Once upon a time in Mr. Hodge’s eighth-grade science class, I led my debate team to a victory that would have gladdened the heart of Mike Pence: My team of Creationists beat the team of Evolutionists.
Mr. Hodge, my first male teacher and a champion of the scientific view of the world, was fond of refuting the “truths” that defined my parents’ world.
“Mr. Hodge says that that there’s enough nicotine in one cigarette to kill two adult males,” said I to my mother as she lit another of the day’s many Chesterfields.
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m a woman,” said my mother, who sometimes wondered why a young man as brilliant as “the wonderful Mr. Hodge” did not seek more profitable employment elsewhere.
At age 13, I welcomed Mr. Hodge’s help in popping grown-up balloons. Yet there was a subject on which we disagreed: evolution. Mr. Hodge often talked about the slow, millions-of-years evolution of life from simpler to more complex forms and, eventually, after a long sojourn among the apes, to us. My family belonged to a conservative branch of the Lutheran church that preached the inerrancy and literal truth of every word of the Bible and that educated its children very thoroughly in the beliefs that, it was strongly implied, were necessary for salvation.
I was strongly interested in being saved, thereby avoiding the really bad place that awaited people who didn’t believe in the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible. The Bible said clearly that the Earth and everything in it were created in six days some 6,000 years ago. (I later discovered that the Bible says nothing about 6,000 years and that the six-millennia timeline was calculated by a 17th-century Irish bishop.) So when Mr. Hodge talked about the millions-of-years evolution of life on Earth, I would raise my hand and object.
To Mr. Hodge’s credit (he was a good teacher), he listened patiently to my ingenious attempts to reconcile the fossil record with the six-day Genesis account. His responses moved us no closer to agreement; the class was divided on the subject, and so Mr. Hodge suggested that we have a formal debate, with me as the captain of the Creationist team and my best friend leading the Evolutionists.
My father was a high school science teacher, so there were a lot of science books in our house. I was especially fond of a Time-Life book called “The World We Live In.” This large, lavishly illustrated book had a chapter on paleontology whose illustrations of dinosaurs and monkey-to-modern-man processions and photographs of fossils are still clear in my mind. I was fascinated by the whole idea of this vast and varied prehistory, but a part of my mind kept saying no, no, it didn’t happen that way. A part of my mind refused to replace the beliefs that were necessary to avoid the bad place with these new ideas, cool though they were.
The day of the debate came. My best friend Mike presented the usual old-Earth arguments: the fossil record, the antiquity of the rocks on which the record was written, deposits of coal and oil that would take millions of years to develop from plant and animal remains, and so on.
I responded that God could make all the coal and oil He wanted in the blink of an eye, being omnipotent. I argued that the dinosaurs were too big to fit on the ark and so perished in the flood, and that memories of our preflood ancestors’ interactions with dinosaurs lived on in our legends of dragons and monsters. I argued that mud hardens within a few days into a rock sturdy enough to build walls with, so that a few thousand years would be more than enough to make solid rock out of the mud of the flood. The theory of evolution is, after all, merely a theory; and so on.
Although I made these assertions confidently, and although we won by a landslide vote, I had a growing sense throughout the debate of the far-fetched, rear-guard nature of my ideas. Walking home later that day with best friend Mike, talking about other things, I suddenly realized that the evolutionists were right, that the gradual development of life over the course of thousands of millions of years was how it actually happened, and that the six-day Genesis account was, well, a myth.
I dealt with the conflict between the literal and the mythic views of life by not thinking about them most of the time, being busy finding my place in the world. My college courses in biology, history, literature and even religion all affirmed in one way or another the scientific view of the world. I kept the mythic view in reserve in case I should suddenly, catastrophically, need it and because it was more humane and diverting than the scientific account. I liked it. It reminded me of the faith of my childhood.
It was my father, the science teacher, who first suggested a way of avoiding, if not resolving, the conflict between myth and history. He confessed that he had trouble taking the Genesis account literally; maybe each of the six days was a million years, he said. This reading of Genesis didn’t seem to provide enough time for the world to have evolved, 6 million years being but a moment in the four-thousand-five-hundred-million years of the lifetime of the Earth. And the sequence of Genesis was nothing like the sequence of paleontology. Yet in reading the story as symbolic, he might be on to something, I thought. The old guy had indeed gotten smarter over the years.
