Charles Darwin opens the Origin of Species this way:
When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle’ as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts…seemed to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.
Thus begins the famed book: yet, what we discover in the pages of Darwin’s minute observations from his days on the Beagle are not really about the Origin of the species, but a databank of deaths and lives of species, and very little discussion on the “mystery of mysteries.” Many speak of evolution without having read the book, a book which seems to avoid mystery altogether.
What, then, is “mystery of mysteries”? What exactly did Darwin mean by that term: and what did he end up embracing, or rejecting?
“One of our greatest philosophers” to whom Darwin refer is John Herschel: Herschel was a sought after scholar, a true Renaissance man whose expertise ranged from Botany to Astronomy, who taught Darwin at the University of Cambridge. Herschel wrote:
Of course I allude to that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others. Many will doubtless think your speculations too bold, but it is as well to face the difficulty at once. For my own part, I cannot but think it an inadequate conception of the Creator, to assume it as granted that his combinations are exhausted upon any one of the theatres of their former exercise, though in this, as in all his other works, we are led, by all analogy, to suppose that he operates through a series of intermediate causes, and that in consequence the origination of fresh species, could it ever come under our cognizance, would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process — although we perceive no indications of any process actually in progress which is likely to issue in such a result.
Herschel was a creationist who assumed the guidance of the Creator in the “origination of fresh species.” Darwin borrows this term, “mystery of mysteries” to begin the Origin of the Species, as if to give answer to Herschel. Between Darwin’s statement as a naturalist above, and Herschel’s statement above as a creationist/Renaissance man who valued beauty and mystery, exists a huge gap that cannot be reconciled by observation of data alone. While Herschel assumes the hand of the divine, Darwin does not; what Darwin conjectured was strictly within the working of natural phenomena (as a good scientist should), observable within the boundaries of the senses. What Herschel gives credence to a mystery of the unknown, which Darwin rejects as a materialist. Herschel, to Darwin’s disappointment, ultimately returned the favor and rejected Darwin’s theory, calling it “the law of higgledy-piggledy.”
Did Darwin, then, create a “mechanical butterfly” that could fly, called the theory of evolution? When Herschel rejected it, Darwin must have felt like Owen Warfield, seeing his own delicate creation being crushed by the brute hand of a child.
The corollary could be true, that to someone like Herschel, Darwin crushed the mystery of life altogether. Herschel is intrigued by what the missing data suggest: Darwin suggests the inevitability of finding the “missing link” and rather than dwelling in the mystery of the unknown, is determined to close the door on generative possibilities for the universe. What Herschel conjectured was a synthesis of theology and observation, and affirmation of mystery. Darwin assumed the spirit and the material to be irreconcilable. Darwin’s brute force of materialistic universe shut the door to that mystery. We must, looking back from a century beyond, ask this simple question: can we now begin to create a delicate, fragile, but intact framework in which we hold mystery and scientific discovery?
Hawthorn, in his intuitive brilliance, holds both of these views together in his short story, The Artist of the Beautiful. Hawthorne depicts this dichotomy as multifaceted, irreconcilable elements forced to meet at the high noon of the Enlightenment. Shall we, today, continue to keep these assumed irreconcilable parts separated and unresolved? Rejection of mystery can ultimately lead to a rejection of beauty in sciences as well as in life. To have the Artist and the Beautiful is one thing, but what would it require to have the Scientist and the Beautiful? In order to have a deeper wrestling toward these quests, we must, once again, ask what is at the heart of our longing for the origin of life. We must backtrack to seek other sources that inform this discussion: and to that end, I turn to the mystics. They ask not only these questions I pose above, but they question the origin of the questions themselves.
The mystery of our Origin
Mystics like St. John of the Cross, or St. Theresa of Avila, provide an alternative vision of the spirit and the material, thereby providing the mystery deprived world a fresh vantage point. Adrienne von Speyr , twentieth century mystic, takes on the language of these mystics, and provides a profound meditation in contemporary times. The character Owen Warfield’s butterfly could be seen as an emblem of forced duality between the spirit and the material, or at least a truce between them, but in writers like Speyr, we see a new vision for The Artist AND the Beautiful, a way that we can, in this age, learn to dance with the mystery of creation as independent beings.
