There and Back Again: An Evolutionist’s Tale

This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained-well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

The quotes in this article are from J.R Tolkien’s classic tale, The Hobbit.  Tolkien insisted that his Ring stories were not to be read as allegory but I have to agree in with Picasso in that, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” Even—I would add—the truth about ourselves.  I recognize that there are limits to the parallels between Bilbo’s journey and my own but there surely is truth and insight amidst the literary  brush strokes of such an incredible storyteller.

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up–probably somebody lighting a wood-fire-and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.

Science was always intriguing to me. Science makes even the smallest of things incredible.  In Bio 101 I learned about the wonders of the biological world from the depth of the oceans to the tops of mountains and as close as my own backyard. What’s more is that I was seeing all of this within a year of finding faith in Jesus Christ.  I saw science as a passion to pursue, a career path to follow, and a calling to give praise for. And then these two wonderful worlds teetered on the brink of collapse when a professor paraphrased the title from Theodosius Dobzhansky famous essay. Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”

He got up trembling. He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away. Suddenly he found that the music and the singing had stopped, and they were all looking at him with eyes shining in the dark.

My emerging faith brought with it assumptions about the truths of the Bible and those assumptions did not harmonize with the claims of evolution.  As an infant Christian I was concerned with the corrupting forces of “the world” bearing down on my still fresh faith.  I knew this concern well because in previous days my skepticism was aimed at the Church, the born again, the saved.  I feared that in science I would be fighting the atheistic foes that had filled the vacuum left by my recent conversion.  I felt that I would be compelled to choose: science or faith. I feared the journey ahead. And yet something Tookish made me press through the fear (the Took’s were Bilbo’s adventurous side of the family) and set out into the unknown.

These parts are none too well known, and are too near the mountains. Travelers seldom come this way now. The old maps are no use: things have changed for the worse and the road is unguarded. They have seldom even heard of the king round here, and the less inquisitive you are as you go along, the less trouble you are likely to find.

In large part through the virtues of keeping my head down and my nose to the grindstone the journey continued into a second year of biology, a second year that can aptly share my favorite chapter heading from the Hobbit: Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire.

My convergence of faith formation and confrontation with evolution was a challenge but by the grace of God I survived the experience, wary but still moving onward. Surviving this challenge only provided a preamble for the fire that was to come.

Against all professor’s recommendations, personal achievements in common sense and fellow travelers’ cautionary tales, I enrolled in the unthinkable:  Four upper level courses with labs, a half credit research class (the “Fellowship of the Undergraduate Researchers,” if you will) and additional commitments to work in the research lab as a source of income alongside the other jobs I held in order to support my young family.  For all intents and purposes this was an incredibly dumb idea.  There was too much work to do and not enough time.  This was a prescription for burn out, or even worse, a major hit to my GPA.

In hindsight I can recognize that there were two major blessing in taking on this course load. The first is simple but the second was a powerful turning point that relied on the first. In this period I didn’t have much time for anything else but biology, including thinking too much about my science path’s implications for my faith. Sure the concern wasn’t completely gone, but there was always a project to write up or fruit flies to sort and count or lab dishes to clean.  In the tight bonds of my crazy schedule I was given the freedom to almost exclusively think about science.

It was an intense time and by mid semester the sum of the load seemed to be less than the total of its parts.  The semester began to take on a synergistic energy.   The lessons I learned in cell bio spoke to the lessons I learned in invertebrate anatomy; the lectures in in my plant class where echoed in the dissections of comparative vertebrate anatomy.  I was beginning to see that science was more than a set of cool facts, and instead a way to see the world around me more clearly.  This full immersion in science most importantly became a sort of “refiner’s fire,” burning away what I originally thought to be the mere “politics of evolution,” concentrating the revelatory nature of evolutionary theory’s ability to be THE unifying theory of everything in biology.  I was becoming an evolutionist.

Is that The Mountain?” asked Bilbo in a solemn voice, looking at it with round eyes. He had never seen a thing that looked so big before. “Of course not!” said Balin. “That is only the beginning of the Misty Mountains, and we have to get through, or over, or under those somehow, before we can come into Wilderland beyond. And it is a deal of a way even from the other side of them to the Lonely Mountain in the East Where Smaug lies on our treasure.”
“O!” said Bilbo, and just at that moment he felt more tired than he ever remembered feeling before. He was thinking once again of his comfortable chair before the fire in his favourite sitting-room in his hobbit-hole, and of the kettle singing. Not for the last time!

True, navigating college was not the end of a long journey, only the first steps of a continuing excursion.  Still questions remained unanswered.

Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.

And on I went, trotting along, unsure of what end I would meet and meeting joys and challenges on the way. The greatest joys came in finding allies in authors and a friend. One friend, who is also my pastor, came to the same road I was traveling on but from a different starting point. I taught him how science works and he taught me about how the Bible works. Through this journey I have not lost my faith but have fortified it.  Some has been lost, but now I see it was only the dross.

Indeed Bilbo found he had lost more than spoons – he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’-except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind. He was quite content; and the sound of the kettle on his hearth was ever after more musical than it had been even in the quiet days before the Unexpected Party.

By Benjamin Sonquist.  To read more about Ben, click here.

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012 Blogs

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.