Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It by Loren Eiseley (Doubleday, 1958)
Science and Faith: A New Introduction by John F. Haught (Paulist, 2013)
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith by Philip Kitcher (Oxford, 2007)
NOBODY KNOWS HOW DEEPLY Darwin ever believed in God. He was baptized in the Church of England. We also know that young Darwin worshipped as a Unitarian. This was his mother’s influence. She, of the Wedgwood clan, came from a long line of Unitarians. Of course, being a Unitarian doesn’t necessarily entail much in the way of religious views. I have even heard it argued that some Unitarians in the early nineteenth century actually believed in God.
As he reached young adulthood, Darwin seems to have become more religious rather than less. There are stories of him quoting chapter and verse aboard the HMS Beagle as the ship’s crew literally guffawed in his face. By the end of his voyage, Darwin was harboring serious questions as to the nature and even the existence of God. Perhaps, then, it was the laughter of sailors that first occasioned some unsteadiness in Darwin’s theological rudder.
As Darwin further developed his theory of evolution, it became clear to him that the theory was highly destabilizing to the standard Christian theology of his time. Evolution caused problems for religion in the form of a devastating one-two punch. The first punch was time. The second punch was extinction.
Evolution works the way it works, via natural selection, through the application of outrageous doses of time. Billions of years. Time in a stretch and scale that boggles the mind, even today. In the early nineteenth century, the scientific community was in the early stages of the gradual, progressive acceptance that time takes a really long time.
Indeed, it was due to developments in geology and other natural sciences that Darwin’s theory could fall onto fecund ground and have such enormous impact. In popular discussions of the theory of evolution today, it would sometimes seem that its basic outlines simply popped into Darwin’s mind from nowhere. This is far from the truth. The theory of evolution emerged from the intellectual discourse of Darwin’s era and can be traced back to ideas that had been percolating for centuries.
One of the most useful books for thinking about Darwin in his context was written more than fifty years ago, in 1958. It is a highly readable work called Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It. It was written by a man named Loren Eiseley, a serious scientist who happened to have the soul of a poet and whose writings have fallen into unfortunate obscurity in recent decades. Loren Eiseley was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania for many years until his death in 1977. W.H. Auden once wrote that Loren Eiseley:
…happens to be an archaeologist, an anthropologist, and a naturalist, but, if I have understood him rightly, the first point he wishes to make is that in order to be a scientist, an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, or what-have-you, one has first to be a human being.
Eiseley’s stated object in Darwin’s Century is to place Darwin’s theory of evolution squarely within the intellectual milieu of its time. In doing so, Eiseley notes that some people were already, a century and a half before Darwin was born, beginning to feel nervous about official church doctrine regarding the age of the earth:
By the seventeenth century hints of geological antiquity no longer completely escaped the attention of devout but attentive thinkers. We can catch the glimmer of this dawning age of science in the remarks of Ray [John Ray, 1627–1705] as he stood at Bruges in 1663 marveling over the buried forest which had lain on the sea bottom and then become exposed on dry land once more. He saw “that of old time the bottom of the sea lay deep and that the hundred foot thickness of earth arose from the sediments of those great rivers which there emptied themselves into the sea.” It is a strange thing, he marveled, “considering the novity of the world, the age whereof, according to the usual account, is not yet 5,600 years.”
The problem of reconciling biblical accounts of the age of the planet with scientific analysis would only get worse. Today it is reckoned that the earth is around four and a half billion years old and that the universe is 13.8 billion years old. It is not possible simply to adjust up from 5,600 into the billions. Adding that much time is also to raise potentially disturbing questions like, “What was God doing for billions of years when the cosmos was little but a gaseous, primordial stew?”
So, thinking about evolution means thinking about time. And thinking about time, billions of years of empty time, means that any tidy view of creation must be thrown out the window. The economy of God’s creation as portrayed in the book of Genesis may have poetic truth, but the actual process through which the cosmos became what it is today is sloppy and strange and disconcerting. For the vast majority of the vast expanse of cosmic time, the universe was, as far as we can tell, utterly unconcerned with producing life of any kind.
