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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.

 

Calvin B. DeWitt
Two-Book Wisdom

 

GLORIFY THE LORD WITH ME!”

Adebisi Sowunmi had finished reading out the day’s scripture on a bright Malaysian morning. Twenty of us sat cross-legged at morning prayer, gathered from the far reaches of the earth, refreshing ourselves in the joyful stewardship of God’s creation so that we could refresh others back home. The story she had just read had been read some two decades earlier by three other earthlings as they circled the moon on Christmas Eve. For the first time, human eyes beheld our home from lunar orbit. “In the beginning,” recited the astronauts aboard Apollo 8, recited Adebisi, “God created the heavens and the earth….”

For Adebisi, the ancient creation story harmonized with an earth-wise history she knew from another grand book—the thousands of pages of natural history she had read and absorbed as an archeological botanist and palynologist (a scientist who studies and interprets pollen deposits). Her vocation is the reading of the history of climate and vegetation in pollen grains deposited deep in African peatlands. In wetlands that remain saturated with water, plant material does not oxidize or decay. Instead, it turns to peat, binding pollen layer by layer, year by year, in the ancient waters.

Now, as she finished reading to us from that first chapter of the other grand book, her tears flowed freely. Adebisi Sowunmi, Nigeria’s foremost palynologist, her speech broken by joy, declared to us and to her Lord, “Never was there a truer story!” A psalmist of our time, tendering the psalmic invitation: “Glorify the Lord with me!”

As a reader of both the pollen texts and the biblical ones, she knows more fully than most of us the truth of Genesis 1. In the two grand books of revelation, both available to any who open and read them and respond to what they tell, she had discovered this invitation. Furthermore, she spoke in the venerable tradition of African storytelling, reciting the story whole, without dissection. She made responding to this invitation not only possible, but necessary, and a joy. With or without having memorized the opening of the Westminster Catechism, she knew that our chief end—our deeply and wonderfully pleasurable goal in life—is to glorify the Lord and to enjoy God forever.

Glorify the Lord with me! Years later, I offered this same invitation through images projected on a screen in Manhattan’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center. I was there because of a meal I had shared with Makoto Fujimura at the Geneva Forum in Madison, Wisconsin, where I live. The artist Natalie Settles had introduced us, knowing of our mutual interest in estuaries—mine as wetland scientist intrigued by the interplay of fresh and salt waters, and his as an artist who saw in them a metaphor for artistic life and practice. We talked about the estuaries along Manhattan Island and the Hudson, and he asked me to speak at an upcoming gathering of his organization, International Arts Movement. And so it was that I came to present images of “Art on the Creator’s Canvas” in New York.

In Earthrise, the famous snapshot taken by the Apollo 8 crew on their Hasselblad, our beautiful blue and white planet rises above a gray, pock-marked lunar surface. Next, in photos taken from only five hundred feet above earth’s surface, we behold our planet’s estuarine systems in their magnificently diverse forms and moods, and the dynamic interplay of waters salt and fresh. Water is a creative agent on the earth’s canvas, everywhere rearranging the land it touches. The photos show us peaty blacks, chlorophyllous greens, mineral rainbows, and watery blues, grays, and greens. Textured images are sculpted chromatically in earth’s fluvial geomorphology. Next, descending closer, we see the Hudson’s mouth and Manhattan Island on our right, barely elevated above the sea. Northward, up Hudson’s stretch, incoming tidal waters make their salty intrusion, attracted by the moon at high tides. At low tides, the estuary is refreshed by rainwater flowing in from the rolling hills and tributaries of the Hudson watershed.

Dynamic interplays—between the books of scripture and nature, between fresh and salt water, between artists and scientists—help fulfill creation. So, too, the dynamic interplay that takes place at a cellular level. The single-cell stage is the bottleneck through which nearly every living creature must pass, blue whale and water lily, bald eagle and burr oak, along with every scientist, artist, and member of our kind. Here, as in all creation, are wonderful provisions—microscopic and submicroscopic resources for tiny cells in wondrous worlds. The provisions include, within each cell, an immense library of cross-connecting spiraling helices containing information that will allow the cell to organize itself, in relation with surrounding cells, into a greater creation—and this library is designed to be readily copied, time and again, thereby providing an unbroken intergenerational life history. This great endowment of information interplays with things internal and external to the cell, sending messages that prompt the cell to gather resources, dispose of wastes, and remodel itself as needed in response to its environment.

