“Darwin’s God” by Mark W. Harris – April 22, 2007

“Darwin’s God” for Earth Day – Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – April 22, 2007

Opening Words – from Susan Griffin

We know ourselves to be made from this earth. We know this earth is made from our bodies. for we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature speaking of nature to nature. The red-winged blackbird flies in us, in our inner sight. We see the arc of her flight. We measure the ellipse. We predict its climax. We are amazed. We are moved. We fly. We watch her wings negotiate the wind, the substance of the air, its elements and the elements of those elements, and count those elements found in other beings, the sea urchin’s sting, ink, this paper, our bones, the flesh of our tongues with which we make the sound “blackbird,” the ear with which we hear, the eye which travels the arc of her flight. And yet the blackbird does not fly in us but is somewhere else free of our minds, and even now free of our sight, flying in the path of her own will.


I saw a stupid movie this week. Andrea and I took the boys to see “Are We Done Yet,” which as you may or may not know is a sequel to “Are We There Yet?” In this movie a blended family moves to the country and buys a house which turns out to a be a disaster, but eventually all the anger and tears turn to joy and love prevails, and the house is rebuilt. At one point the Dad, named Nick encounters a little chipmunk who he is lovingly communing with, when out of nowhere a large shrieking owl soars through the open window, scoops up the chipmunk, and flies out another open window, to enjoy his tasty supper. Of course it was suppose to be a time to laugh, but the real irony is that cute little, cuddly nature is not so nice when the realities of life and death are added to the picture. Many of us were aware of the realities of nature this week. First, there was the nor’easter pounding the coast, just as Andrea and I drove off to Maine to open our cottage. Our beach was cascaded with debris, and houses just below us were inches from being hit. People in Saco at Ferry Beach were not so lucky. Surf Street where we walk every summer was wiped out, with houses toppled, and the road crumbled. We also had a grim example of a human being whose anger and pain exploded in the worst example of personal violence in US history – 33 dead in Blacksburg. How do we explain such an incident? It becomes difficult for the religious person to quote passages such as Psalm 8, where the writer calls out to God, when I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers . . . what is man, that thou art mindful of him? For thou has made him a little lower than the angels .”

In our sadness and grief over how the creation and its creatures can all go wrong, the more common response to the universe might be that which Jesus purportedly made on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken us? But perhaps we are asking all the wrong questions in all the wrong places. In the last decade or so there has been an ongoing battle between liberals and evangelicals over the heart and soul of America. With the films we are showing over the next two months, you will see that portions of both camps are trying to coalesce around the issue of how we care for God’s creation. Bear in mind that this is not an easy alliance. Whether they are quoting Psalm 8 or the Psalm 22 that Jesus uttered on the cross, evangelicals believe that God makes things happen with a larger purpose in mind, and are hard pressed to accept purely random events or human freedom. I sometimes hear UUs say everything happens for a reason, and wonder what they mean. If God has some reason to provoke a man to gun down 32 people, it is not a God I want to believe in. If we can fashion some meaning from our grief and loss, or change behaviors in people and cultures as well, then perhaps there is a larger meaning we can fashion, but this is after the fact. This need to find religious truth in something which lacks meaning reminds me of the evangelical revulsion toward the scientific theory of evolution. Many evangelicals want to believe that the Biblical account of creation is also good science. As religious liberals we argue that it is an ancient metaphor which has both poetic and religious meaning, but it is only one of many creation stories about the origins of the world, and it has no scientific validity. The problem is that liberals want to argue good science versus bad, and the evangelicals are not really talking about science at all.

The origin of human life as they believe it to be has more to do with how they view the meaning of life than it does scientific beginnings. Several years ago Ellen Goodman reported from a reader from Grey, Maine, who wrote to her and said, “the real issue is not creationism versus Darwinism. The real issue is, “Does God exist?” I remember some late night talks with my father about evolution. He would always end up saying, “you’re not going to tell me I come from some ape.” Of course he didn’t want to think of himself as coming from some lesser animal. He wanted to believe that he was truly a child of God, and not of King Kong. But there was also a moral implication. If we are just another animal then we have no innate moral sense, and cannot control what we do. Animals act on impulse and instinct alone. Perhaps the most painful aspect is not simply that we are just another animal, but that we have no special place at the pinnacle of God’s creation. We are not really created in God’s image; the Bible isn’t really true, and the creation is some kind of random crap shoot. If we are not created by God in our present form for his special purposes, then evangelicals conclude, life has no meaning. It is important for us to understand how difficult accepting evolution is for a creationist. It is not about science; it is about the complete meaning and value of life.

