Sunday, October 22, 2006
David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
Sermon Series Fall 2006
Name That Sermon!
The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects
October 22, 2006 Sermon #7
It is not possible for us to think about the theological concept of so-called “original sin” as it has evolved in Christian thought apart from the famous or infamous story recorded in the third chapter of the book of Genesis. Having committed to that task, we must keep ourselves reminded that every story recorded in the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis, with no exception, is a “myth.” Literarily, when we read anything and everything in what is now designated as Genesis 1-11, we are dealing with mythology. The word “myth” doesn’t mean tall tale or fairy tale. It means a prescientific narrative intended to describe how or why something is. All ancient cultures, as far as I know, created them, and the Hebrew culture was no exception.
There are two broad kinds of myths: creation myths and aetiological myths. Creation myths were those stories ancients told to explain to their own cultures how the world came to be created. Genesis chapters 1 and 2 show us two somewhat different accounts of creation the ancient Hebrews told for probably hundreds of years before someone decided to write them down. Both affirm that the skies and the earth were created by God, according to a an intricate and careful plan, but the orders differ; and in certain other ways there are more significant “contradictions” such as when in the order of things and how humans were created.
If one will read the myths as myths, and not as historical or scientific documents, the differences in the stories are interesting points to note, but can’t be contradictions since the specific or peculiar details are not interpretively relevant. We recognize both as efforts by the ancient Hebrews to imagine–and with brilliance, I might add–how the world could have come into being. God may have inspired someone to ponder these possibilities, but God did NOT inspire anyone to write bad science or poor history. I may be mistaken, but as far as I know, we have some reliable information about how life evolved, but there is still no incontrovertible description about how life or the world began. Many of us are still pondering the possibilities. There is, thus, no reason to poo-poo the stirring reflections of the ancient Hebrews–or any other of the ancient cultures–who wondered aloud how it all came about and came together.
In addition to creation myths, ancient cultures also produced aetiological myths. These myths were intended to describe how various experiences common to humanity began: why darkness follows daylight almost every day (in most parts of the world); why every single breathing thing eventually loses her or his or its breath; and, as in the case of our Genesis 3 story for today, why men have to work so relentlessly for life eking out of the ground nourishment and a living, why non-nudists are ashamed of their nakedness; and, finally, why women and not men bear children and why they feel so much pain as they do (my wife once asked me that very question while she was in labor and with lots of expletives!).
The general Genesis 3 answer to all of these questions is: because the first human beings “sinned”; they “fell” from their original state, with the ability for moral perfection built into their natures by the Creator into a state of separation from God as a result of their respective rebellions. Both Eve and Adam sinned. Eve wasn’t more at fault because she went first, and Adam wasn’t any less at fault because he had her to blame when God asked them why they rebelled. Each one had failed, and each one–according to the explanatory or aetiological myth–was assigned a lasting punishment by God Godself. In fact, the punishments meted out to them would also be meted out to all of their descendants; all women would suffer what Eve suffered, and all men would suffer what Adam suffered.
Frankly, it’s not a great image of God, but it genuinely reflects the perspective on God shared by the ancient Hebrews who developed the story. In any case, you will hear an excerpt from that story in a few moments. I want to tell you before you hear it what precedes it in the way the editors of the book of Genesis have designed the document.
From the second Genesis account of creation, found in Genesis chapter 2, we learn that God created the man before God created the woman–not so in the Genesis 1 account of creation where humanity is created by God all at once. In Genesis 2, God puts Adam in Eden, the paradise land in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and God tells Adam to love paradise and enjoy it. In fact, Adam pretty much has free reign to live in and work in the world as he long as he cares for it. There is only one thing Adam is asked by God not to do:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:15-17 NRSV).
That’s an amazing amount of freedom! “Live life, love life, enjoy life, care for your environment. The only thing you can’t do is to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil; if you do you will die.”
You will notice as we move along today that God obviously didn’t mean Adam would die instantly because Adam will eventually do exactly what God told him not to do, and Adam didn’t die. I also must point out to you that Eve wasn’t around when God gave Adam these instructions. In fact, Eve hadn’t even been created when God gave Adam these words. Eve too is going violate Eden’s one no-no; she is also going to suffer punishment for it, but unless Adam was significantly different from many husbands in the modern world, can we be sure that Adam remembered to tell Eve the rule of paradise?
I mean, there was just one rule; couldn’t it easily have slipped his mind? He had the whole Garden of Life to tend to! How could he have been expected to remember to mention one little policy issue to this woman who, when created, nearly knocked him off his feet. He was so taken with her, when God had finally caught on to the fact that the animals, the pets, alone just weren’t doing it for Adam, that he could hardly speak; and when he could speak he began to spout out poetically:
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken (Gen 2:23 NRSV).
Unfortunately, the English translation doesn’t come any where near conveying Adam’s excitement about Eve. A more realistic translation of this Hebrew idiom would be something like: “WOO HOO!”
Well, you heard part of the Genesis 3 story. Eve and Adam sinned; Adam and Eve “fell” from the idealized state in which God had created them.
When they ate from the forbidden tree, what immediately happened to them was that a sense of shame came over them because they were naked. Before they did what God had asked them not to do, they were naked and unashamed. Now, they were ashamed of their nakedness. Therefore, sin is responsible for shopping malls and online retailers selling overpriced women’s and men’s clothing; before Eve and Adam sinned there was no need for clothing!
In any case, this sin was the original sin–the first and the most significant of all sins according to much of Christian theology. It’s never mentioned again in Hebrew scripture. Jesus himself never mentions it. Only good ole Paul brings it back up in order to make a rather ludicrous comparison between Adam and Jesus the Christ, and, sadly, Christian theology has never been the same; perhaps it never will be.
After the great sin of asserting selfish wishes and plans over the wishes and plans of God, the God of Genesis 3 comes in person to ask Eve and Adam why they’d done what they did, and the blaming game begins. In that way, many of us can understand them very, very well.
God asked Adam the why question first, and Adam–we can hardly believe our ears!–blames Eve, this ravishing creature with whom he had been so taken initially. In a slightly less incriminating manner, Adam blames God Godself: “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Gen 3:12 NRSV). Wow! What a jerk! Adam took absolutely no responsibility for his actions. The whole mess was entirely someone else’s fault; everybody involved was at fault except Adam. We all know plenty of Adam’s descendants!
God makes no comment to Adam at that time; instead God asks Eve, “Why? Why did you do it?”
She blames the serpent who, in the myth, is the source of information about what eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil could bring to humanity. The serpent is not the Satan or anything evil. The serpent was “crafty,” which doesn’t have to be taken in a pejorative way at all. “Crafty” can simply mean cunning or sly; it can also mean ingenious. In all likelihood, the serpent in the story was a symbol for temptation. All the serpent does is tell Eve how the knowledge of good and evil could benefit humanity.
Nonetheless, God isn’t happy with any of them, and God begins to dole out the punishments. In the context of the myth, these are the explanations we’ve been waiting for:
1. Why does a serpent crawl on its belly? Well, it’s because the serpent tempted Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Before this, the serpent was erect and walking around like everyone and everything else.
