July 5

Darwin and the Personalists

By Marsh Chapel


We spend a part of each summer on a small lake. Ours is a real ‘Once More to the Lake’, lake, with much of the beauty, memory, quiet, seclusion and sense of mortality in E B White’s fine story of that name. The tight belt and wet shorts follow the swim–and forecast death.
We do a good job at the bad job of deceiving ourselves about how short, how fragile life can be. And therefore, to the same end, about how wondrous, splendid, magnificent is every hour and every day.

One night we puttered about in a boat with a 9 horse motor. No one else was around, no one else was in sight. We let the motor idle, then die. And all around there was endless silence. That quiet that tingles and tickles. We sat in the boat. We sat a good long time. We had talked enough, so we just sat. There were 6 or 8 different bird calls, repeated, moving against the background of the nothing, the quiet. There was then, after a while, the long low frog call, and again, and again. There was a little quiet wind, just enough to move the trees. Two dogs barked, but only a little. A bass jumped, then another. Then the long stretch of stillness, again. A deep, long quiet. At last a car moved along the shore road, slowly and softly but with enough steam and sound to break the mood.

Here is our experience. Mystery. Silence.

In faith we face our experience. At its depth, our experience is about mystery, and about the exploration, step by step, of that mystery, along the trail of the mystery of discipleship. In fact, that is a lot of what faith is meant to do, to help us truly to face up to our experience. Today, before we receive the Eucharist, we shall depend on our faith to help us face our experience as creatures, surrounded in a vast creation, older and larger than we have imagined, and shrouded in a mysterious silence. We shall look for help in the writings of one of the great Boston teachers, the father of a philosophy called ‘Personalism’, Borden Parker Bowne. We shall see whether he, and others like him, can help us in our discipleship, our experience, in mystery, in silence.

Our lectionary gospel today, Mark 6, acclaims the mystery of discipleship, and reminds us of the requirement to let things go, to leave unnecessary, weighty baggage behind. Jesus’ representatives, you and you all, are not to take anything unnecessary along for the journey: no bread, no bag, no cash, no change of clothes. You take only a staff, a defensive weapon of self-protection from the wild dogs of pride, sloth, and falsehood. (Falsehood and sloth can hurt you. So can pride.) Tie your running shoes double tight so that when you need to vamoose, to amscray, to make like a tree and leave, you do so dragging along no dust.

This summer we listen for a good word about Darwin and faith. Our preachers represent the best of Protestant preaching both regionally and nationally, and together they well blend ‘the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’. Some are teachers with pastoral experience. Some are pastors with scholarly accomplishment. All are themselves disciples—knowers and lovers both. Their presence this summer is in the service of the ministry of the word. We thank them for their gifts to us: Drs. Wildman, Neville, Snyder, Yoost, Wegter-McNelly, Peterson, and Br. Whitney. Our series, “Darwin and Faith”, is unabashedly evangelical in purpose. We are reaching out to those whose mother tongue is the scientific method, who with us affirm the truth in Darwinian theory, and who seldom, if ever hear the preaching of the Gospel of truth to include evolutionary truth. We are reaching out to those in lab coats, holding stethescopes, using microscopes, who remember the trial of Scopes. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the miracle of discipleship, are yours, too, we affirm. We are also reaching out to those who have long been seized by the confession of the church, but who discern a falsehood, whether spoken or silent, in the church’s own preaching of the Gospel of truth, who seldom if every hear that preaching to include evolutionary truth. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the mystery of discipleship, can continue to be yours as well, 200 years after Darwin’s birth and 2,000 years after Jesus’ resurrection.

Today, we ask, we wonder, did those here in Boston 100 years ago, midway between Darwin’s birth and our morning Eucharist, leave us something to guide us along the trail of the mystery of discipleship?

In earshot of Mark 6 and 1 John 4, our response is in the affirmative. They teach us something about confidence, something about experience, and something about development.

Darwin and the Personalists

1. Confidence

First, confidence. The Personalists lived and taught a robust confidence about faith facing knowledge, religion meeting science. In particular they had no fear of learning from evolutionary theory.

For most of its history, Boston University has been the home of Personalism, a distinctive North American philosophical perspective, whose best known disciple was M L King. In addition to offering certain theological perspectives, Personalism celebrated the freedom and potential of the human person.. For Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar Brightman, their late Kantian idealism made man the measure of all things, and saw in personality a clue to the nature of the divine. Listen briefly to Bowne, in his major work, titled, simply, ‘Personalism’, cited throughout the sermon, and published in 1908, halfway between Darwin’s birth and our service today:

“A wise naturalism has displaced the false supernaturalism of earlier time…We may admit the evolutionary formula as a description of the order in which things come along, such that the earlier forms were simple and homogenous, and the later forms more complex and differentiated.” (18)

Science and religion, long star crossed lovers, need each others’ embrace now, in 2009, perhaps more than at any other time in human history. Science flounders without the wonder, legacy, discipline, morality, and purposeful compassion in religion at its best. Religion flounders without the factual honesty, native humility, reverence for experience, and practical compassion in science at its best. Truth is truth, in learning and in piety. Of course, among others, Paul Tillich wisely taught us this 50 years ago. Of course, among others, Howard Thurman, that lover of penguins, wisely preached this, ‘in the sweep of the natural embrace’, 50 years

Our Boston University forebears, the Personalists of all five generations, give us the gift of confidence. In person, in fact, they were confident people. I studied under a fifth generation Personalist at Ohio Wesleyan, Dr. Lloyd Easton. My father studied with Edgar Brightman, here at BU, who filled the Bowne chair in those years. The Personalists still have some things to teach us, about Darwin and faith.

