Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Darwin, Jane Austen, & my students ~

I love science. And of course Darwin — like Da Vinci, like Einstein, like Copernicus — dominates it. Yesterday was his birthday (sorry about the tardy Congrats!, Mr. Darwin). So here is a bit of Darwin reflection ~ and bear with me: I promise it has to do w/ beginner’s heart…:)

One semester — and one only — I tried to teach Darwin in a lit class. We do a lot of nonfiction in literature (Benjamin Franklin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Scott Momaday, just to name a few), looking at figures w/ long-term literary impact. Several of my students (and this was an honours class) flat refused to read Darwin. Nope, they told me. He’s … well, Darwin. And against their religion(s).


Just to read him? I asked, incredulous. You can’t even READ him, to see what he said in his own words? And to a student, they shook their heads. I promise I’m not exaggerating, nor am I over-stating their adamant refusals. No negotiating — Darwin may as well be the anti-Christ.

Because this had never happened to me before, and because I don’t believe in putting students on the spot, I allowed them to read something else. But I’ve never forgotten that class. Nor the quiet, back-door responses of other students to this small cadre of their very vocal and conservatively religious colleagues. One told me she felt totally disdained by the students in the class, because she was an atheist. Another told me that he felt his religion — Judaism — was both maligned and dismissed by the same students.


I have no facile comments or final conclusions about this class. I don’t understand it now much better than I didn’t then, if that makes sense. It’s always been incomprehensible to me that any literature is ‘forbidden.’ I did ask my students why they had been forbidden to read Darwin. They hadn’t been expressly ‘forbidden,’ they assured me. But to a person, they said that Darwin was evil, and they were ‘discouraged from’ reading his work. After all, he denied the divine plan.

But here’s what I wonder: how can mere human beings discern the divine plan — always given that there is one…? If something there is that created the spark that became today, the fragrance of Hao Ya tea, the crisp winter cold, the queue of birds lining up at the bird bath we just unfroze, how can I, addled mortal that I am, comprehend that? And what is there about ‘faith’ that is threatened by knowledge?


My students were not interested in discussing this much at all. I did ask if they followed the Old Testament, and the Laws of Leviticus. This is what hurt my Jewish student — the Darwin-deniers were appalled at the idea. But it’s the Old Testament —  Genesis et al — that carry the Young Earth creation myth. And to be a Young Earther means you also deny the following scientific fields, as I’ve touched on elsewhere: physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, cosmology, paleontology, molecular biology, genomics, linguistics, anthropology, archaelogy, climatology, and dendochronology. If a scant 1/2 of American believe in the Young Earth philosophy, no wonder we don’t have many scientists!


So, Darwin, what do you have to say about this? Baptised Anglican, raised in the Unitarian church, you studied to be Christian clergy yourself. And you like a happy ending, it appears.  So this poem by Wislawa Szymborska made me happy. Especially when I think of Darwin possibly reading Austen, one of my all-time favourites: “the lovers reunited, the families reconciled.” It’s called: ‘Consolation.’

I’d like a happy ending too. But I’m not sure what it would be, or how my beginner’s heart — which would like very much to understand why science is seen as threatening faith — can help it come about. Any suggestions?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Christian Cole

    I, as a very socially Christian home schooled student just going out into the ‘world’ as a college freshman, can understand why students with similar religious beliefs to mine might see Darwin as threatening. Basically, Darwin brings chance into the world, and fundamental Christianity is absolutely rooted and grounded in a denial of the existence of chance. Everything is designed, ordered, and so forth. Hence the social conservatism of fundamentalistic Christianity. Especially in my own home school community, everything we do tends toward our attempts to create a society of our own that is based on social order. I find it interesting that you mention Austen. She is becoming very popular in home schooling circles because of her qualities as one of the only great novelists who affirms social order, inequality, and authority. “Mansfield Park”, in particular, reads like a monument to conservatism and anti-Jacobinism. The “Garden of Eden” qualities of the visit to Sotherton, the use of the image of the estates as barometers of social health, the ultimate banishment of the Mansfieldites who are ‘corrupted’ by the ‘improving’ radicals, Henry and Mary Crawford, the highly symbolic features of the theatrical scenes, where the roles of the characters foreshadow their subsequent actions; this is not the place to argue for Jane Austen’s conservatism (although it is not a ‘Christian’ argument, it has been noted for some time, Alistair Duckworth and Marilyn Butler having published books on it), but what I mean to show is that fundamental Christianity is dedicated to social order and hierarchy, and that Darwin is antithetical to those things.

    • Britton Gildersleeve

      What a thoughtful (and educational, at least for me) post, Christian. I had never thought of fundamentalism this way, but once you voice it, it has the ring of authority. Having worked w/ many home-schooled students once they reach college, one of the very hardest things for them to do is question the text. I’ve read a fair amount of research on this, and it’s a well-enough known phenomenon to have research. But no one voices it quite this way. This would be an EXCELLENT book (or article, or conference presentation). It would need to be tackled sensitively, as you do here, but I’m betting you would have a LOT of takers if you choose to pursue it as an academic topic…

      Far too few academics try to understand their home-schooled students, even the conservative professors. This would help both sides of the classroom podium. Thanks so much for sharing.

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