The Epic of Evolution - Part I

Murray Sheard
Sunday, 15 May 2011

 The Epic of Evolution

Part 1: Evolution as God’s Big Story

Murray Sheard.            Cityside             15th May 2011


Today I’m going to speak on something I thought I’d left behind 10 years ago. I’m gong to talk about evolution. Not, in case you’re wondering, to rehash the Creation vs Evolution debate. So those of you who were about to leave – you can relax.

I’ve recently encountered evolution in a new way: In a way I think is enriching my faith and deepening my sense of wonder in the world. So I want to open a door to how that might work for others. Some people aren’t comfortable with being related to monkeys. I’d like to move to a point where we can even acknowledge we are related to courgettes – and get over it!

I want to explore how what we know from science can realise what we know from our faith tradition. And meanwhile, inspire and empower.


1              Some Concerns and Motivations

Partially, I’m motivated in this by some concerns.

A) That a lot of the way theology and Christian practice is done is still very other-worldly. Our response to God is a little thin if we are not falling in love with her World – surely one of the most powerful responses to God’s love’s and gifts of the earth to us.

And one path to that is through understanding the amazing complexity of the living creation, this ecology of innovation. But when we listen to what science tells us about that, we come face to face with the strong evidence for its origins and history, and so if we are uncomfortable facing that, we’ll be reluctant to fully marvel in the created world.

But if we face that, it may enable us to experience God more tangibly – mediated by deepening our wonder and appreciation and experience of the creation. Too often God is experienced only in the imagination, when we “direct our thoughts skyward.” But we can experience the Holy One physically when we locate ourselves deeply in that creation – as evolution suggests we do – in fact forces us to.

B) And I’m concerned that some people can’t embrace science and ecology because of their version of faith. But also, some can no longer embrace faith because they see it as clashing with science.

C) But also, there’s a practical point. The world needs a global story … our God-belongs-to-my-religion stories are killing us. We need a mature story, one that lets go of ego-centricities and ethno-centricities. Our culture is, perhaps, ‘between stories’.

But also, we won’t be able to move to a fulfilled, just, sustainable, thriving presence on this planet on the existing resources of the traditional religions – too often their focus is distracting, self-serving and other-worldly – but equally, we won’t get there without them.

I’ll do this over two Sundays. This week: Reasons for engaging with evolution; some ways it resonates and expands faith, and some implications.

Next week I’ll focus more on what it says about the human predicament; how does sin fits in?; What to make of the specific ‘Jesus bits’? An expanding take on who Jesus is for us. And how do we live in the light of this?


2             My Story.

I had a miraculous conversion to evolution at aged 18. (This is not supposed to happen, I know. You are supposed to be miraculously converted to something more – well Christian – like Jesus.) At school I was a keen creationist and could out-argue all my school mates. Then when I started University, I happened to sit down in a ‘random’ place in the library to study. I looked up and found that I was in the creation-evolution section and a book sprung out at me that turned out to be a refutation of all the creation science I had read. Slowly, I came around to accepting evolution - but reluctantly. It felt like giving up – a defeat. It was something i thought was true, but I’d prefer it not to be.

Until recentlywhen I’ve become a passionate evolutionist! The reason is that I’ve started to see it as God’s Big Story. Not as something that goes against our faith – but not something irrelevant to it either. Because if this is how we got here and we are as we are through that process, then surely exploring it will reveal a lot about us.

I’ve come to see it as something that our faith and the stories behind our faith need to be incorporated into. To make sense of the history of religion, the history of the planet, and to bring together all the stories of the worlds’ mythic creation storytelling: to transform them into something that is actually going to help us – not hinder us – with our increasing global challenges. And to use the picture that modern cosmology brings and its hugely expanded understand of ourselves and the universe.


3             Why ‘No!’ to Evolution?

So why is it that many Christians have said ‘no’ to evolution? I don’t think it’s got to do with a rejection of the science – at the start. I think the creation science arguments are brought in to support a values rejection.