“In the beginning was the Word. If the word was in the beginning, then it was not the beginning, and the beginning was not the word.” (The Word Becomes Flesh, Adrienne von Speyr, Ignatius Press, pg. )
Von Speyr, in a labyrinth of thoughts here, asks “What, really is the ‘beginning’?” If the Word was pre-existent, the Word does not need the beginning. Instead of assuming a linear progression of beginning to end, the concept of the “beginning,” as we define it, should be challenged. In doing so, von Speyr addresses also our error in seeking the source of reality solely within our rationality. She is pointing out a simple point: that if we can describe, define the origin of reality, then we are the origin. The Apostle John was saying precisely the contrary: we are not the origin. We are created by another perspective; we refract in created light, rather than generate our own. What our rationality tells us is only a glimpse into the mystery.
Speyr emphasizes that John 1 is not a descriptive statement about the origin of the universe. It is a statement about a categorical Reality called the Beginning. She continues, emphasizing the preposition: “For the word was in the beginning. The beginning is the origin, the absolute beginning, the source, the alpha; all beginning, origin as such, is utterly incomprehensible, intangible, colorless, timeless, forever beyond our grasp; it is that which always was.”
Darwin could not have meant, when he notes that the observable data in “the Origin of Species” leads to the “mystery of mysteries,” what von Speyr describes as “all beginning.” Darwin was assuming the material reality, the observable reality as the source of all truth, including the mystery of origins. To Darwin, there is only a rational explanation of the missing link between the species. In such a rational stance, what he rejected was the thesis of the Watchmaker God, but not the God of von Speyr.
Marilynne Robinson, the artful author of Giliad, in her provocative essay Darwin writes as if to reexamine Owen’s butterfly:
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or of Luther, Calvin, and Ignatius of Loyola, or of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, and Martin Luther King, is no Watchmaker, To find him (God) at the end of even the longest chain of being or causality would be to discover that he was a thing (however majestic) among things. Not God, in other words. Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) declares from its irksomely alliterative title onward that the complex of assertions I have described as Darwinism is vigorously alive. Dennett asks, "If God created and designed all these wonderful things, who created God? Supergod? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod? Or did God create himself? Was it hard work? Did it take time?." (The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson, Picador, NY Pg. 37)
The watchmaker’s butterfly must be crushed, as such an act symbolized both the scrutiny of modern sciences of William Paley’s assumptions. “The God of Abraham…is no Watchmaker,” as an author who breathes and lives with words, because when it comes to a matter of God such a metonymy is dangerously misleading. God simply cannot be substituted for a watchmaker. God is God..
We must understand what we are rejecting, if we are to reject the source of all Life. We cannot reject what we do not understand: or more importantly, we cannot rush to reject a metonymic substitute. By rejecting not just the data presented but to ignore the beauty of reality is to force a false dichotomy to break further, causing, like Picasso’s cubistic images, fragmentation of reality, rather than reconciliation. There must be a better way.
God stood outside of Time and Space and created. In that very sense, God created what it means to create. To this Marilyn Robinson echoes von Speyr:
The narrative stabilizes essential theological assertions, first of all, that God is not embodied in any part of creation. He is not light, nor is he the sun, as the gods of other ancient peoples were thought to be. He is in no sense limited or local. He is not the force of good or order struggling against forces of evil or chaos, but the sole creator of a creation that is in whole and in part "very good."
Hawthorne, consciously or unconsciously, taps into these “theological assertions” by setting up in his narrative a longing for reconciliation of the spirit and the material, of beauty and mechanism. By doing so Hawthorne also exposes Paley’s argument’s weakness, but this is an argument by craft of art, rather than of rational discourse. His “answer” dwells in the pulverized pieces of his lifework in a child’s hand, and the refractive light shone through them. The child could not recognize the butterfly as a created object of beauty to be admired. Similarly, if we do not see the watch itself as true, good and beautiful, and are not able to admire its beauty, then we are not able to honor the Creator. We would not know what we have just done, having crushed the butterfly of true progression. Owen transcends the tautology. He reverts to the mystery of being.
