What About the Dragons Now?

A topic arose recently in a group discussion relating to the vexed matter of “intelligent design.” My impression is that, in its broadest outlines, the question at stake asks whether science, at the end of the day, is obliged to acknowledge a Designer at the root of things, and that, at least as matters stand now, the answer is widely thought to lie in the negative.

All of this is considered axiomatic in academic discourse. What caught my attention was the profound extent to which the men in the group espoused this line. The point here is that these men are Christian academics (they are Protestant), all of them with doctorates, none of them scientists or philosophers. A relatively recent discovery about the human eye seemed to constitute a watershed for their thinking: Apparently, some mechanism in the eye is now thought to have developed without any discernible divine involvement. Well, if this can happen, then this pretty well settles the matter, doesn’t it? Actually, all of these men already assume a broadly Darwinian position on things. It may be remarked that they are also ex-fundamentalists and live in unremitting mortal terror of being taken for biblical literalist, six-day creationists.

I find the greatest satisfaction in wringing the noses of these briskly modern friends of mine, so I began droning a litany: “He made great lights . . . the sun and moon . . . He calleth the stars by name . . . Who laid out the earth . . . Who giveth fodder to the cattle . . . He giveth snow like wool . . . and maketh the grass to grow upon the mountains, and herb for the use of men . . . Praise the Lord upon earth: ye dragons, and all deeps . . . Benedicite, omnia opera Domini Domino!”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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What? We were having a serious discussion about science, and you regale us with fanciful Hebrew poetry, forsooth. May we now return to the topic?

But this is the topic. Weren’t we speaking of the elegance of things? Their structure? The architecture and complexity and delicacy that we see? Weren’t we then raising the question of attribution here? Whence does it all arise?

My friends are all theists and would say they are Christian — that is, they wish to keep God in the picture somewhere. But when I asked them how, exactly, they might wish to distinguish their outlook from that of the deists of the 18th century, they had some difficulty. In what sense, that is, has God not gone off and left things to run by themselves, as the deists would have it? (This is a grotesque oversimplification in one sense — but not altogether so.) It is said of Our Lord in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians that “by Him all things hold together.” Ah well — only poetry, of course. Only pious vaporings. First-century cosmology. Irrelevant to the discussion of intelligent design.

It brings up a point. Was I being quixotic to start hailing them with psalms in the middle of such a discussion? Not really. Remember, that is still the language of Christian worship. Is it a hermetically sealed language, unattached to reality? No. It is language which is flatly true in principio, et nunc, et semper. When all the rum facts uncovered by astrophysics, genetics, and microbiology show up in the final unfurling of the sempiternal architecture of things, the whole edifice will resound with Laudate et superexaltate Eum in saeculo!

My friends were very earnest. They feel that a grave time has arrived. Science is taxing faith’s hitherto blithe and perhaps callow assumptions. The literalist creationists are naïve, poor lambs; we must construct a new sort of outlook. (What that outlook might be, I could not get them to say.)

It may be held as an article of faith, it seems to me, that the rhapsodic language of psalmody and liturgy touches on fixities that do not shiver when Magellan, Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, or Einstein get busy.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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