What happens to the mind of the school child who each day dwells in the land of Charles Darwin, focused solely upon what becomes of matter and the ever-evolving elements of natural life, never asking how this stuff came to be in the first place?
Darwin’s own mind simply withdrew from that question, settling at last into an airy atheism. For him, the stuff of this universe was the only reality, thus the mind’s departure into metaphysics or religion but a wasteful diversion into nothing at all.
Hence, there is no point in telling the student about anything but matter and the course of its ever-evolving reality. There is simply no story to be told about the world’s coming to be. It just is, and that’s all that matters.
Tenth-grader Joe finds the details of evolution fascinating, as do most of us. It is quite easy to engage the mind, young or old, in the gorgeous reality of physical stuff. It’s fun. But, viewed as Darwin saw things, that fun is not endless. Like the butterfly, and even the redwood, we die.
That’s the only story young Joe is allowed to hear at P.S. 99. What, then, becomes of Joe’s capacity even to ask himself that nagging question that Darwin ducked: Did a non-existent physical world simply make itself out of nothing? Even to ask the question seems juvenile; from nothing comes what … ?
But, back to school. What is the effect upon young Joe of this classic shunning of the greatest of all questions?
My own observation of its probably lasing influence on the learner is drawn from daily discourse with mostly adult human beings. They are generally lovable, but seem too frequently out of touch with, and incoherent on, the question of all questions. Most are obviously uncomfortable at its emergence in the occasional but unavoidable exchange that implicates the “meaning of life” – and whether there is one.
In my own experience, this verbal inefficacy becomes most evident in expressions of shared grief at the death of a loved one. The genuinely caring friend can find himself “so sorry,” but from there on, has difficulty in finding words of hope beyond the assurance that “she will be remembered” or “she was so kind and good.” Many warm-hearted and generous mourners seem uneducated in the language of hope – of faith, and of love.
This near incoherence on the occasion of death is replicated in many another context that hints at the transcendental. Politics is a rich example. Religious belief or the lack (or feigning) of it is always a matter of public interest, but the discourse on that issue is too often juvenile. The typical American mind and the media that serve it seem to find simple discourse about God/no God an effort.
Where does this stammering of ours about the transcendental have its genesis? What is it about the divine that strikes so may of us dumb? Its sources are complex, and its subsequent history even more so.
Paradoxically, it began in the 19th century as an intended protection of American culture from false religion and the imposition of a monopoly for true belief in the classrooms of the new public system, compulsory for un-monied immigrant families. This religious behemoth was, of course, fated to fall prey to its very opposite as the new “realists” of the secular elite gained control.
The Supreme Court, in due course, made the exclusion of God from the curriculum a matter of civic faith. For good or ill, the narrowing of young Joe’s vision and ventilation was a simple sequitur.