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Essay

Reading from Two Books:
Nature, Scripture, and Evolution

 

In the Middle Ages, philosophers and theologians described nature as a book, a coherent work in which we could glimpse the mind of God. Like scripture, the book of nature bore the divine imprint—the Imago Dei—and the two books were seen as complementary. In the centuries after the Enlightenment, there developed a sense that scientific and spiritual ways of knowing were somehow at odds, that the apparent contradictions between the two books could not be resolved, and that intellectual integrity required a person to choose. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859, brought the matter to a head, and remains a battleground issue for some. Estrangement between science and faith has impoverished both the church and the sciences. Today, while signs of reconciliation are plentiful, animosity often flares back to life, sparked by polemical voices on both sides. Perhaps artists have a special role in bridging the imagined divide. Like scientists, artists are at home in the realm of metaphor and image; and like scientists, they also tend to love and feel curious about the nitty-gritty, concrete stuff of the physical world. We invited a group of writers from a variety of fields, including poetry, nonfiction, dance, music, and health and environmental science, to address the connections among art, faith, and evolution—particularly the question of how artists can help shape humanity’s sense of its place in God’s changing universe. Their responses are collected here.

 

Scott Russell Sanders
Immersed in Mystery

 

AT THE AGE OF THIRTEEN, scrawny and shy, wearing my church pants and a white shirt my mother had sewn, I stood beside a table in a high school gymnasium in rural Ohio, entertaining questions about my science project, which I had grandly entitled “From Microbes to Man.” Most of the questions were on the order of: What’s this about? Did you draw those pictures yourself? Are those clay figures supposed to be monkeys?

Nearly all of the science fair visitors were known to me, by face if not by name. They were schoolmates, neighbors, teachers and coaches, parents and grandparents of friends. If they were troubled by my exhibit, they were too polite to say so—with one exception. A gruff old farmer, who had paid me a dollar an hour the previous summer to work on his haying crew, stood for a long while squinting at my display, which traced a billion-year sequence from one-celled organisms to us. I could see the color rising in his weathered face. At length he asked if I really believed all this evolution hooey. When I answered with a puzzled yes, he reared back and declared, “Then you’re going to hell!” and stomped away.

Thus was I introduced to the grievous view that one must choose between science and religion, a view upheld vociferously in our own day by zealots on each side of that supposed dichotomy. At thirteen, I had already spent years exploring both realms of knowledge—science through school and library books, religion through church and the Bible—and I found both by turns exhilarating and terrifying. The terror came from recognizing how tiny and fleeting a part I played in the story of the universe, and the exhilaration came from recognizing the beauty and grandeur of that story.

I write story, singular, but of course humans have told, are telling, and will go on telling a host of stories about who we are, what sort of place we inhabit, how we came to be here, and how we ought to behave. As a bookish boy, curious about such matters, I read myths, legends, folktales, and novels, as well as the Bible. I also read popular accounts of astronomy, physics, geology, and biology, which relied as much on narrative as any work of fiction. It did not occur to me that among these many stories any single one could encompass the whole truth about reality, while all the others, insofar as they differed from the true one, must be partly or wholly false.

During the haymaking summer that preceded the science fair, in the evenings after showering off sweat and chaff, I waded through an abridged version of On the Origin of Species, which was easily the most ambitious and thrilling drama of thought I had ever encountered. What pains Darwin had taken to gather evidence, what imagination he had shown in discerning the kinship of all living things! My science project was an earnest if clumsy attempt, using posters and pictures and clay models, to convey the majesty of his theory.

I had no intention of quarreling with the Bible, many portions of which I knew by heart. The story of creation in Genesis had always seemed to me just that, a story, and a marvelous one, but not a scientific report. In the Methodist churches I attended, ministers and Sunday school teachers encouraged children to read the Bible, but they never claimed that God had dictated the Scriptures verbatim. Nor did they claim that the skein of episodes stretching from the Garden of Eden to the apocalypse should be regarded as literal history. When I asked our pastor whether I was wrong to embrace evolution, he advised me not to worry. God had given us inquiring minds, and thus it could not be a sin to use them—that is, he added, so long as our theories did not conflict with our faith.