Hawthorne’s assumptions, and instinct, seem to ultimately end as a Transcendentalist, with a Gnostic understanding of the ideal. Gnostics deny the physical altogether as significant. This also is an error of overreaction against the materialists. By being anti-materialist, he is now too biased toward the spiritual, and fails to account for “creation that is in whole and in part ‘very good’.” The Gnostics, and Transcendentalists like Emerson, took the neo-Platonic position of dismissing the material, the physical, and embracing the spiritual as the source of all truths. The physical (the crushed watch) is dismissed as non-significant reality.
The Death of Adam, as Marilynne Robinson correctly notes, is The Death of the Earth. Death is real, and we need to recognize the pulverized ashes of Ground Zero all around us. But just because there are signs of death everywhere in the fossils, and footprints of dinosaurs, does not mean we shall throw out the Biblical baby with the muddy waters of discovery. Darwinian observations must be viewed with the exacting equation of science, and our embrace of mystery can allow the terrains of arts and theology to open up. Even in the death of Earth, we can find remnants of grace and beauty, but we dare not come with our instruments of technology to measure them. No one can measure the greatest of mysteries called love.
Many assume that Darwin also had faith in progressivism, an idea that all things improve with competition. Many social Darwinists assume this view, promoted by Marx and Hitler alike, and the discussions gets quickly confused as we see evolution as the only path to explain complexity. Darwin notes in the introduction to the Origins:
As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before the Cambrian epoch, we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.
This often quoted passage has been used to argue for progressivism, being associated with previous accounts of evolution, Lamarck’s in particular, but Darwin is very clear throughout the thesis that he desired to distance himself from their theory of evolution. He argues for “extreme slowness” of natural selection, and his writings are remarkably free of the cultural assumption of progressivism, dominant in his days.
William Paley, on the other hand, embraced progressivism as a theological assumption. The Watchmaker God provides a context in which God progressively attains perfection against the Fall. While social Darwinist developed, fueling Francis Dalton’s eugenics, their belief in progressivism has more in akin to Paley’s theology than Darwin’s data.
Progressivism is the blindfold of Paley, the forefather of Darwin and the accursed ghost of our Modern Times. Marilynne Robinson notes Albert Einstein’s letter to Sigmund Freud in 1932, noting also “the anomaly of the high percentage of Ph.D’s in the SS,” Fascism leaders influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche in the universities:
Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw, but encounters it in the easiest synthetic form – upon the printed page.
Einstein, who was astonished that the academia in the “free state of America” had so much racial discrimination and lack of humanity wrote extensively on this subject. He saw that disembodied ideology, a language that is divorced from “life in the raw” was just as dangerous as weapons of mass destruction.
For too long, the intelligentsia have been walking about with such blindfolds, assuming that all things, with or without the benevolent hand of the Creator, will improve with time. Adam Smith made the same presumption with his theory of economics. Our current financial debacle exposed our dangerous liaison with progressivism. Being blindfolded, our ability to find and appreciate the beauty of the watch on the beach is greatly diminished. No, we would trample on the watch before we recognized for what it was. Perhaps the sand beneath us is full of pulverized remains of such fragile beauty and intricate designs. The problem is not with the Blind Watchmaker, but the blindfold of progressivism. We cannot measure God nor scientifically analyze the Beginning: any attempt to grasp the whole truth in the closed system of nature is of a foolish and brute pride of man, not science. Darwin, in his rejection of progressivism, at least understood that. (Though, as noted by Nancy Pearcey to me, Darwin could not entirely get rid of progressive assumptions, as noted in an excellent essay here http://www.pnas.org/content/106/suppl.1/10056.full)
The arts’ response to progressivism was to seek a counterpoint. The arts took on the blindfold of progressivism also, but with a contrarian’s attitude, with a Duchampian honesty. Duchamp realized that in an age of wanton destruction, and illusions of progressivism, we must oppose the deep assumption that modernity took, then in the “intelligentsia” of art we can turn the urinal upside down as art, a “Fountain” with echoes of gas masks; and realize such an art’s endgame, only to spend the rest of our lives playing chess. Such “intelligentsia” supposed that we could replace the great age of faith with another age without any vestiges of religion. Like Hazel Mote in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, whose Church Without Christ is just as filled with the vacant presence of Christ, we have failed to create a world of art free of religion, but instead only contributed to the emptiness of a culture, reflected by our Chelsea galleries haunted by Christ.
