Spiritual Dimensions of the Epic of Evolution
by Loyal Rue
Issue #26, Summer 1997, pp 12-13
EVERYONE, WITHOUT DOUBT, recalls precisely where they were and what they were doing when they learned that Lake Erie was dead. For me, it was late 1966, and I was riding in a car listening to a college friend do his best to reproduce lecture material from an ecology course he was taking. I was stunned. Lake Erie, dead! I hadn't a clue that a lake could even be alive -- but now to hear that one had died was more than I could fathom.
In 1966 I had never heard of ecology (I was, after all, a philosophy major). But after an hour of listening to my friend, it was clear to me that here was something worth looking into. The next morning I made my way to one of the campus bookstores and bought an armload of promising books on the state of the environment. The lesson they were to teach me was unmistakable: the environmental crisis goes well beyond a dying lake to include the disquieting prospect of a dying planet. This revelation came at a particularly sensitive time in my intellectual development. My studies in philosophy had already taught me to raise serious questions about the credibility of my religious heritage. Yet I continued to affirm the tradition on the strength of its moral vision alone-until, that is, the death of Lake Erie. As my understanding of the environmental crisis deepened, I became more and more convinced that these were issues of ultimate significance. The integrity of the natural world was inescapably a religious concern-and yet, my Judeo-Christian tradition had virtually nothing to say about it. It was not merely that my own local pastor was glossing over these issues -- that would have been troubling enough -- but the entire tradition appeared to be silent about moral responsibilities in the order of nature. The dualistic and creationist foundations of the tradition, I concluded, were not merely intellectually implausible, but morally irrelevant as well. In retrospect I can now describe my intellectual orientation from 1966 until the late 1970s as one of "shallow environmentalism." By shallow I do not mean that my moral commitment to environmental issues was weak or tentative, but rather that it was ungrounded. I was certain enough that human beings shared a primary responsibility to protect the integrity of natural systems, but it was a hollow certitude. My condition during this period was really no different than that of a cosmologically disenfranchised yet morally committed Christian. Shallow environmentalism (like shallow Christianity) amounts to a morality in search of a cosmology. It was not until the late 1970s and early 1980s that I began to pick up on signals that a compelling new cosmology, the Epic of Evolution, was in the making. Eventually it became clear to me that here was a grand cosmic narrative that might nurture the taproot of a deep environmental ethic. Epic of Evolution is the sprawling interdisciplinary narrative of evolutionary events that brought our universe from what Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry call the "Primordial Flaring Forth" to its present state of astonishing diversity and organization. In the course of these epic events matter was distilled out of radiant energy, segregated into galaxies, collapsed into stars, fused into atoms, swirled into planets, spliced into molecules, captured into cells, mutated into species, compromised into ecosystems, provoked into thought, and cajoled into cultures. All of this (and much more) is what matter has done as systems upon systems have emerged over the past 15 billion years of natural history.
THE EPIC OF EVOLUTION is the biggest of all pictures, the narrative context for all our thinking about who we are, where we have come from, and how we should live. It is the ultimate account of how things are, and it is therefore the essential foundation for discourse about which things matter. I suggest that an environmental ethic might be deepened by its theoretical coupling to an evolutionary cosmology. This work would involve a complicated philosophical challenge to the infamous Naturalistic Fallacy. But there is another, more direct, way in which the Epic of Evolution deepens environmentalism: it strengthens our commitment to environmental values by engaging our emotional lives. A Sense of Wonder. The universe is 15 billion years old. It is populated by more than 100 billion galaxies, each containing an average 100 billion stars. Whenever such facts rush to mind under the splendor of the night sky I find myself drawn into a world of such awesome majesty and mystery that the cares and concerns of my mundane existence begin to wither and fall away. How small, how short my life is. It's as though I have no life at all. A faint blip. And yet, of course, there is a life, and time enough. What could my life possibly count for in all of this? And yet, how can I not make it count? What is a life, after all? My life is my body, composed of trillions of delicate cells branched off into thousands of cell lines-blood, bone, muscle, nerves, glands, vessels, fluids-all exquisitely organized to perform a multitude of specialized functions. I am myself a universe of atoms and molecules, a world within a world. My response to the stars is nothing less than an interaction between worlds, negotiated by millions of precise chemical reactions, each one carefully memorized in the evolution of my species. A Sense of Solidarity. Imagine being told after all these years that the woman who runs your neighborhood deli is, in fact, your sister. Would this information make a difference? Of course it would. In a similar way, the Epic of Evolution has the potential to affect the manner of our beholding and interacting with the entire natural world. I cannot remain indifferent to the fact that every living being on the planet shares a common heritage. This new epic goes beyond literal declaration of human solidarity to affirm family ties throughout the community of life. Never mind the lady at the deli -- you're genetically related to the sandwich she sells you!
