Series: Can I Be A Christian If...
Jun 10th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Genesis 1:1-2:4
It was on November 24, 1859 that a little book was published that would change the world. Bearing the impressive title, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, its author, an English naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin was soon to become one of the most well-known scientists of his day. By the time of its seventh printing, in 1872, the title was abbreviated to The Origin of Species.
And since the publication of that little book, which took place before this building was erected, the world has wrestled with the ideas presented by Darwin. The book is often seen as the first book that dealt with the ideas that would come to be known as evolution. The basic thesis was that every species is fertile and able to reproduce and if that went on unabated, every specie’s population would grow. Resources, such as food and water, are rather stable over time. Therefore, a struggle for survival takes place and the strongest of each species survives, while weaker examples of the species disappear. That’s the idea of “natural selection.”
Darwin went on to suggest that the characteristics and genetics of the stronger examples of a species are passed on to their offspring, thereby producing a stronger and more durable species, even significantly and substantially changing the species over time to create new species. That process, dubbed “evolution,” was a new idea back then and within a very few years was being embraced by scientists, scholars, and the general public.
With the rise of Christian fundamentalism and its literalistic approach to the Scriptures, the conflict between Darwin’s ideas and the stories of creation – yes, there are two in Genesis – was inevitable. Literalism demands that the Bible be taken verbatim, with six, 24-hour days of creation. Even those who hedge their literalism a bit, still insist that the process described in Genesis is essentially accurate, even if a day may be more than 24 hours.
So it is that for over 150 years, some Christians have been asking the question, “Can I Be A Christian and Believe in Evolution?” Some who have entertained the question have been rejected by their church, their friends, and even their families. Others have walked away from the church that seems to be incapable of finding a harmony – or at least a balance – between faith and science.
Our time together this morning will be spent taking another look at what the scriptures do and don’t say on the subject of the Creation. We’ll think about what it means to say, “I believe in God,…the Creator of heaven and earth.” Can scientifically informed Christians still confess their faith with those words of the Creed? And what can we say to our friends who may insist that a belief in creationism is required to be a faithful Christian?
That’s a pretty big order for one sermon, so let’s get to it.
We begin with the Scriptures. And let’s begin with this reminder: no one was there in the beginning except God. There were no “eyewitness news” reporters, no first-hand observers. The creation was not observed by anyone. The stories of creation are faith stories.
The story of creation that we all know and heard again this morning is the first of two creation stories that begin the book of Genesis. The seven-day account of creation is a rather “late” story – meaning that it was most likely written around the 5th century B.C., during the time when Israel was in exile in Babylon. And, though we don’t see it at first glance, the story has some very intentional purposes.
First, the story is written in a very careful way. Each day of creation has a literary structure, complete with refrains. “And there was evening, and there was morning, the first day, the second day, the third day…” It may have been that this was something of an early “responsive reading,” with the congregation responding appropriately.
It could also be that the literary structure of the story made it possible for children to remember it. We forget that the people were in exile, strangers in a strange land, and their children were being exposed to other creation stories, involving other gods. The Genesis story of creation may have been written in the way we have it so that children could be taught the story of Israel’s God. That’s second.
Third, the story is written to teach the lesson of Sabbath-keeping. The story culminates, not in the creation of humankind, but in the creation of the Sabbath – the day of rest that is dedicated to the Lord God. Even God, who would be later described as One who “neither slumbers nor sleeps,” needs a day to rest from the divine labors. The story is more greatly concerned with teaching the history and practice of Sabbath-keeping, perhaps even more than a detailed account of the creation.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the Genesis stories of creation are written to bear witness to the reality that God is – that God is the ultimate source of all that is. The creation stories speak of God who is the source and beginning of all things seen and unseen. The stories proclaim that all that is exists in God. The stories proclaim that God sustains the life of every living thing. The stories speak about the meaning and purpose of life. They are not as concerned with the how of creation as they are about the why of creation – why we are here and how we can realize the fullness of the life with which we are gifted.