Art, from the Lascaux caves to Damien Hirst, has been always about faith. Cave painters prayed through their images to survive, and Damien Hirst suspends a fourteen-foot Tiger Shark in formaldehyde and call it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living , pointing to the scientific “belief” we have in life. Art dances with faith even if the object of superficial faith is utterly contempt, and devoid of humanity. Ardent secularists needs to recognize that “faith” in the lack of faith, can be just as calibrated, and reductionistic, as any great and “evil” institution of the church. The new cathedrals of our time, called movie theaters, are haunted by conspiracy theories and culture war divisiveness, and are filled with celebrity heroes worthy of our pseudo worship. We buy popcorn and drink Colas instead of taking Communion bread and wine. (Thanks to media ecologist Read Mercer Schuchardt for this observation)
The bottom-line is that all these species of faith, mutated or not, still must have the reality of belief, or that system cannot grow and develop. Atheists depend on the Bible more than many Christians, unconsciously, and many Christians do not depend on God’s Word quite enough, even with their frequent profession of faith. If we are to be The Artist of the Beautiful in this new century, we must have both the honesty and radical dependence to point to the mystery of creation, the true Origin of Reality and Grace.
In Paley’s time, we were of the beautiful: now we are forced to stand apart from the beautiful. We are alienated from beauty. So it may be impossible in our time to truly be the Artist of the Beautiful (and one might also add the difficulty of the Scientist of the Beautiful) : there are too many battles one must fight to be that, to justify oneself before the dogmatic assumptions of the current age which, like the brute hand of the child, would crush the beautiful vision without being aware of it. We can be The Artist and the Beautiful; beauty, caught in Hawthorne’s impossible delight, beauty that is more than elegant; beauty that is only truly possessed by THE origin of all things.
What then is the Origin? The answer may surprise some as being overtly simple: I am not asking all to buy into this thesis, but I do ask the reader to “wear the hat of faith” to consider this as a possibility. We need to reconsider John 1.
John 1 announces the presence of the Word (Jesus) in the world. This beginning-less reality has broken into the closed system of nature. Jesus is the physical invasion into the cosmos by the Creator. If this is the case, then Jesus did not bring religion into the world, or create a category of faith. He came so that humankind could have certainty of the ontological reality, and thus be awakened to both the depth of our depravity and the potential of humanity. Jesus came to give us certainty in faith, or more accurately, to give us a new definition of faith. Faith not based on our act of goodness, but faith as grace being poured out beyond the Darwinian, fallen reality of our days. Jesus’ presence in the world means we can have conviction, or faith, about material reality, as well as the spiritual reality. Jesus’ life attests to a life fully lived to reconcile both heaven and earth in his body; and he promised not just this needed reconciliation but a NEW heaven and a NEW earth. He is the Word (Logos), a word used by John, to intentionally communicate to the Greeks that Christ provides the ontological order of the universe. Instead of seeing the material reality as a mere shadow of the Logos, Jesus became flesh, thereby giving substance to the Divine. It was a cosmic scandal; from our perspective the greatest of transgressions. He came into the broken, cruel mechanism of nature. He died, taking the Curse on the Cross. And he rose on Easter morning to reverse the curse.
