Happy Birthday Darwin

“Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes, sing to the Lord a new song!” the congregation sang during the processional hymn of the service held in the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel Sunday morning. Several hundred people gathered for a religious commemoration of the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, with biological anthropologist Russell Tuttle guest-preaching.

After the preludes, hymn, and convocation prayer (“Creative God, source of the evolution of life…”) two members of the choir read a selection from the play “Inherit the Wind,” based on the trials over teaching evolution in public schools. Representing the trial’s lawyers, William Jennings Bryan and “the gentleman from Chicago” Clarence Darrow, they stood on either side of the aisle to reenact the dialogue between evolution and the Bible.

Taking to the pulpit in red choral robes, Tuttle began by recalling his first visit to the cathedral: “I never thought I would sing with the choir much less preach to them…” There were moments when the anthropologist seemed out of his element, stumbling in the reading of the gospel and apologizing awkwardly. But his sermon, a critical biography of Darwin’s ideas, was thoughtful, effective, and well received. He told the story of the biologist’s statue in London’s natural history museum, which has moved from a central staircase to the cafeteria and back again depending on the popularity of his legacy. He also recalled the UofC’s past role in the dialogue with Julian Huxley’s 1959 sermon to Rockefeller, which marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species.” In his conclusion Tuttle quoted Kahlil Gibran on the value of faith: “[The believer] understands through his inner thought that which the outside examiner cannot understand with his demanding, acquired process of thought.”

The new dean of Rockefeller, Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Davenport, acknowledges the challenge of the service. “There are people out there who would scoff at the very notion of our celebrating Darwin in a religious context–both those who think of religion as a fossil, and also those who perhaps misunderstand the nature of science as a way of knowing…We see them as asking different kinds of questions and coming to different kinds of answers.” Amen.