Early in my teaching career, I spent a sabbatical reading mythologies and mythological studies. I learned to think of myths not as stories that aren’t true, the popular sense of the word, but as stories that explain the world and our place in it, in whole or in part, and whose literal truth is unimportant. By this definition, any work of literature, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to “Harry Potter,” can be considered a myth. None of them ever happened, but we read them eagerly because they show us ourselves, and they’re interesting, entertaining, moving. The scientific accounts of creation, though often interesting, seldom make us laugh or cry or eager to find out what happens next.
About this time, I read Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “Non-Overlapping Magesteria.” Gould affirms the complete separation and the equal validity of the realms of fact and of value, of the scientific and the religious or mythic, “spiritual” if you will, perceptions of the world. One needs to embrace both ways of knowing, Gould argues, to fully understand the world.
My mind having grown resistant to abstraction by decades of teaching literature, I simplify his arguments thus: We humans ask two questions of the world: how and why. How does the world work, a really useful body of knowledge if we’re to survive; and why is there anything rather than nothing, what is the purpose or meaning of our lives? Before the 17th century, these questions were one question, why a necessary part of how; Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton all looked to nature in order to verify scripture, to find God. What they found was more nature, which natural philosophers, or “scientists,” as they came to be called, beheld more clearly and more usefully the more they forgot about why and concentrated on how. In time, the two ways of understanding the world became completely separate and were often in conflict.
But if the two domains do not overlap, says Gould, there is no reason for conflict. Nonoverlapping, separate but equally valid, both necessary for understanding our world. This liberating idea allows me to read “The Iliad,” an account of the world in which the gods are involved in almost every situation, and Kenneth R. Lang’s “The Life and Death of Stars,” in which the universe is seen to unfold without any help from the gods (although Lang has the endearing habit of quoting poetry in support of scientific assertions), as equally true in different ways, complementary. And I can have two different readings of “The Iliad”: Paris runs off with Helen of Troy because of his overactive libido, or because Aphrodite made him do it. Equally valid readings (though Aphrodite is a lot more fun than Freud).
Problems arise when these two ways of knowing overlap. Ask a how authority about the purpose and meaning of life and you might be told that we’re in this world in order to pass our DNA on to future generations. Really? How has this motive produced the Taj Mahal, Bach’s “B Minor Mass,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sgt. Pepper”? Surely there’s more to it than that.
Creationists run into problems when they read the Genesis creation story, a why narrative if there ever was one, as a how document, a scientific treatise. The people who wrote/compiled the Genesis account(s) — Moses, if you will — and the people who read and listened to it, would not have known what we mean by scientific fact; the scientific method of empirical verification under carefully controlled, laboratory conditions was thousands of years in the future.
Yet even some of these “pre-scientific” people read the Genesis creation story as a “poetic” or allegorical account of the world’s origin. St. Augustine asserted in the fifth century A.D. that the universe was created not in six days but in an instant of time, which is more or less what the Big Bang Theory says (though Augustine and a modern physicist might not agree on what happened after that instant).
So this is how I evolved from a confused creationist/evolutionist eighth-grader to my present state of what I like to think of as enlightened compartmentalization. I believe in the truths about human beings and our relationship with the Absolute that are memorably, “poetically” expressed in the Genesis account, while I know that the evolutionary development of life is how we literally got here, though why we are here is by no means clear in the scientific account.
I know several scientists and engineers who are people of faith, familiar with Genesis, Homer and Shakespeare, Bach and Rembrandt and the Beatles, and I know clergy and literature professors and poets who accept and marvel at the evolutionary development of life and at the unimaginably vast and ancient universe we live in. To those others who are stuck in the how or the why, denying any other truth, I say what I would say to all the elites and deplorables about this or any disagreement: Talk to one another. We all have a great deal to gain if we do, and an even greater deal to lose if we don’t.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.