Five years ago, I began an experiment with the Lenten season in an effort to improve my person along all three axes: mental, physical, and spiritual. The common Lenten practice of fasting would do for the physical (I think I gave up soft drinks); as our church attendance was lax at the time, spending each week in corporate worship would do for the spiritual; and, for the mental, I asked my wife to select a book from our growing library which covered a subject I had not studied but that she thought would give me an opportunity to grow while also enjoying the read (I should mention here that she joined me in this practice, though to my knowledge, she has yet to finish the book I selected for her, Ender’s Game). I believe the book she selected was titled, Crown, Orb, and Scepter, and though I may be mistaken on that point, I still recall that it gave a historical account of the coronations of the monarchs of England. While I would not classify myself as learned in the history of British royalty after having read this book, it was an interesting treat to expand my field of study, if only for forty days, especially into such an history of opulence and politics, both often scandalous. Am I a better person for having read it? I would say yes, if only because I have a broader understanding of history and so the world.
One point that was raised during the initial experiment was the discontinuity between the three praxes. What does the study of English history, corporate worship, and fasting have to do with each other? The answer which I gave at the time was that all three, education, worship, and diet, pertain to my daily life, all three are vital to my health, and improving all three will make me better as a person. Of course, any confirmant in the Anglican tradition will have learned that these three have a long history with each other, but at the time I just needed a quick answer and so engineered one centered around myself, the pomposity of which should come as no surprise.
This Lent, however, I am again attempting to improve the three axes of my person in a similar manner, with a fast, a new study, and a practice of spiritual growth. For the fast, my family all came to the conclusion separately to attempt vegetarianism during Lent and so agreed to do so corporately; we had also already decided as a family to complete Confirmation in the Episcopal Church (we have been communicants for years now, but have yet to complete the Confirmation classes), which seemed an apt attempt at spiritual growth; and, after much deliberation, I decided that the book I would read would be Darwin’s classic, On the Origin of Species. I am ashamed as an amateur scientist to admit that in all my 28 years I have yet to have read this classic work which has sparked so much social and scientific change, but considering my fundamentalist upbringing I hope there may be some grace given on this point.
My deliberation on whether to read this classic came from a respect for both the work and its author, particularly on the effects it had on him and his faith. While we must not lose sight of the oppressing events in Darwin’s life which undoubtedly broke the already cracking dam of his faith, the death of Annie most often noted amongst his tragedies, those events arrived with the full force of a perfect storm which could almost solely lead to the downfall of his faith with the already growing decline of the same. I do not mean to downplay the tragedies Darwin experienced, nor the conclusions at which he was arriving prior, as though it were only a matter of timing which drove him from faith; but, I must wonder how his spiritual life may have been different had his daughter not died or if she had prior to his struggle with the problem of evil. Somehow, this paragraph started to get away from the point at which I was driving, but I would rather start a new paragraph than overwrite the last as I feel the points it raised need to be addressed, though hopefully I can come back around to them with a clearer purpose.
I experienced trepidation over reading this book because it cannot be denied that the work Darwin put into creating this masterpiece also worked towards chipping away his faith in Christ. Many of the questions he developed in his fall from faith (e.g. theodicy, discrepancies in the biblical text) have been faced by millions (and ignored by hundreds of millions) throughout the history of Judeo-Christian faith and theology, certainly having a similar or more drastic result to Darwin’s in many cases, but in many instances with the result of growing a stronger, more mature faith. Having spent my undergraduate and graduate education in two very fine Christian institutes of higher learning, I have encountered these (what I call) earth-shattering experiences, these crises of faith, a number of times before this reading of Darwin. My first was during an introductory course in Old Testament studies while learning about Genesis; imagine the terrors of a young fundamentalist upon being walked through all the evidence for two creation accounts in Genesis! It was as though I, who had been raised on the Bible and was better read than many of my peers, had never even seen the stories of Genesis for what they truly are: not a single story by an aging prophet, but the collection of the mythoi of a people gathered together (though, based on the text of Torah, I’m tempted to say rather “cobbled together”) under the name of YHWH. But before I could discover the primal beauty of these poetic narratives, I first had to be shaken loose from certain of my preconceptions, many of them well-worn and deeply-impressed.
Perhaps the most devastating (I use this word tenderly) lesson I had to learn was that it is okay to admit ignorance, so long as one seeks to remove that ignorance where possible and accept that ignorance where it extends beyond the possibilities of human reason, that neither faith nor faith seeking understanding (nor, if we are honest with ourselves, any quest for understanding) cannot require all the answers, yet should not be satisfied with standing still. Overcoming this prejudice against doubt has proven the most useful in growing both my faith and my understanding; the ability to admit when one is wrong will allow one the greatest opportunity to be made right.
I am somewhat disappointed by how rare this growth has been tested in my discussions with apostates and non-believers, but this is almost certainly due to my fascination with studying the Bible; alas that I was not reborn an ethicist! It does seem that the most common disputation of theistic faith tends to come down on the question of theodicy, the question of evil in the creation of a good creator, a topic I have studied, though much the lesser in comparison to my other studies. My answer to the theodicy comes in two parts (based mostly on the two parts in which the question tends to be posed), which I will only dimly elucidate here.
First, I do not believe God knows the future, but I do not believe this to be a slight against divine omniscience because I do not believe the future is there to be known; put another way, God knows all that can be known, but I do not believe the future has been written, and in fact I cannot imagine why we should suspect otherwise. I start with this rather obscure bit of philosophy because the most common theodicy I have encountered centers around some iteration of the question, “If God is all-knowing, why would he create a world in which evil would arise?” If the future is available to be known, then of course an answer like, “because there would still be good and the opportunity for love,” would be highly unsatisfactory to say the least. Can any number of beautiful lives filled with love out-weigh the terrors of murder, rape, the destruction of innocence? Truly, I cannot conjure a way to answer that question.