2. Why do human beings and serpents hate each other so much? Well, it’s because God placed enmity between serpents and humans as a result of the original sin.
3. Why do women have sexual desire for their husbands even though sexual encounters often lead to pregnancy and unbearable pain in childbirth? And why do women have to be ruled over by their husbands? Well, anybody knows that! It’s because God punished Eve and all women after her by working these realities into the created and cultural orders.
4. Why must men work hard all their lives trying to get the earth to cooperate, sometimes without any success? Why do humans die? Well, it’s because God punished Adam for listening to Eve and for eating the forbidden fruit salad. In this regard, Adam would die a physical death–the implication being that had they left well enough alone in Eden, humans would never have tasted of physical death.
These are pretty tough punishments, huh?
It’s a shame that this is how God was conceived of and still a shame, even tragic, that so many people today continue to believe these myths as historical facts. Imagine people thousands of years after us reading our religious symbolism, such as C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as a sample of twentieth century history! We cannot turn these beautifully conceived ancient myths into history lessons if we are true to the literary type and if we want to get at their real meanings.
It appears that the Apostle Paul may have done just that; although we have to allow for the possibility that he used the Genesis 3 story literarily, reflectively in a comparison/contrast format. OK, so take a couple of your favorite headache tablets; we’re about to plod into Paul writing to the Christians in Rome:
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned....If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:12,17-19 NRSV).
If we leave this as a series of interesting literary comparisons or parallels, maybe it has its merits. But if Paul really meant this as a series of historical facts, then it’s a mess.
Paul is suggesting here that the writer of Genesis 3 believed because Adam sinned–that is, intentionally went his way instead of God’s way–all humans after him would also sin. (Interestingly, Paul didn’t mention Eve here!) In a parallel to the origin of sin and the impact of a single sin on the whole of humanity, Paul thinks of a rather striking parallel that has the potential to un-do what Adam did. The acts of Jesus, Paul reasoned, can un-do for all of humanity what Adam’s sin originally did to all humans.
The major difference between the two events would involve the role of individual humans in experiencing the results of Adam’s sin over against the results of Jesus’ acts on behalf of all people. In the case of “original sin,” that was passed on to us through no fault of our own; even so God condemns us, in Paul’s words. In the case of Jesus’ acts, those can take away the power of sin over us, but we have to act to embrace the God about whom Jesus taught in order for that to happen.
I don’t how many people paid a lot of attention to Paul on this matter, but I know that Augustine must of have loved Paul! Bishop Augustine of Hippo in North Africa, referred to as St. Augustine by Roman Catholics, picked up Paul’s lesson to the Romans and ran with it...in the wrong direction! The results have been tragic misunderstandings ever since, both for Roman Catholics to this day and for conservative Protestants who love unbalanced old Augustine as much as Catholics do. As Jim Adams of the Center for Progressive Christianity explained,
Unfortunately, Christians in the fourth century came up with an explanation that has had tragic consequences. Augustine of Hippo decided that the tendency toward sin was passed from generation to generation through the generative act itself.
Augustine would say when pressed that, technically, humans after Adam didn’t have to sin, but practically speaking there was such a strong leaning to sin that no one other Jesus ever had or ever would resist it.
Augustine became actively involved in trying to refute the teachings of a fellow Roman Catholic who detested Augustine’s gloomy attitude about humanity. Augustine argued that while Adam was created with the power not to sin, he lost the power by sinning. Adam left bondage to sin as a heritage to his descendants–all humankind. Because humans are born with free will, according to Augustine, but not with the power to avoid sinning, they need the grace of God and the redemption that comes through Christ to be saved. “Saved,” of course, means “saved from their sins.” “Saved” also means for Augustine and his many devoted descendants “saved from an eternity in a burning hell.”
The only way to avoid such dire consequences, which come to us at least in part for reasons not our fault, is “salvation.” For Augustine, salvation comes entirely by the grace of God, which no human has ever deserved. “Grace” in this way of thinking is something that God extends to us even though we don’t really deserve it. And, by the way, because Augustine was also such a hard core predestinarian, not everyone could benefit from God’s grace in his way of thinking. God gives that grace to those whom God elects, and not necessarily according to merit! Some unfortunates just don’t get a taste of God’s grace, and no matter what they do, they are hell bound and have been consigned to hell since the creation of the world!
Thank goodness for Pelagius! Pelagius rejected the doctrine of original sin; he taught that children are born innocent of the sin of Adam.
He was a Briton who likely was a monk, Pelagius, and he held ideas about human free will, divine grace, and original sin that provoked extraordinarily strong opposition from Augustine. The celebrated theologian, Pelagius (c.355–c.425), after studying law and rhetoric in Rome and later theology in England and Rome, preached in Africa and Palestine, attracting many able followers.
Pelagius thought that Augustine was excessively pessimistic in his view that humanity is sinful by nature and must rely totally upon God’s grace for salvation. People, in other words, aren’t nearly so bad as Augustine regarded them.
Pelagius believed that human beings were born with the freedom to choose their own actions and could, therefore, choose not to sin. They could choose not to sin in the face of every temptation that comes their way. In other words, no human being is or ever has been bound by the sin of Adam, which, insisted Pelagius, affected only Adam; not all humanity.
As far as the Genesis 3 condemnation of humans to suffer physical death because of the sin of Adam, Pelagius, so far ahead of his time, pointed out that Adam was created mortal, and whether or not he sinned, he would have died physically. In other words, one of Augustine’s own peers, I’m speaking of Pelagius, said that he, Augustine, was dead wrong, no pun intended.
Pelagius exercised a method of biblical interpretation in the late 300's and early 400's that didn’t buy into literalism. Sin had nothing to do with the fact that mortals die physically, and, by the way, no act of Jesus or of God keeps humans from dying physically. Physical death is simply a part of being mortal; it is not a punishment.
Pelagius, to further aggravate Augustine–and he did this very well though that was not his intention–taught that human beings have a natural capacity to reject evil and seek God. Wow! Not only do humans lack a tendency to sin, but just the opposite is true. What we humans actually do have, according to Pelagius, is a natural capacity to avoid sin. His rationale was Jesus’ admonition to his followers: “Be ye perfect, as God in heaven is perfect....” This saying from Jesus presupposes the human capacity to do good.
As far as God’s grace goes, Pelagius didn’t see God’s grace as showing humans favor they really didn’t and don’t deserve; rather for the brilliant British theologian, grace is the natural ability given by God to all humans to seek and to serve God.
So, if we follow the teachings of Pelagius, we must admit that there was no original sin. The question I have to ask in this company today is: are we, a decided minority in modern American Christianity, courageous enough to speak out this human-affirming word in a culture that has bought into Augustinianism whether they know it or not? What kind of world can we even hope for when most of its Christians have been and are being taught that they are fundamentally “bad”? And those characterizations are being made by the communities who have the capability of knowing that God loves all people unconditionally and that that same God created us with the capacity to choose and act on the good in all circumstances.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
Sermon Series Fall 2006
Name That Sermon!
