Written By Michael Van Dyke, USA
Michael is a Professor of English and teaches courses in American literature, writing and philosophy. He is also an elder at Mars Hill Bible Church and he and his wife Beth have two children, Caleb and Emma. In his spare time, Michael likes to paint, lift weights, and watch Michigan State basketball.
Evolution. The word carries with it connotations and meanings that overspill its dictionary definition. In the public mind, it often serves as a litmus test to divide backward, Bible-believing Christians from the enlightened, liberal majority.
Though other issues like miracles, or even belief in an invisible God, mark Christians as intellectual slugs in the minds of many educated people, evolution remains at the core of the basic conflict between a biblical-theistic worldview and a secular-scientific one. One side sees all hesitation to accept evolution’s explanation of human origins as a sign of stupidity; the other side sees evolution as entirely incompatible with belief in a Creator-God.
Some Christians have adopted compromise positions like intelligent design, theistic evolutionism, or process theology in order to try to bridge the divide; however, the basic conflict has not gone away. This leads me to wonder whether both sides have been approaching the issue in a misguided way.
The Lesson of the Galapagos
I remember a college history class in which Charles Darwin’s book, The Voyage of the Beagle, was being discussed. The professor—a man for whom I had great respect—talked about how Darwin found species on the Galapagos Islands that were radically different from anything to be found in the rest of the world. Darwin’s explanation for this, the professor explained, was that these species had evolved and adapted according to the unique environment of the islands, developing characteristics that were specially fitted to it.
At first I thought, God could have just placed them there like that; but the more I listened to the lecture, the more I became convinced that my simple explanation involved a sort of intellectual cheating—especially as it didn’t really explain anything about the tangible, beautiful complexity that Darwin encountered.
Moreover, I found Darwin’s myriad speculations to be inspiring and beautiful in themselves, displaying the power of human thought to delve into the hidden mysteries of Creation. Thus, I left the class conflicted, unable to dismiss Darwin’s powerful logic out of hand; yet also unable to let it contradict my belief in God.
And that is where I remained for a number of years: conflicted.
What is the grass?
Then, several years ago, I was reading Walt Whitman’s great epic poem, “Song of Myself”, when I was suddenly stopped in my mental tracks by the beginning of section 6, which goes:
“A child said What is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
“I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
“Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrance designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
“Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
“Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.
“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.”
The child’s simple question, “what is the grass?”, followed by the poet’s inability to answer it in a clear and straightforward manner, began the process of transforming my way of looking at the whole creation/evolution debate.
I began to see that it was in fact a pitiable enterprise from the start, with neither side willing to dwell long enough on the child’s simple yet wonder-filled question; and with neither side willing to acknowledge the ultimate thinness of their opposing answers. And as an English professor, it was satisfying to me that a poet was able to get closer to the heart of the matter than either the scientists or the theologians were.
Transcending the Debate
In his poem, Whitman demonstrates that the most common thing in the world—grass—carries within its very existence a panoply of meanings and significances. To study it scientifically, and to give it names like elymus elymoides (squirreltail grass) or echinochloa muricata (common barnyard grass), is to understand it in a certain way.
This way of understanding it is powerful and useful, but it is only one approach. In no way does it exhaust the possible means of approaching the reality and existence of grass. And if this can be said about grass—again, one of the most common things in the world—what does it say about the vast spread of the cosmos itself, not to mention all of the non-material aspects of Creation like language, music, and a penchant for gardening? So while a scientific approach to grass is to be valued and certainly not discounted, the tendency to look to it as the only way to know is actually foreign to the very nature of things.
Most Christians who oppose the very notion of evolution do so, I think, because it violates a particularly deep and powerful way of apprehending the universe which has been opened up to them by their belief in God as Creator. In other words, to see the universe as Creation is to see the personal aspect of everything that exists. It is to apprehend that everything carries with it a sense of the holy. The purely scientific approach too easily discounts the ineradicable feeling in the soul of the believer that everything matters, and that to see everything as merely matter is insufficient.
On the other hand, for Christians to see science as the enemy is a terrible overreaction to science’s violation of their deepest feelings. Yes, science is usually biased against supernatural explanations for phenomena; but perhaps one big reason for that is because science has been continually involved in discovering just how exhaustless, intricate, and indeed, almost supernatural, nature itself actually is. For even if evolutionary theory generates some powerful insights into the development of biological life, it has still only gotten to the third line of Whitman’s poem.
And perhaps this is where believers—along with the poets, artists, and endless leagues of curious children—can join them for the rest of the journey toward the Creator.