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.
Susanne Paola Antonetta
The Arrow of Time
MY MOTHER, a Homo sapiens sapiens, a member of a top species in evolutionary terms, died four months ago. She was ninety-four and in her sixth year of Alzheimer’s and had, in spite of her weakness, become an impossibly restless body. She rolled, she swung her legs from one side of the hospital bed to the other, she flailed her arms. At the hospital she had to be restrained with a thick belt attached to the bed. This state of things went on, more or less, for five weeks. That belt looked overwhelming on my tiny mother—four foot ten and maybe ninety pounds at the time.
My mother’s confinement enraged her, and her body worked like a thing possessed. She reminded me of the souls in the Middle Ages who danced the tarantella to exhaustion because they thought it would cure dangerous spider-bite: it did not seem as if she wanted to move so much as that she had to. My mother, who no longer had a clear understanding of her life, wanted to live. In that drive she wore herself down, and her body seemed on the verge of flying off into its constituent parts—the primal molecules, the fissioning stardust, the restless matter.
In her anger and her frenzy my mother threw punches at people and scratched them, nurses and aides and her family. She told us—my father, my brother and me—how useless we were, sent us away, then pleaded for us to come back again. She turned her nails against herself. When my mother died she had a face scratched by her own hand and a black eye no one in the facility had been able to explain to us. My husband and I worried that some health care worker she hit had lost it and hit her back.
As I say my mother has died I recognize that, in some form, she has—we have—always existed, and we continue. Not in the sentimental, lives-on-in-our-hearts way. Star matter, asteroid, primal elements, the stuff of us has lived with a tenacity our present self can hardly conceive. Frozen; fissioned; sucked in; spat out. What feels most solid in us—that heaviness around the waistline—may at some point have existed solely as energy. No belt could hold us back. Then the stuff of us attached, grew organs and a brain, pulled together to bring us to this key word, I.
Evolution is the process by which we have come to be in the state we are—a body with hands and opposable thumbs, a consciousness that narrates us to ourselves, that can designate itself with the personal pronoun. Evolution is the reason I could live this narrative, that of a daughter losing a mother. My mother disassembled before me, something that, until it happens, never seems possible, not with the people who seem foundational to our lives.
My mother requested cremation. Her ashes now rest in a place my father calls, in his Brooklynese, a moo-soleum, for mausoleum. I made the mistake of googling cremation as we ordered the wooden box for my mother’s dust. (And the first time I typed this, I turned cremation into creation.) I had always imagined cremation as the coffin pulleyed into a purifying fire, then the return of the ash pile—rich, heavy, with chunks of bone. Actually I learned that the fire largely skeletonizes the body, and what’s left goes through a grinder to finish the job. I had come to terms with the death, the woman who’d grown as restless as the atoms that made her, even the ash. I wasn’t ready for this, for the grinding. When I read this fact I cried as I had not cried before.
People tell me the woman who railed at me through the last weeks of her life was not my mother, not really. It was her disease talking, they say; she had succumbed to the Alzheimer’s, an alien force. It wasn’t her. As if she’d disassembled already. Though I recognized my mother’s anger as herself, pure—she had gone raw and deep, beyond and below her filters. As she lost her fiancé in the Second World War, she had been that person. As she gave up her job and stayed home with us children, she had been that person. As her own mother left her four children again and again, only for my mother’s two to cling to her in the kitchen of our apartment, she had been this: restrained. Angry. As poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it of the chamberlain’s death in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, my mother died her own hard death, one she had carried her whole life long inside her.
In physics, the question of why life—instead of just matter—exists is a foundational one, a question that’s inspired answers ranging from dumb luck to overlapping multiverses housing every conceivable reality. Another answer is the “strong anthropic principle,” which holds that in some way the universe needed to make the creature that could observe it—it takes our conscious I to see and say this, this world, here. At this point physics becomes philosophy—why would the universe need to preen like this? Some give God as the answer—God needed us to know God—for what’s known as the SAP. Others leave the cosmic motives open.
In grief, though, it’s not so much the how-did-something-come-from-nothing question that stings, but the return to nothing again. It’s the creation versus the cremation: the elaborate making of consciousness only to have it blink out. The stuff of my mother exists—where is my mother? How does her cosmic moment—her crossword puzzles, the knee-high stockings she wore, her children, her anger—matter, in this universe of restless matter?
A new theory by MIT’s Jeremy England has it that a group of atoms driven by an external heat source like the sun will keep restructuring itself in more and more complex ways, as complex life forms dissipate more energy. A rock does a poor job of drawing energy from its environment and releasing it; a human being, with a body that runs at nearly one hundred degrees, who eats, breathes, maybe reproduces, does a better one. It’s a fundamental law of physics that energy tends toward maximum dispersal—the second law of thermodynamics or the “arrow of time,” the law of increasing entropy. England applies the second law of thermodynamics to evolution. Energy has an innate tendency to spread itself over a greater and greater area and grow inert: it brings about complexity in order to break it down. There is no grand why or ontology to this theory: it’s just the nature of matter.
When I read Jeremy England’s theory I think of evolution as having a lot in common with art. The same outward-dispersing drive, the same reaching for complexity in order to arrive at what is, at last, both far-reaching and simple. People die. And because of that, we hurt. We inhabit the complications, the particulars, to spread what is most common and indivisible around.
The priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin wrote in Hymn of the Universe that the consecration of the host—and the incarnation itself—“spreads throughout the cosmos”—the entire realm of matter is slowly but irresistibly affected by this great consecration. The drive of the incarnation is to sanctify matter, to pass through it and, in doing so, change it, as if consecration too follows the laws of physics. Like art and energy, its drive is outward. Like evolution, if England is correct, it uses complicated forms in order to render them simple: ultimately, we become beings through which a light passes, in the same way the forms rendered by evolution dissipate the energy of their star.
When my mother finally died my brother said, “If there is a God, then he’s a motherfucker.” I didn’t know what to say to that. We were gentle with each other then. I can’t quite see that, may be what I said. Maybe nothing. In one of her last outbursts my mother recalled being a child, sailing a small boat: after an instant of peace she began screaming, I never appreciated it! No, I never appreciated it! She shrieked and she cried. This recurred: the quiet memories; the fierce regret. The thought of the life she’d lived, plain and inert as I know it had felt to her, filled her with aching nostalgia. This particularly broke my brother’s heart.
What my mother said about her childhood shattered me, too, but in a different way than it did my brother: it seemed to me she arrived at a knowledge it takes a painful lifetime to achieve. There is joy, or peace, or something it’s impossible to name, in all this, in the long and arduous and impossible process of being shaped matter, many energies passing through our bodies. Evolution, art, consecration: we are, as Père Teilhard put it, volatilized. At the end, if we’re lucky, we’ll see the shining. And we never appreciate it, never, or not enough.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s memoir Make Me a Mother was published by W.W. Norton. Her work has been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Library Journal Best Science Book of the Year, and received an American Book Award.