The Mediocrity Principle



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“The Mediocrity Principle” The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen, First Presbyterian Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, February 18, 2007, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 4:1-7
Many, many churches in this nation and around the world are taking part in an effort this month to proclaim that science and faith are not antagonists. This effort began several years ago when educators enlisted people of faith in efforts to keep local school boards from requiring the teaching of biology that offered alternative explanations to Darwin’s theory of evolution. A little more than a year ago there was a famous case in Pennsylvania where the teaching of Intelligent Design was offered as a scientific counter-explanation to evolution. Some in that community argued that Intelligent Design was really a religiously-based theory, masquerading as science--and as it was, they argued, religiously-based, it should not be taught in a public school.

These cases fascinate me. School boards and other government agencies have to draw very fine lines in this nation because the First Amendment to the constitution forbids “establishing” a church--and also forbids prohibiting the free exercise of religion. In the case in Pennsylvania, the court ruled that the theory of Intelligent Design crossed that fine line, and the school district had unfairly promoted religion by having it be part of the science curriculum.

Cases like this one--and there are numerous examples nation wide, make people wonder about faith, religion and science. Many of you have asked in one way or another, “well, what do Presbyterians believe about Creation?“ or even, “What am I supposed to believe about Creation and Evolution?”

In this climate of uncertainty, an educator who used to be at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who recently moved to Butler University in Indianapolis, Michael Zimmerman, began a project to help Christians articulate that faith and science are not necessarily incompatible. Last year Dr. Zimmerman organized the first Darwin Sunday and encouraged religious leaders, myself among them, to set aside a Sunday to address the compatibility of faith and science. Dr. Zimmerman and I engaged in what I’m fond of calling “frank exchanges” on this topic. Two things I told him were 1) that it’s not appropriate for a government employee, such as himself, to try to organize religious communities to preach anything and 2) trying to organize churches is a lot like herding cats. We disagreed on the first point. I’m confident he came to agree with me on the second one. Now that he’s at a private institution I have no objection to his seeking to organize religious groups to preach any message whatsoever. And I remain a staunch believer in the Presbyterian tradition of freedom of the pulpit--which guards the right of the preacher to preach his conscience.

This year Evolution Sunday was recommended to be last Sunday, that’s the Sunday closest to Darwin’s birthday. Churches in at least 49 states observed either in worship or at an educational event, that science and faith can and do co-exist harmoniously. This year I’m a week behind the suggested schedule. But I’ve been thinking about the relation between science and faith for years, and had an experience last fall that helped me see this relationship with new clarity.

I was invited to a breakfast meeting of church leaders where a DVD called “The Privileged Planet” was shown. This DVD had been shown at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It, and its companion book, were written by two astronomers Guillermo Gonazalez and Jay W. Richards. The thesis of the book is that the presence of all the conditions that make life sustainable on earth is so statistically unlikely that only a wise Creator or an Intelligent Designer, could have accomplished something like our home planet. A partial list of the conditions that make life possible on earth which the authors cite, includes

a large stabilizing moon, plate tectonics, intricate biological and nonbiological feedback, greenhouse effects, a carefully placed circular orbit around the right kind of star, early volatile element-providing asteroids and comets, and outlying giant planets to protect us from frequent ongoing bombardment by comets. It depends on a Solar System placed carefully in the Galactic Habitable Zone in a large spiral galaxy formed at the right time. It presupposes the earlier explosions of supernovae to provide us with iron that courses through our veins and the carbon that is the foundation of life. It also depends on a present rarity of such nearby supernovae. Finally, it depends on an exquisitely fine tuned set of physical laws, parameters, and initial conditions.“ [The Privileged Planet, p.. 271-272]
I count 13 different factors that--in the right proportions--which the authors argue are necessary for life to exist on earth.

Yes, the universe is enormous, and growing more enormous every second, but the array of conditions that make life possible on earth, their presence in the right quantities and at the right moment in history, implies that earth and humanity are unique in all creation. Statistically the likelihood of all these conditions coinciding is infinitesimal, since it couldn’t “just happen,” Someone must have made it happen. The authors do not say this, but they imply it so strongly, that I will--only God could have made earth and us. “That is the most plausible and scientifically defensible explanation for Creation. And we‘re special--or ‘privileged‘ as the authors have it.”

I was no fan of this DVD, though it looked like my colleagues were pretty taken with it. I asked one of them who was furiously taking notes, “Are you going to preach this?” He was.

What I found helpful was the scientific theory that The Privileged Planet sought to disprove, “the Mediocrity Principle.”

The term “mediocre” is widely misunderstood. If you’re thinking about going to a new restaurant and hear “It’s mediocre.” you probably won’t go. At its root though, “mediocre” means “halfway up a mountain,” or “in the middle.” Again, you might not see a movie rated “mediocre” by a critic, but it’s not likely to be a horrible film either, just in the middle.

In the middle is the very idea that Psalm 8 expresses. The psalmist writes


When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

mortals that you care for them?

Yet You have made them a little lower than God,

and crowned them with glory and honor.


The beauty of the night sky is vast. And the beauty of the night sky points the observer back to a creator. And the observer, the psalmist, marvels that though we are little--we are a little lower than God! We’re tiny and we’re crowned with glory. That sounds to me like we’re mediocre--we’re halfway up the mountain!

Copernicus is the one who is credited with formulating the Mediocrity Principle, which states that there’s nothing exceptional about earth, early in the 16th century.