But, again, I do not believe that question applies to the theodicy in the sense of creation, though I can understand the validity of such a question after evil entered the world. The question then becomes, “If God is all-powerful and created a world that was good, why then would he not simply destroy all that is evil?” though I think a better question, one which gets to the heart of the matter without assuming that any of us knows the best way to handle evil, was brought to my attention and soundly answered (in my humble opinion) by my first ethics professor, Jeph Holloway, “If God is all-powerful and created a world that was good, then evil came into his good world, what is he doing about it? How is God handling the problem of evil?” As the Lenten season prepares us for Holy Week, and especially as I approached this portion after having attended the Good Friday noonday liturgy, God’s response to the problem of evil has weighed heavily on my mind. As the liturgy has repeated several times especially during Holy Week “He who knew no sin became sin for us, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What has the immortal, all-powerful creator done to combat evil? He came down into his creation, gave up his power, and died.
Once again, I find I have strayed from my original intent, that being a response to my Lenten reading of On the Origins of Species, though I suppose if an attempt to respond has resulted in these historical, philosophical, and ethical ramblings of mine, that is as much a valid attempt as any. I now attempt again to return to my original issue, that being a fear for the vitality of my faith after reading Darwin’s classic. What ultimately made the decision for me was the memory of a prayer (of sorts) from when I first began following Christ, one which I have shared with others before, but which again drove me deeper into my studies. I recall making an ultimatum to God (what a fool, proud mortal, to stare at the Sun and expect it to blink!) that I would continue to serve him all the days of my life, but if in all my studying I found him to be false, I would quit his service then and there and proceed to live in whatever manner I deem worth the rest of my existence. After 13 years serving my Lord, I have not found cause to abandon him; this Lenten reading came close.*
*I chose to end that paragraph like that solely because I like the drama of it. That last sentence has a nice Hollywood blockbuster tagline to it, don’t you think? I did experience a crisis of faith and I don’t mean to belittle it, but I’m writing this while working in a call center and I have to find some way to entertain myself.*
I cannot quite put a finger on what caused my crisis of faith. It actually did not occur while reading Darwin, but while watching an episode of the new iteration of the TV show, Cosmos. This was an episode which featured heavily on showing how over-whelming is the evidence for and how erroneous many of the classical arguments against evolution, and it was during the discussion about how the eye probably evolved, first from photo-sensitive cells which couldn’t “see” in the sense that we understand sight, but could differentiate between areas of lower light and higher light. I don’t know why this affected me such that I should start to wonder if my faith is impossibly unrealistic, but in just that state I found myself. I considered the broad chasm between spiritual faith and physical science, the many who have taken this same course of study and found faith lacking, and the seemingly impossible basis of my faith, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The weight of doubt very nearly became too much to bear. I began to think about how my life would differ without my faith; mostly, I began to wonder about the strain it might put on my family, faith being such an integral part of our lives.
As this overwhelming doubt crushed down through my mind, just when I thought my faith lost, I felt as though that doubt hit a kernel of light within my soul. All my theology, all my dogma, all my philosophies were undone by that crushing doubt, but one thing remained, steady and firm: Christos Anesti, Christos Zoes! Christ is risen, Christ is alive! There is one thing I cannot doubt; though all else should fall away and I be left a shriveling husk, I cannot deny the love of Christ which I have experienced, the knowledge I have that he died, rose, and lives yet. Here, I depart from science, but in discovering that seal of love which my doubt could not overcome, I remembered that there are places science cannot look, facets of life where science has neither right nor capacity to examine. There are those who, because of the presuppositions of materialist philosophies, will always try to find physical explanations for that of which I write, but here we come to the place where even Reason and Logic meets their limits, for the machine of Logic must always depend on the presuppositions of the philosopher driving.
The core of my faith rests not on an unreasonable suspension of reason, but on the assuring experience I have had of the love of Christ. Is this unscientific? Of course. Might I just be delusional? Any open-minded person who knows basic Cartesian logic will understand my insistence that we all must operate under the assumed possibility that we’re just sitting in a padded room drooling obscenities and gibberish (rather than, in some cases, my own notwithstanding, standing in halls of academia drooling obscenities and gibberish). And for the question which comes to my mind most often, is this evidence of things unseen useful to anyone besides me? That would depend on how others view of me. I have wondered recently what my highly-intelligent atheist friends think of me. After all the in-depth conversations we have shared, after all the time we have spent discussing logic, science, and philosophy, have I convinced them that I am adamant in my belief in Christ? Are they convinced of my intellect? Are they able to reconcile my intellect (if they acknowledge such) with my faith (which many of them find ridiculous), and if so, how?
I believe I have expounded what I have learned and encountered in my reading of Darwin. I’m still reading it (I only get to read at work and we’ve been busy), and I intend to complete it. There can be no greater summation to my lesson than this: I am a scientist, and I am a theologian; I am a critic, and I am a believer; I am a sinner, evident of its own without any external pressures by a higher power but by the pains and traumas I have caused in my life, and I am a saint, not by any holiness or righteousness which I possess but by the love and forgiveness bestowed upon me by Christ my Lord. I am a man of two minds: on one side, the cynic who recognizes the absurdity in believing that a Palestinian rabbi was executed for sedition nearly 2,000 years ago, rose from the dead, and because of this, I am forgiven for my evil deeds; on the other side, the believer who knows this to be true in spite of the absurdity, but because of the evidence of its effects.