Pushing at doors, limiting options and the use of language - An address for Evolution Sunday

Today we are one of some 1,019 Congregations from all 50 States of the USA, the District of Columbia, US Virgin Islands and 15 Countries involved in Evolution Weekend 2009.

This project has been growing for a number of years now but this one is somewhat special, because, as I am sure you know it is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (12 February 1809) and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the Origin of Species".

In the words of the organisers:

Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic - to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself, which has now been signed by more than 11,000 members of the Christian clergy in the United States, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.

There are, of course, innumerable ways I could explore this issue with you today and none would do justice to the whole subject matter. Here I would like to note my thanks to Sam Rice, a geologist who has his PhD from Edinburgh, who has been a helpful dialogue partner in the creation of this piece. However, don't judge him on the contents of this address, I take full responsibility for its contents!

Anyway, I have chosen to base my brief address today around a two themes I have been exploring in other ways over the past year or so. Themes which, I think, will generate some useful thoughts.

The first is the fearless act of looking - and I mean really looking - at Nature; the second, which is alluded to in the "Clergy Letter" itself, namely, that "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts."

So to looking. I would like to note that looking at something does not mean that we see it - or rather we don't see that thing - or that nexus - in the fullest way possible. What we see relies heavily upon our current state of knowledge as well as the limitations of our cultural perspectives. One of the difficulties facing every human individual and culture is how we can continue to find strategies to draw us beyond our own present and always limited horizons so that we don't ever come to think that we have understood all there is to understand.

One of the major reasons I think we should be celebrating Darwin - and celebrating him as a human exemplar worthy of imitating in a general way - is not precisely because of his theory of evolutionary descent with modification - i.e. a theory concerning the origin of the diversity of species - but because of his ability (and bravery) to let the data speak to him in a way that forced him to enlarge his conception of the world and to accept, albeit a little reluctantly, that this enlarged conception would force a change in the way his culture would view itself. He helped enlarge humanity's horizons and open doors on new vistas. The mention of doors reminds me of a story told by Wittgenstein. He said: "A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push (Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. p.42)." Darwin looked at the "door" of data, thought, thought again and then pulled rather than pushed.

But, as we do this we must remember that the contemporary French particle-physicist Bernard d'Espagnat (On Physics and Philosophy, Princeton University Press, 2006) gently reminds us that "the information science yields serves to limit possible options, rather than put forward the allegedly correct one" (p.1) and continues by saying that "while Nature - in the broadest possible sense - refuses to explicitly tell us what she is, she sometimes condescends, when we press her tenaciously enough, to let us know a little about what she is not" (p.2).

Darwin's work reveals this process at work perfectly. Darwin did not present the world with a total theory about the overall, metaphysical nature of reality but offered simply a pragmatic, reasonable and coherent limitation of possible options and he did so on the basis of carefully collected empirical data. He was brave enough to press Nature tenaciously and lovingly so that, in Darwin's sphere of study, she slowly begun to him a little of what she is not. To pick but one example related to his work - colloquially and informally expressed - Darwin pressed her to tells us that she is not a flighty six thousand year old debutante but a considerably older lady who no less beautiful and wonderful for that. Nature has revealed to us that a literalistic understanding of the Biblical account of creation is simply not true.

This brings me to my second point today which is, as the Clergy Letter says, that "Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts."

In our ongoing series of Wednesday conversations this matter is being deeply explored by us and we do seem to be agreeing that our religious stories - primarily in our case, for historically contingent reasons, those contained in the Bible - that they do not convey (except by accident) scientific information. Taking seriously what Nature tells us she is not, the Biblical stories have become for us ones which are simply USED to help us explore basic existential and religious questions. As Wittgenstein noted the aim of the language-games of religion is not to figure out how the natural world works but to solve at what we commonly call the riddles of life.

So, to conclude and to lead us into conversation, like Wittgenstein I think we, as a liberal religious community, are prepared to affirm the belief that science is uniquely helpful in explaining how the world operates and we will continue to defend those who continue in this exploration. When science tells us how the world cannot be - such as those things Darwin showed us - we will take its results seriously and alter our world-views accordingly. Darwin stands today as a symbol of scientific free-thinking and so I give thanks for his human courage and careful scientific enquiry.

However, at the same time as we do this, we are a community that is aware that there are also things (or states of affairs) which are manifest to humankind that cannot be expressed by science (whether in equations or words); Wittgenstein calls them the mystical (TLP 6.522) and we know that, for all its extraordinary gains, that science cannot give answers to that strangest of questions "why there is something not nothing" - the matter of why there is a world at all. (Cf. Jonathan Miller's "Atheism Tapes" and his interview with Denys Turner).

Also - in passing, but very, importantly please realise that this doesn't necessarily mean one has to posit a supernatural cause or creator of the universe - as a follower of Spinoza, Epicurus and Lucretius I bear witness to that. Anyway . . .

It is in this way that a liberal religious community such as ours can, with honesty and integrity, honour both the great religious teachers of humankind and the great scientists. When they are forcibly separated by creationists or those who hold to a dogmatic scientism I believe it can be shown that the possibilities of humanity are diminished. But when they are taken together - collectively contributing to human understanding in their own unique, but interconnected ways (because they are both human eadeavours) - then their teachings and examples help us live ever enlarged and more fulfilled lives.
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