The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects
October 15, 2006 Sermon #6
Better Late Than Never?
Some of Jesus’ parables--his favorite tools for preaching and teaching, it seems—are extended similes. The parabolic stories can become so involved that we forget how Jesus introduced several of them: “The Empire of God is LIKE….” Then, Jesus, in many of the stories that have been attributed to him, told a memorable tale for the purposes of instruction and inspiration. That is the case with our parable for today from the twentieth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. We must remember when we read and interpret such a parable that the whole unit, the unit as a whole, is a commentary on what it’s like to be a part of God’s Empire.
Something else we need to keep in mind when we interpret any parable of any length is that there is only one overall point being made by the parable. While we look at different components of parables in order to try to understand them as fully as we can, at the end of our interpretive exercise, we must come back and see what the overall, singular message of the parable is. Otherwise, we can find ourselves left with some rather negative views of God and of life in God’s realm or reign.
Two more bits of background information before we jump full force into a new hearing of the parable of Jesus before us today.
- One of the several ways of authenticating parables as probable teachings from Jesus himself is how real-life they would have been for their original hearers. Jesus pretty much told a story from the daily lives of his hearers with which they could quickly and easily identify. The tasks and activities in which the characters in Jesus’ parables involve themselves are exactly the kinds of tasks and activities Jesus’ original hearers would have been doing.
- For the most part, Jesus didn’t give the “moral of the story” as is the case in Aesop’s Fables, for example. Jesus expected the message to be clear enough to those who would make enough effort to ponder the meaning. Jesus would have had no idea that people like us would be reading his parables some 1,999 years after his execution or even that they’d ever be written down. Even so, he likely wouldn’t have provided an interpretation of his parables to help out future hearers and readers. Listening carefully remains our responsibility if we wish to have some sense of what Jesus wanted seekers to ponder regarding what life is like for those seekers who affirm their status as members of God’s family.
Finally, now, to our parable.
The Empire of God, unlike the Roman Empire of Tiberius Caesar–mind you, is LIKE this extraordinarily-odd-to-human-eyes vineyard scene. Now, let’s jump into this extended simile in which Jesus tosses out for reflection yet another facet of insight into life in God’s realm.
It’s like “a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard” (Matt 20:1 NRSV). Two facts are essential here before we can move ahead.
1. Jesus’ good Jewish initial hearers, who were very adept at listening and remembering, would immediately, when Jesus began the way he did, have thought of the famous parable of the vineyard in the prophecy of First Isaiah.
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry (Isa 5:1-7 NRSV).
In this parable, God is not happy with what has resulted from God’s people, and God is going to do away with that particular vineyard as a result of poor yields. Again, this would have been in the minds of Jesus’ first hearers. God is the vineyard owner in the parable from Isaiah, and the problem with the yield is not related to lack of proper planting and care.
2. The parable that Jesus told has a few names in scholarly and sermonic literature. One of its names is “the Parable the Workers in the Vineyard.” You heard in our thought challenge for this service that Dr. Herman C. Waetjen has pointed out that the economic situation reflected in the parable was a true representation of real life in Roman Palestine. This gets back to what I said earlier about Jesus’ parables growing out of real life situations, which his hearers knew all too well. Unemployment was more widespread than we, in our culture, can even imagine. “Large segments of the population had been dispossessed and reduced to destitution as a result of Pompey’s reorganization of Palestinian territory.” On top of that, Herod the Great, the Roman-approved Jewish “king” who had tried to have Jesus killed off when he, Jesus, was only two years old had not acted for the well-being of the majority of his people. Herod, during Jesus’ childhood, had sold huge tracts of Jewish land to already-wealthy landowners. He distributed the astounding profits to certain members of his court. As a result, “peasants and tenants, as well as the artisans who depended on them, had only their labor to sell to anyone who wished to hire them.”
Now, those who heard this parable when Jesus first told it had a double measure of anxiety, I think. They believed that God just got rid of a vineyard, a people, who didn’t produce. They also empathized with the struggling workers in Jesus’ parable who had to go out and stand at public places in the city, hoping each day to be hired and, thus, to earn enough income to feed their families that day.
So, the landowner faces the need for harvest-time help in his vineyard. He goes out early one morning–maybe about day break, and he hires some workers to go into his fields and get his grapes harvested.
There was either lots more to do than he’d anticipated, OR the workers he hired first thing in the morning weren’t working as quickly as he’d hoped. In the latter case, they may have been unfamiliar with the work of harvesting grapes, OR they were just plain slow for one reason or another–laziness, physical ailments, who knows. (This is exactly the kind of question Jesus didn’t want his hearers worrying with!)
For whatever reason, a few hours later, about 9 in the morning, the landowner himself and not his vineyard manager again, goes back to the place where available workers stood hoping to be hired to employ some additional workers to get his grape harvesting done. Maybe it was a bumper crop! Maybe there was much more to be done than he realized until his work crews really got involved in the harvesting process. If that were the case, imagine how excited he was. No droughts during growing season. No sick vines that year! He couldn’t wait until the wine was made and ready for sale!
Same thing happens at noon.
Same thing happens at 3 in the afternoon.
Same thing happens at 5 in the afternoon. 5:00? The day is almost over. It would be dark soon. Why hire workers at that hour?
The landowner even asks them why they’re still hanging around waiting to be hired at that time of day. Of course, we could also very well ask why the landowner went back to the hiring spot in the first place unless he hoped to hire someone.
In any case, he asks them why they’re still there, and they answer, “Duh!” (Nicely, of course!) “Sir, that would be because no one hired us...YET.” “Yet” is a very hopeful word isn’t it–at least it can be. Someone recently seemed very impressed that I’d written four books. I was quick to say, “No best sellers.” And he quickly added, “Yet!”
“What?” I asked.
“No best sellers YET,” he said.
That was a very nice word and very hopeful indeed. It improved my outlook and my attitude about my most recent royalty check of $12.60.
Those workers needed to be hired; they knew being hired was their only hope for making any money at all that day. As the hours had gone by, so had their hopes of being chosen for a job. By 5:00 there wasn’t much chance of being hired; even if they were hired, with so few daylight hours remaining in their day, there would be no opportunity to make much money.
Even so, in the parable, the tables are turned. The landowner doesn’t scold them or scoff that they’ve been there all day. “You haven’t been hired YET, huh?”
He hires them and sends them to the vineyards for two or three hours of work at most. They couldn’t hope for much money, but something was better than nothing when they went home to face their families and their own empty stomachs that night. A surprise was about to happen to them, though, and they had no earthly idea that it could.
I picture Jesus as a master storyteller, and I believe that his first hearers were completely unaware of what was coming in tale intended to tell something about what the Empire of God is like. So far, his hearers had listened to the facts as he had narrated them, and everything seemed normal enough except the 5:00 hires. That bit of info had them scratching their heads.
