Friday, February 21, 2014

“Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: Christians Can’t Believe in Evolution” - February 23, 2014

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4

I knew a student who was a very sharp guy, an excellent student who went on to graduate school.  He once told me that he was a young earth creationist.  This isn’t the sort of thing you just announce out of nowhere, and it seemed both odd and kind of out of the blue.  He spoke as though science could not be trusted, yet this was someone in a scientific field who lived and breathed the world of science.  But from his church background, I know that this is what he had been taught; as far as he knew, this is what Christians believed.

Are science and faith enemies or friends?  Or is the best we can hope for a kind of uneasy coexistence?

Let me tell you a bit about my background when it comes to all of this.  At my high school, one of the best teachers was Gerald Kirkman, who taught chemistry.  Chemistry was a tough class and I did well, and Mr. Kirkman told great stories, so I decided to take advanced chemistry.  It was an 8 am class, but four days a week we had to come at 7 am for the lab.  Largely because of Mr. Kirkman, I decided to major in chemistry in college.  I enjoyed chemistry, especially organic chemistry, and as a senior I was president of Phi Beta Chi, an honorary society for students in the sciences – Phi Beta Chi standing for physics, biology, and chemistry, although at some point they had decided (probably on a split vote) to also allow engineers to join the organization. 

The sciences were all housed on the southwest side of the campus.  On the north and east sides of the quad were the humanities.  A bit further to the northeast, you would find the college chapel.  At Evansville, the sciences and religion were literally in different spheres, almost in different worlds.

For some students, when it came to science and the humanities, the twain never met, but some of my favorite courses were electives – economics, history, political science, religion.  It may be obvious that I didn’t stick with chemistry; I wound up going to seminary.  The weird thing is that with my undergraduate chemistry degree I was actually better prepared for theological education than some of the students who had majored in religion in college.  A background in science taught me to think analytically and solve problems and reach conclusions based on observation and data.  That kind of background was helpful in interpreting a Biblical passage or comparing the theology of, say, Luther and Zwingli.  It also turned out to be useful preparation for pastoring a church with more than our share of chemists and other scientific types.

The scientific method permeates our western understanding of truth.  This is the case whether you are in natural sciences like biology, social sciences like psychology, more applied fields like engineering or business, or trades or technical fields like plumbing or cosmetology or auto mechanics.  We depend on what is factual and provable and rational and observable.

This is largely true of religion as well.  This same rational-minded approach can often serve a person well in matters of faith, but faith involves something more.  Faith involves relational truth.  You can’t measure or calculate things like love or grace.  Faith involves revelation.  It involves mystery.  Things do not always fit in neat boxes.  Now to be honest, things do not always line up in neat boxes in science, either.  (Some of you can attest to that.)  And part of the scientific mindset is the idea that new data may come along and disprove what had long been believed to be true.

As people of faith, the question for us is whether truth is truth, or whether truth in science is a completely different animal from truth in religion.  Maybe the question is whether we are to put religious truth over here and scientific truth over there, much like my college campus.

The British naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin published The Origin of the Species in 1859, setting forth his theory of natural selection –what came to be known as evolution (even though that word only showed up once in his book.)  While generally accepted in the scientific community, in time there was opposition from many in the religious community who felt that Darwin’s theory contradicted the Genesis account of creation.  In the U.S. this came to a head in 1925 with the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, when a school teacher named John Scopes was put on trial for teaching evolution in the local high school.

The trial brought a great deal of publicity to the issue, and contributed to what was called the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in several American denominations.  One of the outcomes was that in 1932, a group of churches left what is now the American Baptist Churches to form the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.

Well, the Scopes Trial was 88 years ago, yet in some ways it seems that not a thing has changed.  State legislatures are mandating the teaching of creationism or barring textbooks that teach evolution.  And if you go to the state fair, in the Varied Industries Building, you will find a display for the Regular Baptist Churches of Iowa with pictures of dinosaurs and information about how the world is really about 6000 years ago. This is still very much a current issue. 

