Ayr: St Columba Church

Darwin Day

Sermon Sunday 16 February 2020
‘Darwin Day’

Lessons Genesis 1: 1 – 5, 24 – 27 St John 1: 1 – 5

Prayer of Illumination

Let us pray.

Wisdom of God, Creative Spirit, Life-Giver, at home among the stars, in the seas’ depths and the darkness of the human soul, inspire us afresh, fill us anew. May we walk the Earth with the spiritual heart of Jesus. Amen.

12th February is Darwin Day. Darwin Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the English naturalist, geologist and biologist Charles Darwin. Celebrations are held around the world. The celebrations not only recall the contribution of Darwin’s work to science but promote science generally.

Born on 12th February 1809, tributes have been made sporadically since his death in 1882. As time has gone on, the celebrations have typically been supported by Humanist and secular societies. These societies promote themselves as people who value science and reason. I often feel that the implication is that people of faith, like you and me, are unscientific and irrational: one can’t be a scientist (or, at least, not a real scientist) and also a Christian. Today we celebrate Darwin Day.

Religion and science are not at odds with each other. Few of us would challenge the theory of the ‘Big Bang’, the scientific view that the entire cosmos, including finite time, came into existence with a big bang. The theory of the expanding universe was first proposed in 1927 by the Belgian priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître. The first insights into the genetic mechanisms driving evolution, arguably a discovery as important as that of Darwin himself, came from the experiments with pea plants carried out by the Moravian scientist and Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel. Known as the ‘father of modern genetics’, Fr Mendel had no difficulty in writing the law of genetic inheritance and rising each day at 5am to offer praise to the Maker of heaven and earth.

A Belgian priest, an Augustinian friar and in the late 20th century, Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, was the project director of the international Human Genome Project. The project was set up with the aim of reading the entire sequence of three billion DNA pairs that make up the genetic blueprint of one person. Few people would know more about genetics than Francis Collins – and he was a Christian, a person of faith.

One story which keeps coming back to haunt the Church is that of the amateur astronomer Galileo. We know that in 1623 the Pope, Urban VIII, demanded that Galileo recant. Galileo was following the theory of Copernicus, the first Christian theorist explicitly to argue for a heliocentric cosmos. The competing scientific view was that the planets did indeed revolve around the sun but that the sun revolved around the earth. There was no religious trump card being played at this early stage: it was astronomers wrestling with mathematics and their observations of the stars and planets.

In 1613, Galileo’s most important supporter was Cardinal Maffeo Barberini. What is significant about that is that, ten years later, Barberini had become Pope Urban VIII. Why would Galileo’s most important supporter later demand that Galileo recant? The Pope was under enormous pressure because of the Protestant Reformation, and that took its toll. But, crucially, the scientific community which existed entirely within the Church, was not of one mind of these differing theories. Can you imagine scientists taking different views on a new, emerging theory?!

The Pope invited Galileo to write a book on the two chief world systems asking only that the Copernican theory be described as yet ‘unproven’. History records that Galileo was frequently an unpleasant and dominating man. Galileo published the book as a dialogue and included the statement which Urban had requested, but the statement was put on the lips of a clown, an obtuse character called Simplicio. The Pope was right: the Copernican theory was unproven but he was in no mood to tolerate Galileo’s insolence. A better pope might have stepped back from the insult, but Urban did not. The story of Galileo is not a battle between science and religion.

In the late 19th century, post-Darwin, many clergy in the churches accepted Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution. If there was friction with people of faith, it occurred when Christians insisted on a literal interpretation of Scripture. The preacher and mystic, George Matheson, was one of many who wrote on the subject. Matheson always looked at Scripture with imagination. In Genesis 1, we read, “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…’.” Matheson said that the ancients understood that the mechanism for creating new life is the earth itself.

It is your consciousness, in old language, your soul, which is you, the very essence of who you are. We are so much more than biology. It is said, ‘If you want to know what a person is, don’t ask a biologist; ask a novelist’. We can be taken apart cell by cell but still a scientist would never find you: who you are, what makes you ‘you, who it is that you love, and what fires your imagination. Evidence for consciousness is of a different kind. Consciousness exists imperceptibly in the physical. For me, God is the consciousness of the cosmos, of the universe: present, the ultimate life form, and imperceptible. The atheist Thomas Hagel, who does not want God to exist, has said that conscious organisms are among the most striking occupants of this universe; and the materialist understanding of biology does not account for it.

Do the physical sciences account for beauty, love, morality or selflessness? I shall never forget a lecture given by the physicist Professor Wilson Poon. Wilson holds the Chair of Natural Philosophy (Physics) at Edinburgh University. As the lecture drew to a close, Wilson left the lectern, sat at a piano and played the second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. It was exquisite. He returned to the lectern and said this:

I can give you a pretty exhaustive account of the physics
of what has just happened, in terms of waves and resonances and what not. A Professor of Psychiatric Genetics can give you a neurobiological account of what happens when we all responded in our different ways to that piece of music….But I have not yet met anyone who, in the face of music like that, is able to look me in the face and say that such scientific accounts are exhaustive, and nothing else needs to be said. I think many physicists are avid amateur musicians precisely because deep down, we know we need regular reminders that science does not have the last word. Beethoven does!