The Spirit and the Renewal of Everything – Golf, God, and Goodness
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 30, 2021
Readings: Psalm 104:24-3-8; Numbers 11:26-30
I was recently sent a fascinating interview of Jane Goodall from a magazine that looks at issues of faith and science. She was interviewed because she is both a person of faith and a person of science with a doctorate from Cambridge in primatology. I'm sure we are all familiar with her work with chimpanzees, and the knowledge we gained through her outstanding work. I gravitated towards this essay because I am very interested in the relationship between faith and science and she’d just been awarded the 2021 Templeton Prize in religion, so I knew this was an interview I should read.
I was astonished by what I read. I was astonished that she’d grown up in a Congregationalist household in the United Kingdom. Her grandfather was a Congregationalist minister and she’d grown up in the church in Bournemouth in Southern England, where her faith had developed. She does not go into great lengths about precisely how that faith has grown and developed over the years, but she does address the subject of the interview, the relationship between faith and science, between spirituality and scientific knowledge. There were three quotes that really grabbed me, and I think they’ll grab you as well. This are some of the things that Goodall said in her interview:
What I love today is how science and religion are coming together and more minds are seeing purpose behind the universe and intelligence. Einstein did, and my good friend Francis Collins does.”
I don’t think we can ignore this. We’ve got finite minds and the universe is infinite. When science says we’ve got it all worked out, there’s the big bang that created the universe. Well, what created the big bang? Our minds can't do it.
What’s fascinating me now is the news being uncovered about all manner of things that we don’t know about – it’s very exciting. When more scientists are saying there’s intelligence behind the universe, that’s basically what the Templeton Foundation is about. We don’t live in only a materialistic world. Francis Collins drove home that in every single cell in your body, there's a code of several billion instructions. Could that be by chance? No.
There’s no actual reason why things should be the way they are, and chance mutations couldn’t possibly lead to the complexity of life on earth. This blurring between science and religion is happening more and more, and scientists like me are more willing to talk about it.
Wow. I thought about what Goodall said, especially in light of our current context. Look, we have faced a health crisis of enormous proportions, and we’ve struggled to come to terms with it on so many levels. Some have also had a faith crisis and might be wondering where God is in the midst of all this chaos. Where is the hope in a pandemic? These two things have played on people’s minds, and they come down to a matter, really, of how we see science and the world, and how we see religion, how we see the role of our God in the world. We’ve heard many people say over and over again, “I believe in science.” Notice the language: “I believe in science.” We’ve heard others say, we must let science lead us, but at the same time, we get a mixed message. Scientists disagree on the outcome or the reason behind things. Scientists change their minds and there is not the same certainty. Things that we used to know scientifically, we now are unsure of, or are questioning. So, while as a society, we want to believe in science, we know that science itself has its limitations.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not in the camp that says science has no value, or we shouldn’t listen to it. On the contrary, I think that we should take science even more seriously than we have done. The problem has been that those ideas about science have sometimes been manipulated for political, social, or economic reasons. Science can be used, and science can be abused as well. Let’s be clear; science is one way of knowing, but it is not the only way of knowing. There is more than we can see, even with our scientific models and that’s what Goodall is getting at, that we live in a finite mind, but we live in an infinite universe, therefore even our scientific knowledge is subject to question.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Psalm 104 – though it’s not addressing the science-religion debate, because it’s hundreds, thousands of years before that – Psalm 104’s perspective is that creation has a purpose a reason for being. It does not go into issues that have arisen subsequently, of the relationship between scientific evolutionism, or creationism in the Bible. Those are issues of chronology, really. It goes right to the heart of the notion of a divine intelligence, to quote Goodall. A divine intelligence that created this world and formed it for a reason, and that God is behind this creation. This is also a marvellous psalm to delve into this Sunday because it is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate the fatherhood of God, the sonship of Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit,
This is also the time of Pentecost so I want to look at the role and the power of the Holy Spirit as the source behind this very creation that both science and our understanding of God, which is also finite, and restricted by our knowledge of where both come under the guidance and the strength of the Holy Spirit. But first, what is affirmed in this passage is that it is the Spirit, and that it is the wisdom of God that made the world. Look at the opening verses that we read today, that the manifold work of God created the world.
In Hebrew, the word for wisdom is chokmâh, which really is a practical word. Wisdom is how the Spirit, who moved on the waters, according to Genesis, then created the world. Wisdom implies that there is a creative, practical forming of things. Not just an ethereal idea, but an actual forming of them and chokmâh has two parts to it: it can mean an architect, or an artisan. An architect, of course, is the one who develops the design, the one who creates the idea of something.
I had a fascinating conversation a couple of years ago with two European architects who where here in Toronto, explaining how they were going to build and create the architecture for a building here in Toronto. In the Q&A afterwards, I asked them what their motivation was. They spoke in very scientific terms, describing the building as having a certain amount of light come into it, structural rigidity, the ability to be environmentally sustainable, to be able to accommodate crowds, to maintain a degree of longevity, and to blend in scientifically with the world for its safety. It was very well done and very well constructed, but I had a follow-up question, and I wasn’t trying to be smart, I was genuinely interested. I said, “There’s also a beautiful component to what you have done, where did that inspiration come from? We know all the science, but where does that come from?”