Two weeks ago there was a debate on evolution vs. creationism featuring Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye the Science Guy.  It was held at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, a kind of theme park for young earth creationism.   I didn’t watch the debate, although I saw a couple of clips from it and read about it.  It seems to me that it was not really a debate about evolution.  To have a debate, the opponents have to agree on what it is they are debating, and Bill Nye and Ken Ham were debating entirely different things.  For Ken Ham, the debate was over whether the Bible is to be believed.  For Bill Nye, the issue was the future of science education in our country and whether we wanted to be a country in which science and research do not really matter.

What I think they were actually debating was epistemology – the question of “How do we know?”  Bill Nye argued that we know because we use observation and reasoning to get at answers.  Ken Ham argued that we know because God told us through the Bible.

I have some background in science, but I am certainly no expert and know very little about the science surrounding evolution.  But I disagree with people like Ken Ham on religious grounds.  I disagree with those who argue for a literal six-day creation of the world because I think it is a gross misreading of scripture.

The account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  It is lyrical and poetic and powerful – and it includes baseball (in the big inning!)  It tells us that God is the creator of all life, creator of the cosmos, and gives a sense of the beauty and breadth and the goodness of creation, and of our place in creation.

If someone were to read these words for the first time and be asked to explain what the passage was about, they would not say that this is a scientific description of processes surrounding the beginnings of life on earth.  They just wouldn’t.  This was never intended to be a scientific play-by-play of how creation went down.

I always wonder if those argue that this is a literal description of creation are familiar with the Bible.  Because in chapter 2 of Genesis, we find a second account of creation, and it is different.  Rather than human beings being created last, man is created first, then plant life, then animal life, and finally woman is made from man.  These accounts cannot both be literally true – but then they were never intended to be.  Taken together, the point is that God has created this world and we are called to be stewards of God’s good creation.  People like Ken Ham are missing the point.

The argument is made that if the Bible cannot be trusted on this, it cannot be trusted at all.  But viewing scripture in this way is extremely arrogant.  It assumes that Genesis was written not for those living at the time the book was written, but that it was written for those of us living close to 3000 years later.  How would our ancient forbears have heard these words?  It would never have occurred to anyone that the story of creation was meant as way to date the age of the earth. 

I don’t want to get hung up on the word evolution, but it seems to me that the Bible can be understood as an evolving understanding of God’s work in our world.  Change is evident in the way people understand God and approach God.  The New Testament understanding of faith and salvation is different from the Old Testament, and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus leads to a reevaluation of the faith of the community.  This continues to happen in the early church and through Christian history. 

For much of Christian history, science was seen as understanding God’s ways in the world.  Someone studying plants or animals or geology would be studying natural theology.  There was no differentiation between science on the one hand and religion on the other; in fact, theology was called the “Queen of the Sciences.”

But that began to change in time, and those days are now long past.  What helped to change things is the way the church reacted to scientific breakthroughs and discoveries.  Based on his observations, Copernicus came to the understanding that the earth was not the center of the universe, and in fact the earth revolved around the sun.  Knowing that this might cause an uproar, Copernicus waited until his deathbed to publish his book.  And sure enough, it was condemned as heretical.  As far as church officials were concerned, scripture clearly taught that the sun revolved around a motionless earth; in the book of Joshua there is even an account of the battle of Gibeon in which God kept the sun from moving in order to give more daylight and allow Israel to win a battle.

Nearly a century later, Galileo came to the same conclusion as Copernicus.  He was forced by the Church to recant his belief that the earth orbited the sun, and he was on house arrest for the rest of his life.   

This was not one of the Church’s better moments, and the Church should have learned from this that it is not a good idea to deny or to condemn those who believe what can be learned through investigation and observation.  And it is best not to understand the Bible as a science textbook.  Copernicus lived 500 years ago, but apparently a lot of us are slow learners.

Can a person be a Christian and believe in evolution?  Certainly.  If the universe is billions of years old, Jesus is still Jesus.

