Conscience and Challenge
Paul Henry Carr
1st Church of Christ Congregational, Bedford, MA 01730; 25 August 1996
Genesis 1 , John 1:1-14, Psalm 8

We shall see how the "awesome wonder" of creation, " the moon and the stars," gave birth to the science of cosmology. The Epic of Evolution can give us the cosmic vision and moral conscience the meet the challenge to our destruction of the environment.


Our neighbor, Henry D. Thoreau, wrote in his journal the following account of a summer evening in the village of Concord, July 21, 1851 at 8:30 PM:


"The streets of the village are much more interesting to me at this hour of a summer evening than by day. Neighbors, and also farmers, come a-shopping after their day’s haying, are chatting in the streets, and I hear the sounds of many musical instruments, and of the singing from various houses. For a short hour or two, the inhabitants are sensibly employed. The evening is devoted to poetry, such as the villagers can appreciate."


Let compare in our minds this pastoral and culturally rich image of what Concord was like in 1851 with what it is like now. What did we do on warm summer evenings? Has the higher energy consumption of our present lifestyle produced greater happiness? This passage has motivated me to devote more time to poetry. What better poetry do we have than the Psalms of the Bible? One of my favorites is Psalm 8, A Psalm of David, written about 3000 years ago:

"When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars which you have established:

what is man that you are mindful of him,

and the son of man that you care for him?"


This passage is reminiscent of my father’s saying:


"We should look to the heavens and steady ourselves by the stars."


I have, therefore, taken more time to look at the heavens. Last July when I was vacationing in northern Vermont, I went outside in the middle of the night and was able to see overhead the dense cluster of stars called the Milky Way. This is the Galaxy in which our solar system is located. I also saw some "shooting" stars, streak silently across the sky. I went down to the shores of Lake Eden and saw the Big Dipper Constellation just above the mountain horizon. When I looked down at the mirror-still lake, I could see the faint reflection of the Big Dipper in the still water. I marveled at the quiet, peaceful beauty and felt close to God’s creation.

This also reminded me of the following Navajo Creation Story:

"When all the stars were ready to be placed in the sky First Woman said: ‘I will use these the write the laws that are to govern mankind for all time. These laws cannot be written on the water, as that is always changing form, nor can they be written in the sand as the wind would soon erase them, but if they are written in the stars they can be read and remembered forever.’"

(The Hindus also attribute the creation of the cosmos to a Goddess)


Compared to human history, the stars are indeed eternal. Newton, in 1687, discovered his famous law of dynamics by studying the motion of the stars and the planets. This law is different from humankind’s experience. Since the invention of the wheel, when you or your horse stops pulling, or your remove the force, the vehicle stops. Newton’s law states that when you remove the force, the vehicle keeps on going. Why did it take humankind so long to realize this? The answer is that the strong viscous force of friction stops the wagon as soon as the horse stopped pulling. Newton discovered his law from the motion of the stars and planets which move without friction in the vacuum of space.


Popular lore describes Newton sitting under an apple tree. When an apple fell on his head, his had an insight. The force which caused the apple to fall downward was the same gravity that caused the planets to fall inward into their orbits around the sun. Even though Newton quantified the force of gravity as being inversely proportion to the square of the distance between two bodies, he never claimed to understand what gravity really is. For him there was always an element of mystery and wonder in this attractive force that binds the universe together. Why is there an attractive force or allurement at all?


This may explain why Newton writings on theology are more voluminous than on science. His science was motivated by his desire to understand the mystic clues about God’s Creation as seen in the "moon and the stars." He said:

"No sciences are better attested than the religion of the Bible."

Newton exemplifies the "awesome wonder of creation," the religious awareness that gives birth to empirical science. His dynamic and gravitational laws were the cornerstones of the science of cosmology until Einstein’s theories of relativity in the early 1900s.


Prof. Krister Stendahl, former dean of the Harvard Divinity School once said:

"Religion is poetry plus, not science minus."

Psalm 8:3-4:

"When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established:

what is man that you are mindful of him’

and the son of man that you care for him.? "

A little boy was having a conversation with God. The boy said:

"Is it true, God, that a thousand years are like a minute to you?"

God said: "Yes, my son."

The boy said:

"Is it true, God, that a million dollars are like a penny?"

God said: "Yes, my son."

The boy had a bright idea and asked: "God could you please give me a penny.?"

God thought and said: "Yes, my son, if you could patiently wait for a minute."

Psalm 8 continues (vs 5 -8):

"Yet you have made him (man) little less than God,

and crown him with glory and honor.

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;

You have put all things under his feet,

all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air , and the fish of the sea,

whatever passes along the paths of the sea.


These last passages refer, of course, to "our dominion over the works of your hands" or to the responsibility for our earth. Does this "dominion" lead to conscience and moral responsibility? I should like to present three viewpoints:

(1) YES: We are "created co-creators" with God and therefore responsible, as advocated by Prof. Philip Hefner, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and

(2) YES BUT: The creationists believe that Genesis is literally true, but when it disagrees with modern science, science is questionable or in error.

(3) NO: The biblical "dominion" is anthropocentric, or self-centered and self-serving. It has led us to destroy our environment and should therefore replaced by the modern Epic of Evolution. The anthropocentric biblical account was appropriate 3000 years ago, when the world population was about 4 million people. However, with our population of 5 billion, which is exploding rapidly, our technology is having a major impact on our earthly home. We should learn from the "Epic of Evolution," which was the title of the Institute of Religion in and Age of Science (IRAS) Conference that I attended at the Unitarian and Congregational center on Star Island in July.

