February 11, 2010 Length: 56:18
In part 4 of Fr. Tom Hopko's talks on the Darwinian revolution, he looks at what Charles Darwin may have experienced in terms of Christianity in his day.
In series Darwin and Christianity
This is the fourth in our reflections about natural science and Christian theology using Charles Darwin as a kind of example or object lesson in discussing the very particular issue, not only of natural science and Christian theology, but the issue of natural selection, generally speaking the theory of evolution and how that might relate to Christianity. As I mentioned in the earlier presentations, these are just my personal reflections. I’m certainly not an expert in this area at all. If I could claim any expertise, it would be as a person who has studied, read, thought about theological issues, Christian theological issues, certainly not scientific issues, biological or archaeological or geological or any of those things; I know practically nothing about those things technically.
But still it is incumbent upon us and those who believe and those who believe the Gospel of Christ to try to respond to the issues of natural science and evolution, just to the measure that we are capable. And perhaps to contribute a little bit to the confusion, I think I mentioned on the radio several times how there was a student at the seminary who used to say, “I’m more confused than ever,” when he would finish class, and I would say to him, “Peter”—that was his name—“better real confusion than false clarity.” I think there’s a lot of false clarity going on, both in the natural science realm relative to theology and to Christian faith and to God and a lot of confusion going on among believers about what natural science is claiming, what its limitations are, what the teachings are, and how there might be an interrelationship between what we can come to know by studying the universe, just studying the facts of life around us, studying the rocks and the plants and the trees and the animals: what can we learn? what can we try to understand?
But then there’s the other issue of: how do we explain our Christian faith? How do we come to the knowledge of God, to the knowledge of the things of God, to the knowledge of Christ and the Gospel? And can we know there? And if we do come to claim to believe things because of certain things that we know—and here we would say, of course, that knowledge and faith are not antonyms. It’s not like we know some things and believe other things. And that’s as true of scientists as it is of theologians or Christians, people trying to explain the Gospel. Faith and knowledge are interconnected. You’ve got to know something in order to believe it, and you can’t believe something that you don’t know. If you believe in something, you’ve got to try to explain what that something is that you are believing in, so people…
Even in common discourse, we say, “Do you believe in God?” and that would raise all kinds of questions of who God is, what God is like, what God does, but if somebody says, “Do you believe in evolution?” that would raise the same issues. “Do you believe in Einstein’s theory of I-don’t-know-what—relativity?” Well, you’d have to ask the question: “Well, what is it?” What is it? What is being claimed? What is being said? What is it that I’m being asked to believe in?
It’s very interesting that—I’ve listened to a number of lectures on Einstein and the theory of relativity, and I can’t tell you how many times the professor said, “Just believe me on this one. Just believe me. It goes against common sense. It doesn’t seem like it should be so, but stick with me for a while, and we’ll discuss this issue more.” And how many times the teacher would say, speaking about the theory of relativity and quantum physics and I-don’t-know-what, saying to the hearer, “Believe me. Just believe me for now, or at least as a hypothesis accept what I’m trying to say, even though it seems to contradict your experience and your common sense.”
Knowledge and faith go together. In fact, St. Augustine said, “We believe in order to know.” But we also know in order to believe. You find both things in the Gospel. You find sentences where it says something like, “We have believed and have come to know,” and then you have other sentences that say, “We know and we believe.” So this issue of the relationship of what you believe and what you know and how those things interrelate and what people can claim about their knowledge and their faith relative to the things of God and relative to the things of nature, these are at the heart of the matter of the issues that we’re just reflecting on now—very poorly, very superficially. I admit that; I’m the first one to admit it. However, I would not admit that there aren’t real issues here that have to be faced, and I really do believe—I am convinced—that we have to think these things through very carefully, very honestly, very patiently, to try to come to some understanding of things.
Of course, the worst thing is that we would be speaking about things that we don’t know anything about. When I give talks, I often say to people, “If you’re going to have an opinion about the Bible, you’d better know what the Bible is, and you’d better know what the Bible says.” If you’re going to have an opinion about Christ and early Christianity, you’d better know what the witnesses claim. You can’t have an opinion about—I don’t know—the teachings of St. Paul unless you have read the letters attributed to St. Paul, and even studied them and even tried to understand them.
I’m afraid that both in natural science on the pop level and in Christianity, also on the pop level, you have lots of people just speaking about stuff they don’t know anything about. So I’ve been trying to find out a little bit about natural science and especially about Charles Darwin and the Darwinian teaching, and I’ve spent my whole life trying to find everything I can about the Scripture and the Tradition and the teaching of Christianity, and I do that, of course, obviously, within the tradition of the Orthodox Church.
However, I can say that I’ve read plenty of non-Orthodox theology and teaching. I’ve read plenty, not only of atheistic but of Protestant, Catholic. I’ve been at meetings. I was involved in dialogue groups my entire life, and I’ll be 71 next month. So I’m just sharing with you where I am right now in my life on these particular issues.
