Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Charles Darwin: Christian or atheist?

Charles Darwin ... born 200 years ago in 1809

Patrick Comerford

This year, celebrations and special events are taking place across the world to mark both the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, who was born on 12 February 1809, and to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of his best-known most influential book, The Origin of the Species, in 1859.

Special coins and postage stamps have been issued, there has been a major celebration dinner in Christ’s College, his old college in Cambridge, there is a fascinating exhibition in Trinity College Dublin, and he is also being celebrated in Lichfield, the cathedral city where his grandfather, Dr Erasmus Darwin, had a practice and first developed concepts that influenced Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution.

Already this year, I have been privileged to stay at Darwin’s college in Cambridge when I was invited to preach in the chapel of Christ’s College, and one of my favourite places to stay in Lichfield when I am on retreat there is a house in the Cathedral Close that looks onto the back of the Darwin family home (right) and over the herb garden that was planted by Dr Erasmus Darwin.

Darwin has been claimed by atheists, agnostics and Unitarians alike, and he has even been used in argument by those who try to claim the modern science does away with all religious and theological arguments,

Indeed, it has to be admitted that for decades the Church, in all its branches, was not very kind to Charles Darwin. And the force of that argument, and his own stated agnosticism means that many forget that while Darwin often kept his distance from the Church, his early hopes were to be ordained a priest in the Church of England, and throughout his life he had a steady, quiet respect for the Anglican faith of his childhood.

Although Darwin’s mother, Susanna (Wedgwood), came from a Unitarian background, Charles was baptised in Saint Chad’s Church of England parish church in Shrewsbury, and attended a school in Shrewsbury, where the headmaster was an Anglican priest, Canon Samuel Butler, who became Bishop of Lichfield in 1832.

After a disappointing start at studying medicine in Edinburgh, Darwin changed his plans and became an undergraduate at Cambridge, studying theology and math in preparation for hopeful ordination. As he said himself, “I liked the thought of being a country clergyman.”

In Christ’s College, I have dined beneath Darwin’s portrait, and in my room was a portrait of William Paley, the theologian who famously developed the concept of natural theology, presenting the argument from divine design in nature to explain adaptation as God acting through the laws of nature.

First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge ... Charles Darwin came as an undergraduate to study theology in the hope of being ordained a priest in the Church of England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

As an undergraduate at Christ’s College, Darwin read Paley with enthusiasm, and was particularly convinced by the arguments of the Revd John Bird Summer who, in his Evidences of Christianity, challenged those who were sceptical about Christ, the Gospels and Christianity. Darwin also loved spending time listening to the choir in the Chapel at nearby King’s College.

At Cambridge, virtually all of the college heads and most of the professors and fellows were ordained Anglican priests. The one don who had the greatest influence on Darwin as an undergraduate was his tutor in theology and math, the Revd John Henslow, a Church of England priest who was the Regius Professor of Biology.

Darwin virtually memorised Paley’s great theological works, and did particularly well in his final exam questions on those books, in which Paley argued that a rational proof for the existence of God could be found in the complexity and perfect adaptation to needs of living beings exquisitely fitted to their places in a happy world.

After graduating, Darwin joined the famous expedition on the Beagle, visiting the Galápagos Island, and showing his first interests in the ideas that he later developed in his books. On board the Beagle, he was firm defender of the Bible and of his Christian faith and morals, and his first published work was a joint essay with Captain Robert FitzRoy in the South African Christian Recorder, defending missionaries against critics who unfairly accused them of causing racial tension and profiteering.

When he returned to England, Darwin and his cousin Emma Wedgwood, a devout Anglican, were married in 1839 in Saint Peter’s parish church in Maer, Shropshire.

When they moved to the village of Downe, they were both intimately involved in the life of their local parish, were Charles formed a life-lasting friendship with the local vicar, the Revd John Brodie Innes, who wrote: “I never saw a word in his writings which was an attack on religion. He follows his own course as a naturalist and leaves Moses to take care of himself.”

Darwin’s faith was severely challenged by the tragic death of his ten-year-old daughter Annie in 1851. He stopped going to church, although his wife and children continued going. While Darwin lost his own faith in the Christian religion, he still supported the church and its activities, remained on the local school committee, and continued to contribute throughout his life to the work of the South American Missionary Society.

It is unfair to Darwin to say that he was ever anti-religious. But the publication of the Origin of the Species in 1859 drew regrettable responses from senior figures in the Church of England.

