What Matters Eternally? Faith & Science Series Part 3

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Katharine Jefferts Schori: We talk about having been created with free will, the ability to choose how we interact with others. We can choose loving ways or selfish ways, each with consequences. Rarely are our motives entirely unselfish--they probably can't be this side of the grave--but if we lean in the direction of more abundant life for others, we soon discover that our own life possibilities are expanded as well.

Peter Wallace: That's the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, and today she joins us for our special series on "Faith & Science in the 21st Century." I'm Peter Wallace...this is Day1.

Sherrie Miller: Welcome to Day1, the weekly program that brings you outstanding preachers from America's mainline Protestant churches, sharing insight and inspiration from God's Word for your life.

Today we continue our powerful series of special programs. Now here's our host, Peter Wallace to introduce this week's preacher.

Peter Wallace Thanks, Sherrie. Today we continue our special series of Day1 programs: "Faith & Science in the 21st Century, which is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Through this series we're exploring some of the major issues of science today with a goal to facilitate meaningful conversations especially among people of faith. This week we're delighted to have with us the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church, a position to which she was elected in 2006 after serving six years as bishop of the Diocese of Nevaddah. She serves as chief pastor to the Episcopal Church's members in 17 countries, 109 dioceses, and three regional areas. Bishop Katharine's career as an oceanographer preceded her studies for the priesthood. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Stanford University, a master's and Ph.D. in oceanography from Oregon State University, and a master of divinity from Church Divinity School. Welcome, Bishop Katharine, and thanks for being with us.

Katharine Jefferts Schori: It's a delight to be here. Thank you, Peter.

Peter Wallace: Your 9-year term as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is nearing its conclusion--just in a few days actually--but it's been an incredible nine years. As you look back, how do you see the church has evolved and grown over these years?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: The church is much more turned outward to focus on loving neighbors in the communities around congregations and across the world. We were very internally focused when I took office, and I think that's what I most celebrate.

Peter Wallace: You had a number of tasks as presiding bishop, but what brought you the most joy?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I think the tasks included conflict resolution, and we haven't resolved all of it, but we're certainly in a different place. And encouraging the church as a whole to realize that we are far more diverse and widespread and far-flung and multi-cultural than mot Episcopalians recognized. To give an example, the Diocese of Los Angeles conducts worship every week in 19 different languages; and most Episcopalians aren't aware of that. Our Latin American dioceses, our Asian dioceses in Taiwan, our churches in Europe, all contribute to the multifold diversity of this church and bless it with their diverse gifts.

Peter Wallace: So what is next for you?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Well, I'm discerning that. I have told Virginia Seminary that I will come and teach a couple of courses in the spring of next year, and I'm hoping that that will give me the time and space for reflection and discernment about the next chapter.

Peter Wallace: And what's ahead for the Episcopal Church?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Oh, I think the Episcopal Church is already engaged in reaching out to populations that are unchurched, populations with lots of questions and yearning for the love of God in Jesus Christ, and I think that the presiding bishop we've elected [Michael Curry] will do an awesome job of challenging people to discover the love of God in their neighbors.

Peter Wallace : You had a career as an oceanographer before you were ordained as a priest. What drew you to that area of science, and how were you involved in it?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I've always been fascinated by the natural world and its richness of diverse creatures. When I was early in graduate school, I worked on things that live in the sediments in the near shore environment, and I very much wanted to work on systematics on describing species and their differences. And I looked around and discovered that there was a sizable collection of cephalopods--of squids and octopuses--already present in the laboratories where I worked, and that that was at least the launching pad for the work I wanted to do for my doctorate. And I worked on--I did find a couple of new species of squid--I described the fauna that was present in the Northeastern Pacific from the northern part of Southern California up into Alaska and a long way west toward Japan. Looked at zoogeography, which is distribution in the vertical and lateral dimensions. Looked at a number of fisheries' problems. We figured out how to count squid acoustically pretty effectively. Did some evolutionary theorizing and built relationships with other oceanographers across the world.

