What about God?


The following is a letter I wrote to a student who was upset about having to read Darwin in my course. This occurs every year and I always feel the need to respond with as much compassion and understanding as possible. It's tough, though, because passions on this subject are often quite strong and many fine students come from backgrounds where the idea of evolution and natural selection are tantamount to Satanism.

I really sympathize with these students and always try to imagine how it must look from their perspective. Something they deeply value seems imperiled and they quite naturally want to defend it. I have to be careful not to polarize the situation when pointing out the weakness of their case against Darwin. Some just shut down, though, and there's nothing you can say. Others may admit they are confused. The letter I have excerpted below was written in response to a student who had actually written me a long letter filled with recycled arguments from Creationist and Intelligent Design websites. I have changed her name and omitted my rather tedious response to her specific arguments.

Diane,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am delighted that my comments directed you into more study and reflection. That is exactly what higher education at its best should create: debate over issues of real importance for students and professors. You may be surprised to learn that I think Intelligent Design should be a part of high school and college science curricula. It’s a wonderful way to engage students in the question of what science is and is not. So I am happy to respond to your comments. These are issues that are passionately important to you and many of my students; consequently they are the very issues we ought not to avoid or dismiss in education...

Generally speaking, I am seldom upset by the fact that people argue against evolution. I do confess, however, to some frustration with the weakness, inconsistency, and lack of basic scientific understanding that often typifies their attempts. The scientific process is in many ways a brutal one. Something doesn’t get to be science because we want it to be. And thus far, I’ve yet to encounter a really good anti-evolution argument. Some are a bit more sophisticated than others, but every one I’ve looked at so far crumbles upon close examination. In fact, most of the new arguments (including ID) are really old arguments in new clothes that were refuted long ago.

I think what fuels the Intelligent Design movement is ultimately a misplaced fear. There is among some people a fear that evolution and natural selection are a threat to religion. They do not wish their children to be exposed to these ideas and often preemptively try to warn their children away from them. They see these ideas as some kind of undermining of a God-centered worldview and an orderly and moral society. As I mentioned, I believe this fear to be entirely misplaced.

Why is it misplaced? I think you touch on the reason in your concluding paragraphs. Here you move away from discussing the scientific evidence and into the question of purpose in the universe. Why are we here? How are we to live? What is our purpose? These are some of the most profound questions a human being can ask. They are questions to which people will forever need answers. The theory of evolution may be modified and perhaps even someday abandoned (though I wouldn’t bet on it), but the questions and the answers that have emerged in our religious traditions will be part of the human experience for as long as we exist.

I personally do not think we can be well educated without seriously wrestling with these questions, and I would never dismiss them as irrelevant because they cannot be answered by the processes of science. Believe me, Diane, I would argue passionately against anyone who thought religion could be dismissed because it lacks a scientific foundation. I would fight harder against that argument than I ever would against someone seeking to dismiss evolution (and I have). In my view, dismissing the religious dimension of life is a form of arrogant and perhaps dangerous ignorance.

This is because the issues you raise in your concluding paragraphs are what the theologian Paul Tillich called “ultimate concerns.” They go to the very heart of what human existence means. As a person of faith, I struggle with them all the time. How am I to make sense of suffering in this world? How am I called to respond to others? What is sin? What is the meaning of my life and, just as importantly, my eventual death? Our faith traditions (including my own) are beautiful articulations of answers to these questions, and I look to these articulations in my life.

I suppose I frame the issue this way: is it possible that we are creatures living in a brutal and Godless universe with animal savagery and endless strife for our fate? Is there a possibility that there is no transcendent hierarchy in the universe, no ennobling goal for humanity, no home for us other than this one? If I am to look for the answer in science alone, that answer is always going to be “maybe” or at the very least “I cannot say.”

If, on the other hand, I look in my faith tradition with a humble and open heart, the answer is “maybe not and this I must say.” And that’s enough to fill me with an animation of hope for this sad, weary, sinful world. So when I say have faith in faith, I mean that we stop asking religion to justify itself by the standards of science (and stop asking science to justify itself by the standards of religion). These two kinds of human understanding are what the late Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria.” When we conflate them, as I believe happens in the Intelligent Design thesis, we do a kind of unconscionable violence to their distinctive value, beauty, and coherence.

You ask how I can get up and go to work each day carrying around in my mind the possibility of a Godless and random universe. Well, I do it every day as an act of faith that this is not so, that I am called to love as Christ loved, and to be humble in the presence of this amazing mystery. To my mind, it isn’t Nature’s laws that are a mystery; it’s that there is a Nature at all. The theologian is perfectly right to ask the scientist why is there something instead of nothing? And on this question, the scientist must at last remain humbly silent.

I realize, of course, that my view of faith is quite different than yours. Mine must appear to you a bit abstract. There is no “personal” relationship with Christ, no doctrinal acceptance of Christ’s exclusive gateway to salvation, no fallback to special revelation and the authority of scripture. Mine must appear an attenuated or bloodless faith. I accept that. What you may want to consider from me is the narrow folly of drawing such doctrinal lines. More than once Christ showed himself to live beyond that narrowness of definition: supping with tax collectors, speaking with the woman at the well… Mine is a view that attempts as much as is humanly possible to open rather than close. In my own tradition, we recall the words of the Congregationalist minister John Robinson, who said to the pilgrims as they set forth to the new world: “There is still more light to break forth from God’s holy word.”

And thank you for reading and considering what I have written. That two people who see things differently can talk and wrestle together with big issues is a hopeful thing. The very act of trying to make our deepest beliefs and principles understood to others can allow us to see one another as thoughtful and serious people worthy of mutual respect, even and especially when we disagree. So I honor you for being such a thoughtful and wonderful student, Diane, one who cares deeply enough to wrestle with these matters alongside me.

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