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.