They said, “Oh, it actually came from the shape of a leaf that we saw on a tree.”
I took away from that a sense that it was nature itself that had been the inspiration for the shape. Science had created the structure, but it was the beauty that had been created, and the reason that it is attractive, through nature. I quipped, and there was some laughter, because they knew I was a minister, “Well, that’s good, so God had something to do with the design.”
They chuckled and said, “Okay, maybe you've got a point.”
The point is that chokmâh, wisdom, is that architecture, it is the design and the design is hard for us to fully grasp. I can't do it, I'm not a scientist, and it’s beyond my knowledge, but as Goodall is saying very clearly, science and religion can come together to understand what has been made.
There’s an artisan at work here too. It’s not just that God had a design. I like what the apostle Paul says that God is the potter and we – and the world – are the clay. God moulds and shapes it and not just the big things. What I love in this line is that it talks about all the creatures great and small, from which the hymn comes. Both the small things, the code that is within the human cells that Francis Collins has been looking at, in the billions as Goodall says. But also, the great sperm whales and the power of the natural world, both great and small are formed, are shaped, are given architecture by God. This is the language of the psalmist. It’s about the earth being made for a purpose and not being an accident. All things great and small.
This passage also implies that there is an engagement in this world, and that not only has God created all things great and small, but he has done it in a way to help creation itself. The changes of the seasons are referred to, the feeding of people and the earth providing for them, these are the things that the psalmist loves so much. So, the wisdom of God, the architecture, the handwork of God, is seen God’s creation. It’s a beautiful knowledge, and this wisdom comes from the Spirit who moved on the waters, came from God.
There’s a second part, and that is that the Spirit renews creation. God is intimately involved in things. The world that God made was not static, and I think sometimes people think of it in those terms. The language that the psalmist uses is dynamic about the involvement of God. He says, “Look at the ships on the sea, and at the leviathan in the waters, watch them.” Watch creation. Now, in the time of the writing, there was a Canaanite belief that God had created, but essentially left it to be chaos. The leviathan was seen as chaotic, that there was no structure to the world and that it was left to its own devices. The biblical view is that God not only came and made the universe, however it was done, but God was involved in it, even the psalmist says that the leviathan that God made represented chaos. Listen to what the great prophet Isaiah has to say in Chapter 51.
Awake, awake, put on strength, oh arm of the Lord. Awake as in days of old, the generations of long ago. Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the leviathan? Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to cross over?
You see, in the Exodus, in the creation of the world, God was involved, even the leviathan comes under the sovereignty, the glory and the wonder of God. God is the maker of it all and continues to redeem it.
I keep hearing people say, “We must save the world, we must save the Earth.” I'm a believer that it is not ours to save, it is God’s, and God continues to do this. Don’t misunderstand me; there is much in the Earth that needs renewing, protecting and changing. There are behaviours that we should modify, there are things that we need to do. But be under no illusion, the Earth is the Lord’s, and to the Lord we should turn for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit for its renewal and its maintenance. I do not believe there is only a scientific approach that can be taken to environmentalism. I think there can be a spiritual approach to it too, and Goodall is at the forefront of those discussions. It means that we approach things humbly, but that we treat the creation with even greater respect, knowing who the One is who made it.
The Spirit also renews those whom the Spirit makes. God continues, through the Spirit, to renew people. The great fear of the psalmist was that God would remove his Spirit from people and they would die. That if God removed his Spirit from the Earth and the world, the world would die, that it is dependent on this ruach, this wind, the Spirit of God, and that we rely on this God to help us to know what we should do with and how we should treat this world and each other. Science can only bring us to the point of a cliff in many ways, when it comes to how we deal with each other is where the Spirit comes into play.
In our passage from the book of Numbers, we have a story of the people of Israel in the wilderness with Moses, who filled by the Spirit, gathers seventy of his leaders, leaves the camp, and goes into a specific tent to seek the wisdom of God. Two men stay behind, Medad and Eldad, and the Spirit come upon them and they gave testimony and witness to where the people should go and what they should do, and how the Lord was going to lead them. Joshua, on hearing this, goes back into the camp and challenges Moses and says, “But Moses, you're the one who received the Spirit. Why are those who stayed behind – these two – getting a visitation from the Spirit?”
Moses recognised that it’s not just in him, not just in one chosen and set apart that the Spirit works, and said, “I wish all could have the Spirit that Eldad and Medad had.”
At Pentecost Moses’ wish was further fulfilled. God’s Spirit came upon his people and empowered them to live a life in God’s service in the world. I believe that in this world we’re in right now, that is our calling, to be open to the wisdom and the power of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives.
In this creation, and in this time of great concern, I think the words of Jane Goodall speak to us clearly. She was asked this: “What advice would you give to a ten-year-old wanting to become a scientist?”
She said, “I would tell them, you mustn’t be cold, you must have empathy. It’s the lack of empathy for subjects that’s led to so much cruelty to animals and others.”
Now, we’re even learning how these trees communicate. It’s such a fascinating world to live in. There is always something new to learn and what is new for us to learn, I believe, is the empathy, compassion, love and power of the Holy Spirit, who can renew us, and God willing, renews our world. Amen. To the Holy Trinity be all praise.