The Natural Selection of God
A sermon based on 2 Peter 1:16-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 26, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
One day a group of cocky scientists got together and decided that humans had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they appointed the leader to let God know. And sure enough he told God “We’ve decided that we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so you can just go away God.” God listened patiently and kindly to the man and after he was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this? Let’s say we have a man-making contest.” The leader of the cocky scientists agreed. God added, “But we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.” The scientist smugly shot back “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed a handful of dirt. God shook her head and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”
For the record, this is not an anti-science sermon. I have long loved science. In fact, I consider myself a Darwinian Theist. I am quite comfortable with the notion of evolution and natural selection. I personally see no reason Christians and Christian pastors cannot believe in science and God at the same time. I certainly believe in both.
With respect to the battle we see in the media over sciences and religion I side with the logic of the scientific ideas reason and empirical evidence and evolution and natural selection over the logic of the non-scientific ideas of literal and inerrant Bible stories, notions not even in the Bible! And that is true whether it is religious or science fanatics who tell us we have to interpret the Bible literally.
With that said about the limits of literalist Biblical interpretations, I am also quite certain that science has its limits– the joke I started with suggests how simply true that is by pointing to dirt and saying we cannot concoct it. We do not understand the ultimate origins of it, not to mention the more complex existence of life and consciousness – or more simply, how any of it began. Sure, we know there are building-blocks of atomic and subatomic substances, but no matter how big or small our studies go, the literal how and why of the beginning of creation and life eludes the study of science and so it pretty much remains the province of poets and theologians. But even still, God remains bigger than anything they or the rest of humankind can explain or imagine.
While we cannot take in the big picture of God, that does not mean we cannot comprehend portions of the experiences and influences of God in creation. And it has long been the purview of poets and theologians to focus on and explain this mostly “mysterious being” we tend to call God. But scientists sometimes wander down that path too. In a remarkable and very short writing called “My Credo” Albert Eienstein, one of the greatest scientists ever, wrote this:
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavor in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is. 1
To borrow from Dr. Eienstein’s wonderful phrasing, what poets and theologians – at their best– try to accomplish is to aid humans in indirectly experiencing the “beauty and sublimity” of the sense of mystery, to “grasp with [our] mind[s ] mere image[s] of the lofty structure of it all.”
And of course a lot of poets and theologians fail at it miserably. A common failing is they mistake their own desires for that of the Sacred. This problem goes way back of course. We know Jesus criticized theologians in his day. And decades later the author of our lesson from 2 Peter was also combating what he perceived as mistaken theologies when he admonishes at the end of the reading that we
must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
There have long been false prophets and false interpretations of the prophets, so we do need to question those who claim to be speaking for God, whether through writing or preaching or bullhorns on the town square. The Lectionary lesson on this point is perplexing because every prophecy in scripture was literally written down by a person, and every interpretation of such prophesies come from men and women. Moreover, they almost always claim to be moved by the Holy Spirit. So how do we know what’s from God? That’s got to bug everyone who takes theology seriously. How do we know?
There are all kinds of fancy approaches to an answer, but taking a cue from Dr. Einstein’s credo. I decided to do something a bit different. When I step back from the many layers of formal theological training and Christianity and take away all other names and notions of God, sort of like I imagine Eienstein stood back a bit from his scientific knowledge, I search my soul and I too “sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly . . . and [I] attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.”
And when I mediate on it an undeniable part of the structure I grasp is also that most of humankind seems to sense a deep and innate pull – a desire– toward betterment for self, for others, even for creation. I know no one who does not want themself, others and things better. But in addition to a pull toward betterment, I have noticed that there is an innate awe at what is already done so well– the wonder Einstein notes. Creation is wonder-full! We may be driven to betterment, but as a whole creation is already amazing and awesome!
If we stop and focus on the desire to be better– or stop and see what is already so well done– we find a window to something. That something is bigger than us, and it also promises better than what is. That desire, that awe, that something, that promise of betterment is God, or all a part of what we call God.
I am going to risk further noting that when I do this exercise as I consider creation– stop and notice it– I am in awe and wonder of beauty and mystery for sure, but I have to be honest and admit that I am also in awe at the raw fierceness of existence. Earthquakes and hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis, lightening and runaway fires and other catastrophic happening in nature are fierce for sure, but I also mean the everyday struggles for survival that living things experience. From protective “fight and flight” responses; to live another day; to the need to kill to eat; and even to playful pouncing of cats on mice, nature has layers and layers of ferocity and violence.
