At 16, I went through my first spiritual crisis. My faith in Christ came face to face with Darwin’s evolving monkeys. These two points of view clashed in what they told about who I was—an icon of the divine, or a hairy primate governed by natural selection and evolutionary chance.
I had been taking AP Bio and was on track for a medical program. I had been very faithful all along the course. The vast diversity in the natural world, unified in its life functions, made me step back from the text and do my cross in the Orthodox way. “How magnified are Thy works, O Lord!” Even memorizing the Kreb cycle, looking at the complexity and fragility of ecological webs, only reinforced my faith in God the Great Poet Creator.
And then we got to Unit 5, “Evolution, Natural Selection, and Survival of the Fittest.” I read about the adaptations of the beaks on Darwin’s finches, and how the idea dawned on him that there needn’t be an external hand for the species to change. And then the text delved deeper into the actual process and how it operated on the genetic level with Dawkins’ “selfish gene” theory. That’s when I had to pause.
I looked around at the world with my teenage eyes. There was no denying the forces at work in the way nature operates—wars, the violence of one group against another, rape, subjugation, inequality, disease—to convince me that human beings were nothing more than Stone Age barbarians. The story of Adam and Eve and the serpent in the Garden—it seemed like it had truth, but it was only a story. It could not produce the body of evidence the way science could to convince me that this was the way humanity came into the world.
On the one hand, I saw the clear fossil record in the photos in the thick textbook of Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis. I studied the forks in the evolutionary tree from one primate ancestor to the other. I peered curiously into the faces of the hairy monkey-like statues in the Museum of Natural History, hunched over with paps hanging like deflated flapjacks. This was my grandmother going back to the Antediluvian? I saw the giant diagram on the exhibit wall. It was conceivable that the invisible yet relentless hand of time had sculpted these anthropoid Pitheci from four-legged furry balls into more erect forest dwellers, their foreheads lengthening, their eye ridges protruding less and less, their cheek bones smoothed back in the airbrush of eons.
Doubt tugged in my inward parts. Anxiety crept in at night. I spent hours agonizing on my pillow. What if there was no such thing as God? Maybe all there was, was this brief moment of time tied into a body with flesh and sinews and a beating heart, flesh that would die and get sucked up into muck and mud. What if there was no eternity? No basis for good or evil? If life was utter randomness, if you only lived long enough to reproduce and die, what was it worth anyway?
Fear and trembling had beat down with long black wings. I told my mother my doubts.
“Oh,” she surmised, “you are entering the teen years. This is when the devil starts tempting young people away from the faith. Remember, sometimes your thoughts are not your own. They are put there by the evil one to lead you astray.”
That was another wrench in the engine. How could I not even trust my thoughts? If I could not think, then what did I have to go on? The twitch in my toes? How would I be able to make a decision?
She had dropped out of the 4th grade, so her reassurances of the afterlife and the angels did not have much clout. She was my mother after all; what could she know?
So she took me to the village priest. Father Nektarios was a jolly enough benevolent man who looked like a shorter version of Santa, but in black. In his emphatic but sweet way he tried to explain: “Evolution is just a theory. They have not found all the pieces of the puzzle yet. There are huge gaps in the evolutionary record that they cannot account for. Scientists have yet to find the missing link.”
“That being said, Father,” I replied, “there is an evolutionary record. You cannot deny bones that show the slow but possible change of the skeleton.”
“Here,” he handed me a brochure. “Go home and read this. What you see is not always what you can trust.”
The brochure, entitled Don’t Be a Monkey’s Uncle, tried to discredit evolutionary theory through extracts of critiques which a famous anthropologist, Steven Jay Gould, had brought up. There were too many false starts and dead ends in the fossil record to accept it as the only way the creation of humans could have come about.
Somehow the logic of this did not assuage my fears. Just because the fossil record was not clear did not discount that it was a record. This was not the type of logical argument that helped do away with my doubt. It used faulty argumentation to make its point.Sort of like waving a bone and saying because the rest of it is missing, we can’t take it as evidence.
I went home and put my Bible away. Darwin had won.
