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.
Rock, Paper, Scissors
LEAVES TURN GOLD to match the ripening apples. A crow lands on an upper branch and studies. Finally plucking an apple by the stem, the crow arcs across blue sky, black wings lifting yellow fruit. So I think I might take on this riddle of art, faith, and evolution, because I have seen a crow choose an apple, make a handle of its stem, and ascend into a configuration of beauty.
Okay, I say.
I always fall for impossible assignments: to write about happiness for a box of hazelnuts; to write about narrative and the numinous to get to stay in a grand house in Yorkshire; to write about gender and religion for the chance to meet Washoe, the first chimpanzee to break the species language barrier by learning American Sign Language. So why not write about art, faith, and evolution all at once and on the head of a pin? I am not too afraid of these great big words and little bitty space.
But they set off the taxonomical error alarms. They will not stand upon the same presuppositions or swing from the same questions. They belong to three mutually exclusive categories and conversations. Evolution is impersonal; art is intimate. Faith is woven in feeling, evolution in time. Art might seem willing to snuggle up to faith, but art is skill and faith is surrender. How can they get on the same page? And yet, they do form an evocative and provocative series. So let’s see how we can talk about them without playing telephone, the game that relies on mishearing and misleading.
Maybe in the future we’ll play art, faith, evolution instead of roshambo (rock, paper, scissors). Here’s the catch: one cannot cover, crush, or cut the other because, and I repeat, they are not players in the same game.
Suppose we put their distinct languages and varied suppositions into play? We’ll need an aesthetic that is inclusive without essentializing. We’ll need to think of religion that is trans-theistic, so that faith is not merely anthropocentric. And when we talk about evolution, it cannot be mistaken for a human conquest story, or a stand-in for a week’s worth of creation.
But look: there’s an overlapping sliver where these three disparate spheres meet. Your definitions and mine of these thorny terms might not agree, but we can empathize with one another’s mythic realms (worldviews). So I offer my definitions, not for your agreement, but as a little bitty map to my little tiny essay. Uh oh, I’ve used up one third of my words. And we haven’t started yet.
Consider again the crow.
Sunlight dresses the crow in a single golden stocking.
Crow, who always visits in lustrous black, suddenly appears like a figure in a Renaissance pageant.
A fleeting optical illusion will do for a place to begin. Could we call that ephemeral apperance of the motley crow performance art? (Or maybe a note on faith—a moment of grace. Or even a reminder of the co-evolution of crows and humans, a single tribe of two-legged, intelligent scavengers whose lives have intertwined since the Pleistocene.)
What is art?
Art is not therapy (though it can be applied therapeutically). Art is not the moral good (I always think, though, that art lets us love one another more). Art transmutes, either its materials or its maker.
Art celebrates the mysterious cusp between the atomic world and the living one by reversing it, by pressing consciousness back into another arrangement of atoms.
I am not a visual artist, though once in a while I make something more than a cake or the bed. Coming upon an old newspaper from the forties, I was compelled to paint Take Off Your Shoes, for You Are on Holy Ground with lots of lovely ladies’ shoes from the newspaper ads glued about a burning bush and cotton-ball sheep, with Moses as a fashion mannequin receiving the Holy Name. It didn’t turn out as well as Washoe’s painting, Bird, a burst of colors. But her painting is a melancholy testament to her whole captive life sacrificed to our incrementally small understanding of her. Washoe and I, sporadic painters, have left transitory traces of passing consciousness.
So what is faith?
Set aside belief. Faith is not simply the ditch we leap when belief loses its foothold.
Belief is a map of influences filtered through observations and reflections. I have a friend who believes he will get his own planet in the hereafter, another that crystals will cure her aunt, and another that Christ died for his sins. I believe that we are singers more than sinners. These friends don’t share my belief that the universe is conscious. Some of my friends don’t share my belief that art is perception, that faith is necessary, or that evolution is nature’s profound story. Who am I to question that molecules of quartz, emanating beauty, might also generously affect nearby human cells?
Thomas Jefferson reflected upon mastodon fossils, and, believing that animals could not go extinct, he instructed Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for mastodons roaming the West. He had reasoned, “For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish piecemeal.” As a deist, and reluctant to accept the miracles of the New Testament, he cut apart the Gospels, snipping out all the walking-on-water, to paste together a Jesus of compassion and reason, the wisest man of all time. His cut-and-paste gospel stayed beside his bed, his fossils in Monticello’s entryway.
Belief always begs to be challenged and revised.
The crow family waits for me, puffed out against the cold, looking like frazzled hens. Their trust is not faith. Faith balances between my personhood and the vast universe.
What is evolution?
It’s “descent with modification”; it relies on cooperation as much as competition; it binds us to our contract with death; it’s change that links my thoughts back to those first splitting cells.
Feathers likely evolved for display and insulation before they began to be adapted for flight. As mysterious as feathers are the orgasms of human women, which likely are not reproductively advantageous. Evolutionary psychologists sometimes ask the wrong questions about adaptation, constructing folklores of function. Theologians sometimes ask the wrong questions, composing folklores of design.
Is there an old dualism lurking in this innocent looking list? Is there a temptation to sort art and faith as human qualities, while evolution is left for the rest of the natural world? But humans are also nature, and therefore what we call art and faith will be discovered to reverberate through other sentient beings, through the intermingled and interlocked universe.
The crow peers into the dining room, looking for me. He is not looking in order to see me, but for me to see him. I open the window and scatter peanuts on the ledge. He tries, again and again, always and always, to pack three peanuts in his beak before the magpies swoop in. He, always and always, can only fit two.
Art, faith, and evolution can’t be tossed into the same taxonomical basket, yet each of them complements the others as emblems of change, of consciousness, and of mutuality. If we want to play the game of art, faith, evolution, each term will enhance rather than trounce the others.
Human greed and ignorance are risking the planet. Sea turtles can’t find the sea. Humans have encroached on their nesting beaches and baffled them with light pollution. Hatchlings are supposed to head toward the moonlit sea, but can’t find their way as the humans stay up all night, keeping the lights on. So tourists have begun to lift turtles toward the sea. At the same time seagulls use tourists to set the turtles loose on the open beach for them to gobble.
Little children hold the turtles like ice cream sandwiches. A grown-up names her turtle Elizabeth. They push at the rope line strung so they don’t trample the creatures they are supposed to save. Upon the signal, they let them go and the turtles walk across the sand. The tide sweeps them into their future. Humans scream as seagulls snatch up some of their protégés.
A sea turtle’s maternal behavior is limited to her egg deposit; she is gone before she could meet her hatchlings or guide them on their solitary quests. As my granddaughter held her turtle in her palm, the turtle bent its flipper round her finger. Though tempered with good-humored irony, her heart filled up with mammalian-reptilian love. Her turtle got mixed up, and unlike the others trudging toward the waves, turned around and came back to her. He just wants a gap year, she said, he’s not ready for college yet. We personify and make up stories and meddle. And our play is also among nature’s techniques.
This morning Crow’s strategy has changed. He dangles one peanut from his beak like Humphrey Bogart’s cigarette, leaving room to pack the other two in laterally. He flies off with three peanuts. I wonder if he’s as pleased as I am.
Lynda Sexson’s work appears this year in Ninth Letter, Parcel, Portland Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Gettysburg Review, Fourteen Hills, Carrier Pigeon, and Black Warrior Review. Her books are Ordinarily Sacred, Margaret of the Imperfections, and Hamlet’s Planets.