I was warned in my youth not to look too deeply into these things. As a boy I occasionally visited the shop of a live-bait dealer as I bicycled to my favorite fishing-hole at the edge of Grand Rapids, where I lived. One afternoon, bending over the circulating water in a concrete tank, I stood looking at the minnows intently—beholding them, actually—with deep interest. The owner warned me: “God does not want you to study those minnows like you’re doing. You can lose your faith if you study nature too much.” At the time I was puzzled, but I have since learned that often people who say such things have committed themselves to read one of the two grand books at the expense of the other. Later, a human physiology teacher would tell me, “Don’t read Darwin’s Origin. It’s too convincing.” More recently, I heard a scientist colleague confess, “I don’t read the teachings of Jesus; I’m having too much fun!”

Another colleague of mine, the deeply humble atmospheric physicist John Houghton, has developed a remarkably coherent two-book wisdom. In his autobiography The Eye of the Storm, he writes, “As humans we have two eyes to view the world…. [T]he combination of my material eye and my spiritual eye has brought and continues to bring richness beyond my imagination.” His ongoing quest for truth, he says, has treated him to true beauty. This resonates with my own experience, and when he writes, “I am committed to finding a way to live as God would want me to live, working in partnership”—not contradicting God’s will and God’s works—I hope I can say and do the same. When I read Houghton’s book, I find myself echoing the words of Job: What the Lord does is what the Lord does; blessed be the name of the Lord!

Like Houghton, Adebisi reads binocularly. She does not contradict or avoid the messages of either grand book, including the messages of time and space. The peatlands of Wisconsin are much like those whose natural history she reads in her life work. I recall my first walk across the Waubesa Wetlands not long after I first moved to the Town of Dunn, just south of Madison. It appeared as a beautiful green expanse, rich with life—a soggy landscape adjoined by rural uplands and Lake Waubesa itself. What I was experiencing, however, was skin deep. Soon I came to wonder about what was beneath my feet.

Exploring this vast creature’s skin with a soil probe, I found it to be underlain by a thick layer of peat. As I delved more deeply, the peat proved to go further down than I could measure with my set of eleven inter-connected three-foot rods. I had more and longer rods made in Milwaukee, and with help from graduate student Bob Friedman, pushed them downward, connecting one twelve-foot rod after another—twelve feet into the peat, then twenty-four, thirty-six, rod after rod, until the last one stopped a foot above the marshy surface. The peat at the interface of my marsh with the lake was ninety-five feet deep! By radiocarbon dating the deepest layers, we soon found there were some ten thousand pages in this great volume, each holding a year’s pollen and other durables from former lives of plants and animals. We also found layers of volcanic ash, including one some 7,677 pages down. This ash had been carried by global air currents from Mount Mazama in Oregon, two thousand miles west. Mazama’s collapsed caldera formed Crater Lake over five millennia before Christ.

A few decades later, while investigating groundwater flow into Deep Spring and other cold-water input to the great marsh, I began to wonder what supported the peat. I had assumed that glaciers had carved the Yahara Valley that cradled Lake Waubesa and its sister lakes and wetlands. I dropped in at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey to search their files. There, wonderfully I came upon a sheet compiled by Perry G. Olcott in 1972: Bedrock Topography—Dane County. I was amazed to see a great plunge in the bedrock beneath the peat—a deep tributary that was part of an ancient valley that underlies our chain of lakes. The glaciers had partially filled it with drift, but its geomorphology showed that it was carved out by water long before glacial times. And then came the realization: this valley I live in was formed by the messenger of water before there were green plants on earth. What the Lord does is what the Lord does; blessed be the name of the Lord!

After this confession, responding to the psalmic invitation feels like both a need and a joy. Glorify the Lord with me!

 

Calvin B. DeWitt is professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, co-founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and director emeritus of the Au Sable Institute. He serves as president of the Academy of Evangelical Scientists and Ethicists.


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