Sermon by Jim Kennedy: “Creationism and Evolution: Where Do You Stand?” (Sept. 1, 2013)

The Bible begins with a creation story in Genesis Chapter 1 (here abridged):

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night.

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky.

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so.

And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night’ And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.

And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind.

And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

The order of creation in Genesis was light; waters and the sky; dry land; sun, moon, and stars; sea life and birds; and land creatures, including humans. This is close to the evolutionary process that the modern sciences of geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology have shown to occur from the geological, fossil, and chemical record of the Earth. How could Genesis have gotten it so correct?

Now here’s the second story of creation in the Bible from Genesis Chapter 2 (again abridged):

In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman.

Marcus Borg wrote about the creation stories in his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, published by HarperOne in 2001. Borg wrote that prior to the birth of modernity in the Enlightenment the factual truth of Genesis was accepted in the Jewish and Christian worlds without controversy. Theology and science alike took it for granted that the universe was relatively young and that the earth was created in very much the same form in which it is now. Common estimates of the time of creation ranged from 6000 to 4000 BCE. Bishop Ussher, primate of all Ireland from 1625 to 1656, placed the origin of the world at nine in the morning on 27 October 4004 BCE.

Borg wrote that the first creation story was probably written in the 500s BCE and is commonly called the “priestly” or “P” story. The P story (and the Bible as a whole) begins with the earth as a formless void, and then God creates the universe in six days. The second creation story was written earlier, in the 900s BCE, and is commonly called the “Yahwist” or “J” story. The J story focused on the creation of humankind and barely treated the creation of the world. The P story portrayed humankind as the climax of creation by having people created last, after everything else. The J story gave humankind priority by having people created first, before vegetation and animals. In the P story, humans as male and female were created simultaneously; in J, the creation of woman came later. Perhaps Jewish society had learned something of the importance of women between 900 and 500 BCE.

Borg noted that contemporary Bible scholarship does not read Genesis as a historically factual account of the worlds beginnings. Instead, it sees Genesis as ancient Israel’s story of the worlds beginning and interprets it as a profoundly true mythological story. Throughout the book Borg discussed using a historical-metaphorical approach for reading the Bible. He wrote that myths, such as he considers much of the Bible to be, are not literally true, but can be profoundly true, rich in powerfully persuasive meanings.

The Grand Design was written by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow and published by Bantam Books in 2010. The book attempted to answer the questions:

  • When and how did the universe begin?
  • Why are the laws of nature so finely tuned as to allow for the existence of beings like ourselves?
  • Is the apparent grand design of our universe evidence of a benevolent creator who set things in motion-or does science offer another explanation?

Albert Einstein wrote that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Hawking and Mlodinow wrote that the universe is comprehensible because it is governed by scientific laws. In the history of science better and better sets of scientific laws or models have been discovered. There is a candidate for the ultimate theory of everything, if indeed one exists, called M-theory. M-theory is an extension of string theory in which 11 dimensions of spacetime are identified as seven higher-dimensions plus the four common dimensions (x, y, z, and t). Proponents believe that the 11-dimensional theory unites all five 10 dimensional string theories and supersedes them. The laws of M-theory allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the dimensions of a universe are curled up. M-theory has solutions that allow for as many as 10500 (a 1 followed by 500 zeros) universes, each with its own laws.

The multiple universes, or multiverse, idea of M-theory means that our cosmic habitat, the entire observable universe, is only one of many, just as our solar system is one of many. The environmental coincidences of our solar system that allowed for our existence are rendered unremarkable by the 10500 universes purported by M-theory. Richard Feynman was an American physicist who lived from 1918 to 1988. He won a Nobel Prize for his theory of the sum over histories, which says that when determining the path from one state of being to the next, every possible path from one state to the next must be considered, with the final path being a sum over the possible pathways. Essentially the sum over histories says that everything than can exist already does exist, although we may not be aware of it because its dimensions are curled up.

Hawking and Mlodinow noted that planets of all sorts exist in the universe, and that at least one planet obviously supports life. When the beings on a planet that supports life examine the world around them, they are bound to find that their environment satisfies the conditions they require to exist (or they wouldn’t be there to examine the world around them). Our very existence imposes rules determining from where and at what time it is possible for us to observe the universe.

