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Sun, Feb 11, 2018

Celebrating Darwin Day

The battle between science and religion is fake news. The Gospel reading today is St John 1: 1-5
Series:January - March 2018
Duration:17 mins 35 secs
Sermon  Sunday 11 February 2018   -   Darwin Day
Lessons:  Genesis 1: 1 – 5, 24 - 27           Proverbs 8: 22 – 31       St John 1: 1 – 5

Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
Wisdom of God, Creative Spirit, Life-Giver, at home among the stars, in the seas’ depths and the darkness of the human soul, inspire us afresh, fill us anew.   May we walk the Earth with the spiritual heart of Jesus.   Amen.

12th February is Darwin Day.   Darwin Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the English naturalist, geologist and biologist Charles Darwin.   Celebrations are held around the world.   The celebrations not only recall the contribution of Darwin’s work to science but promote science generally.   Born on 12th February 1809, tributes have been made sporadically since his death in 1882.   As time has gone on, the celebrations are typically supported by Humanist and secular societies.   These societies promote themselves as people who value science and reason.   I often feel that the implication is that people of faith, like you and me, are unscientific and irrational:  one can’t be a scientist (or, at least, not a real scientist) and also a Christian.   Today we celebrate Darwin Day.  
Alongside Darwin Day, in 2004 in the United States, the American biologist Michael Zimmerman initiated The Clergy Letter Project which encourages clergy and congregations to participate in Evolution Weekend.   The Clergy Letter Project suggests that the Sunday nearest to 12th February should be Evolution Sunday.   Among other things, the Project states:
            Religious people from many diverse faith traditions and
            locations around the world understand that evolution
            is quite simply sound science; and for them, it does not
            in any way threaten, demean, or diminish their faith in
            God.   In fact, for many, the wonders of science often
            Enhance and deepen their awe and gratitude towards
Part of the motivation for The Clergy Letter Project was to counter creationism, which is a religious belief that God created the universe and everything in it by specific and individual divine acts.   While creationism is popular in parts of the United States, in my twenty-four years experience of full-time ministry I have met only one creationist in Scotland.   Is there a case for the Church of Scotland to adopt today as Evolution Sunday?   One the one hand it may be a bit twee; on the other hand, it would give every parish church an excuse to reflect on and think about science, scientific discoveries and the nature of the universe.   Such a Sunday might also go some way to counter the erroneous myth that science and religion are mutually exclusive.  
Science and religion are not at odds with each other.   None of us would challenge the theory of the ‘Big Bang’, the scientific view that the entire cosmos, including finite time, came into existence with a big bang.   The theory of the expanding universe was first proposed in 1927 by the Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître.   The first insights into the genetic mechanisms driving evolution, arguably a discovery as important as that of Darwin himself, came from the experiments with pea plants carried out by the Moravian scientist and Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel.   Known as the ‘father of modern genetics’, Fr Mendel had no difficulty in writing of the law of genetic inheritance and rising each day at 5am to offer praise to the Maker of heaven and earth.   A Belgian priest, an Augustinian friar and in the late 20th century, Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, was the project director of the international Human Genome Project.   The project was set up with the aim of reading the entire sequence of three billion DNA pairs that make up the genetic blueprint of one person.  
One story which keeps coming back to haunt the Church is that of the amateur astronomer Galileo.   We know that in 1623 the Pope, Urban VIII, demanded that Galileo recant.   Galileo was following the theory of Copernicus, the first Christian theorist explicitly to argue for a heliocentric cosmos.   The competing scientific view was that the planets did indeed revolve around the sun but that the sun revolved around the earth.   There was no religious trump card being played at this early stage:  it was astronomers wrestling with mathematics and their observations of the stars and planets.  
In 1613, Galileo’s most important supporter was Cardinal Maffeo Barberini.   What is significant about that is that, ten years later, Barberini had become Pope Urban VIII.   Why would Galileo’s most important supporter later demand that Galileo recant?   The Pope was under enormous pressure because of the Protestant Reformation, and that took its toll.   But, crucially, the scientific community which existed entirely within the Church, was not of one mind of these differing theories.   Can you imagine scientists taking different views on a new, emerging theory?!  
