Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts, is my subject. In my first post about this book I mentioned that she does not think Charles Darwin’s science is necessarily opposed to faith. She wants to have a sympathetic reading of Darwin from the standpoint of Christian faith. In fact, she actually uses his Origin as a kind of devotional book.
The danger here is projecting ideas onto Darwin. But she is pretty clear minded about this. For a long time Darwin was a kind of deist. He spoke of a creator in the beginning and talked about how life had been “breathed” into everything. Later he stopped talking like that. He became more of an agnostic. He was never an atheist. He never denied the existence of God. But he also was never an orthodox believer.
What she sees in Darwin—especially the early Darwin—is a sense of wonder. He looked at the natural world with astonishment. He was a disciplined observer of details that others missed.
Johnson takes from Sallie McFague a distinction between the “arrogant eye” and the “loving eye”. These are two ways of observing the world. The arrogant eyes objectifies and seeks to control what it observes.
“… the loving eye pays patient, careful attention to the particularity of the other in a non-sentimental, vitally interested way that reverences its reality.
Johnson, Elizabeth A. (2014-01-16). Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Kindle Locations 1041-1042). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Johnson says that this is what Darwin did. The Darwin of On the Origin of the Species saw the world with awe and empathy. He noted and described the littlest things: the foot of a bird, the structure of a sea shell, the streamlined body of a beetle. Like many others, he saw and marveled at examples of symmetry in nature. But he also saw what did not seem to fit. For instance, he described birds with webbed feet that never went in the water. He tried to account for it all.
She points out that the Origin is not really about origins in the sense that one might try to write a prehistory of the natural world. Its thesis is that the origin of the species was from each other. In other words, each species was not a distinct creation, but a modification of something that had gone before. Most had assumed from the religious idea of creation that God had just zapped each species into existence. But Darwin looked closely at the world that actually existed. He looked at it in minute detail, observing every aspect of living things. He concluded that what he saw was more compatible with the idea that the species derived from each other over long, long periods of time.
Darwin’s book had wide appeal because it began with what everyone involved in farming of animal breeding knew. Different varieties of cabbages or dogs could come about over time by the cumulative power of selection. This idea certainly did not attack the concept of design, because breeding in the garden or the kennel was by design. When Darwin implied, though, that something similar happened over million and millions of years and that it included the development of human beings, he startled many people. Yet Darwin was not trying to do this. He was not trying to stick it to the man. He was not trying to shock the clergy. He was applying the loving eye of observation to the natural world that enthralled and fascinated him.