Tue March 24, 2009
Commentary: A Clergyman Believes in Evolution
By Rev. Fred Jensen
Buffalo, NY – Last February, upon the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, Barbra Bradley-Hagerty reported on NPR a story of pastors and rabbis celebrating "Evolution Weekend" together. I too am a pastor who believes in evolution. The opening section of Genesis in the Bible, the Creation Poem, is not contradictory, but complementary with Darwin's theory. Both the story and the theory teach us about the basic goodness of nature. In Genesis we hear:
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 Then God said "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
This passage is a poem. Do you remember the poem Trees, by Joyce Kilmer? The one that begins, "I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree, a tree whose hungry mouth is prest against the earth's sweet flowing breast."? Unless trees have mouths, and the earth has a breast, we shouldn't take this poem literally. But it is still a good poem. The Creation Poem says day and night are created before the sun and the moon. Literally speaking, this doesn't make sense. But we don't read poems literally. Just as Joyce Kilmer speaks poetically of the beauty of trees, the Creation Poem speaks poetically of the fundamental goodness of nature.
Many clergy claim that nature and humanity are fundamentally fallen and sinful. I disagree. Surprisingly, I find an ally in Darwin.
Certainly, the existence of suffering challenges the claim of nature's basic goodness. Darwin addresses this challenge. The final sentence of Origin of the Species is:
"From the war of nature, from famine and death higher animals directly follow. There is grandeur in this view of life having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
Darwin says that from death itself beautiful and wonderful beings emerge. Does not this hopeful conclusion resonate with treasured Christian beliefs? God summons light out of darkness. God summons goodness out of suffering. It is now the Lenten season, and observant Christians are remembering the cross of Christ. Out of the greatest suffering comes even greater hope. Out of death; resurrection - and in the first and final assessment, all is observed to be fundamentally good.
When I say "good" I do not mean perfect. Many would like to believe in a micromanaging god out to fix everything that isn't perfect. However, this is not the image of God we find in the Creation Poem. Here God creates not by design, but by decree. God pronounces the royal "Let." "Let there be light Let there be land Let there be LIFE!" God permits life to happen, and life happens. Creation is allowed to design itself - however imperfectly. Here again, the Origin of the Species complements our Creation Poem. For Darwin provides a rational way of understanding how creation designs itself - through the messy mechanism of natural selection. In the Creation Poem, God assumes nature is good enough to design itself. Far from challenging God's assumption - Darwin backs it up! When we accept, like the Creation Poem and like Origin of the Species, that life is fundamentally good, we can also accept life's imperfections.
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Listener-Commentator Fred Jensen is pastor of Pembroke Community Church.