September 4, 2006
Heeding Edward O. Wilson
— Martin E. Marty
A former Southern Baptist spends her or his post-Baptist years trying to make sense of, and sometimes fighting, the past, and seeing what elements of it might be resources for the future. Former Southern Baptist Edward O. Wilson makes no effort to minimize his transformation: "I am a secular humanist." Winner of two Pulitzers and wearer of the National Medal of Science, Harvard biologist Wilson in the New Republic, where too few people will see it, writes a friendly letter to an imagined Southern Baptist pastor (September 4; see "References," below). Subjects: Creation. Nature. Endings.
In his four-page article, Wilson takes at most a two-line swipe at apocalypse-minded evangelicals for their "gospels of cruelty and despair" instead of "hope and compassion," if they think the Second Coming of Jesus will take care of things. For the rest, he counsels, pleads, implicitly listens, and envisions against the background of despair that comes with reflection on human cruelty to Creation or nature. He notices trends in evangelicalism and Baptisthood, and lists a half-dozen start-up agencies among evangelicals for facing environmental concerns.
Rightist talk-show hosts can always dig up a "Me, Worry?" sort or an "In-Your-Face-Anti-Environmentalist" to assure us that all will be well if we just dispel the hot air breathed by global warming-worriers, chase away the tree-huggers, disperse the New Agers, and keep bureaucracies and the government out of the way. Out of the way? Wilson is with the consensus of scientists: "out of the way" here really means out of the way of creative responses. He knows that by this century's end, half the species of plants and animals on earth will be gone or scheduled to die. Many of those already gone were crucial to healing purposes, and are lost forever. "Earth is a laboratory wherein nature — God, if you prefer, pastor — has laid before us the results of countless experiments. We damage her at our own peril," mourns Wilson.
"Why me?" he asks the Baptist pastor to ask himself when he finds this letter in the mail. Answer: You folks are powerful, says this former Baptist who knows their power. If pastors like "you" begin to teach biblical doctrines of Stewardship and Care for the Creation, you'll lead a bottom-up movement to which politicians and industrialists would have to pay attention and follow up with policies that help assure a future for species. "If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem might soon be solved." And the problem, it becomes clear, and is clear, is not in the end religious or scientific. It is political — an attempt to keep citizens from being enlightened or free or will-ing enough to take on the admittedly difficult issues.
Wilson makes no effort at all to close the gap or bridge the chasm between religion and science. Let's agree to disagree on metaphysical issues, he says, as he pleads for agreement on physical issues. Both "sides" in the polarity can meet each other if they are not propagandized, deluded, or brow-beaten into positions of opposition that they need not assume. He speaks so tenderly and hopefully about what Southern Baptists and evangelicals at their best have long known about Creation. Now use that knowledge, don't abuse it, he pleads.
One hopes that he'll be replied to in kind and agreements can follow.
The text of Edward O. Wilson's letter may be found in The New Republic Online: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20060904&s=wilson090406.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.