The Pope invited Galileo to write a book on the two chief world systems asking only that the Copernican theory be described as yet unproven.   History records that Galileo was a frequently unpleasant and dominating man.   Galileo published the book as a dialogue and included the statement which Urban had requested, but the statement was put on the lips of a clown, an obtuse character called Simplicio.   The Pope was right:  the Copernican theory was unproven but he was in no mood to tolerate Galileo’s insolence.   A better pope might have stepped back from the insult, but Urban did not.    The story of Galileo is not a battle between science and religion.  
Atheists are as prone to fundamentalism as people of faith.   The American philosopher, Daniel Dennett says, ‘At least in the eyes of academics science has won and religion has lost.   Darwin’s idea has banished the Book of Genesis to the limbo of quaint mythology.’   The Harvard zoologist, Ernst Mayr describes neo-Darwinian science as the ‘ultimate explanation of life’.   More worrying still, the evolutionary embryologist, the late Gavin de Beer, writing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, said:
            Darwin did two things:  He showed that evolution was a
            fact contradicting scriptural legends of creation and that
            its cause, natural selection, was automatic with no room
            for divine guidance or design.
Educational standards are definitely falling!
In the late 19th century, post-Darwin, many clergy in the churches accepted Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution.   If there was friction with people of faith, it occurred when Christians insisted on a literal interpretation of Scripture.   The preacher and mystic, George Matheson, was one of many who wrote on the subject.   Matheson always looked at Scripture with imagination.   In Genesis 1, we read, “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…’.”   Matheson said that the ancients understood that the mechanism for creating new life is the earth itself.  
In contrast to a literal interpretation of the so-called creation of Eve, Matheson reads Genesis 1 and 2 together.   In Genesis 2, it is said that God took a rib from Adam and with that rib created Eve.   Traditionally understood, it is a good patriarchal text.   However, with the eye of imagination, Matheson asked, ‘Where does this story occur?’   He said, ‘Adam is asleep; this is a dream.’   Matheson’s point is not that this is the story of Eve’s creation, for she has always been with him.   In Genesis 1, they were created together.   Rather, it is an account of their marriage:  it is the moment that Adam ‘sees’ her, as one with him, part of who he is; flesh of his flesh; his soul mate, as he is to her.  
Those who argue against the existence of God or the necessity of God often do so on the grounds that the material universe, through the process of evolution, accounts for itself; the world of matter accounts for everything.   The problem with this theory is consciousness:  the theory of matter does not account for consciousness.   The atheist Thomas Hagel, who does not want God to exist, has said that conscious organisms are among the most striking occupants of this universe; and the materialist understanding of biology does not account for it.  
Do the physical sciences account for beauty, love, morality or selflessness?  Do they account for the study of mathematics?   Evolution does not account for itself.   What is a ‘Big Bang’?   Billions of people across the planet speak of the Divine, of the spiritual, of the Sacred, the Holy:  it is not a phenomenon that can easily be dismissed.  
I shall never forget the lecture given in this church by the physicist Professor Wilson Poon.   Wilson holds the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University.   As the lecture drew to a close, Wilson left the lectern, sat at the piano and played the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique.   It was exquisite.   He returned to the lectern and said this:
I can give you a pretty exhaustive account of the physics
of what has just happened, in terms of waves and resonances
and what not.   Douglas Blackwood [Professor of Psychiatric
Genetics] and his colleagues can give you a neurobiological
account of what happens when we all responded in our
different ways to that piece of music….But I have not yet
met anyone who, in the face of music like that, is able to
look me in the face and say that such scientific accounts are
exhaustive, and nothing else needs to be said.   I think many
physicists are avid amateur musicians precisely because deep
down, we know we need regular reminders that science
does not have the last word.   Beethoven does!
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Mayfield Salisbury Church Memorials 1914-1918

  • Because God is both knowable and unknowable the tension of the symbol, the multilayers of the myth and the openness of the poetic are all vital to our desire to celebrate the Mystery to whom we relate and in whom we have our being.
    Mark Oakley

  • You must love him as he is: neither God, nor spirit, nor image; even more, the One without commingling, pure, luminous ...