Chances are, plenty of his hearers had been–even fairly recently–in those daily workers’ lines. They knew all too well what it was like to get to the workers-for-hire spot at day break, wait around in the hopes that someone, anyone, would come along and offer work, any kind of work would do. But on that particular day, no one came around. No one in the area needed any work done that day so there was no hiring. No food money that day; maybe some few morsels of bread had been kept from yesterday in the event that something like this happened. Maybe the beggars on other corners of the city streets did better that day than those who willing and able to work. At least they were going home with a few coins in hand while the willing laborers went home on those days with empty hands and pockets.
I can’t help remembering “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye, at the beginning of the musical, is introducing some of the more interesting people in the village: Yente, the matchmaker; the rabbi; and Nahum, the town village beggar.
The action cuts to Nahum who is saying, “Alms for the poor, alms for the poor...”
A villager comes along and contributes, “Here is one kopek, Nahum.”
Nahum replies: “One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks.”
The benevolent person explains: “I’ve had a bad week.”
Nahum asks, “So, if you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”
Well, the landowner hires some workers at the last possible minute meaning that their day wasn’t wasted and that they could take home a little money for food for their loved ones and themselves. Sure enough, in just a few hours it was time to pay the day laborers. I find it interesting in the story that the landowner who had taken such an obvious hands-on approach to everything related to staffing his harvesting project leaves the payment of workers at the end of the day up to a steward or manager. The only instructions given to the manager is to pay everyone and start with the last hired.
The manager starts the pay process, and there obviously were quite a few workers to pay on this particular day. The last hired got paid, and they were given a full day’s wages. There’s nothing in the story about how happy or surprised they were. No one is turning somersaults; I guess that was hard in togas, but no one is jumping up and down with joy or saying, “Thank you so much!”
Everything seems to go along rather routinely until the workers hired at day break and working nearly from sun up to sun down get their pay and somehow find out that the last hired got the same wage they did. This doesn’t set well with them, as we all an well imagine, and so they make their complaints known to the landowner directly.
“What the hades kind of deal is this? We work our fingers to the bone in the scorching sun for twelve hours with only grapes to eat and watered down wine to drink, and you have us paid the same amount you gave to those losers who only worked two or three hours? Have you lost your mind?”
The landowner simply asks, “Didn’t I pay you what I promised to pay you when you started working this morning? Are you angry because I’m honest or that I’m generous?”
Jesus may or may not have concluded the parable with the saying, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” It certainly fits him, but it’s still possibly an addition by the editors of the Gospel. It seems more likely that Jesus left all of his parables open ended.
That doesn’t matter a whole lot. What does matter is whom the parable is directed to and what, therefore, its meaning can be.
The thing is, most all of us can identify completely with the workers who’d worked all day and who didn’t like the notion of making the same wage as had those who only worked a couple of hours. There’s nothing at all fair about that! If someone is going to get “overpaid,” then everyone should be overpaid. Why should some be so lucky and not others? And if someone is to be rewarded with “extra cash,” why not the ones who worked the longest and hardest?
The older brother of the prodigal son asked their father the same type of question after the prodigal had wasted 40-or-so percent of his father’s money and treated his dad like dirt in the process then came home asking for a menial job on the family farm. The father threw a feast and said, “No way you’re taking a menial job. You’re my son. You’re back in the same family position you’ve always been in!” Not if the older brother had anything to do with it! He wanted recognition for the fact that he’d always been at his father’s side, and as far as he could see there was no reason to celebrate the return of the disloyal family money waster, his irresponsible kid brother. The father didn’t see it that way.
In one of the stories of Jesus’ dying moments, he is said to have confirmed that one of the two thieves being executed with him there on Calvary would be with him in the heavenly realms. This was a man who, evidently, hadn’t given much if any time to spiritual matters–at least that’s the indication we get. Why should this loser get a shot at heaven? What had he done to compare to the three long years of sacrifice offered by the women and men who’d stuck pretty close to Jesus’ side even at moments when their lives had been in danger? That can’t be fair! By whose standard could such a thing possibly be fair or tolerable or acceptable?
This story is hated by those who keep rules as their religious expression. Those who feel that they can, more or less, earn their way into a right relationship with God and, thus, who have no regard for God’s universal, unconditional love detest this parable. Many of us who see our faith lives and our faith acts as things we do to guarantee God’s blessings in the here and hereafter, we’re just not going to tolerate somebody getting the same rewards we get with only a fraction of the effort! No way God is going to make it easy on this person when our way with God has been plenty hard!
The Reverend Susan Reisart was guest preacher at the Old South Church in Boston when she asked, “Why do good if God accepts us already? Why not relax?”
She was exactly right when she pointed out to her congregation that, “When we say that a right connection to God does not come about through good works, the motivation changes from getting a reward to doing ministry out of love and compassion.”
Love and compassion? Oh yeah, those. Well, they’re fine as long as they don’t blur the fact that the real thing is rules-keeping! Surely God wouldn’t ignore how well we keep the rules when rewards are being divvied up!”
I return to Susan Reisart’s insights.
Good works are not done to earn something, but as acts of gratitude. This truly frees us. When we are working for a reward, we are always wondering if we are good enough, looking for clues to see if God accepts us. We are perpetually trapped. But when we do good works out of thanksgiving, for the sheer love of doing them for those in need, we are free.
These points are abundantly clear. And, certainly, one of the groups Jesus had in mind for correction in this parable was none other than his most famous nemeses, the Pharisees. Many of the Pharisees had kept the letter of the law their whole lives, and since their concept of religion was rules-keeping they thought that they had literally earned the right to God’s favor.
Here came Jesus telling those, ostensibly, least concerned with keeping religious rules that God loved them as much as God loved anybody: prostitutes, tax gatherers, thieves. These were the day laborers, hired at 5:00! And the Pharisees were the workers hired at sunup, angry that the same benefits were being offered to the johnnies- and janes-come-lately. It’s not fair, they said. It’s not fair, many of us say too. And God is scratching God’s head in confusion, asking, “Are you more angry that I’m honest or that I’m generous?”
Jesus’ parable nicknamed “The Ten Bridesmaids” from Matthew chapter 25 gives a warning to those who put off doing spirituality too long. The parable demonstrates that it’s possible to wait too long and, thus, miss out on everything. This is not a threat of hell in my mind; instead, it’s a point blank reminder that we can keep excluding God from our lives so long that we just never get around to it, and when we do that we are making ourselves infinitely poorer spiritually in this life than we need to be. But getting it in just under the wire, if that’s the only opportunity one has, is a good thing.
If that’s how it works for you, don’t fret over previous missed opportunities; instead, just celebrate what you did find, however late in life! It’s clear that God isn’t holding that against you! “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” in God’s order of things!
Disgruntlement from others who do resent God’s embrace of spiritual “late-comers” reveals, on their parts, a subtle if not an overt dislike or disdain for religion and for faith works. It shows how much appeasement-effort is really behind someone’s so called good deeds and service to others. It’s a way of saying, “I don’t really like what I’m doing in God’s name, but it’s my insurance policy against more than my share of woes in this world,” and for those who believe in a literal hell, “It’s my insurance policy against an eternity in hell.”
