07/03/2013 12:31 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Defending Darwin

I wrote my post ("Darwinism and the Kingdom of God," June 10, 2013) with the problem of divisiveness among Catholics in mind. Not wanting a nasty fight to break out in the "Comments" section, at the very start of that piece I invited readers to consider one question -- "what would it actually look like if we took the Resurrection of the Dead, the Communion of the Saints, and the Life of the World to Come seriously?" I assumed that anyone who got past that first sentence would be seriously interested in the problem of divisiveness in the Church -- and that anyone who was not interested in taking those doctrines seriously would find a better use of their time.

But if you mention Darwin in your title, you're bound to get readers who are not there to talk about divisive discourse within the Catholic Church. A lot of them. As of this writing, there are 100 comments to that post. The last time I got that kind of reaction was for my very first posting on the Huffington Post, a piece entitled "Queers and Christians: A Ménage à Trois." (March 26, 2012) That title was a relatively straightforward. If you read "Darwin and the Kingdom of God," on the other hand, you might find something that does not exactly correspond to the provocative headline. And that's what has me wondering about those readers who responded to the word "Darwinism" in my last post. Did they find what they were looking for?

It seems fair to say that, in at least a few cases, they expected an attack on "Darwin" and were there to defend him. This might have been because the word "Darwin" in the title led them to expect a certain genre of writing, only to leave them confronting something rather different. In his classic study, Validity in Interpretation, E.D. Hirsch recounts a similar experience teaching Donne's poem, A Valediction Forbidding Mourning. Hirsch's students were convinced that the poem was intended as the deathbed speech of a man promising spiritual communion with his beloved in the afterlife. This was at least partially due to the word "mourning" in the title. "Many readers will no doubt remain convinced that death is the principle theme of the poem, though it is almost certainly about a temporary physical absence, and the speaker is almost certainly not a dying man." (Hirsch, Yale UP, 1973, p. 74)

For Hirsch, genre is largely a matter of readers' expectations. Readers who think they have understood the genre of a piece will offer generic responses. Some readers thought I confused "Darwinism" with "Social Darwinism." Another reader did criticize my belief in the Resurrection, a criticism that warrants consideration in a later post. But he seemed more interested in affirming that Darwin's theories were science, backed by "overwhelming evidence." Now, when I type "overwhelming ev..." into the search field on my browser, it suggests "overwhelming evidence for evolution" before I can even finish the phrase. In other words, the expression has become so generic that search engines use it as a default. In this case the cliché gets repeated over and over again precisely because there are still people who are not overwhelmed by the evidence. In fairness, my browser also suggests "overwhelming evidence for Jesus," implying more than a few doubts about him as well.

None of these comments touch on the question I put forth at the beginning of the piece -- the application of the Communion of Saints to the problem of divisiveness within the Church. Nevertheless, if these readers had found an attack on Darwinism in my piece, I might have something to answer for, not because of what I owe to the words "Darwin" and "Darwinism," but because I was writing about the poisonous effects of rancorous speech. It would be hypocritical if, at the same time I was urging Catholics not to wound each with language, I ended up wounding Darwinists. After all, a central theme of the essay was the problem Christians face in resisting the sinfulness of the World without falling into the sin of despising the World. But this raises another question -- do Darwinists even exist?

I suspect that there are very few people who would call themselves "Darwinists." But the words "Darwin" and "Darwinism" clearly no longer refer simply to a particular nineteenth-century English naturalist and his scientific findings and theories. More than a few people take these words as symbols for "science" itself, and identify themselves so closely with "science" that a threat to "Darwinism" is a threat to them. While they might claim that this is simply being "reasonable," I would argue that reason does not motivate one to seek out controversies about "Darwin" and "science" in the blogs of The Huffington Post. To go looking for that kind of trouble is an act of "love."

I do not use the word "love" lightly. In a previous post ("The Judges Tears," September 28, 2012), I talked about the ways in which discussions of religion turn on the question, "What do we love?" While the editors at HP will probably not let me print its name, there is a page on Facebook that makes the point clearly: science is the object of many people's love. And while there might be no formal Church of Darwin or Temple of Science, there is definitely a sense in which this shared love organizes itself into a religion, with arguments about what can and cannot be believed, what can and cannot be said, what can and cannot be done, as well as disputes about admission to the group of true believers -- witness the controversy surrounding the appointment of Francis Collins to the NIH a few years ago. And behind those conversations are whole histories of give and take, of hurting and being hurt -- exactly what I was talking about in "Darwin and the Kingdom of God."

Admittedly, I don't treat Darwinism and science as sacred things that must be believed by every serious intellect. But have I dismissed them? For some people, the most galling thing about "Darwin and the Kingdom of God" might very well be that after a careful and unprejudiced reading of the entire piece, they still will not know my opinions on issues like sexual selection, speciation, or Social Darwinism, for that matter. "Darwinism," "feminism," "democracy", and "monarchy" -- I mentioned all of these ideas in my piece. I could easily add others to the list -- "capitalism," "socialism," "anarchism," "family," "patriarchy," "LGBTQ liberation," "reproductive freedom," "the right to life" -- the list of concepts by which we try to organize our lives is potentially endless. But none of them are pertinent to the point I was trying to make.

That is not to say that they are bad. At any given point in history, one or more of them might be the best we have for the situation we find ourselves in. But Catholics, and I would argue Christians in general, should not view any of these things as sacred. However good and useful these ideas might have been in the past, however necessary they might seem to the present, we live in expectation of something better. We ground that expectation in the report of a group of women who went to a tomb expecting to find one thing, and finding something else entirely. We take that as a paradigm around which we organize our lives. That is the criterion by which we judge all other things. That is what should make us different from the rest of the world.

I appreciate that this is inconceivable to some people. I can barely begin to conceive of conceiving it myself, and I am grateful for my bafflement. I certainly don't expect this essay, or anything else I ever write, to convert anyone. But I might still ask two questions. What were you looking for when you clicked on this column? And what did you find?