Evolutionary Thoughts: Kingdom Come

God’s presence in our history and in the evolution of creation at large is that of a Spirit-power, wisely shaping and forming the inter-connected web of relationships that holds everything in being.  The divine is first and foremost a wisdom-force, forging unceasingly the relationships that sustain and enhance life.  In our Christian story, that relational process is encapsulated in the concept of the new reign of God, traditionally described as the “kingdom of God.”

The wisdom that imbues the sacred writings of many great religions, the wisdom that Christians perceive to be embodied uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth, is that same wisdom that gave birth to stars, pulsars, planets, and people.  Although I have drawn mainly on the Christian story, I want to acknowledge that the wisdom story is bigger than Christianity and indeed exceeds in grandeur and elegance all the insights of the great religions.  It is the prodigiously creative energy of being and becoming.  It is the heartbeat of the evolutionary story in its elegant, timeless, and eternal unfolding.

Evolutionary theology requires us to honor the big picture where God in time begins prior to the evolution of the major religions as we know them today.  The wise and holy God was at work for billions of years before religious consciousness began to develop.  And that same creative wisdom will continue to beget radically new possibilities, forever defying and challenging the outstanding theories and inventions of the human mind.

Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p.72

The Hour Has Come

Today’s sermon from Boonville Pres.

The texts are John 12:20-33, Jeremiah 31:31-34, and Psalm 87.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Whenever my friends and acquaintances find out that I’m a minister, it usually opens up some very interesting avenues of conversation.  This will sound weird, but the very first thing that most people do is apologize.  I haven’t quite figured out why they do that, but it happens about seven times out of ten.

Once that’s out of the way, the conversation usually gets interesting.  I don’t know of any other job that generates the kind of small talk that this one does.  When accountants meet people at parties, I doubt that folks immediately start talking about their bank account balance.  When teachers meet people in public, I doubt that folks immediate start talking about their high school GPA.  However, when I meet people out in the world, I find that many folks almost immediately want to talk about their personal beliefs and practices.

I get to learn a lot that way.  I learn about peoples’ individual life stories.  I learn about the way they see the world.  I learn about the importance that spirituality holds for most people, even those who don’t go to church.  Most of all, I learn about the way we Christians are perceived by the rest of the world.  I find that a lot of people admire us for our commitment to a particular way of faith but don’t want to limit their own spiritual journey to such a small circle of beliefs and morals.

We Christians have done plenty of things throughout our two-thousand-year history to establish the idea that ours is a small-minded and judgmental faith.  Even today, in the twenty-first century, those who most loudly and proudly broadcast their Christianity to a national audience tend to be rather one-sided in their view of the world.  It makes me sad sometimes that the incredible depth and diversity of our tradition seems to have become lost in all the hubbub.  I really can’t blame people who reject Christianity on the grounds that being Christian (from their point of view) means being like these big-time televangelists or members of the Religious Right.  I don’t blame them.  If I hadn’t met certain people or read certain books at just the right moment in my life, I would probably think as they do.

More and more, I’m also finding Christians within the church who operate with a similar mentality.  They value their Christian faith but wish there was some way they could practice it that is more thoughtful and less judgmental.  They hate feeling like they have to close their hearts and minds to the world in order to be faithful believers but don’t know of any other way to be truly Christian.  Some of these folks slog it out, longing for something better.  Others eventually give up and just leave altogether, thinking there’s no place for people like them in church.

I want to tell you today that I think there is another way.  Whether you’re sitting in church this morning, hanging on in quiet desperation, or listening to me on the radio at home, thinking the roof would cave in if you ever tried to walk through the door of a church building, I want you to know that, whoever you are, there is room for you to be you in Christ’s church.

If the church has failed to send that message clearly, it’s our own fault.  We need to learn how to be more like Jesus and do the kinds of things he did, like the one we heard about earlier in this service in our reading from the gospel according to John.

The story opens as Jesus is visiting Jerusalem with massive throngs of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Mixed in with this group are a number of Greek people.  They weren’t Jewish by blood, but they had come to believe in and respect the monotheistic faith of Judaism rather than the many gods worshiped by their own people.  These Greek folks wanted to take part in the Passover festivities as well, but they were only allowed to go so far.  Jewish law prevented them from entering the great Jerusalem temple because of their race.  There was one, single area set aside for them at the very farthest back end of the temple.  We would call the nosebleed section.  They called it the Court of the Gentiles.  Unfortunately, even this one distant space had been taken away from them and filled up with all kinds of vendors exchanging foreign currency and selling animals for the ritual sacrifices.  Feeling like the odd ones out, these Greek folks were definitely getting the message that there was no place for people like them in the “church” of their day.