Peter Wallace: So what happened to lead you to the priesthood?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Mmm. The bottom fell out of the federal research budget in the mid-80's, and I looked and looked and discovered pretty quickly that if I wanted to continue as an oceanographer, I was going to spend all my time writing grant proposals. And that really wasn't what drew me into science. And at the same time, three people in my Episcopal Church asked me if I had ever thought about being a priest. I hadn't. When I was growing up, girls couldn't do that. The first women were ordained after I graduated from college. The short version is it took me five years to say yes.

Peter Wallace: And the rest is history. I'm curious, is there some way that your experience and background in oceanography transferred to your ministry as a priest, a bishop, and presiding bishop?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Yes, and I think that was one of the gifts that came a long time after I had said yes. I wondered for years about whether I had wasted that part of my life. I think that the careful way in which scientists are trained to look at the world and not jump to conclusions has been an immense gift in the work I've done. Coming with a hypothesis about what the problem or the challenge is and experimenting--if you will--with a different variety of possible solutions or resolutions, listening and looking carefully, and then trying and re-forming if that one doesn't work.

Peter Wallace: The church at large has had, let us say, an interesting relationship with science over the centuries; and even today there seems to be a great divide among people of faith regarding their trust or acceptance of scientific facts, let alone theories. Why do you think this has been so difficult?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I think it's an enlightenment problem. Five hundred years ago when people began to realize they could define many of the details of how things work in the world around us, people began to discount the church's role in addressing the relationship with that which is beyond us and to assume that we could figure everything out and simply dictate it. The Bible began to be read in a very different way, rather than as a series of stories that talk about relationship. People began to read the Bible as a history book or a scientific text, purposes for which it wasn't written. And making peace with that or rediscovering how to read the Bible as a love story between God and God's people has taken much of the culture a long time, a very long time, but that's what it's about. It's not about how God created in six days.

Peter Wallace : Well, this is a huge question, but how can people of faith best approach scientific endeavors for the good of all?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: God created us with brains for a reason. We are meant to test what we meet in the world around us, to look carefully. We are meant to use our brains to sort out the way in which God is calling us to act in the world around us.

Peter Wallace: Your message today focuses on the gospel lesson from Mark 10. Would you read it for us?

Katharine Jefferts Schori:

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" 20 He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.


Peter Wallace : The text begins with this man running up and kneeling before Jesus and asking a rather faith-oriented question, but Jesus' answer shocks and grieves him. And after the reading that we heard, Jesus has a teachable moment with his disciples. But what strikes you about this passage?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Well, Jesus doesn't quote all the Ten Commandments to him. He quotes the ones that are about loving your neighbor, and then he says, "That's what you're not doing." You've been so focused inwardly on right thinking and right believing and not on loving your neighbor, and that's what you need to be focused on now.

Peter Wallace: Bishop Katharine, your sermon focuses on the important matters of creation and evolution--it's entitled "What Matters Eternally?" Thank you for being with us.

Katharine Jefferts Schori: It's been a joy. Thank you.


"What Matters Eternally?"


When you woke up today, what did you notice about the natural world around you? What's the weather like? What animals and plants have you seen? What has changed since yesterday? Many of us likely start with the "news" about disasters, wars, and violence around the world. Even the weather tends to be reported with a whiff of danger and discomfort, and you probably know if thunderstorms, hurricanes, or tornadoes are forecast where you live. All of it's important, but how does it change the way we live?

That's really what Jesus is talking about in Mark's gospel about eternal life. He's not speaking about life that lasts for ever and ever so much as he is about life that transcends time, what in other places he calls abundant life, what Jesus said, "I came that you might have life and have it abundantly."[1] He answers the man who asks how to find it by repeating the commandments about loving neighbors by treating them honorably and respectfully. The fellow retorts that he's done that his whole life, and Jesus drives the point home by telling him to share his abundance and then come and follow him.

