The Singing Heart of the World: Creation, Evolution, and Faith
Reviewed by Michael Buratovich, Biochemistry, Spring Arbor University
Several atheist scientists have written books arguing that their worldview ennobles humanity, engenders a deep appreciation of nature, provides the proper motivation and impetus for habitat and species conservation, and cultivates a reverent wonder of the majesty and intricacies of our planet and the universe. Christian scientists and thinkers have responded with works disputing these claims and positing that the Christian worldview provides a better impetus for biological conservation, a more sound foundation for human dignity, and an overall better explanation for why anything exists in the first place. A welcome addition to this particular genre is a book by John Feehan, senior lecturer in environmental science at University College, Dublin. Feehan is a highly literate scientist who has read very widely and cares deeply about science and the Christian faith. His book is an attempt to synthesize evolution, Christian theology, biological conservation, and common human experience into an intellectually honest and satisfying system. This is certainly a very ambitious project, and Feehan makes a genuinely useful contribution, but does so at a rather high price.
Feehan begins with a selective tour of the history of science. Unfortunately he repeats a commonly believed misconception that the fifth-century pagan, Alexandrian philosopher Hypatia, was brutally murdered “in the name of Christ” (8). Czech historian Maria Dzielska has shown that local politics motivated Hypatia’s murder and not Christian opposition to science or bigotry.1 Nevertheless, Feehan shows that science is a natural extension of organized human curiosity and the use of reason. Furthermore, since science builds upon itself, it depends upon the consistent honesty of scientists, and Christianity provides a solid foundation for moral behavior. Science, however, is a double-edged sword. It allows us to live better and longer, but it also pollutes the earth and endangers native habitats and ecosystems. Science is something that must be used judiciously. As Feehan chillingly writes: “Our overweening application of science to the wrong ends teeters so close to the brink of sustainability that it is in doubt whether the civilization we so take for granted can survive this twenty-first century” (23).
The next two chapters recount the evolution of the cosmos and the elements of the periodic table. These chapters echo the “fully gifted creation” of Calvin College emeritus professor of physics Howard J. Van Til, who argues that God created the universe with a formational economy that tends to construct larger and more complex structures from smaller, simpler components. Feehan errs when he writes that new star formation only occurs in spiral galaxies, since Alison Crocker and others have shown that low-level star formation occurs in elliptical galaxies.2 Despite this gaffe, these chapters are breezily written and easily understood.
The next two chapters, however, examine the evolution of life and mind. Given the common ancestry of all living creatures and their common chemistry and genetics, Feehan concludes that “all life is one family” (96). We have an obligation to the living world, however, because every living creature is specially equipped to fit its ecological niche uniquely: in this way each living thing “acclaims creation” (83). Feehan uses the word “acclaim” to refer to the answer for questions of ultimate meaning. Because of this acclaim that each organism gives to its Creator, all living things and their ecosystems have value, and therefore, to destroy them as wantonly as we have is to destroy worshipers of the Maker of Heaven and Earth. We fail to perceive this in our present age because of the disconnection from nature we tend to practice routinely in our modern lives; this is a very sobering thought, indeed.
The peculiar evolutionary history of Homo sapiens has endowed us with the gift of consciousness, and this gives us “the ability to be embraced by the real presence of the reality of what we call God in an altogether deeper way” (116). In the following chapter, Feehan surveys the modes of sensory perception human beings use to do science and we discover that our sensory abilities are dwarfed by other species, but what makes our perception special is the capacity “to acknowledge a greater depth to reality and the experience of reality than can be observed and measured” (134).
In the penultimate chapter, Feehan addresses the question of the existence of God and what kind of God He might be. He readily admits that many scientists find belief in God difficult to impossible, but he also thinks that a Godless universe is devoid of ultimate meaning. Feehan, however, sees a remarkable consilience of meanings flowing throughout the living and nonliving world, and he takes these to be the definite fingerprint of God. Mind you, Feehan’s view of God is not an orthodox Christian picture of God. For example, he thinks that the Christian concept of the Trinity is “so thoroughly infused with the mortar of outmoded cosmology that it cannot but collapse as that cosmology dissolves” (154). How the Trinity depends on outmoded cosmology is not explained.
Finally, Feehan defines the goal of humanity, or in his words, “human acclaim” (157). First God made humans to cultivate virtue. Just as all living organisms intricately fit their habitat, human beings fit our habitat if we practice and teach virtue that extends to other people and to the environment. The practice of virtue makes community possible, and this is the sine qui non of humanity. Feehan courageously advocates for a return to simpler, more agrarian lives that are more connected to the land, to nature, to each other, and to God. We are enchanted by nature because it is precisely where we belong. Herein is the “telos” or goal of humanity, to live in Holy Communion with each other and nature as part of a virtuous community.
Reading Feehan’s book requires focused concentration, since his arguments are complex and highly integrated. Nevertheless, a question hovers over my reading of it: “So what?” If my consciousness and connection to living organisms are the result of an evolutionary process that God had little to do with, but simply watched happen, then why should I care about biomes, ecosystems, and habitats? On this reading of reality, God seems to care little for me, and I could reasonably conclude that I care even less for Him. I will be long dead by the time the havoc I have ravaged on the earth comes to fruition. Frankly, why should I care? You see, I am a deeply flawed, sinful human being. We might quibble about how Adam’s race became fallen, but surely we must agree that we are fallen. Therefore we are in need of redemption, and, consequently, a redeemer. In jettisoning basic features of the Christian message, namely that we are a fallen people in need of a Savior, and that God has not only supernaturally spoken to us, but has visited us and died in my place, I can wonder at nature all I want, but it does not redeem me from my inherent ungodliness and flaws. Only the God who made nature and continues to sustain it can do so.
The integration of Christianity with modern science is a necessary but difficult venture that many Christians in science are working very hard to accomplish. We must be true to science, but we must also be true to what God has told us in his Word. Sometimes Feehan creates unnecessary conflicts between Christianity and science. For example, he states that we have “had to abandon our belief in heaven, because our inherited concept of heaven is in too direct a line of descent from a geocentric – and anthropocentric – universe” (150). But when the Bible speaks of heaven it often does so in poetic and symbolic fashion, and even though some of this imagery might reflect a geocentric view of the solar system, the concept of heaven certainly does not depend on it. Discarding our belief in heaven is an unnecessary accommodation to naturalism that hamstrings a central soteriological and eschatological concept of Christianity.
Feehan’s book is a worthy contribution to the integration of science and Christianity, filled with challenging thoughts and concepts. In my view, however, his hyperaccommodation to naturalism leaves us with a God who is alien to the pages of Scripture and a gospel that does not save.