What I’d like to do right now is to reflect on this very particular question: What was Charles Darwin’s experience of Christianity? In our last reflection, I reflected very breezily, kind of generally over the Christian world of the time of Charles Darwin, what was going on in Christianity, what was going on in British Christianity, how things were kind of generally at that time, what the issues were, what the fights were, what the polemics were between Roman Catholics and Protestants and various kinds of Protestants and Unitarians and Congregationalists and Calvinists and Methodists and Baptists and the Church of England and Anglicanism and so on. There [was an] incredible amount of controversy, so much a person who wouldn’t know anything about it would despair of knowing what Christians really think and believe because of so many different interpretations about Jesus Christ, about God, about how God is, what God does, how he relates to the world, who Jesus Christ is. Those were incredibly debated issues among Christians themselves at the time of Charles Darwin.
But right now, what I’d like to do—try to do, anyway—is to say a few things about Charles Darwin’s own personal experience of Christianity, his own personal experience of Christian faith and teaching, of Christian theology. How did he relate to that? What does it seem—and here a lot of it I’m trying to… I wouldn’t say it’s simply guessing; I’m not guessing—but knowing the kind of man he was, knowing the setting in which he lived—knowing a little bit about it anyway—I think we can reconstruct what might have been his own personal relationship to Christian faith without being too far off, without being radically incorrect.
I would say that I think that the following things could be said about Charles Darwin’s relation to Christian faith and theology and teaching and life, and I would like to say also at this point that I think that the things that seem to have troubled him, the things that he seems to have been rejecting, the things that it seems that he didn’t understand clearly—and certainly, absolutely certainly, would never have been able to understand from the perspective of what we call on this radio program ancient Christian faith. He had no idea whatsoever as far as I can tell of anything to do with Christian history, the development of Christian doctrine, any serious kind of study of holy Scripture, any idea practically of anything except what he heard around him at the time when he was alive. I’m certain that he wouldn’t have the foggiest idea [what] not only the writers of the New Testament really held and taught—I don’t think he would have had the foggiest idea—but I don’t think he would have heard of people like Irenaeus of Lyons and Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom and Maximus the Confessor, or even Western people: Augustine or Ambrose or Hilary or Gregory the Great. I really don’t think he knew a thing about any of those things. Nothing.
And in some sense he wasn’t a man predisposed to have those interests because of his upbringing and his culture and also his temperament. He wasn’t interested in such things as such. Probably part of that reason was not only because of the way his brain worked and how he was as a human being, because there are human beings who are not really interested in theological issues as such. There are plenty of believers who are that way. I would dare say on the radio my wife is such a person. I don’t think she’s ever read a book I’ve written, but she goes to church, she directs the choir, she sings, she prays, she believes in God, she says her prayers, goes to Confession and Communion, and raised our children with me as hopefully believing Orthodox Christians. But as far as reflecting on the faith or dealing with the technical issues of theology, she never did it. And I’m pretty sure that Charles Darwin also never did it.
However, his upbringing was very different from many people who may not directly be interested in theology and issues of theological or biblical nature, but they are raised in a culture of faith, a culture of belief. Certainly Charles Darwin was not. There’s just no doubt about that at all. We mentioned already that his father didn’t go to church ever. In fact, one biographer says that he went, probably was in a Church of England church twice in his life: the day they took him there to be baptized and the day they took him in to be buried. He just did not go to church and was functionally, practically an atheist, and even when Charles Darwin wanted to marry his cousin Emma, who was a pious person and a believer, his father recommended to him that he just don’t get into it with her, just go along with her, even go to church with her. And early in their marriage, Charles Darwin did go to church with his wife. I think he went there and sat there. I’m not totally sure of it, but there’s one sentence that I read somewhere where the author wrote that after his daughter Annie died, he would walk to church with his family, but he would not go in, which leads me to think that he before would go in, but after Annie died and he was already in the midst of all of his scientific reflections about natural selection, he just did not go into the church again.
But I think that the inside of a church was probably very painful to Charles Darwin because of what he was discovering in his studies of natural science and what he was hearing when he did go into that church, the stuff that he was hearing when he did go into that church. I think that it was very painful for him. Of course, he was a sickly man anyway, and as he was discovering what he thought he was discovering scientifically, he would throw up every day, he couldn’t work very often, he said that he felt like he was committing murder, and so on. I don’t think it was because—it’s my opinion, but I don’t think it was because he was so worried about theological issues and being driven toward a position of atheism or something as much as he didn’t want to take on the establishment, he didn’t want to shake up the aristocratic Victorian life that he lived, he certainly didn’t want to offend his wife. He certainly wanted to have a good marriage with her, and she was pious and so on. So I think that probably Christianity, the Church, was a kind of painful element in the life of Charles Darwin, especially as he began to develop his teachings.
Now, we already mentioned that when he was a young man and didn’t know quite what to do and his father was at wit’s end what to do with him because he thought he would amount to nothing, his father, Robert Darwin, suggested that he become a minister, that he become a priest of the Church of England! And he even was going to go to study divinity, theology, and the father said, “You can do this, because you have a nice country house and you have gardens and you can study your plants and your animals, you can raise pigeons, you can raise orchids, you can study worms. You can do whatever you want to do. You could hunt”—because the guy loves to hunt, and I guess there’s no canons in the Church of England about a priest hunting. There is in the Orthodox Church, by the way. Priests can fish, but they can’t hunt; they can’t shoot and kill, according to our canonical tradition.