The second punch that evolution delivered to the body of theology came in the way of species and their extinction. As most people read the Bible during Darwin’s time, God created the various species of plants and animals right there in the beginning, and more or less exactly as they are to be found today: squid, turtle, warthog, tarantula hawk wasp, what-have-you. The problem is, in the early nineteenth century, people started finding fossils and identifying them as such. The crucial and theologically disturbing thing about many fossils is that they are the remnants of creatures that no longer exist. Fossils confront us with extinction.
This fact was not lost on Charles Darwin. Nor was the idea that animal species did not seem fully fixed in their morphology. Instead, “species” seems more or less a plastic category. These observations would become crucial steppingstones toward the full-blown theory of evolution. Once you’ve realized that species change over time and that some of them become extinct, you start looking for the mechanism of that change. Darwin’s special genius was to recognize the incredible power of the process of natural selection. The fight for survival, plus time, equals the passing down of the genetic traits of the survivors. That’s all evolution really is, in essence.
The problem for believers in God is that this evolutionary process contains a great deal of the arbitrary and the cruel. Darwin himself realized this. It often depressed him. In his elegant little book Living with Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith, the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher wrote:
From the late nineteenth century on, religious people who have thought hard about the Darwinian view of the history of life have found it deeply troubling. George John Romanes, author of books on religion and works of science, found Darwin’s vision agonizing. It seemed to him that the universe had “lost its loveliness.”
We should point out here that religious people have long known that the world contains much that is unlovely. Persons of faith living in the world pre-Darwin had, now and again, noticed that animals tend to eat one other, that death is everywhere, that human beings are capable of premeditated acts of violence. Just think of God’s pointed and gut-wrenching question to Cain, “Where is Abel, thy brother?” The problems of theodicy, of God’s justice and goodness in a world of so much bad, have been with us since at least the time of the tough-minded writers of the book of Job. A one-line summary of the Psalms could read something like this: “Why, oh why, God, cannot you be more helpful?!”
But Darwin’s theory of evolution added a new dimension to these worries. A God who allows some evil in the world is one thing. A God who sanctions millions of years of unimaginable suffering to no clear purpose is another. Here, again, is Dr. Kitcher:
Darwin’s account of the history of life greatly enlarges the scale on which suffering takes place. Through millions of years, billions of animals experience vast amounts of pain, supposedly so that, after an enormous number of extinctions of entire species, on the tip of one twig of the evolutionary tree, there may emerge a species with the special properties that make us able to worship the Creator.
It is a brave soul who can look into that ocean of animal pain and suffering without shuddering. More than bravery—it requires a hardened soul. In fact, it is appropriate and necessary to shudder. With Darwin, our eyes have been opened to see that life on earth contains an element of horror hitherto not contemplated. Closing one’s eyes to the reality will not do. How do we reconcile a God who is good and wise and caring with a cosmos in which cruelty seems the very mechanism by which life comes to be?
For much of the last 150 years, the answer for many people of faith has been denial. The shock effect of Darwin’s story has been met with fear and anger. This cloud of fear and anger was created mostly in good faith (no pun intended), in order to protect a providentialist God. Of course, the self-defeating hubris in trying to defend God is readily apparent. If a providentialist God must be defended behind a curtain of anger and fear, then what you’ve got behind the curtain is not much of a providentialist God. God—if he/she/it is really God—does not need or want such defense.
Realizing that arguments against Darwin are futile and self-defeating, many people of learning and intellectual honesty who are also people of faith have therefore decided, essentially, to split their minds. One side of the mind takes in scientific truths and happily contemplates the latest discoveries of evolutionary biology. The other side, separated from the scientific side by an impenetrable wall, contemplates the very same cosmos from the perspective of faith and finds it awash in a rosy glow of goodness. As long as the two sides never speak to one another, the splitting seems to work. The evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould endorsed such a splitting with his famous invocation of the “non-overlapping magisteria.”