In the midst of all this going on, these Greek people somehow managed to hear that there was this remarkable new rabbi named Jesus who happened to be in Jerusalem for the festival.  They were intrigued by what they heard and wanted to meet him, so they tracked down someone from Jesus’ entourage.  They found Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can’t imagine what the look on Philip’s face must have been in that moment.  Why would these foreigners want anything to do with Jesus, the Jewish Messiah?  Philip was confused enough that he thought he needed a second opinion, so he went and talked to Andrew, another one of Jesus’ disciples.  Even together, they still couldn’t figure out what was going on, so they decided to bring the issue to Jesus himself.  Jesus’ reaction to this news probably shocked them even more.  He said, “The hour has come.”

What does that mean?  Well, there’s a lot of talk about Jesus’ “hour” in John’s gospel.  Early on, when Mary asks Jesus to show his power by changing water into wine at a wedding, Jesus refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Later on, when people try to get Jesus to use another Jewish holiday as a publicity platform, Jesus again refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Finally, when he had enraged one crowd to the point where they tried to kill him, the text notes that they were unsuccessful because “his hour had not yet come.”  It was like the whole book had been building toward something big that was about to happen.  What would it be?  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would finally confront the corrupt religious and political leadership in Jerusalem.  Maybe when his hour came, he would go kick Pontius Pilate and his Roman thugs out of the holy city once and for all.  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would restore the nation of Israel to the glory of its golden age under King Solomon.

But no, it turns out that Jesus’ hour came when these no-account foreigners came looking for him.  Greek people.  What’s the matter with Jesus?  Didn’t he realize who he was?  Didn’t he remember where his loyalties lay?  He was Jewish.  He belonged to his own people.  His mission, as the Jewish Messiah, was to be with other Jews and help them, not these foreigners.  Yet, when these Greek people seek him out, Jesus says, “This is it.  The hour has come.  This is why I’m here.  This is what it’s all about.”

Huh?  Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus.  What about us?  What about our people?  Our security?  Our prosperity?  Our survival?  When times get tough, human beings tend to think like that.  We want to batten down the hatches and circle the wagons.  We instinctively want to protect what’s ours.  Look out for number one.  Be responsible.  This is how evolution has hard-wired us.  Truthfully, it has allowed to survive as long as have.  But, Jesus says, there comes a time, a moment, an hour, when all of that needs to be set aside.  There is an hour for opening up, reaching out, and taking risks.  These are the moments when evolution actually happens and we take small steps or giant leaps toward our destiny.  In such moments, ironically, it is our evolutionary instinct for survival that may actually be killing us.  Jesus said it like this, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

We, as individuals, churches, institutions, communities, countries, a planet, are meant to be so much more than single grains.  We are meant to bear much fruit.  We are meant to grow and evolve beyond what we have been.  For Jesus himself, this meant pursuing a vision of the kingdom of God as a spiritual community that was multi-national and multi-ethnic.  Even though he was a faithful Jew, he realized that God’s activity in the world was bigger than Judaism and the special interests of his own nation.  We take it for granted today that God’s “got the whole world in [God’s] hands,” but that was still a relatively new idea in Jesus’ day.  It got him and the early Christians in a lot of trouble.  Some, like Jesus, even paid for that vision with their lives.

Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He didn’t say all Jews, Presbyterians, Protestants, Americans, or Christians.  Jesus said all people.  This meshes pretty well with what we heard earlier today in our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah talked about his vision of a new covenant that God would make with people.  He said, speaking in God’s name, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  Jeremiah said that, under this new covenant, we will all know the Lord and the essence of the Bible will not be carved in stone or printed in books but written on our hearts.  Whose hearts?  The hearts of all people, from the least to the greatest, for we will all know the Lord.  Christians have believed for thousands of years that this new covenant is exactly what Jesus came to accomplish.  This theme also appears in Psalm 87, which we read from this morning as well.  That poem describes how all kinds of foreign nations, like Egypt, Babylon, and Ethiopia will one day be counted as citizens of Zion and included among God’s people.  You could say, based on these prophetic visions, that the kingdom of God is meant to be an all-inclusive trip.

