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Excerpt from "If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics"

Evolving Prayer

by Bruce Sanguin


A colleague of mine once jokingly asked why I spend so much time writing sermons when I could spend that time looking for them. I probably wouldn’t have written these prayers if I could have found them somewhere. But it’s not easy to find prayers for worship and spiritual practice that are written from the perspective of the great evolutionary story of the universe. This “new” evolutionary cosmology has not yet worked its way into our theology, let alone our liturgies. I hope these are the prayers you’ve been waiting for.

For some time now I’ve made it a discipline to reflect on a weekly Scripture selection through the lens of an evolutionary Christian spirituality and allow prayers to emerge. I agree with Professor John Haught that evolution is Darwin’s greatest gift to theology. Process theologianshave been working to integrate the science of evolution with theology, but its liturgical integration is still in its infancy. This liturgical support is critical if evolutionary theology is to gain traction. These prayers are my attempt to put legs under this emerging theological model. What was born of necessity soon became a weekly discipline of joyful creative expression. I wondered what prayers in support of the new cosmology and evolutionary spirituality would look and feel like: How would we pray together if we took the science of evolution and the new cosmology seriously—if we saw the presence we call God intimately involved with the modern scientific realities of the universe, the planet, and human beings? How do we translate Paul’s intuition of a Christ who is cosmic in scope and sovereignty into prayer form? How do we pray into the mission that emerges when we bring this lens to bear on the text? What fresh insights might emerge from the ancient biblical texts if we brought an evolutionary lens to the task?

For most of human history the source of the mysterious voice whispering

in our ears, “Grow, grow,” could be attributed to a supernatural God alone—for God was the source of all life, its creator and sustainer. Should “He” withdraw His breath, life would shrivel up and die. But then Charles Darwin came along about 150 years ago and empirically demonstrated that, in fact, nature could achieve this feat of growth quite well, without the help of a supernatural being. He even named nature’s mechanism as natural selection. Darwin himself delayed publishing his research, knowing that his findings would threaten the very foundations of Christianity.

Which is exactly what happened with the publication of The Origin of Species. The first shock for many Christians was that nature actually evolves. The previously predominant view was that God had created a giraffe six thousand years ago with its long neck, spots, two knobs on top of its head, and splaying legs, all fully formed right out of the shoot. The second shock was the implication that we share a common ancestry with “lesser” creatures. Some of his readers took this to mean that humans are linked with apes and this was disturbing to say the least. (Nobody then imagined that our lineage extends back even further, to three-billion year- old prokaryotic bacteria.) The implications of such a radical kinship profoundly challenged the biblical injunction of the Genesis creation story that says humans should “subdue” creation. To acknowledge that the human being emerged out of the adaptive resilience and struggle of all of the creatures that came before us is to assume a more humble place in the scheme of life. Gratitude replaces arrogance as we realize that our challenge is not to have dominion over creation but rather to assume our proper place in our one Earth community.

An evolutionary worldview implies an underlying shift in identity that can be perceived as a threat to those who cling to biblical literalism. The shock still reverberates throughout Christianity today as fundamentalist Christians scramble to come up with scientific evidence for a “young Earth” theory and intelligent design. This attempt to turn premodern creation stories into factual, scientific accounts of reality betrays the original intent of the writers of these ancient texts: to help us connect with the ultimate mystery of creation. Still today, only 39% of Americans1 and 59% of Canadians believe in evolution. These results are strongly correlated to Christian beliefs.

My concern, however, is not with the fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Rather, it is with the liberal and so-called “progressive” Christians. We, who accept—and even celebrate—the scientific method and its findings, have been slow to incorporate the evolutionary nature of reality into our theology and liturgy. We do not know conclusively if Darwin lost his faith because of his discovery. We do know that the theological models available to him were limited.

There is no reason for the science of evolution and the theology of Christianity to occupy separate domains. We do not need to choose between the two, as recent scientific materialists like Richard Dawkins claim we must. Science and theology represent two different ways of knowing—one focussed on the exterior dimensions of reality and one that includes the physical world but also validates, celebrates, and develops the interior, nonmaterial realm of human experience.

An ancient Talmudic saying goes: Every blade of grass has its own angel that whispers “Grow, Grow!” As a minister in the United Church of Canada for over two decades, I have heard that whisper. Almost twenty years ago, on a silent retreat, I had an experience in which I understood myself to be the presence of the universe in human form. The dualistic separation between myself and the universe collapsed. I wasn’t here as a visitor to a strange and alien pre-existing cosmos, I was its native expression.