Explaining what he meant by non-overlapping magisteria, Gould wrote in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer:
The net of science covers the empirical realm: what is the universe made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the usual clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.
According to the principle of non-overlapping magisteria, the facts of evolution simply have no bearing on the cosmos looked at through the lens of faith. But at some point or another a person of faith is liable to ask, “If evolution is the actual mechanism by which life is created and sustained and if we are to know God at least partly through creation, oughtn’t we to address the mechanism of this creation head on?”
The theologian John F. Haught (senior research fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University) has been asking and attempting to answer this question in a number of books for some time. In his recent Science and Faith: A New Introduction, he makes the following point:
Evolution is not just an innocuous scientific theory that theology can safely brush off. Darwin’s science is an essential part of the new cosmic story that now provides the appropriate intellectual and spiritual framework for expressing faith’s understanding of life, human existence, and God.
With these two sentences, Stephen J. Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria are abruptly overlapped. But not in the way Richard Dawkins and other evolutionary biologists fear. With Haught, the overlapping is not about religion trying to limit science, to tell it what it can and cannot say. One of Haught’s more newsworthy projects was to testify “against” religion, as it were, in the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. This was the case in which the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania wanted to teach intelligent design as a viable alternative to the theory of evolution. Dover proposed using the now infamous text Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins as a textbook in biology class. Haught was opposed to this idea. In fact, Haught is opposed to the theological project of countering evolutionary theory with intelligent design in any of its guises. So, though a theologian, he testified for the other side.
It should be noted, too, that Dr. Haught voiced objections to intelligent design on theological grounds as much as on scientific grounds. That’s to say, he was at pains to point out that while intelligent design is not science, it is also not very good religious thinking. Here are a few lines of testimony from the court proceedings.
Q. You have called intelligent design appalling theology. Can you explain that?
A. Well, I think most people will instinctively identify the intelligent designer with the God of theism, but all the great theologians…people like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, Karl Rahner—would see [that] what’s going on in the intelligent design proposal, from a theological point of view, is the attempt to bring the ultimate and the infinite down in a belittling way into the continuum of natural causes as one finite cause among others.
And anytime, from a theological point of view, you try to have the infinite become squeezed into the category of the finite, that’s known as idolatry.
As you can see, Dr. Haught is playing rough here. He is cutting off all avenues of escape. If you are religious, he is saying, and if you are intellectually honest, you are going to have to face the facts of evolution and you are going to have to incorporate those facts into your conception of God and how God’s universe operates. Not only do the facts demand it, but theology demands it too.
What happens to our religious thinking if we let the magisteria overlap, if we let the facts of evolution enter into our conception of what God’s creation is like? According to Haught, once the fear recedes, once our hearts are open to a new understanding, something interesting happens. We begin to see the outlines of a new story:
Notice, then, that Darwin’s evolutionary recipe consists exactly of the three ingredients essential to any story: accidents plus the predictable working of natural selection plus a sufficiently long span of time. Darwin’s portrayal of life is dramatic and therefore narrative to the core. Evolutionary biology has shown that life is not so much a set of architecturally interesting designs as it is a drama that begs to be read with a sense of expectation.
The universe, in short, is a big, long, crazy, surprising, and utterly fantastic story. Science has expanded our ability to see just how big and crazy the story really is. Of course, we can still ask whether the story is so crazy—and contains so much suffering—that we can no longer fit the idea of a providentialist God into the narrative. Here is Haught’s answer to that objection:
[T]he God of faith is not a magician but a creator, and this creator is more interested in promoting freedom, adventure, and drama than freezing everything into undisturbed order from the start. Since God apparently loves stories, we are not at all surprised at evolution’s strange and erratic pathways. The long drama of a universe that takes its time blossoming into life, intelligence, personality, moral aspiration, and religious longing is completely consonant with our faith’s conviction that a truly providential love never forces but always takes risks of allowing for spontaneity, surprise, freedom, and adventure.
