- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

The perennial war between Darwinians and their critics has heated up so much this summer that a cool oasis where science and religion co-exist might surely be welcomed.

In 1885, wealthy Scottish judge Adam Gifford offered such a haven when he endowed the Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology. Since then a remarkable array of philosophers, scientists and theologians have tackled the same topics bedeviling school boards, politicians, and scientists today.

They all ask: Can natural evidence — facts, reason, experience or science — point to a higher reality in the universe, typically called God? As a Victorian, Gifford was hopelessly optimistic about this and even cited chemistry and astronomy as models for research on God’s existence.

Those Victorian dreams of certainty have been punctured by modern horrors and doubts. But Gifford was no crank, and when each new creation-evolution debate in America is over, the Gifford legacy carries on. The list of people who have given the Giffords is a Who’s Who of major Western thinkers.

Usually we turn to another legacy when people such as President Bush say, as he did recently, that schoolchildren should learn both evolution and “intelligent design” as theories of origins. That legacy is the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” when Bible fundamentalists battled scientific agnostics in a sweltering summer courtroom in Tennessee. But we might want to recall another ancient event as well, and that is the Gifford Lectures.

They are not fare for Court TV or presidential news conferences, but they provide far better material for these great cultural debates.

Though the Gifford Lectures are given at Scotland’s four ancient universities, they are published for wider circulation. This month, a Web site has opened (giffordlectures.org) to provide a free archive of the 220 thinkers who tackled these subjects over 117 years of the Giffords. Two of America’s greatest minds, William James and Reinhold Niebuhr, gave the Giffords and made them famous on this side of the Atlantic.

As a rule, Gifford lecturers have not questioned evolution in nature. But many challenged materialist ideologies in science. Many argued that evidence in nature could say something about a higher power in the cosmos, which is the whole logic of “natural” theology as compared to “revealed” theology.

The first Gifford lecturer in Edinburgh, for example, proposed that evolution and “design” worked together. A lecturer who held Isaac Newton’s chair at Oxford used the human eye and physics of light to hint at invisible powers ordering the world. Two brain scientists with Nobel Prizes argued that unseen forces might work on brain matter to produce consciousness.

The lectures show God and science are not only controversies for school boards. Although the Giffords contain many God-friendly arguments, they also feature famous scientific materialists such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins.

When Cambridge astronomer Arthur Eddington’s Giffords said modern physics pointed to a cosmic Mind, the scientific establishment in Britain was thrown into an uproar.

In his will, Gifford urged “earnest inquirers after truth” to use natural evidence to talk about God or doubts about God. He welcomed skeptics and freethinkers. The lectures have thus become a “museum of intellectual conflict,” in one assessment, but also a symbol of dignified tolerance. Compared to the fiery Scopes Trial, the Giffords might seem a pack of wet matches. But when the frothy debate about Mr. Bush and “intelligent design” dies with the next news cycle, the more complicated Gifford legacy remains.

The Giffords remind our culture that mixing science and God, evolution and design, matter and spirit, is quite ordinary at the highest levels of Western thought. In Gifford’s late-Victorian times, debates on Darwin and God raged as much as today. He knew news headlines trumped in-depth study of such topics but endowed the lectures anyway.

His hope the Giffords would spark the popular imagination has not come true. Instead, the cartoon image of the Scopes “monkey trial” dominates Western culture.

But from time to time, we need an alternative symbol. John Scopes would surely not mind making room for Adam Gifford, who was indeed a courtroom judge in Edinburgh, though he never tried anyone for teaching evolution.

Larry Witham is a Maryland writer and recent author of “The Measure of God,” a history of the Gifford Lectures.

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