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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.

Fred Bahnson
Sons of Noah

 

IN WILLIAMSTOWN, Kentucky, six hundred miles from the sea, Ken Ham is building an ark.

No scaled-down museum model, this ark will be a museum unto itself, the first full-sized replica of Noah’s original. Upon completion in 2016, the Ark Encounter, as it’s called, will be the largest timber-frame structure in the country. Its dimensions—300 by 50 by 30 cubits—come straight from the blueprint found in Genesis, and here “blueprint” describes both the construction plan and the hermeneutic. The lifting of these exact numbers from the Bible follows from Mr. Ham’s and his fellow creationists’ preference for reading scripture literally. Any man who would build an ark, understand the creation of the world, or intuit God’s will for mankind (and it is mankind) can discover in the Bible the only blueprint he will ever need.

The Hebrew word for “ark” is an Egyptian loanword meaning box or chest. This morning as I read Genesis 6 in my NRSV study Bible, the fine print at the bottom sends me over to Exodus 2, the story of baby Moses’s trip down the river Nile. I learn that the word translated as “basket” is used only here and of Noah’s ark, “another rudderless box under the deity’s protection.”

As one of the world’s leading spokesmen for creationist theology, Ken Ham is a young earth enthusiast, and his passion for convincing others that the world is only six thousand years old has delivered him a tiny empire. Ham is the CEO of an outfit called Answers in Genesis, creators of the Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg, Kentucky, and the organization building the Ark Encounter. Ham has already raised half of the 29.5 million dollars needed for the project, which is more than just an ark. Next door he plans to build a live petting zoo (two of every kind), and the plans for phase two include, in what I suspect escapes Mr. Ham’s sense of irony, a full-scale Tower of Babel.

When I first learned of the Ark Encounter, it seemed to me that this rudderless box in Kentucky was not so much under the protection of the deity as under the spell of human folly and ambition. It would appear that I’m not alone. The media consensus outside the creationist circle is that Mr. Ham is building not just a monumental work of kitsch but a 300-cubit target for scorn and derision. How easy to point out the hubris, the excess, the spectacular lunacy of the whole enterprise.

But maybe it’s because lately I’ve been praying the Lenten prayer of Saint Ephrem—Yea O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother—that my attitude toward Mr. Ham, my brother, has softened. I see now that Mr. Ham has given us all a rare and precious gift, if we are ready to receive it. For what is the Ark Encounter if not a perfect metaphor for our collective response, or rather lack of response, to climate change?

All around us the oceans are rising with a literalness that cares not a whit for whatever we happen to believe about it. By century’s end, if the atmosphere warms by the predicted four degrees Celsius (assuming we do nothing), the sea threatens to flood up to two-thirds of the world’s coastal cities, to cite only one of many projected catastrophes.

Meanwhile the bulldozers in Kentucky are clearing ground for an ark, symbol of salvation from the rising waters.

An ark that will not float.

§

The scientific way of knowing can describe certain things with astonishing accuracy: The pancreas secretes insulin. HIV causes AIDS. The Arctic sea ice will be gone by 2030. We trust science in matters of the human body. When science points toward Homo sapiens as the prime warmer of our world, it’s worth asking why science seems so powerless to make us change.

When it comes to curtailing climate change, most of us suspect by now that tithing our mint and cumin isn’t adding up. Driving a Prius, dutiful recycling—these will not stop the waters from rising. Real change can only come if the Leviathans of industry are hobbled, if we curtail our carbon habit on a planetary scale, and that will take laws, a process we suspect will be messy and time-consuming and largely beyond our control as individual citizens. Knowing this, many of us have traveled quickly along a continuum from dismay to fear to a kind of blasé acceptance of our own powerlessness. Apathy creeps in, and despair slinks close behind.

Our emotional and spiritual capacity to reckon with our own propensity for destruction has yet to catch up with our technological power to destroy.

The underlying assumption of science is that if only we have enough time, research, and grant funding, we can figure out this ecosystem, this cancer, this cosmos. In confronting climate change, science can propose carbon sequestration techniques for mitigation. It can recommend public policy changes. But what science cannot do is move the human spirit to act. Science cannot reach with delicacy and grace into the bowels of our innermost being and make us yearn or ache, nor can it tell us, as Rilke does, “You must change your life.” Before the ineffable mystery of the imago Dei, data blows away like chaff.

§

This is not really an essay about climate change. I wish to understand how we know, and therefore how we speak about, the created world and its imperiled future.

As one who often writes about nature, I am part of the environmental movement. We need movements. I marched in New York alongside four hundred thousand others to demand that our governments act on climate change. I believe our actions added up to more than mere protest. Yet I have grown uneasy with how we speak of our ecological crisis.

