Darwin and God’s Image

Being ‘made in the image of God‘ is a fundamental theological concept,  which can help us think about the theory of evolution in a more constructive way than is always the case.

This sermon was preached in 2009 as part of a baptism service for both a baby (Ella) and two adults (Emily and Sophie; the names of the people being baptised have been changed), but I think that it’s still relevant.

The Image of God Readings: Genesis 1:26-31; 1 Corinthians 12:12-14

As you probably know, given all that’s been on the TV and in the newspapers, this year is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species. To mark the occasion we are going to be spending the next few weeks thinking about how science has impacted our faith.

If you listen to certain sections of the media then I guess that you’ll be thinking that science and faith have to be in conflict. It’s a choice of believing one or the other. This is particularly the case for the very part of the Bible that we’ve just heard read in part, the first few chapters of Genesis. The part before the reading we heard tells us about God’s creation of the world, leading up to the creation of humanity, as we heard.

Then the next few chapters tell us about what a mess humans make of all that they’ve been given. They reject their relationship with God and try to do things their own way, which leads to chaos, death and destruction. And so God launches a rescue plan, to restore his relationship with humans that they have broken. Jesus is the climax of that rescue plan, and it is through his death and resurrection that we can be brought back into God’s family. And today we welcome Emily, Sophie and Ella as they enter God’s family through baptism and as they take a significant step on their journey of faith and in their relationship with God.

The reading itself tells us that we are all made in the image of God, we are made as God’s representative here on earth, to carry on his work of creation, and to care for all that he has created. Some people have misunderstood the command to rule over everything as a license to take what we want. I think that’s because we have a distorted view of what leadership is like, shown again this week by politicians of all the main parties abusing the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules on allowances. But, before we cast too many stones, I think this shows the distorted attitude to power that we have too. Politicians aren’t a different species, so let us learn from their mistakes. If we have power, let us use it not for our own gain but to help others. Because this is exactly what God does. God creates, giving generously to others. God sends us his son to bring us back to him. God send us his Spirit, to help us in our walk with him. Throughout the Bible, rulers are condemned when they fail to use their power to help the poor and the weak and the needy. This is what truly ruling over creation is meant to be, us showing God’s rule in the world.

That is why we seek to value people of all ages and abilities. That is why we seek to care for people in the church and out of it. That is why we can welcome Ella into God’s family through baptism, because we recognise that all people are made in the image of God, are made to have a relationship with him, are made for the adventure of journeying with him, have an exciting, challenging purpose for our lives through him.

So, is this understanding of what God has done and what we are, is this challenged by the scientific discoveries of Darwin and many others since. Is the belief that we evolved incompatible with the belief that we are created in the image of God?

Some scientists would certainly like to say yes to that. Richard Dawkins claims that in evolution he sees “nothing but blind pitiless indifference”. Dawkins argues that if you accept the science you have to reject God.

Some Christians have certainly taken that route over the last hundred years. They have sought to highlight flaws and problems with the theory of evolution and so seek to show that it can be rejected in favour of a theory which highlights God’s involvement in creation, particularly through Young Earth Creationism or Intelligent Design. I’m afraid that I don’t agree with either the theology or the science of these attempts.

I became a Christian when I was about 15 or 16 and started attending the church youth group. It was a great group, apart from one fairly serious flaw. All of the main leaders were convinced that it wasn’t possible to accept both science and the Bible, and so I came under a certain amount of pressure to choose. So, I certainly don’t want to do anything similar. I’m not saying that to be a ‘Proper Christian’ you have to agree with me on this.

But, I believe, as do many Christians, that it is perfectly possible to believe in both the science and God, in both evolution and God’s creation. So, I and many Christians take what those early chapters of Genesis says very seriously, but don’t believe that they tell us how God created the world or how the other things in them happened. I believe that they tell us the importance of what happened. One major theologian wrote about Genesis 1 “I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through writing that resembles history”.

That theologian was Origen, who wrote those words about 1,800 years ago. Long before the scientist caught up with them, the early Christians were saying that these accounts told us the importance of creation and what happened, but not the way in which it happened.

I also believe, unlike Dawkins, that nothing in evolution shows that there isn’t a God. Dawkins’ problem is that he’s forgotten where the science ends and where his atheism begins. The theory of evolution simply says that each generation of a creature is different from the last, as any of you who’ve compared children with their parents will know, that certain changes will help some individuals to survive and so will reproduce more, and so the next generation is more likely to inherit that beneficial change. Repeat that enough times, the theory goes, and you get different species either through time or in different parts of the world if there are separate populations. Again, I’m happy to talk more about this at the end, but Darwin summed up his theory with the phrase ‘descent with modification’.

Unfortunately, someone else invented the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ and Darwin’s theory has been used to support: progressivism, conservativism, socialism, colonialism, eugenics, unregulated capitalism and atheism. People don’t seem to have noticed that most of those are contradictory and none of them have anything to do with Darwin’s original theory. It’s therefore perfectly possible to accept Darwin’s theory and reject Dawkins’ understanding of it.

You may know that over his life Darwin’s faith moved from Christianity to agnosticism. However, it’s a lot less well known that in his later life Darwin, although remaining an agnostic, made an annual donation to the South American Missionary Society and became an honorary member. Why? Because when he had visited parts of South American and had met some of the natives he had believed that they were so savage that they couldn’t be helped. But, missionaries went anyway and preached, educated and helped the natives, and showed that they were as capable of reading, writing, worshipping God, working with machinery and so on as any other group of humans. Darwin was so impressed that he had been wrong and the missionaries right that he started his regular donations.

The missionaries had gone there motivated by their belief that we are all made in the image of God, that all humanity is equal under God and that we are all have a part to play in the body of Christ. Emily, Sophie and Ella, in baptism we welcome you into the body of Christ. We pray that the Holy Spirit will help you and guide you and we look forward to seeing the part you will play. All of us have ways in which we can fulfil our purpose of being made in the image of God and as part of the forgiven, empowered body of Christ can be God’s representatives here on earth, worshipping him, showing his love and continuing his work of creation.

Let us pray:
Lord God, thank you that we are made in your image.
Help us to see your image in those people around us.
Help us and guide us to be your representative here on earth.
Help us to celebrate the diversity of your body, the church
and so show that we are united in our worship of you.
Amen.

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