Column #018. First published in the St. Cloud Times Jan. 27, 2009
Sixteen days from now, Feb. 12, we will commemorate two world-class 200th birthdays — Abraham Lincoln's and Charles Darwin's. President Obama's inaugural address had some expected allusions to Lincoln, but one phrase can be seen as a salute to Darwin (and other scientists): "We will restore science to its rightful place."
In many countries Obama's declaration would seem a platitude, but it is a challenge here in the United States, where Darwin symbolizes the alleged incompatibility of science and religion. A 2007 Gallup Poll shows Americans evenly split between acceptance and denial of the theory of evolution, and among deniers the predominant reasons are religious. A bumper sticker puts it concisely: "The Bible — God said it, I believe it, that settles it."
Anyone who knows I'm a Christian might assume I think Darwin is an enemy of God. But I believe God is better served — even glorified — by Darwin than by those who, claiming to be God's defenders, consign Darwin and his supporters to outer darkness. (For the record, Darwin eventually doubted God; he called himself an agnostic, not an atheist.)
The bumper sticker litany works only if you read the Bible in a particular way.
The eminent geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-75), a faithful Orthodox believer, makes clear the error of biblical literalism: "Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ... The blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness."
Dobzhansky's observation is in an essay called "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution."
When you're sick, you want a doctor trained in the way that biology makes sense. I believe the healing arts are integral to God's will for the world, and therefore I cannot believe God wants us to resist what makes sense of biology in the name of protecting God. That would be the blasphemy Dobzhansky identified: accusing the creator of systematic deceitfulness. To teach young persons who might be interested in careers in science that God is blasphemed by Darwin and all they are learning in biology — there's the real blasphemy.
There is much anti-evolutionism in Central Minnesota, but there is also a long tradition of "restoring science to its rightful place."
In Westminster Abbey, established by Benedictines more than a millennium ago, I once found myself standing on Darwin's grave. I have since come to realize that he is buried in exactly the right place. Benedictines have been in the forefront of those who recognize that because evolution makes sense, it cannot be an affront to God.
This was highlighted in 2000 and 2004 when Robert Bakker, the paleontologist largely responsible for the revolutionary (and now widely acknowledged) view that dinosaurs are the ancestors of birds, spoke at St. John's University.
Asked why he accepted this from the hundreds of invitations he gets, he said he is intrigued by the Saint John's Bible, which weaves strands of DNA into its illumination at the beginning of the Gospels, and he admires James Hansen, OSB (1874-1934), monk of Saint John's, who in 1928 published "The evolution controversy: a popular discussion of the recent agitation against the teaching of evolution in the public schools."
Wilfred Theisen, OSB, professor emeritus of physics at St. John's, in a recent letter to the Times carries into the 21st century the Benedictine tradition of championing Darwin in the public arena.
Darwin showed us the world as a single tapestry — "from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."
David Steindl-Rast, OSB, of Mount Saviour Monastery in New York, says: "I belong to this Earth Household, in which each member belongs to all others — bugs to beavers, black-eyed Susans to black holes, quarks to quails, lightning to fireflies, humans to hyenas."
I propose Brother David's words as a spiritual toast to Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday.