Paradise Lost and the evolution of spirituality

I have been thinking about challenging questions at the interface between faith and evolutionary biology. In the next few posts I’m going to explore speculation in biology that religion and spirituality are evolved features of human cognition. What are the implications of that if true? Can we believe that and still keep our faith? Of course we can. But let’s explore a context for an approach.

I’ve been reading Milton’ Paradise Lost and have gathered insights there that bear on this question. Late in the book an instructive exchange occurs between Adam and the Angel Raphael who has been showing Adam the events that happened before his creation. Adam is a little perplexed that all the stars, planets and the sun have to circle a little no-account place like Earth. He recognizes the stars and planets are very far way and is amazed that to fulfill the command of their creator to orbit the Earth each day, they really have to make a dash for it to complete their turn about planet each day. He’s really curious about this aspect of the creator’s strange design for the heavens.

(Recalling that the scriptures are absolutely clear that it is the Earth that is still it and it is the heavens that move:
Psalm 93: 1 the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved
Psalm 96:10 the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved
Ecclesiastes 1:5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
Saying the Earth revolves around the sun is like saying there was death before Adam. It’s that clear in the Scriptures).

The angel is pleased that Adam is asking hard questions and commends him for looking to nature to find answers to questions, which he also considers God’s word. But the angel says:

    “To ask or search I blame thee not, for Heav’n
    Is as the Book of God before thee set,
    Wherein to read his wondrous Works, and learne
    His Seasons, Hours, or Days, or Months, or Yeares:
    This to attain, whether Heav’n move or Earth,
    Imports not, if thou reck’n right, the rest
    From Man or Angel the great Architect
    Did wisely to conceal, and not divulge
    His secrets to be scann’d by them who ought
    Rather admire; or if they list to try
    Conjecture, he his Fabric of the Heav’ns
    Hath left to thir disputes, perhaps to move
    His laughter at thir quaint Opinions wide

(I love his creative spelling!)

Milton here is writing about 30 years after Galileo. Both the Catholic Church and Protestant Reformation have rejected the idea that the Earth moves around the Sun. The angel is arguing that as long as you get the reck’n right, as long as you can make the predictions about the timing of heavenly events like eclipses, solstices, etc., how things really are does not matter much. He suggests that God might find our scholarly disputes humorous. The angel then offers some reasons why it’s not a big deal that the expansive heavens go turning about the centered Earth.

    . . . Heav’n is for thee too high
    To know what passes there; be lowlie wise:
    Think onely what concernes thee and thy being;
    Dream not of other Worlds, what Creatures there
    Live, in what state, condition or degree,
    Contented that thus farr hath been reveal’d

He tells Adam not to be concerned with these higher things and be content with what has been revealed.

Adam is quite satisfied with this advice and says:

    To whom thus ADAM cleerd of doubt, repli’d.
    How fully hast thou satisfi’d mee, pure
    Intelligence of Heav’n, Angel serene,
    And freed from intricacies, taught to live,
    The easiest way, nor with perplexing thoughts
    To interrupt the sweet of Life, from which
    God hath bid dwell farr off all anxious cares,
    And not molest us, unless we our selves
    Seek them with wandring thoughts, and notions vaine.

Best not live perplexing thoughts. Let God handle those anxious cares and not molest ourselves with questions.

In fact Adam suggests the questioning mind is dangerous:

    But apt the Mind or Fancie is to roave
    Uncheckt, and of her roaving is no end;
    Till warn’d, or by experience taught, she learne,
    That not to know at large of things remote
    From use, obscure and suttle, but to know
    That which before us lies in daily life,
    Is the prime Wisdom, . . .

I see this attitude of Adam and the Angel today among some of the saints who argue that we ought to leave questions about the science of creation alone. Avoid the hard questions that evolution brings. But what’s interesting to me is that the dialogue from Paradise Lost was argued vis-à-vis Adam’s innocence—Prior to partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The last lines of Paradise Lost, as Adam and Eve take their last walk through Eden and out of the garden, are some of the most beautiful and meaningful to me in all of literature:

    With dreadful Faces throng’d and fierie Armes:
    Som natural tears they drop’d, but wip’d them soon;
    The World was all before them, where to choose
    Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
    They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
    Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.

The World was all before them and with wandering steps and slow Through EDEN took thir solitarie way! Wow.

So it is for us. We must ask the hard questions. We are no longer innocent. Adam made a choice for knowledge and its pursuit. It was the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil after all. Knowledge. We needn’t fear where the questions of science take us. Adam made the right choice. Knowledge over innocence. Questions rather than answers. Quest is rooted in the word Question‘s stem. The world is indeed all before us. We need not fear what we will find in its examination. Not neglecting ‘and Providence thir guide’ we will press on with hard questions about the possible evolution of spirituality in humans.

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8 comments to Paradise Lost and the evolution of spirituality

  • Cap

    Wonderful post!

    I think that is a very good point. Knowledge over innocence. I think that it is important to gain as much knowledge as you can. And that definitely means exploring the questions that may be considered hard. But in doing this you can have a greater understanding of this life.

  • An incredible post, thanks. I had an immodestly gushing love for Paradise Lost as an undergrad (think Beatlemania) and it shaped much of my thinking about theology and core values. But it’s been a while since I’ve picked it up (maybe I even sold my textbook copy back to the bookstore in a period of acute financial need? just shows what a fickle companion I am…hm…). Anyhow, this is a nice reminder to put that in the reading queue.

  • b

    “Saying the Earth revolves around the sun is like saying there was death before Adam. It’s that clear in the Scriptures”

    Ouch. Poor NDBF. :)

    This (the whole post)is an excellent way of making your point. Kudos.

    The Atonement, by design, covers any honest mistakes made on account of false scientific theory. If (when) we err, that’s part of the process. It’s provided for just as transgressions made in ignorance are provided for.

  • SteveP

    Cynthia, Thanks for the comment and the correction! All fixed.

  • Mark D.

    NDBF still works, provided it is in a different time and place altogether.

  • I often content that the proper name for our species is not Homo Sapiens but should be Homo Religiousus. Our species seems to be far more susceptible to religious thinking than scientific.

    Of course, I always hope that we LDS can find innovative ways to harmonize the truths of our religion with the truths of science.

    It is a fine line that I walk. I could not teach my human evolution course in an LDS Institute, but then again, I cannot easily integrate the scriptures into my evolution course either. So, in someways I am still looking for my intellectual freedom. Maybe its in the blog world.

  • Dumb ol' girl

    Basic. Brilliant. Beautiful. The lines are blurred; so many shades of gray… Life was much simpler when all was purely black and white!

    This is mind-candy and meant for mulling and savoring. Thanks!

  • 911 once more, will be currently nine many years I will nevertheless don’t forget everthing, rather Say day, Wish almost everything can grow to be previous tense to me.

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