Of course humanity has a long, long legacy of being fierce and ferocious and violent. We tend not to want to think about it, but, arguably that part of our make-up seems to gibe with the fiercer, baser side of nature in other species. There seems to be a vein of violent reflex and response and even sport to humanity. These have had survival purposes in all of nature, which brings me to the Darwinian notion of natural selection. Violence is a part of nature. But humankind’s survival has long depended on our relationships with other humans taking precedence over ferocious tendencies. Our survival in our environment has also required us to be kinder to creation or lose sustainability in our ecosystems.
Religions all around the world, as Eienstein notes are about the sense of the mysterious, and indirectly experiencing the “beauty and sublimity” of the sense of mystery, to “grasp with [our] mind[s ] mere image[s] of the lofty structure of it all,” but they are also about experiencing it through relation to IT – what religions tend to call God– the Sacred in things and others. Remarkably humans seem to be a species that has a significant number of its members try to order its colonies and even discipline themselves to overcome the baser fierce and violent parts of existence. Simply put we have codes– religions– that aim toward the peace that is beckoned by the Mystery with a capital “M,” God.
There are apparently even studies that suggest there are religious and spiritual codes that are not just cultural and environmentally influenced, but genetic. A 2013 report in Popular Science notes that
science has shown us clearly that one level of belief in God and overall spirituality is shaped not only by a mix of family environment and upbringing– which is not surprising– but also by our genes. 2
I am not an expert on science by any stretch of the imagination, and this may be a bit simplistic but, it seems to make sense that an advantageous trait that promotes a species to get along better in order to survive, could very well be a part of natural selection, evolution, and so it would – at least to me– not be surprising that it might show up in our genetic make-up. In other words, understanding that we are not the be-all-end-all to humanity or creation and that we need to strive toward betterment of self and community and our environment helps us better survive as a species. We need to appreciate creation and relate well to it to survive. That suggests awareness of God could be something of an evolutionary stepping stone out of the primitive baseness of fierce, ferocious and violent responses that we see in other parts of nature as well as in our species.
To tie it to the Bible, when humans ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they became unlike other species, able to hear what is good– an endless call toward betterment, to relational conduct that is mutually advantageous to self and others and God. And an intentional answer to that call by moving toward nonviolent and non-fierce peace. And to also hear what is evil, intentional fierceness and violence away from peace.
In the Gospels this is the prototypical pitting of the reign of God and its non-violent peace, called shlom, against the reign of Rome’s violent “peace,” called pax Roma. We can overlay all this on the part of the reading today that says
understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
We can understand knowledge of good and evil as the author’s reference to the Holy Spirit, as God speaking to us and through us. The Holy Spirit is God flowing through creation and influencing us toward good and away from evil; toward relationship that is non-fierce and non violent.
Like the Gospel story of the Transfiguration the Holy Spirit seeks to transfigure us to a peaceful way of being. We are called out of that part of the primordial existence that lends itself to fierceness and violence to survive. We are called into the newer way of existence, of non-fierceness, non-violence to survive. We know a prophecy is truly from God when it moves us toward non-violent, non-fierce relational responses to God, creation, others and self. Indeed we can look at the issues of our day and know the prophetic way to go with respect to racism, LGBTQ rights, Women’s issues, immigration, environment and poverty by following the path of non-fierce and non-violent responses to those and other issues.
We can disagree about how to do that, but we are called to do it in goodly, Godly ways. One of the great wonders of the Mystery that is God is that humankind was allowed to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We still get to choose to follow good or follow evil. And while natural selection seems to be leaning toward those that choose good, the species could dead end if the fierce and violent baseness of our nature wins out. That’s not news. But it is the point of all God-centered prophecy and following the Holy Spirit to the end God wants, peace and shalom on earth for all of creation.
If someone claims to be a prophet or to point to prophecy we will know if it is from the Holy Spirit if it leads to that end, as the Bible puts it, to “peace on earth good will to all” . . . to shalom.
1. Einstein, Albert, My Credo (1932) you can find this remarkable and short work at
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