Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister



“Finding God in an Evolving World”

Sunday, September 20, 2009



Psalm 139: 1-24


 Rev. Dean Snyder

I want to tell you this morning what I think. Actually, I tell you every Sunday what I think, but this morning what I am going to tell you is more speculative on my part than usual.


This morning I want to talk about something that I don’t think there is much of a consensus about within the Christian theological community. The question is this: what does God do and how does God do it in a post-Darwinian understanding of the world? Really, the question is: What is there left in the world for God to do after we’ve explained so much about how things happen?


The problem really goes back to before Darwin but Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection really exacerbates it.


Scientific discoveries keep crowding God out of the world. This is a problem I have been thinking about since I was 18 and took my first religion course in college. Scientific discoveries keep crowding God out of the world.


People used to believe that God made the sun rise in the morning and that God set the course of the sun in the sky every day. People used to believe God made it rain. People used to believe that God made crops grow and produce a harvest. People used to believe that God made babies. People used to believe that these kinds of things were individual and specific decisions of God.


Then, through observation and measurement, we discovered that there are natural laws which govern the sun rising and its course in the heavens. We can actually accurately predict when the sun will rise and the course it will travel next week and next month and next year.


We discovered that there are natural laws about humidity in the air and temperature and condensation points that determine when it rains. We discovered how photosynthesis works, and the natural laws that explain plants growing and producing fruit. We figured out what makes babies.


And it feels as if God gets pushed into a smaller and smaller role in the world until you wonder if you really need God for anything other than an explanation for how the whole thing started. We don’t know what was before the Big Bang yet. Some cosmologists believe we never will. Otherwise lots of things make sense now without God as an explanation. Anybody else ever have this problem besides me?


I’ve had a couple of people tell me after last week’s sermon that they just don’t understand the problem. They don’t get the issue. Every time I’ve been told this I’ve thought, “Well, that person must be more spiritual than I am.” But then it occurred to me, “Maybe they are just less rational.”


Anybody else have this problem? If we have natural explanations for almost everything, other than setting the operation in motion to start with, what does God do? And how does God do it?


One of the phrases used to describe this problem is “God of the gaps.” Henry Drummond, a Scotch scientist and theologian, introduced the term in the 1890s in the Lowell lectures in Boston. In the lectures he scolded Christians who point to the things that science can not yet explain as a justification for believing in God. He called them "gaps which they will fill up with God." He urged Christians to embrace all nature as God's. He said, “The God of Evolution is infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.”[i]


Two generations later Dietrich Bonhoeffer was still worrying about the same problem. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer wrote:  " wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know."[ii]


The scientist Richard Bube, who read Bonhoeffer, said Darwin’s The Origin of Species was the death-knoll of the “God of the gaps.” If we don’t even need God to explain the emergence of homo sapiens anymore, then there are no gaps that really require a God hypothesis except maybe the Big Bang.[iii]


In a world where there are natural explanations for almost everything, where is there place for the supernatural?


This is how the philosophy and religion of Deism emerged. Deism believes God started creation off and then let it run itself. God started everything. God wound up the clock, but has left the universe to run itself ever since.


Deism was the predominant European philosophy during the 18th century. Some people talk about the United States being founded on Christian principles, and Christianity was influential, but many of the most intellectual of American founders were not Christians but Deists. Thomas Jefferson was a deist. Benjamin Franklin wrote somewhere that he read a book of sermons arguing against Deism and it convinced him to become a deist.  James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine – deists.


If evolution is driven by natural selection, then what do we need God for other than to start the process?


You understand that when Darwin talked about survival of the fittest, he wasn’t talking about survival of those who go to the gym the most? He was talking about survival of those who are best suited to the environment in which they find themselves and thus most successful at reproducing. Really, it is survival of the most adaptable…those able to change and adapt in order to fit the environment as it changes.


I have a friend who says that he is a dinosaur. What does he mean? He means that he has stopped being able to adapt to fit the changing environment of his life. Don’t become a dinosaur.


Darwin came up with an explanation for the evolution of human beings that did not require a God hypothesis. Those species most suited to their environment tend to adapt and survive and the eventual result is humanity…although he only hinted at this in The Origin of Species.


God has no role to play other than to set off the process.


Many of us are practical deists. I am at least a partial deist. There are things I would not want God interfering in. I would not want God interfering with baseball, for example. If the Nats are going to win or lose, let them win or lose on their own. If God interfered it would not be right. If they deserve to win, they should win. If they deserve to lose, they should lose. God fixing games would take the fun out of baseball.


No matter how much I might want a parking space, I myself would rather not have God moving cars. I know some of you feel differently about this, but there are just too many problems in life if God moves cars.


I am actually grateful that God doesn’t change the rules every day, or week, or month. What if God decided that for the rest of today we should breathe helium rather than oxygen? Most of the helium is up high, I think. I’m afraid of heights. I’d be in big trouble.


What if God decided to reverse the law of gravity for the next hour? What if God nullified the power of soap to kill germs?


Really, there are more things that I would want God not to interfere with than things I would want God to change. That’s just me.  


This is all about the question – What does God do in a world where we can explain almost everything in terms of natural causes?


Each of us needs to figure this out for ourselves…unless you are so spiritual that it is not a question for you. 


So I am going to say a little bit about what I think, not because I want you to think about it the way I do but because I want to encourage you to think about it in a way that works for you. This is just what I think. You don’t have to think it.


Here’s what I think: I think God is a very long-range planner. One of the way God works is very long term. II Peter 3:8 says: “…with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day.” That’s just an estimate. I think God works out whatever God is working out over a very, very long time.