But it wasn’t that easy to let God die just like that. From nature or the Divine or personal choice, I had been born an idealist. I wanted to believe that there could be a world where love, peace, and beauty existed. I wanted to believe in the best in human nature. That we were more angel than devil; that we could be capable of acts of mercy. As the Bard through the mouth of Hamlet had exclaimed,
What a piece of work is man,
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty,
In form and moving how express and admirable,
In action how like an Angel,
In apprehension how like a god,
The beauty of the world,
The paragon of animals. (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)
Whatever we were and however we arrived on the scene, we were nothing short of miraculous. A creature endowed with rational insight, imagination, the capacity to love and create—that could step outside the bounds of time and our earthly place to contemplate the stars. The fact that we as humans could ask the deep questions—of where we come from, where we are going—wasn’t that proof that we were something greater than the random permutations of natural selection could concoct?
The other thing about me was that I was born with a Renaissance brain. While most students are good either in math/science or English/social studies, I was good at both. I loved science, did brilliantly in math, and excelled in writing and languages. I got 100 on my trig Regents as well as a 96 on my English. I could not make up my mind what to major in in college because if I chose the sciences, it would mean giving up my love for literature and the arts. When I thought about things, I saw issues from more than one side—the rational, the emotional, the historical. I think this had something to do with the way I saw God. If God did not truly exist, or was some impersonal watchmaker, where was the meaning in life? I had lost God through too much textbook reading.
When I looked for answers in other churches, especially evangelical ones, the responses became even more hysterical and reactionary. Some Protestant “Jesus freaky” churches had blotted out any mention of evolution in the science textbooks and replaced it with the Creation story. This just added points for the Evolution scoreboard. If you react so strongly to the claim of an opponent that you just erase it, there has to be some truth to it. It seems entire factions of the country were experiencing the conflict I had going on in my head and heart.
Yet, deep in my heart (it was actually in my nous as I was to find out later), I could not give up God. I knew that it was quite possible as the experiment had shown that life could have started from the sides of a primordial soup and not from the finger of Michelangelo’s Father of Ages, yet I kept looking for clues, any signs, that He could theoretically still exist. Try as I might, the problem of God did not go away. Even though in my mind God was dead, in my heart I wanted to believe. I needed to have faith in something higher than all of this—nature red in tooth and claw. Maybe it was what I was reading? Maybe I had to find another way to think about the problem.
So, when I started college, the first undergrad course I took by choice was in the Philosophy Department. It was entitled “The Philosophy of God.” It explored the arguments for and against God’s existence as expounded by Plato, the pre-Socratics, Socrates himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, Bishop Berkeley, and so on and on. Here God became a concept for the syllogistic guillotine. We read Plato and his ideas of psyche; Socrates, who denied the existence of gods (and paid for it by drinking poison); Thomas Aquinas and the teleological argument. I learned that I had not been the only one to ponder the question of the existence of a higher being. There had been an entire history of philosophical thought trying to deck it out. The arguments even had names: the watchmaker hypothesis, the teleological argument, the first mover argument, etc. etc.
And then came Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a juggernaut; a cerebral bulldozer that crushed the other arguments liked pulled pork. I read Thus Spoke Zarathustra from cover to cover. It read like some heavy metal, spiked leather Bible from hell. God is dead. Christianity and religion are for those too weak to face the realities of life in all their gore and glory. That was a sheep-herder mentality. One needed to be be an Uberman to escape falling into delusional pits of slipshod, specious, weak arguments. And then I read how Nietzsche had led to the Nazis and how he had died a madman shouting obscenities, syphilitic ulcers eating his insides. So much for that. His was the devil’s philosophy.
I finished that course none the wiser and less the faithful. I had gone into that class with such a desire for this God problem to get sorted out. I wanted so badly to be able to come to a definitive conclusion: YES, God exists or a definitive NO, He is only a figment of the imagination, collective delusion or subconscious, whatever your disciplinary flavor. Shucks, it just made me more confused. Thoughts and ideas split off from other thoughts and ideas, one question bred another question, so that by the end of the semester my mind looked like a giant hair knot that gets larger and more convoluted. I started not only to question God’s existence but the entire way to know. (It turned out there was another philosophy class all about that issue, too, the foundation of how we know what we know, entitled Epistemology. No way was I going to get into more head games by registering for that one.)
