why is it coming from the Christian religious right? What is at stake in this battle being waged for the minds and hearts of Americans? And why is it being fought in legislatures, and in our public schools, and in national parks; and not in universities and appropriate scientific forums? These are questions that cry out for a response from thoughtful and committed Christians!
So what does the Bible actually say about creation? To answer this, most of us instinctively turn to the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis, where we find a remarkable text, which describes God’s creation of the universe.
While many have noted that there is some similarity between the Genesis account and other creation stories that circulated around the time that it was written, the Genesis account is remarkable in that unlike other creation stories of its day, it describes a world created by a God who is not part and parcel, not a piece of the universe, but instead is separate and distinct from it – a God who stands in relationship to creation, much as an artist or an engineer would to her work. In theology we call this “transcendence.”
The Genesis account is also remarkable for the way in which the days of creation correspond (for the most part) to the process of creation described by modern evolutionary theory. Ancient Christian theologians, such as St. Augustine, were quick to point out that the Genesis account, which says that God created the light that separated day from night before God created the sun, moon and stars, nine verses later, contradicts what we know to be true from science. Christians have also long acknowledged the logical contradiction between the story of creation in Genesis 1 and the creation story in the 2nd chapter of Genesis, where Man is created before the plants and the animals and where Woman created at the very end, after everything else.
But probably the best clue for understanding how the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis is to be understood, is found in verses 6 and following, where we read, “And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters’.”
In the New American Bible, the archaic word “firmament” used in the Revised Standard Version, and the King James Version and others, is better translated “dome.” That is what the word “firmament” means – a DOME! The New American Bible reads like this, “Then God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters, to separate one body of water from the other.’ And so it happened: God made the dome, and it separated the water above the dome from the water below it. God called the dome ‘the sky’."
What is being described in the text is a three story universe - a universe which looks like an upside down bowl with water above it. That is where the ancients thought the water comes from when it rains. Under the upside down bowl is the sky, with the earth and more water beneath. Low and behold we discover, the writer of Genesis was using the science of his day to describe the world that God created! IMAGINE THAT! Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we find descriptions of a flat earth, and of the sun moving around the earth. How else would the Biblical writer describe the world that God created, except within the framework of his own understanding and in terms that were familiar to his readers?
Fundamentalist Christians, those among the Religious Right who want to read the Bible as a scientific treatise, are clearly NOT paying attention to the text!
Another clue for understanding how the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis is to be read, is to notice that in its original language (Hebrew), the first chapter of Genesis is written in poetic verse. Now poetry can communicate the most profound truth - more profound truth, I would submit, than science could ever disclose! But poetry does not use the same language that science uses. I am reminded of the young man, who in describing the woman with whom he had fallen in love said, “She walks with wings as the night.” The woman’s podiatrist, on the other hand, described her as having “flat feet.”
So which one was right? Which statement was true?
Fundamentalist Christians, those on the Religious Right, who want to make the Bible into a modern scientific treatise, are clear clearly NOT paying attention to the Bible itself! As someone has said, “The problem with fundamentalists is that they will not take the Bible literally.” [James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible, Westminster Press, 1980]
So what is at stake in the current battle that is being fought over how the world was created in our legislatures and our public schools?
There are those who undoubtedly believe that belief in God, that the Christian faith, and the very trustworthiness of the Bible are at stake. My own sense, as someone who has come to trust the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ through Scripture, is that this battle waged by so called Christians against evolutionary science undermines the Christian witness to Truth, and it distracts Christians from the primary purpose and focus of the Christian faith.
I am reminded of the story of a Sunday school teacher who asked a little boy in the class to define faith. He responded by saying, “Faith is believing something, even when you know it isn’t true.” [quoted attributed to Tony Campolo in Christian Networks Journal, Summer 2004 & again in Context, 11/04 A] This is precisely what is at stake in the battle over evolution in the public schools, the witness of FAITH to TRUTH!
The Bible was never meant to be a scientific treatise. It is rather a primary witness to the profound truth of God who created the universe, who created each one of us, who loves and cares for us, and presents God’s challenge to us to be responsible stewards of the gift of life that we have been given.
Do I believe that God created the universe? Do I find the five “classic proofs” for God convincing, including “proof by design,” one of the classic proofs for God that is being used by those who argue for the teaching “intelligent design” in public schools? Do I find these proofs for God to be convincing? I certainly do! I believe intuitively, that it makes more sense that the universe was created by providence rather than chance! But my thoughts on this matter are not science and should not be taught as science, for they are theological presuppositions and philosophical arguments. God cannot be argued scientifically, one way or the other, at least not the God of Christians and Jews, not the God who is described in the Bible. To do so, would in effect, be to make God a part of the system, a part of the universe itself. As I noted earlier in the sermon, one of the things that is so remarkable about the Genesis account is the very distinction that the writer of Genesis wants to make between God and creation. The God of the Bible is transcendent, and not beholding to creation, except by choice!
As a Christian do I think there an inherent contradiction between scientific truth described by the theory of evolution and my Christian faith? Of course not! Any contradiction between the two comes from either bad science or bad religion. The battle that “creationists” are waging in our legislatures and our public schools is neither scientific nor Christian, and we who seek to follow Christ should be embarrassed that it is being waged in the name of the Christian faith! We should be especially embarrassed by the way that it is being waged! There is something, it seems to me, that quite disingenuous about the way in which “creationism’s” proponents are using the political process to make our children their battleground, when they have not been able to make their case in the scientific community and in appropriate scientific forums. As Christians, we should speak out against this, for the sake of the integrity of the Christian Faith!
One final thought on the Bible’s perspective on creation. It is interesting, that The Old Testament (the Torah), devotes a mere 34 verses to God’s creation of the universe and yet it dedicates some 600 verses to the Israelites’ construction of the Tabernacle, a fragile structure of coverings and beams. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the Hebrew congregations in Great Brittan, argues that this implies that although the Torah IS interested in the natural universe, the home God makes for us. It is even MORE interested in the social universe, the home we make for God. [Jonathan Sacks, A Letter in A Scroll, p161] A reading of the Christian New Testament, makes an even stronger case for Sack’s thesis, for the New Testament gives its full attention, not to the natural universe (the home God makes for us), but to the social universe (the home we make for God).
The REAL QUESTION, you see for Christians, is not how did God create the universe, how did God made a home for us? But how are we going to make a home for God in the world?