The Artist of the Beautiful does address this ongoing examination of the relationship between the artist and the creator. As Robinson notes in “Darwin,” the issue is that the Bible claims to give humanity exceptionism, in light of humankind’s stewardship responsibility over nature. While Scientists can only respect the data given by nature, Artists must be stewards of nature: the artist has control over the created. But in the Frankensteinian reality that we face after modernism, in what now must be called post-human reality, what we created has indeed taken over our creative vision. Darwin’s recognition that natural forces and details had the upper hand over God’s benevolent guidance was not an observation against Genesis, but should have been a warning bell against teleological progressivism, and a theology that assumed God’s benevolent hand when we are told, by the Bible, that we live in a labyrinth of postlapsarian, fallen reality.
The brute hand of a child can simply be one of ignorance, but it is also of the brute, twisted power of nature. Darwin’s failure was not in his observations of the dark necessity of that labyrinth: his failure was not to recognize that these punctuated realities, of evolution’s footprints, cannot lead to teleological explanation, but are only raw, disinterested data. His mistake was in calling his thesis “Origins of Species” (teleological) when it should have been called “Death and Life of Species” (natural reality). Perhaps, though, it should have been more honestly called “A Trail of Death of Species” (postlapsarian). Science cannot account for why it is that we can live and breath, nor how the universe is sustained by some luck or by benevolence. Science can only account for past regularity of the observable effects, and assume the same regularity will take place in the future.
Life itself is a mystery, and as we approach the question and ethics of creating a life via cloning and genetic manipulation, we dare not assume that such a dilemma is progress. St. Augustine, in the fifth century, had similar predilections. Just as we are haunted by atomic destructions of the last century, we must note that science is mute when it comes to ethics and the use of power. The answer must come from elsewhere. Might it occur to us that life is a miracle that cannot be sustained but by the very idea in the origin of life? In the closed system of nature, which science calls home, any attempt to gauge the world outside of her window is only speculation. Augustine wrote:
It would be ridiculous, on the other hand, to regard the defects of beasts, trees and other mutable and mortal things which lack intelligence, sense, or life, as deserving condemnation. Such defects do indeed effect the decay of their nature, which is liable to dissolution; but these creatures have received their mode of being by the will of their Creator, whose purpose is that they should bring to perfection the beauty of the lower parts of the universe by their alternation and succession in the passage of the seasons; and this is the beauty of its own kind, finding its place among the constituent parts of this world. Not that such things of earth were meant to be comparable with heavenly realities. Yet the fact that those other realities are of higher value does not mean that these lower creatures should have been excluded from the whole scheme of things. (Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book XII, Chapter 4,Penguin Books, London, translated by Henry Bettenson, 1972, pg. 475)
Note here, a clear distinction and admission that “Not that such things of earth were meant to be comparable with heavenly realities.” Augustine points out that the “defects of beasts” and nature work alongside decay and “dissolution.” He sees what Darwin will articulate as necessary and logical explanation of Nature’s decay, but without losing the mystery and beauty of the universe:
Consequently, in these areas of the universe where such creatures have their proper being, we see a constant succession, as some things pass away and others arise, as the weaker succumb to the stronger, and those that are overwhelmed change into the qualities of their conquerors; and thus we have a pattern of a world of continual transience. We, for out part, can see no beauty in this pattern to give us delight; and the reason is that we are involved in a section of it, under our condition of mortality, and so we cannot observe the whole design, in which these small parts, which are to us so disagreeable, fit together to make a scheme of ordered beauty. (Saint Augustine, The City of God, Book XII, Chapter 4,Penguin Books, London, translated by Henry Bettenson, 1972, pg. 475)
Augustine warns, as he continues this discourse, not to fall into “the rashness of human folly,” to assume the decay and defects to have been permanent to the will of the Creator. That, in his view, is too convenient to our own nature. Such an approach would be akin to praising fire as we cook, marveling at the complex beauty of the flames; and on the next breath condemning it for burning our fingers. God of origins would not reduce itself to our convenience; God is a fire that burns, lights our ways, and yet is not “safe.”
