Evolution Weekend

“Pebbles Dropped in the Sea of History,” OR
“Calling All Snowflakes!” Susan Ryder

Since its inception in 2006, our congregation has regularly participated in the observance of “Evolution Weekend,” which occurs on the weekend closest to February 12, the actual birthday of Charles Darwin who, along with President Abraham Lincoln, was born 208 years ago today. Happy Birthday, gentlemen!

A couple of readings to share this morning – the first is a reading adapted from a longer Smithsonian Magazine article published in 2009, which was the 200th birthday of both men. The article was adapted from a book of essays entitled Angels and Ages: Lincoln, Darwin, and the Birth of the Modern Age by Adam Gopnki. I will share a link to the full article on the web site – it’s worth the read.

“We are all pebbles dropped in the sea of history; once in a while the drop of the pebble changes the way the ocean runs. On February 12, 1809, two boys were born within hours of each other on either side of the Atlantic. One of them, Charles Darwin, was born into an upper class family with a long history of free-thinking and radical beliefs. The other, Abraham Lincoln, opened his eyes in a dirt-poor, backwoods log cabin.

The obvious truths of 1809 included the “fact” that life on earth had been created a few thousand years ago in a hierarchy, with lower animals, going up to slaves, then women, and above them, men, and finally to a god judging us from above, in a “heaven.” People also believed that societies without a similarly hierarchical social order were weak and unstable. “Democracy” was a fringe ideal of a handful of radicals, as radical as ending slavery. Although some people opposed slavery, others thought it benevolent, saving blacks with Christianity. No era is completely monolithic, but on the whole, any other ideas were “fancy,” not fact.

By the time Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin died — the shape of history had changed, and the lives they led and the things they said did a lot to change it. Two small splashes had helped to change the tide of time. Very different beliefs, ones that we now treat as natural and recognize as just part of the background hum of our time, were in place. People were beginning to understand that the world was very, very old, and that the animals and plants in it had changed dramatically over the eons — and though just how they had changed was still debated, the best guesses, then as now, involved slow alteration through a competition for resources over a very long time. People were convinced, on the whole, that democratic government, arrived at by reform or revolution, was a plausible and strong way to organize a modern nation. Slavery in the Western world was finished. (Although racism wasn’t.) Most of all, people realized that the hierarchies of nature, race and class that had governed the world were false. Lincoln and Darwin can be seen as symbols of the two pillars of the society we live in: one representing liberal democracy, the other the many sciences.

Even mountains are made of pebbles, built up over time, and an entire mountain range of minds has risen slowly between them and us. Darwin and Lincoln remain high peaks within those mountains of modernity, and they look out toward each other. From the top of one you can see the other, and what you see is what we are.”

Matthew 5:13-15
Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.”

Two things struck me as I read the Smithsonian article this past week – the first is that thanks to the lives and work of people like Darwin and Lincoln, people began to realize that the world was in fact very old, and that its creatures changed dramatically over the eons, AND that democratic government was a plausible and strong way to organize a modern nation. Darwin and Lincoln are seen as twin figureheads of simultaneous revolutions in human political and scientific consciousness, as people came to realize that the hierarchies of nature, race and class that had governed the world were artificial. This resonated with me particularly because in recent weeks there have been strong attacks on these gifts from our 19th Century forbearers, as attempts to take us backwards have been mounted against them. Endeavors are being made to erase much of the science that most of us take as reality, and white men are running the show again, thumbing their noses at the checks and balances of our system while censuring certain women from speaking truth to power, and merely “counseling” others when they break the law. Democracy is at risk, along with all of humanity.

But the second takeaway from the article gave me hope – and that is that we are, ALL of us, pebbles dropped in the sea of history, and that once in a while a pebble or two can change the way the ocean runs. While one pebble may not always do a whole lot to alter the course, get enough of them together and you might just make a pretty spectacular splash. And there are some pretty amazing pebbles dropping into that ocean right now. The pebble image reminded me of how “get over it snowflake” has become the epithet of choice for right-wingers to fling at anyone upset by the results of the election. But I hope they keep in mind that if you get enough snowflakes together you get a blizzard. Just ask the people in the northeast this weekend what they think of snowflakes. As they say in Game of Thrones, “Winter IS Coming!” Just look at the turnout this past Tuesday at the IPA rally in Uptown Normal; or the crowd supporting Planned Parenthood in downtown Bloomington yesterday. Raise your hand if you were one of the snowflakes participating in one of those actions?

History reminds us that with any major change or shift of consciousness, there will be pushback. People longing for the “good old days,” whatever those were, or to “make America great again,” push back out of a perceived fear of losing something, and for a time they can create chaos with their opposition. But ultimately progress still happens – perhaps not as quickly or painlessly as we might wish, but it does happen – and we evolve into something new. Bob reminded us during his Evolution Weekend Reflection eight years ago that, “The existence of life on this planet involves struggle and adaptation, occasional success and frequent failure.” Certainly now might feel like one of those times of failure – but it can also be the impetus of revolution and evolution; a time when we evolve beyond identifying with nations and ethnicity, gender and socio-economic status, religion and political party, and learn to identify instead as citizens of the planet and subjects of the rules of ecology; a time when no matter what we look like or how we worship or who we love – we embrace the reality that we are mutually interdependent.