I realized that, after 13.7 billion years, the universe had coalesced in form and consciousness in my own being. I was a product of the evolutionary process of the cosmos. More than that, the universe was continuing its evolutionary unfolding in and through me. My identity shifted from a very small and buffered sense of myself to a self-image as large and unified as the universe itself. (At this point in the story, my wife always reminds me that this kind of talk sounds outrageously narcissistic unless I point out that this universal identity is also true of every reader of this sentence!) Interestingly, though, it was this experience of realizing my larger cosmic identity that was the surest remedy for my narcissism. My little self (ego) was swallowed up by a more expansive identity: my evolutionary soul that was cosmic in scope. The concerns of my little self didn’t disappear, but they were placed in proper perspective. Most importantly, from this state of unified consciousness I could see that indeed, as the prophet Isaiah said, the whole Earth was filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:6).

I awoke to a universe that was alive in me and animated by Spirit. The mandate to “grow,” to evolve, is an irreducible dimension of the universe. When we pay close attention to this cosmic impulse to evolve, and consciously consent to its influence and power, we awaken to a dimension of ourselves that the ancients called our soul. We discover our intrinsic purpose, one that is soul-sized, and we gain the desire and capacity to be centres of a sacred evolutionary impulse to create the future that Jesus called the kin(g)dom of God. Our creative self-expression becomes a moral imperative from the perspective of this big self. In and through this self-expression we discover that the future is within us. Within the miracle of a living and evolving universe, our understanding evolves regarding God, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, what it means to be a faith community, and what it means to be human. There is no final, unchanging form of Christianity. God’s last word was not uttered two thousand

years ago in Nazareth. We can detect in the pattern of Jesus’ life, death, and in the stories of His resurrection, the evolutionary bias of an eternal, loving Presence.

The failure to update our theological and liturgical models has resulted in modes of worship, spiritual practice, and images of God, that are out of sync with reality (and Reality) as we know it to be.

Updating Our Image of God

God comes to you in whatever image you have been able to form of

Him. The wiser and broader and more gorgeous the image, the

more the grace and power can flow from the Throne into your

heart. God is saying . . . “Be very careful then,My servants, and

purify, attune, and expand your thoughts about Me, for they are

My House.”

—Rumi

What if our images of God were informed by evolution as both a biological and spiritual impulse? The great story of the universe reveals that there is no disconnection anywhere in the universe. We are cousins with stars, giraffes, amoebas, bananas—let alone monkeys! We share an unbroken lineage with all of life. To modify the central image of Jesus’ teaching, we are kin with all that is in the kin-dom of God. This is a stunning revelation. Mystics have intuited it, but now science has revealed it to be fact. We share a single energy with every form and every mode of consciousness in the universe. This knowledge should be the cause for great celebration in our churches every Sunday and in our prayer life throughout the week. As it turns out, the opening line of the United Church of Canada’s creed is scientifically accurate and spiritually true: “We are not alone.” There are no strangers in this awesome cosmos, just relatives. The illusion of separateness is just that—an illusion reinforced by a modernist ideology of materialism.

The congregation I have been serving in Vancouver has been encouraging

me for years to make these prayers available to a wider audience. This collection is my way of listening to the whispering of the angels of Canadian Memorial United Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. This community has made their core purpose to “teach and practice evolutionary Christian spirituality,” and I want to thank them for their courage and their willingness to experiment with seeing and practicing the Christian faith through an evolutionary lens. Evolution is all about adapting to changing life conditions. And conditions have indeed changed in our neck of the woods. Our church is located in a neighbourhood that boasts the highest percentage of people in the world who claim no religious affiliation.

Mention the word Christ out loud in a local Starbucks and watch it empty. Part of this aversion to Christianity is due, of course, to a checkered history with violence and rigid belief systems.

We can’t do much about the past. But it is my experience that when these intrepid souls discover that there is a community that is taking the discoveries of science and integrating them with our own rich wisdom tradition, they are willing to give us half a chance. Very often, their early impressions come through a Sunday morning service. These savvy visitors pay attention to the language of the prayers and the cosmology reflected in the hymns. If the prayers reflect a three-tiered universe (hell below, Earth, and heaven above) with a mythical God living outside the universe, intervening every now and then to straighten us out and then return to an extra-cosmic throne, it’s not likely we’ll see them again. If they hear “God sent Jesus to Earth,” as though Jesus were beamed down from heaven to teach us a thing or two—as opposed to his existence being a brilliant occasion of this sacred, emergent universe awakening to itself—the chances of them returning are slim to none.