Here I am quoting from wikipedia, the online encyclopedia:

Ancients once thought that the Earth was at the center of the solar system, but Copernicus proposed that the Sun was at the center. This view was confirmed a hundred years later by Galileo who demonstrated with a telescope that Jupiter's moons orbited Jupiter and that Venus must orbit the Sun. In the 1930s, Robert Trumpler found that the solar system was not at the center of the Milky Way, but 56% of the way out to the rim of the galactic center. Throughout the latter half of the last century, astronomers gained understanding of how vast the universe is. And our planet rotates around a fairly ordinary star. They began to find planets around other stars. In short, Copernican mediocrity is a series of [scientific] findings that the Earth is a relatively ordinary planet orbiting a relatively ordinary

star in a relatively ordinary galaxy which is one of countless others in a giant universe, possibly within an infinite multiverse. [wikipedia “Mediocrity Principle,“ February 16, 2007]
It was a jarring, perhaps even wounding change when humanity began to realize that the Sun doesn’t rise and set on us. We have only held this worldview for about 500 years--and we’re still getting used to it. We talk about seeing the Sun rise earlier now that spring is coming. In fact, the Sun doesn‘t rise--as the earth slowly tips on its axis, in the Northern Hemisphere, toward the Sun until mid June each year, the Sun appears to rise earlier and set later. That’s a better explanation of what we observe on earth, but it lacks the punch of “Sun Rise, Sun Set” from Fiddler on the Roof, doesn’t it?

The Mediocrity Principle undermined our worldview and identity in other ways too. Ways that I believe are healthy for human beings. Think of how a child grows in understanding. At birth babies do not understand that they and the world are not One. As they grow and gain independence they have to learn to do things for themselves--settling back to sleep, eating, speaking...they go from being the center of a universe that provides for their needs to being part of a society to which they contribute and which nurtures and sustains them. It’s a gradual process and often painful and confusing for parents and little ones--learning that the Sun doesn’t rise and set on me, that I am not the center of the universe. Parents need to walk a fine balance between honoring their children’s needs without exalting the child into grandiosity. Parents need to teach their children to understand that they are special--just like everyone else.

Recent research has found that bullying, which is a problem that our schools are addressing with great attention, is not rooted in the bully’s poor self-image, as much as in the bully’s sense of entitlement. The bully believes “I can threaten and harm weaker classmates because I’m more special than they are.” School officials are taking new approaches to bullying, not trying to build the self-esteem of the bully, but to lessen bullies’ sense of specialness, of entitlement. When bullies see that they’re not privileged, that the Sun rises and sets on everyone, they gain empathy and stop bullying. The Mediocrity Principle at work on the playground.

Imagine a nation that believes it is uniquely wise, powerful and enlightened. A nation that understands its role in the world as bringing peace and harmony to all nations near and far. A nation with a surplus of rationality and goodness. A nation whose history has given it a privileged identity, a nation whose success is confirmed by its supreme military power. A nation that does not enter into international agreements with other nations because it believes its soldiers are incapable of committing war crimes, or that the pollution its citizens and industry produces is necessary for its economic health, though its environmental cost may well be catastrophic. We could call such a nation “privileged” or “entitled.” Yet what this nation really needs, and what the world needs from this nation, is a healthy dose of mediocrity. Yes, it’s jarring to recognize that the United States is fallible and can and has done wrong. That we have a proud history of success, prosperity and peace--and we are not perfect. The recognition that we are noble, and fallible guided our founders to separate powers and to give our government the ability to correct its mistakes. Like bullies, nations are most dangerous when they cannot imagine their own potential for evil.

When I first entered into debates on evolution as a school boy, the strongest and fiercest argument I remember came from the creationist side who said bluntly, ““I ain’t no animal, God made me.” I loved the implication that those who were Creationists had been made, their cells and organs lovingly constructed by their Skilled Craftsman, while those of us who sided with the Darwinists were descendants of baser creatures--we really had monkeys for uncles! Of course, these debates were never resolved to anyone’s satisfaction, and still are not. But the antagonism puzzles me. Perhaps I see this discussion taking place in a wider, and different context. It seems to me that God can regard me--and all of humanity--as precious, God can cherish and love us, can--as the psalmist write, “Crown us with glory,” whether we evolved from earlier primates or were formed out of soil and given the breath of God’s own living spirit. Whatever path we took to get here, I believe that God loves me. And I believe God loves all people. And I believe God loves the whole universe. And I believe God, being God is capable of loving what wikipedia tells me are potentially infinite multiverses. Yes, I believe I am precious to God, that God delights in me as a father delights in a new born baby. I’m very special. And if I stop there I can become a tyrant and a bully, on whom the Sun rises and sets.

And yes, I believe God delights in you, in all people, as a father delights in a new born baby. You’re very precious to God.

God does stuff like that. Our New Testament reading tells us that God put “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” who we believe was fully God and fully human. Then God put this treasure in clay jars, let me be clear about this--God put this treasure in human bodies. Your body, my body, the bodies of other people, atheists even and Muslims--God put this precious treasure into clay pots to help us to see the extraordinary things that God is capable of. The extraordinary things God does because God loves the created world so much.

We’ve got God inside us--and we’re made of soil. To me, that says we’re not privileged, but mediocre. And God, being God, loves us exactly as we are. Praise God!





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