By Andy Crouch
Letter to a Tenured Professor
We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. As a boy, I too answered the altar call; I went under the water. Although I no longer belong to that faith, I am confident that if we met and spoke privately of our deepest beliefs, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and good will. I know we share many precepts of moral behavior. Perhaps it also matters that we are both Americans and, insofar as it might still affect civility and good manners, we are both Southerners.
—Edward O. Wilson, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth (Norton)
Dear Tenured Professor:
We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you a friend. First of all, we both have studied science. As an undergraduate, I, too, took an introductory biology course; I passed, as I recall, with flying colors—though admittedly the final exam was multiple choice. I am confident that if we met and spoke privately of our views of Southern Baptists, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and goodwill. I know that we have much in common; for we are both Americans and, insofar as it might affect the way we approach our countrymen from the hinterland, we both found our way from America's interior to the brick sidewalks of Cambridge.
I write simply because somehow a letter of yours to a Southern Baptist pastor found its way to an editor's inbox and was published. Perhaps you did not intend for me to read it. For there is a fundamental difference between us. I speak not of the fact that you are a self-described secular humanist, while I am a Christian—indeed, as you put it, a "strict interpreter of Christian Holy Scripture," though I have never heard a fellow evangelical Protestant put it quite that way. Nor am I referring to your belief that "heaven and hell are what we create for ourselves, on this planet," which you contrast with the view, which you apparently assume to be Christian, that "each person's soul is immortal, making this planet a waystation to a second, eternal life"—a view which does bear a faint resemblance to the ancient Christian confession of the resurrection of the body (not the immortality of the soul) and the life everlasting, and a concomitant renewal of the heavens and the earth.
These differences do indeed separate us, but you are right to discern that they would not keep us from working together on matters of universal human concern. What certainly does not divide us is a deep concern for the Creation. (It is very kind of you, by the way, to dignify that term with a capital letter, presumably against your scientific instincts and deepest beliefs, but were I a proponent of intelligent design who persistently referred to Evolution in a letter to an Evolutionist, you might suspect I was protesting too much. Also, if I were to say, for example, that "academia is overwhelmingly secular, with a powerful undercurrent of scientism," you might be a bit put off. Yet you observe that the United States "is overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian, with a powerful undercurrent of evangelism"—something that I devoutly wish were true, but I believe it is more accurate to say there has always been an undercurrent of "evangelicalism," though how deep that current has run under the "Judeo-" portion of "Judeo-Christian" I would not presume to say.)
Indeed, we truly are united in our conviction that now is the time for prompt action to protect life on earth. Indeed, along with several Southern Baptists, I was one of the 86 signers of the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a biblically grounded and scientifically informed document to which you indirectly refer.
I even agree with you that there is something puzzling about Christian leaders who "[hesitate] to make protection of the Creation an important part of their magisterium." (I note in passing that, in winning the attention and respect of a Southern Baptist pastor, "magisterium," a Catholic locution that refers not to the content of the Church's teaching but the authority of those who teach it, may not be the ideal choice of words.) The truth is that Christian faith has profound resources for affirming the importance of protecting Creation, especially in the context of "preparation for the afterlife" or the expectation of Christ's imminent return, since the Bible tells us that at that very apocalypse God will "destroy those who destroy the earth" (Rev. 11:18). There is no good reason for Christians to neglect the themes of humility and stewardship that are woven through the whole of Scripture.
But there is still something fundamental that divides us—something that could make it very difficult for us to work in any sustained way even on matters of such grave importance. It is painful to bring this up, since it has been my great privilege to meet, study under, and learn from many scientists, in settings both formal and informal, since that freshman biology class many years ago. (As a matter of fact, a physicist trained at your own institution happens to be my wife and lifelong partner in following Jesus Christ.) I have seriously devoted myself, in the amateur fashion of which I am capable, to acquiring and appreciating the vocabulary, methods, and discoveries of modern science. As a Christian, I see no contradiction in wanting to benefit from the collective human effort to understand a universe I believe to be uniquely suited for human life, designed to reward rational inquiry, and crafted to provoke wonder, reverence, and awe from its smallest scale to its grandest.
But this is, precisely, what divides us, and what makes it, alas, unlikely that your appeal to the unknown pastor to whom your letter is addressed will ever be read with the seriousness it deserves:
I have sought out the company, instruction, and friendship of scientists, while you, I must reluctantly conclude, have never managed to do the same with Southern Baptists.
Warmly and respectfully,
Wilson's The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Audubon recently published a correspondence between E.O. Wilson, Stuart Pimm, and Richard Cizik.
Larry Arnhart reviewed Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge in 1999 for Books & Culture.
Books & Culture offers many, many more articles on science in its Science Pages.
Books & Culture Corner and Books & Culture's Book of the Week, from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture: A Christian Review (want a free trial issue?), appears regularly on Tuesdays at Christianity Today. Earlier editions include:
It Wasn't Really About Whiskey | A compelling and entertaining but also deeply flawed account of an episode in early American history. Al Zambone reviews The Whiskey Rebellion by William Hogeland (Sept. 5, 2006)
The Ties That Bind | Anne Tyler's new novel centers on two very different families brought together when they both adopt Korean girls (Aug. 22, 2006)
Live Like You Are Dying | Finding wisdom in wilderness. (Aug. 15, 2006)
Alchemy in Philadelphia | Revising the history of the "Scientific Revolution." (Aug. 1, 2006)
Not the Wheel Thing | A history of the Tour de France. (Aug. 1, 2006)
Welcoming Resurrection | A volume of new poems from Luci Shaw. July 18, 2006)
Truth, Justice, and … | Some critics of Superman Returns are more blinkered than Lex Luthor. (July 11, 2006)
Dining Dilemmas | How shall we then eat? (June 27, 2006)
Incorrigibly Bookish | Michael Dirda on reading and life. (June 20, 2006)
The Not-So-Evil Empire | A report on The Historical Society's conference earlier this month. (June 13, 2006)
Very Important Fiction | The Gospel according to The New York Times Book Review. (May 23, 2006)
Back to the Garden | Digging in the dirt as spiritual formation. (May 16, 2006)
Words Made Flesh | Calvin College's 2006 Festival of Faith & Writing. (April 25, 2006)
Betrayed Again | The Gospel of Judas Roadshow. (April 18, 2006)
American Theocrat | Richard John Neuhaus, Catholic political ambitions, and the evangelical pawns. (April 11, 2006)
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