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There was a time when I thought that religious conversion was a one-off affair, as indeed it seemed to be for Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. I am not so sure now that it was even so for Saint Paul. I rather now think that I need to be converted day by day. That process had, for sure, its beginning for me, but it wasn't a once and for all phenomenon.
I was brought up as a low-church evangelical Anglican in the city of Melbourne. Sin, saving souls, a literal interpretation of the Bible, miracles, and the efficacy of the sacrament of Holy Communion were the order of the day. I accepted the lot in a formal sort of way, but the rough terrain came during adolescence. I quite suddenly came to an awareness that I was just not good enough. Even such righteousness as I might have possessed, I was reminded, was "but as filthy rags." I was quite unable to understand the powerful new urges of adolescence. I believed I must be very sinful. I read the Confessions of Saint Augustine and said to myself, that is I. This self-diagnosis was supported by a fundamentalist group called the Crusaders with which I got involved at Scotch College where I went to school. I never really felt at home in that group. Indeed I felt very embarrassed. I didn't want to confess my sins, whatever they were, in public and I didn't feel at home with what were called personal testimonies. I didn't have one to tell but perhaps that is what I needed. I didn't know at all what they meant by giving my life to Jesus, which they pleaded me to do. How, I asked myself, could I give myself to someone who lived two thousand years ago and whom I had never met? "Be willing to break the ice," I remember being told. I think it meant that I was to try to get over the first hurdle on the path of conversion and the rest would follow on a smoothly laid down track.
In the long hours of the night and in the early morning I pondered on all this. But all I felt was that life was a great burden and I was unable and unworthy to carry it. There was a picture in my copy of Pilgrim's Progress of Christian traveling on his long journey with a huge bundle on his back. Later on in the book was another picture of Christian having reached the foot of the cross and behold the bundle falls off his back to the ground. That is what I wanted to happen to me. Why didn't it? Then quite suddenly, I remember the time and the place, I asked myself, Why am I burdened with a sense of sin when Jesus says your sins are forgiven? For me that would mean that the past is the past and I could begin again right at that moment with a clean slate. I wouldn't have to carry that burden on my back anymore. So I prayed and asked for the burden to be lifted. It was. I considered myself saved.
I was by then an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, convinced that I had the answer to life's meaning. I became a Sunday school teacher and went to evangelical meetings. My mother took me to some of them as she was a bit inclined in that direction. At least, she felt that the answers might lie there. For four undergraduate years this was my position. My classes in biology emphasized the fact of evolution but that was of little concern for me. The Bible taught otherwise and creationism was what I had to believe. I had a religious faith that encompassed the whole truth about the world. My faith was firm and my direction fixed. I wanted to convert the world. Looking back, I realize that I had not learned to think while I was an undergraduate.
Things changed when I became a graduate student at the University of Adelaide in its premier agricultural research institute. My colleagues appeared to be either atheists or agnostics. That I took religion seriously seemed very odd to them. My supervisor in particular had thought it all through and regarded religion as anti-science and a source of much evil in society. I had many discussions with him, especially when we went far into the desert on field trips. I was quite unable to defend my position intellectually. It was full of holes. My religion did not mix with my science.
Then came my second conversion. It was an intellectual conversion. The seeds of doubt had been sown and now I desperately wanted to know how to deal with them. My faith, which had given me a tremendous sense of meaning in life, was falling apart.
The beginning of a resolution to my pressing search for meaning came through the Student Christian Movement. It showed me there was an alternative interpretation of Christianity to the fundamentalism I was brought up to believe. When reassurance began to reestablish itself, it came like the weaving together of strands. I was conscious of a bottom forming under me. I tried to break it down. The strands refused to be broken. The effect was to reestablish a fundamental trust with respect to the meaningfulness of human life. I found some of the former elements came back, different from the old, no longer borrowed at second hand. For better or for worse, they were mine.
The elements of my first highly emotional conversion that came back renewed were the experiences of forgiveness, the courage to face the new, the sense of not being alone in the universe, and all that could be called the values of existence as revealed in the life of Jesus. God as the source of all value was "nearer than hands and feet, closer than breathing." The experience of God was real. The interpretation was different. This new understanding came by degrees.
