Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: Part 14
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.
Today marks the final installment in this ongoing series. If you are interested in reading more, please be sure to order a copy of Rick's book.
The Weak Things of the World
Having failed to reach the summit of Darwin, we hiked back to our base camp and gathered our gear. Nothing was lighter because food had not been much of our weight. We talked about coming back next August. Snow would soon block any access until probably the middle of next July.
We shouldered our packs and connected with the trail. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the mountains. We met young couples day-hiking as we picked our way down. Women would usually say something encouraging to the boys, who were looking pretty ragged at this point. Back to being single-file on the trail, my mind was free to wander.
I like Charles Darwin. I enjoy the story of his life. He was diligent and disciplined. He was adventurous. I would have enjoyed being on the Beagle with him for his five-year circumnavigation under the leadership of Captain Fitzroy. Robert FitzRoy was a remarkable scientist himself. He was a high-minded, highly-skilled captain with a mathematical bent that eventually led him to be one of the founders of modern naval meteorology.
At the beginning of the voyage, FitzRoy was twenty-five and Darwin twenty-two. I can picture myself in my early twenties joining in the voyage. The trip was focused on charting the southern tip of South America. FitzRoy chose Darwin partly for companionship and partly because, as he said, he wanted someone to focus on geology and geography while he did hydrography. I suppose FitzRoy could have picked me to help with the dinner conversation. A historian is always useful at the dinner table.
I have looked at schematic drawings of the ship and pictured the dining room full of books, technical instruments, and charts. Imagine long after-dinner conversations at sea with two such keen observers, both driven by so much being unknown about the world. One would become the greatest exponent of our ability to know the deep past, the causes and stages of creation. The other would become the first daily wizard of scientific fortune-telling, a forecaster of weather. The former was an observer-categorizer, the latter a mathematician-modeler.
Me? What would a historian contribute to the table conversation? My responsibility would be to pass on what can’t be known by observation or mathematical modeling. I could contribute useful and informative stories, such as the story of Edmond Halley, the sailor-scientist who lived over a hundred years before Darwin and FitzRoy. Halley would be interesting to both my companions. He was a great meteorologist, navigator, and earth scientist. As an astronomer, he used historical modeling to predict the return of what we now call “Halley’s Comet.” By combining history and math, he predicted the future. Halley was also one of the first people of his era to see the predictive power of statistics. But the best story of Halley, the story most interesting at the dining table of the HMS Beagle, would be Halley’s three scientific voyages on the relatively small HMS Paramour. On the first two voyages, between 1698 and 1700, Halley sailed far into the south and north Atlantic to chart magnetic variations from true north. On the third, he charted tides in the English Channel. Contrary to any naval traditions, the British Admiralty officially commissioned Halley, a forty-year-old secretary to a scientific organization who had never been in the navy, as master and commander of one of his majesty’s naval vessels. On one of the first official naval voyages dedicated to scientific purpose, the captain was a scientist! Later, in 1729, when he was poor after retiring from a job as Royal Astronomer, the queen found him a pension as a half-pay naval post captain.
Historians are good for stories like that. FitzRoy would have laughed at the absurdity of creating a navy captain out of a middle-aged scientist. Certainly it would not have been done in his day. But it is one of our duties as historians to keep alive true stories of laughable absurdities.
I like to think that Darwin would have liked me. I like him. He would have recognized that my job as a historian allows me to focus on the validity of absurdly odd reported events. On the other hand, I would have recognized his need to throw out the absurd and quirky so as to focus on general laws. When FitzRoy and I would have agreed about using the Bible for history, Darwin would have probably thought both of us naive; I think we could have had great dinner-table debates and conversations. I like to think that the three of us would have enjoyed and appreciated each other.
FitzRoy later killed himself. His family had a history of suicide. Darwin was later devastated by the death of his young daughter and his family had no history of trusting God in times of crisis. Both men had a tendency toward melancholy. They found solace in silence and hard work. It is a mystery to me why I feel so much divine grace in my life. Why didn’t God shower some extra grace on FitzRoy and Darwin? Maybe God did. I don’t know. It would have been nice to sail with them. I wish for both of them that things had turned out better.