Elizabeth A. Johnson, professor of theology at Fordham University, takes this idea one step further in her most recent book Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.
How does a person come to grips with the often-terrible story of the emergence of life as we now know it through evolutionary biology? Well, she points out, there is always the incarnation and the cross. That’s to say, we can trust God because God does not hold himself aloof from the suffering. God is in the suffering of the world. Christ’s suffering and death on the cross is a sign, a testimony to the fact that the universe in its totality is the ongoing story of God subjecting God to the suffering of existence. Here is how Johnson puts it:
The cross of Christ concentrates the suffering of God into a point of intensity and transparency that reveals this to be characteristic of God’s perennial relation to creation. Dwelling in the evolving world and acting in, with and under its natural processes, the Giver of life continuously knows and bears the cost of new life.
The primary point being that we shouldn’t try to explain the suffering away, to argue against it with trite theologies or bad science. We accept that the suffering is part of the story, even an integral part of the story, and then we find our trust again in realizing that God is a player in this narrative. God does not stand aside with a distanced sense of irony about the ridiculous charade of life. God participates. As Johnson writes:
What John Paul II calls “the pain of God in Christ crucified” places the living God in solidarity with all creatures that suffer in the struggle of life’s evolution. This unfathomable divine presence means they are not alone but accompanied in their anguish and dying with a love that does not snap off just because they are in trouble. Biologically speaking, new life continuously comes from death, over time. Theologically speaking, the cross gives grounds for hope that the presence of the living God in the midst of pain bears creation forward with an unimaginable promise. This does not solve the problem of suffering in a neat systematic way. It does make a supreme difference in what might come next.
There is a final question to be asked. If it is true that Darwin forces us to enlarge our concept of the cosmic narrative to encompass quantities of time and suffering we’d never dreamed of before, how do we actually do this? What tools do we possess to bring fact and meaning together again?
Robert Hughes, the late art critic for Time magazine, was known to lament the frivolity and vapidity of much contemporary art. Famously cantankerous, he once remarked that, “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive.”
It was clear to Hughes that art should have a slightly loftier job description. Not a religious man in any normal sense of the term, Hughes was nevertheless given in the later parts of his career to saying things like “art may give access to a spiritual realm.”
The question, of course, is what that means. One possibility, suggested since at least the days of Immanuel Kant, is that art is a special area of human endeavor where the two otherwise non-overlapping magisteria of science (facts) and religion (meaning) actually overlap. Art is the place where human beings make physical, worldly objects (or experiences) that mean something. Art is the place where nature and story (in John F. Haught’s sense of the term) come together on common ground. Art deals with nature as it is already involved with spirit and spirit as it is already involved with nature.
I think an art of the overlapping magisteria might look like the following passage from Hughes about Edward Hopper’s painting of his wife Jo, A Woman in the Sun (1961).
In the painting, the distances between wall and wall, window and sky, or the lit edge of the curtain and the worn radiant torso, take on something of the strangeness of the space in a good de Chirico, but they are also suffused with human meaning, an inalienable sense of the here and now. The body is enfolded by its own distances from the world, while planted solidly in a real bedroom. By the same token, the realism of the scene is also a subliminal appeal to art history: Jo facing the August light of Truro recalls any number of quattrocento Annunciations.
Hughes doesn’t say so explicitly, but the implication is that Hopper’s painting of his naked, aging wife is, in a real sense, our version of the Annunciation paintings of a previous era. Accepting the new story of the cosmos and life on this planet as we must after Darwin means also accepting new ideas of what constitutes religious art. The body enfolded by its own distances from the world, while planted solidly in a real bedroom. The strangeness of space that is also, somehow, suffused with human meaning. That’s the overlapping of the two magisteria, in real time, here and now. That’s art doing what it has always done to repair the apparent breaches between God and nature. That’s beauty saving the world.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.