Sir Isaac Newton published the law of gravity in 1687. Newton believed that our strangely habitable solar system did not arise out of chaos by the mere laws of nature. Instead, he maintained, the order in the universe was created by God at first and conserved by God to this day in the same state and condition. Hawking and Mlodinow contended that lucky coincidences pertaining to environmental factors allow us to exist in this universe. The shape of the earth’s planetary orbit keeps us constantly at a distance from the sun that creates a temperature that allows life to exist. The mass of our sun allows the right amount of solar radiation to reach earth to allow life to exist. Hawking and Mlodinow believe that these environmental factors arose from the serendipity of our surroundings, and the availability of 10500 universes, and not from a fluke created by God in the fundamental laws of nature.

Hawking and Mlodinow contended that the existence of multiverses can explain the fine-tuning of physical laws to allow our creation and existence without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit. Since everything that can exist already does exist, there was already a planet that humankind would exist on. The existence of multiverses containing everything that can exist can eliminate the need for Genesis and creation.

There are always discussions about creationism and evolution. What exactly is Creationism? Is it what is in Genesis or could it be something else?

Creationism refers to a wide range of beliefs of how the universe was created by God. Young Earth Creationists claim a literal interpretation of the Bible as a basis for their beliefs. They believe that the earth is 6000 to 10,000 years old, that all life was created in six literal days, that death and decay came as a result of Adam & Eve’s fall, and that geology must be interpreted in terms of Noah’s Flood. Young earth creationism is probably the most influential brand of creationism today and young earth creationists popularized the modern movement of scientific creationism.

Old-Earth Creationists accept the evidence for an ancient earth but still believe that life was specially created by God, and they still base their beliefs on the Bible. Among old-earth creationists gap creationists say that there was a long temporal gap between Genesis 1:1 (In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth) and Genesis 1:2 (the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters), with God recreating the world in 6 days after the gap. This allows both an ancient earth and a Biblical special creation. Day-age creationists interpret each day of creation as a long period of time, even thousands or millions of years. They see a parallel between the order of events presented in Genesis 1 and the order accepted by mainstream science. Progressive creationism is the most common Old-Earth Creationism view today. It accepts most of modern physical science, even viewing the Big Bang formation of the universe as evidence of the creative power of God, but rejects much of modern biology. Progressive Creationists generally believe that God created “kinds” of organisms sequentially, in the order seen in the fossil record, but say that the newer kinds are specially created, not genetically related to older kinds. Intelligent Design creationism descended from the argument that God’s design could be seen in life. Modern intelligent design creationism makes appeals to the complexity of life with arguments that have become technical, delving into microbiology and mathematical logic. In large part, intelligent design creationism is used today as an umbrella anti-evolution position under which creationists of all flavors may unite in an attack on scientific methodology. A common tenet of intelligent design creationism is that all beliefs about evolution equate to philosophical materialism.

When folk ask me about evolution I say that evolution is a fact based on paleontological evidence in the rock record of the earth, and that there are different theories on how evolution occurred. In the introduction to The Origin of Species, published in 1859, Charles Darwin asked who can explain why one species ranges widely and is very numerous, and why another allied species has a narrow range and is rare. He wrote that the view which most naturalists until recently entertained, and which he formerly entertained-namely, that each species has been independently created, is erroneous. He wrote that biological evolution by Natural Selection, based on the species adaptability to prevailing environmental factors, has been the most important, but not the exclusive, means of modification between species to allow one to thrive and one to demise.

In the last academic book he wrote before his death in 2002, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), Stephen Gould described the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium is different than Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which portended that evolutionary transformations had to be gradual, and that natural selection pulled characteristics of a population in one direction or another, producing a record of continual transformation over time.