So I trudged through young adulthood with my mind empty of God, yet my heart yearning for Him. I was to take another class in the Anthropology Department named The Goddess: Archeology and Archetype, and that spun another spool around the already convoluted knot that was my mind. There was archeological evidence that proved a matriarchal orientation in Neolithic settlements. Those faceless figures of the earth goddesses unearthed in Çatalhöyük with bulbous boobs and belly pranced before my mind’s eye. Before there was Jesus, before there was the pantheon of Olympic gods, there was the Goddess, and she reigned supreme for millennia before the warrior tribes with patrilineal gods overpowered her.
That was my permission slip to become a goddess worshipper. I went to Greece and got in touch with my internal goddess. I romped around island temples, skinny dipping and setting wreaths of sage on fire in self-initiated rites to honor Artemis and Demeter. I sent in a check for a hundred dollars and became an “official” member of the cult of Isis. (Some pagans in Scotland convened in a castle in the nude and officiated over rites that reenacted the dismembering and reassembly of Osiris, her cohort.)
In Psych 101, I picked up on the name of a psychologist, pronounced Young or Yoong but spelled Jung, who had fallen out with Freud. I bought a thick book of his collected writings which I leafed through here and there. In the university library, on a shelf all the way near the ceiling, I stretched and reached for an intriguing volume bound in burgundy leather with gold lettering—The Golden Bough. It was by a 19th-century scholar by the name of Sir James Frazier who had compiled a cross-cultural compendium of the rituals, beliefs and practices of various peoples throughout the world. WOW! I thought I had uncovered the secret key to the kingdom.
Here was yet another way to look at the God question. Perhaps our orientation to the Divine had to do with our collective historical and political development? Not only was God a product of the human mind, but He was also a product of the collective subconsciousness. He/She spoke to the need of human beings to believe in a spiritual world in order to negotiate the mysteries of living, to assuage anxiety over death. With so many cultures, so many millennia yet the archetypes were universal: flood, virgin birth, heroes, underworlds, apotheosis. Yes, Jung read, God(s) exist and there is truth in myth from whatever ethnicity, time, and geography, but that is because of the functioning of the deep mind and the human life cycle. All gods were brought forth by the human breast.
While this argument did not deduce away the existence of God, it did not completely satisfy me, either. The rational Enlightenment had killed off God, Jung had resurrected Him, yet that was not the kind of reasoning I was looking for, either. God had to exist on His own terms, not on mine.
By that time, I had graduated from university and was living like an adult with a career, bills to pay, and love issues. I came to the conclusion that it was impossible to logically and rationally arrive at a proof for God’s existence. Just as one school of thought existed to propound the fact, another bigger school would surface to chop it down. Thinking led one on an infinite loop that gave no relief. I still would chatter in cold sweat at night, overwhelmed by the existential questions that pounded the walls of my heart: Timor mortis conturbat me, echoed the refrain of a medieval poem from the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
And then came a life crisis. I was 23. I received an inkling that I might be harboring a fatal disease. I had to undergo a series of diagnostic medical tests. My God, I was too young to die! To make matters more complicated, I was pregnant. The night sweats intensified. In my nightmares, I saw my body corrupting into fecal matter, a swarm of flies over my open grave. The fear and the trembling so pronounced I nearly went mad from worry. It was then, at the behest of a pious English-Cypriot friend, that I walked into the only Orthodox church in Barcelona at that time, and did the unthinkable—I prayed. I think it was the first time I really prayed in my life. Truly prayed. From the heart or nous, which in Orthodox theology (a subject that is never studied in the academy) is the center of the human person, not the mind. On my knees in front of the icon of the Pantocrator, I repented with tears:
Lord, I have driven my life to the grave. My intentions have drifted far from the mark. I am not worthy that You should hear me. Do not let my life go down to the earth. Save me from the abyss I have dug for myself. Save me and my unborn child from the mouth of Hades. Give me a new lease on life and I will walk in Your commandments. I promise to serve and believe in You. If You indeed exist, not just as a concept, but as a person, as You did in Your life on earth, then I will glorify Your name for as long as I live. I promise to bring up the child growing in my womb in Your Church. As a covenant of this promise, I will name her in Your honor.
