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.
TWICE A DAY, I walk past the Church of Saint Thomas More, a massive Roman Catholic church made of limestone brick and covered in sculpture. Two stone angels with comically nervous expressions flank the doorway. When it rains, water hits the tops of their wings and drips onto their cheeks.
The church also hosts a K-8 school, and one afternoon this summer I came upon something outside that I haven’t been able to forget. Children had used sidewalk chalk to draw row after row of votive candles—a long, voiceless prayer—and not only voiceless, but a prayer that wasn’t mine, a prayer using a chalk image to stand in for a secret in someone’s heart, a prayer I had to step into with my body as I passed the church. And I started thinking about what would happen if we did this at all houses of worship, if everyone had a square of concrete on which to draw the one thing they wanted God to see. We could see all the pieces adding up to a story and carried in individual hearts, a giant riddle.
Art always shapes a narrative, creates the story as it’s creating the pieces, so much so that the story is the pieces. Art and science and faith: they’re all ways of gathering up the given parts, ways of carrying them.
On a sunny bus ride home last summer, I sat next to an elderly man whose joints were as knotted as oak tree roots. He was hunched over an enormous hardback copy of Homer’s Odyssey, tracing and mouthing the words right at the best part, where Odysseus is banished from home for ten years in answer to the Cyclops’s prayer to make the hero, if not a dead man, then a broken man.
I love watching very old people. I watch what they buy at the grocery store and buy those foods myself; I watch what they read and think about how we’re all Odysseus trying to get home even when we know it’s impossible, how we’re all Penelope sneaking out of bed to unweave and refuse our destinies.
On that sunny bus ride home, I’d been thinking about the Old Testament. How I love the work it asks you to do, the way it gives you absurd violence, women as meat and men as gore, a rampantly genocidal God, and thousands of ways to do the wrong thing, fall out of favor and be trampled by fate, or worse, banished from home, and your job is to find the story behind the nightmare, the why of the nightmare. People always write around what they’re really looking at and can’t bear. I like to do the work, the unraveling.
And I was thinking, too, about how I’m irritated by the New Testament, all that hope and desire for a different world. The New Testament feels easy and morally uncomplicated. You lose the Judaic sense of storytelling in a spiral, of the Old Testament as a story directed by the Coen Brothers where you don’t worry about the savagery or the meaning to the riddles. You just let it unfurl inside you until you see the world in a new way. I started thinking about the New Testament as the Odyssey, as tragedy, the story of a man who is banished from home. A man who is given but never gives himself, and I am troubled as hell about this idea of Christ being homesick and working to get home against all fate.
But really, I’m troubled about this quest toward the beginnings of things. It shouldn’t matter so much, but it does: How does something begin? How did the universe begin? What does incarnation look like and what sets it into motion? How does it move? And what is given, what gives rise and sets forth a cascade of reaction or refusal? In dance, beginnings are the most important part, setting forth all other motion. A beginning makes the difference between balance and falling, between the extension of a limb and the tearing of a tendon. In writing, beginnings can be messy, but they spark all that follows, or at least illuminate what is available. Something is always made visible, and another possibility is left in the dark.
I first learned about evolution in tenth grade when I transferred from a conservative parochial school to a public school. My new science teacher, Mrs. Dupuis, was the first person I’d seen teach with passion, with the understanding that science and history were continually forming us and saving us if we let them. At the time, my mother was regularly self-mutilating, cutting herself, breaking her bones, and I never knew when I would come home to blood. Mrs. Dupuis and I talked about that, too, about the impotence of suffering when nothing can really be done except to follow the story through to some conclusion.
We didn’t study cosmology, but we studied lineage. I remember feeling the cast skulls of Neanderthals and Homo erectus, drawing strands of DNA, thinking about how evolution is a series of enough mistakes over time that we get to try things out, see if they work, create and reform ourselves. And how there was something of God in the creation, in the reforming, or at least something of salvation, where salvation is gathering the pieces and trying to reach home against all odds. My mom unweaving herself, my homesick heart, and that skull sitting on my desk, giving me a new narrative as I learned it with my fingers, then traced my own skull, felt the differences, the similarities that meant we were family.
I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and consequences and God lately, or rather I’ve been swimming in data and trying to figure out what that does to a person. And when I say swimming, I don’t mean drowning or being buried or overwhelmed. I mean immersed, and I mean I’m carrying all these number-shaped pieces of people in myself. Every day at my job, I compare and add (always add, never subtract) and write about disease case numbers: the emergent coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, flu mutations in Egypt and southern China, the devastating chikungunya outbreak in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Usually, I use a word like “case” instead of “person,” “fatality” instead of “beloved.” But, like many data scientists, I suspect, I carry the enzyme used to synthesize “beloved” from “fatality,” and what I am trying to say is that beyond the cold data, the pieces that dehumanize and tally the sick and dead, I carry all those numbers, those people, all those pieces inside me all the time.
I took an intensive Arabic class this summer. I wasn’t expecting to see how often God showed up in the language, in terms of greeting, gratitude, blessing, and frustration. Each evening after class, I could feel the difference in my mouth from having spoken God’s name. And the data, all those viruses, cases, fatalities, beloveds, the pieces apart and ordered, feel like that. The pieces of God, carried.
Last summer, I completed a project I’d wanted to do for some time. I drew the human heart once a day for approximately four months: anatomical hearts with properly aligned vasculature, hearts holding spiders or wolves or flowers, curved valve structures like jumping fish. The heart can be interpreted with surprising diversity in 125 days. I did it to have fun, but also to learn and pray with the motion of my hand: to pray about the fear my arrhythmia brings, to pray against the abomination of a bullet hole I once saw in the red, opened, beloved flesh of a boy’s heart, to pray toward an image of atrium and ventricle and faulty valve, to learn and recreate and make God know that I know the parts are important and beloved, to show the scientist in the sky what I think is worth saving.
I’m interested in the parts, not in the spark that brought them into being, or at least not in the how of the spark. Given one wish granted by God, I’d not choose wisdom (I’d find a way to misuse it), but an equation unseen on earth, because he thinks he wants someone to ask, and because I’d want to take it apart, to drill down to all those moving pieces. I like the trajectory of parts: goopy protoplasm to circulating fluid sans vessels in worms to a fish heart blooming from dilated vessel to the one and a half hearts in amphibians to our two hearts we call one because they’re under unified command, the evolution of clotting in so many different animal lineages and all those cells bursting, giving away their identities to patch a hole. It’s all salvation, all given.
For me, in writing, art, and science, this is where I find God: in the homesick parts apart and incoherent, carried in the mouth or the heart, beloved and piecemeal and with just enough mistakes and change to feel like family.
Natalie Vestin is a health scientist and writer from Saint Paul. Her essays have appeared in The Normal School, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her chapbook Shine a Light, the Light Won’t Pass is forthcoming from Miel Books.