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Creation of Adam
Michaelangelo's painting of the creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.
When it comes to contemporary religious figures, I'm a big fan of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the world's Buddhists. So I was delighted to learn that His Holiness has won this year's $1.7 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion and Science.
Why should a United Methodist care about such things? Contrast the following quotes:
As one example, the Dalai Lama helped initiate a “Science for Monks” program, based at Buddhist monasteries in India. The program hosts Indian and Western scientists who wish to explore possible connections and overlaps between science and Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
In turn, the program also provides education in scientific inquiry to monks interested in biology, chemistry, cosmology, mathematics, physics and quantum mechanics.
Now read this quote from Michael Zimmerman's column on the Huffington Post:
Please be advised that the next important battle in the culture wars is scheduled to take place in Tampa. ... It will take place in late April at the United Methodist Church's quadrennial General Conference.
... The issue is the relationship between religion and science with what I can only hope to be a small group of United Methodists working to redefine the denomination's position to bring it fully in line with a fundamentalist, anti-science worldview.
Specifically, Dr. Zimmerman, founder of The Clergy Letter Project that supports the teaching of evolution, refers to petitions intended withdraw The United Methodist Church's endorsement of his organization and its annual event, Evolution Weekend. He describes the petitions thus:
A resolution has been introduced to remove the word evolution from the Book of Discipline. Another has been introduced to retract the endorsement of The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend. And still a third has been introduced to delete the Church's clear opposition to creationism in the science classroom.
As I mentioned at the start, I'm a big fan of the Dalai Lama. Few religious leaders in the world today have his record of personal holiness and social justice, as shown in his receipt of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. Now we discover, thanks to the Templeton Prize, that he has also been working to reconcile spirituality with science for the benefit of all the earth's peoples.
Contrast His Holiness' efforts with those whose reading of scripture is so shallow that they can't recognize poetry and metaphor in Genesis' descriptions of how the universe formed. For example the Jews, in their pre-classical scriptural interpretations, recognized that the creation hymns in Genesis were human ways of describing a divine creativity that humans could never hope to comprehend.
The cosmos is an astounding place, as sciences such as astronomy, geology, paleontology, chemistry and all the other ways we observe, measure and manipulate our universe. It's often said the science tells us the "how" of our world and religion tells us the "why." For all the observed facts -- the "how" -- that refute a literal interpretation of Genesis, not one datum of science can tell us why we seek some transcendence beyond ourselves to give our lives meaning.
Is it really so very hard to imagine that evolution just may be God's way of creating universes according to some unfathomable divine science? Isn't that much more miracle than the magical interpretation to which creationists would have us cling?
Jesus tells us to love God with our minds as well as with our hearts, which would seem to indicate that we must be open to new lessons about the world in which we live. So far The United Methodist Church has been faithful to that teaching, and rational minds think that the petitions which so outrage Dr. Zimmerman won't make it out of committee. Let's hope so; otherwise antiquated beliefs will put a big crimp in the effort to create vital congregations.