On the scientific side, Bill Nye noted, “Around the world there are billions of people who embrace the facts and process of modern science, and they enjoy their faith.  By all accounts, their faith enriches their lives.  These people have no conflict with their faith and science.”  And Charles Darwin considered it “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist.”

On the side of faith, it is not simply a modern understanding that Genesis is not meant to be understood literally.  St. Augustine, the pre-eminent theologian of the Church, authored a 5th century treatise titled On The Literal Meaning of Genesis.  In it, he had some choice words for those who would one day be known as creationists.  He wrote,

Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens… about the motion and orbit of the stars…  about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.  Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.  If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Writing more than 1500 years ago, Augustine hit it right on the head.  Rejecting science in the name of Biblical literalism makes us look foolish and turns people off from Christianity.

Instead of arguing about the relative merits of science and religion, what if we saw the value of each – not only in general terms, but the value to one another?  What if religion reclaimed the idea that science is a way of understanding the world that God has created, a way to appreciate the incredible world around us, and that through science we can better know what is, so that we can work toward what can be and what should be?  And then look at all of the areas in which our scientific knowledge threatens to outrun our ethics, where what is possible runs ahead of what is good and right and .  When it comes to genetics and medicine and weaponry and nuclear energy and environmental degradation and global warming and artificial intelligence and a whole host of current issues, how much does science need the wisdom and ethical grounding that faith can offer?

Science attempts to answers the how.  Faith attempts to answers the why.  Both can suffer from a lack of humility.  Both need to be open to new understanding, new truth, new possibilities. 

Back in college, I took courses in science and I took courses in the humanities.  But one of the very best classes I took was an interdisciplinary course taught by a chemistry professor and a religion professor working together. 

At the heart of human experience is both the rational, observable world in which we take measure in hours and grams and kilowatts and dollars and atomic numbers and genus and species as well as the ineffable, mysterious world around us that consists of that which cannot be easily measured: grace and peace and hope and love and and mercy and forgiveness and wholeness and salvation.  All of this is a part of our world, all of this is a part of God’s good creation, and all of this merits the concern of those who would follow Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Stuff We Really Don’t Have to Believe: "When it comes to religion, men are the leaders”

Texts: Joel 2:28-32a, Galatians 3:26-28

One of the assumptions that a lot of people make about church life is that the church is a place where men – men exclusively - are supposed to be in charge.  This is a common assumption, but in many religious communities it isn’t talked about a lot.  It is just understood.

In the church I grew up in, all of the deacons were men.  All of the ushers were men.  Members were sometimes asked on the spot to give a prayer, often the closing prayer, and it was almost always a man – although in the Sunday evening service it might very occasionally be a woman.

We had a song leader, and it was always a man.  We once had a woman as choir director, and everybody liked her, but once the church started having a paid Minister of Music, it was always a man.

And the pastor, of course, was always a man.  We never had a woman as a guest preacher, either, although we did have a woman missionary speak on occasion.  (And it would have been called speaking, not preaching.)  If a woman wanted to go into ministry, it seemed like becoming a missionary was the only option.

We did not take this as far as some churches.  We at times had a woman as a paid youth director.  Women could give announcements and otherwise speak in worship, they could give testimonies and lead mission studies at church.  And surprisingly, my mother was once made the chair of the pulpit committee.  This didn’t seem like the kind of thing our church would do, but they did it and I don’t remember any flak about it.

None of these gender roles were ever talked about, as far as I can remember.  You just kind of observed this and took it in, maybe even subconsciously.

The role of women in the church may not seem like much of an issue to you.  It may feel like it is something that was settled, in this church anyway, a long time ago.  This church has had and does have an ordained woman on the pastoral staff.  We have female clergy on our regional and national staffs.  While there are plenty of ABC churches out there that are unlikely to call a women pastor, it is a settled issue in our denomination.  At both the regional level and national level we rotate the office of president between a clergy man, a clergy woman, a lay man, and a lay woman.  Helen Barrett Montgomery was elected president of what was then the Northern Baptist Convention in 1921 – the first woman to head a major U.S. denomination.  And a New York Times article stated that 51% of seminary students are now women.