Without knowing why, I read the Book of Psalms, 1 to 150, for an entire week before I was to be given the results of my diagnostics. (I found out later that praying the Psalms is the most powerful entreaty in times of need.) They came back negative. I had been given a new lease on life. I had wagered my whole being in the bet I made with the Unknown Watchmaker. And because He willed that I should go on living, I turned to Him. This time on His terms. I became a devout Christian. Of course, I baptized the child Christina.
As I grew in spiritual maturity, the truth of God’s existence no longer had to be proved or argued like some term paper. I came to understand that faith and reason, the underlying macro-wrestling match between evolution and creationism, speak to different parts of the human experience. Moreover, the ontological perspective one takes determines what each is able to see. If you view the human being as originating from an ape-like ancestor, it acts like an ape. If you view the human being as originating from a divine, benevolent Creator, then it acts like a god. What you look for is what you get. (Sort of like the dual nature of light. If you are looking at it as a wave, it acts like a wave; if you are looking at it as a particle, it acts like a particle.)
Because this conundrum bothers not only creative types such as me, but bona fide scientists themselves, some have proposed a middle ground approach. They named their theory “intelligent design.” While they do not come out flatly to pronounce the existence of God (that would be so passé in scientific circles), they leave the possibility open. Again, it comes down to foundational perspective. If one chooses to approach the scientific world from a vantage point that allows for faith, then the evidence can be used to argue for His existence. The universe is so vast and intricate, from the tiniest particle of an atom to a giant event horizon, one stands in awe! Pure chance could not have allowed for this. But if one is skeptical from the start, well, “It is what it is,” they say; keep God out of it.
On looking back, I can say that knowledge of the truth of God’s existence comes from the baptism by fire in the crucible of the knowledge of good and evil. No one can truly know God without having the faculty of the noetic heart open. A synergy of faith and revelation work mysteriously in the deepest core of what it means to be human and from that depth calls out, “Lord, have mercy.” Can I point to evidence, exhibit A, B, or C, that proves unquestionably that God exists? No. That would go against the tenets of faith. You believe because you know in a way that surpasses understanding.
I came to believe in God in an experiential way, a way that defied empirical knowledge. The best way I describe it to students is by analogy. Say I love someone, say his name is Mark. I have spent much time with him and deep down I know I want to be with him for the rest of my life. I rant and rave about him. You go to meet him and come back perplexed. “What does she see in that guy anyway?” You don’t love Mark; you don’t know him like I do. All the words and examples of his greatness will not be enough to convince you that he is a dreamboat beyond someone’s wildest dreams. You cannot deny that Mark is great, for me at least. Your not seeing him the same way makes him none the worse in my eyes.
On looking back I can see how it would be easy for a young person to lose faith in God in school. The academy is founded on the Scientific Method. There is no room in a secular undergraduate lecture hall for theologians. Why? Because to give those voices an equal footing would be endorsing them in a way. So theological thinkers such as St Gregory Palamas and the Desert Fathers and Mothers are shunned. (St Augustine is allowed in because he is so scholastic and rational in his approach; the same approach that led Christ to the guillotine by the Enlightened philosophes.) In America with a strict separation of Church and State, you get two different camps of thought that do not get to refute or even hear each other’s discourses. Without a defender for the other side, the main front gains a victory with no contest. If I had been given a thorough Orthodox education, I might not have lost faith in my young adulthood.
As I matured both in my faith and in myself, I came to see Darwin and the Bible as two coins that flipped into different worlds.
