Thursday, February 5, 2009

My Buddy Darwin

Last night I received a phone call from a faculty member – a biologist – at UW-Fox Valley inviting me to be a participant in a panel discussion on Charles Darwin’s birthday. She had heard me give a convocation address a few years ago, so pretty much assumed that I did not have a big problem with Darwin, but she still did a little two-step shuffle, feeling me out on the matter. I asked her if she was familiar with the Clergy Letter Project, which she was. “Well, I wrote that letter,” I informed her. I could feel her relax, right through the phone.

Some history here: In 2004 I received a call from Michael Zimmerman, then a dean at UW-O. Michael is a passionate and energetic man, a scientist who was somewhere between appalled and terrified by the successful efforts in Wisconsin and elsewhere to stack school boards with Fundamentalist Christians determined to get the theory of evolution out of public classrooms, or at least to have it presented as “one theory among many” alongside so-called Creation Science. He wanted me to draft a letter stating that science and faith were not incompatible with one another, with the goal of having that letter endorsed by other clergy.

I agreed to write it primarily because I was afraid that it would be written badly by someone else. I asked that my name not be used, not out of either modesty or fear of backlash, but simply because I did not consider it a big deal. I devoted all of twenty minutes to writing it, and moved on to other things.

I had underestimated Michael’s passion and energy. It became a very big deal indeed, and soon I was being tracked down by reporters and folks who wanted to acquaint me with the error of my ways. It became an important resource in successful efforts to reverse school board actions in a number of communities, and it continues in circulation to this day. The last I checked, it had about 12,000 endorsers.

It is slowly sinking in that this two-paragraph letter I dashed out in twenty minutes and took no credit for is likely to be the most widely read and influential piece I will write in my lifetime. Had I known that would happen, I might have devoted an extra ten minutes to writing it. And to be perfectly honest, I will always harbor some ambivalence about my role in this. I comfortably stand by what I wrote, and sincerely believe that the theory of evolution is, as I wrote, “a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests.”

My problem is that sometimes I feel like I have served the cause of Scientific Fundamentalists – those who makes no room for the possibility of God at the table of science and sincerely believes the world would be a far better place if all religions disappeared overnight (please note that I am not speaking of Michael, but of some of his bedfellows. Which is not to suggest that he is sleeping with scientific fundamentalists).

Religious Fundamentalists refuse to welcome science and reason to their table—if science appears to contradict a verse in the Bible, then science is false. For Scientific Fundamentalists, such apparent contradictions “prove” that religion is false. A pox on both their houses! Both extremist views are, in my view, abhorrent, which is why I ended the letter with the statement: “We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.” But I still have the uneasy feeling that I helped one set of bad guys beat another set of bad guys, and that I in some ways compromised faith in the process.

So what will likely be my most influential contribution to the world of ideas was written anonymously, and I will always be a bit ambivalent about having done it. There’s got to be a metaphor in there somewhere. Oh, because Michael leaves no opportunities to seek support for his cause on the table, he put the entire story up on Wikipedia, and thoughtfully credited me with authorship. We do not get to choose what our legacy will be—it gets assigned to us by others.


Michael Zimmerman said...


Your post here is every bit as well written as is The Clergy Letter! I want to again thank you again for your efforts, even if it only took 10 minutes, and even if you feel somewhat ambivalent about it! You are absolutely correct when you say that The Clergy Letter has been widely read and productively used to thwart creationism in various school districts around the country. It has also served to educate more people that I can imagine about the compatibility of religion and science. I can't tell you how many people comment to me about the beauty of the language you've used.

I do want to reassure you about one point, however. I don't believe that The Clergy Letter has provided solace to any "Scientific Fundamentalists," as you so aptly call them! In fact, I get some nasty mail from them on occasion for "pandering to religion." Fundamentalism in all of its forms, in this issue and all others, is problematic because it demonstrates a lack of critical thinking ability. I know you know that! But I want to go on record as clearly as possible that I stand with you on this point!

Finally, until your post, I hadn't realized that there was such a large Wikipedia article about The Clergy Letter Project! Yes, I probably should have written one a while ago, but I didn't.

Maybe, together, we can figure out additional ways to promote your moving words.

Michael Zimmerman

John said...

Gee whiz, Michael! I noted that you were passionate and energetic, but I did not know that you had a web-crawler that would get you to this post so quickly! So if you did not author the Wikipedia article, who did? And how did he/she know that I authored the letter?

rick in cos said...

John, in my profession, I've seen a few colleagues angst about their "legacy". We just had a president who seemed very concerned about his legacy. what I find interesting is, it's probably one of those things that we can't really shape, other than badly! Purposefully pursuing a specific legacy image mostly leads to disasters...just going about doing what we do is most likely to yield a positive one!
A couple of times over the last 10 years or so, I've developed an agenda for my career that has been totally diverted when events or circumstance arise that demand attention; an example is, I took office of President of the Wisconsin Chiefs and had such a cool vision of where I wanted to steer the group....then, a month in, 9/11 hit and I spent the entire year of my term on that. Here, in COS, dealing with crisis after crisis has no doubt diverted some of my energy from the vision I've articulated, but I'm still tugging at that anyway.
For my money, I think there is no single legacy we leave. Arguably, as parents,the quality of our adult children is a legacy. As a friend, the richness of our relationships is a legacy. As a leader, the success of those who we've mentored to go on to other leadership roles is a legacy. As a pastor, the spiritual health and lifelong interest in faith and service of your congregants is a legacy. So, fear not....this one may dominate the "author" portion of your legacy, but there is so much more that matters......

Michael Zimmerman said...

I'm not certain who wrote the Wikipedia piece, although I have some suspicions! About a year after you wrote the wonderful Clergy Letter you indicated that you were comfortable having it known that you were the author. Since then, when the opportunity has arisen, I've been thrilled to give you appropriate credit.

And how could I miss such a thoughtful blog posting about The Clergy Letter!

Be well, my friend.


rick in cos said...

one more thing..our local rag had a story about 4 churches here in COS that will be doing a 'let's celebrate Darwin's birthday" sermon this week...well, as expected, its erupted on the post-article blog on the paper website into fundmentalist vs. atheist. it's what we're famous for. To think that men/women of science can't conceive of something as big and powerful as God, and to think that men/women of abiding faith don't have enough faith in God to still allow for science....sheesh.
Problem is, both of these extreme view don't account for the majority of folk who live somewhere in the middle...kinda like the elections! we live in an extremist world, where hanging out in the middle where I reside is a lost world.

John said...

Hauerwas once said that there ain't nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead skunks; you and I must be a third category. And I agree with you, Rick, about the nature of our most meaningful legacies - I sometimes talk about the ripples our lives cast, ripples that intersect with others. We can never know what the final effect of our ripples will be...