Thursday, December 29, 2005

Darwin's Black Box, ch. 1

I'm starting to read one of the seminal popular works of the Intelligent Design movement, Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box, published in 1996. Behe is a professor of biochemistry, so he knows whereof he writes.

I'll say, early on, that I don't think that serious ID proponents think Darwin was all wrong, still less that they agree with the "young-earth creationists" who take the Biblical account of creation literally.

And sure enough, Behe writes in chapter 1:

Many people think that questioning Darwinian evolution must be equivalent to espousing creationism. ... For the record, I have no reason to doubt that the universe is the billions of years old physicists say it is. Further, I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it. ... I think that evolutionary biologists have contributed enormously to our understanding of the world.

But then he delivers the kicker:

Although Darwin's mechanism -- natural selection working on variation -- might explain many things, I do not believe it explains molecular life.

And that, it appears, is going to be the battleground described in the book. Darwinism does a fair job of theorizing about large-scale adaptation, like the famous case of the Galapagos finches' beaks; but it has a much harder time accounting for life at the molecular level -- the level, indeed, at which life actually happens. He takes Darwin's mid-nineteenth-century speculation on how the human eye might have developed, and puts it up against the biochemical knowledge of our own time, 150 years later. Even Behe's simplified summary of what has to happen, chemically, for the eye to detect and transmit one "round" of photon reception is stunningly complex. One is left with the impression of a biological machine whose parts are far more intricate than Darwin imagined (the cell was thought to be a simple blob of uncomplicated carbon-based mush). And so the task for Darwinists is to explain how such intricate machines could have developed by the slow accretion of tiny, random variations.

More about this as I get farther on in the book.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A sense of sacred space

Because my interest in photographing stained glass has meant a growing interest in church architecture, I put a book called Theology in Stone by Richard Kieckhefer on my Amazon wish list, and my wife was kind enough to put it under the tree this Christmas. I'm sure I'll have more comments to make about it as time goes on, but here's one excerpt I found myself thinking about:

One is reminded of J. L. Pearson's declaration that his business was "to think what will bring people soonest to their knees." But then Pearson worked within the established forms of Gothic revival, whose vocabulary anyone would have recognized as whispering a summons to reverence. Saarinen's accomplishment [in designing the boxlike, hypermodern interior of Christ Church Lutheran in Minneapolis] was to achieve a similar effect without the conventions of recognized sacred architecture, engendering a spirit of reverence with what might have seemed -- and in the hands of another architect might well have been -- the desacralized vocabulary of a modern aesthetic.

I have two thoughts about this.

  • "Bringing people to their knees" seems like just what you want a church to do. So if an older style of architecture is nearly 100% sure to engender the spirit of reverence one wants in a church, why risk millions of dollars building in a new style, when the result might well be a building that drives people away, or worse, erodes their faith?
  • I'm glad he agrees with me that the modern aesthetic has a desacralized vocabulary. I've nearly always found "modern" churches sterile and deeply depressing. Like this one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

December 25: not a recycled pagan holiday after all

I've always thought I knew that we Catholics decided to celebrate Christ's birthday on December 25 as a repurposing, if you will, of a pagan holiday prevalent in Rome at the time of the early church -- the solstice feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun.

Turns out, according to this article, that Sol was the latecomer to the party. Christians had probably already staked out December 25 as a good day to celebrate Christ's birth as much as a century before the emperor Aurelian proclaimed the observance of Sol Invictus in A.D. 274. They didn't have very accurate reasons for doing so, but they seem to have grabbed the date first.

A more detailed article on the subject is available here.

So, when someone tells you that Christians "stole" the date of Christmas from the (peaceful, tolerant, eco-friendly) pagans, don't let 'em get away with it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"Always winter and never Christmas"

That's the way the deplorable condition of Narnia under the White Witch is described at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For its author C. S. Lewis, this must have been a particularly powerful image for a world in which all real joy had been suppressed: the slushy chill of December in turn-of-the-century Belfast, but with all its excitement and anticipation gone, and nothing ahead but an imminent return to the boarding schools that Lewis loathed.

It strikes me as an apt image for what the ACLU, People for the American Way, and other such groups are trying to establish in this country: a winter "holiday" season without its chief holiday, without the event that the majority of Americans regard -- when they think of it, which is not as often as they should -- as the real source of true, deep, and everlasting joy. Oh, they'll let us have Hanukkah because they say it has become only a "cultural" event (this would probably be a surprise to most Jews, but let that go); they'll let us have Kwanzaa because it's politically correct to do so; they'll let us have the Solstice because it carries a frisson of fashionable paganism with it. And they'll let us have the counterfeit joy of frantic gift-giving and party-going and overeating because those things take our mind off the wintry chill of hearts without Christ. And besides, it's good for business.

But Christmas? Uh-uh. The public square is to be just the ultimately grim, ice-bound wasteland that Lewis wrote of: winter, but never Christmas.