What the creation stories are not even attempting to provide is anything resembling a scientific understanding of creation. The Bible is not a science textbook. Anything coming close to science in the pages of Scripture usually falls far short of the scientific understandings available to today’s grade school children. So, let’s disavow ourselves of the idea that the Bible teaches a scientific understanding of creation and leave that work to the fields of biology, geology, astronomy, paleontology, and anthropology, among others. We are interested in the theology – the God portion – of the story.
So, our next question is, can scientifically informed Christians still confess their faith with those words of the Creed? Can we still say, “I believe in God…the Creator of heaven and earth?” Can we say those words as a full-throated confession of faith, or are we saying them with a wink and a nod and with fingers crossed?
Once again, remember, please, that we are talking about two dramatically different understandings and viewpoints. When we use the words of the creeds and confessions to affirm our faith, we are not speaking scientifically. We are not using scientific words and pursuing scientific discovery. We are speaking of matters of faith. We are making assertions that are based on the self-revelation of God and not on scientific discovery.
Take it a step further. When we speak of God as the “Creator,” we are not talking so much about science as we are talking about a relationship. When we say that God is the Creator, we are also saying that we are not. To proclaim God as the Creator, is to recognize that we are created – creatures – less than God. We did not get here by ourselves and we are not self-sustaining. God is central to our existence – our life-breath, our food, our shelter, our strength, our companion, our comfort, our hope. To proclaim God as the Creator, is not a statement about our scientific understanding. It is a statement of faith – a proclamation of what we hold to be true – come what may. To proclaim God as the Creator is to proclaim that no matter what miracles and mysteries science may unveil, we and all things, exist in God and find our lives in God.
And frankly, when we make this affirmation and live our lives in its light, it doesn’t matter what scientists come up with when it comes to creation. Was the creation started with a “big bang?” Did we evolve from lower species? Did it all happen by a yet to be discovered methodology? It doesn’t matter. “I believe in God…the Creator of heaven and earth.” It’s not about how. It’s all about who and why.
Christians can affirm their faith in God the Creator without fear of conflict. There is no conflict between science and faith. Honestly, every time science reveals some previously unknown wonder, it only makes God seem far more amazing and far more real to me. I hope it is that way for you as well.
Now, to our last stopping point for the morning. What do we say to our friends who insist that in order to be a “real” Christian, you have to believe in Biblical creationism. What do we say to our friends who are worried that we are sliding down the path to perdition if we don’t believe in 7, 24-hour days of creation?
First, be gentle and loving. Some of our sisters and brothers in the faith are well-intentioned, even if they don’t behave that way. Don’t return harshness with harshness. It’s not Christian. Understand that they are genuinely concerned about you.
Second, gently remind them that being a Christian is about following Jesus, and not subscribing to a particular interpretation of the story of creation. Assure them that you are doing your best to live the life Jesus calls all people to live.
And then, change the subject. Go on to another area of conversation that is less likely to stir up controversy. Try politics.
Seriously, Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ. Belief in Jesus as God’s chosen One is what makes a Christian a Christian. Nothing else. Nothing can be added to it. Nothing can be taken away from it.
It was in 1925 that a Tennessee courtroom occupied the attention of the nation as a trial took place. John Scopes was put on trial for violating the state’s law against teaching evolution. It became known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” and pitted William Jennings Bryan against Clarence Darrow. In 1955, the story was turned into a play, and then into a movie, entitled, “Inherit the Wind.”
In the closing scene of the movie, as the lawyer based on Clarence Darrow, who defended John Scopes, is packing up his books and papers. He picks up a copy of Origin of Species and then puts it down. He then picks up a copy of The Bible and puts it down. He goes back and forth, finally holding a book in each hand and seems to stand as a scale, attempting to judge one or the other right or wrong.
Which to choose? Which do we choose? Biology or Genesis? Science or spirit?
Finally, the lawyer picks up both books, tucks them under his arm, and leaves the courtroom.
Science and faith are not opponents. They are not in conflict. They are pursuing different investigations of different questions.
Can you be a Christian and believe in evolution? The answer is “yes.” Because the answer is not about how but who and why. The “who” is God the Creator and the “why” is to offer us true and authentic life. Life that is for now and evermore. Amen.