That’s sad, isn’t it? I think it is. I think seeking God and serving others in God’s name is and should be their own rewards. Making someone’s life a little better should be all the reward any of us needs if we invest a little time or effort toward that end. The richness and the challenge of having minds and emotions and senses that help us seek communion with our Creator–those should be their own rewards too. We do not gather for celebration and inspiration here in order to get us a seat on the glory train some day; we should gather because we are enriched and motivated by such gatherings.
From the first time I heard it, I have loved the words to this sacred song:
My God, I love Thee, not because I hope for heaven thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not are lost eternally.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven, nor any fear of hell;
Not with the hope of gaining aught, not seeking a reward;
But as thyself hast loved me, O ever loving Lord!
So would I love thee, dearest Lord, and in thy praise will sing,
Solely because thou art my God and my most loving King.
As far as those who do less than we do for God and others, if God loves them with the same intensity with which God loves us, regardless of how late they may awaken to the reality that God loves them, why would we, how could we, begrudge them their joy and their gift? If we have truly been immersed in the reality of God’s love for us, then there is no question about the fact that we would want the same for others. If, on the other hand, we want God to be stingy in doling out the divine love, then something is wrong with us; we are doing religion entirely the wrong way.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Sermon for October 8, 2006
David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
Sermon Series Fall 2006
Name That Sermon!
The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects
October 8, 2006 Sermon #5
What Can We Learn from Native American Spirituality?
There are so many Indigenous American tribes or nations, so many languages, and so many varying perspectives that any attempts to generalize puts one on rather thin ice. I do think with spirituality, however, there was and is some commonality among the nations about which we can safely and appropriately speak.
Many Native American people have traditionally believed in a spiritual realm that exists beyond this tangible world. An earthly individual’s access to the spiritual realm is gained through dreams, visions, ceremonies, and rituals. Many Native people believe in a single creative force or entity essentially controlling the spiritual realm; in other words they were/are monotheists. The name for this spiritual force varies from one group to another.
The Iroquois name for this personal, spiritual entity is Orenda. The Algonquin Natives refer to the entity as Manitou while the Lakota tribes refer to it as Wakan.
For the Lakota Natives, a part of the Sioux nation, every creature and object has a wakan, a spirit with a lowercase “w,” but their supreme deity is Wakan, capital “W,” or Wakan Tanka, which means Great Spirit or Great Mystery. The Great Spirit for the Algonquin was/is Kitche Manitou; and “Orenda” for the Iroquois referred/refers to the Great Spirit, Creator. It is more than safe to say that the Indigenous Americans were very “religious” people; their lives were typically shaped completely by their spiritual values and beliefs.
When Protestant English Christians came to North America and when Spanish Catholic missionaries came to South America, they were not satisfied that the religious understandings and practices of the Indigenous people whom they found on the lands called “The Americas” were either adequate or suitable. And both groups set out to kill and/or convert the Natives they found on the respective continents.
The profound spirituality guiding the lives of the Natives didn’t matter to the Puritans or the missionaries; the Natives didn’t conceive of God or worship God the way each invading group did, and that had to change–the invaders insisted. Oddly enough, the Natives of North America were pressed to look and act like Puritans while the Natives of South America were molded into good little Spanish Catholics–once some of the missionaries, at least, had finally agreed that the Natives had souls. Many Europeans remained convinced that they were more like herds of animals than human beings–despite the amazing villages and, in some cases, booming cities the Natives had envisioned and constructed.
The Europeans came from cultures that beheaded and burned at the stake those whose religious views didn’t match up with the majority view; yet, they claimed to be appalled that some of the tribes practiced human sacrifice–especially with a captive or an enemy’s relative; they were also appalled that many of the Natives insisted on bathing every day!
The first impressions of Jesus and Christianity Indigenous Americans had was based on what they saw in their missionaries–Puritanism, again, on what is now North America and Roman Catholicism on what is now South America. The “god” of the white woman and white man, from the Native perspective, was a tyrant and a killer.
• Their “god” ordered them, the “Christians,” to take the lands of Natives–not to mention the lives of the Natives.
• Their “god” ordered them, the “Christians,” to take the children of the Natives away from them to study in religious schools that also had the responsibility of taking everything native away from the children, to “purify” them as it were–their languages, their hair styles, their styles of clothing, their customs and their habits along with everything they had known about how to relate to the Great Spirit.
• The “god” of the Spanish Roman Catholic missionaries told them, the missionaries, to feel free to enslave the Indigenous South Americans, and the missionaries happily responded. In order to keep one group of Natives whipped into shape, the priests and friars cut off one foot of all males to make sure they couldn’t run away.
One Lakota Native recalls hearing a story passed down from her ancestors to her about how intrigued the Lakota people had been with the stories of Jesus. They affirmed his teachings, and some of them even said, “Now, there was a true Lakota!” But Christianity, they hated. Do you blame them?
Part of the spiritual realm of profound significance to most all Native nations in both South and North America was their connection to their loved ones and ancestors who had passed into the next realm. This involved a sense that the ancestors in the next realm could continue to communicate with them–especially through acts and aspects of nature; it also involved a sense of reverence for the remains of departed loved ones–thus, the sacred nature of Native burial grounds to the Natives. Natives do not want highways built on top of where their ancestors have been buried. Nor do they want the bones of their ancestors and relatives displayed in museums for gawkers to stare at.
“Reconciliation”–a prayer by Joey Harjoe
• We gather by the shore of all knowledge as peoples who were put here by a god who wanted relatives.
• This god was lonely for touch, and imagined herself as a woman, with children to suckle, to sing with–to continue the web of the terrifyingly beautiful cosmos of her womb.
• This god became a father who wished for others to walk beside him in the belly of creation.
• This god laughed and cried with us as a sister at the sweet tragedy of our predicament–foolish humans–
• Or built a fire, as a brother to keep us warm.
• This god who grew to love us became our lover, sharing tables of food enough for everyone in this whole world.
Oh sun, moon, stars, our other relatives peering at us from the inside of god's house walk with us as we climb into the future naked but for the stories we have of each other. Keep us from giving up in this land of nightmares which is also the land of miracles.
We sing our song which we've been promised has no beginning or end.
All acts of kindness are lights in the war for justice.
• That Christianity, upon initial presentation, was not Good News for most, if not all, the world’s indigenous peoples…
• That doctrines were founded upon a literal view of the ancient Hebrew creation stories (in conflict with Native American creation stories), giving rise to notions that humans were created to dominate the earth and all its creatures and, thus, encouraging abuse of the environment…
• That a notion of “original sin,” which says humans are inherently evil and distanced from, rather than united with, God...
These notions have wreaked more emotional and spiritual havoc than can ever be calculated.
Throughout North and South America, Asia and Africa, contemporary indigenous theologians are rethinking Christianity in ways that rescue it from its Euro-centered view with ongoing emphases on medieval doctrines, returning Christianity to the central tenets of the stories and teachings handed down by the earliest Christians.