What was my faith? The farmer’s outburst and the pastor’s warning made that an urgent question for me. I knew what I had been taught to believe, but what did I actually believe? Did I believe in Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the parting of the Red Sea, the burning bush, the Ten Commandments inscribed in stone? More troubling—because more consequential for my own fate—did I believe in heaven and hell, the resurrection, or eternal life? The most troubling question of all: Did I believe in God?

§

The church pants I wore at the science fair no longer reached my ankles, for I had begun the growth spurt that would add ten inches to my height over the next several years. During those same years, as I finished high school and entered college, I also went through an intellectual growth spurt, ranging beyond Darwin to acquire an amateur’s understanding of relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, plate tectonics, astrophysics, and big bang cosmology. I found the universe described by modern science to be more wonderful than anything envisioned by the religion I had absorbed in childhood. The sermons and Sunday school lessons and Bible readings, once so vivid and comforting, now seemed quaint and small. I did not turn against my religious upbringing, for it had done me no harm, but I felt that, armed with science, I could let it go, like a garment outgrown.

By the time I finished graduate school in 1971, the tumultuous history of the previous decade had cured me of this delusion. As I marched for civil rights and women’s rights; as I protested the Vietnam War; as I scorned consumerism and donated money from my meager bank account for the relief of hunger; as I undertook one-day fasts in solidarity with political prisoners—as I joined countless others of my generation in the struggle for a more just and peaceful world—I was prompted by values deriving not from science but from religion. I learned from biology that “race” is a fiction; I learned from sociology what proportion of the world’s people suffer from poverty; I learned from physics how nuclear weapons work; but those disciplines, for all their explanatory power, could not tell me why racism is abhorrent, economic inequality is intolerable, and war is monstrous.

To be sure, science embodies its own ethics, which call for performing experiments rigorously, reporting the results honestly, acknowledging intellectual debts, and freely sharing the benefits of knowledge. But I was naïve to imagine that science alone, for all its rigor and candor, could provide the moral direction for my life. My contemporaries came to the struggle for peace and justice and material simplicity by way of many paths, not all of them religious; I came by way of the Hebrew prophets, the Christian Gospels, and the people I knew while growing up, beginning with my parents, who had exemplified these teachings. I recognized this heritage all the more clearly in my early twenties when I refused, as a conscientious objector, to join the military, and volunteered instead for civilian service. What was my conscience, if not a distillation of my religious upbringing?

§

Looking back now from my late sixties, I realize that my life has been guided, however imperfectly, by the affections and loyalties and standards of conduct I learned from that early ethical formation. Over the years, the questions about faith that so troubled me as a boy have come to seem less urgent, and also less amenable to definitive answers. Whether or not Jesus was the son of God, rose from the dead, and took away our sins, his actions and words, as reported in the New Testament, convinced me that our deepest calling is compassion and our deepest nature is love. I can regard the poor, the ill, the elderly, the young, the outcasts, and all who are most vulnerable as deserving of care and respect, whether or not our kind was made in the image of God. I can strive to live in such a way as to honor the needs of coming generations, human and nonhuman, here on earth, whether or not there is an afterlife elsewhere. I can rejoice in the diversity of living things and seek to defend them, without knowing whether evolution has produced such splendor entirely by accident.

However we acquired our capacities for reason and imagination—by natural selection or divine gift—surely they are our most distinctive features. These capacities have given rise to music and art, literature and history, religion and science, along with every other mode of knowledge and expression. Darwin’s account of the origin and evolution of species was a magnificent feat of the human mind, one that has been refined and extended by subsequent generations of scientists. We can celebrate this feat without supposing that it provides the only story we need to comprehend our nature. We also need the Bible, the Koran, Beethoven’s symphonies, Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Lao-tse’s aphorisms, the Aborigines’ dream songs, Hopi mythology, King Lear, Walden, Leaves of Grass, Chartres Cathedral, Shaker furniture, Zen gardens, linear algebra, quilts, the blues, comic books, cuisine, and the whole panoply of human responses to the universe. The more I have learned from these many sources, the more inexhaustible and inexplicable reality seems. This is not to deny knowledge, but only to admit our limitations. We are conscious manifestations of being. What being itself is, we can only dimly intuit. Immersed in mystery, we should welcome every insight into the vast, ancient, elegant cosmos and our own fleeting existence.

 

Scott Russell Sanders, puzzled by our species, dazzled by our planet, lives in southern Indiana. He is the author of twenty books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently including Earth Works: Selected Essays and the novel Divine Animal.


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