But he was able to do those things, and his father says, “Why don’t you just do that? You’re not going to amount to much anyway, and who the heck cares what the minister’s doing? You could go through the motions. You could go in there and read those prayers from that prayerbook and show up and say platitudes at services or whatever and just carry on your life.” It seems that I don’t think it would be too inaccurate to say that it was almost that cynical. It was almost like no one takes it seriously anyway, including even the people who come, and there’s fanatics of all sorts in the Church, but not in the Church of England too much. If you’re a fanatic, you become a Dissenter, you become a Baptist or you become a Quaker or you can, as they say, cross the Tiber and become a Roman Catholic. There was no opportunity at that time for any of those people to become Orthodox, that’s for sure. They hardly even knew that Eastern Orthodox Christianity existed. They hardly knew that anything existed except in their own milieu around the 16th century. They probably knew about Luther and Calvin and John Wesley and whatever, but certainly Charles Darwin himself didn’t know very much.
But it’s [an] amazing thing to think, and it’s an important thing to remember that there were people at that time, atheists, practical atheists, even theoretically atheists, like Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who wrote atheistic poems and even erotic poetry and was quite a lecher person, and he was pretty out there against what they would call “religion,” Christianity, and those things. But Charles Darwin seems to be more the son of his own father than the son of his grandfather. He was not a flamboyant out there fighting, trying to be an outrageous person. He certainly wasn’t trying to do that.
But if we go a step further now and try to ask this question: What was Charles Darwin really having to deal with, and what were the issues that really did seem to engage him? What were the issues that he certainly thought about and kind of was compelled and forced to think about, even if he didn’t want to fight about them? We mentioned already how his wife, when this atheist asked to come to see him, Büchner from Germany, and have dinner, and he didn’t want to offend his wife, and his wife didn’t want any out-there atheist in her house, because this guy was a public atheist, Charles Darwin said, “Listen, you have to be kind. Let him come, and invite your minister to come.” So the minister, whom Charles Darwin knew, did come to dinner, and at that dinner, the report that I have through the secondary sources that I heard on tape and on CD, rather, listened to, they say that Charles Darwin at that meal was very kind.
He listened, and he said basically that he was a kind of agnostic, that he didn’t really know much about God, although in The Origin of Species, he mentions God seven times at least, and ends up with the Creator: he had that type of discourse; he used that kind of language. But he said, “Why can’t we just be agnostic? Why can’t I just say: I don’t really know; I’m just not really sure?” But if he would take that position which he did at that dinner party and say, “I’m not an out-there atheist. Maybe I’m not even an atheist at all, but I certainly am an agnostic, which means that I don’t really know what’s going on,” and one of his detractors didn’t like that, and he said, “Unitarianism is the feather-bed for Christians who can’t believe the straightforward Christian doctrine, and agnosticism is the feather-bed for atheists who don’t want to come right out and say they’re atheists, so they’ll just go around saying: I don’t really know, and then they don’t have to engage the issues so much.” And perhaps in some sense out-and-out atheists are more respectable than people who claim agnosticism, if they’re claiming it because they just don’t want to engage the issues, they don’t want to offend somebody.
But in any case, Charles Darwin was not a fighter on this issue, and he did claim to be someone who was not quite sure. But then we can ask the question: If he was not sure, if he was an agnostic, if he did say, “I just don’t know, and one thing is for sure, though: I can’t accept the Christian faith, I can’t accept the Christian faith as I understand it,” then that begs the question: How did he understand it? What did he understand about Christianity that made him say, “I can’t engage it. I can’t endorse it. I can’t affirm it” and stop going to a church service even out of pure politeness to his beloved wife? I mean, what was there? What was he confronted with? It seems to me—again, it just seems to me, on the basis of very superficial study—that there were several issues that really we know from certain things that we do know about him that he had great trouble with.
These are the issues that I am going to deal with in my upcoming talks. I’m going to take each one of these issues that I think was really problematic for Charles Darwin and then try to say what I think is in fact the Christian teaching, and how that teaching might relate, possibly relate, to natural science, and certainly even to the theory of evolution. By the way, there are many theories of evolution, and Darwinians fight among themselves. I don’t think that it’s right when people say, “Oh, you can dismiss it, because it’s only a theory.” Well, man, it’s a theory held by hundreds, thousands of people, in fact of the point where they consider it not a theory but a dogma.
But even if you could say, “Well, it’s only a theory,” and scientists themselves disagree about it, very intelligent, committed people, many of whom are believing Christians—there are plenty of believing Christians nowadays who claim to have some kind of evolutionary understanding of the nature of things scientifically, in the natural order, and they make up their own understandings of how those things can interrelate, and they can do so by really believing in Jesus Christ, believing in the Gospel, believing that he is raised from the dead, believing in miracles, believing in lots of stuff, while at the same time, on the scientific level, holding a theory that would be not that far but with certain important modifications of what Charles Darwin himself claimed to have discovered.