Since the first missionaries appeared in North America, there has been a tension among Native Americans between those who embraced Christianity and those who clung to the traditional ways. But for the past 30-plus years, American Indian theologians and scholars have been working at reshaping the dimensions of Christianity.
“Christianity doesn’t come in clean,” says Dr. Martin Brokenleg, who retired as professor of Sociology and Native American Studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “It comes in,” he says, “in collusion with government policies and military oppression and, certainly, with education efforts to alter Native beliefs and practices, and the church is complicit with that.”
Nevertheless, Brokenleg says, most Native Americans separate Christian theology from the institutional church. Thank the Great Spirit for that! While there’s generally great respect for the teachings of Jesus, there is very harsh criticism of the church because of its complicity with the institutions that tried to destroy Native culture. “Their purpose was to ‘civilize’ Native peoples and eradicate as much of their Native traits as possible, and substitute Victorian manners and thought.”
Brokenleg is also an ordained Episcopal priest, and he has been for some thirty years now. He is a specialist in understanding the process by which Christianity is expressed in the symbols and life patterns of a particular culture. “When missionaries came to Native people, they came to a place where God had already been active.”
Speaking of his own people, Dr. Brokenleg explains that the Lakota relationship with God was expressed through sweat lodge ceremonies, the sun dance, and the pipe. Brokenleg calls those three expressions of spirituality his people’s “old testament.” He gives them collectively that designation because he says they were foundational for his people in order them to be able to practice the teachings of Jesus.
Bishop Steven Charleston (Choctaw), president and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, explored this same idea in an article entitled “The Old Testament of Native America.” Dr. Charleston wrote in his article:
It’s a covenant, just like the one the ancient people of Israel had. Through the traditions handed down through the generations, Native people remember their original covenant with the Creator; that becomes our basis for our religious faith, and it comes from taking our historical covenant relationship with God seriously.
Contemporary Native theologians, such as Dr. George Tinker (Osage/Cherokee), a professor at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver and a member of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, are broadening Christian perspectives in North America. They are moving beyond the seminal work done by liberation theologians from South and Central America to an indigenous North American perspective that draws deeply from authentic Native traditions. Their theology is rooted in creation with the fundamental goal of achieving harmony and balance.
In an essay on “Spirituality, Native American Personhood, Sovereignty and Solidarity,” Professor Tinker suggests that
a Native American theology coupled with a Native American reading of the gospel might provide the theological imagination to generate a more immediate and attainable vision of a just and peaceful world.
Tinker is persistent in his view that Jesus’ call to repentance in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a call to the Jews of Jesus’ day to return to a proper relationship with the Creator. For Tinker, it is a call “to be liberated from our human perceived need to be God and instead assume our rightful place in the world as humble, two-leggeds in the circle of creation with all the others created.” This, he insists, is an ultimate “theology of community” that must generate a consistent interest in justice and peace. “Namely, if I image myself as a vital part of a community, indeed as a part of many communities, it becomes more difficult for me to act in ways that are destructive of the community.”
An anonymous Native American writer had this to say:
The culture, values and traditions of Native people amount to more than crafts and carvings. Their respect for the wisdom of their elders, their concept of family responsibilities extending beyond the nuclear family to embrace a whole village, their respect for the environment, their willingness to share–all of these values persist within their own culture even though they have been under unremitting pressure to abandon them. Rather than going to church, I attend a sweat lodge. Rather than accepting bread and wine from the Holy Priest, I smoke a ceremonial pipe to come into Communion with the Great Spirit. Rather than kneeling with my hands placed together in prayer, I let sweetgrass be feathered over my entire being for spiritual cleansing and allow the smoke to carry my prayers into the heavens; I am a Mi'kmaq, and this is how we pray. If you take the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone. Our bible IS the wind (unknown source).
Although viewed as relatively valueless by nineteenth-century white standards, these lands were places of spiritual value to the Natives, and some contained resources of immense worth. They maintained a land base and cultural identities, things that continued to set them apart, economically as well as socially and politically, from other ethnic groups or classes in the United States. With such an amazing love for and attachment to their beloved lands, what the Europeans did to the Natives was/is all the more painful and horrific. .
Nineteenth-century removal and reservation policies reduced the once continental scope of Indian lands down to “little islands in the stream of American settlement.” Reservation lands to which the Natives were being forcefully moved were generally undesirable and unwanted or remote environments of no real economic value.
The Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887 provided for the division of some reservations into individual holdings as part of an effort to transform Indians into fine, upstanding citizens. The U.S. government expected the Natives whose lands it had taken, forcing them to try to survive in areas foreign to everything they had known, to become so-called “idealized agrarians”—flourishing farmers and farm families. In subsequent acts, Congress opened Indian Territory, limited Native access to forests, reservoir sites, mineral and grazing lands, and even circumvented the land allocation processes in order to speed the transfer of lands into non-Indian hands.
These policies contributed to an 85 percent diminishment of land and resources that relegated Indians to the political and economic periphery of American society. By the early years of last century, the little land Native Americans controlled was mostly west of the Mississippi.
It isn’t possible to talk or think about traditional Native American attitudes toward nature apart from their belief not only in a divine creator or creators, but also in the “sacredness” of all beings and things in the created order. Because of their love and respect for nature, as well as their profound understanding of the created order, there is no spirituality separate from nature.
Brooke Medicine Eagle believes that her Native ancestors understood that “to be in harmony with all things was not only the highest and finest way to live, but also the most practical, useful, beneficial and abundant.” One of the many wonderful Native American myths has White Buffalo Woman insisting that the Creator created us humans one whole, one being.
Oral narratives and Native American ceremonies alike accepted the created order as a divinely created source of power and provision, and in so doing formed a strong union between culture and nature. Just as the Native American attributed particular human-like emotional qualities to the land itself, so also were certain sensibilities recognized in the earth’s “other inhabitants,” such as plants and animals.
At the level of individual behavior, the interaction of the Ojibwa and many/most other tribes with certain kinds of plants and animals in everyday life was so structured culturally that individuals acted (and act) as if they were dealing with persons who both understood what was being said to them and had feelings as well. According to Dennis Tedlock, “Seeing the earth as a parent, and therefore the creator of all things, inspired much of this rationale. Humans, plants, and animals all had an equal position and an equal responsibility to the creator.”
Native American spirituality offers the belief that everything is sacred. To express gratitude for the sacredness in all creation, Native Americans, for example, give thanks to animals who give their lives to be food or clothing for humans.
SACRED INSTRUCTIONS GIVEN BY THE CREATOR TO NATIVE PEOPLE AT THE TIME OF CREATION
• Take care of Mother Earth and all of humankind.
• Honor all life, and support that honor.
• Be grateful from the heart for all life. It is through life that there is survival. Thank the Creator at all times for all life.
• Love, and express that love.
• Be humble. Humility is the gift of wisdom and understanding.
• Be kind with oneself and with others.
• Share feelings and personal concerns and commitments.
• Be honest with oneself and with others.
• Be responsible for these sacred instructions and share them with other nations.
