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Can Jesus and Darwin be my Homeboys?

Posted on: August 18th, 2014 by webteam No Comments

(This post is one of the longer ones on our site, but I think you’ll find it to be very insightful.  Samuel Ramsey is a Cornell class of 2011.)

In high school I remember having a number of conversations with a girl who was very enthusiastic about her faith. Naturally we enjoyed talking with each other quite a bit, at least until the subject of science came up. I’d go on and on about how much I love the sciences, particularly entomology and how I’m amazed by the behavior and physiology of insects. My enthusiasm was usually met with silence. But one day, she responded to my spirited diatribe with two simple statements: “Jesus is my homeboy. I don’t believe in science!” When probed further, she made it clear that the main source of contention for her was evolution. At the time, it was such a strange thing for me to hear. I was firmly a believer that Jesus could be my “homeboy” and Darwin could too but she’d made it seem as if the views of the two parties, science and faith; Jesus and Darwin, were diametrically opposed. In other words, homeboy status was mutually exclusive in her mind and the question I was forced to contend with was “is she right?” I had certainly heard many times before that a better understanding of science had spelled the end of faith for many. Darwin seemed the perfect example. He was certainly religious at some point in his life but his faith deteriorated and through the preservation of his writings we have a great deal of insight into why. While many would reason that his famed theory of evolution was the cause, I see a different reason entirely.

In his private musings, Darwin presented some interesting perspectives of how his theory was compatible with faith just as was the theory of gravity: Astronomers might formerly have said that God ordered each planet to move in its particular destiny. In the same manner God orders each animal created with certain form in certain country. But how much more simple and sublime power,—let attraction act according to certain law, such are inevitable consequences, – let animals be created, then by the fixed laws of generation, such will be their successors. –Darwin’s Note Book, 1837

In his earliest conceptions of it, Darwin didn’t see evolution as an affront to religious faith. But later on in life, in a letter to a minister and lifelong friend he expressed candidly what he thought of God: There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created Ichneumonidae [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice. –Letter to Asa Gray (May 22, 1860)

Another look at his letters presents a recurring theme in his thinking: “One word more on ‘designed laws’ and ‘undesigned results.’ I see a bird which I want for food, take my gun and kill it, I do this designedly. An innocent and good man stands under a tree and is killed by a flash of lightning. Do you believe (and I really should like to hear) that God designedly killed this man? Many or most persons do believe this; I can’t and don’t. If you believe so, do you believe that when a swallow snaps up a gnat that God designed that that particular swallow should snap up that particular gnat at that particular instant? I believe that the man and the gnat are in the same predicament. If the death of neither man nor gnat are designed, I see no good reason to believe that their first birth or production should be necessarily designed. Yet, as I said before, I cannot persuade myself that electricity acts, that the tree grows, that man aspires to loftiest conceptions all from blind, brute force. Your muddled & affectionate friend Ch. Darwin” –Letter to Asa Gray (July 3rd, 1860)

I’m not here to assert that Darwin was somehow secretly a Christian or that he had some miraculous conversion to Christianity on his death bed. Like my friend from high school, I believe doubt slowly crept up on Darwin and lingered with him until he died of heart disease at age 73. But we differ in our belief as to what caused that doubt and I think that’s what makes all the difference. What caused this shift from the Darwin who considered William Paley’s Natural Theology to be, by far, his favorite book; one he claimed to delight in and to be able to recite by heart, (a book that asserted in no uncertain terms that the design of the universe was unavoidable evidence of a designer) to the Darwin who considered the design of the universe to be an unguided welter wrought with misery (-Life and Letters of Charles Darwin 1911, p.15)? Well after delving in depth into his life and correspondences, it appears that the infamous portrayal of Darwin as a paragon of atheism turned away from religious faith by his scientific findings doesn’t accord with Darwin’s own telling of the story. Though a person’s dissent from faith is a often a very personal and multifaceted matter, Darwin writes about his at length and while he doesn’t present his theory to be what uprooted his faith, he does prominently frame one subject this way: “suffering”.

“That there is much suffering in the world no one disputes. Some have attempted to explain this in reference to man by imagining that it serves for his moral improvement. But the number of men in the world is as nothing compared with that of all other sentient beings, and these often suffer greatly without any moral improvement. A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a god who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? This very old argument from the existence of suffering against the existence of an intelligent first cause seems to me a strong one; whereas, as just remarked, the presence of much suffering agrees well with the view that all organic beings have been developed through variation and natural selection.” –The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1876

All around him, he saw not only human beings but animals suffering in what he called “the struggle for life” and it was hard for him to surmise that an all-powerful and wholly good God would allow things to be this way. It’s not an uncommon conclusion to reach but also not a scientific one. Darwin himself was no stranger to grief. Suffering in his personal life also left him markedly despondent as 3 of his children died in early childhood, one not even a month old. The most devastating of these occurrences was the death of his daughter Annie at age 10. She was by his own confession his favorite child. After her death Darwin explained that their home had now lost its joy and that he and his wife had lost the solace of their old age. And while I have no idea what it must be like to lose 3 children at such young ages, I’m sure it’s a suffering like unto no other. It’s no wonder that so many who studied the life of Charles Darwin see this as the pivotal moment in solidifying his doubts about Christianity.

