Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Evolution & Sacrifice: Christ our Caterpillar

The current show at Chicago's Lookingglass theater, "In the Garden," offers a crackling portrayal of the relationship between Charles Darwin and Emma, his fervently believing wife. Showcasing an intimate, theologically charged spousal conversation about science and faith that is distorted by popular agendas of Christians and atheists both, it's the best marriage I've ever seen on stage.  The play concludes, somewhat melodramatically but (sucker that I am for this sort of thing) effectively with the strolling couple reciting the conclusion to a later edition of On the Origin of Species, amended to include the word "Creator."
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
Ichneumonidae vs. Caterpillar
Gratifying as that passage may be, a speech made by Charles toward the end of the play laid out his darker moments as well - a dramatization of a letter Darwin wrote to Asa Gray regarding some parasitic wasps (Ichneumonidae).
There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars...
But as David Hart puts it, from an earlier metaphysical vantage point, the parasitic wasp would have posed much less of a problem.
In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds....  It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.  In the wake of the triumph of the mechanical philosophy, however, when nature's "rationality" had come to be understood only as a matter of mechanical design engineered form without, the Darwinian proposal of natural selection suggested the possibility that nature might instead be the product of wholly indeterminate - wholly mindless - forces...  It seemed a dangerous idea only because of the metaphysical epoch in which it was first proposed.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Perhaps due to the fact that the mechanistic epoch is (in at least some quarters) fading, I'm having difficulty summoning forth the despair that the caterpillar story is supposed to invoke.  It seems no different than the way medieval physiologists (mistakenly) viewed the pelican who (they thought) sacrificed its life by sprinkling its own blood to regenerate its young.  Hence Christ, for Dante (Paradiso XXV:113) is nostro Pelicano, and hence the sundials at Oxford and Princeton are topped with such sculpted birds. But whereas the pelican story, beautiful as it continues to be, is based on bad biology, the self-sacrificing caterpillar is not - while still making, it seems to me, a similarly sacrificial point.Yes, I realize the caterpillar isn't voluntarily sacrificing itself (give it a break, it's a bug).  But such a reality is setting up the grammar for just that sort of action at higher, and later, stages of biological life.

In her extraordinary (and freely available) Gifford lectures, Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God, Sarah Coakley discusses some such cases by exploiting recent debates about evolution and altruism to recover the notion of sacrifice on scientific and theological grounds.  (Two years working in Harvard's biology lab with Martin Nowak might cause one to grant her the right to speak on the matter.)  As she puts it three lectures in: 
What if Jesus’s ethics of seemingly self-destructive sacrificial ‘excess’, instead of being seen as irreducibly hostile to preparatory forms of evolutionary ‘cooperation’ and ‘altruism’, might itself be a fulfillment and completion of them – and, in the light of the resurrection a means of a completely new form of ‘cultural evolution’ – a form sustained in the ‘excessive’, uncalculating mode of a new type of cooperative community? Is it possible, then, that this ecstatic ethics of excess could, after all, be theoretized evolutionarily in novel, ‘cultural’, yet eschatological mode - not as a meaningless ‘spandrel’ as Jackson sees it, but as a horizon of evolutionary hope beyond the constraints of its normal, much more limited, evolutionary concerns?
Coakley sounds much like Darwin's witty wife Emma (so vividly performed by Rebecca Spence) might have had she enjoyed the benefit of her husband's scientific education. There is, after all, nothing "faith shattering" about the food chain when faith is founded upon one who enters it - at the bottom - in order to be (Eucharistically) consumed.