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Message from Archdeacon – October/November 2017

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Central to any celebration of Harvest Festival is the belief that God is the Creator of everything that exists and that therefore it is appropriate to express our thanks to Him for all the good things we enjoy, including the gift of life itself. Yet in the eyes of many it is precisely this belief in God as Creator which discredits the Christian Faith. Either from school or Sunday school they heard the account of creation told in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis with its assertion that God made everything in six days and then they heard the scientific account of how the Universe reached its present form – and the two just did not tally. The Bible’s account was pre-scientific, simplistic, and impossible to reconcile with modern understandings – so it had to be rejected and with it maybe belief in God as well. So what does science say about the formation of life on earth and how can a religious view connect with it, if at all?

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his now famous ‘Origin of Species’ and in it he sought to provide scientific evidence to support evolution by natural selection. He attempted to explain the emergence of living organisms from common ancestors through principles of variation and adaptation. Among the multiple shapes and sizes of living organisms some are more successful at surviving and reproducing than others. The ones that do not possess the necessary features become extinct and it has been calculated that throughout the history of our planet there have been ten times as many life forms as we know now – a popular example of which would be the dinosaurs.

Almost a century later, in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick provided further insight into how species develop from their work with DNA replication. This provided insight into the operation of genes and the manner in which hereditary characteristics are transmitted. So it is not just the outward shape of a species that determines its survival but also its gene pool and the changes which come about within the inner sphere. But of course all this takes a very long time and so it is now calculated that the earth is some four of five billion years old and the Universe some 15 billion years old. Also scientists prefer to speak of ‘evolution’ rather than ‘creation’, as the latter term suggests a ‘one-off’ event rather than a gradual process.

There was a very hostile reaction among church leaders to Darwin’s work. After all, if his theories were correct it meant that the authority of the Bible was undermined – if it could not be trusted for its account of creation could it be trusted for anything else it said? It meant too that God was not directly responsible for a great deal that had evolved in the created order but had to be relegated to the very beginning of the process only. Other questions arose. If human beings evolved from ape-like creatures did it make sense to speak of them being made in the image of God? Public debates and a profusion of literature followed but essentially the scientific thesis stood the test of time and is now mostly accepted by thinking Christians.

Such acceptance has made Christians think more carefully about the way God relates to the Universe. To distance God from the creation is a distortion.

Tim Gorringe looks to Peter Brook the famous theatre director for a picture of how God is involved with creation. When Brook began his career he wrote a book of directions for whatever play he was producing. It was a hopeless idea. The real, live players could not respond to his precise instructions, without becoming false and stiff and unnatural. So Brook threw away his book and got onto the stage among the players, moving between them, watching their reactions and simply encouraging them to bring out the best in their natural response to the text of the play.

In the same way, says Gorringe, God has come on to the ‘stage’ of human history not with a notebook of instructions but with a willingness to engage with all that is happening and developing and God seeks to ‘bring out the best’ in all of us as we respond to the ‘script’ of our lives, and the life of the world. Such a dynamic picture of God’s involvement in creation both respects scientific knowledge (because God does not interfere with the progress of the natural processes, in other words, evolution) and allows for God to be attentive to the gradual shaping of the Universe. Augustine said creation is like a sponge floating in the sea – saturated through and through with God’s presence. Or we might say that God is like a pilot in a plane which is mostly run on automatic pilot. It means that we can acknowledge that it is due to God’s prompting and perseverance that we are able to make as much of life on earth as we do. And once we recognise that we see that it makes sense to give God thanks for our creation, and preservation. It becomes the underlying logic of Harvest Festival. Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote:

‘I admire thee, master of the tides… Ground of being, and granite of it: past all  Grasp God, throned behind                                                                                                                                                    Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodies but abides.’

If through the Person of Jesus, we have caught a glimpse of God’s ‘heeding’ and ‘abiding’ and realised that they mark God’s way of loving His creation, we will come gladly to make our Harvest Thanksgiving once again this year.

Paul W Thomas

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