Patheos Book Discussion: Seven Glorious Days

Seven Glorious Days

Connor Wood

This post is part of a reflection series on the new book Seven Glorious Days, by Karl W. Giberson, at the Patheos Book Club.

In a famous essay entitled “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss quietly made a claim that ought to be central to every thinking person’s understanding of religion. The claim was this: religious experience – in this case, an encounter with a South American shaman – fundamentally forces the experiencer into a confrontation with the parts of life that don’t work. Suffering, absurdity, a bloody breach birth: without the help of the spirits, we turn our heads away from these little catastrophes, and the result is that they proliferate around us like weeds. It takes the gods to jerk our heads back towards the troubles at hand, to confront them directly.

And so it is always with a slight sense of disappointment, of missed opportunity, that I read treatises by Christian writers who try to show that evolution is perfectly compatible with dogma after all, or that a modern cosmology presents no threats to a religious worldview. Karl W. Giberson, a professor of religion and science at Stonehill College, tries to make both claims in his new book, Seven Glorious Days, and the result is a sometimes compelling, but often toothless, retelling of the Genesis narrative for today’s scientifically informed readers.

I should qualify my opinion here: when I say the book is toothless, this is only because I think the issues Giberson is trying to wrangle with are weighty and important, and so I have high standards for his mission. In many ways, this is a good book, a readable introduction to the history of the cosmos for the layperson (presumably a mildly bookish, adolescent layperson). There are dextrous references to the great luminaries of scientific history, from Pierre Laplace to Freeman Dyson, and ably placed quotes from religious believers and skeptics alike. A perfectly lucid description of the creation of heavy elements in supernovae rubs up against matter-of-fact explanations of the evolutionary roots of human love.

Along the way, Giberson makes an intriguing, and in some places compelling, argument for a kind of teleology in cosmic evolution, a Logos moving the universe forward into a relationship with its Creator. It’s a pleasing and theologically cogent narrative, one that works best in the final chapter where Giberson’s Christian commitments are removed from the shadows and placed front and center. It’s here that the emotional current of the book picks up and the reader gets a sense that something real, something urgent, is at stake here.

Here’s the thing, though: the book as a whole has a bit too much feel-goodness and not quite enough urgency, not enough grim acknowledgment of the spiritual tensions that inspired Giberson to write it. The best example, of course, is Darwinian evolution. Giberson spends an entire chapter contesting the claim that evolution is all about competition and struggle, instead casting the Darwinian process as a cosmic cooperative party, in which organisms and species are coaxed into symbiotic relationships and goodwill abounds. It’s a pre-programmed process tailored to produce harmony, intelligence, and love.

He paints a lovely picture. But he’s wrong. Darwinian evolution, according to orthodoxy, is non-teleological. Period. The evolutionary process is not going anywhere; it was not destined to produce intelligence. Neo-Darwinian evolution is random and directionless by definition.

So, while it’s true that evolution has produced love and intelligence, telling young readers to ignore the blood and grimness of evolution is, I think, counterproductive and perhaps disingenuous. You cannot hope to pull meaning out of the maw of Darwinian evolution without first acknowledging its horror. The mathematics alone attests to the suffering: inspired by Thomas Malthus’ models of population spikes and crashes, Darwin assumed that natural selection must depend on the overproduction of offspring. The majority of each generation must perish in order for selection processes to be effective. Evolution runs on blood.

Now, I’m not saying that Giberson and his readers have to buy neo-Darwinian orthodoxy unconditionally. If the history of science is any indication, neo-Darwinism will eventually be replaced by something even more sophisticated and robust. But I do think that, like the shaman in Lévi-Strauss’s famous essay, Giberson and other religious scientists are obliged to point to the darkness, not to obscure it. There are real tensions between an orthodoxly scientific cosmology and the spiritual yearnings of our hearts. The fact that science has done an outstanding job of penetrating the world’s shell, of showing us truths, means that those tensions matter. Something is really at stake here.

When physicist Steven Weinberg (quoted in the book) morosely claims that “(t)he more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless,” he is voicing a perspective that can’t be papered over. If that grim scientistic viewpoint is to be confronted on theological, philosophical, or even scientific grounds, it must first be acknowledged as a worthy opponent, backed up by evidence. Otherwise, canny readers will sense that they are being condescended to.

This is where so many religion-and-science writers, including Giberson, miss the mark: they don’t realize that the Steven Weinbergs of the world are playing the vital role of Ecclesiastes, dourly muttering about the meaninglessness of things. By refusing to listen to this dark teaching, such writers stymie the root of religious discourse. Ultimately, it’s only out of honestly felt tension, even struggle, that real meaning – Christian or otherwise – can be wrought.

