This week was the “moment” in the semester when the stars aligned and the contents of the assignments suggested that I had planned well. If only I were that good at planning. From a distance there might be little to suggest that Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly, Edward Larson’s Summer for the Gods, and Gregor Mendel’s “Experiments in Plant Hybridization” have anything in common.
In a Senior Capstone course titled “The Quest for Wholeness,” which I’m still trying to figure out what that means, I have had students read Campbell’s memoir for some time. As he wrestles with his brother’s suicide, Campbell asks probing questions about himself, the world around him that the white, Christian South had made, and why his brother’s fate turn out the way it did. In a relatively new course in Integrative Studies, my first-year students read Larson’s history of the Scopes trial in 1925. Having finished reading primary texts in Jeffery Moran’s documents on the trial, the students explore how we make sense out of the events of the trial. Science and religion in the American South have had an unusual relationship. In the Great Books course, the students read Mendel’s essay on the building blocks of genetics. The use of statistical analysis to explain evolution, and Mendel’s confidence in this methodology’s ability to explain evolution for all living creatures, led to the realization that his work undermines divine creation in ways equally profound to Darwin.
In good ways, all three raise questions about the South, religion, and science/progress, but not necessarily in relation to one another. In this way, the three texts affect only me. Taking them in reverse order, the pea experiments are by far the most damaging of the nineteenth century scientific discoveries. Though perhaps unprepared for the importance of the find at the time, Mendel’s work helped us see the randomness of creation. There is order in patterns but not in design. The students in that course are willing to engage the ideas even as they are aware that all they have learned to trust may be coming undone. In this way, the Scopes trial is a taste of that world coming undone. For all of his faults and flaws, Bryan correctly understood the gravity of removing God from the story. If a person’s faith claim is not prepared for how science fills theological gaps, instead of the other way around, then the crisis can be overwhelming. Better to resist the possibility than to succumb, Bryan thought. But Campbell’s faith, shaped by a different time and a different context than Bryan, learned to challenge the assumptions of southern cultural Christianity. The “modernism” that allowed him to see the hypocritical cracks in the southern evangelicalism also blinded him to the faith he had in progress. Just because we move forward does not mean we are journeying toward a better world. As we advance in technological and scientific discovery, we are finding ways to detach and disengage our deep human need for attachment and community. The emphasis on the individual harms our understanding why we need community, but overplaying the importance of the will of the community also disables us from being whole. The same faith that helped Campbell see the flaw in southern Christianity also helped him see the flaw in liberal enlightenment.
There are days in the classroom when pieces fit together, and I walk out a more thoughtful person than I was when I walked in.