Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Jesus v. Darwin
I have a copy of this cartoon on the wall outside my office at Northern:
For several reasons I have been thinking lately about the mutual hostility between conservatives (especially religious conservatives) and Darwinists. The proximate cause of the quarrel is obviously political. The two sides having drawn apart and against one another almost a century ago, they now dislike each other because they dislike each other. That is how politics often (almost always) works.
This explains a curious fact about the latter faction: the rare emphasis on a particular scientist. While both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were certainly celebrated and influential and while both had their followers, as it were, it is rare to speak of Newtonians let alone Newtonism, or to hear someone described as a Relativist in the sense of Einstein. Yet we speak of Darwinists and Darwinians all the time.
This is so, I suggest, for the same reason as one speaks of Marxists or Lutherans for that matter. To announce one’s acceptance of Darwin’s theory is a pledge of allegiance. There is nothing especially wrong with this. We are political animals. This is what we do.
There are deeper causes for the quarrel, however, and they require explanation. Why did a hostility open up between Darwinian biology in particular and Christian (an increasingly other Abrahamic religions) and why has it been so persistent? Why is there much less friction between religion and geology, for instance, or astronomy? Such sciences once got the philosopher Anaxagoras expelled from Athens. Today, only young earthers are offended by physics, and they are rather rare.
One reason has to do with the historical moment at which Darwin’s theory appears. The Nineteenth Century was the period in which the center of gravity in Western culture shifted decisively from religious authority to secular authority, both in science and in government. Darwin’s achievement was neither the cause nor in any important sense a consequence of that shift; however, because it coincided with it, it came to be identified with it.
A second reason for the quarrel is that religious thought in general and theology in particular had responded to the rise of modern science with what I call the Olympian Strategy. The simple rule of this strategy is to imagine that the God or gods dwell somewhere that one cannot easily look. An adolescent version of this strategy is to imagine that angels live on the tops of clouds, which works reasonably well until the invention of aircraft. Before Darwin, it was tempting to suppose that while science could explain day and night, the stars and the seasons, and volcanos, only a creator God could explain the human eye or the wings of birds. I note that the Intelligent Design movement seems still to be trying to sustain the Olympian Strategy.
While both of these explanations are part of the story, I recently have come to think that something more deeply rooted in the history of Biblical Religion is at work. Pagan gods lived in the world, even if largely out of sight and at high altitudes. The Biblical God existed before the world that He created and therefore exists outside that world, however much or often he intervenes in it. This separation of God from the world has very important existential consequences. For pagans, the moon was a divine being, worthy of reverence and awe. In Genesis, it is demoted to the status of a street light, hung in the heavens by the Creator. Much the same thing is true of the sun.
The Biblical God’s jealousy left no room for the vast population of gods, demigods, spirits, nymphs, etc., that had inhabited the ancient world. This by no means precluded admiration of the natural world. One could admire it as divine art in the same way that one admires the arts of human beings. It did however, open up a persistent temptation to view that world with contempt. Matter is mere matter, dead and inert, without spirit.
The power of this temptation is evident from the wee small books towards the end of the New Testament. Consider 1st John 4:
Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
2 Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
3 And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
What is that bit about Jesus Christ “come in the flesh”? As explained to me by a Biblical scholar (which I am not), the early church was infiltrated by Gnostics. The latter believed that the material world (and hence, the flesh) was corrupt and bad. If Jesus was indeed a savior, he could not have come in the flesh but only in the form of an immaterial spirit. This teaching was resolutely rejected by the Church. Christ was born of woman into flesh and blood. When he rose he swung his legs off the slab and walked out of the tomb. Why else was it necessary to roll away the stone?
There is a lot to chew on here. All the major churches teach the resurrection of the body, which acknowledges that human being is unthinkable apart from human bodies. This view rather literally redeems the flesh. I suggest, however, that Christian culture has not entirely escaped the Gnostic infection. There remains a tendency to see the flesh and more the material components of flesh as low and ugly. This explains the fact that today, most American Christians seem to be thorough going substance dualists. They imagine, against church doctrine, that the spirit is altogether distinct from the flesh and floats away from it at death toward heaven or hell. The resurrection of the body is largely forgotten in this gospel of Walt Disney.
I suspect that it is a lingering Gnosticism in Christian culture that is offended by Darwinism. From this point of view, if living organisms, including human beings, emerge by natural processes from inorganic matter, then life is corrupt beyond redemption.
There is an alternative view. If the world is God’s creation, then every part of it, down to the smallest particle, has God’s design in it. The philosopher Hans Jonas argued that Darwinism was in fact the antithesis of materialism. It means that life, mind, and spirit are potentially present even the most inert physical materials. This is evident in every living human being, for living persons are made of living organs which are made of living cells which are made of dead molecules. The resurrection of the dead is not something that happens (perhaps not only) on some coming day. It happens at every breath.
I do not take sides in the quarrel between religion and Darwinism because I think that the quarrel arises from a mistake. The quarrel will subside when we learn to take a more generous view of the natural world. Nothing in it is irredeemable.