First of all, these worldviews differ in their anthropology. The heart is the center of the human being in the Orthodox faith, not the mind, as in the academy. St. Gregory Palamas held that man is a representation of the trinitarian mystery. Man is made of spirit, sense, and nous. It is the nous that is the center of the soul of man; the faculty that gives him the eyes to see the spiritual world. It is his or her passions that keep him from knowing God fully. Indeed, I am starting to believe that the central engines of natural selection, greed, gluttony, concern for acquiring wealth, lust and a fixation on sex, violence, intrasexual competition, the hierarchal struggle to attain status if male (so to acquire more resources and by extension more females and have more sex and propel genes into posterity), the preoccupation with appearance and beauty if female (so to attract a powerful resource-rich male), are really passions and deadly sins.
It is the struggles of the flesh that keep the human being fixated on earthly and material cares. Natural selection calls for everything that is brutish, selfish, barbaric, violent, vain, proud, and flamboyant in mankind. The mechanisms of evolution are all about the flesh and the glory of the world. But the Spirit of God lies in opposition to the flesh. This is why the Gospel is foolishness to those of the world. Its tenets rest on a foundation that is other-worldly, obscure at best, and preposterous at worst. Orthodox Christian theology holds that only when one reaches theoria, as the saints did, can one truly grasp the Mystery of God. St. Gregory Palamas, indeed, defines theoria as the vision of God. To see God is to have a pure and open nous. Those who see God struggle for the honor. By extension those who cannot see Him might be damned or at least so clouded by the muck and mud of physical survival that they cannot raise their eyes to heaven.
The thirst for knowledge, if you accept theological dogma, can also be a consequence of the fall. (That forbidden tree was named “the knowledge of good and evil.” ) There are limits to human knowledge. It is an act of pride to believe that one can understand everything. Can the watch ever truly understand the mind of the watchmaker? It would seem obstinate and disrespectful. Our minds are limited by the cage of our cranium. To think we can use only our mind and our senses to truly understand the complexities of the galaxies of knowledge is frankly adolescent. Then again, the mysteries of knowing are eclipsed by the mysteries of unknowing. What we do not know, what we do not see, what is beyond the realm of sensory or rational inquiry, might be as significant as what we do. It is the arrogance of the scientific community that insists what they say is all that needs to be known and on the terms they deem worthy.
Ultimately faith becomes a choice. A choice between accepting the kind of narrative you believe human beings should come from and follow. I have met priests who are closet atheists just as I have met evolutionary biologists who do not believe in evolution. “From a speck this small they are able to construct an entire skull,” Mary Thanos, a PhD in evolutionary biology explained. “When you look at the list of ten or more conditions that have to occur for a mutation to take place that leads to genetic evolution, you realize that it is very improbable. For evolution to exist, that would mean the universe runs on chance. God does not function by chance. He is the creator and allows for everything in the cosmos. If there were such a thing as chance, God would be surprised. And that’s not possible. God can’t surprise Himself.” What I understood from talking to Mary was that evolutionary biologists held as much faith in science as Christians did in God.
Skeptics will point out that had my prayers not been answered, I would not have been a believer. (Damned right, I would have been dead in the grave.) To that I will answer as the blind man did to the Pharisees, “Whether he be a sinner or no, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” (Jn 9:25).
In the circumstances of my life, God has made His way known. It is a question of having the eyes to see. There are seventy-five references in the Gospel that refer to Christ’s opening the eyes. Indeed, in that same passage, He states, “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind” (Jn 9:39).
Faith, like love, is a mystery. Sometimes it is a gift or a grace, a “charisma.” It is the heart that responds in awe and love at the sight of the sunrise; it is the mind through its reasoning that tries to explain how the sun rises. They are two different ways of knowing that should be complementary, not antagonistic.
Could evolution be the method God used to form the Creation even while taking a lump of clay and molding it into human form and breathing life, ‘pneuma’ into it, giving it a soul? However mankind came about, evolution no longer pricks my faith.
See also Aidan Hart’s Faith & Science: Yokefellows or Antagonists?.
Irene Archos holds a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri in Columbia. Her religious articles have appeared in Pemptousia, OCN, and Pravoslavie. She has also published extensively on travel, spirituality, culture, and women’s issues in international venues. Visit her two websites at Greek American Girl and Aceso: Hellenic Arts for Healing.