Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion
Written in the genre of Henry David Thoreaus travel-thinking essays, Rick Kennedy's Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion is the story of a three-day climb into the Evolution Range of the High Sierra mountains of California (click here to see a map of the mountains). Mount Darwin stands among other near-14,000-foot-high mountains that are named after promoters of religious versions of evolutionary thinking. Using the trek as its framing narrative, the book branches off to explore the complex and at times even murky spaces at the intersection of Christian faith, ancient and natural history, and observational science. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting excerpts from the book. Today's pages come from the very beginning of Kennedy's book, explaining the reason for his adventure and the book which came of it.
Back in the 1970s, I learned to love university life. I eventually became a professor of history. I started out a Bible-trusting Christian and have not lost my faith. This series is about the reasonableness of biblical Christianity in universities. By reasonableness, I mean the warranted credibility, if not the persuasiveness, of Christian claims about ancient history. This series is also about Darwinism and natural history. Darwin seems to have lost whatever Christian faith he might have once had, and his ideas about distant natural history are often pitted in classrooms against the more recent ancient history of Christianity. There are many ways people in universities try to get at the tensions between Christianity and Darwinism. Here I want to sidestep most of them. I want to think about two histories, two types of history that can stand side by side even if they are contradictory in many ways. I especially want to sidestep any notions that science is about facts and Christianity about values. Here I treat both as sophisticated systems based on evidence, facts, and inferences. Both use reasonable methods standing within long academic traditions. Both make assertions about what happened in the past.
For Christianity, history is primal. At universities, the struggle with Darwinism is best dealt with at the primal level of history. Darwin was a natural historian proposing that long ago certain things happened—species evolved by a mechanism of variation and selection He then inferred that since the creation of new species did not need God, then it is best to assume that God was not involved.
Christianity is founded on events in human history. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 stakes the truth of Christianity three times on a historical event reported by eyewitnesses. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Again, “If Christ has not been raised your faith is futile.” Paul further declares, “You have believed in vain,” if you do not believe what is “of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures.” The evidential base upon which to “hold firm” and “stand firm” is the testimony of eyewitnesses: first Peter, then the twelve, then five hundred, then James, then the apostles, then to Paul himself. Peter reminded a group of eyewitnesses in Acts 2 about events as the foundation to Christian revelation: “Listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him.”
University culture is a Greek culture. “Greeks look for wisdom,” Paul noted, “but we preach Christ crucified.” What Paul was getting at here is that Greekish philosophy, theology, science, and natural history look for order and try to make sense of things by organizing. Paul wanted to make it clear that God was not to be put in a Greek box. On the other hand, Paul was probably not criticizing Greek historical methods that have affinities with Christianity. Herodotus and Thucydides, the founding fathers of Greek historical writing, were models for Luke and Paul. When it comes to evangelism, Greek methods of history help establish Christ crucified. Greek history accepts the disorderliness of human history in ways that support the disorderliness of history presented in the Bible. In the Bible, God does not create like an engineer. God is not portrayed as a logician whose logic cannot be defeated. God’s ways and thoughts are not like the orderly expectations of academic philosophy, theology, science, or natural history. The preacher says: “Who can straighten what God has made crooked?” The academic study of human history is the study of crookedness, of things not going as logic would demand. Jesus is part of that crookedness.
I here apologize for the rest of this series. The goal is grand but the framework is small. Polybius, one of the Greek founders of the discipline of writing human history, ridiculed historians who only haunt libraries and are unwilling to travel to where they can survey the scene of events. I had read Darwin’s books, but wanted to survey the scene of Darwin’s life. I would have liked to have gone to Darwin’s house and to have seen his desk and garden. Better yet, I would have liked to have sailed through the Beagle Strait at the tip of South America north to the Galapagos. But, given the confines of my life, I decided that the best I could do was visit the High Sierra where there is a region dedicated to his theory and where his memory prevails: the Evolution Range above Evolution Valley.
This is a weekend book about a weekend trip. I write it out of a classroom obligation to be Greek and Christian, to help students be reasonable, rational, and honest about their faith in an age when universities have a powerful role in defining what is reasonable. I write with the hope that students will, in various ways, learn that the academic life is a journey and not a destination, that academic disciplines are divergent paths not all leading to one place, and that, in universities, it is reasonable to believe the history of Jesus along with the natural history proposed by Charles Darwin.
The top of Mount Darwin is 13,831 feet above sea level at 37°10.02΄N, 118°40.22΄W. Getting to Mount Darwin from my small college in San Diego requires a six-hour drive veering slightly west of straight north. At the town of Bishop, the route turns southwest climbing to Lake Sabrina (elevation 9,128’ and pronounced by the locals: sabr-eye-na). The hike from Sabrina to Mount Darwin is a little over ten miles. A three-day weekend offers enough time for the excursion.
Six of us were to go up Mount Darwin, but then the Anaheim Angels won the American League playoffs. The first two games of the World Series would be on the Saturday and Sunday of our trip. My two students from Orange County dropped out. So we were four: two history teachers, forty-four and thirty-one years old, and two boys, thirteen and ten years old. The boys, Matthew and Steven, are mine. David Nieman, the fourth, teaches high school history at Santa Fe Christian School in San Diego.
Our excursion party left at nine, lunched at Astro Burger in the High Desert, and got to the ranger station in Bishop a little after three. By 4:30 pm we were at Lake Sabrina. Matt and Steve sat in the far back of the station wagon facing backwards. They read books and passed CDs up to the front for the stereo. Dave and I talked. The temperature was in the low seventies for most of the trip, and since the car’s air conditioner did not work, we drove with windows down. Few things are more fun than speeding down a two-lane desert highway, elbow in the breeze, backpacks loaded on top, mountains off in the distance. Having a window down—combined with the drone of the diesel engine—meant that conversation could not be dignified. Dave and I bantered back and forth mostly about teaching ancient world history and our methods for handling wild questions from our students about popular mysteries. Dave, after a minute of looking off to the row of huge signal dishes operated by the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, turned back toward me, yelling: “So! What do you think of UFOs?”
Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.