If, within, the closed system of nature, the “benevolence of God” is proved not guiding the evolutional process, but the “blind watchmaker” the cruel and random acts that caused the progress, that does not disprove the existence of God. It only gives evidence to the existence of fallen reality. If we remove God from the picture, we cannot complain of the brokenness as anything but the cruel reality of randomly guided evolution. In that case, we must question the assumption of progressivism first.
Before we reject the premise of the Creator, should we not see if our assumption of a closed system is sustainable in the whole of life as we know it? What we must suspect, if we are to follow von Speyr’s path, is not the path toward the blind watchmaker (of Dawkins), but a path toward understanding of our own blindness. We are indeed, as I’ve suggested, walking on the beach blindfolded, and would not even see the beauty and complexity of the watch beneath us.
If we are blind, indeed, then what the teleological end of data tells us is at best tautological, or at worst dangerous in the scheme of Augustine’s warning. A deeper question about our assumptions behind what we call reality could lead to the broken, fallen reality of beauty itself. We live in an age when the destructive powers have moved beyond our imaginative capacities to understand. Our movies and our art attempt to do so, but they fail to capture the literal hell that would face us as in the days of 9/11 or post-Hiroshima reality of true Ground Zero. Our own creation haunts the creator, the crumbling fallen towers, and radioactive waters; and we are lost like a gyroscope without its axis; functionless but still spinning in multiple directions at once. Our surrender to the brute ideological forces of our time has made us so. Something so delicate and beautiful has no place in contemporary world, as it will be crushed without a fair chance of examination. We have lost our ability to contemplate the beautiful.
Hawthorne lived in a time when progressive theology had reduced Christianity from being all about salvation to being all about morality. His picture of moralistic Puritans has more reference to Victorian Christians than to his evangelical forebears. The true Puritans believed works played no role in salvation, and their reputation for morality is only evidence that faith in Christ alone really does bear fruit in good works.
Moralism cannot appreciate beauty, as it will veer toward reductionism and legalism; a system that can only account for black and white resolutions. Beauty is, by contrast, refracted colors, boundless, messy and generative.
We need to understand what happened two thousand years ago, and the possibility that such a presence, and the assumed continued presence of Christ via the Holy Spirit (the true Medium and agent of transformation) is essential, not just for Christians, but for the world at large, not just for the religious, but for all artists and scientists. Our technology would indeed allow us to create a beautiful mechanical butterfly today (at least in the movie screens, with 3D technology), but what of “butterfly” bombs that flutter down to lure us with beauty but destroy the world (anticipated by Owen’s last name)? We must pause to reconsider the goodness of what we call progress, and progressivism, because the table has now turned against their creator. Perhaps to re-imagine Owen Warfield today is to consider that the babe’s hand that holds today’s butterfly is not one of brute forces of industrialization, but instead a hand of certainty of the truly benevolent Creator: instead of sending the beautiful created object to be made vulnerable, God sent his own Son, the uncreated One, to be crushed, and delivered into our hands pulverized. Then, on that strange, refractive morning three days after, the angel who met the faithful women reminds all of us now, “Why seek the dead bodies (or fossils) but He is Risen.” There’s something gloriously new, constantly generative; even after two thousand years. We have still to fully progress out of “the Death of Adam.”
Women, on that Easter morning, diligently prepared spices to cover up what they thought would be the decaying body of Jesus. Instead they were met with an angel and an empty tomb. Sciences and the arts have been rushing back to the grave ever since. Instead of following the resurrection miracle, we tried to insist on using the costly spice in some new way, posting a “No Exit” sign on the tomb. Science and the Arts, as we understand them today, like the spices, may need to be set aside in order for us to fully marvel in the resurrection possibilities. Perhaps only then will we begin to see a new reality, or to sense with a new DNA the greater Reality to come. Then we can begin to walk a path of humanity, of the beautiful in which the artists and scientists will lead with humility to the mystery of mysteries.