So, this is why I think, as I mentioned earlier, that there is another way to be Christian in this world.  We are not obligated to sell out to narrow, one-sided interpretations of our religion.  There is room in this church for everyone.  Whoever you are and however you are hearing this today, I want you to know there is room in this church for you.

I think there’s also a challenge for all of us in Jesus’ words.  I think it’s worth continually asking ourselves whether our “hour has come.”  Are we currently, in our personal or collective lives, at a point where, in order for evolution to happen, we need to let go of our evolutionary instinct for survival and takes risks?  Back in Jesus’ day, it was a moment for reaching out beyond one’s ethnic and national identity to grab hold of a religious vision for a spiritual community that was open to Greeks as well as Jews.  During the millennia since then, the Christian church has continued to wrestle with other issues.  We have worked to build a church where people of different races are welcome to worship side by side as equal partners.  We have opened our doors to acknowledge members of other churches and denominations as friends in Christ.  We have opened our pulpits for women to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.  Each of these developments involved a certain amount of risk in its day, and there were those along the way who resisted, often citing Scripture to justify their fear, but I think we can all agree that each leap of faith was one more positive step in the direction of evolution and we are a richer church today for having taken those steps.

What challenges are we now facing as a church?  Once again, we’ve fallen on hard times.  It’s true that church attendance in this country is not what it used to be.  Many churches are tightening their belts and trying to do the best they can with shrinking financial resources.  A lot of folks are worried for our future and our survival.  They think we should circle the wagons and batten the hatches.  Some think mission and service projects should take second place to institutional survival.  Some have shut their ears to new ideas or new interpretations of ancient truths.

There are two particular areas where I think the hour has come for us as Christians in this generation.  In these two areas, I believe we are being called to open our hearts, minds, and doors just as Jesus opened his to those Greek foreigners who came looking for him in Jerusalem.

The first is one you’ve heard me mention before and will hear me mention again.  I don’t mind admitting that I am personally passionate about this issue.  I’m talking of course about the full-inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the life of our church.  Last year, the Presbyterian Church voted to open the doors for these folks to be ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons in our denomination.  This summer, our General Assembly will decide whether or not these same people are allowed to get married in our churches.  I think this issue, in particular, holds a key to growing our little congregation here in Boonville.  For lack of a better term, I think we have a niche market here.  There are plenty of churches in Boonville who have bigger budgets and flashier programs than we do, but there are not very many who share our convictions about the full and equal inclusion of people of all sexual orientations.  Believe it or not, there is a gay community in our neck of the woods and there are people in it who are longing to find a spiritual home where they know they will be fully loved and accepted for who they are.

The second area where I think our hour has come is in our relationship toward people of other religions or no religion at all.  We live in a society of unparalleled diversity and interconnection.  Our neighbors aren’t just Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish anymore.  They’re Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Taoist, and Muslim.  We have the opportunity to learn and grow by listening to one another and casting our neighbors in a positive light.

For the last ten years, we’ve struggled with a particularly strong bout of Islamophobia in this country.  The fear and anger generated in the wake of 9/11 has spread beyond the fanatics of Al Qaida and tainted our perception of all Muslims.  We need to unstop our ears to the voice of progressive Muslim clerics like Feisal Abdul Rauf of Cordoba House (aka the Ground Zero Mosque) in New York.  Leaders like him are calling for peace among their own people and opening the doors to dialogue, respect, and learning.  When we hear the Muslim call to prayer from the minarets, let’s respond by adding our Christian ‘Amen’ to their ‘Allahu Akbar.’

The way to fuller and greater life for ourselves, our church, and our country does not lie in circling the wagons and battening the hatches.  We need to realize that the hour has come for us to take risks and reach out in the name and Spirit of Jesus, who has promised to draw all people to himself in the all-inclusive kingdom of heaven-on-earth.