I had a new problem now. The science I was becoming more familiar with presented me with a mechanistic universe, which provided no clues to the meaning of life and life's fundamental experiences of value. It had nothing to say about my feelings, which were to me the most important part of my life. How could they fit into a mechanical universe? I started on a new journey of discovery. It began when my newly found mentors in the Student Christian Movement, especially one of them, urged me to read A. N. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World. I felt it was written especially for me, particularly chapter five, "The Romantic Reaction." On reading Whitehead my mind flashed back to a lecture I had heard as an undergraduate, but did not understand then, by my professor of zoology, W E. Agar. It was on the philosophy of biology. I remembered just enough about it to realize that Agar had discovered that, for him, Whitehead was fundamental to understanding philosophical problems raised by biology. So I wrote and asked him what I should now read. He replied that I should immediately read Charles Hartshorne's recently published The Philosophy and Psychology of Sensation. Agar added that he had himself just completed a book on a Whiteheadian interpretation of biology, modestly called A Contribution to the Theory of the Living Organism. Its first sentence read "The main thesis of this book is that all living organisms are subjects." That is what I needed to know. How was a biology, which looked at organisms as objects, to be reconciled with the idea of organisms as feeling subjects? I came to understand that Agar was a biologist who accepted mentality, feelings, and sentience as real and not just epiphenomena. Moreover, he identified three areas of biology that seemed resistant to a completely mechanistic analysis.
These three areas were developmental biology or embryology, behavior, and evolution. Agar was a brilliant cell biologist. He was educated at King's College, Cambridge, and at the age of thirty-eight was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. His book initiated my exploration of biology in the light of Whitehead's system of thought. Much later I was to find similar fellow feeling with the geneticist Professor C. H. Waddington, who told me on one occasion that, as an undergraduate in Cambridge, he had read all the works of Whitehead. This reading had greatly influenced both the problems he chose to work on and the manner in which he tried to solve them. As for myself I never brought all these ideas together in book form until quite recently, when I produced five books on this subject (Birch and Cobb 1981, Birch 1990, Birch 1993, Birch, Eakin and Mc Daniel 1994, Birch 1995).
As a graduate student, besides reading as much of Whitehead and Hartshorne as I could, I also read the dialogues of Plato as being highly relevant, and on more specifically religious topics I read as much of Harry Emerson Fosdick as I could lay my hands on. He was at that time the pastor of the great interdenominational, interracial, and international Riverside Church in New York, hard by Columbia University. He was a great preacher and had an evangelical liberal theology that had got him into trouble with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States when he was pastor of Manhattan's First Presbyterian Church. He was charged with heresy but responded that he would be ashamed to live in this generation and not be a heretic. This was the time, said Reinhold Niebuhr, in which the old evangelical piety of American Protestantism, so vital in its earlier form and so potent in taming an advancing frontier, had hardened into a graceless biblicism and legalism.
Fosdick had fought his way through the fundamentalism of his youth to a rational faith. Many a student, in particular, had his faith restored and saved by this great preacher so far ahead of his time. From time to time I still refer to one or other of his many published sermons and I always try to make a pilgrimage to Riverside Church when in New York. On the first visit I made in 1946 (the year of Fosdick's retirement), I was able to tell Fosdick what an influence he had been to me and other students I knew in Australia. So I am delighted that one of his hymns "God of grace and God of glory" is included in The Australian Hymn Book. It was written for the dedication of Riverside Church in 1931:
Set our feet on lofty places;
gird our lives that they may be
armoured with all Christ-like graces
in the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom,
grant us courage,
that we fail not man nor thee.
In the 1950s when I was doing research at Columbia University, I became a member of Riverside Church. Later, as a link with Australia, I presented to the chapel of Wesley College in the University of Sydney a set of silver plated individual communion chalices identical with those used at Riverside Church.
An account of my journey as a graduate student would not be complete without indicating how important it was for me at this stage to have the friendship of those who had gone further on the journey than I had. In particular there was one senior person in the Student Christian Movement in the University of Adelaide. He was then a lecturer in philosophy. Toward the end of my time as a graduate student in Adelaide I wrote about him in the national journal of the SCM without mentioning either my name or his. I called my contribution "Somebody." It read in part as follows:
I had just graduated at the University. It was a strange feeling, I was supposed to know so much, yet was inwardly conscious that life was a mystery to me. There were threads of meaning in parts, but they became tangled once I tried to follow their course, and try I did—desperately. There were things about God I felt I ought to believe, but I didn't know why. Some of my colleagues called them fantasies of the imagination. I began to wonder myself. At times I would have thrown religion overboard, partly for moral and partly for intellectual reasons. Yet I shrank from the prospect of a youth bereft of idealism. Then things changed. That was when somebody came. He had strong convictions about Jesus and God. The threads in his life were not tangled. I know now why mine were, they were a mixture of false and true strands. I didn't know that then—not until he came. There was something compelling about his convictions. In the friendship that followed he didn't teach me so much as show me where to discover God. He led me to still waters. He was helping me to do what I never thought I could do before. He was what Emerson said of a friend, "what we need is somebody who will help us to do what we can." I see now that he believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. His was a faith in the infinite possibilities God's universe holds for human beings and a faith in the capacity of each of us to respond.
