Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany 2006
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Killiney on 8th January 2006
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. “
Last autumn a row flared up in Dover, Pennsylvania, a small conservative town in the United States. The School Board in the town which had comprised of Republican supporters of President George Bush had ruled that evolution should not be taught as a fact in the school’s science lessons, but that what was called ‘intelligent design’ should be taught as an alternative view. ‘Intelligent design’ to many people meant teaching the verses we heard from Genesis this morning, not as a theological reflection, but as a scientific account of how the world came into being.
Dover would be no more radical than a small town anywhere in rural Ireland, but this was a step too far for the hard-headed voters of the town. They were as religious as anyone else in the United States, but they also knew that our understanding of the world was built upon generations of scientific learning and that the School Board was attempting to overturn that learning. When it came to elections in November, the entire School Board was thrown out.
I think most of us would probably have taken the same decision as the voters of Dover, Pennsylvania and voted for a School Board that supported the teaching of science as it was taught elsewhere in the world, but I think there are questions that we must answer about how we see God and how we think God is active in our world.
If we say that the School Board in Dover Pa, was wrong and if we accept that science offers the best understanding of the world, then I think there are three possible positions that we could take.
The first is to take the view that science has eliminated any possibility of believing in God in any real sense. People might be agnostic rather than atheist, accepting that it’s possible that there’s something out there, but even if they accept that there might be something, they don’t believe that something makes any difference to our world or our lives. They don’t believe in “God”, or whatever we might call him, so would think it illogical to attend a church service to offer worship to something they don’t believe exists. They are consistent in what they say and, from a church point of view, we might describe them as neither believing nor belonging.
The second position is that people still regard themselves as Christians and still even attend church, but they don’t really believe that God makes any difference to their lives or to the world in which they live. I think there are many people who come along at occasions like Christmas who, if they put their hand on their heart, would say that they didn’t think that the stuff that was talked about in church really made an difference to what went on in their ordinary lives.
I can understand that people might regard Christianity as part of their cultural heritage and might regard the church as a nice place to be there for special occasions; but I also think that there’s a certain lack of honesty and lack of integrity in carrying on belonging to something when you no longer believe what it says. In practical terms, someone who belongs but doesn’t believe is probably not much different from someone who neither belongs nor believes.
The third position, which I think would cover ourselves, is those who believe and belong, but it’s not an easy position to hold. If we think that the fundamentalists are wrong and we want to be open to all the scientific learning in our world, we have to say ‘where does God fit in?’
I’m grateful to Professor Chris Stillman of Trinity College, Dublin for a story that helped me in my thinking about how God and science fit together.
Justin Barrett, something of an “experimental theologist”, asked a group of Christians to imagine various situations in which thy might have to pray to God to save others from danger – for example:
A ship is sinking on the high seas.
The subjects are offered the choice of deciding whether God would:
a) help the ship to stay afloat
b) give the passengers strength to stay afloat in the freezing waters
c) influence the mind of a captain of a nearby ship to come and rescue them.
The subjects overwhelmingly voted for option c).
The people in Barrett’s study had a counter-intuitive notion of God being all-powerful, (our human intuition or “gut-feeling” doesn’t suggest such a thing is likely, but we believe it nonetheless) —but they also considered him more likely to change someone’s mind – a very human strategy – than to intervene in physics or biology.
I found this idea fascinating. The people in the study suggest that there is a middle ground for people like us. On one side we have the fundamentalist Christians, the friends of George Bush, who say ‘believe everything in the Bible is literally true, or you aren’t a Christian’, and we know from the science of our schooldays that everything is not literally true. On the other side we have atheists, including some scientists, who say that there is no place for God in our world that everything can be explained, yet we know that there are so many things that cannot be explained by science.
In the middle I think we find a meeting place for God and the world. In Jesus, I think God breaks into our world, not to rain down natural disasters and plagues and famines, but to walk and talk with people; not to terrify them with acts of power, but to appeal in love to their hearts and minds.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.“, says the writer of Genesis writing in the Sixth Century BC, and we can read those words and we can affirm that we believe that out there, beyond the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago, there is a force present. A force that we believe continues to be present in our lives.
As people who belong and believe, we trust that God is with us this morning. He is not a God who sends tsunamis to Asia, or floods to New Orleans, or hurricanes to the Caribbean; he is a God who has shared our life and knows all our hurts and our fears.
He is a God who touches hearts and changes minds. May we feel the presence of that God with us.
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