AND THE NARRATIVE GOES EVEN DEEPER. The atoms that construct the DNA molecules (along with everything else) in living organisms were assembled in the same solar factory as were the atoms in the words you are reading. And deeper still. All the subatomic particles that congregate in our galaxy, and in the other 100 billion galaxies, came sizzling into existence all at once in the Primordial Flaring Forth. Imagine being told-as we are by the Epic of Evolution-that all differences between all organized entities in the universe are merely circumstantial. A Sense of Gratitude. Human beings need only two things to have a rich and full existence. Not two cars, not two credit cards, not even two lovers. Just this: first, each of us needs a sense of gratitude for the life we have; and second, we need a way to express it. It can be no mere coincidence that cultures everywhere employ stories when guiding youthful minds toward a full life. From the very beginning we humans nurture and orient our children with stories, drawing them into a reality of enduring promise. No life-orienting story fails to stress the point that life itself is a gift of incomparable worth. As a child, I attended Sunday School faithfully and heard stories from the Bible which invariably left me with the sense that I was blessed. After hearing the stories, we would respond in singing the following verse:
I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above, Of Jesus and his glory, Of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story, Because I know 'tis true; It satisfies my longings As nothing else can do.
But that was then. Things are quite different now. I still possess a deep sense of gratitude for the life I have, and this sense is still derived from the features of a story. But the story has changed. The reality of enduring promise into which I am now drawn has no more to do with "unseen things above." It is instead the reality described in broad terms by the scientific narrative of our cosmic journey. I am moved to tell this story because I have found it deeply satisfying as a resource for self-understanding. To know one's place in the cosmos is to know something of immense spiritual value.
But knowing is never enough. To act on what we know requires also that we feel. My Sunday School teachers did not merely inform us about Bible stories. They told us the stories to educate our emotional lives as well, to inform our affections so that we might serve the enduring promise. I share their view that we will not serve what we do not love. To know the 15-billion-year-old process that has blessed us with the lives we have is to love it. And to love it is to serve it in whatever measure we are able. The Epic of Evolution counts out for us a pageant of blessings that stupefies the imagination. Consider the astonishing improbability of a universe suitable for human habitation. The chaotic events of the Primordial Flaring Forth left our universe with a slight excess of particles over anti-particles. If this delicate imbalance had varied by a factor as small as one part in a billion, then we would not be here. Or consider the expansion rate of the universe. If the calibration of outward explosive force to inward gravitational force had varied by as little as 10-60, then we would not be here. Consider, further, the improbability of the periodic table of elements. If the calibration of the strong and weak nuclear forces had been even minutely different than it is, then we would not be here. Had any of these details of fine tuning varied slightly, then whatever the universe might be like, it wouldn't have the properties necessary for life. To these unlikely events we add the staggering contingency of the millions of fortuitous genetic mutations that made possible the evolution of our species. All things considered, the odds tell us we're not here.
None of this came to pass by our own doing, and yet by the grace of these improbable events we inherit the opportunity of a lifetime. Even if we cannot imagine some One to give thanks to, we are nonetheless rendered thankful by the bountiful conditions of our existence. And in the measure of our gratitude we acquire a sense of obligation. The more we learn about the Epic of Evolution the more we are motivated to repay the generosity of the past by seeding hope for the future. Cosmology without morality is irrelevant, morality without cosmology is shallow. This is why the most important intellectual and moral mission of the coming century is to couple the Epic of Evolution with the Ethic of Ecologism. Nothing else comes close. If we carry this mission forward we shall relish the ultimate prize: the depth of meaning inherent in a marriage of truth and goodness.
Loyal Rue is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is presently completing a book on the Epic of Evolution, entitled Everybody's Story.
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