The Sacred Seven Prayers
O Great Spirit, who art before all else and who dwells in every object, in every person and in every place, we cry unto Thee. We summon Thee from the far places into our present awareness.
O Great Spirit of the North, who gives wings to the waters of the air and rolls the thick snowstorm before Thee, who covers the Earth with a sparkling crystal carpet above whose deep tranquility every sound is beautiful. Temper us with strength to withstand the biting blizzards, yet make us thankful for the beauty which follows and lies deep over the warm Earth in its wake.
O Great Spirit of the East, the land of the rising Sun, who holds in Your right hand the years of our lives and in Your left the opportunities of each day. Brace us that we may not neglect our gifts nor lose in laziness the hopes of each day and the hopes of each year.
O Great Spirit of the South, whose warm breath of compassion melts the ice that gathers round our hearts, whose fragrance speaks of distant springs and summer days, dissolve our fears, melt our hatreds, kindle our love into flames of true and living realities. Teach us that the one who is truly strong is also kind, the one who is wise tempers justice with mercy, the one who is truly brave matches courage with compassion.
O Great Spirit of the West, the land of the setting Sun, with Your soaring mountains and free, wide rolling prairies, bless us with knowledge of the peace which follows purity of striving and the freedom which follows like a flowing robe in the winds of a well-disciplined life. Teach us that the end is better than the beginning and that the setting sun glorifies not in vain.
O Great Spirit of the heavens, in the day's infinite blue and amid the countless stars of the night season, remind us that you are vast, that you are beautiful and majestic beyond all of our knowing or telling, but also that you are no further from us than the tilting upwards of our heads and the raising of our eyes.
O Great Spirit of Mother Earth beneath our feet, Master of metals, Germinator of seeds and the Storer of the Earth’s unreckoned resources, help us to give thanks unceasingly for Your present bounty.
O Great Spirit of our souls, burning in our heart’s yearning and in our innermost aspirations, speak to us now and always so that we may be aware of the greatness and goodness of Your gift of life and be worthy of this priceless privilege of living (Noel Knockwood). Amen.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.
Pastor, Silverside Church
Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation
Sermon Series Fall 2006
Name That Sermon!
The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects
October 1, 2006 Sermon #4
Science’s Challenge to Religion
As we continue this sermon series based exclusively on sermon topics members and friends of the congregation have given to me, we come today to the matter of science’s challenge to religion, and that was precisely how the subject came to me: science’s challenge to religion. Perhaps there have also been times when religion needed to challenge science. Or, rather than seeing the two widely divergent means of understanding reality as adversaries, perhaps we should be very careful not to pit them against each other in any way.
In any case, I can think of several questions today that each broad discipline might very well ask the other. Before we get to the questions, though, let us set out some foundational affirmations that I would hope most scientists as well as women and men of religion would be able to affirm.
- The world itself–including those parts that we can presently see and evaluate along with those parts about which we only have hints thus far–is an amazingly complex, intricately designed entity that has supported multiple types of animal and plant life for at least thousands of years.
- Astounding advancements in the understanding of enhancement of life have not solved all of the mysteries of life from a human perspective.
- Many religious groups attempted to understand their world in times and places of pre-science. Thus, many of the earliest commentaries about the world as well as human and animal life were pre-scientific even though the storytellers and writers did the best they could to explain the details of how the world came into being along with why certain good and bad, predictable and unpredictable things happened. In doing so, explanations were made about realms of inquiry that are now generally regarded as the “domain,” if you will, of scientists.
For example, most all ancient cultures bought into a pre-scientific view of the cosmos that has been roundly disproved by science. The earth is not, as a matter of fact, a big, flat slob of sod bounded by water into which one would fall were she or he to walk out far enough. That three-tiered universe; with a firmament protecting the earth from the waters above the flat earth and with columns holding the ground in place to keep it, largely, above the waters surrounding it and to prevent it from floating endlessly; never existed.
The proper functioning of the multiple parts of our planet rests on the natural order of things rather than upon the will and work of the gods and goddesses. Obviously, our planet is not getting sunlight because Apollo is hitching the sun to his chariot and driving it each day across the sky.
These early stories of how the creation of the earth happened along with why certain events recur–such as women having pain in childbirth and the breath of life eventually leaving every human body–have come to be called “myths,” which doesn’t mean that they are wrong on all counts. Their literary designation, “myth,” simply means that there is no scientific verification of their claims.
Some Indigenous American tribes passed along myths from one generation to the next, explaining that the reason humans and animals understand each other so well is because way, way, way back humans and animals intermarried. (The next time you see someone who looks exactly like her or his pet, you might reconsider the American Indian myth to which I just referred. Before either of us could drive, and lacking for opportunities of things to do in Halls Crossroads, my sister and I used to sit in public places where we found ourselves bored and pick out people who looked like some kind of animal. “She looks like a chipmonk.” “He looks like a ferrett.” And so on. We are one-eighth or so Cherokee; maybe we were seeing something that not just everyone can see!)
- Here’s something else that both religion and science has to affirm as truth since it’s historically undeniable. While many ancient cultures practiced a type of science by observing “heavenly bodies” as well as standardized ways of caring for the sick and even fine-tuning the processes of domesticating certain animals and plants, the first great strides for science in the western world came about by the interests and efforts of persons who were, primarily, church persons, clergy types even. In the middle ages, most every scientific advance was initiated by a devout Roman Catholic.
*Venerable Bede, in early eighth century, made strides in the study of geometry and astronomy along with a growing understanding of how the tides function.
*Albert the Great, a Dominican monk, who died in 1280, insisted that science and religion were not foes.
*Roger Bacon died in 1294. He was a part of the Franciscan order, and he furthered the study of geography and optics.
*Thomas Aquinas, died (1274) much sooner than did his mentor, Albert the Great, but he was not only one of the great “doctors of the church,” but also he furthered the development of chemistry.
*William of Ockham, an English Franciscan monk, is widely credited with having established the foundation for the scientific method.
The list could go on and on, but the truth is that at that pivotal juncture in the development of science, religion and science affirmed and supported each other.
Among the first several questions I should think science would raise in order to challenge many of today’s religious institutions is this: If God made the heavens; literally, “the skies”; and the earth, why is there any resistence whatsoever to vigorous, scientific study of any and all parts of the planet, its atmosphere, and its cosmic setting? Science, after all, can’t study what isn’t there.
A corollary question to this one from science to religion would be: How can you take an active part in destroying the beautiful earth that you claim God has created or, at least, how can you sit back passively as others do? If it’s God’s handiwork, why don’t you care that it’s being destroyed?
By the way, a little aside. In one respect, we could say that women and men of science–whether or not they are persons of faith–by their utter fascination with some aspect of the created order, take this breathtaking habitat of ours more seriously than do many of those who claim to be Christians or followers of Jesus. And let’s clear this up on the spot. Of course, there are many scientists who are also persons of faith. Being a scientist doesn’t keep one from making faith commitments and having a faith community connection. And being a person of faith doesn’t keep one from choosing some branch of the study and practice of science as her or his profession; neither does it keep a non-scientist from subscribing to SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.
