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, this series 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.
“Daunting,” commented Dave as the four of us stood at the shore of Blue Heaven Lake (elevation 11, 821΄) looking up to the top of Mount Darwin. He scrambled around the lake and checked out the area, but it was clear we were not going further. We should have been at the lake an hour earlier to make a real attempt at the peak. This was as high as we were going.
Steven had been walking slower and slower. He did not stop nor complain, but he was obviously having trouble. At the time, I thought coming from sea level to almost 12,000 feet in two days had taken the spunk out of him. A few months later, my wife took him to the doctor and found that he has a non-working thyroid. Look at his puffy cheeks in the pictures of him. A few years later he and Matt would carry most of my gear up to the top of Mount Whitney after four days on the John Muir Trail. But on this trip to Mount Darwin, it was amazing he got as far as he did.
We still had over ten miles to go to get back to the car. Dave and I stood for what seemed a long time looking at the mountain. The guidebooks and websites I had consulted recommended skirting the southern edge of the lake, then traversing northwest up to the saddle visible in the picture of Steve and me. Once on the saddle, we were to follow the ridge southwesterly to the top. I stood looking, walking the route with my eyes. Dave could have made a solo scramble, made the top, and caught up with us. He is a healthy, hard-charging guy. But Dave has a high sense of responsibility. He and I are teachers, and teachers think in groups. We were here at the perfect starting point on a perfect day, but we were constrained by love.
The success of the trip in my mind was dependent upon standing firmly on the two legs of reasonableness on the summit of Mount Darwin. Reason and testimony, individual responsibility and communal trust, science and the Bible would be grounded on rock. I would be able to look over onto Mendel and across to Spencer, Huxley, and Fiske and entwine understanding with experience. I would have been like John Muir who climbed a tree to understand a storm.
Love and Humility
But love supersedes. The boys were at the center of this trek. I wanted to get them to the top, but they were more important to me than the top. I wasn’t frustrated with Steven. I was actually overwhelmed with love for the boy. Richard Dawkins, who is sure that Mount Improbable has an easy back route, became famous with a book titled The Selfish Gene (1976). He put himself at the bold forefront of a modern version of Spencer’s “Social Darwinism” that finds the tap root of social life in competition for resources. Love, especially love of children, as their theory goes, has to actually be a manifestation of genetic selfishness.
There is a book called The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love (1994), by a Roman Catholic theologian interested in sociobiology. He advocates a revived version of Thomas Aquinas’ theology about human nature and love because modern sociobiology seems to be pointing in that direction. His book is good in that it is one of the jobs of theologians to make speculative attempts at uniting, under limited conditions, the innovative ideas of an offshoot science with one of the theological traditions well-accepted in Christianity. The book is generally sober but tentatively optimistic for a fruitful interplay of ideas. This seems to me to be good theology and good science at work. The author, Stephen J. Pope, is not abdicating his responsibilities. A traditional service of academics is to be provocative. Theologians, scientists, and even historians should take risks and encourage people to think in new ways or in old ways with new information. But reasonableness supports humility. We should not be overly confident.
Christians often insist on too many things. The Bible tells us there is only one absolutely critical thing: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. Peter, at Pentecost in a crowded room where amazing things were happening, stood up and did not lead a discussion of the meaning and proper use of speaking in tongues. He did not lead the group in worship songs full of vague theistic aspiration. Rather, he gave a history lesson:
“Men of Israel, 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, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. . . . ‘Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’”
Peter declared this at a gathering not too long after the meeting of one hundred and twenty disciples who were given the job of finding a new twelfth apostle to replace Judas Iscariot. The one stated criterion for the job was to be an eyewitness. If this good news was going to hit the road and go out into all the world, the twelfth apostle needed “to be a witness with us of his resurrection.”
Some things in history you either accept or you don’t. You either trust the person reporting or you don’t. Herodotus is the founder of our modern discipline of history largely because he made inquiries and kept his readers informed about the strengths and weaknesses of his sources and conclusions. There is a critical moment in his history of the Persian Empire when he gives the gist in translation of a sophisticated discussion of political theory between three leaders who were reforming the Persian government. Herodotus writes: “There are those in Greece who are not convinced of the authenticity of the speeches that were delivered there, but they did take place.” You either accept it or you don’t.
Knots or Buckles
Once it was clear that we were not going to climb any further, Matt asked if we could do some rock climbing. I had brought the gear. Shouldn’t we at least have some fun with it? He was right. We had some time, and it would be fun.
For harnesses, Matt and I relied on thirty feet of tubular webbing tied as a seat harness. Most climbers use production harnesses, but I trust a well-tied knot more than production buckles. I believe buckles make people over-confident. Knots are usually better (more friction), and people tend to distrust them—so they keep checking them. Seven Summits (1986) tells the story of Marty Hoey, who fell to her death on Mount Everest during an attempt to become the first American woman to the top:
“The weather was deteriorating and we could see the others only intermittently through the mist. I heard a call down from above for more rope, and I was just moving to put my pack on when Marty said, “Let me get out of your way.” Then I heard this rattling of carabiners and I looked over to see her falling backwards. She grabbed for the fixed rope but couldn’t quite reach it. She really gathered speed and then was gone. I looked back and saw her jumar still attached to the rope and to it her open harness, just hanging there. I guess she didn’t loop the belt back through the buckle, and it pulled through when she leaned back. I’m sure she went the whole way, 6,000 feet of vertical.”
Life or death are often in the little things. I prefer knots to buckles.
Matt, Dave, and I had some fun for an hour rappelling and climbing. Steve took some pictures of us, but didn’t want to join the fun. He was happy not to be climbing. Soon we gathered up our gear and started back down to base camp. We had a long way back to the car and an even longer way back to San Diego. I wasn’t sure the car would start, let alone get us home.