So that’s simply the truth. That’s a fact. There are people out there: there’s a certain Collins, there’s other people I can name. And then there are agnostic people, maybe even atheistic people, like a fellow interviewed by Ben Stein in his film, Expelled, where he simply was asking many difficult scientific questions about the Darwinian theory, even like saying, “We don’t even know what a species is, after all,” and everything, and was not very thrilled with the natural selection theory of Darwin, but he didn’t do it because he was a theist or a Christian; he just did it because he was a scientist.
Then we know Gould and those people had different theories. So there are different theories, but you can’t ever say about a theory, “That’s only a theory,” because a theory is defended and even built up on what the holder of the theory claims to be certain indisputable facts. You put certain facts together, and then you draw a vision. The facts are never complete, and they’re always changing. That’s one thing about science: it’s constantly changing, constantly growing, constantly being redone. Just take Newtonian physics as opposed to Einsteinian or quantum physics; it’s quite different.
But in any case, it has to be taken seriously. You can’t just dismiss it by saying, “It’s only a theory.” Well, what’s the theory? And if it’s only a theory, you still have to deal with the fact that millions of people believe it, people who really study it and people who don’t, and people who are just taken in by it because of other ideological people who defend the theory for whatever purposes, which may not be fundamentally scientific at all; they may be for other reasons. Just like plenty of people defend the Christian faith and go through the motions, not for the glory of God and the good of their neighbor and the love of the enemy; they do it for other reasons. I mean, countries use Christian faith as an ideological tool and so on. It’s a complicated issue we should never oversimplify, that’s for sure.
But, getting back to Charles Darwin, we could ask this question: What did he think was going on in Christianity, relative to what he was studying as a naturalist? Here I would say that I think that Charles Darwin can kind of be like an example, a sort of a case study, because I think that there were plenty of people, certainly plenty of men, around him at the time, the naturalists of his time, who had pretty much the same approach to Christianity that he did. Certainly Thomas Huxley did. Now, some of these other people were more impassioned, they were more out-there, they were more certain of their atheism or whatever. They were not mild, and they were not suffering with stomachaches and so on, but at the same time they basically had the same issues. They dealt with the same issues.
Here I would say, in my opinion, very unfortunately, very sadly, because the way that Christianity was presented to them may, in fact, have been in such a way that they could ridicule it pretty easily, because it does seem to me that if you’re oversimplifying to the extreme, how Christianity was presented to those men, those scientists, at the time is still with us in great power; it’s still with us here in the year 2010. 200 years after Darwin was born, 150 years after he published The Origin, these issues are still with us, and namely if you put them in supersimplistic form for the sake of a radio talk, it would be the clash between fundamentalism and liberalism, the clash between one way of looking [at] and interpreting the Bible and another way of looking [at] and interpreting the Bible. It would be a clash about biblical interpretation and even about understanding what the Bible is, and then how one interprets it. And if you oversimply try to describe what that is, I would say it would be something like the following:
There would be those who said that the Bible is kind of like a Quran that fell from the sky, ready-made; every word in it is the truth about absolutely everything: it’s the truth about science, it’s the truth about history, about natural history, natural science; every word is more or less on the same level in the Scripture. They don’t see any development in the Scripture; the Scripture is inerrant in everything that it teaches about. And all of the apparent contradictions can somehow be explained away, so you can’t admit of any error in Scripture at all; you can’t admit of any discrepancy between different parts of the Bible, one with another, even the two creation narratives in the book of Genesis, they have to somehow be reconciled factically, scientifically.
Now, it’s one thing to reconcile apparently contradictory parts of the Scripture on the basis of the theological intent of the author, the context, the condition, the growth in the Bible, and certainly to say that you don’t put—I don’t know—the text of the Hebrew Scriptures of the Torah on the same level of interpretation as you would on the Gospels about Jesus, because the Gospels about Jesus are giving a particular interpretation on the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets and all that went before them.
There would be those that would say that the Bible is the truth about everything, and scientifically it would mean that, you know, the world was made in six 24-hour-period periods, and it’s only 10,000 or 6,000 years old, and even there was that Bishop Ussher who tried to figure out from the Bible how old the world was and came up with 6,000-some years—and that was accepted throughout the Christian world. I worked in a library—I think I might have mentioned this already—I worked in a library at St. Vladimir’s where the books in Russia in the 19th century would actually say that the book was published in the year of the Lord 1882, and then it would say how many years—they didn’t say “the year of the Lord”; they said 1,862 years from the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh—and then they would say, like, 6,822 years let ot sotvoreniya mira, from the creation of the world. So that was simply held, on a basis of the interpretation of the Bible that the Bible was telling us how many years, solar years, the whole creation existed.
So there was this interpretation that the Bible tells us about everything. Then the opposite to that would be that the Bible is just a bunch of mythology made up of human beings who are expressing their thinking; it’s filled with contradictions, it’s filled with all kinds of stuff you can’t understand, like blood and war and stupid laws about “if you touch the ark of the covenant, you get killed” and “if you curse your parents, you should be stoned to death” and God-knows-what, and then it’s just absolutely a ridiculous scripture, a combination of many scriptures; it’s certainly not inspired by any god, and if it was inspired by any god, who would want that god? That’s what the modern atheists say, of course.
