One of my favorite koans, those Zen presentations of reality and invitations into the fullness of our hearts and minds is gathered as case twenty in the twelfth century Chinese anthology the Book of Serenity.
The monk Fayan visited Master Dizang who asked the young student of the way, “Where have you come from?” Fayen replied, “I wander from here to there on my pilgrimage.” The master asked, “What is the point of your pilgrimage?” Fayan answered, “I don’t know.” Master Dizang replied, “Not knowing is most intimate.”
When I think of Charles Darwin, I think of the deep curiosity of not knowing, and, well, of so much that follows…
And, as it happens, Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England on this day in 1809.
And so, of course, of course, along with thinking about the mysteries of curiosity, of deep not knowing, also a Blessed Darwin Day to you!
Wikipedia notes how his birthday has been observed as something special since his death in 1882. But it was in 1909 on the centenary of his birth a number of events marked the day out, including a gathering of over four hundred scientists and others at Cambridge where papers were read, and another event was held at the American Museum of Natural History, including the unveiling of a bronze bust of the master.
Throughout the twentieth century there were various events celebrating the man and his influence on biological science. And, let’s be clear, on the whole course of how we human beings find ourselves in this world.
In 1980 Salem State College began a Darwin Festival, and in 1993 the Humanist Community of Palo Alto began to celebrate Darwin Day, and the same name was used for events in 1997 at the University of Tennessee. Not long after Darwin Day was celebrated at the University of Georgia. By 2001 Darwin Day had become widely observed.
Of course holiday is a contraction of holy day and it is hard to miss at least a hit of spiritual enthusiasm in the celebration of Darwin Day. For some perhaps an ironic moment. Not so for me. And, with that a small excuse to ruminate on Darwin’s spiritual life, which, very much is there.
Both sides of his family, the Darwins and the Wedgwoods were all Unitarian. Which, of course, makes me happy. And there were other strains of thought in the family. His renowned grandfather Erasmus was a notorious freethinker. As, it appears, was his father. While Unitarianism today at least here in the Americas runs close with freethinkers, that wasn’t so true in the middle of the nineteenth century. While the seeds of spiritual revolution were there, they had in those days just begun to flower into the creative chaos of contemporary liberal religion. And, as naturally as day light, there were Anglicans in the mix, as well.
Darwin was baptized Anglican. But throughout his childhood he was taken to Unitarian services by his mother. And there was enough discomfort with orthodoxy that he first went to the University of Edinburg, a popular alternative to Oxbridge for nonconformists. However while he went there to study medicine, young Darwin had trouble finding his passion, and medicine didn’t hold him. Then when he showed some interest in theology his father, a practical man if also a freethinker, purchased a living for an Anglican priest at auction. And young Charles was packed off to Cambridge to prepare for ordination. But, again he proved fickle in his interests and pursuit of the priesthood was set aside…
Finally when he took his degree he had found his passion. It was in the natural sciences. He would remain a nominal Anglican for the rest of his life. Although, as it has been observed, one may be a life-long Anglican without it affecting either one’s politics, or one’s religion. For him the great interest became the natural world and how it worked.
Along the way spiritually Darwin moved from theism to deism, and it would seem he finally settled on agnosticism, the term coined by his associate and friend Thomas Huxley.
Not knowing. And the great intimacies.
Ah, the great way of not-knowing! As far as I’m concerned this is a spirituality that certainly deserves a holy day. And Charles Darwin was and remains a man worthy of celebrating. So, sure, put them together.
And, so, again, of course, of course, to all, my fondest wishes for a blessed Darwin’s Day!