Philosophy, theology and preaching begin in wonder. The experience of lasting good is a mystery to be explored, a depth to divine. So Bowne asked, ‘What is the power at work which produces the phenomenal order?’ (96)

2. Experience

Second, experience. For all of their idealism (another subject for another day), the Personalists focused on experience, and, more narrowly, on the mystery of experience.

Bowne: ‘Philosophy is simply an attempt to give an account of experience (4)…Experience itself must be accepted as unconditionally trustworthy (32)…Experience itself is the primary fact (89)…All thought about reality must be rooted in experience (104)…For us, the real can never be anything but the contents of experience, and whatever we may infer from them (108)… Our problem is to explain the world of experience (149).

Their understanding of experience continuously pronounced an apprehension of mystery.

Mystery in experience. Perhaps an epigrammatic chorus will help: Philosophy begins in wonder. The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder. Experience is a mystery to be explored. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. ‘No one has ever seen God’. God is seer, not seen. God is not in time, time is in God.

Mystery in experience. They argued that the strength of our necessary negation needs to be further strengthened still, to include ourselves, and to include our own limitations: a personal, even humble admission of our ultimate ignorance. For all our knowledge of the connections between water, rock, plant, fish, bird, and animal life, we are still sitting in silence, on a boat, the 9 horse motor now stilled.

The whole boatload of wisdom literature in the Bible could be cited here (Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, all):

Mystery in experience. The wisdom chorus: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. Where were you when I forged the foundations of the universe? I perceived that under the sun the race is not to the swift…time and chance happen to all. There is no speech, nor are there words…

Mystery in experience. Bowne: “there is nothing to excite alarm in any permissible doctrine of the transformation of species”(250)

We who embrace a strict negativity, a theological via negativa, the marrow Protestant aversion to idolatry, need to make sure that we are negative enough, that our negation extends far enough, far enough to include us, too.

Once you admit the reality of the invisible, in your own experience, you make space for the exploration of mystery.

Mystery in experience. Is memory real? Are dreams things of substance? Are thoughts things? What about dread, longing, fear, anxiety, hatred, despair—are they actual existential realities? Is friendship something real? What about trust, or affection, or confidence or agreement? And love? Is love more than affective byproduct? When you say, ‘I love you’, does the verb refer to anything real? Let me ask you about hope. When you say, ‘I sure hope so’, does the verb refer to anything? What of faith? When you say, “I have faith in him”, does this mean anything?

Memory is invisible. So, too, are dreams, thoughts, dread, friendship, trust, affection, confidence, love, hope, and faith. All these are things invisible, heaven not earth. Do you admit to their reality? Or not? Once you admit, in personal experience, to the reality of the invisible, you admit, in general, to the possibility of invisible reality. As Bultmann once wrote, the Gospel is the triumph of the invisible over the visible, of what is not visible over what is.

A central, particular case of this mystery of the invisible is what Bowne terms the ‘mystery of self-determination’: “This is something which cannot be mechanically analyzed or deduced as a necessary resultant—it can only be experienced…It can only be recognized as the central factor of personality, the condition of responsibility, and the basis of the moral life. (210).

Our need is to understand, to face, our experience–which includes experience of the invisible, the non-material. Our experience includes more than the very real dimensions, equally present in cosmic and personal life, of the impersonal, the ambivalent, the inattentive, the passive, the wild, the violent, the inexplicable, and the wasteful.

3. Development

Third, development. The Personalists took up the Darwinian insight into development with all its random, wasteful, violent, unforeseen effects.

Development, change, progression are at the heart of things. The Personalists saw and emphasized this many decades ago. A Darwinian perspective causes us to value development, to see continuities between our own created being and the rest of the known world, to acknowledge continua and continuity, all of which will help us in our time. Bowne: “the universe is no fixed and completed static fact, but rather a process” (213). Again: “No developing thing can ever be understood or defined by what it momentarily is, but only by all that which it is to become” (247)

In addition, they argued that social Darwinism needs strongly to be avoided. Bowne passionately opposed Spencer and others, and gave us an example for avoiding the social misapplications of Darwinian theory that threaten to emerge in any age.

Bowne’s idealism we may dispute, or not. But regard, for a moment, his conclusion, which we may be inclined to admit:

“The more we dwell upon this view, the more mysterious our life becomes for the imagination…In its relation to man the space world is largely a potentiality, waiting for realization by man himself. There are harvests waiting to grow, and flowers waiting to bloom, but it cannot be until man sets his hand to work. The flora and fauna of the earth are increasingly taking their character from our will and purpose. Even climate itself is not independent of our doings and misdoings. The space world is nothing complete and finished in itself, but is forever becoming what we will it to be.” (276).

In the mystery of discipleship, here is a witness, a Personalist witness from 100 years ago, to affirm confidence, experience, and development. In faith, with an affirmation of confidence, experience, and development, we may continue to face our experience. You may take confidence. You may trust experience. You may engage development.


The author of 1 John knew theological difficulty better than we do, and, in concert with the author of the Gospel of John displayed more spiritual courage than we normally do. He said: “No one has ever seen God”; the d
ivine, the invisible, that beyond our poor power to add or detract, the unimaginable. But this author then moves ahead. He invites you to explore mystery. He even gives you the necessary clue about how to do so. “If” (a big if) “we love one another, God’s love abides in us and is made whole in us”. Dwells and develops, lives and lasts. How? How so? It is a mystery, the mystery of discipleship. You are invited to travel light. You are invited to come along.

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
And wait to watch the water clear, I may
I shan’t be gone long.
You come too.


~ The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

Leave a Reply