  • unkleE

    Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful review of a book I hadn’t previously heard of.

    “But he’s wrong. Darwinian evolution, according to orthodoxy, is non-teleological.”

    That doesn’t make him wrong (or right). That is definitely scientific orthodoxy, but is it a scientific conclusion? Have multiple tests been done to verify this hypothesis? I think, rather, that it is a worldview imposed on the science. But of course your point is not diminished by that suggestion – after all, either way, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

  • connorwood

    Hi unkleE, thanks for your comment. What I mean by saying that Giberson is wrong is that in trying to harmonize religion with science, he’s contorting current scientific consensus on evolution to include teleology. I don’t think this is a problem in and of itself – plenty of people disagree with neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, and if you want to sync up evolution with religion it might be a legitimate strategy to reject some of the more metaphysical aspects of Darwinian theory. But I think that if you do that, you need to be honest about it. The evolution that Giberson is talking about is NOT the evolution that science teachers are talking about in high schools, and it’s NOT the evolution that researchers around the world are using to understand biology and to develop their understanding of genetics. So it’s not clear to me that Giberson’s narrative actually helps solve the religion-science problem. It’s easy to harmonize religion with evolution if you restyle evolutionary theory to be more teleological and generally pleasant. But the scientists’ model of evolution is AXIOMATICALLY (that is, by definition) non-teleological; Darwinian evolution is always random and non-directed. Any other model of evolution is non-Darwinian.

    And yes, more than 150 years of tests have given extraordinarily strong support to the non-teleological model. It may be a metaphysical assumption “imposed on the science,” as you say. But it’s an assumption that so far has been neatly supported by nearly all the evidence.

    The point I’m trying to make is that evolution is actually not very touchy-feely, and it does not provide a very warm or pleasant picture of the world. Life on Earth is a random, undirected, often painful, and competitive cycle of life and death, in which most organisms die before they can reproduce. And that’s the POINT. If religious thinkers could learn to look at this grim vision of the world point-blank and RESPOND to it, instead of 1:) denying evolution, or 2:) inventing other versions of evolution in which everything is hunky-dory and life on Earth is swell, then I think they would suddenly find themselves in a much, much better position in the religion-and-science dialog. Religion has always been centrally about responding to the misery and seeming randomness in the world. This is what religion ought to be doing with Darwinian evolution.

  • Karl Giberson

    Let me add some clarification here as to what I was TRYING to do. Whether I actually did it, readers will have to decide. I was not trying to establish that “evolution is perfectly compatible with dogma after all, or that a modern cosmology presents no threats to a religious worldview.” I was trying to answer this question: “Is there a perspective one can take on natural history that comports with Christian faith commitments?” All such perspectives involve selection. We have to stand somewhere and see things from one place–a place from which we cannot see other things. I think evolution has too often been “spun” by anti-religious zealots who insist that we must stand beside the cheetah who just brought down the zebra and, ankle deep in blood, think about how natural selection works. I am simply suggesting that there might be other places to stand. As a literary statement, the Genesis story selected elements from the natural world and incorporated them. That is what I am trying to do. In my book The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in a Fine-Tuned World, I am more forthright about the tentative character of the theological affirmations we can make.

  • connorwood

    Thanks so much for your comment! I’m honored you felt it was worth it to respond.

    I agree that evolution is often “spun” to look even more challenging to religious convictions than it actually ought to be, and I certainly agree that all stories about our place in the world will involve a certain, selective point of view. I also think the narrative you tell in your book Seven Glorious Days is a great example of a theological story that “comports with Christian faith commitments.” But my fundamental quibble is that I also think it doesn’t quite do justice to the real “brokenness” in the world that is a central element in many Christian theologies, as well as all Buddhist philosophy and some Hindu theologies. And I think that the fairly grim view of existence that science often gives us (Richard Dawkins’s “blind pitiless indifference”) is something that could be usefully articulated in a constructive theology as a window onto that brokenness – an especially clear and focused window.

    In other words, I wonder whether part of the reason that so many contemporary religious believers (Christian, Muslim, and other) have a distaste for science is because they sense the meaninglessness lurking behind science’s door, and this (legitimately) makes them afraid to open that door. But what if we didn’t downplay that feeling? What if we were to forthrightly tell them that, yeah, science often really does make the world look bleak and lonely, but – and this is key – your religious traditions already have the tools to confront and overcome that darkness? If we don’t say something similar, I worry that too many young people will sense – accurately – that something central isn’t being addressed, that one of their big fears is being shushed up. Which in itself would be sufficient reason to ignore what people like you and I are trying to say, no matter how important it might be.

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