Since Darwin’s time. And up until about 30 years ago, the evolutionary story has tended to be presented popularly (though rarely by scientists) as a story of random chance; having no progress or direction that is guided at all; having no room for anything that could be described as a loving, holding, guiding presence as we be understand and experience God to be.

Survival of the fittest; law of the jungle; rat-race; dog eat dog competition interpreted on a very individual level. And everything is just made of dead matter.

All of those things, Christianity just rejects from a values perspective. And because of that, many Christians have come to reject evolution. So what they’ve done is gone searching for scientific support because if you want to reject something presented by science in this day and age, you have to find scientific reasons. So that’s why Creationism (which I believe, really is rubbish!) has been supported by so many Christians, because they dearly want the account in Genesis to be true because otherwise they are forced to accept a system that looks like it profoundly clashes with Christianity - so it’s a massive, massive challenge to their faith and values.

But what’s been really interesting in the last 20... 30... 40 years is that scientists are starting to say something quite different I think. The growing edge of evolutionary theory and cosmology points to a different picture of the cosmos and divine creativity.

1) Cosmologists are noticing the universe as it is, is extraordinarily unlikely. Play with the parameters one 100th of 1% and the world doesn’t come to exist. It’s astonishingly well suited to life and our sort of consciousness.

2) Biologists are starting to tell us that rather than evolution having no direction, there are some things (and this is something Richard Dawkins says, ironically), like the eye, which evolution seems almost insanely keen on producing. Life is eager to go down pathways that lead to greater awareness and consciousness.

3) Third, the emphasis has changed to co-operation. Those matephors: Law of the Jungle. Survival of the fittest: Selfish gene. (Metaphors don’t just mirror our beliefs and practice they also shape them. We need to be wary how they limit our thinking.)

In fact, we got here because our ancestors learned to co-operate. They out-competed other groups and species because they communicated and co-operated better! Competition cannot be the ultimate human reality. Entities complex enough to compete cannot exist at all without a huge amount of internal co-operation. Even Dawkins – author of ‘The Selfish Gene’ – now, 30 years later, admits that the gene is more co-operative than egoistic.

Competitive metaphors reflected early modern assumptions about individual atoms, and the self-interested rational economic person.But physicists and human biologists and brain scientists have abandoned those assumptions

4) Realisation that “it’s all just dead matter” is simply inadequate. Yes, everything is made of the same stuff, but it’s increasingly inappropriate to call it ‘dead matter’. It has an energy. At the sub-atomic level, it’s only real-ised when observed. Some scientists are starting to talk of a consciousness in al matter and that the universe is continually observed into existence. (I make no claim to understand these things).


4             A New Story

So a more holistic evolutionary picture is emerging. What I notice in that new picture is that the Universe can be relied upon to move toward greater diversity, greater complexity (wholes becoming parts of greater wholes), more interconnectedness, greater awareness, greater speed of change and more intimacy with itself (the eye and other senses allows the universe to experience itself – intimacy for the first time. Also sexual reproduction , and human self- and other awareness). It can be trusted to do this – deeply trusted.

It can also be trusted to bring false starts, breakdowns and disasters. And out of this, more growth. Michael Daud gice two egs (1) earth’s first pollution crisis -> bacteria extracted hydrogen from water leaving a ‘poison’ gas – oxygen! 95% of species die off, but other bacteria cooperated to form oxygen breathing, multi-cell organisms with a nucleus – for the first time! (2) Asteroid slamming into earth 65million years ago... and so began the rise of mammals.

But of course we know from our spiritual lives that this exactly mirrors the process of God leading us to growth – greater complexity, consciousness and intimacy – and growth in pain, death and resurrections – the following of Christ. So the evolutionary process is actually a deeply deeply Christian process – a Holy trajectory. A deeply transformative process of life, deaths and resurrections that has a whole lot in common with what we experience in our spiritual life.

God is the mystery at the centre of our amazement at the universe

God is the mystery at the heart of consciousness, conscience and intimacy.

God is the omni-creative power through which the universe is ever becoming more intricate and expressive.

This kind of integration between science and meaning makes some scientists a bit jittery – that it’s a danger to science. But a science that doesn’t consider its own meaning can be a danger to everyone else. So interpreting modern cosmology is – if anything is – a sacred responsibility.


5             Humanity’s Role in Awareness of God

Through this lens, to see that the cosmos is moving toward greater complexity, diversity and intimacy clarifies the human task.

The limit to God’s self communication and self offering (grace) has been the creation’s capacity to receive. But, humans are uniquely able to receive communications from God – to become aware and to transform ourselves and our world – Jesus, surely, is the prototype for that awareness and transformation. And as we evolve, including through cultural evolution, we are able to do so more and more.

Theologian Karl Rahner says we are pressured to evolve from within. Moving beyond the self we are given to an expanded self (which has always been a goal of meditative prayer and the spiritual life). This active ‘self-transcendence’ is the Spirit of God, working from within creation, compelling us to evolve. God’s Holy Spirit is the pressure to grow and unfold.

As we grow within a single life, we are a microcosm of that cosmic process. In fact as we respond to the Holy Mystery, as we grow in freedom and love we begin to see that our acknowledgement of and participation in the spiritual dimension of life is actually an essential ingredient in the evolution of life itself. We are co-creators with God, of spirit. 

If we envision ourselves as life - the universe - become conscious of itself, and celebrate ‘deep-time grace’ (i.e God’s self-revealing and self-offering in love that runs through that pulsating thread of life), then the cosmological picture is rich spiritual fare. The Epic of Evolution works by going beyond what went before. But because it must embrace what when before, then its very nature is to transcend and include -> an inner impulse towards increasing depth, value and consciousness. I find that a story full of Hope.


6             This Has Happened Before

So if Evolution is God’s Big Story, the traditional account of our faith – including its Creation story – can be integrated into it so it actually expands our faith story. Rather than just accepting it reluctantly (because if it’s only reluctant it won’t be explored and mined) – it actually becomes a way of bringing us to a deeper understanding of who we are – which is of course another ‘God process’.

Jesus said it best: “The wise man brings forth from the storehouse things both new and old.” And this is how theology has worked in the past.

For example, in Acts 15, there is an account of the very first ‘church council’. Jesus had modelled a radical new way. They knew it included non-Jews, but that gave a problem: How to include those non-Jews? Should they be circumcised and brought under the old Law? And Jesus was gone so they couldn’t just ask him.

So what did they do? They appealed to grace; They tried to root theology in grappling with real human life; They appealed to the words of Jesus and the spirit he possessed and left them; Unafraid to pose the big questions, they then kept silence - and ended up with a new theology that diverged from tradition. Something radically new emerged but it was rooted in what had gone before – and in fact, I’d suggest it expanded, widened, and explained – and fulfilled what had gone before: I imagine many going “Aha! I see what the tradition was on about at its heart, I see what trouble emerged from us taking it as fixed and static and resisting change – how it kept people out – but now I see a new expanded meaning in it.”

That is our tradition. In Acts, they changed the theology and practice of the tradition because of what was breaking into their world, challenging them to be more expansive.

The same is happening here. The Universe Story brings a new challenge: beyond the cosmology of the ancient world. To craft an evolutionary form of Christianity we much engage in the task of translating the symbols, metaphors and doctrines and theology. That’s our task.



Dear God,
We rejoice and give thanks for earthworms, bees, ladybirds and broody hens; for humans tending their gardens talking to animals, cleaning their homes and singing to themselves; for the rising of the sap, the fragrance of growth, the invention of the wheelbarrow and the existence of the teapot, we give thanks. We celebrate and give thanks.
Amen   (Michael Leunig)