And then the New Testament, what we call the New Testament, the Gospel of Christ Jesus, once you begin by saying it’s all just mythology, then Jesus himself becomes a mythology, and then when you have as a dogma “miracles are impossible; they just cannot exist, so wherever there’s anything miraculous it’s simply a mythological invention of the author which is simply not true,” and then when you have certain historical differences in the different parts of the Scripture, like, I don’t know, how many times the cock crowed or what did the sign say on Jesus’ cross, and they have actually different words, then that shows that you can’t depend on the Bible at all, and it’s not there to be depended on.
So it’s either the truth about everything including science, or it’s pure mythology. And then you had at the time of Darwin the historical critical studies of Scripture for the first time, where people studied archaeology, paleontology, Christian sources, language. They looked about the other religions and religious practices in Canaan and around the time of the Hebrews and the Israelites and said, “Well, this is just one other example of the very same thing; there’s nothing unique here.”
So then it came that you either have to be a fundamentalist…—and sometimes they use the term “literalist,” but I think that’s very unfortunate, because when people speak about the literal understanding of the Scripture—and many of the commenters do this—the lectures I listened to, for example, the speaker often would say, “Contrary to the literal interpretation of the Scripture…” or “...what the Scripture literally says…” but that raises the issue: What kind of literature is the Scripture and what does it literally say and what is it trying to say?
So what some people would call a literal interpretation of the Scripture, from the ancient Christian perspective for sure, would be to say, “That’s not a literal interpretation at all, because the Scripture is not speaking about the things you think it is speaking about.” It’s not speaking about natural science, for example. But some interpreters could make it do that.
In any case, Darwin was definitely a person of his time, and in the Church of England with all the arguments going on among Christians, it seemed like he was confronted with this issue—fundamentalism or just basically jettisoning the whole thing, or reinterpreting it in such a way that could make it palatable to people, like, for example, Unitarians, or ethical culture people, or liberal Protestants, who could say, “Well, we like the ethical moral teaching of Jesus, and there is a sense of awe in the universe, and we should follow the golden rule, and we should love one another as [ourselves], and there’s nothing particularly unique about that, but Jesus—you find it in the writings attributed to Jesus, and so on, the words. Well, that could be nice and we should hold onto that and then hope onto, you know, we have an immortal soul that can go to heaven if we do good.” So one side would say, “Well, everybody goes to heaven”: you have Universal Unitarian salvation. Another side would say, “Well, you go to heaven if you’re a good person and you do good and you loved the other people and you helped them.”
Another side would say, “If you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior and confess him as your Lord, you burn in hell, whoever you are.” Then, of course, these people even considered other Christians as burning in hell because they did not hold that the Calvinistic God, so to speak, who is sovereign, could actually choose the elect and give irresistible grace so that they would have to accept Jesus and therefore they were saved and everybody else was damned, and you can’t even question God about that. And then there would be those who held to eternal damnation, everlasting hell, understood usually as God punishing people forever for not believing in him and accepting Jesus as their savior. Then, of course, there are others who dismissed hell completely, and Charles Darwin, as a matter of fact, was one of those, or at least had great trouble about it.
So I think the first thing that we would have to say is: Darwin and his fellows just could not understand how to understand the Bible in a way that they could possibly accept, and certainly the Genesis story, especially if they were being told, “This is science. This is divine revelation. You have to accept it ‘literally,’ meaning if it says day it means a 24-hour period, even though the sun only appears on the third ‘day,’ or the fourth ‘day.’ ”
So there was this huge problem about biblical interpretation that I think Charles Darwin was confronted with, and it certainly wasn’t helping him to deal with what he was studying scientifically. It led him to say, “Well, I just don’t know what all this is about.” Then, of course, together with that would be the question of God, because, you know, what do you mean by God? Who is this God? What is God like? And if God is a sovereign master who chooses some and makes them go to heaven, even by irresistible grace somehow that their will is not even free, and then damns all the other ones because they’re tainted by the original sin and deserve to go to hell, and if God doesn’t decide to save them it’s too bad, and then God could save everybody he wants to save—he can just overcome their will and make them believers by the force of his irresistible grace—well, is that how God is?
Then, of course, on the other extreme, you’d have Unitarians who would say, “Jesus is not God. There’s a kind of a nice, loving God who is love, whom Jesus calls our Father, and we should also call him our Father because he’s the Father of us all and he’s the Father of all human beings, but Jesus himself is not divine. Jesus is just a very good, holy man, maybe one of the best men that ever lived.” Maybe some people would even hold that we are all somehow divine. There’s the saying of the British wit who said, “I would never deny the divinity of Jesus; I would not deny the divinity of anyone.” So there are people who say there’s a spark of divine in us all and we’re all somehow divine. Certainly the American Transcendentalists like Emerson and so one would hold that kind of a teaching. They certainly wouldn’t hold the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and they certainly wouldn’t hold that Jesus’ death on the cross re-created the whole creation and was a redeeming, saving death without which the universe was doomed, and they certainly wouldn’t say that when you have the Lord’s Supper, or whatever you call that meal, that you’re actually communing in the real Body and the real Blood of Jesus Christ which is broken and shed for the life of the world. They just wouldn’t believe those things, and these are “package plans,” so to speak.