    Meister Eckhart

  • The purpose of our life is God's glory. However lowly a life is, that is what makes it great.
    Oscar Romero

  • Faith may justify bigotry or fanaticism, as Church history tragically witnesses. It needs a safeguard. If it is not animated as it were by the greatest of the theological virtues (love), faith can become defective.
    Thomas Norris

  • Dry not, dry not, your tears of love eternal! Only to eyes that fail to weep does this world seem so dull and dead. Dry not, dry not, those long, sad tears of love.
    Johann von Goette

  • The post modern paradigm manifests itself as a unity which preserves diversity and diversity which strives after unity.
    David Bosch

  • There is only one assertion that requires no evidence. Children are a sacred trust...Unless we care properly for our children, we shall never build a better world.
    'A Good Childhood’ The Children’s Society

  • These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer.
    'The Dry Salvages' T.S.Eliot

  • According to strict truth, God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured.

  • Myth is a story about the way things never were, but always are.
    Thomas Mann

  • In the darkness ...The child of your love - and now become as the most hated one - the one You have thrown away as unwanted - unloved ..... The darkness is so dark .... I have no faith.
    Mother Teresa

  • I love the Bible. I owe my faith and my life to the Bible and its liberating message. It is in the Bible that I first met Jesus ... I too am included in God's embrace.
    Gene Robinson

  • It is this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply ....
    R.S. Thomas

  • Faith is not a proud self-consistent philosophy. It involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis. It is therefore a living response to the grace of God as revealed in fragile lives.
    Mark Oakley

  • Any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true.
    Blaise Pascal

  • The contemporary Church is losing aspects of its wide and generous memory and therefore condemning itself to become a 'swimming pool Church' - one that has all the noise coming from the shallow end.
    Mark Oakley

  • For all your doctrinal headaches take Paradox.
    Mark Oakley

  • The true vision and the true knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility.
    St Gregory of Nyssa

  • Death, death be hanged, the Lord has promised me that I shall live. This I believe!
    Martin Luther

  • We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have not been put to rest.

  • Religion is the flight of the alone to the Alone.

  • Stupid clergymen appeal quite directly to a Bible passage directly understood ....
    Soren Kirkegaard

  • What is the point of the arts of reading and criticism as long as the ecclesiastical interpretation of the Bible, Protestant as well as Catholic, is cultivated as ever?
    Friedrich Nietzsche

  • A figure like Ecclesiast, rugged and luminous, chants in the dark a text that is the answer, although obscure.
    Wallace Stevens

  • Myth is the poetry of the soul.
    Sara Maitland

  • Our loss of the ability to think mythically, poetically, allegorically, creatively, theologically, and artfully is a greater threat to our religious experience than anything good scientists have to report ...
    Sara Maitland

  • In general, Zen attitude is that words and truth are incompatible, or at least that no words can capture truth.
    Douglas Hofstadter

  • 'God' is a one word poem
    Rowan Williams

  • What is today? Today is eternity.
    Meister Eckhart

  • Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
    Meister Eckhart

  • The most powerful hunger we have, mostly suppressed and misdirected, is the hunger for God.
    Miroslav Volf

  • We frequently judge that things are as we wish them to be, for through personal feeling true perspective is easily lost.
    Thomas a Kempis

  • Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
    Rabindranath Tagore

  • God is the beyond in our midst.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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