It is unfortunate that evangelicals make the jump from evolution to atheism, or worse that there is no meaning in life unless we operate under the auspices of a God who is in total control of everyone and everything. While there are no factual discoveries of science, evolution is about as close as we can come to say this is how nature is. But these discoveries in no way lead us to ethical conclusions about how we should behave or the meaning and purpose of life. Evolution after all has been variously depicted as a winners and losers kinds of science. Do we want a survivalist mentality forming the basis of our morality? These questions about morality and meaning are what religion should be concerned with. We know that creationism is no valid kind of science, but neither is evolution a very good religious substitute. We do need to make a distinction between Darwinism and evolution, because Darwinism has usually been an interpretation of Darwin’s theory that the survival of the fittest point of view is not random chance. Some said that Darwin’s God was one who favored and preserved certain species, the ones that survived, and this was the purpose of evolution. But Evolution is more about change, and how organisms adapt to change, and evolution is blind as far as favoring or preserving species. Michael Dowd, a Unitarian Universalist, who travels the country telling what he calls, The Great Story discovers a religious perspective rooted in evolution. Dowd says we have always viewed the creator as a mechanistic clock maker who is outside of creation acting upon it. Darwin’s God then needs to be one that is in the creation with us, and not over us. Dowd says that the whole of reality is creative, and that we are part of that process. God is the sum of this creative process, and meaning emerges from the process, just as new life forms emerge. Where I disagree with Dowd is that he sees science as theology, and makes all change creative, thus giving it a positive spin, where other scientists prefer to call this change, emergence. The crucial question is where the human moral obligation comes from, as creativity alone will not provide that. Thus we may need to return to religious story and myth to find meaning.

People sometimes say that the problem with substituting evolution for the creation stories is that it is simply cold, hard science. Marilynne Robinson in her book, The Death of Adam makes two key points with regard to the Biblical stories that we can still find helpful. What is perhaps most apparent about global warming is that we see human defects are sufficient to bring the whole world down. Think she says, of the consequence of Adam’s actions. They are driven from the garden, the traditional fall, but that fall is presented as the fate of the whole living world. The story makes clear that our species could put an end to life on the planet. That grim fact needs to be infused into the creativity equation. Despite this potential fall, there is this idea of being created in God’s image. Psalm 8 speaks to the cold distance of an outside creator, and reduces the distance to nothing. Whatever there is of God is with us here and now. God visits us, is mindful of us, and so the miracles of the creation are not beyond us in an external creation or creator, but are in us and with us. This is the scene of the moral directives, and the divine potential for miraculous truth and justice must emanate from us, especially if we have people espousing a Darwinism of competitive combat of good, better, best. We cannot look beyond the world to a great mystery to save us, when we must invoke the moral imperative with what we see before our eyes.

The God in us calls us to use our moral imaginations to save the world from the destruction we could bring upon ourselves. A few weeks ago we had a wonderful lay led service given by three of our members. They told why involvement in the environment is so important to us now. Jean Merkl reminded me of two things, especially relevant to Unitarian Universalists. Most of us do not grow up in nature. We are city dwellers who must find the garden in our own backyards. Too often we liberals have assumed we could only find meaning in pristine nature, because we have the economic resources to find our own garden by buying up land, living in a leafier suburb, or vacationing in nature. We may even have substituted a beneficent nature for a beneficent God. Yet Thoreau’s Concord and Merrimack Rivers are not always peaceful and sublime. Sometimes they flood, and homes are destroyed and people die. Even if we believe God is the force behind evolution, it feels like a painful pill to swallow. A God who loves each of us is hard to reconcile with evolution. Annie Dillard tells us that “evolution loves death more than you or me.” There is no right and wrong in nature. Once upon a time I made the unfortunate choice of getting in the path of a rogue wave and was crushed on rocks and frozen in water, but it wasn’t the rocks fault. The universe does not care about me, but as Dillard says, what I can do is crawl out of the wave, if I survive, and shake my fist, and say, Shame! Of course we cannot presuppose that the universe is intended to be moral. It is not. But out of this world of chance and death, the universe has produced wonderful us. And you cannot have life without death. It is that simple. Dillard as much as admits that the world has signed a compact with the devil. But it loves death not so you and I can have some packaged salvation to save us from our fate, or even that my life is eternal, but for the larger truth that life goes on. It is life that must be eternal, and life that must be celebrated for its miraculous and divine nature.

A couple of months ago Mark was preaching about interconnections. In that sermon he spoke of the Quabbin Reservoir, which is the part of Massachusetts which I hail from. My son Dana is named for one of the drowned towns. Some years ago in an article about the Quabbin, an accidental created wilderness, it stated that forms of aquatic life that existed in deep water lakes in New England in prehistoric times had been spawned again in the waters of Quabbin. The appearance of this life reminds us that we do not always make the choice that Adam did in the creation story. We can be the engines of evolution that drive it to recreate life, and not destroy it.