In our church, women serve equally as leaders.  We may take all of this for granted, but it is not this way everywhere.  I did not grow up with this inclusive model of leadership, and I know that many of you did not either.  There are folks out there who have no idea that there is such a thing as a female pastor.

My favorite story in this regard is that one of Zoe’s classmates learned that both of her parents were pastors.  After hearing this news, this young woman had a confused look on her face and then asked, “Do you have two dads?”  This really happened.

Susan and I attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, which was a relatively progressive place in the mid 1980’s.  There were some women on the faculty, and I heard some excellent women preachers in chapel.  The seminary was generally supportive of women in ministry.

Molly Marshall was on the theology faculty.  (She is now the president of Central Seminary in Kansas City, and you may remember that she has preached here in our church.)  Molly used to tell the story of the time when she was a Ph.D. student serving as pastor at a little country church in Kentucky.  One day the kids in the nursery were playing church.  One of the boys wanted to be the preacher.  But the girls told him, “You can’t be the preacher!  Only girls can be preachers!”  Girl preachers were all that they knew.

The issue of the role of women in the church cannot be completely separated from the role of women in the larger culture.  Dan Kimball wrote about his initial observation about women in the church.  He did not grow up in the church and it never occurred to him to think about the roles of men and women in the church.  But when started looking for a church to attend, he noticed, from an outsider perspective, that most churches were very male dominated.  He remembered the odd feeling when he realized there were no female ushers.  He had been to plays and movie theaters where there were both male and female ushers, and he found this puzzling.  He wrote,
Quite honestly, the all-male ushers in this one church looked and acted like intense Secret Service agents.  They wore dark ties and suits and were even signaling each other across the room with hand signals.  Then I noticed that the bulletin listed only men as the pastors and elders.  I didn’t even know what an elder was, but I couldn’t help noticing that no women were listed… 

During worship, most everything was handled by men.  A man gave the announcements.  A man led the singing.  There were women in the choir, and there was a female backup singer, but they played supporting roles to the male leader.  A man preached.  Men took the offering and served communion…

I sat there reflecting on how I had just come back from living in England, where Margaret Thatcher was prime minister…  I had a female doctor.  I had several professors at Colorado State University who were females and great teachers… But I didn’t see any female names in that church bulletin.  I remember thinking it odd.  Women could be recognized as wonderful leaders and teachers outside the church, but I didn’t see them recognized that way in the church…
With women serving in so many ways in society, as professionals and business owners and leaders in their fields and elected officials, how does it come across when women are not allowed to serve in the church?

Here, we have both men and women involved in leading each service.  Both men and women serve as worship leaders.  Both men and women can serve on all the various boards and committees.  And when it comes to taking the offering or serving communion on a given Sunday, we try to have some kind of gender balance.

You might think that this is no big deal if on a given Sunday all of the ushers happen to be men.  And in the big picture of things this may not matter so much, but the message we send - to visitors especially - does make a difference.  I’ve been to too many churches where such responsibility is an exclusively male domain, and we don’t want to give that message about our church – especially when so many of the churches of that ilk are Baptist.

Well, you might be thinking, this is all well and good, but shouldn’t we look to see what the Bible says about all of this?  Good question!  I thought you’d never ask.

Those who would hold to an exclusively male clergy and the ideal of male leadership can certainly find support in the scriptures.  The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution several years ago saying that men and women are equal before God but have different roles, and that women are barred from ordained ministry because Eve was first in the Edenic fall.  Seriously.  Because Eve sinned before Adam in Genesis chapter 3, women today cannot serve as pastors. 

This was the argument, although it seems to me you could make a lot stronger case from other places in scripture. 

Some will argue that because Jesus had 12 male disciples, leaders in churches today must be male.  You have probably heard that.  But this kind of logical argument does not stand up.  One could just as easily argue that all of the disciples were Jews, and so leaders in churches today must be Jews.