He was a missionary, not the sort who goes to foreign countries but one in our midst. I came to the conviction that the greatest service we can render anyone is to show that person what he or she can be. On the highways and byways of Palestine, Jesus of Nazareth was that Somebody to everyone who needed him; to the woman at the well in Samaria, to Zacchaeus up a tree, to Peter and James and John by their nets. In the last hour that life held for him, despite the agony of the cross, he was that Somebody to a wretched thief on a cross beside him. There is an old evangelical hymn that begins, "Somebody came," and then asks, "Was that somebody you?"
My new discoveries of the meaning of my life led me to be dissatisfied with the prospect of a career devoted entirely to research. I loved research and the research institute in which I was working, but I wanted also to be more involved with people. The obvious way to do that was to combine research with teaching. I felt I needed experience in a teaching and research department. I can even now vividly recall the exact spot on the winding road going up the foothills behind Adelaide when I made a decision. I was riding on my bicycle and stopped for a break. Stretching out below me were the extensive grounds and buildings of the Waite Agricultural Research Institute. They symbolized full time research for me. That was great, but not enough. Moreover, I was fast becoming more inclined to fundamental problems in biology instead of applied agricultural ones, which had involved me thus far. On that spot I made a decision to seek further experience in a biology department overseas.
The obvious place for population biology in the late 1940s was the University of Chicago. Furthermore, I had a lurking feeling that perhaps I had got myself on a false path about life's meaning. I had done that once before with fundamentalism. In Adelaide I was antipodes away from the process thought of Whitehead. I needed to test out my convictions in a completely different environment. To Chicago I went.
Unknown to me, when I set out for the University of Chicago to do research and sit in on biology courses, that university was, at that time, the world center of process (Whiteheadian) thought. Professor Charles Hartshorne was in the department of philosophy. In the Divinity School were professors Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Meland, Bernard Loomer, and Daniel Day Williams. To add yet more to these riches, the most distinguished professor in the department of zoology, where I was to be, was Sewall Wright. Not only was he one of the four founding fathers of the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolution (the others being Sir Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Theodosius Dobzhansky), he was also a Whiteheadian and close friend of Charles Hartshorne. Some years later in 1953 Wright gave the presidential address entitled "Gene and Organism" to the American Society of Naturalists. It was a closely argued case for the gene as an organism and therefore a subject and not a mere object.
My days in Chicago were spent in the laboratory interspersed by sitting in on courses on evolution, genetics, ecology, and process theology. I learned a great deal about university education of a sort I had never known before. Robert Maynard Hutchins was the brilliant young chancellor of the university who, through his unusual vision, was transforming the University of Chicago. He said he wanted a football team that was proud of the university, not the other way around.
These were heady days. My new experiences were reinforcing the foundations of my thinking. I knew I was on a road I would not now leave. While I was at the University of Chicago, I got to know Ian Barbour who was then completing his Ph.D. in physics and who later was to become a world leader in the relation of science and religion. Over the years we have had many discussions on this subject. Early on he gave me reinforcement as a physicist who was reconciling physics and religion while I was trying to do the same with biology.
I came to know Charles Hartshorne and his wife Dorothy in subsequent years both on his visits to Australia and on mine to the United States. One day I asked him whom else I should get to know. He immediately replied, "My most brilliant student, John Cobb." So began a friendship with John Cobb, of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont, California, which led us to work together on process thought and biology. Our work led to a consultation at the Rockefeller Center for Consultations at Villa Serbelloni in Bellagi, Italy in 1974 and a book Mind in Nature (eds. John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin). Later Cobb and I wrote together The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community.
Excerpted from Spiritual Evolution by John Marks Templeton, Kenneth Seeman Giniger. Copyright © 1998 Templeton Press. Excerpted by permission of TEMPLETON PRESS.
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Introduction by John Marks Templeton.................... vii
1 My Damascus by Charles Birch.................... 1
2 Quiet Path, Quiet Pool by S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell.................... 17
3 Tracks in Snow by Larry Dossey.................... 27
4 On Understanding Science from a Perspective of Faith by Owen Gingerich.. 41
5 What I Believe by Peter E. Hodgson.................... 55
6 Cosmic Rays and Water Spiders by Stanley L. Jaki.................... 67
7 The Christian Way by Arthur Peacocke.................... 99
8 Physicist and Priest by John Polkinghorne.................... 113
9 Toward a Distinctive Ministry by Russell Stannard.................... 121
10 Personal Reminiscences and Expectations by Carl Friedrich von
About the Authors and Editors.................... 135