For Tuesday’s class, Dr. Richard England, Dean of the Honors College, guest lectured about the religious reaction to Darwin’s work in the years following Origin’s 1859 publication. His point was not what you’d expect. Contrary to the current pugilistic tenor that one must swiftly choose between God or Darwin, the late 19th century offered a variety of nuanced reactions.
Before I go on, I must say what a wonderful speaker Dr. England was. One of his degrees is in the history of science, so clearly, context and reaction is his arena. But what was most impressive was how his questions allowed the class to embrace the line of reasoning a 19th century naturalist might have used. For example, Dr. England reminded us that Darwin’s world was less secular one in which we currently live. Worshipping God occurred not only through the study of the Bible, but through the study of nature. How did that work? Dr. England illustrated with what he had, which happened to be a purchased cup of coffee. “Take, for instance, this cup of coffee that I hold in my hands. How do you know it was designed?” Dr. England asked. We all stumbled about a second, unsure how to articulate something that was such a given. But finally, the details came: the waxy liner held in the liquid, the cup “koozie” protected hands from the heat, the slanted walls facilitated flow to the lips, etc. We really looked at what was before us to better understand it. In Darwin’s time, many adults and children did this as a way to not only understand the world, but as a way to understand (and marvel at) God’s decisions and designs.
So, what were some of the responses to Origins from religious people? Asa Grey, a friend of Darwin’s and an American botanist, believed God had directed the variations. Darwin, however, believed that it was all much more random. (One can view their civilized discussions through the Darwin Correspondence Project, which is editing and publishing the more than 12,000 extant private letters written by Charles Darwin). Other views included the Neo-Orthodox idea that God didn’t need to involve himself with such things. Progressive Evolutionists thought God to be in charge as long as there was “progress,” an idea that many today very much dispute. (There is no progress toward “perfection,” for what is perfection? It’s all about what is better for one’s conditions. My hands are wonderful for typing, but quite useless in combat with a bear. A bear, though, wouldn’t be able to type as fast as I can.) Aubrey Moore, one of the first Christian Darwinists, believed that God is in all places at all times and that the natural selection was actually more “Christian” than the theory of Special Creation. Those were just a few of the people that Dr. England named.
The point is that the current portrayal of this subject is one that generates more heat than light. And we are worse off for it. Let’s reserve our drama for movies and preserve our dialogue for true discussions.