Psalm 139 says to God: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” I think God was doing that about the time that blue-green algae were turning the earth’s atmosphere into breathable oxygen 2,000 million years ago.


I think God was knitting me together in my mother’s womb 375 million years ago when sea creatures were learning to walk on dry land. I think we are wondrously made and it took billions of years to do it.


I think one of the ways God works is very, very long term. You don’t have to think that. That’s just what I think. This is very speculative. I’m just trying to figure it out.


Alfred North Whitehead, a great philosopher, had an argument with Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest and natural selection.


In 1925 he wrote a wonderful little book of less than 100 pages called The Function of Reason. Here’s what he says:


I must … join issue with the evolutionist fallacy suggested by the phrase “survival of the fittest.” … Only inorganic things survive for great lengths of time. A rock survives for eight hundred million years, whereas the limit for a tree is about a thousand years, for a [person] or an elephant about fifty or one hundred years, for a dog about twelve years, for an insect about one year.


In other words, if the goal is to survive the longest, a rock wins.


Whitehead writes:


…there is a factor in evolution which is not in the least explained by the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. Why has the trend of evolution been upward? [Inorganic matter has evolved into organic life. Animals have not adapted to the environment to survive.] Animals have progressively undertaken the task of adapting the environment to themselves. They have built nests, and social dwelling places of great complexity; beavers have cut down trees and dammed rivers; insects have elaborated a high community life…


He continues:


The simplest living things let their food swim into them. The higher animals chase their food, catch it, and masticate it. In so doing they are transforming the environment for their own purposes.


Whitehead argues that the driving force of evolution is not survival but something else. It is, he says, a threefold urge: The urge to live, the urge to live well, and the urge to live better.[iv]


Evolution is not merely survival of the fittest. Evolution is either driven toward life and meaning or it is drawn by life and meaning. And God is somewhere in that mix, I think.


To say that evolution is driven or drawn toward life and meaning suggests something to me about what God is up to, and the way God works. God’s work is very, very long term.


Survival of the fittest, by itself, doesn’t explain why evolution has a direction.


I think one of the ways God works is with billion-year long range plans. I just think that. You don’t have to.


Here another thing I think. I think most of God’s work is terribly subtle. I actually don’t think most of what God does is what we would really consider doing much of anything.


This is what I’ve learned in my current phase of parenthood…being a parent of adult children. Generally speaking, the less I do the better.


The less I tell my grown kids what I think they should do the better. The less I try to get in there and fix up their messes, the better. I mean, I want to fix up their messes, but when I do, it turns out to be highly likely that they will get in the same mess again.


You know what the most important thing I can do is? I think, at least. I think the most important thing I can do is to communicate to my kids my confidence in them and to tell them that I will love them no matter what happens. And that usually, to me, doesn’t feel as if I am doing hardly anything at all.


Sometimes the best thing a parent can do is to wait…which feels like you are doing nothing at all. The best thing you can do is just wait. You know Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. The most important thing the father did was to wait and watch. (Luke 15: 20)


I think the most important kinds of things God does are very subtle and may not seem to be doing much of anything at all. God believes in us. God has confidence in us. God loves us. God forgives us. God waits for us.


I think maybe sometimes God greases the skids. I think God maybe sometimes slows things down a beat. I myself think God rarely moves the furniture. That’s just what I think.


In WIN – the Washington Interfaith Network – we have a motto called the Iron Rule. It is this: “Never do for someone else what they can do for themselves.” It only makes people weaker. It only makes people more dependent and less free. God loves freedom. I think God follows the Iron Rule.


You know what the hardest part of learning to be a pastor has been for me? Learning that it is not my job to fix people’s problems. It is my primary job to listen and understand and have confidence in them. Sometimes to communicate encouragement. Sometimes to communicate forgiveness. Thinking that you have to fix people’s problems is demeaning to them. Tiring for you and insulting for them.


In the first churches I served I over-performed. I worked day and night and built up the church. When I left they were worse off than when I came because I had done their ministry and not built up their capacity for ministry. They grew while I was there and declined when I left. That is bad ministry.


I don’t think God is a bad minister. I think God is constantly building our capacity. That’s just what I think. You don’t have to think that but it would be good for you to think something. I encourage you to think it through for yourself.


I think God preserves the rules of the natural order. I think God enforces the law of gravity, and I am grateful God does that because I hate heights. I wake up in the morning and if I am not floating up by the ceiling that is a great thing. Great is thy faithfulness. I’m so glad, God, you did not repeal the law of gravity overnight.  


I think God makes and implements very, very long range plans. I actually think that God draws creation toward where it is headed rather than that God drives it or pushes it. I think God invites us more than God forces us. But that is just the way I think about it. You don’t have to think that way.  


I think God is very subtle and that the most important stuff God does doesn’t look like anything at all to most people who are watching. God believes in us; God loves; God waits; God forgives.


You may think God moves cars and, if that works for you, I have no quarrel with it. I’m just telling you what I think. I think God is very subtle and that the most critically important things God does wouldn’t look like much at all but that they save the universe every day and they save you and me everyday. That’s just what I think.








[i] Henry Drummond, The Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man (New York: J. Pott & Co., 1894) 334.

[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Prisoner for God: Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald H. Fuller, ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1960) 142.

[iii] Richard H. Bube, “Man Come of Age?” JASA 30 (June 1978): 81-87 at; and Bube, Man Come Of Age: Bonhoeffer’s Response To The God-Of-The-Gaps,  1971.

[iv] Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Boston: Beacon Press,  1925), 4-9.