“I Don’t Know”

This semester I’m teaching a class about literature as a mediation of, and a mediator for, religion and science in the culture at large. In the section of the class about creation narratives, we’ve been covering the varieties of Western patterns, including the Babylonian, Hebrew, Platonic, Pauline, and Gnostic worldviews. Now we’re moving on to Darwin and the way the theories of speciation through natural selection and the descent of man from “lowly” forms of life (that’s in The Descent of Man) did or did not disrupt these earlier sacred narratives.

All of that is pretty standard; what’s interesting is the response I got when I gave students a survey about their own beliefs relative to the classical and scientific accounts of creation. When asked “How old is the earth? How do you know?” and “How old is humanity? How do you know?”, many students said “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” to both sets of questions. Of course, there were also ardent believers in both the classical and scientific accounts, and hybrids of them, but mostly students professed a kind of agnosticism. This has never happened to me before in any class. I am struck by the willingness of my students to admit that they’re not sure, and also by their unwillingness to throw punches as partisans in the tradition fight between literalist biblicism and scientism.

In this regard, many of them were fascinated by the news that classical and late antique readers of the Bible developed both literal and figurative modes of interpretation that allowed science and religion to engage in conversation rather than conflict. They are interested in the idea of interpretation itself, that an insistence on the absolute literal truth or falsehood of the sacred text is not the only choice they can make as readers. It reminded me of Rachel Carson’s argument, against her many detractors, that the Bible told us why the world was made, and science told us how. This claim, which anticipated Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of the Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) of science and religion, isn’t the answer to all the hard questions about sacred and scientific accounts of creation. It is helpful as a first step beyond literalism, however, and in a culture less fixated on total certainty, it would be fairly obvious. The fact that it isn’t, that students react to it as if it had fallen from the sky, is a measure of the hard work we teachers must face.

In the meantime, I think “I don’t know” is a very healthy answer.


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