Our nation’s media was appropriately attentive to the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln over the last week, but somewhere in the midst of the discussions of which Lincoln biography was best I heard mention of another important birthday—that of Charles Darwin. I listened with fascination to the hullabaloo going on across the pond over the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. It turns out that in Great Britain, the scientist and naturalist who wrote The Origin of Species and developed the theory of natural selection, which has “evolved” into what we is now generally called evolution has become a celebrated native son. Darwin adorns British currency and is generally considered a national hero. All sorts of dramatic and very public celebrations of the anniversary are going on in Britain, so why the silence in our culture?
An obvious answer for the American indifference and even hostility to Darwin’s ideas can be found in the dysfunctional way American Christianity has responded to them. Beginning in the early twentieth century, fundamentalist Protestants organized in reaction to a number of issues, chief among them was their perception that evolution challenged the belief of a literal six-day creation of the world as detailed in Genesis. Fundamentalism of any sort is a reaction against modernism, scientific inquiry and pluralism, and American fundamentalist Protestantism is no different. Yet, the ideas ridiculed by H.L. Mencken during the Scopes Monkey Trial moved from being a fringe minority opinion to a stance held by almost half of all Americans in the twenty-first century.
Yet, the responsibility for American Christianity’s hostility towards views held by most scientists cannot solely be laid at the feet of fundamentalists. Moderate and liberal Christians have never been able to articulate a reconciliation of the different claims of science and faith, at least not in a way that captures the popular imagination. Despite the fact that many Christians (myself included) do not have any real difficulty with believing in both a loving Creator and evolutionary science, Christianity in America is generally understood to be hostile to scientific thought in general and evolution in particular. Even Christians who do believe in evolution of one sort or another may divorce their beliefs about science from their beliefs about faith, preferring not to reconcile the two. The result of a religious faith that separates itself from scientific inquiry is a weak faith that is compartmentalized away from the world many believers live in.
I find it easy to poke holes in a fundamentalist understanding of creation; after all, accepting the Genesis accounts (there is more than one) as literal not only means believing in a six 24-hour day creation but also a flat planet that the sun, moon and stars move around. Most fundamentalists I’ve met haven’t gone so far as to reject Newtonian physics or the idea of a round Earth. However, I find it much more difficult to work out exactly how the rigors of scientific inquiry relate to my understanding of a loving and all-powerful God that not only created the universe but continues to interact with his/her creation. I was never very good at science, so it’s no surprise that my brain begins to cramp when I contemplate what exactly is involved in the bending or breaking of the so-called “laws of nature.” Questions of what is rational, irrational and supra-rational befuddle me at times, as do questions of quantum physics and string theory, but I am not afraid of the questions. Every time I have tried to connect my own scientific thinking with my theological thinking, I have been rewarded for the effort. Sometimes I have found answers that satisfied me, but just as often I have been left only with more questions. The answers and the questions, however, have only strengthened my faith; my relationship with God is stronger because I have not bothered with fearing the consequences of asking questions.
One might say that my thinking has evolved as I continue to work on a faith that connects with all of my life—scientific or otherwise. Perhaps it is because of my personal evolution that I am not afraid of Darwin’s ideas. I believe God gave each of us a mind for good reasons, one of which is so we might use our minds in regards to our faith. So, I offer up my thanks to Charles Darwin and to the God who made us both.
Grace and Peace,