Early on the environmental movement ratcheted up its language to the level of shrill, and there it has more or less stayed. But such hyperbolic rhetoric is hard to sustain; the ever-present sense of ecological urgency serves only to numb us. In such a context, how alluring the tone of casual irony, world-weary and glib, that simply assumes apocalypse. Who among us can conceive, let alone bear the existential weight of the knowledge, that we are changing the very “dome above the waters”?

In this era of ecological upheaval, we have yet to find a language adequate to our experience. This is why we need artists and writers like never before. We need a language, and a way of seeing, that is adequate to our propensity for both beauty and destruction.

“My purpose is a language that can make us whole / though mortal, ignorant, and small,” wrote Wendell Berry. I read in Berry and writers like him—Jane Kenyon, Barry Lopez, Willa Cather, David James Duncan—an artistic search for wholeness and transcendence that also lays claim to our full immersion in the created order—our ignorance, our dependence, our limits. Surely this is our primary task as artists of faith.

Among the books that inhabit this paradox, one of my favorites is a slim essay-length work called The Tree, a rumination on creativity and the natural world by the late British novelist John Fowles. Thirty-five years ago he wrote, “The threat to us in the coming millennium lies…in our growing emotional and intellectual detachment from [nature]—and I do not think the remedy lies solely in the success or failure of the conservation movement. It lies as much in our admitting the debit side of the scientific revolution, and especially the changes it has effected in our modes of perceiving and of experiencing the world as individuals” (emphasis mine).

For all its beauty and significance, the scientific way of knowing, of making sense of the world, is not sufficient. The way we see the world has everything to do with how we treat it. If we see the atmosphere as a dumping ground for carbon, we’ll treat it one way; if we perceive that same atmosphere as our amniotic fluid, our one and only Womb created by God and deemed “very good,” we’ll treat it another. An atmosphere is difficult to love. But what about a womb? Would we knowingly damage that?

Increasingly I find myself turning to art as a sense-making enterprise. What Fowles wrote in 1979 still holds: the remedy to our broken relationship with nature does not lie with the success or failure of the climate movement and all its breathless urgency. Urgency cripples. I’m not advocating that such movements disappear, only that our motivation to act must come from a deeper place, and that our work as artists must proceed on a different timeline. Just as God did not zap the world into being in single flash but spoke the cosmos into existence over seven days, our work needs to follow our creator’s pace, which is the pace of art. And the best art proceeds as if it had all the time in the world.

Which leads me to propose a thesis: the more urgent our ecological crisis becomes, the slower our art must proceed.

The main problem is not a warming climate. It is our frozen hearts, and no amount of data or urgency can thaw them. We need Kafka’s axe to break up the ice-locked seas within us. I need the Tallis Scholars singing Missa Puer Natus Est Nobis Gloria, Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life, or Per Petterson’s novel Out Stealing Horses to name several works of art that have moved me deeply. I need daily to be reminded of what is worth saving. And to be reminded I need to read, and seek to use in my own writing, those non-mechanistic metaphors that call forth life.

Our work as artists cannot follow the timeline of catastrophe. It must step outside of predicted outcomes, linear models, even hoped-for results. Only such art can move the human will to change. To be changed. And to then act.

This is where the ark metaphor comes into its own. Noah was a man of the soil, the first to plant a vineyard, Genesis tells us, and his sons were Shem, Japheth, and Ham, “and from these the whole earth was peopled.”

Mr. Ham’s rudderless box may not float, but many others will, and we should give ourselves over to building them. Some of those arks will be artistic; this magazine is one such vessel. Others will be ecological, devoted to preserving endangered flora and fauna, even entire ecosystems. We need ecclesial arks, too, or perhaps lifeboats; the big ark of American Christianity seems to be capsizing, and I’m not sure it will float again, at least not in its current form. But thousands of smaller boats will.

§

Like Noah, I have three sons. We live on a small hillside in western North Carolina. I too have planted a vineyard, though it’s a bit scraggly just now. We have muscadine grapes, blueberries, Asian pears, asparagus. I hope the tiny ark we are building for our sons—the crops and meals, the books my wife and I read them, the books I write—will nourish them and give them hope, even as our planetary impacts worsen. I hope we can leave our sons with more than a dying world. I hope our sons will take the best patterns of care we have to give and teach those patterns to their sons and daughters. And they to theirs.

Whatever arks we build or sustain, our best work will result from adopting the pace of our creator. A steady, unhurried pace. The sons of Noah are out there now, miles from the sea, clearing land and setting the first timbers, working as if they had all the time in the world.

 

Fred Bahnson is the author of Soil & Sacrament and co-author with Norman Wirzba of Making Peace with the Land. He is the director of the Food, Faith, and Religious Leadership Initiative at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.


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