Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species was published in 1859, and is still causing furor today, particularly in the relationship between religion and science. As Unitarian Universalists, we strive for a foot in both worlds — allowing science to deepen our religious experiences and our religious experiences to deepen our understanding of science.
Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland (February 11, 1842-August 13, 1936), wrote about this very struggle in his 1902 book, The Spark in the Clod: A Study in Evolution. This excerpt describes his take on the nature of truth, and how advances in science enhanced his understanding of God rather than diminishing it, in direct conflict with traditional religious thought at the time.
Rev. Sunderland, originally a Baptist minister, converted to Unitarianism and served churches in Massachusetts, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he also served as a Unitarian missionary for the American Unitarian Association. His full biography is here.
As with all historical material, you may want to mentally substitute gender-inclusive language.
deepening, God, History, Jabez Sunderland, revelation, science, truth
from The Spark in the Clod: A Study in Evolution
by Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland (February 11, 1842-August 13, 1936)
We have now before us, in brief, the two theories of the origin of the world, which present themselves to modern men asking for acceptance. Is there any question which one we must receive, if we are truth-loving, and care at all to have our beliefs based on realities?
And now we come to the important question of the relative religious influence and value of the two theories.
I know the fact that one is ancient and venerable, while the other is new, and especially the fact that one is contained in the Bible, while the other is not, may seem to give the greater religious claim to the theory of creation found in Genesis.
And yet is the claim necessarily valid? Has God no truth besides that which the Bible contains?Rather, if we are not atheists, must we say that all truth is of God, whether found on parchment or on stone; whether inscribed by pen held by human hand, or by wind and rain and ice and fire on mountain sides; whether written two thousand years ago in Palestine, or to-day on the face of the starry sky above our heads, or of the earth beneath our feet.
Men who have never learned to see God anywhere except in the past, are always afraid of any new truth that bears upon religion. But how faithless and God-dishonoring is such a fear! Is God a God of the past only? Are his revelations ended? Is there to be progress in everything else connected with man’s life except that which is highest of all, the moral and spiritual? Without the opening of eyes to new truth in religion, where would have been the Protestant Reformation? Where would have been Christianity itself? Where would have been any of the great forward movements which have quickened and enlarged the world’s religious thought and life?
The foundations of religion are not in a book. They are rather in the soul of man. And if they are in the soul of man, the acceptance of the belief that God’s creation is perennial, continuous, eternal, cannot disturb them, or do anything except deepen and strengthen them.
It is asserted by some that Evolution is atheistic; that it puts God out of the universe, and leaves us only law instead. True there are possible forms of the evolution theory which are atheistic, which push God one side, and give us only law. But there are other forms of it which are profoundly theistic — which fill the universe full of God, as no other theory known to man does, certainly far more than the Genesis theory itself does. That makes him a creator from without. This makes him a creator within — his creative power operates in all things from atom to sun. That makes him a creator of the world, once; then he withdraws, and so far as creative function is concerned, is forever thereafter an absentee God. This makes him a creative intelligence and power that never sleeps and never withdraws from any atom of his universe.
The world is the ring of his spells,
The play of his miracles.
Ever fresh the broad creation,
A divine improvisation,
From the heart of God proceeds,
A single will, a million deeds.
He is the axis of each star,
He is the sparkle of each spar,
He is the heart of every creature,
He is the meaning of each feature;
And his mind is in the sky
Than all it holds more deep, more high.
Thus it is that the doctrine of Evolution ought to fill, and rightly understood, does fill, all the universe with God, as the meaning, and the ever-living, never-sleeping creative power of it all.
A fire-mist and a planet,
A crystal and a cell;
A jelly-fish and a saurian,
And caves where the cave-men dwell;
Then a sense of law and beauty,
And a face turned from the clod,
Some call it Evolution,
Its deeper name is Goo.
As to the fear that Evolution will dethrone God because it enthrones law, — what is law? What can it be but the sign and manifestation of One without whom law could not exist? Is law a Power ? Rather is it the path along which a power — the Eternal Power — marches to the attainment of its great ends.
God is law, say the wise, O soul, and let us rejoice;
For if he thunder by law, the thunder is yet his voice.
Men who cling to the old and are afraid of the new talk eloquently about the Genesis story of the creation of the world being a “revelation” of God. And because it is a revelation we are told it must be true. But how is it a revelation? The claim is quite incorrect. In truth, it is in Evolution that we have a revelation of God; in all previous theories of creation we have had only assertions of God. What does the Genesis story do? It asserts; it asserts that God at a certain time did so and so. It shows us nothing. It uncovers nothing. It reveals nothing. (To reveal is to show or to uncover.) What does Evolution do? It uncovers facts of nature. It shows us God actually doing. It exhibits the divine creative work going on before our eyes, in the past and in the present. Thus God is not simply asserted as a creator, but he is revealed as a creator. Which, then, brings God nearer to us and makes him more real and certain, the old or the new?
Tell me the story of Michael Angelo and his great art creations, and you do much. But take me into Michael Angelo’s studio, and let me see the great master’s tools, his plans, his unfinished sketches, his work actually going forward, and you do vastly more. Is it not clear how this applies to the two creation theories? The old creation theory talks to me about the supreme World-Artist, — tells me a story as to what he did once on a time in a far distant past. The new thought of creation by Evolution takes me by the hand and leads me into the great Artist’s world-studio, universe-studio, amidst his tools of nature-forces and laws, his designs of plants and animals and worlds, his work done and being done, of life-building and universe-building and man-building, and thus reveals him, and brings him nearer to me, and lets me see him, feel him, touch him, know him, as the other never did and never can.
Men talk about the doctrine of Evolution being irreligious. What a strange use of words! Is it irreligious to enlarge the sphere of God’s power and work from a narrow and circumscribed earth to a boundless universe? Is it irreligious to extend the time of his creative activity from six days to ages without beginning and without end? Is it irreligious to transform our thought of a creator from that of an almighty mechanic, or potter, operating in one limited place, to that of a Divine Spirit quickening and giving life to his children and his worlds everywhere?
No, it will be seen some day that the thought of Evolution, fully comprehended in its meanings and its bearings, is a mighty enlarger and exalter of religion, a mighty dignifier and ennobler of
man, a mighty revealer and glorifier of God.
When will men learn that God is the God of the living, not of the dead? When will they learn that the eternal ages are in his hand? When will they discover that the mighty laws and forces by which the world moves on to its great destiny, are his? When will they be wise enough to cease fighting or fearing the great new revelations of his truth in nature and in man, by which he is rolling the world on into the light?