We don’t know why all of the 12 were men, but Jesus was surely influenced by the culture of his day and by what was possible given the culture.  But even then, we read in the gospels that there were many women among his followers and among his traveling company, and that there were women of means who helped to finance the whole enterprise.

A typical scripture used to argue against women in church leadership is 1Timothy 2:12, which reads, “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  It sounds pretty harsh.  And it doesn’t at all sound like the scripture we read this morning from Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The passage in 1 Timothy reflects what is called a Domestic Code.  You can also find this in places like Ephesians chapter 5.  Such codes were very common in that day, and there are places in the New Testament where such accommodation to the culture is apparent.  The church might challenge the culture, but in order to survive, the church could only challenge the culture so much.

And so 1 Timothy and other books give rules for the home.  The husband is in charge, the kids are to keep in line, and so forth.  To be fair, this is often presented with a lot more love and reciprocity than you can find in similar non-Christian codes, especially in Ephesians.  In 1 Timothy, you will also find rules about who counts as a “valid” widow, which was a kind of official category.  It tells you at what age widows should go ahead and remarry and at what age they stay widows and receive church support.  It also says that slaves should honor their masters and be especially respectful to masters who are Christians.

Now, if a person wants to say that the “women be silent” part is binding today, it seems that they have to take it all as being for today.  And if you really believe it, then it means women really have to be silent – no singing, no reading, no playing the piano.  And they need to remember their head coverings.

Well, that’s one side of scripture.  But there is another side.  There is Phoebe, listed as a deacon in Romans 16.  There are female leaders mentioned including Junias, Euodia, and Syntyche.  There are Philip’s four daughters, who prophesied – or preached.  They were not silent.  Women such as Mary Magdalene and the sisters Mary and Martha play prominent roles in Jesus’ ministry.  There is the Samaritan woman at the well, who goes as an evangelist to her village.  And we have the women who were witnesses to resurrection and the first to share the Good News that Jesus was risen from the dead.  If not for women sharing the Good News, there would be no Christian faith.

Reading through the Book of Acts, it is clear that women played a prominent role in the early church, with women like Lydia leading house churches.  And teh Day of Pentecost is seen as a fulfillment of the prophet Joel's vision: "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy..." 

Galatians was among the first New Testament books written.  It is a circular letter to various churches in Galatia, today a part of Turkey.  And the Apostle Paul, thought by some to be anti-women, wrote these words: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  This is an amazing statement, and in that culture a radical, stunning statement.  Women held leadership positions in the early church, far beyond what was the norm in that society.  It was almost scandalous.  For some, apparently, it was scandalous.

There is always a balance between freedom and order, and while in Galatians the focus is on God’s intention in creation and on our oneness in Christ – on freedom - more practical considerations dominate in some of the later writings, and because it was causing disorder and controversy, in places like 1 Timothy Paul asks the women to dial it back, as it were.  We need to keep in mind what the culture was like.  Just 100 years ago, women could not vote in this country.  This was 2000 years ago.

If we are going to focus on scripture, though, maybe it is best to look at Jesus.  The British writer Dorothy Sayers, writing in the middle of the 20th century, reflects on Jesus’ relationship to women:
Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man… A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God help us!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature.
You may hear talk about men’s and women’s roles and responsibilities.  I think it would be better to talk about the roles and responsibilities of Christians.  We are all one in Christ Jesus.  God gives all of us gifts for ministry of various sorts, and let’s face it: we need all of the gifts of all God’s children. 

Back at Southern Seminary, after Susan and I had graduated, a new board hired a new president and instituted new policies.  The new administration sought to put a stop to this growing trend of women going into ministry.  Around that time, the seminary had its annual sermon contest.  Students submitted a sermon, without putting their names on the sermon.  Each sermon was identified only by a number, so the judges did not know who had submitted each entry.  The top three winning students would preach their sermons in chapel services.

When the judges made their selections, imagine the surprise when it was discovered that the three winning preachers were all women.

We can’t afford to turn away the gifts that God has given us.  In the Church, the differences that may separate us do not matter.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Amen.