If you’re in the fundamentalistic line, and you might even dare say Evangelistic line, Evangelical line of those days, you held certain things. If you were not in it, you held other things about everything: about the Bible, about God, about Jesus, about humanity, about salvation—about everything. And it seems that Darwin was caught in the middle of all of this, and his wife was a Unitarian. There was an episode in the Nova story about Darwin’s darkest hour, where they showed—and I assume this was accurate biographically—that Mrs. Darwin, Emma Darwin, said to him before they were married, “I would like you just to read”—and it’s so ironic: she asked him to read John 13-17. Why I say that’s ironic is because in our Orthodox Church that is the reading, the first long reading of the vigil of Great and Holy Sabbath before Great and Holy Pascha of Christ’s Resurrection. It’s the first of the twelve gospels at the matins where the twelve gospels are read. (Usually it’s done on Thursday night, but actually it’s the matins of Friday morning.) And in the Orthodox Church it begins, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him, and when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself”—it’s John 13:31, and then it ends at the end of [John] 17.
Well, Emma Darwin asked her husband, Charles Darwin, to read this, and what would he think about it? At least on the TV program, Darwin reads it, and then he says to her, “But you know, dear, scholars tell us that Jesus never said these words. These are not Jesus’ own words.” If he were speaking in the technical language of the time, he would have said, “They are not ipsissima verbi Jesu, as the scholars would say.” And the Jesus Seminar to this day are trying to find the “very words of Jesus,” and whatever is not the “very word of Jesus” they reject, and whatever they find somewhere else, they also reject, so that doesn’t leave very much that’s unique to Jesus.
However, we will say in the future and we say all the time that this is certainly Jesus’ teaching, it is certainly crafted out by the Evangelist who wrote the fourth gospel, who most likely probably was not even the beloved disciple John, but someone of that particular community, that particular school. It was crafted by someone who really knew Greek perfectly, which probably, almost certainly, John the disciple did not know. But in any case, our belief would be, the classical Christian belief of ancient Christianity would be: these are really the words of Jesus himself! They may not be the exact words that he himself spoke on that exact occasion, but they are historically accurate. They are really the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. They are authentically recorded and given to us through his disciples—those who knew him, those who were with him, those who believed in him, those who read the Scripture—and they are true words, and they are the word of God. It is the inspired word of God, completely and totally dependable.
But I don’t think anybody would have been practically capable of saying that kind of a sentence to Charles Darwin, so he simply said, “Well, they say Jesus said it, the scholars say he didn’t say it, so what am I supposed to do with it?” But at the same time he would say, “But they are lovely words. They are beautiful, that ‘a new commandment I give you, to love one another as I have loved you’ and so on. This is really exalted. This is really high.” Of course, Charles Darwin was definitely a Victorian who believed that the cutting edge of even human evolution, so to speak, the progress of human beings, reached its apex in England and in English gentlemen. He certainly [did], and that caused problems, because so many people were able to take his scientific theory and apply it, make a humanistic theory about it, a social theory, called social Darwinism, namely that certain human beings were more evolved, more perfect, better, smarter, more intelligent than others, and they came to loftier and more wonderful teachings, and anybody of that ilk would certainly say you should love one another and do to others as you would have them do to you and so on. Of course, the question was: who are others—were black slaves others, and so on.
What we want to see here is that Charles Darwin seems to have been given choices about holy Scripture that he did not accept, what he considered the mythological ones or the fundamentalistic ones, that simply didn’t make any sense to him as far as he investigated them, which was probably not much. Then the other side, it had its piety, he probably thought was okay. But I think that that other side caused him lots of trouble, too. That’s my opinion. Because I think that not having a Christ-crucified-centered Christianity presented to him, that read the Old Testament not as natural science nor as mythology but as the inspired word of God preparatory through the centuries to the Incarnation of God’s own Son from a virgin to die on a cross and re-create creation—which neither side really held in Darwin’s time that he would be dealing with—it just led him to have as much troubles with liberalism as he would have with what you might call fundamentalism. I think that that really had to do with things like suffering and death.
If we said, number one, there’s a huge problem on how do you understand the Bible generally, how do you understand Genesis in particular, how do you understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified, raised, and glorified, even more in particular—it doesn’t seem that Charles Darwin had a ghost of a chance of having a proper presentation of these things given to him at his time and place. It just seems that that is the fact. So he was given a choice that he really couldn’t accept either, and I’m almost very tempted to say neither can I. If it’s a choice between mindless fundamentalism, where every word of the Bible is true about everything including natural history and natural science, I can honestly tell you I don’t believe that. But if it’s a teaching that the only alternative is that the Bible is a bunch of myths made up by human beings with some lofty ethical ideals and that’s as good as it gets and there’s no need for a blood atonement and Jesus Christ is certainly not God and he’s not born of a virgin and there can’t be any miracles—well, I would say no to that, too! I don’t want that, either. I don’t think that’s Christianity either.