Now to answer the questions about why some–and this is certainly not true of all–religious groups fear, resent, whatever it is the scientific study of the world that many religious folk claim their God created and why religious types react so passively to environmental disaster. Well, religion has egg on its face here.
There is absolutely no justification for fearing what the most rigorous scientific investigation might uncover. About the best religion has been able to do is to say something like, “Well, if God had intended for humans to do this or that, people would have been born in such a such way, or at such a such place.” Surely, you’ve heard this.
Now, plenty of women from conservative religious groups have pierced ears; yet, when I was growing up in rural east Tennessee, I heard more than a few preachers say that if God had wanted women’s ears pierced, they’d have been born with holes in their ears! I never heard any criticism of men’s pierced ears so it must have been ok for men to get theirs pierced.
I heard the same thing about the space program. If God had wanted women and men on the moon, they’d have been born there. In the very isolated part of north Georgia where my grandparents lived for many years, it was rather generally believed that women and men never did go to the moon or any where else in space; several of the folks insisted that what was seen on television were Hollywood fairytales put on a screen.
The folks I have more clearly in focus on this one are not those who think it’s impossible for humans to get into outer space, but rather those who know it’s possible and speak against it–in God’s name, of course. Some of those with religious opposition to science live by that fully, and are not inconsistent on the stands they take any where in their lives. They don’t consult with physicians or take medicine; they believe that doing such things would be tampering with God’s will.
The same myth of creation in which we are told that God created the skies and the earth impacted not only the ancient Hebrews in whose culture these kinds of theological reflections first circulated but many neighboring nations as well. In one of those stories, the first man, Adam, is called to participatory involvement in the creation process. Among other things, he has the duty of naming the animals.
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man [the adam!] 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 every 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 (Gen 2:18-20 NRSV).
In another of the stories, the humans are told to keep the babies coming AND to be the stewards of the created order. It’s interesting to me that conservatives latch onto this passage as PROOF that all humans are supposed to be heterosexual and actively contributing to the ongoing supply of other heterosexual children while essentially ignoring the environmental mandate in the same passage. In other words, they say, you can’t be gay in God’s world, but you can abuse the hades out of the environment in clear violation of scripture and still be in good with God! Of course, the passage was never intended as a put down either to homosexual persons or heterosexual persons who do not have children.
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.” So God created humankind in the divine image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over [that is, be caretakers of] the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so (Gen 1:26-30 NRSV).
This speaks to the environmental responsibilities that fall to the humans who inhabit the planet. From ozone depletion to erosion, from destruction of the rain forests (and with them a major source for the oxygen humans and animals must have to breathe) to pollution, we are killing ourselves and all other forms of life on this planet that we claim God created. Like I said, if scientists ask us about this, many of us in the world of religion just have to stand there with egg on our faces. We, in our religious groups are taking no real action to heal, save, protect the planet. This needs to change, and environmental scientists have the right to expect that those who testify to God’s role in creation to join them in loving the earth.
Next, science has the right to ask religious folk: can you deny that science has made the world a better place? Not everyone may be able or willing to give God the credit for getting us here and helping sustain us, but most people in parts of the world where there is any enjoyment of life have to admit that, at the very least, extended life expectancies, the near-disappearance of many diseases and the effective treatment or cure of those that were once a death notice, enhanced food production for the world, increasingly sensitive and accurate devices for natural disaster warnings reveal that science has made and is making the world a better place. Quality of life has dramatically improved for huge numbers of people around the world–thanks directly to science.
I was thinking of some wonderful gifts science has given religion–quite apart from the enhanced quality of life that many of us enjoy in our modern world.
- One of the first things that occurred to me was the means to preserve and date ancient manuscripts.
- Another gift is the archeological discoveries that have allowed Christians, for example, to better understand the geographical/cultural context for Jesus’ ministry.
- The ability to travel as extensively as we can travel today is a gift from science. At least, I for one, will not be flying on an airplane designed and/or constructed by a denominational or local church committee–regardless of how much they may have prayed over it! Travel makes it possible for us to visit the holy places connected to our religious traditions. Travel makes it possible for us to send help when people are in distress. Travel makes it possible for us to get ourselves to some of the places in the world where we think persons need to hear the good news of our faith.
- Science has brought us the technology to help us people of faith get our good news out. Now we can do that literally in a world context.
Earlier, I raised some questions that science might legitimately ask of religion today. I believe that religion at its best might have some legitimate questions to raise with science too.
One of the first that comes to my mind is: what do you plan to do keep your good or potentially good discoveries from falling into the wrong hands–ready and waiting to do evil with what you discovered? Religion should constantly be reminding all societies around the world of vital ethical concerns. This is not to say that scientists routinely lack ethics any more than I would have said earlier that all religious people and institutions lack scientific understanding. However, if scientists make their subjects, their studies, and their experiments essential to what makes them scientists, then the religions of the world should make the proclamation and practice of ethics across the board part and parcel of what makes them effectively “religious.”
- So, religion rightly wants to hear from the world of science what can be done to keep cloning from becoming yet another effort to try to create a “super race.”
- Related to that, where are neuroscience and brain-imaging heading? One writer says,
Functional brain imaging may not be able to pinpoint future criminals, but some believe it could predict who will be prone to future drug abuse, who might be telling a lie, who could suffer from diseases such as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis.....[A] future employer could conceivably use brain imaging to decide whether you rate a promotion. Future drugs could be used to keep nonconformists under control. Future brain implants could leave you wondering how much of “you” is really left.
- We in the realm of religion want to know how the continued use of nuclear energy can be kept from becoming some kind of impetus for more nuclear weapons. Why couldn’t we have the energy without the warfare? If warfare with nuclear weapons is inevitable, then do we need that source of energy badly enough to live with such risks?
- We want to know why we produce products that not only poison the environment during the manufacturing phase, but also pollute the environment once we’ve used them. We want to know why our society has made it cheaper on consumers to buy environmentally-destructive products rather than environmentally healthy products. In other words, why did science take liberties with the health of the environment in the first place? (Not that most religious types objected to environmental abuse!)
Here’s another big question from religion to science: since science cannot disprove the reality of deity, why couldn’t a benevolent, creative force beyond human understanding have had a part in bringing this world into being? And how would the scientific process be devalued in any way if such a God did/does, in fact, exist?
The fact is, none of us–from either the world of religion or the world of science–can PROVE the existence of God. Neither, let us be quick to confirm, can anyone or any field DISPROVE the existence of God. The matter is forever speculative from a human perspective.
It is silly for science to stereotype all persons of faith as naive if not brainless fundamentalists–all propagating a literal six-day creation plan after which God is said to have taken the day off. It is equally silly for women and men of religion to treat all scientists as godless faith destroyers.
Mark Friesel wrote:
The difference between faith and a conditional reliance on observation of the natural world is profound. It is the unresolvable difference between religion and science.
Even so, Albert Einstein insisted:
After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated, they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge.