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.
CELLS ARE MULTIPLYING so fast they’re difficult to classify—undifferentiated, immature. Dr. Reyes thinks we need another biopsy. “Small biopsy,” he explains with a Cuban inflection, “small diagnosis.” At sixty-three, Mom is admitted to the fourth floor cancer wing at the University of Kansas Hospital. A surgeon makes an incision near her left clavicle. I visit her, thinking, so this is how the end begins.
We live in a laboratory. That’s what evolutionary theory taught me and what my mother’s doctor’s practiced uncertainty now underscores. Cells mutate, schism, buckle, spread, distributing advantages by which an organism might achieve a next level, like a power-up or extra life in a video game. Or disadvantages.
Meanwhile we the conscious observers try to predict nature’s next move. We aggregate the data and form hypotheses. We weigh and interpret, make uncertain translations. We locate repeatable phenomena. We postulate more than prove. If this happened once, then maybe again. If that is true, this other thing is false. This diagnosis means—rather, suggests—that prognosis. Lab tests come back; it turns out my mother has a rare, hyper-aggressive lymphoma subtype. “It is a horrible disease,” Dr. Reyes confides to me in the hallway. “Outcomes are not good.” And later to her: “Maybe thirty percent chance of cure.”
Recent research, published this January in Science, shows that most cancers are less a result of bad genes or even bad habits than bad luck: “random mutations arising during DNA replication in normal, noncancerous stem cells.” The word random evoking chaos.
I think of my mother’s lifelong, militant health-consciousness, her story of jogging for hours each week during her first pregnancy, up to the eve of my birth. I think of the bright yellow whirring chugging contraption that was her juicer, or of her kitchen cabinet with shelves of natural medicines she used to order in bulk from a grocer’s catalogue: Echinacea, acidophilus, ginkgo biloba, calcium, zinc, charcoal. I recall the capsules and caplets that plagued my growing-up years, the lozenges, powders, ointments, oils such as cod liver and tea tree. Each day before school my brother and I took what seemed a hoard of pills, eight or ten at a time, as if to ward off some looming contagion, or as if we’d already contracted the disease and needed this cocktail to knock it into submission. Vitamins every morning at the kitchen table, on a paper napkin next to our oatmeal or Cream of Wheat; I got so proficient at swallowing them, those various textures, that I would take a gulp of apple juice and shovel the whole lot in my mouth at once.
And now the ironic reversal: so many pills not even she can keep track. Pharmaceuticals she’s never wanted nor had use for, antivirals, antifungals, antibiotics, prescribed by the white coats and divvied up by her son or her ex-husband, taken slowly, one at a time, her head tossed back. Pills waiting each morning in small plastic boxes with flip tabs—M / T / W / Th / F—along with the new knowledge that contracting this sickness was always out of her control.
It is precisely such randomness—the chance mutation of genes—that can make a person of faith uneasy about the mechanism that is evolution. Indeed, one of the great theological conundrums, post-Darwin, is whether and how the natural world can be both authored and yet at times highly arbitrary. (Not just seemingly but in fact.) This seems to have been Darwin’s own question after the death of his ten-year-old daughter Anne in 1851. The second of ten children, she died of an unidentified fever. The helplessness of watching his little girl suffer, according to one biographer, “may have tipped Darwin finally into disbelief.”
Without Darwin’s famous five-year voyage on the Beagle, it is hard to imagine his imagining natural selection. Without his daughter’s fatal fever, it is hard to appreciate the precise grain of his religious doubt. As Darwin’s science was colored by his biography, so his ideas about God.
In the laboratory of my mother’s hospital room I approach Dr. Reyes as a supplicant. My prayer: More time. Give us the extra life. These days my faith in science is both tenuous and necessary. We must believe the treatment protocols that worked for some may work again, that chemotherapy has the power to defer death. We must trust this man with the pursed lips and the widow’s peak; he’s healed people like her before.
But of course his power only extends so far. After four days of intensive chemo we bring Mom home, where we monitor her temperature to a tenth of a degree. A fever—anything over 100.4—signals infection. An unidentified fever, as with Annie Darwin, could spell worse. Thus we pray her temperature holds steady, that her blood platelet count doesn’t dip too low. That what kills her body won’t kill her spirit. We ask God for mercies we could neither predict nor prescribe, what no doctor has the expertise to accomplish.
The science of faith begins here, with the empirical fact of our dependence.
That is, if there’s such a thing as the science of faith. The physicist John Polkinghorne, borrowing language from Martin Buber, describes the scientific enterprise as “the realm of the impersonal”—the empirical, the repeatable—“where reality is encountered as an ‘It.’” Religion, on the other hand, is a realm not of the repeatable but of the unique. Here “we meet reality personally—as a ‘Thou’ and not as an ‘It’”—and find meaning “through trusting rather than through testing.” Different modes, in other words, plumbing different mysteries.
And I keep waking up around three a.m. or four, in an attic apartment, suspended between them. I’ve been taking a prescription sleep aid, despite my mother’s protest. (She’s pushing natural melatonin.) “Prayer and pills,” I tell her, when she asks how I’m coping. Or, “Alcohol and Ambien. A little Jesus.” She rolls her eyes.
The white tablet puts me under quick enough, but only holds me there through the first REM cycle. Then it’s back to my noiseless bedroom, my porous, mutating mind. One night recently, I turn in bed and surprise myself by reciting aloud words taught me at a Christian retreat back in college: I belong to you…. I belong to you. Spoken with each exhale, a kind of self-soothing, a line reaching for a Thou. Another night I picture a column of smoke, the one on the cover of Hiroshima, John Hershey’s account of the 1945 nuclear attack on that city, a book my mom and I have been reading together for the simple and important reminder that things could always be worse. There’s a scene in that text, a few weeks after the bomb was dropped, in which an injured woman named Miss Sasaki is conveyed through the city ruins and observes the startling greenness of the new vegetation, fertilized by all that ash. By now the pastor in the story is rebuilding his parish. One of the doctors, Mr. Fujii, is recovering at the summer home of a friend. Everyone is post-traumatic. But the weeds and wildflowers have already forgotten the fire: “bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoot, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame and panic grass and feverfew….” The passage recalls the Hopkins line about nature’s tireless regeneration, how there lives “the dearest freshness deep down things.” It recalls a tenet of science and faith both: Given time, new life can spring from annihilation.
Then yesterday morning I get up and discover an ominous-looking sky and birds multiplying, congregating on tree limbs, and on the green ash outside my window, the branch the squirrels use to leap from house to tree, tree to house, a thrush is holding a dark berry in its beak, just holding it, a berry it finally swallows in one gulp, and I happen to be looking when it does, happen to see the brief lump in its throat, and I find myself then wanting very much to know God is still creating, wanting and also wondering, is it sensible to feel as I do, that it is not doubt but faith in God that is synonymous with helplessness, that faith is a kind of chosen hopeful helplessness, a habit so contrary to my nature, a type of unnatural selection, but that it is also fitting, somehow critical to my own survival?
When she dies, I believe it is not the end of her.
Who but Thou knows to what end she is evolving.
Isaac Anderson has written for Portland, Fourth River, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues. His essay “Lord God Bird” (Image issue 72) received honorable mention in Best American Essays, 2013. He lives in Kansas City.