I learned about punctuated equilibrium from Dr. Robert Stanton in a graduate course on biogeology (it was the one B I got in a course during my Ph.D. studies). Dr. Stanton earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and studied with Dr. Gould. Punctuated equilibrium says that as environments on the surface of the earth change, species of organisms either evolve into newly opened environments or became extinct as environments closed. Natural Selection did not address changes in the earth’s environment. An example of changing environments is the super continent of Pangea, which existed about 175 million years ago during the Jurassic geologic epoch (when Jurassic Park was filmed). When Pangea existed there were limited coastlines and shallow seas for aquatic organism to evolve into, and there was only one continent so all land organisms intermingled and reproduced (except for the dinosaurs, which ate all the other land organisms).

As Pangea broke up, continents, oceans, and shorelines were created so that more aquatic and land environments were available for organisms to evolve into. This allowed species to diversify. This diversification lead to the evolution of unique aquatic and land species that exist in today’s different continents and oceans. This also lead to the phenomenon of invasive species, created for the most part by humankind’s travelling about the world, where unique species from one continent can invade and overwhelm unique species on another continents.

The punctuated part of punctuated equilibrium comes from the fact that environments of the earth change sporadically, with environments existing for long periods of time during which evolution of species and diversification reaches equilibrium. When things like plate tectonics, earth quakes, and volcanoes heat up (pun intended), environments can change quickly and mass extinctions can occur quickly, thereby eliminating equilibrium and punctuating the evolution and diversification of species.

Theistic Evolution says that God creates through evolution. Theistic Evolutionists vary in beliefs about how much God intervenes in the process. It accepts most or all of modern science, but it invokes God for some things outside the realm of science, such as the creation of the human soul. This position is promoted by the Pope and taught at mainline Protestant seminaries. Then there is Evolutionary Creationism, which differs from Theistic Evolution only in its theology, not in its science. It says that God operates not in the gaps, but that nature has no existence independent of God’s will. It allows interpretations consistent with both a literal Genesis and objective science, allowing, for example, that the events of creation occurred, but not in time as we know it, and that Adam was not the first biological human but the first spiritually aware one.

In Finding Darwin’s God (Perennial, 1999), Kenneth Miller wrote that the various objections to evolution take a narrow view of the capabilities of life, and an even narrower view of the capabilities of the Creator. They hobble God’s genius by demanding that the material of God’s creation ought not to be capable of generating complexity. They demean the breadth of God’s vision by ridiculing the notion that the materials of God’s world could have evolved into beings with intelligence and self awareness. And they compel God to routinely descend onto the factory floor by conscripting God’s labor into the design of each detail of each organism that graces the surface of the living planet.

Miller wrote that each of the western monotheistic traditions sees God as truth, love and knowledge. He contended that every increase in our understanding of the natural world should be a step towards God , and not, as many assume, a step away. If faith and reason are both gifts from God, then they should play complementary, not conflicting, roles in our struggle to understand the world around us.

I have degrees in physics and geology so you can imagine that my academic training emphasized things like M-theory and biological evolution. So how do I reconcile what I learned in college with what I learn at Pilgrimage United Church of Christ?

In The God We Never Knew (HarperOne, 1997), Marcus Borg wrote that within the popular version of the monarchial model of God, God’s creation of the world is typically understood as an event in the distant past and as involving the creation of a universe separate from God. Different than this, panentheists believe that God is imminent and transcendent, where immanence means God’s presence in everything or nearness to everything, and transcendence refers to God’s going beyond the universe and being with us always. In panentheism the universe is not separate from God.

Opposed to the monarchial model of God is the spirit model of God, with an emphasis on connectedness, in which one can see God’s creation as an ongoing activity, where God as spirit is always bringing the universe into existence. Creation may not be about what happened in the beginning, but instead may be about what is always happening. To speak of God as creator in the spirit model is not to speak of what God did in the past, but to speak of the ongoing dependence of the universe on spirit, where God as spirit is constantly vibrating the world into existence.

This is how I reconcile my academic training and my religious beliefs, drawing God as spirit into the science I learned. Maybe this vision of creation can serve the religious and scientific beliefs of Genesis, the multiverses of M-theory, creationism, and the various theories of how evolution occurred all at the same time, bringing us a step towards God, and bringing these beliefs together into a single truth and reality.

May it be so.


Jim Kennedy  (c) 2013

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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