category: Musings, Sermon Starter

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

By Rachael Keefe

Biology was not my favorite subject in high school. The workings of a microscope frustrated me because I couldn’t close one eye and keep the other open. Dissecting worms and frogs wasn’t particularly enjoyable, either. I don’t honestly remember much, but the phrase, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” has stuck with me. …

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny


Biology was not my favorite subject in high school. The workings of a microscope frustrated me because I couldn’t close one eye and keep the other open. Dissecting worms and frogs wasn’t particularly enjoyable, either. I don’t honestly remember much, but the phrase, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” has stuck with me. It was first used by Ernst Hackel, though I don’t remember that being clarified in class. However, it simply means that embryonic development reflects the development of the species. I’ve recently realized the same general idea can be applied to faith development in the people of God.

Think about it. Back in the days of the early Israelites, they believed that God was the cause of all things. If life was good, it was because they were pleasing God and God was rewarding them. If life was difficult, they were displeasing God and God was punishing them. We see this kind of theology in the passage from Numbers which recounts the encounter with the deadly serpents. The Israelites were complaining against God because of the challenges they faced in the wilderness. They were not happy to be hungry and thirsty and they longed for the fleshpots of Egypt. They believed God was affronted by their distress and doubt, and God punished their sins with venomous vipers that killed with one bite. Moses played intermediary as he often did, and God gave the people a way to survive the serpents.

Children often display a similar kind of faith. A very simple faith that says if I am good, God will give me what I want. If God isn’t pleased with me, then God will give me things I don’t want. Many of us get stuck in this way of thinking about God for a very long time. But we don’t have to. Jesus expanded this view of God quite dramatically.

God so loves the whole of the cosmos that God sent God’s own Beloved so that all who believe might have eternal life. God’s love was and is for the whole of creation. Jesus was meant as a display of God’s love, a path to bringing the Realm of God into the here and now. Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection were a radical departure from the tribal God whose wrath flowed freely in response to human behavior. Jesus invites us all to live in a world where Love has ultimate authority, not sin or death.

If we are able to move beyond the perceptions of the ancient Israelites, and even those who lived in First Century Palestine, our understanding of God shifts. We can literally leave behind a rather punitive, reactionary God and move toward a God who is Agape, unconditional, unlimited love. The hints of this are recorded throughout scripture. “God’s steadfast love endures forever” is repeated in numerous verses. There is no place we can go where God’s love is not – depths or heights (Psalm 139). Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:35-39). Even the Creation stories of Genesis point toward a God who lovingly creates; God deems Creation “good.” If we can move beyond a literal reading of the scriptures, we might be able to see, hear, feel, and experience a glimpse of God’s unimaginably vast love for Creation in general, and humanity in particular.

We have a better understanding of how the world works in 2018 than folks did in Moses’ day or even in Jesus’ day. We know that when times are good, we think of what God wants less than when times are challenging. It would be easy to conclude that prosperity is from God and when hard times come, God is punishing us for failing to remember God’s ways. However, there are natural consequences for abandoning God’s ways in favor of human ways. When we humans start thinking that all we have accomplished and all we can do is a result of our own efforts, we tend to become rather self-absorbed. We tend to stop paying attention to the “greater good” and the needs of our neighbors. Then someone with more power comes along and reminds us that we are not God. Then we remember to seek out the Holy and care for our neighbors as ourselves. We can see evidence of this throughout history. Nations don’t fall because God punishes them for their arrogance. Nations fall because they begin to think of themselves as infallible which creates weakness that stronger nations take advantage of. Israel wasn’t conquered again and again because God was punishing them. They fell to their enemies because they forgot to care for the whole nation, not just the wealthy and powerful.

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. Let’s take another look at the Numbers passage from the understanding of God as Agape. The Israelites escaped from Egypt and were in the wilderness. They were hungry, thirsty, and frightened. There were things that happened in the wilderness that caused destruction and death. When the people remembered their liberating God, they were able to find a path through the painful desert. They were not alone – every person for themselves. No. They were a holy nation and could help one another through the pain and grief of seeking new life. God, Agape, was with them, leading them, shaping them into a new people.

This Lent, as we wander through our own wildernesses and deserts, let us remember that we do not go alone. Let us also remember that our God is not hiding around the next bend, waiting for us to screw up so God can punish us accordingly. Let us remember that God is Agape, Love beyond our capacity to imagine. This God whose ways liberate us from oppressive sins and lead us to new life, this is the God who accompanies us on the journey. Not only is God journeying with us, but God is waiting for us to leave old, constricting ways behind and embrace ways of being that lift the whole of Creation to new life.

We, as people of God, are no longer infants. Isn’t it time we embody the fullness of Christ’s love for our neighbors and ourselves?

RCL – Year B – Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 11, 2018
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Photo: CC0 image by Jonny Lindner

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About Rachael Keefe

Rachael is an author, a pastor, a teacher, and a poet. Her latest book (The Lifesaving Church - Chalice Press) is on faith and suicide prevention. She is currently the pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, and has launched a spiritual direction practice.

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