For 18 of the last 22 years I have lived in Watertown or just over the border in Nonantum. It is congested here with roads and malls and small house lots; some would call it urban. I like it here, even if my colleague who lives in Wellesley chides me for relishing the non-bucolic sounds of sirens. There are some days over all these years when I have chosen to avoid the business sections of town, and drive down Charles River Road, and pretend momentarily that I am cruising through nature’s beauty, like a return to the old fishing grounds of the Micmacs. What is interesting about this impression of nature of getting away from the ugly chaos of urban life to the soothing effects of nature is the idea that nature will heal us from ourselves. We need to get away from what we have created to be whole; it is almost a hatred of self. This is a romanticized view of nature that we have often embraced as liberals. We say we have to get back to a more natural garden rather than use our own hands to create a garden for all. The second thing I liked about Jean’s talk was that there was no sense of class privilege of who gets to have what resources, but that to create a garden for all, we need to share more equitably in the resources. It is not about me having the politically correct coffee, but about producing food to feed all those who are hungry. How do we find balance between nature and community?

Wallace Stevens wrote the poem Sunday Morning to portray how he absented himself from church forever. Religion is played out as a future sun worship which replaces the Jesus cult.

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measure destined for her soul.

In the end he gives up an abstract heaven for the pleasures of this wonderful earth. Stevens finds ultimate meaning in this creativity. The modern problem of meaning is that he feels no kinship with a natural world that seems indifferent to human pain and suffering. He cannot find a God who relieves the pain. The chaos of historical events in the larger world and the emotional intensity in our private lives shows no larger pattern of ordered meaning like the evangelicals hope to portray through their lives beginning with an ordered creation story. Is there a third alternative whereby meaning is forged not through an orderly God who controls nature, or through a romantic, but naive nature worship?

How can we invest the indifference of nature with religious meaning? In her book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes, “When the roar of the flood waters come, water and rocks and trees are mutely indifferent, but when the myth maker recounts the story of the flood, the tree is invested with the capacity of compassionate speech: I, too, feel the waters rising, and see that you will drown; take hold of this branch.” So the indifferent tree can be made to save the person from a sure death. While the world may confront us with chaos and death, we can respond with words or actions that will not allow death the sting of victory. We find and create pockets of meaning out of the circumstances we find ourselves in. The creation myth of Genesis has often been portrayed as an ordered sequence of events where God has a linear plan for exactly how life will unfold. Wallace Stevens says we can create islands of solitude, and this is where Annie Dillard places her concept of freedom. We must know that the freedom we have can be used to create beauty, and not urban blight.

We use our human touch to heal and restore nature. This is what the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted wanted to do. While the rich could get away to the country, he wanted to create natural settings in the city where all people regardless of class, could be restored from the stresses of city life. He knew of the curative power of natural scenery, as we all do simply by the lift we feel with the arrival of spring and the color of daffodils in our eyes. Everyone should be given a chance to be healed by divine beauty. Religiously speaking it would be like the famous pools in Jerusalem, where it was reputed that just north of the temple, there was a pool called Bethesda where anyone could go to be healed. How can our hands recreate Eden in our own lives? Our Green Sanctuary program points each of us in this healing direction – a smaller footprint, use of more local and natural resources, using our bodies more, cleaning up our refuse, creating gardens. We all play a hand in creating and seeing these natural settings. As Olmsted said, “What better worth doing well than planting trees? Each of us has the ability to find the creative capacity to help Darwin’s God live in our lives, and in our community. We plant the tree, and it speaks to us of helping life continue, and making Eden be real. We feel the spiritual oneness of the creation, not only when we get away to the ocean or forest, but when we help create it with our hands in the communities we inhabit. While we may not be able to find the creator God any longer, it is up to us to recognize the divine creativity of the world in ourselves and in the communities we build. At times we need to rest from the world, to remember how attached to it we are. Evolution reminds us that this is our moment in the sun now. The divine in us reminds us to let ourselves shine by healing the earth with our lives and our actions, so that this world we call home remains the only garden there ever was or will be.

Closing Words – from Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
or grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Reverend Mark Harris
Minister | + posts

Mark was minister at First Parish from 1996 until he retired in 2019. Mark’s ministry was grounded in the importance of carrying on the traditions of the congregation and the UU faith. He loves congregations like First Parish where everyone ministers to one another, and the community is central. On his retirement in June 2019, Mark received the title Minister Emeritus.