Darwin, Jesus, the Devil & Me
Charles Darwin is one of my heroes.
That’s not something you may have heard all that often, at least not within Christian circles. But, well…he is.
For a long time I tried to ignore this fact, to hide it and hope it would just go away. Some people recommended I should just “read the Bible more” and that, if I did so, the light of inspiration I received from him might burn out. But it hasn’t. In fact, it has only grown stronger the more I dive into the Scriptures and abundance of the natural world.
For some this is a quandary. For others it’s flat out heresy, and for them my faith has become suspect–they simply don’t have room for such an opinion within the constructs of their theology and can’t understand, for the life of them, how I have room for it in mine.
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“With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.–I am bewildered.–I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me…. But the more I think the more bewildered I become…”
- Charles Darwin (in a letter to Harvard botanist, Asa Gray. Interesting note: Gray was not only a staunch Christian, but also the person responsible for having On the Origin of Species printed and distributed within the United States.)
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Darwin never set out to disprove God: he simply wanted to know how species change over time (i.e. the process through which it occured). At this point in the continuum of religious thought, most people held to the Theory of Special Creation, believing that God created specific organisms to inhabit specific climates and ecosystems for all time. These organisms and ecosystems did not and do not change, and have looked the way they look for all of history…and will continue in perpetuity. Why then, Darwin wondered as he voyaged around the world, would this Deity give the rhea (the South American equivalent of the ostrich) such scrawny little wings? If God intended this bird to only walk and run throughout the South American pampas, why give it wings at all if they served no practical purpose or advantage? It didn’t seem to make sense, and the wrote answer ”Because that’s how God wanted to make them” simply didn’t satisfy.
Darwin was also deeply dissatisfied with the agony and suffering he saw in the world, something that reached its peak after the death of his 10-year old daughter, Annie. If an omnipotent God was in fact ‘designing’ (most understand this as ‘strictly controlling’) all of life, He then must be designing all of the bad as well as the good, such as the parasitic wasps mentioned in the letter above, whereby the adults paralyze caterpillars and lay their eggs in the large worm’s flesh. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae slowly consume the caterpillar (which is still very much alive) from the inside out over the course of several days…until they hatch into fully formed wasps that go on to repeat this same cycle upon other hapless caterpillars, over and over and over again.
Why would a benevolent God specially design such horrific creatures? And why would he specially design others to suffer so much on their behalf?
But even if Darwin entertained these theological questions, he never meant for his writings or studies to ever deal with them so pointedly. He felt many of these matters were too great for the human mind to fully or properly consider, and if there were people who could in fact consider them, he certainly wasn’t one of them. He instead concerned himself with barnacle anatomy and orchid pollination and the selective breeding of rock doves. And, truth be told, Darwin was a deeply quiet family man: he knew the waves his developing theory would create and the negative attention and pain it would bring his family. Because of this, his writings remained unpublished for nearly two decades.
But eventually–and largely under the pressure of friends and colleagues–he put it all into a book (which is, in and of itself, an incredible story involving some letters from a guy named Alfred Russel Wallace who was tromping around in the jungles of Malaysia and noticing things about the designs of butterflies in different forest valleys…).
That bound and published set of pages became the final straw upon the proverbial back of the church’s camel, as it suggested (with the inclusion of copious observations, examples and data) that perhaps things function a bit differently than we had been leading ourselves to believe. The last big shake up like this had come from a guy named Galileo who said that, based on his measurements and observations, maybe the stars weren’t exactly “fixed in the sky” as the Scriptures so clearly seemed to state. “Oh, and the Earth isn’t quite fixed, either,” he added. ”It’s hurtling through space at an incredible velocity and pirouetting around the sun…not the other way around.”
The church called Galileo a tool of Satan for making such claims and forced him to renounce all of his claims and teachings. (In all fairness, the church did eventually apologized to Galileo…300 years after his death.)
Now, if someone were to walk up to you today in the street and tell you that everyone who believes the sun is the center of our solar system are, in fact, the crazy ones…how would you react? Would you think they were unstable? Theologically shaky? Probably, because we all know that the sun is, in fact, the center of our solar system. Yet not too long ago in our history, to believe so was considered heresy of the highest order.
Isn’t it interesting how heresies can eventually become universal truths?
Is it possible that sometimes our explanations are limited simply because our understandings are limited as well? And, if we are able to obtain information that expands our understanding, should not our explanations also expand?
Is God not big enough for that?
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There is a certain page in one of Darwin’s notepads that shows a preliminary sketch of his developing theory. Written on the page is the simple phrase “I think” followed by a diagram of the branching diversity of various species. It shines light on his passion for inquiry, his constant asking of questions (even in spite of popular religious thought at the time) and –I think– humbleness as he attempted to connect the various ‘dots’ that lay stuffed and preserved upon the specimen table before him. Butterflies and rheas and armadillos and barnacles and orchids and pigeons…all part of some massive tangled riverbank of life and complexity, all acting and reacting, breathing and breeding, migrating and moving, each species adding even more goodness to the goodness.
