The Cosmic Evolutionary Journey
By Reverend Tom Capo
Preached on 3/8/2015
We have seen many images today-- the Big Bang, the evolution of our cosmos, and the evolution of life on this planet. When I think about the universe and evolution, I am in awe of its ongoing process. How could you not be? It is amazing.
The earliest humans climbed down from the trees to walk upright on the ground. Some theories about human’s ability to walk upright suggest that this change happened to free the hands for tool use and carrying, while others suggest that early humans walked upright to cope with changes in climate and habitat that favored a more elevated eye-position. And some theories suggest that walking upright resulted in human developing a larger brain. How many things had to align, had to work out, for us human’s to come into being, to have consciousness, and to be able to reflect on our own existence?
When I attended General Assembly, maybe 10 years ago, I walked into a workshop sort of by accident. I had planned to attend a workshop on preaching, but didn’t really engage with the speaker. So I wandered out, and passed an open door of another workshop. An image of stars and clouds in space was projected on the screen. This piqued my curiosity. So I went in. The workshop was sponsored by the World Pantheism group. Let me share with you some information from their website to give you a sense of the message that I heard as I walked in to this workshop: “Many World Pantheist Movement members belong to Unitarian Universalist congregations and some are UU ministers … The essence of Pantheism is a profound reverence for Nature and the wider Universe and an awed recognition of their power, beauty and mystery. We tend to believe that Nature and the wider Universe should be the focus of our deepest reverence ... From this feeling flows the desire to make the most of our present life in our bodies on this earth, to care for Nature, and to respect the rights of humans and animals in general. We believe that everything that exists is a part of Nature … We believe that mind and body are an inseparable unity, and so we do not expect personal survival after death. Instead we look forward to a natural persistence of our time on earth, in the actions and creations we leave behind, memories people hold of us, and recycling of our elements in Nature.”
The presenters also said that this movement within Unitarian Universalism is not about a divine being or a god, though some Pantheists do use the word god to mean the ever-evolving universe, not a separate being. The World Pantheists also said that they are skeptical of supernatural phenomena.
I have to say that while I found the images of space profoundly moving and much of what they said compelling, I was not willing to let go of mystery and the possibility of some sort of divinity in all things. This is a conundrum that I face—why does acceptance of science, evolution, the universe, even rational thought have to be disassociated from religion, spirituality, or impassioned thought? Why can’t both exist within each of us, in some sort of harmony, or if not harmony, at least in good will? I had hoped when I walked into the workshop that I had found a group of Unitarian Universalists who were embracing awe and wonder, emotional and spiritual experiences, in addition to rational explanations of our universe. But they were insistent that any concept of supernaturalism or divinity was unacceptable to a true pantheist.
Perhaps these Pantheist Unitarian Universalists were trying to bridge the assumed gap between rationalism and the emotional/spiritual. Perhaps they felt that scientific explanations and theories might benefit from poetic imagery, from a lyricism of language. And in this I agree with them. I commend them for threading their philosophy with awe and wonder and mystery. How could you not when you look up at night and see the stars and planets? However their mystery is limited, controlled. It seems to me that a mystery is not a true mystery unless it is limitless, open to any possibility.
In our story today, Anansi the spider is caught in her own conundrum. Does she help the snake by removing the stone on his back and risk being bitten, or does she leave the snake, perhaps to die, under the stone? Now I read this story a number of times and wondered what it meant. Does it mean don’t risk helping someone who might hurt you? Does it mean there is evil in the world that even a compassionate act can’t change? Does it mean let evil or destructive people die? Does it mean an animal, or person, is unlikely to act against its true nature? Or perhaps be clever in how you deal with things that might hurt you? In pondering the story, I wondered if there is another lesson that we might bring to bear. Are we willing to risk reaching out to those who are different from us, even if we might get hurt, for a greater good? Anansi helped the snake and got bitten. What if the story focused on Anansi reaching across natural lines and her own fear? What if the point of the story was that she had decided to do something beneficial even at the risk of being bitten? That perhaps she had planted a seed in the snake that might sometime in the future lead to great spider-snake relations?
This leads to another conundrum that I face, how can we write a compelling story of the ever-evolving universe for all people—people of all beliefs, all cultures? How can we reach across what we assume to be naturally existing lines in the sand between certain Theists and certain secularists, when both sides have been hurt by the other and probably will be hurt again? How can all humanity, all the spiders and snakes, embrace the great story of the cosmos; a story that is based on the scientific discoveries of the universe, while not discounting the possibility of mystery and include metaphor and belief?
Two people who are exploring this cosmic evolutionary story with mystery and metaphor, as well as scientific facts and theories, are Progressive Christian minister, Reverend Michael Dowd, and his wife, Unitarian Universalist, evolutionary humanist, and botanist, Connie Barlow. Dowd and Barlow consider it their mission to travel around the world in their van, teaching and preaching evolution to Christians as well as anyone else who will listen, including Unitarian Universalists. One of Dowd’s bestselling books is “Thank God for Evolution!” In the first few pages, he quotes various scientists, such as Craig Mello, 2006 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine and John Mather, a NASA chief scientist, and 2006 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, as well as Theologian Matthew Fox and Unitarian Universalist and senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church Tulsa in Oklahoma (one of our largest congregations), Reverend Marlin Lavanhar. All praise this book, which gives a clear scientific explanation of the universe and evolution, while also explaining how religion and spirituality need to embrace the cosmic evolutionary understanding of the universe. Dowd also includes a letter from Richard Dawkins to his daughter Joliet about the difference between good reasons and bad reasons for believing in something. Some of you may have read this letter. Dowd wants us to engage in the difficult discussions of science and religion across assumed natural lines, risking getting hurt, to change the world. He feels it is necessary to bring science and religion together for the future of our planet and our species. He writes: [We are] a force that is polluting the planet and causing mass extinction, but at the same time [we are] a unique and precious expression of Earth. We are Earth’s meaning makers, painters, self-discoverers, storytellers, and bards. We are Earth’s deep memory. If we can embrace that as our unique ecological role, if we can learn and celebrate our Great Story [the story of the Big Bang and evolution], if we truly can see ourselves as actual cells of our larger body, Earth, then caring for the environment will feel as urgent and as natural as caring for ourselves.”
What draws you in, emotionally, to commit yourself to a cause? How do people change their behavior, change their way of understanding the world? From what I have seen, the answers to these two questions are: you either have a profound experience or you hear a story that is engaging, moving. People are rarely changed or even motivated by facts alone; I know it is sad to say, but that is the truth. A rational argument is generally accepted by someone who is already emotionally ready to receive it.
Like Dowd and Barlow, I believe we need to tell the great story of our ever-evolving universe in a way that all people can hear it. We need to find a way to tell it with passion and awe and mystery. We can use old and new stories and metaphors to bring this story to life. We need to be compelling storytellers without losing our facts, figures, and theories. And no matter how compelling our story may be, if we tell our listener that they are wrong or stupid or irrational for having their creation stories, then we will enlighten no-one. Each of the following three statements is like a facet of the same prism:
“In the Beginning was the Big Bang”
“In the Beginning was the Great Radiance.”
“In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Wouldn’t it be great if someday, theists, deists, atheists, and agnostics could hear each of these phrases as essentially equal interpretations, only differing in the hue as the light travels through the prism?
Dowd writes: “So far as can be known, we are the only animals blessed and burdened with a mythopoetic drive. We simply cannot not make events mean something. [And we cannot not stop ourselves from telling stories that share this meaning]. For example, each of us tends to recall the events of our life in ways that render the whole into something meaningful, a coherent pattern that explains how we became who we are today and how we got to where we are…we yearn for a story that can make sense of our birth… the story of our parents, [and] the story of how everything came to be.” Dowd goes on to say that stories are the vehicle of this mythopoetic, or religious, urge in each of us; the urge that calls from within to seek and find answers to the Big Questions of existence. He suggests that we need the old stories to help interpret the present, to help us make meaning of the scientific discoveries and the ever evolving universe, and to help us secure a future for those who will come after us.
Could you imagine yourself telling this story:
“In the beginning, all the universe was compacted into a very tiny space. Was this the beginning of time or perhaps just a beginning? We do not know for sure. Then something caused an explosion—an explosion so big that all the pieces of the universe were sent speeding away from each other in all directions. We call this explosion by many names: the Big Bang, the Great Radiance, the Hand of God. From this explosion, light, energy, matter began to find shape, to exist in different ways—some formed stars, others, planets, others, remained as dust and clouds.
In time, this star dust, either through nature, chance, divine assistance, or by properties that we don’t fully understand, became elements like gold, lead, oxygen; and later this star dust became oceans and land; and later this star dust became living things—animals and plants. And even later, this star dust became us. And now we study the star dust.”
How would a humanist hear this story? How would a Christian or Hindu hear this story? Could this kind of story create a bridge where we, people of all faiths, could stand together and engage in meaningful dialogue about our ever evolving universe and our connection to it?
I invite you to listen with heart and mind to these words by Unitarian Universalist humanist, Reverend Robert T. Weston; notice how he weaves science and spirituality:
“Out of the stars in their flight, out of the dust of eternity, here have we come, Stardust and sunlight, mingling through time and through space. Out of the stars have we come, up from time; Out of the stars have we come.
Time out of time before time in the vastness of space, earth spun to orbit the sun,
Earth with the thunder of mountains newborn, the boiling of seas. Earth warmed by sun, lit by sunlight: This is our home; Out of the stars have we come. Mystery hidden in mystery, back through all time; Mystery rising from rocks in the storm and the sea. Out of the stars, rising from rocks and the sea, kindled by sunlight on earth, arose life.
Ponder this thing in your heart; ponder with awe:
Out of the sea to the land, out of the shallows came ferns. Out of the sea to the land, up from darkness to light, Rising to walk and to fly, out of the sea trembled life. Ponder this thing in your heart, life up from sea: Eyes to behold, throats to sing, mates to love. Life from the sea, warmed by sun, washed by rain, life from within, giving birth, rose to love. This is the wonder of time; this is the marvel of space; out of the stars swung the earth; life upon earth rose to love. This is the marvel of life, rising to see and to know; Out of your heart, cry wonder: sing that we live.”
Perhaps in these words there is a beginning; a place where people of all beliefs can create a great story; a place where humanity can, out of their hearts, cry wonder about this universe we live in and sing together as we live.