So you have this issue of the Bible, and we’re going to deal with that in upcoming reflections. But then that raises the issue: Who is God? What is God like? How does God act? Is he a tyrant who just decides everything, or is he just a deist who winds up the world and lets it go, or is he a monster who is actually punishing and tormenting those either who don’t believe in him or those that he wants to torture just for the sake of torturing, which seems for no good reason? Then you have all the issues: Why do children die? Why do children suffer? I think Charles Darwin probably came to the point that his natural science theory made more sense to him than anything he heard from any preacher.
Here I would dare say that the death of his daughter, Annie, and Thomas Huxley’s death of his beloved child at the age of five years old—not only the death of those children forced them to think that there isn’t any good God who is guiding human life, it’s simply a nature and disease and all that stuff, but I’m afraid—it’s a guess—that what they heard preached at the funerals of their kids really turned them off. I would guess that it would be something like this, because I’ve heard these sermons; I’ve heard them in Orthodox churches.
Once in my life, I know of a case where there was a family in New Jersey who left their Christmas tree up in their house because they wanted to wait, to have the tree up when the priest came to bless the house for Epiphany. They were on the Old Calendar at the time, but in any case, and they probably put the Christmas tree up before December 25—so they had this dried Christmas tree in their house, and they left it up because they wanted it to be there when the priest came for Epiphany. Well, shortly before Epiphany, a fire started in the house electrically. That tree caught on fire because it was a dead tree. The house burned down, and the wife and three children perished in the flames; they died. At the funeral service—this was an Orthodox church—the priest stood up and said, “God picked his finest flowers. He wanted the children and (the lady—let’s call her Mary; I can’t remember her name) to be with him in heaven. They are now in a better place. They are not in this vale of tears. We know that their souls are basking with the angels now.”
The priest didn’t say a word about suffering. He didn’t say a word about Christ crucified. He didn’t say that God suffered with us to redeem those people. He didn’t say that we’re in a corrupted world where there’s all kinds of crazy things happening including fires. He never even mentioned that providentially God deals with evils and, sure, there’s a divine providence, if you’re a believer, but that providence includes all kinds of terrible, horrible things that we have to endure. It seemed like he was just making light of the thing. It’s like the story of the Russian writer, Chekov, where, at the funeral meal of a child in one of his stories, the priest, with a herring on the end of his fork and a glass of vodka in his other hand, says to the grieving mother, “Ach, of such are the kingdom of heaven,” meaning that children go to heaven when they die, or something.
Well, I think that that appalled Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, that kind of approach, and my guess is that that’s what they heard; something like that is what they heard. Then when, after his baby boy died, Charles Darwin probably heard all that, and when his daughter Annie died, he couldn’t even go to the funeral because I don’t think he could handle hearing something like that from some kind of preacher who probably didn’t believe in Christ crucified himself but had a nice big house in the country somewhere where he was raising orchids.
I don’t think the poor guy had a chance, but what this does say is: How do you deal with suffering and death, and particularly death, from the Christian perspective? How might that relate to what you see about death in the natural world? I don’t think anybody’s really considered that very deeply or very well. In fact, I think a lot of the people who defend the Bible, they’re defending Plato more than the Bible: immortal souls going to heaven, you go to heaven if you accept Jesus and you go to hell if you don’t in one view; and everybody goes to heaven in the other view, as long as they’re good, and who knows what good means; and even some would say everybody ultimately ends up in heaven even if they weren’t good, because there’s universal salvation for everybody, because we can’t perish.
But then this leads to something else that Charles Darwin did say. He was absolutely appalled at the teaching of everlasting hell. He thought if there is a God, God can’t punish people forever. But the point was, he understood hell as a punishment: God punishing those who didn’t accept Jesus as their Savior, or God punishing those who were evil-doers, and punishing them forever and giving them no chance of repentance whatsoever, even when they encountered Christ when they died, because they just were either predestined to hell, if you were in a Calvinistic line, or going to hell because of their evils, if you had some other type of teaching, perhaps a more Methodist type of teaching or Billy Graham teaching about not going to hell, or Pat Robertson teaching or I don’t know what.
But in any case, not only do you have the problem of the Bible, not only do you have the problem of the Genesis and of the Gospel, not only do you have the problem of who God is and how God acts—and here you would have to say you have the specific challenge to explain how God relates to the world of his creation. How does God relate to what goes on on the planet earth? To suffering, to death, to tsunamis, to earthquakes, to good people perishing young, old people, evil people living old? I don’t think anybody—that Darwin knew—of a believing world was providing him with something that he could somehow relate to, but if he just simply thought that these were the choices that he had, I don’t think he had much choice, given the kind of person he was and what he was studying.
Also, the doctrine of eternal hell, everlasting hell—does it exist or doesn’t it? If it does, how do you understand it? How do you explain it? One thing’s for sure—I’m going to talk about this later, but one thing’s for sure: I don’t think that you can claim that it’s a Christian teaching that it’s God simply punishing people for not accepting Jesus as their Savior or not believing in him and so on. And you’ve got texts in the Scripture that can lead you to think that in some cases, but how are those texts understood? And what about all those texts that say to the believers: Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord!” and even those who do miracles in the name of Jesus may be lost. They may hear Jesus say, “You evildoer, depart from me; I never knew you.” Read the Sermon on the Mountain; read it. Even in the old covenant, you have these people keeping the law of God raze Jerusalem to the ground also, for their idolatry and their immorality and all that kind of thing.