Pain is one thing; anguish be it mental or physical has a biological basis but what we call suffering seems to exist primarily as a result of our awareness that something isn’t as it should be. It’s the most abominable yet the most pervasive aspect of the human experience. Every word that could be used to describe it seems to incessantly present itself as an understatement. But it wasn’t the first and will not be the final word in the human narrative. The Christian worldview holds together in the message that we were created to revel in the joy of knowing God and being known by him forever but we decided we’d rather make gods of ourselves and live apart from him. In his presence there is absolute joy (Psalm 16:11) because there everything is set right but apart from his presence there is anything but. All of creation is thrown into chaos and imperfection. Nature now rebels against us giving us just a small taste of what it must’ve felt like for us to rebel against God. In that, suffering becomes an inescapable part of human life but rather than turn his face away, God chose to meet us in it. As a response to the question of “why do bad things happen to good people”, Theologian RC Sproul had the best reply: “That only happened once, and he volunteered.” In the person of Jesus Christ, the creator stepped into vulnerability and suffering taking the worst of it upon himself and winning forever our freedom from it. This world is full of brokenness and discord but that’s only the final word if you close the book at Matthew chapter 27. Three days later the suffering savior pulls himself out of the grave, destroys its power to spell our end, and promises to set right all the wrongs of this world in the next giving us the life we long for in a context that never ends.

The Christian message is that we’re already redeemed from the judgment our indiscretion deserves but the world we live in is not yet free of its affects. As a believer early on in life, Darwin was likely no stranger to most of this message but it may have been the case that he was given a gospel contaminated with another message; a flawed message so resilient that it’s persisted even til the present day. In its misbegotten tenure, the so-called “prosperity gospel” has charmed many with its empty promises teaching that the Christian life lived rightly is a life devoid of the effects of sin, a life devoid of suffering. For some it’s the foundation of their faith and the reason for their devotion. They’re told that their crops won’t die, their wives won’t miscarry, they’ll be showered with riches and affluence by a God pleased with their faith and abstinence. All who follow it are destined for crippling disappointment much like what seems to have eroded Darwin’s faith. It appears that he held to the perspective that a good God would never allow evil. In lacking a theology of suffering he failed to truly know the God that we claim today that he opposed. The god that revolted his senses, the one that let him down is not the God I believe in. It’s not the God of the Christian faith but one of pernicious falsehood.

Still it seems possible from his writings that Darwin was able to recognize that the universal longing of the human heart for this world to function “rightly”; the feeling that something is indeed wrong, is indicative of humanity being meant for something more than this constant struggle for life. A recurring theme in his personal writings is the idea that the deep desires of the human heart, our power to discern both our past and future imply an explanation of origin beyond that of random chance:

“Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.” –Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ppg. 92-93

Perhaps he could see that every hunger exists because there is something to satisfy it. The stomach was made for food and can only be satisfied with it. We thirst for drink and cannot be quenched otherwise. How could it be that while all other hungers have something that corresponds to sate them, the deepest hunger of humanity is the only one for which there exists no corresponding satisfaction? Darwin likely never settled on the conclusion that I have (that because we were made to know God, the deepest chambers of our hearts can’t be filled with anything less) but the conclusions he did held to however tenuously did not make him one whose views are at odds with my faith. After the above quote he did write of how his theistic convictions had gradually grown weaker through fluctuations over time but 3 years before he died he penned these words in a letter to a friend:

“In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a god. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” –Letter to John Fordyce, 1879.

Contrary to the popular narrative, evolution and a deeper understanding of the natural world hadn’t robbed Darwin of his faith, on the contrary, his observations of nature seem to be what kept him from dissenting from faith altogether. He couldn’t shake the conclusion that an intelligent God of some sort must have existed as the “first cause” regardless of the objections he may have had with how this supreme being allows the universe to work. It’s a conviction I find myself unable to shake as well, one that has done much to strengthen my faith.

Can both Jesus and Darwin be my homeboys? They already are. Homeboy status was never mutually exclusive? Darwin happens to be a friend that, albeit unintentionally, points me to Jesus. Is science diametrically opposed to faith? I’ve tried to understand how it could be but at every turn it seems to direct me back to scripture in awe of a God whose chosen to tell his story in two well-written volumes (The Natural and the Preternatural). Evolution isn’t an affront to my faith, quite the opposite as I see it; demystified and free of needless contention it does well to declare the visible character and divine attributes of an incredible God.

Samuel Ramsey

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