The whole of the Bible, Jewish and Christian parts alike, is about living that kind of holy life--getting out of selfish mode and caring for neighbors in the same way we want to be cared for. The creation story that opens the biblical narrative tells of God bringing all that is into being, and calling it good and blessed. The second story is about human beings who can't seem to get the hang of balancing and tending relationships. They do what they want to do without considering the impact on others. It's basically about the reality of selfishness. In some traditions that's called "original sin," and it's been held up by theologians for centuries as the central human problem, particularly in the broad sense of self-centeredness or vaunting pride. The biblical cure is to love God with all we are and have, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

The great arc of the biblical narrative sheds light on how human beings can build healthier and holier relationships with all that is, and with the source of all that is. There are plenty of stories about what goes wrong--how we'd rather live in servitude to something or someone who can't offer the abundant life that comes of right relationships--what we call justice--or how we'd rather run off to some new and glittering attraction rather than find our abiding home in those right relationships. Yet the thrust of each part of the narrative leads us back toward our home in the One who has made all that is, and loves it all. We know that reality as God, whom we call love--the force and lure underlying all we see and experience, who desires only that life be more. That MORE results from what we often call justice, or right relationship, when we love our neighbors as ourselves, and when we honor the other parts of creation because they reflect that loving MORE.

We live in a season of human existence when we are becoming painfully aware of the ways we have failed to love the planetary systems on which our lives depend. A growing number of congregations celebrate September and the beginning of October as "creation season," culminating in the Feast of St. Francis.[2] Special attention is given to the ways in which human beings are interconnected with the other parts of the natural order, and especially how we might live in right relationship--so that there will be more abundant life for all.

One of the gifts of creation that Episcopalians regularly celebrate at baptism is the reality that human beings have reason and skill and "the gift of joy and wonder in all God's works." We were created curious--and that's part of how Adam and Eve get into trouble. Curiosity led the guy in the gospel to ask how to find more life. All creatures have the ability to learn from the environment and change their activity as a result. That's how babies learn to speak, it's how adults learn to build loving life-long relationships, and when we think about the lifespan of a community or a species, it contributes to evolutionary success. Over time, creatures that can't adapt to changing conditions eventually die out, to be replaced by species that are better suited to those environments. The deteriorating condition of our planet is an evolutionary crisis like that. It may end in being a major extinction event, or we may learn enough unselfish behavior to love this Earth and its inhabitants into more abundant life.

We talk about having been created with free will, the ability to choose how we interact with others. We can choose loving ways or selfish ways, each with consequences. Rarely are our motives entirely unselfish--they probably can't be, this side of the grave--but if we lean in the direction of more abundant life for others, we soon discover that our own life possibilities are expanded as well. That's what Jesus is talking about when he says, if you want to hang on to your life in a self-focused way, you're only going to lose it, but if you let go of that self-centeredness, you will find more than you knew before.[3] Jesus continues to lure and encourage us toward that vision of more life for all creation, but he doesn't demand or require it.

That freedom to choose is part of the nature of creation. Human beings seem to have more ability to change their environment than other creatures do, but it's something of an illusion, of which we tend to be very fond. 'I don't have to conserve water in a drought--I'll just use what I want and not worry about it.' Well, there are short-term and longer-term consequences: a higher water bill, or in some communities, having your water shut off; as well as a diminished quality or possibility of life for my neighbors--the ones I know and the ones I haven't yet met. Eventually, behavior that ignores the challenge means no one will be able to live in that place where there is little or no water--life will be less abundant. The biblical definition for that result is the consequence of sin; the biological definition is extinction.