In a public debate in Oxford in 1860, the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, argued against Darwin’s explanation, with singular lack of grace during the debate asked Thomas Huxley whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side. Huxley muttered: “The Lord has delivered him into my hands” and replied that he “would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood.”

On the other hand, Darwin received a welcoming review from the author of the Water Babies, the Revd Charles Kingsley, who a leading Christian socialist.

Later Darwin recalled that at the time of writing the On the Origin of Species the conclusion was strong in his mind of the existence of God due to “the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe … as the result of blind chance or necessity … I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a theist.”

He remained involved in parish activities until a row with a new vicar caused him to resign from all committees in 1874. He continued to take an interest in theology, responding to the sermons of the Oxford Tractarian, E.B. Pusey, and condemned those atheists who tried to recruit him to their cause for being “aggressive.”

When Darwin died on 19 April 1882, he was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey, where I recently found myself stepping across his gravestone on my way to Choral Evensong.

Claims that Darwin returned to Christianity on his deathbed have been disproved. But the 19th century Church was as unkind to Darwin as the Church in earlier days had been unfair to Galileo.

Good religion needs good science, and the Church of England now accepts that it misjudged its initial reactions to Darwin. Throughout the centuries, theologians have sought knowledge of the world and knowledge of God. For Thomas Aquinas there was no such thing as science versus religion. Both existed in the same sphere and to the same end, the glory of God. It is regrettable that we failed to understand this when Darwin’s faith was still alive.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a radio interview on 6 May 2009.

Remembering Doctor Johnson

Samuel Johnson ... born 300 years ago in 1709

Patrick Comerford

For a few years in the 1970s, I was a freelance contributor to the Lichfield Mercury, the local paper for the beautiful cathedral city where I have family connections going back generations and centuries.

I still go back to Lichfield a few times a year for a quiet retreat or just for a break. These days, the Lichfield Mercury has its offices in Breadmarket Street, just a few steps from the house where Doctor Johnson, Samuel Johnson, was born 300 years ago, on 18 September 1709.

Today we often think of fiction, poetry, essays, plays, short stories, and even journalism and biographies, as literary genres. But Johnson’s lasting contribution to English literature was his Dictionary of the English Language, which was first published in 1755.

Johnson’s Dictionary has had a far-reaching impact on Modern English, and has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.” With his Dictionary, Johnson achieved fame, popularity and the academic recognition he had long been denied.

Until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary a century and a half later, Johnson’s Dictionary was regarded as the definitive and pre-eminent English dictionary. It stands alongside the collected works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the King James Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer as one of the works that shaped and formed the words we write and speak to this day.

Apart from his Lichfield connections, I suppose I also like Doctor Johnson because he too began his career as a journalist, working on Grub Street – a term for hack journalism which immortalised in his Dictionary. He had failed as a schoolmaster in Lichfield, but he went on to make an incalculable contribution to English literature as a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, literary critic, translator biographer and editor.

Indeed, it is said that he was “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” On top of that, his biography by his friend, James Boswell, has been hailed as “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.”

In Ireland, we often forget that Doctor Johnson had many important and influential Irish connections. And in Church circles, we can forget that this literary giant was a pious and practising Anglican all his life.

His social circle and friends included Irish writers such as the poet Oliver Goldsmith and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who successfully campaigned for a pension for Johnson that allowed him to live comfortably after the publication of his Dictionary, and the statesman Edmund Burke.

Samuel Johnson is known throughout the world simply as “Doctor Johnson.” He never actually graduated from Oxford, for he was forced to leave Pembroke College after a year and return to Lichfield because of the poverty brought about by the debts of his father, Michael Johnson, who badly managed a bookshop.

In 1738, a leading English politician, Lord Gower, asked the Irish writer Jonathan Swift to use his influence at Trinity College Dublin to have a masters degree awarded to Johnson so that he could then receive an MA from Oxford and continue working as a teacher. Swift declined, but by now Johnson was in London, setting out on what would become a major literary career.

Johnson eventually received the doctorate that gave him his popular title as an honour from Trinity College Dublin in 1765, ten years after his Dictionary was published. His doctorate from Oxford eventually came another ten years later – in 1775. And so, Doctor Johnson is truly an Irish literary doctor!

As a philosopher, Johnson was known is his days for his refutation of Bishop George Berkeley’s immaterialism. The Bishop of Cloyne argued that matter did not actually exist but only seemed to exist. But during a conversation with Boswell after church one morning, Johnson powerfully stomped against a nearby stone until he rebounded from it and then proclaimed of Berkeley’s theory: “I refute it thus!”

