Darwin and His Wife Discuss Religion


I am so grateful to the more than 5000 visitors to the Westar blog during 30 Days of Paul in the month of July. Your dedication to the challenge kept me going, and I came out of it with a new sense of who Paul was. If you are living in the Atlanta area, maybe I'll see you at the Westar national meeting there in November and we can talk more about it in person! For the curious, there will be a Books & Authors session on Brandon Scott's new book about Paul's letters, The Real Paul. I'm particularly excited to hear from several outstanding Paul scholars at the event: Mark Nanos, Pamela Eisenbaum, and John Dominic Crossan!

My sister and I have been reading a very interesting book by Deborah Heiligman about Charles Darwin's family life, Charles and Emma: Darwin's Leap of Faith. The book, which was a National Book Award finalist, comes at the religion and science debate through an intimate portrait of the Darwin household. Emma's faith became a sounding board for Charles to think through how to present his controversial theory to the world. "Emma was religious. She cared deeply about her faith," wrote Jonathan Weiner in his introduction to the book. "When Charles confessed to her the revolutionary ideas that he was scribbling in his notebooks, she felt frightened. Emma thought they would be parted by death forever, go separate ways in eternity, because she would go to heaven and Charles would go to hell."

This suggests Emma was close-minded, but her lifelong relationship with Charles shows that that was not the case. Over the course of their lives together, Charles and Emma kept apprised of the newly emerging critical study of the Bible in the nineteenth century, even during the serious illness of their child:

Meanwhile Charles continued to think about religion and faith. He and Emma read and discussed books about theology. They made notations in their family Bible, indicating places where biblical scholars deemed passages inauthentic, added later by unknown authors. For both of them, the question of faith was an ongoing one. Emma took the children to church, though during the Trinity prayer, which proclaimed God as three in one—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—she turned away from the altar in disagreement. The children followed her lead.
Charles did not go to church with them. He often walked them there, and then strolled around the village while they prayed. He was friendly with the vicar, and over the years counted a number of vicars as his close friends.
Sometimes he stayed home to read one of his books about theology. A current favorite author was Francis Newman, a Latin professor at University College London. In his books, Newman looked for a new theology that could include science. Working through his doubts, he found ways to believe in God and in the afterlife. Like Charles, he had stopped believing in the literalness of the Bible. But like Emma, Newman believed that you could get to heaven only through accepting Jesus's teachings, by achieving a full sympathy of spirit with God's spirit.
Charles still needed proof. He could not be spiritual based on instinct. He did like much of what Newman had to say, though, and felt some security knowing that someone else not only had doubts but also read about them publicly. (141)

As I read the story of Charles and Emma, I felt reassured that the history of doubt, so to speak, puts me in good company. I admire Emma and also Charles, and see how both can be admired and respected for their outlooks and attitudes toward religion. It is telling that Charles did not entrust his manuscript, in the event of his death, in the hands of a fellow scientist but rather in the hands of his capable wife. After all, Heiligman writes,

In The Origin, Charles wasn't trying to murder Emma's God; he was trying to show how he believe creation actually occurred. He knew he was right; he just had to make his argument clear enough so as to be, as much as was possible, irrefutable. And he wanted to be polite about it." (182)

What a wonderful example of a household that sought flexibility and compassion in discussions of very serious matters of faith and reason! It was not easy for them, as the death of a beloved child led Emma to wonder if it was a form of punishment, but they survived even those stormy periods together. It's possible to argue that the publication of The Origin needed Emma's presence in Charles' life to respond sensitively to dominant ideas about religion even as it shook them up:

If ... had stayed single in London with Erasmus and his crowd, perhaps he would have grown farther from the church and the established, conservative, religious society. Had he spent more time with freethinking, liberal intellectuals and less time sitting on the sofa with Emma, who rubbed his stomach when he was ill and put a cool hand on his feverish head, perhaps then he would not have been quite so conciliatory and conservative in his writing of the book. He hoped that even if there was controversy, it wouldn't be personal. He hoped the public, though they might disagree with what he was saying, would still like the person who was saying it. Emma did. (185)

It's a lovely book, and I encourage you to have a look at it. It was written in a similar spirit to a book many of us in the Westar community have already read and cherished, Lloyd Geering's From the Big Bang to God.

Cassandra Farrin

Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Post Tags
No tags found.