The words and images from this small notepad page now reside upon my skin, etched in ink.
Like Darwin, I am obsessed with the world around me: a day doesn’t go by that I don’t marvel at things like the photosynthetic process or the form and structure of a bumblebee, or think about ferns and moss and fish and frogs and the formation of new island archipelagoes. Like Darwin, I believe that life has been given the gracious and incredible gift to be what it is…and that this ability “to be” is good (Genesis 1:12, 18, 25, 31). More than that:
But I also wade deeply into the waters of Judeo-Christian belief and practice, and so this diagram of life and abundance and creativity has been carved specifically over my ribcage, a symbolic phrase from the early stanzas of Genesis where life branches off from a set of ribs…
Deep in this ink and deep within this body of mine, there is mystery.
There is a heart that beats…even though I don’t tell it to. There are lungs that expand and contract…even when I am not mindful of them. There is blood that flows through thousands of miles of vessels…even though I can’t feel its current.
There is tension in what we know and what we don’t know. And within the space of what we don’t know, there is often fear. Anxiety. The compulsion to cry, “Heresy!”
And sometimes, in our desire to do away with that anxiety and fear, we allow any answer to fill the gap.
But I simply cannot oversimplify the complex factors I see at play in the ecosystems and organisms around me. I cannot ignore the fact that, if this God is as creative as I have been lead to believe He is, then an eons-long chorus of diversity and change is an even more accurate reflection of his character than the simple *POOF!* of something into existence. If His allowance of creatures — from Heminopterans to Homo sapiens – to make decisions and engage their world in a multitude of non-forced/controlled ways is true, then this is a God of far deeper respect and love for creation than many of the religious perspectives of Darwin’s day–and the Sunday School classes of ours–allow for.
And if this ultra-creative understanding of God is true, then the reduction in size of a rhea’s wing is no longer the result of an arbitrary decision of a capricious God, but rather a wonderfully complex expression of this specific species’ place in the grand chorus of creation. The rhea is given the opportunity to breed (“each with its own kind”) and express a multitude of traits and phenotypic variations, each one like a musical note in a song or symphony. Some notes may remain, others may diminish…some to the point where the harmony that is created changes and, over time and through enough modifications, becomes almost unrecognizable from the original string of notes. Yet it still makes enough sense that, within the whole of melodies and harmonies playing alongside, it produces a deeply familiar song of creation.
The bird plays its part. The moth plays its part. The fern plays its part. I play my part.
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If the Kingdom of Heaven truly is like a tree (as Jesus illustrated) then there are an infinite number of branches and offshoots for us to inhabit. There are countless paths for life to take. There is an infinite abundance of possibilities for life to pursue.
And God said this was good.
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“I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone. … A celebrated author and divine [Rev. Charles Kingsley] has written to me that ‘he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.’”
- Charles Darwin (from the title page of the 2nd – 6th editions, On the Origin of Species)
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Darwin didn’t have it all correct. Modern evolutionary biologists would be quick to say that he missed the mark on a number of things. But this doesn’t negate the fact that he tried to maintain a fidelity with both himself and the world as he observed it, and as he attempted to reconcile those things he observed.
Many agree that Charles Darwin (himself included) died agnostic. Others would argue he was an atheist. Regardless, he felt that the idea of God he was given was not one compatible with the world as he understood it…that religion wanted to take its proverbial ball and go home if he wasn’t going to play by its rules. And I can’t help but wonder: were he allowed a more open atmosphere of questioning, of grace…would he have come to a different conclusion? Would the divisiveness we still encounter today between science and religion be as stark? Would fewer people leave their communities of faith if they were allowed to dialogue these sorts of issues without the stigma of being dubbed a heretic for doing so?
I cannot negate the existence of a God as I find expressed in the Scriptures. Nor can I ignore the wonderful expression of life I see all around me, abounding in the flitter of a bat’s wings or the impressions of ancient plants in the sandstone bluffs that gird the valley in which I live.
I don’t believe this is an “either/or” issue (e.g. God is either a strict puppeteer over all things or he snapped everything into existence and then walked away without so much as a second glance). Most times mystery consists of a synthesis of seemingly different ideas held in dynamic tension with one another. This is the space I have found to be the most truthful to inhabit, as both a follower of Christ and an avid naturalist and student of the world around me. Neither diminishes the other (as some may fear), but rather each enhances the other. The result is a beautiful “both/and” dance that, interestingly enough, promotes not only a humbleness of heart but also an invitation into dialogue and conversation…of participation.
And in the gaps, mystery and grace and wonder abound.
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“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
- Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection)
“God spoke: ‘Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind: cattle and reptiles and wild animals–all kinds.’ And there it was. God looked over everything he had made: it was so good, so very good!”
- Genesis 1.24, 30-31 (The Message)