From the Letter to the Hebrews:
“In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 1:10-12 (NRSV) – January 13, 2014.)
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews quotes from Psalm 102 and asserts that the words are spoken by God the Father to the Son. In The Book of Common Prayer (TEC 1979), the verses quotes read:
In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
They shall perish, but you will endure; they all shall wear out like a garment;
as clothing you will change them, and they shall be changed;
But you are always the same,
and your years will never end.
(Psalm 102:25-27 – BCP Version)
The lessons today focus on beginnings — the Old Testament lesson is the second (but older) creation story from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel lesson is the prologue of John’s Gospel. The epistle and the psalm which it quotes, however, remind us of endings: created things “will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up.” I’ve always thought that a wonderful poetic metaphor for theoretical entropic nature of the universe, the idea that all of the matter and energy in the universe will ultimately degrade to a state of inert uniformity.
That these lessons of cosmic beginnings and endings are on the lectionary today is a coincidence that somehow seems appropriate as the world says “Good-bye” to Dr. Ian Barbour, who died yesterday at the age of 90. Barbour was a physicist who embraced the truth of the Christian faith while holding fast to the ethic of scientific inquire; he demonstrated to the world that there is no contradiction between the pre-scientific religious stories of creation and the scientific explanation of the universe’s beginnings.
When he won the Templeton Prize in 1999, Dr. Barbour said:
If we take the Bible seriously but not literally, we can accept the central biblical message without accepting the prescientific cosmology in which it was expressed, such as the three-layer universe with heaven above and hell below, or the seven days of the creation story.
In his book Religion in an Age of Science (Harper San Francisco: 1990), Dr. Barbour proposed a colorful metaphor for the relationship between science and religion, decrying what he called (with characteristic understatement) the “misuse” of each in the extremes of scientific materialism and biblical literalism:
In a fight between a boa constrictor and a wart-hog, the victor, whichever it is, swallows the vanquished. In scientific materialism, science swallows religion. In biblical literalism, religion swallows science. The fight can be avoided if they occupy separate territories or if, as I will suggest, they each pursue more appropriate diets.
He wrote that “our personal and social lives are intimately bound to the rest of the created order. We are redeemed in and with the world, not from the world. Part of our task, then, is to articulate a theology of nature, for which we will have to draw from both religious and scientific sources.” The wart-hog and the boa constrictor each have their part to play and their perspectives to contribute. Unfortunate, there are many who still encourage them to fight to the death rather than change their diets and cooperate. We need fewer leaders of that sort in both religion and science, and more like Dr. Barbour, to whom we say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; rest in peace and rise in glory.”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.