This week I went to a talk at Union Seminary in Richmond. The talk was entitled THE COMMON GROUND OF WONDER: HOW A BIBLICAL SCHOLAR WORKS WITH SCIENTISTS. It was led by William P. Brown, in fact, a Biblical scholar and a professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. It was theology light, though—it just didn’t have much substance, it seemed to me, anyway. We will see if I have enough material to wring out of it a viable sermon.
I will start us off today by talking about WONDER, which is where Professor William Brown started off. He quickly made the connection between wonder and awe. Awe—it’s a fair synonym for wonder, right? And awe and wonder, William Brown makes the case, are closely related to fear. So, wonder, equals awe, equals fear—but not exactly, right?
In fact, maybe like me, you have often puzzled over those passages in scripture that have to do with fearing the lord. I used one of them as our scripture reading for today, but I had lots of “fear of the Lord” passages to chose from: So for example in Psalms 111:10 we read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever;” and Proverbs 15:33, “The fear of the Lord is instruction in wisdom, and humility goes before honor.”
Probably all of us here, though, since we were very little, have been encouraged to love God; and there’s that scripture reading, that we have all memorized, God is love. Loving and fearing are opposites. You fear enemies. You fear a copperhead snake maybe, or a brown recluse spider, so are we really supposed to fear God? God is our creator after all, our father, our mother, our Abba, a word that Jesus uses for God, which means Daddy. What does it mean to fear our Daddy?
William Brown suggests that fear in the sense we usually use the word, causes us to stand back—we are repelled by things we fear; Fear, the way it is used by our Biblical writers, again, means a state of awe that pulls us in. We are curious souls, and the fear or awe that God inspires in us, is meant to and does in fact, stoke that curiosity. I’m quoting Professor Brown here, who was quoting someone else: “Wonder or awe or fear, is surrendering ourselves to the eros of inquiry.” The kind of fear that is mentioned in the Bible, then, is a compelling, alluring fear.
I have an example for you of this close connection between fear and awe. Seven or eight years ago, I visited my brother’s in-laws on the Big Island in Hawaii. Talk about living the good life! My brothers’ in-laws’ names are Barbara and Ray.
Barbara and Ray have been spending their semi-retirement years under the Hawaiian Sun. They both like to fish and they actually have a fishing boat which they take out on the Pacific Ocean. They have spent many hours out on the seas and they have lots of stories to tell about their fishing excursions. While I was there, Barbara sat me down at her television. She had a VHS player hooked up. Then she shared with me one of those stories while we watched a video.
She and her husband Ray were out on their boat. She had brought along her video camera. You can see on the film, that the sky is a Hawaiian blue. Water’s calm. Again, the good life. Off in the distance Barbara spies and then captures on video, a whale. Really cool, right? You know the water spout that whales make—she actually catches that with her video camera—and also the whale rolling around in the water—playfully. Aren’t whales truly one of God’s most awe-some, awesome creatures? That’s the awe and wonder I’m talking about.
Barbara continues to film that whale as he swims closer and then closer still. Yikes!! In the video you can actually see the close-up details of that whale—and without a zoom lens! Water splashes up on the boat. There’s ocean spray on the camera lens. The boat bounces and rocks; On the film you can hear Barbara and Ray talking excitedly, in obvious distress—“ What’s he doing ?! Do you think he could tip over the boat?! Oh no, he’s going to tip over the boat!”
That’s the fear part of awe. Awe and fear. See how closely they are related?
Do you want to hear the rest of the story? Ok. The whale doesn’t tip over the boat, or Barbara and Ray might not be alive to tell the tale—AND they definitely wouldn’t have been able to save that astounding video. Barbara continues to film as the whale plays with the boat, for I don’t know, maybe 15 minutes—then he says goodbye, at least Barbara thinks that he does and I do, too. He circles the boat, and then he’s off.
Fear and awe, different but closely related, you see?
Albert Einstein has said, that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible. That’s the way it is with whales—what do they think about? What is their motivation? We’ve dissected them, raised baby and small adult whales in aquariums, followed their swimming patterns, and studied their social dynamics. We understand whales, we understand God’s glorious creation, we understand God, to a degree, that God is love at least, but then again, there is so much left to understand. So we are in awe of them; we have a healthy respect for, dare we say, fear of --whales, God’s created order, and God, too. AND, we are always in the process of understanding more. I emphasize the word PROCESS here. A word, that Professor Brown used more than once. Process.
