Thursday, June 6, 2013

Dabbling in Darwin (1): The Scientist that Pastors and Theologians Cannot Ignore

The grand man himself
Charles Darwin's youth was unmarked by signs of genius. Born in 1809 into the well-to-do Darwin and Wedgwood clans (his mother was a Wedgwood and Darwin himself was to marry another), he led a secure and carefree childhood, happy with his family, indifferent to books, responsive to nature. The son and grandson of impressively successful physicians, he eventually tried medical training himself, but found the studies dull and surgery (before anesthesia) too ghastly to even watch. So, for want of anything better, he followed the advice of his awesome father (6'2" 336 pounds, domineering in temperament) and studied for the ministry, taking his B.A. at Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1831.

Then a remarkable turn of events saved Darwin from a country parsonage. His science teacher at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow, arranged for Darwin the invitation to be naturalist on H.M.S. Beagle during a long voyage of exploration. Despite his father's initial reluctance, Darwin got the position, and at the end of 1831 left England for a five-year voyage around the globe that turned out to be not only a crucial experience for Darwin himself, but a passage of consequence for the whole world.

The voyage of the Beagle made a scientist of Darwin--an industrious collector, a keen observer, a canny theorist--and it set him a momentous problem that he was to spend the next twenty years struggling with: the problem of the origin of species. By 1858, when another young naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, was himself pondering the same problem aboard yet another of Her Majesty's discovery ships, Darwin had collected enormous masses of detail relating to species and supporting his theory of natural selection. Faced, after decades of work, with the threat of being anticipated by Wallace's independent  discoveries, Darwin quickly finished and published his great work, The Origin of Species, in 1859.

The effects of that publication were many and profound; hardly any kind of thought--scientific, philosophical, social, literary, historical--remained long unchanged by the implications of the Origin. Except for the voyage of the Beagle, however, Darwin's adventures were mostly intellectual, his life deliberately domestic. A chronic sufferer from a mysterious ailment, he had neither the strength nor the temperament for an active and public career; he remained secluded at his country house at Down, shunning the furious post-Origin controversies and leaving the defense of "Darwinism" to his more pugnacious friends. But always he worked. Good Victorian that he was, he worked every day as his strength permitted, and his industrious life was studded with solid contributions to science in articles, reviews, and books: The Descent of Man (1871), The Expression of the Emotions (1872), The Formation of Vegetable Mould (1881), etc. 

There was something paradoxical but eminently admirable about both Darwin's character and his devotion to his task. Intellectually he was a revolutionary, but the gentlest of revolutionaries. Spiritually he became an agnostic, but never a simple materialist; like many other Victorian agnostic, he exemplified in his life and work a high-minded benevolence not only toward his fellow men but for all creatures, and he continued always to write of the "grandeur" of "beautiful" and "wonderful" forms of life, and of men's high "destiny" in the future.
Huxely, "Darwin's Bulldog"

When he died in 1882, the man who sacrilegious ideas had once been publicly assailed, from pulpit and periodical, by a multitude of "old ladies, of both sexes" (as T.H. Huxley called them) was buried with the cordial acquiescence of the Dean, in Westminster Abbey--a few feet from the grave of the other immortal among British scientists, Sir Isaac Newton.

Darwin's Origin produced a considerable set of challenges for the pastor and theologian, not the least of which is a consideration of the nature of humankind. As Peter Bowler has written (Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design):
If Christians accepted that humanity was the product of evolution - even assuming that the process could be seen as the expression of the Creator's will - then the whole idea of Original Sin would have to be reinterpreted. Far from falling from an original state of grace in the Garden of  Eden, we have risen gradually from our animal origins. And if there was no Sin from which we needed salvation, what was the purpose of Christ's agony on the cross? Christ became merely the perfect man who showed us what we could all hope to become when evolution finished it upward course. Small wonder that many conservative Christians - and not just American fundamentalists - argued  that such a transformation had destroyed the very foundation of their faith.
Thus the dilemma of presenting and formulating a robust theology after Darwin. Of course, one can choose to ignore the implications of Darwin's thought, or even reject it. But that is a decision which must be made. Darwin is a scientist that cannot be ignored.

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