Perhaps then, we need Evolution Sunday and all it represents, more than ever before. Michael Zimmerman, founder of The Clergy Letter Project, wrote the following article for the Huffington Post last Sunday, in anticipation of this weekend, which, at last count, had 334 congregations from 45 states and the District of Columbia, as well as 7 countries outside of the US participating in the weekend along with us.

“For 11 years, religious leaders and parishioners have collectively recognized that science is a powerful tool, a way of gaining insight into the world around us, a means to bring us together. For 11 years, members of The Clergy Letter Project, the sponsor of Evolution Weekend, have worked collaboratively across religious differences in their shared belief that religion and science can strengthen one another. This year, this message, this celebration, is more important than ever. There are those among us who are promoting the conviction that scientific fact and personal opinion are interchangeable. There are those among us who are asserting that some religious beliefs are more righteous than others, that, perhaps, some shouldn’t even be considered religions at all.

At a time when “alternative facts” are equated with reality, it is important for people of faith to again affirm their trust in a worldview that, building on the Enlightenment, prizes the scientific method. At a time when mosques and temples and, more importantly, those who worship within their walls, are under attack by people who despise difference, it is important for people of faith to again come together and affirm their shared humanity. At a time in the United States when some among us claim that only certain types of Christians can be patriots, it is important for people of faith to again come together and celebrate the goodness that is in all of us. And at a time when evolutionary theory continues to be under attack in our public schools, when one narrow religious perspective is passed off as a scientific perspective even as the experts recommend otherwise (as has just occurred in Texas), it is important for people of faith to again come together to let their voices be heard. This is what Evolution Weekend has been about for the past 11 years. And this is what Evolution Weekend 2017 is all about this year. Now more than ever, the message of Evolution Weekend, of the compatibility of religion and science, of respect and dignity, and of understanding is of critical importance.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-zimmerman/evolution-weekend-now-mor_b_14629804.html

Bob also reminded us in 2009 that “One of the conclusions any thinking person has to draw from the study of science in general and evolution in particular is that the world is not organized for the safety or convenience of any individual or species – including humans.” In this age where “America First” has become the rallying cry of the new administration and its supporters, I would add that the world is not organized for the safety or convenience of any individual or species – not even Americans. Of course there will be those unwilling to adapt, who will try to hold on to a nostalgic past that never really existed the way it does in their minds, refusing to change. But the good news is that evolution favors the survival of the most adaptable, which is in our favor. As long as we don’t get tweeted into a nuclear war, that is.

Surely the next adaptation that will be required as evolution leads us into the challenges of the 21st century (over population, reduced resources, nuclear proliferation) will be our willingness to transcend identification with ethnicity or nation and see ourselves as one with all other people; indeed one with all other species on the planet. The old way of thinking, which worked for a time and helped us survive, prompts us to believe we cannot live with each other – we have to put up barriers and walls and build bombs and go to war to wipe out the threats we think come from those who are “other.” Just last week Bob reminded us that our minds are programmed by their very architecture to scan the environment for potential dangers – we’re wired for vigilance. When we see, or hear, or smell something that might hurt us we feel angry or afraid, which helps us either to fight or run away. This is a survival skill cultivated over eons of evolutionary history, and present in almost every sentient creature. It’s simple – animals that can detect threats from predators or rivals with enough time either to run away or defend themselves are more likely to survive, reproduce, and pass their genes on to the next generation. Fear and anger are very useful in certain situations – if you snooze, you lose.

But things are different now, we have evolved beyond those reptilian responses – and what is obviously and desperately required as the world population approaches 8 billion and nuclear weapons continue to threaten the very existence of the planet is to recognize that we cannot live, we cannot survive, without each other. Our well being depends on the well being of those detained in refugee camps Kenya and Greece, on the whales and polar bears and myriad other species that are being decimated by human activity. The question is whether each of our pebbles or snowflakes will come together to contribute to a new summit of spiritual achievement, or if ignorance will cause it all to collapse of its own weight.

Earlier I read the words of Jesus, who said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others.” Like Darwin and Lincoln, you are each a pebble, a snowflake, a light – how will your pebble dropped in the ocean of history have an impact? How will you join your snowflake with others to create a blizzard? How will you let your light shine before others? Here is one way – NCC is now a co-sponsor of, a monthly Social Justice Vigil, held on the second Tuesday of every month. The theme for this month’s Vigil is “LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR,” a Valentine’s Day vigil to support immigrants and refugees from 5:30pm to 6pm on Tuesday, February 14 outside on the Plaza of the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

What are some ways you will let your line shine? How can you join your snowflake with others to create a blizzard of justice? What impact will your pebble have when dropped in the ocean of history?

Closing blessing
The whole world holds her breath. What will we do together, this nation, in this moment in history? Could there be a better place to start from, than here, in this community? Listen to one another. Listen to the better angels of our nature. Go forth and build the beloved community. AMEN.