In his work at Columbia University, Professor Brown is trying to uncover the intersection between science and religion. He says that the cosmos itself is a process (there’s that word again) and not just a place. He says, for instance, that “God’s creative call has resulted in virtually countless stars and planetary systems, and new stars and planetary systems are continuing to be created.” There is that to hold in awe, and in fear, too.
Creation as process is evident in the very first chapter of our Bible-- in Genesis one. First, God created the heavens and the earth; then God created light and darkness, then water and land, and so on and so forth. We know, though, from science, that creation doesn’t stop with the creation of humans. God may have taken a day of rest, but on Monday morning, God was back at it! The created order continued and still continues to evolve. This is not a slow evolution as we might have learned about in school, either. You know life started with one cell protozoans, and bacterium, and then over the millennia more advanced creatures, plant life, dinosaurs, etc, developed and then, finally humans. Evolution is actually continuing to happen all around us, and at an extremely rapid pace, indeed.
In 1995, Jonathan Weiner wrote a fascinating Pulitzer Prize winning book about evolution—it is called the Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution for our Time. In that book, Weiner introduces the reader to a population of finches living on one isolated and therefore contained island which is part of the Galapagos Islands. Remember the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin did his own research? On this island, a married couple, the Grants, scientists both, studied 20 generations of finches. Through their meticulous study they were able to measure the evolution of the finches’ beaks--widening and lengthening, depending on the particular nuts and grains available—and those nuts and grains, in turn depending on the climate, including rainfall. We’re talking changes in beak size and shape over the course of a few generations—and in a short period of time. Weiner does not just end with the finches, though—he touches on the evolution of fish, and bacterial and viral populations—again, evolution seemingly on steroids. Evolution we are able to witness.
Professor Brown didn’t mention finch beaks, but he does say that God the creator, is still at work, molding, shaping the universe and all the creatures in it. Brown and Weiner both would agree that we are STILL in process.
There is actually a kind of theology that I learned about in seminary—called process theology. Process theology is based on the claim that God stands in the future—not that God has legs, but you get my drift—God stands in the future. Or better maybe, we are on a time line. We are here, obviously, our ancestors are behind us, and our progeny, our children, are ahead of us. Way out there, ahead of all of us, and our children’s children to the 100th generation and then some, is God. As we continue to understand more and more—and discover and explore, sending astronauts into space, developing new ways to treat cancer, but also making horrendous negative choices, going to war with each other, building ever more dangerous weapons, —God is leading, but God is also reacting and responding. I was trying to come up with an image—how about this one (which I am sure has been used before, so forgive me) -- God is a cosmic orchestra conductor—and with other living beings, God creates his living, breathing symphony.
Does that sound like an idea, a philosophy, a theology you could embrace? Don’t answer too quickly. Process theology is controversial. The controversial part of process theology is two fold. One: A process theologian will tell you that God is so caught up in creation, that God changes as creation changes. Is that so? If it is, we need to stop singing that hymn, Rock of Ages. God is not a Rock. God has never been a rock according to process theologians. God is dynamic, moving, changeable. Two: A process theologian will tell you that God is not all powerful. What? God is dependent on us and the rest of creation just like that music director is dependent on the tuba player and every single violinist in the violin section to create his symphony. God is dependent on us, just as we are dependent on God. God and humans and all else that is living and breathing-- are co-creators. Is that so? That’s for YOU to decide.
And this is where I have to leave off, because the time was getting late on Monday when I was in Richmond, listening to Professor Brown’s lecture. He wasn’t finished, but I wanted to beat the rush hour traffic in Richmond. I leave you with one last quote from Professor Brown, though. It seemed to me a fitting end to this sermon. He says this:
“Scientific inquiry has provided descriptions and ever more profound understanding of God’s creation….The first task of an effective contemporary evangelism must begin with an assent to the creation that God has indeed been calling and is calling into existence.”
To quote Jesus, New wine calls for new wine skins.”.
Something to think about. Thanks be to God. Amen