21st May, 2016
When Charles Darwin began his research that led to his famous publication, On the Origin of Species, he did so from the assumption that all livings things were unchanging. His initial assumption was that all living things had existed in their present form from the beginning of time. This may surprise you. Yet, as we know, through the course of his study he came to realise that nothing is unchanging, rather that all things change over time. It was this radical shift in his understanding of the universe that gave rise to our understanding of evolution. There is a nice symmetry in knowing that in order to create our understanding of evolution, Charles Darwin, at least at an intellectual level, had to evolve himself.
Religion is not different to any other aspect of creation. Like everything else we experience, religion has changed and developed over time, and will continue to do so. There is no single aspect of Christianity that has not evolved.
Religion, as far as we can tell, dates to the very beginning of human history. Some argue that religion developed because it gave some early human beings a competitive advantage, that is a fairly straightforward evolutionary explanation of the origin of religion. Others suggest that religion was a by-product of the evolving structures in the human brain, which developed to serve other purposes. Broadly speaking the first view takes a positive view that religion in some sense helped early humans, whereas the second view sees religion as more of an evolutionary accident.
Personally I am more inclined to think that religion evolved from an innate desire within humans to understand the nature of life, the universe and everything. After all big questions, require big answers.
I have mentioned a book to you before called Big Questions from Little People and simple answers from Great Minds. The premise of the book is that children ask the questions and a range of experts are invited to write answers. Within the book there is a single question that is answered by three different people. The editors of the book note that the question asked is so big it required more than one answer. The question is Who is God?
In response to that question, the author Meg Rosoff wrote, “Is God a man? Is God a Woman? Or a fish? Or a goat? Is God old or young? Fat or thin? …Is God invisible? Out to lunch? Listening carefully? …Does God live in heaven? On a cloud? In our heads? In the bible? Or no place at all?…
Some people think that God created people. Some people think that people created God. Some people think that their God is the only God. Some people think that there are lots of gods – hundreds of them! Some people are absolutely positively one hundred per cent certain that there is no God. Some people just…aren’t…too…sure.
Maybe God is a feeling. A nice feeling that makes you feel safe… Maybe God is like nature. Like a sunny day or a wave in the ocean…
No one can tell you that your God isn’t the right God, or that your idea of God is the wrong idea.
You don’t have to believe in God. God doesn’t have to believe in you. It’s your decision. And you can always change your mind.”
I think that is as good an answer as anyone could give.
It is not quite the answer that Paul gave in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts, but I assure you there is a connection between the thoughts I have shared and this particular text. While many have found fault with St Paul and it is easy to characterise him as something of a stubborn know it all, I think such an assessment is deeply unfair. While I have no doubt that in many churches this reading will be presented as a definitive answer to the question of Who is God? that interpretation overlooks Paul’s ongoing evolution as a religious person.
As a person of Jewish descent Paul had inherited an understanding of God as singular. Radical monotheism began with Judaism and became a defining aspect of western religion. Monotheism in of itself is one of the great evolutionary steps in religious belief. Paul’s speech to the people of Athens displays this particular cultural inheritance and would fit as comfortably in the Old Testament as it does in the New.
But, Paul has a layer of nuance that is often overlooked. While some interpret this passage as Paul asserting the truth of his religious conviction and thereby denouncing the pagan idols of the Athenians, that is not what the text tells us. Rather Paul places his vision within the crowded spiritual marketplace and affirms that the myriad of religious expression found in that place is born of a genuine search for the divine. Paul was not seeking to silence the views of others, Paul’s sermon was an attempt to contribute to and deepen the conversation. Just think, how would our interaction with other faith traditions change if we were to appreciate that our particular expression of Christianity is but one voice in a very crowded marketplace?
To treat Paul’s writings as absolute authority does him a great disservice. His journey led him from being a zealous persecutor of the followers of Jesus, to giving his life in service of this new religion. Along the way he struggled to reconcile the religion of his youth with the new experience he and others had of the risen Christ. The letters he wrote and the stories recorded about Paul, tell us the story of an evolving religious journey. To single out even a single word or phrase of Paul’s and uphold it as something that must be believed by all, is to utterly miss the point of Paul’s testimony. Like other prophets and teachers, Paul’s life does not tell us how to be religious, but rather indicates a direction that might be worth exploring.
I believe that at its best, the church is a place which allows different people to come together to share their personal experience of the divine and to share that journey with others who are seeking that which is greater than themselves. I think that when Paul established new religious communities he tried to create communities of exploration rather than churches of indoctrination. I say this because Paul himself was still in the process of working things out. Exploration, discussion and debate were the paradigms of faith that Paul lived by every day.