Evolution and Charles Darwin

Dan and I and little L. have recently flown to a faraway tropical island.  On the plane I tried to catch up on my Speaking of Faith podcasts.  One in particular, that I’d been eager to listen to, was “Evolution and Wonder: Understanding Charles Darwin.” You’d think that since my training was in the biological sciences, I would have read The Origin of Species already, but I haven’t.  It’s the sad truth.

After listening to this podcast, though (which you can access here), I resolved to read it straightaway.  After Darwin’s trip on the HMS Beagle, he returned home fearful of publishing his findings.  In fact, he waited twenty years to do so, and he wrote to a friend that he felt as though he were confessing a murder.  Darwin claims that when he wrote The Origin of Species his faith was as strong as the bishop’s.  This interests me, because it means that the church, both then and now, were culprits of allowing open thought and discussion on things that hinted at blasphemy (or what they saw as blasphemy).  Heaven forbid a thinking person might lay it all out, his or her creative ideas at how we might be wrong, how it might have “gone down” differently, because we have our preconceived notions of what God is and how He does things.  We pat ourselves on the back–that we’re not like the people who locked up Galileo for believing the earth revolved around the sun, but really, have we advanced all that much in our ability to question and doubt?

Here’s a segment of the broadcast, that will give you a taste of what you’d find, if you listened to the entire broadcast.  Krista Tippett’s guest is James Moore, who is the co-author of Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist and The Post Darwin Controversies.

“Mr. Moore: We have to look at the mood at that time and in all of the years Darwin was being educated. God was in his heaven. All was right with the world, at least in England. People knew their places. Things were changing. But it was widely believed that both society and the natural world were held stable, fixed, by God’s will. And this world was justly and correctly administered by God’s agents on Earth, his priests. Species did not change spontaneously and naturally because nothing in this world happened purely naturally and spontaneously.

Ms. Tippett: I see.

Mr. Moore: God was in charge. When Darwin confessed to murder, he was saying that nature is self-developing. God, according to Darwin, had established laws by which matter moves itself and changes into new forms we call species. Darwin was not denying God’s existence. The murder was not the murder of God.

Ms. Tippett: Now, I think that at that time, in Victorian Britain, the whole field of biology was captive to creationist theology, but I don’t think it had always been that way. I mean, was that particularly true in that era?

Mr. Moore: We have to use the word “creationist” or “creationism” very carefully. Historically, Christians and Jews and Muslims are all creationists because they believe that God brought the world into existence. A creationist was not a person, historically, who had any particular views on the origin of biological species, but as one who had held certain theological views about the universe and about the soul.

The definition of “creationist” became narrowed in the 17th century and in the 18th century. At this time, people were discovering a great deal more about the natural world and were classifying individual species and grouping these species in larger groups and larger groups. And it became a matter of belief during the 17th and 18th century that each of these species, each of these biological species of plants and animals, hundreds, tens of hundreds of thousands of species had been individually created by God in their first pair in the Garden of Eden.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Mr. Moore: And the poetry of John Milton in Paradise Lost gave a great deal of color to that.”

I’ll add a brief note to Mr. Moore’s comments.  I found that when I wrote Eve, much of a Christian’s construct of what happened in the Garden of Eden comes from Milton, not the Bible.  Isn’t that interesting?


“Ms. Tippett: Milton’s Paradise Lost was among the four books Darwin took along on HMS Beagle. Here are some verses.

Reader: “Let us make now Man in our image, Man
In our similitude, and let them rule
Over the fish and fowl of sea and air,
Beast of the field, and over all the Earth,
And every creeping thing that creeps the ground.
This said, he formed thee, Adam, thee, O Man,
Dust of the ground, and in thy nostrils breathed
The breath of life. In his own image he
Created thee, in the image of God express.
And thou becamest a living soul.”

Mr. Moore: There’s a literalism in this poetry that Christians took to be part of the explanation of the origin of biological species. So by the time Darwin is born in 1809, it is a common assumption in all churches and by all Christians that the original pair of every species had been brought into existence not so long ago by God. This was a modern belief. It was not a common belief before the 17th century.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I think that’s really interesting. What you’re describing is, as science kind of opened up and people began to learn more about the natural world, there was an attempt to fit that knowledge into the biblical stories. But the result of that was to make those more rigid than, in fact, they were. I mean, I think previously also, even theologians read Genesis not as a scientific text, I mean, didn’t try to make it a scientific text, read it as a theological text with a theological purpose.

Mr. Moore: Ordinary people read the Bible with their ordinary spectacles on. The people who told them what the Bible says were very, very important. In the Protestant Reformation, those people were not to be the church dictating how you read the Bible, but the individual believer. So the Bible became an open book much more than it had been, when it was translated into the vulgar language, the ordinary language of people.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Moore: And I believe the Catholic church was right to this extent, that this really did open up a Pandora’s box of possibilities. Because with every person becoming his or her own interpreter, there was scope for really quite extraordinary clashes about what God is telling us through this book.

And as far as the creation story is concerned, of course, we don’t know what God has created without looking around us in the world. So with voyages of discovery, with intense national investigations, people began to build up a picture of extraordinary diversity of life on Earth. And that had to be fitted into the ordinary person’s view of the Bible.”

I, of course, am an ordinary person, seeking to interpret and make sense of an ancient text.  I cannot believe in a God who would tailor His words and His stories, making them accessible to academics and seminarians only.  What would be the purpose in that, if He loves everyone?  It is astonishing to me, though, that most people believe that they must be led and directed and told the truth by these people, as though these trained theologians have gained private and glorious access to God that they (the lay person) will never attain in all their years of common living.  This is wrong.  It is abusive.  Go read the Scriptures yourself.  Go study Buddha.  Go study Mohammed.  You’re not being blasphemous.  God will not strike you down.  He will, I think, be extremely pleased that you’re not taking this faith-thing sitting down.  He will, I think, be tickled to gain a rebel rather than a nitwit.

I, for one, want Krista Tippett’s job–to talk to all those fabulous people who are questioning and thinking and assimilating vast amounts of wisdom and scientific data.

If only.

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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