Both sin and the possibility of extinction are part of the nature of creation. Some readers of the Bible want to see the Genesis stories only as myth, in the popular understanding as a story that's not historically true. Myth is actually a technical term for stories about a people's origins--in the case of Genesis, that we were created good and blessed, and that part of our created nature is the ability to choose and learn. Others want to see those creation stories as a very particular description of how God put together what we see and know of the physical world around us--often, that creation happened in six 24-hour periods a few thousand years ago. The differences between the two stories, and the order in which things are created, are often ignored. There is another way to see those stories--as profoundly true in their description of God's love for all that is, and profoundly true of human behavior, both thousands of years ago and today, and probably long into the future.

Think for a moment about evolution. It's a theory about how biological life evolved on this planet. In scientific terms a theory is the best description of how a particular aspect of physical reality works. It represents the consensus of a large collection of investigations, experiments, and arguments by generations of scientists. Yet the popular understanding of a theory is something that might "theoretically" be true.

The creation stories of Genesis are actually quite similar--the consensus of a collection of questions and explorations and arguments by generations of people, about what it means to live in right relationship with all that is.

I believe three creation stories: the two in Genesis and the great creation story of cosmology and evolution. None of the three can tell us anything about what was before. All three tell us that there is a force in the universe that seems to keep creating more life or complexity. The Genesis accounts tell us that there is something, particularly about human self-centeredness, that wants to limit the abundance of other forms of life. The scientific account of creation sees chaos and stochastic processes as essential to the ongoing unfolding of what is; theologians talk about that as contingency or free will in creation. 

When we're willing to read these stories together, we just might do something about what we heard on the news this morning. Bringing heart and mind and soul and will together can help limit our own behavior for the sake of the whole world. That is what Jesus was telling the questioner--stop hoarding, and share. If you want to enjoy a fruitful and abundant life, make sure that others can as well.


Sherrie Miller: Now Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori offers some final thoughts on her message today with our host, Peter Wallace.

Peter Wallace: Bishop Katharine, you said the whole of the Bible is about living the kind of holy life Jesus encouraged the man who approached him in Mark chapter10 to engage in--getting out of selfish mode and caring for others in the same way we want to be cared for. That sort of selfishness can be seen in the Garden of Eden in Genesis, as well as in this man's response to Jesus' answer to his question about eternal life. Theologians may call this original sin, you said. Why do you suppose this is such a problem for human beings?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Because it's necessary to our survival. It's always a tension between loving ourselves and loving our neighbors, and it's the balance that's the eternal challenge.

Peter Wallace: You said we are becoming painfully aware of the ways we have failed to love the planetary systems on which our lives depend. You said the deteriorating condition of the earth is an evolutionary crisis resulting from that failure. So how do you see the churches leading on this issue?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I think many of the churches are leading because they recognize the effects of climate change, and environmental pollution and damage affect the poorest among us first and most heavily.

Peter Wallace: We have different ways of approaching the creation stories in Genesis--whether as myth, telling a broader story, or as very particular descriptions of how God made the physical world. You said there is another way to see these stories as profoundly true in their description of God's love for all that is, and profoundly true of human behavior thousands of years ago, today, and into the future. Would you say more about how we can read these creation accounts more beneficially?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Well, as I said, I believe in three creation stories. To use only the Genesis ones without the cosmological evolutionary one is to in some sense look at the world only through one eye. If we use both eyes, we get a much greater perception of depth, of the reality that enfolds us all, our inner-connectedness, the impact that an individual's behavior has on people nearby and far away. I think it's the sense of inner-connectedness with all that is that God is continually luring us toward. When we live in right relationship with all of the other parts of creation, we will have arrived at the kingdom of God.

Peter Wallace: Bishop Katharine, what's one thing from your message today that you hope our listeners will keep in mind this week?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: That how our personal decisions are made--if we are aware of the impacts on others, we are already loving the world that God has created and all its inhabitants.

Peter Wallace: Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, thank you for being with us!

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Thank you very much.


[1] John 10:10

[2] http://www.webofcreation.org/ and http://seasonofcreation.com/

[3] Matthew 10:39 and 16:25


The Day1 Faith & Science Series project was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in these documents are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.



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