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Sermons

The Struggle for Existence

August 10, 2003

Bible Reading

In Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids--blind, lame, and paralyzed, waiting for the stirring of the water. For an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be made well?"

The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me."

Jesus said to him, "Stand up, take your mat, and walk." At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

(John 5:2-9)

Reading from Swedenborg

Every single thing that exists in the world and in the natural system comes into being, and is constantly coming into being--that is, is kept in being--from something prior to itself. It follows that it comes into being and is kept in being from a world above the natural system, which is called the spiritual world. . . . And because there can be only one source of life, just as in the natural system there is only one source of light and warmth, it is clear that every trace of life originates in the Lord, who is the primary source of life. So every single thing that exists in the spiritual world corresponds to him--and so does every single thing within us, since we are a spiritual world in miniature form. Therefore a spiritual person is also an image of the Lord. (Arcana Coelestia #4524)

Sermon

Summer is such a wonderful time of year! Of course we have to deal with some uncomfortably high temperatures; but on the plus side, this is a vibrant time of year in nature. There is so much activity in the world in the summertime--more things to catch the eye and cause us to wonder, more things that encourage us to get up, get moving, and take an active part in the world. My background is in zoology and natural history--and for as long as I can remember I have felt my heart sing in response to the rhythms of nature! I find that this passion is so much a part of me that most of the time I tend to see the world through the eyes of a naturalist.

The world is fascinating not only for its visual radiance but for its complexity. There is a lot going on out there! And not only on a grand scale, as when a herd of elephants migrates across the African grasslands or a storm system move across the landscape, but also at the smallest levels. I was surprised to learn just how much is happening in a square foot of grass, both on the surface and underneath. The environment is so overwhelming in its intricacy that it is not surprising that even after thousands of years interacting with nature, we still do not understand all of its mechanisms.

We have come quite a way, though. Every once in a while one of us will just sit and watch the world, and distill that experience into an idea that makes the rest of us say, "This is how the world really works." But I have found that all of us, regardless of how objective we strive to be, see the world from the vantage point of our own experience--and ultimately, of our own loves.

Take for example Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who expressed the idea that change over time was not only present in the natural world, but plays an integral role in determining the ecology of a given area. We call this change the process of biological evolution. There have been few concepts in natural history that have been more controversial in our society, mostly for those who believe that the notion of evolution contradicts the biblical account of creation (a mistaken belief for several reasons). But when Darwin's treatise entitled On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, there were even other naturalists who raised objections to the idea--not so much against the notion of evolution itself as against the mechanism by which evolution occurs--its driving force.

Darwin described nature as a kind of tabletop composed of thousands of wedges hammered in tightly and filling all the available space. A new species (a new wedge) can only gain entry into a community by pushing itself into a tiny chink and forcing another wedge out of the picture. He referred to this sort of interaction as the "struggle for existence" or "survival of the fittest." Those terms, especially the last, have been used ever since to describe any situation in which success can be achieved only by direct competition. Darwin saw the world as a place wherein its occupants struggle to exist, not necessarily against each other, but against every aspect of their environment that would keep them from "success" (measured biologically by how many progeny are left behind).

Not every naturalist bought into that idea. In 1902, a Russian scientist named Peter Kropotkin published a critique of Darwin's schema entitled "Mutual Aid." In it he argues that it is not competition, but cooperation that increases an organism's success; only when individuals come together in community to rely on each other's gifts and strengths can success be assured. Kropotkin never denied that competition existed in nature, especially when two organisms are faced with severely limited resources. Yet he did say that in most cases nature favors cooperation over competition. To Kropotkin, life was not a big combat of gladiators (as many of Darwin's supporters seemed to suggest); instead he implied that through evolution, life was guided toward increased community.

What is interesting here is that the very different life experiences of these two naturalists--Darwin and Kropotkin--seem to have greatly influenced how each viewed this world of change. Darwin drew most of his examples from a tropical climate--South America and the Galapagos Islands--where biodiversity is so great and lifeforms so numerous that there are many obvious examples of competition for limited resources. Kropotkin, on the other hand, served five years as a military officer in Siberia, where conditions are so harsh that life has to huddle together or perish. Two men, both trained to be observant of what is happening in nature, viewed the world through two very different sets of eyes.

Herein lies the spirituality behind the science. People see the world through their own unique perception. In our lifelong quest for knowledge and understanding, we may hope to find the one person who can encapsulate the whole truth of a thing and present it in one elegant and understandable book. So the world is filled with Darwinists and Gouldians, Freudians and Jungians, Kantians and Neo-Platonists, Buddhists and Taoists, Muslims and Christians. Yet in order to gain a more complete picture of reality, we benefit when we work to see it through the eyes of many rather than relying entirely on the perspective of one individual--or even our own point of view--all the time.

Darwin and Kropotkin serve as excellent examples of the fact that our experience does influence the way we look at reality--at life around us. When we grow up with competition all around us, we learn to see it everywhere we go. Likewise, when we witness individuals coming together to withstand and survive adversity, we tend to seek community in the hardships we face, and value the contributions others can make for the sake of our continued success--and also to look for ways we can help others succeed.

Taking this idea a bit farther, we have a choice concerning how we view the world. In the book of Joshua, Rahab faced a similar choice. She could have chosen to model her world after the authorities of Jericho. She could have conformed to their opinions and revealed the spies. There must have been great pressure to heed the words of the soldiers. She chose instead to believe the message her own heart revealed to her: that the God of these two men was indeed the one true God. The story goes on to say that Rahab and her family were spared from the imminent destruction of Jericho. They "succeeded."

The teaching of the Lord in the Gospel of John is also very applicable here. We have heard how he came upon a man at the pool who couldn't compete successfully against the others. Jesus conveyed to him that he didn't need to compete to survive, but that he had the means of his own self-worth within himself. Competition may be the name of the game for the rest of the world, but it doesn't have to be ours. We can instead choose to heed the divine presence within us, and rise above the status quo.

All these messages are valid, I think. But the truth I hear the most, by virtue of my own experience and my own loves, is that even though we may not be governed by the principle of survival of the fittest, we are still very much a part of this world. This is true biologically, since homo sapiens is a full-fledged member of the web of life, with all its perks and responsibilities. It is also true for us spiritually, because everything that we perceive out there (and everything we do not perceive) is also happening within us, correspondentially speaking. Nature has quite a bit to teach us about ourselves; and we can call upon the perceptions of the Darwins and the Kropotkins of the world to help us more fully understand reality. As we look within every tree, every bird, every breeze, and every expression of spring, we will find God.

Prayer

O God of nature and the environment, as well as the environment of the human spirit, we are painfully aware that our life can be a struggle for existence as we attempt to survive and even thrive in an often hostile environment. In the midst of our struggles, keep us mindful that life is also a field for cooperation and mutual support and service--an arena for "the survival of the useful." Amen.

Rev. Eric Hoffman