One thing Darwin and Christianity agree upon is the naturalness of selfishness and death. Christianity and evolution are rooted in the reality of violent competition, suffering, pain, and death. Christianity does not absolve God of the ultimate responsibility for allowing suffering, pain, and death. All Christians can say in the face of such things is that God as Jesus joined us in the suffering and pain and saves us by his death and resurrection. Darwin helped scientifically understand the integral role suffering and death play in natural history. Christianity affirms the integral depth of suffering and pain in human life. God punished humanity with suffering and death and offered redemption to all in his own suffering and death.
Our pace back to the car was quicker than it was going up. We each gained energy as the oxygen thickened. Gravity was also working for us rather than against us. We didn’t talk much. We were deep in our own thoughts. A few hours and a little over ten miles later, we dropped to the pavement below Lake Sabrina. I sped up ahead of the group because I was anxious to see if the car would start.
Would a Serious God Do Tricks?
Michael Ruse in Can A Darwinian Be A Christian? (2000) writes as a philosopher who can find plenty of ways for Christians to tweak Christianity so as to fit with Darwinian truth. But Ruse is befuddled by insistence on biblically reported miracles. Ruse thinks an emphasis on miracles is an intellectual cop-out. Most importantly, Ruse thinks Christians who believe in miracles demean God. Such a theology is undignified, and God is turned into “a conjuror,” a magician, a circus act. Would a serious God do tricks? Would a serious God meddle with the weather, kill a tree, walk on water, and supply wine at weddings? Would the God worthy of rational people do those weird appearing/disappearing tricks before levitating himself up into the clouds? Such a God is not worthy of a sober and sophisticated Christianity.
This is where we start and end with this academic excursion into the differences between natural history and ancient history. Natural history assumes things straight. Ancient history accepts the crookedness of things. Natural historians tend to want a serious God. The God of traditional, biblical, ancient history is not that kind of serious God. The God of ancient history is a God who is self-humbled into an irritating but reliably true story. The God in the history of Christianity allows the divine self to be laughed at as a conjuror or magician. The God of Christianity is a disconcertingly undignified God who allows the divine self to be thought of as a circus act.
Theodore Solomons named the mountains behind me to honor men who felt empowered by Darwin to pursue deeper into the workings of nature. What inspired many people about Wallace, and probably inspired Solomons when he heard Wallace speak in San Francisco, was the great evolutionist’s honest reporting of evidences of unexplainable powers that seemed unbounded by natural laws.
I am intrigued by Wallace for this reason too. I have never seen anyone levitate in a chair, but I believe multiple well-attested reports of a man walking on water. Does this disqualify me as a university man? Maybe it does by the standards of some of the severe rationalists, Totalizers, who demand that universities uphold their intellectual models. On the other hand, I have mostly worked with Tentative Investigators who understand that universities thrive as collection of disciplines using many methods of inquiry and understanding. Universities should hand out pocketknives at graduation.
If we understand that disciplines have mutually independent reasonable methods, each proposing credible conclusions, then it is reasonable to think that gravity is a natural law and Jesus walked on water. Darwin can be right about the normal functioning of a mechanism of variation and selection, while Jesus’ resurrection can point to God who is active and communicating in human history. Natural history can do its good work and ancient history can do its good work. Neither is subservient to the other. One is scientifically and rationally stronger than the other, but the weaker has its academic strengths too. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians tells us that “God has chosen the weak things of the world.”
My diesel engine struggled all the way back to San Diego. On the high desert we kept to the speed limit while listening to the second game of the World Series on the radio. But as we climbed over the mountains north of San Bernardino, the car was straining to go forty miles an hour. A couple of hours later, dropping finally into Mission Valley and the flatlands of the San Diego River, our top speed was around fifty miles an hour. In Ocean Beach, we found Dave’s old convertible VW. It was close to midnight with school in the morning for all of us. The boys and I had one last hill to climb to get home on top of the ridge of Point Loma. I asked Dave to follow me up to make sure we got there. He did, and my car soon whimpered to a stop in front of my house. Dave waved goodbye as I began to unload the boys’ packs from the roof rack.
Rick Kennedy received his BA, MA, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and is professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego, California. His books include A History of Reasonableness: Testimony and Authority in the Art of Thinking (University of Rochester Press, 2004), Aristotelian and Cartesian Logic at Harvard (Colonial Society of Massachusetts and University Press of Virginia, 1995), and Faith at State: A Handbook for Christians at Secular Universities (InterVarsity, 1995).