Evolutionary Thoughts: You Are What You Eat

Photo by Dr. Gregory S. Neal

The Eucharist is a supreme moment of cosmic, planetary, spiritual, and human embodiment.  All the elements meet as one in a ritual engagement from which nobody, for any reason, should be excluded.  Radical inclusion is at the heart of every eucharistic enactment, subversively modeled by the Jesus of Christianity, who welcomed everybody to the eucharistic table, including those who were totally prohibited according to the religious rules of the day: tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners…

The Eucharist acclaims and celebrates unashamedly the radical relationality that characterizes every form of embodiment, from the cosmic to the personal.  And it also pronounces that God is totally at home in the immediacy of that encounter; stated in the affirming assertion of Sallie McFague: God loves bodies!  God is present precisely in the moments of intense bodily encounter, whether in the erotic passion of sexual embrace, the intensity of human intimacy, or the inexpressible wonder of childbirth; God is also present in the memorable moments of being at one with nature, the expressionless bond in which people of grief can be united, or the mysterious unity that brings people of every race, creed, and color around a eucharistic table.  In all these situations and many more besides, God is at home and radically present to us.  Words may fail to say how, but the heart has its wise and unspeakable intuitions.

– Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p.136-137

(Evolutionary Thoughts) Imperfect World: Feeling Honored to Exist

A prayer by William Cleary in Prayers to an Evolutionary God (p.33):

How can we make sense of a world of so much imperfection, Holy Mystery, Evolutionary God?

Is there “a balm in Gilead” to heal our mystification, on oasis of meaning amid the desert sands of absurdity and heartache?

A shaft of light, of enlightenment, emerges from the evidence of a cosmos-wide evolutionary process wherein trial and error, randomness and improvisation, are the very way of divine creativity.

Open our hearts to hear this news if there is guidance for us here.

Your creation, God of Light, is not so much a battleground as some myths would have it, or a testing place of good against evil, or of nation against nation.

It is fundamentally a colossal flower opening up, a single family tree blossoming and growing, a cosmic symphony unfolding into meaning and elegance, where variance and dissonance are necessary to our evolving process.

This is your beloved world, Enlivening Spirit, and it is an honor to be an imperfect part of it.  Amen.

Evolutionary Thoughts: Life

It is time to outgrow…

the fear-filled grip of mechanistic consciousness, rigidly clinging to the notion that creation is little more than dead, inert matter in a hostile, brutal, and flawed universe, where the blind forces of natural selection engage us in a battle for survival, and we end up ignorant of the mysterious life-forces that empower us from within and without.

It is time to embrace…

that wild, erotic power for creativity, embedded in the heart of the universe from time immemorial, evoking and sustaining life in a multifarious range of possibilities, revealing a depth of wisdom and purpose that we humans have scarcely begun to acknowledge or appreciate.

Diarmuid, O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p.73

While not directly related, I thought I'd post a photo of a stole that I've been coveting.

Evolutionary Thoughts: Emptiness

More collected tidbits from Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Evolutionary Faith.

The dynamic vacuum is like a quiet lake on a summer night, its surface rippled in gentle fluctuations, while all around, electron-positron pairs twinkle on and off like fireflies.  It is a busier and friendlier place than the forbidding emptiness of Democritus or the glacial ether of Aristotle.  Its restless activity is utterly fascinating!

-Hans Christian von Baeyer

According to this startling new picture, in the beginning was Nothing.  No space.  No time.  No matter or energy.  But there was the quantum principle, which states that there must be uncertainty, so even Nothing became unstable, and tiny particles of Something began to form.

-Michio kaku

Since what people call God is not one being among other beings, not even a discrete Supreme being, but mystery which transcends and enfolds all that is, like the horizon and yet circling all horizons, this human encounter with the presence and absence of the living God occurs through the mediation of history itself in its whole vast range of happenings.  To this movement of the living God that can be traced in and through the experience of the world, Christian speech traditionally gives the name Spirit.

-Elizabeth Johnson

It is time to outgrow…

our anthropocentric desire to measure and quantify every aspect of existence; to dismiss as irrelevant those aspects we cannot measure or control according to our human-made norms; and to attribute primary significance only to that which can be objectively observed and quantified.

It is time to embrace…

the radical openness that characterizes our universe, and the mysterious fullness that inebriates the whole of reality; the seething energy surfacing from the quantum vacuum, forever begetting novelty and vitality in a universe poised for unlimited innovation, creative possibility, and divine exuberance.

Evolutionary Thoughts: Future

It is time to outgrow…

our own tendency to exonerate the past with certainty and security, to dogmatize its definitive, unchanging nature, often turning tradition into an unwieldy ideology of oppression and encrustation.

It is time to embrace…

the future thrust of evolution toward increased complexity and renewed creativity, a future endowed with hope and promise as new possibilities unfold unceasingly and the innate mystery becomes more transparent to human intelligence.

Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p.36-37

Evolutionary Thoughts: Expanding Definitions

It’s time to out grow…

the narrowly defined, competitively driven understanding of evolution, favoring the triumph of our successful biological species, with a tendency to overshadow the significance of cosmic and planetary unfolding over the vast aeons of inorganic evolution.

It’s time to embrace…

the grandeur, complexity, and paradox that characterize evolution at every stage, a story that continues to unfold under the mysterious wisdom of our cocreative God, whose strategies always have, and always will, outwit our human and religious desires for neat, predictable outcomes.

Diarmuid O’Murchu, Evolutionary Faith, p.23

Evolutionary Thoughts: Strange Bedfellows

One of Diarmuid O’Murchu’s primary goals in his book Evolutionary Faith is to move beyond mere “scientific” and “religious” understandings of evolution and embrace the “mythical”.  He writes:

Unfortunately, the dualism between science and religion still stymies our minds and spirits.  It divides things up in a superficial and destructive way.  It often eschews the enveloping sense of mystery.  What is more disturbing is the collusion whereby both sets of wisdom (science and religion) enforce perceptions and values that distort and distract us from the inspiring vision of the evolutionary story.  (p. 51)

O’Murchu borrows a chart from Brian Goodwin to demonstrate the ironic similarity between Darwinian and traditional (Western Christian) religious worldviews.  In short: Richard Dawkins and Pat Robertson are basically saying the same thing. If anything, O’Murchu’s exercise demonstrates to me the essential nature of fundamentalism as a late-modern reactionary movement.  It did not and could not have existed in any other milieu.

I’ve tried to reproduce the chart below.  It can be found on page 52 of Evolutionary Faith.

Darwinian Principles Religious Principles
Organisms are constructed by groups of genes whose goal is to leave more copies of themselves. The hereditary material is basically “selfish.” Human beings are born in sin and they perpetuate it in sexual reproduction. Greed and pride are basic elements of that flawed, sinful condition.
The inherently selfish qualities of the hereditary material are reflected in the competitive interactions between organisms, resulting in the survival of the fittest. Humanity, therefore, is condemned to a life of conflict and perpetual toil in the desire to improve one’s lot in life.
Organisms constantly are trying to improve and outdo weaker elements, but the landscape of evolution keeps changing, so the struggle is endless, as in Steven Weinberg’s “hostile universe.” Humanity’s effort at improvement is jeopardized by the imperfect, sinful world in which we have been placed. The struggle never ends.
Paradoxically, human beings can develop altruistic qualities that contradict their inherently selfish nature, by means of educational and other cultural efforts. But by faith and moral effort, humanity can be saved from its fallen, selfish state, normally requiring the intervention of an external, divine influence.

Evolutionary Thoughts: Disbelief

Continuing to enjoy my guided tour through the poetic and mystical mind of Diarmuid O’Murchu in his book: Evolutionary Faith.  Today’s offering comes from the Introduction, just after his ‘Creed’.  Again, I offer neither wholesale endorsement nor denouncement of anyone’s ideas but my own.  The words that follow are O’Murchu’s from Evolutionary Faith (p. 3-4)

My Lack of Faith

  • I find it hard to concur with the rationalism of science, claiming that one day we will uncover the whole rationale of creation and then be able to control the mind of God.
  • I disassociate myself as much as possible from those who claim that humankind is the measure of all things.  I no longer believe that humans are the masters of creation.
  • I no longer accept that the universe consists of dead, inert matter; in fact, I never really believed it.
  • I find it hard to accept that life evolved for the first time about four billion years ago; I suspect that it has been doing so since time immemorial.
  • I do not believe that we are the first intelligent creatures to inhabit creation.  We belong to an intelligent universe that for many millennia has known what it’s about.  It seems to me that our intelligence is derived from the intelligence of the greater whole.
  • I consider the heady debate between “creationists” and “evolutionists” to be so irrelevant and irreverent that I largely ignore it.
  • I no longer believe in the anthropocentric myth of the end of the world.  There is every likelihood that we humans will destroy ourselves, but not creation.  Creation has an infinite capacity to cocreate.
  • I have grave doubts that the story of evolution can be reduced to one cycle, commencing about twelve billion years ago and culminating in a big crunch some five to ten billion years from now.  It’s all too neat for the creativity of divine becoming.