Dr. Brian Swimme, mathematical cosmologist, author of The Universe Story, stated :
"We need a new cosmic vision for wisdom to stop our destruction of the ‘macrosphere’ by pollution, depletion of fossil fuels, and consumerism. We focus too strongly on near-term, ’microsphere’ issues like repealing a 5-cents-per-gallon fuel tax when the price of gasoline goes up (when gasoline taxes in Europe and Japan are $3-per gallon). We went to war in Iraq and Arabia largely to protect our supply of oil in 1991, but have recently cut funds for research on renewable energy sources."

Let me describe how the scientific evolution of the cosmos, the earth, and life can give us new vision. The cosmos originated in a "big bang" of radiation about 15 billion years ago. This radiation condensed into the matter that formed galaxies, stars, and planets. Our universe is unique in that the conditions were right for the emergence of life (Anthropic Principle.) Our earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago and the first life is evident in fossils of single cells 3.5 billion years old. Only 600 million years ago, the cells learned to specialize and cooperate to form the Cambrian explosion of the multitude of life-forms we have today. This epic of cosmic evolution can give us an appreciation of hundred millions of years that it took to form the oil and gas that we will completely deplete in hundreds years. In Thoreau’s beautiful description of Concord in 1851, there were no automobiles and electricity that are ultimately responsible for the depletion of our fossil fuel reserves. An environmentally responsible option would be to return to the lifestyle of Thoreau’s day.


The Epic of Evolution tells us that it took almost 3 billion years for cells to discover how to cooperate. It is paradoxical, therefore, that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution emphasized the competitive "survival of the fittest" when macroscopic life is so dependent on microscopic cooperation. Prof. Terry Deacon, a neurologist at Boston University, studies this cooperation in brains and nervous systems. He and his associates are developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease by using techniques of natural selection in neural development. Prof. Ursula Goodenough, cell biologist from Washington Univ., St. Lewis, observes that emerging microscopic gene and DNA research offers more data in support of evolution than the fossil record. In May, I visited some scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, NM, who are developing new adaptability-theory to understand the self-emergence of increasingly complex life-forms. They prefer the "arrival of the fittest" to the "survival of the fittest." Jim Moore’s new book Death of Competition: Leadership & Strategy in an Age of Business Ecosystems emphasizes interdependence and alliances.


Nevertheless, social Darwinism persists. Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, states that our life’s purpose is to propagate our genes. Robert Wright, in The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, observes, paradoxically, that in contrast to selfishness, natural selection also produces an inclination towards love, compassion, and moral sensibility. Evolutionary psychology can give us an understanding of our impulses and survival instincts, but to claim that they are the basis of ethics is to commit the "naturalistic fallacy." Evolutionary psychology can help us in making the decisions that make us moral beings. Love is a decision for us, as it was for Jesus. We need the biblical stories that have "stood the test of time" to make conscientious decisions. I agree with Prof. Philip Hefner:


"Traditional religious creation stories and the evolutionary epic are complementary and need each other. Science and religion working together can weave a rich tapestry of new meaning for our age."


The theme of Genesis 1 :

"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good."


I was "brought up" in a Methodist-Episcopal minister’s home, in which I was taught that no souls are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon. I wish I had more time to discuss cosmology and creation in more detail. But there is hope, you can joint or study group which is presently discussing: "God and Science: Must we Choose?"


I mentioned Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene in which a biologist is telling us the basis of morality, which has traditionally been the role of religion. Similarly, physicist Frank Tipler his written a book The Physics of Immortality, which encroaches on a cornerstone of our Christian faith "Resurrection." A reviewer of this book said:


"Tipler’s claims are audacious and perhaps arrogant, but he must be taken seriously. The book is well referenced (Tillich, Teillhard de Chardin) and the appendices are full of equations to support his claims."

USA TODAY’s headline on August 7th was


In the last year, astronomers have discovered a number of solar systems, i.e. stars like our own with planets the size of Jupiter. The temperature on one planet was less than the boiling point of water, so life may exist there. I have several Jesuit friends who helped build the new Vatican observatory in Tuscon, Arizona. One of them, Dr. Chris Corbally, recently gave a forward-looking paper: "Approaching ‘Would You Baptize an Alien?’ from the perspective of a Jesuit and Astronomer." Teillhard de Chardin, S.J. describes Jesus as a "Christ of all the Cosmos." These are examples of how Christians a meeting the challenges of our time. The Epic of Evolution does teach us that without adaptability to change, we will go the way of the dinosaurs.


"We should look to the heavens and steady ourselves by the stars." Amen.


Our heavenly Creator, when "we look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established," we give thanks that you are mindful of us. We thank you that your sent us your son, him in whom your word, "logos," or your "cosmic blueprint" became human like us. May we follow his example. We thank you for our brief opportunity to participate in your creation as created co-creators. We thank you for creating us with minds that can comprehend your universe and ask the question:

"What is the meaning and purpose of your universe and of our own lives?"

May we find meaning in the Epic of Evolution of the universe and of life. May it give us the cosmic vision and moral conscience to meet the challenges of our short time on planet earth. May we welcome the decreases in our energy-intensive lifestyles in responsible "dominion over the works your hands." May we "look to the heavens and steady ourselves by the stars." Amen.