The house where Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield ... and the offices of the Lichfield Mercury in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Johnson was born in sight of Saint Mary’s Church, the guild church of Lichfield, and the Market Square, where a number of Reformation martyrs had been burned at the stake. At his birth, he was so sickly it was feared he would not survive, and the curate from Saint Mary’s was summoned hastily to baptise him.

Lichfield’s Market Square and Johnson’s statue viewed from Johnson’s house in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

His education began at the age of three, and came from his mother who taught him to memorise and recite collects and passages from the Book of Common Prayer. For the rest of his life he was a devout Anglican and a compassionate man who supported a number of poor friends under his own roof, even when he was unable to fully provide for himself.

His Christian morality permeated his works, and he would write on moral topics with such authority and in such a trusting manner that one biographer said: “No other moralist in history excels or even begins to rival him.”

His faith did not prejudice him against others, and he respected members of other denominations who demonstrated a commitment to the teachings of Christ. However, although Johnson admired John Milton’s poetry, he could not tolerate Milton’s puritan and republican beliefs, feeling that they were contrary to England and Christianity.

Although politically he was a Tory, Johnson opposed slavery on moral grounds, and once famously proposed a toast to the “next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies.”

On his last visit to Church, the walk strained him, but while there, he wrote a prayer for his friends, the Thrale family: “To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, I commend this family. Bless, guide, and defend them, that they may pass through this world, as finally to enjoy in thy presence everlasting happiness, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”

The spires of Lichfield Cathedral, seen from a window at the top of Johnson’s House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Doctor Johnson died on 13 December 1784 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His life and work is celebrated in a stained glass window in Southwark Cathedral, he is named in the calendar of the Church of England as a modern Anglican saint, and he is being fondly commemorated in Lichfield throughout this year as the cathedral city marks the tercentenary of his birth.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a radio interview on 6 May 2009.

Paul and Barnabas

The Deliverance of Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas (Claude-Guy Halle)

Patrick Comerford

6 May 2009, 5 p.m.: The Eucharist

Acts 12: 24 – 13: 5a; Psalm 67; John 12: 44-50.


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our ministry and mission, we all hope that what we say will be inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that we will not fall back on or rely on our own whims or current fashions. We will constantly pray, I hope, that we will work with and through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which the Church prays we will be empowered with at our ordination.

This is exactly what happens to Saul and Barnabas in the story we have read in the Acts of the Apostles this afternoon.

These two companions arrive in Jerusalem at a time of great persecution at the hands of Herod Agrippa I, who favoured Pharisaism. At Herod’s hands, James the brother of John has been martyred, Peter was arrested and kept in chains before escaping and making his way to Caesarea, and Rhoda and her friends were probably typical of the Christians in Jerusalem, locking themselves away and hiding in fear.

When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem, they arrive to a Church that is persecuted and suffering, but a Church that is full of prayer and hope, and a Church that is continuing to gather disciples, even from among Herod’s own inner circle, and places far away in North Africa.

The word of God was continuing to advance and to gain adherents, as we are told.

It is never our own efforts, our own sermons, or own teaching that gathers people into the Church. It helps, but we must always rely on the Holy Spirit, and give the glory to God.

And when Paul and Silas move on to Antioch – Antioch where the name Christian is first used – the members of the Church there lay hands on Paul and Barnabas, it is not to make them apostles. Paul later tells the Galatians that he received his commission as an apostle not human authority but from divine commissioning (see Galatians 1: 1). Instead, after prayer and fasting, they lay hands on Paul and Barnabas to bless them for their new work.

When you have hands laid on you at your ordination by your ordaining bishop, iy will happen long after you first felt called by God to share in the ministry and mission of the Church.

Hopefully, it will take place after a retreat, in an atmosphere akin to prayer and fasting. Your call has come from God, but the Church needs to set you apart for the work you are called to.

In a similar vein, Christ reminds the disciples in our Gospel reading that he has done and said what he has been commanded to do and say by the Father (John 12: 49).

When you speak in mission and ministry, it must never be in your own name, but as the Father tells you, in the name of Christ, and as the Spirit gifts you.

Just as Christ reminded his disciples that it should be for them too. Just as it was with Paul and Barnabas.

And now may all our thought, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Community Eucharist on 6 May 2009.