But I don’t think that you can be a Christian and have a simplistic view either that God predestined some for heaven and predestined others to hell, or to have a simplistic view that some are rewarded for their goodness and get to go to heaven and some would burn forever because of their badness without any chance of repentance even at the end because their biological life happens to be over or something. It just seems to me that that just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, and I don’t think that that is the teaching of the New Testament, nor is it the teaching of ancient Christianity nor of the Orthodox Church.
However, Darwin had terrific problems with hell, and so do a lot of people today. So the problems that he had—the Bible, Genesis, the Gospel, the Scripture; how to understand it, what kind of literature is it; if it’s not natural science and not history and not mythology, what is it? Well, that has to be explained. How does nature relate to supranature? Are there miracles or not, and how do you understand miracles? What does it mean, “miraculous”? Is God just making it rain when he wants it to rain and making it shine when he wants it to shine, and—I don’t know what—sending a snowstorm tonight but not one tomorrow, and deciding to do it in Pittsburgh and not in Oklahoma or something? Is that how God does? Is God up there just doing all this stuff in the natural order every day, or has God given some kind of autonomy in the natural order that human beings have screwed up and that he has to re-create through the broken body and spilled blood of Jesus? Maybe there’s a different view of nature and history than the ones that seem to be offered to us, now even, but were certainly offered to Charles Darwin.
Then there’s the issue of death. How does death fit into this whole story? How does suffering fit into it? What about hell? Is there a reality? What about miracles? What about all those things? If Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution didn’t do anything else, it certainly raised challenges, because whatever theory you hold, you cannot deny that there’s plenty of stuff in natural science that is virtually, certainly true. Let’s take even—I don’t know—the fights among the animals and that they eat one another and that they die and there’s many species and there’s extinction and many die out, and human beings die out and maybe even the human race will itself become extinct, scientifically speaking, and so on. These things are more than just theories, but they’re stuff that believers have to deal with.
The only point that I’m making today—and I have to stop now—is that sometimes I feel that poor Charles Darwin just didn’t have a chance. Sometimes I even think he even took refuge in his natural science. He just went out into his laboratory or whatever it was and plucked the chickens and studied their skeletons and charted behavior of earthworms and barnacles and all that kind of stuff, because all this other stuff was just too painful and overwhelming for him and [he] didn’t know what to do. But what was being offered him in whatever form he just could not process; he could not understand. He could not, and he certainly could not understand it and process it relative to what he really believed he was really seeing when he studied plants and animals and fossils and the topography of the earth and geological strata and rocks and all those kind of things. I think the poor man was just completely and totally bewildered. Maybe he was honest enough to say he was an agnostic and not an atheist, but if he was going to become an atheist, I think he would have had to have been offered something very different from everything that was being offered to him in his human life, whether it be, to use the jargon, on the right or on the left, whether it be fundamentalistic and literalistic, whether it be critical and literary. It seems like the poor man didn’t have a chance.
But then, when he was just ridiculed by the believing community, where the only answer that they could say to him is, “On what side did you descend from apes?” as Bishop Wilberforce said to Huxley, and Huxley answered and said, “I don’t think I am descended from an ape (or chimpanzee or whatever else),” he said, “but even if I am, I have come to the point where I would be more dignified and more honest and more civil in my discourse than you who are a bishop.” Because that’s not an argument, to say to me: One which side did you descend from an ape. That’s not what we’re talking about, Huxley said. We’re talking about things that people believe they see in reality, and we would ask you: what is your response to that? And your response can’t be: “Did you descend on your father’s side or your mother’s side from the ape?” That’s not an answer; that is certainly not an answer.
What we’re going to try to do is not to come up with even any answers. I said that already; we’re not going to come up with answers, but what we are going to try to come up with is approaches, methods, questions, a way of approaching, way of dealing. So I intend to deal exactly with these issues—the interpretation of the Bible, the interpretation of the Genesis story, the relation of science to theology, the relation of nature to supranature, the central issue of death, the understanding of wonders and miracles and God’s intervention in his creation, how does he relate to his creation, and then why is it that Christ and him crucified, incarnate, Logos of God, born of a virgin, why is that the only thing that really makes sense and perhaps the only thing that can make sense of bringing together Christian theology and natural science within the limitations of science. Of course, the problem with science is it goes beyond its boundaries, too, and it makes theological and metaphysical and supernatural statements that are not warranted by the study of science, which is limited to the natural world, the natural, physical world of weighable, measurable phenomena, which God Almighty, obviously, is not, if there is a God at all. You would have to admit that.
So we’re going to try to take up some of the issues that seem to be raised in this whole story of Charles Darwin: natural selection, origin of species, and the general theme of evolution. We will try to keep doing that, and may God help us and may we pray to the Almighty God: the Father Almighty, the only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit who guides us into all truth. Let us pray to God Almighty to guide our minds and hearts to try to have an understanding of things that God himself would want us to have.