The Three Faces of God

Just a quick note about the God I am addressing in these prayers. American philosopher and founder of Integral Philosophy, Ken Wilber, helped me to see and validate what he calls the three faces of God or the 1-2-3 of God. God emerges in the consciousness of human beings and through these three faces: In the first person, God is experienced as the Great I Am, the God of all mystical traditions who is experienced as the deepest dimension of one’s own being. In the second person, God appears as the Great I-Thou, as the Beloved Other before whom we offer our devotion. Finally, God appears as the Great I-It, the great interconnected system of nature, Gaia, or Web of Being—the impersonal God. Sadly, many traditions, including Christianity, have privileged one face over the others and have actively attacked or suppressed the faces of God

they each found threatening.

The reader may notice that many of these prayers—but not all—begin with the traditional (for Christianity) second-person face of God, referring to God as the Holy One. This is not because I reject the first- and third-person faces of God. Rather, this is simply an acknowledgment that the second-person face ofGod is the portal through which the majority of people in mainline Christianity will be able to expand into and eventually embrace the other faces of God. This is not to say that I believe that God is literally a person when I call God “Holy One.” I don’t. Rather, it is an affirmation that God is personal. It has taken the universe almost fourteen billion years to arrive at the qualities of consciousness—compassion, empathy, freedom, and love—that we associate with personhood. It is only natural that we would apply a metaphor which attempts to express an astounding evolutionary achievement—personhood—to the Ultimate Source. God is more than we could ever mean by personal, and yet is certainly not less than what we mean by this metaphor.

In my book The Emerging Church I include two chapters that describe how our images of God and Christ will be translated through our stage of consciousness, or worldview. If a person sees the world through a mythic (or traditional) worldview, then he may interpret the second-person face of God (the Great I-Thou) as literally a man with a white beard in a long, flowing gown—in other words, as a person. This is the God that scientist RichardDawkins is so hard on in his writings. I often wish that he would turn his considerable intellect to the God of process theology or evolutionary theology. This kind of theology conveys a more mature spiritual intelligence, wherein God is not considered literally to be a person, nor does She/He/It control the universe or punish sinners.

An Evolutionary Pentecost

I wrote this book to support a new revival for Christian spirituality— what I call an evolutionary Pentecost. Just as the church was born of a fresh movement of Spirit two thousand years ago, I am convinced that the science and spirituality of evolution have the power to revitalize Christianity. As we allow ourselves to be the face of the sacred evolution

of the cosmos, we gain the power and the burning desire to actually co-create and realize the future that can emerge within each one of us—what Jesus called the kin(g)dom of God. To consciously situate ourselves and our congregations within the stream of this evolutionary impulse is to experience Spirit in a direct and life-changing way—a mysticism for our age. These prayers are written for this new Pentecost.

If Darwin Prayed

I wonder,

if Mr. Darwin had imagined

a God bigger

than the theist’s puppeteer—

and less aloof

from nature’s ways—

how he might have prayed.

I wonder,

if he had viewed the great march of time

with a mystic’s eye—

as Spirit’s unhurried play with form and function,

not creation leaving God in the dust

and pulling itself up by its own bootstraps—

if his heart might not have burned with faith.

I wonder,

when the push of Eros

and the pull of the possible

caused him to close the City of God

and leave the dreary seminary

to set sail on board his Beagle destiny,

if he ever imagined that he embodied Spirit’s

irrepressible urge to evolve.

I wonder,

when he reflected on the mystery of a finch’s beak

and the glories of the Galapagos,

if Mr. Darwin considered his own adaptive brilliance

that brought forth The Origin of Species

(his great gift to theology)

an occasion of an even deeper Mystery—

evolution awakening in him.

I wonder,

if, hunched long years

over beetles and mollusks,

he ever considered

St. Paul’s self-emptying God,

touching all with a rising,

noncoercive Presence,

and then going on ahead of us—

as did the Galilean—

calling from an undissected future,

beckoning this sighing creation

toward freedom and fullness of being.

I wonder, Mr. Darwin,

if your beloved Emma might have worried less

over your apostasy

if you could have played the prophet

and announced, with the Baptist,

that evolution was filling every valley

and making low the mountains,

preparing a highway

through Descartes’ desert,

for the advent,

and not the end,

of God.

(If I were God,

I too would keep my presence hidden,

an allurement of love that predestines no fixed future,

conferring maximum dignity upon life,

as together all that is

joins in the great procession

of the formless, assuming forms most glorious,

crowning the human ones

with a distinctive diadem—

the capacity to select our own future,

naturally).

I wonder

if Darwin prayed.

Bruce Sanguin is a minister in the United Church of Canada, in Vancouver, B.C. He is the bestselling author of four books that view Christianity through wisdom that incorporates the science and spirituality of evolution.

Available at www.ifdarwinprayed.com and all bookstores.


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