When I was a senior in high school, a local Christian Reformed pastor recruited me and a few friends to play Christmas carols as his congregation filed into church during Advent. Since our brass quartet also played the recessional, we would sit through the service. One Sunday, the pastor—locally renowned as a thought-provoking speaker—began his sermon by declaring that theologians had never really been able to discover much about God; over the next century, however, all of that would change. Physics had become so advanced that we were very close to defining Cod in mathematical terms. Physicists would succeed where theologians had failed.

To my 17-year-old mind, this was exciting news. Since I intended to go on to college the next fall to study physics, I was flattered. I had never thought of science in such grandiose terms. Imagine the possibilities: I could win acclaim not only for formulating the Grand Unified Theory, but for discovering God as well! I eagerly shelled out a dollar for a printed version of the pastor’s words.

I hadn’t thought about that sermon for well over a decade, until the release last year of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, an attempt to lay the scientific groundwork for a Grand Unified Theory of human life. Professor Wilson’s enthusiasm recalled my own, but it also reminded me that, after one year and a change of majors, I had re-read the sermon. Now, it struck me as hubristic. The idea that God could be contained in a mathematical formula (or a series of them) seemed a kind of panentheism at best; it certainly was, in Christian terms, impious. Still, the motive behind it could have been good; on one level, at least, the pastor was trying to show that scientific and theological truth were not mutually exclusive. But in defining theological truth in scientific terms, he had —perhaps unintentionally —bound the greatest mystery up in the constraints of man’s fallible reason.

This reductionist tendency is the “modern superstition” that Wendell Berry argues against in Life Is a Miracle, taking E.G. Wilson as his sparring partner. The poet-farmer from Kentucky and the Alabama-born, Harvard-trained sociobiologist share a passion for conservation; both have been awarded Ingersoll Prizes (Berry, the T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing in 1994; Wilson, the Richard M. Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters in 1989); and Mr. Berry expresses admiration for Professor Wilson’s scientific knowledge and his earlier works. But his concern is with Consilience, in which he believes

Mr. Wilson speaks for a popular scientific orthodoxy. His book reads as though it was written to confirm the popular belief that science is entirely good, that it leads to unlimited progress, and that it has (or will have) all the answers.

Mr. Berry takes his tide from Edgar’s admonition to his father, the Earl of Gloucester, in King Lear: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” This line, Berry writes, “calls Gloucester back—out of hubris, and the damage and despair that invariably follow—into the properly subordinated human life of grief and joy, where change and redemption are possible.” Mr. Berry sees as Professor Wilson’s hubris the belief that “every mystery is a problem, and every problem can be solved. A mystery can exist only because of human ignorance, and human ignorance is always remediable. The appropriate response is not deference or respect, let alone reverence, but pursuit of ‘the answer.'” And the damage that his hubris inflicts? It is, potentially, a tyrannical imperialism of science, because

The direction of Mr. Wilson’s consilience . . . is toward an empirical dogma of dead certainty, “a common groundwork of explanation,” the terms of which would exclude whatever cannot be empirically explained. Mere “humanitarianism” would do the rest: If you know with certainty what is true, should you not enforce the truth? If you see your poor subjects struggling and suffering in their error, how can you rightly forbear to impose the necessary corrections?

The very assumption of the perfectibility of human knowledge is damaging because it makes the “real question that is always to be addressed” appear irrelevant. That question “arises from our state of ignorance: How does one act well—sensitively, compassionately, without irreparable damage—on the basis of partial knowledge?” The assumption also potentially shuts us off from the real explanation of human creativity—and, therefore, from the possibility of humane creativity:

[W]hen Mr. Wilson asserts that Paradise Lost owes nothing to “God’s guidance of Milton’s thoughts, as the poet himself believed”. . . , he is talking far beyond the reach of proof. He does not consider that Paradise Lost is the poem it is because Milton was a man faithful and humble enough to invoke the assistance of the “Heav’nly Muse.” The only empirical truth available here is that Milton, believing, wrote Paradise Lost, and that Mr. Wilson, disbelieving, wrote Consilience, a book of a different order.

Life is a Miracle hearkens back to Hillaire Beloc’s famous pamphlet-length response to H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, which prompter Wells to respond in kind. While such exchanges were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, authors today rarely take one another’s works so seriously. We can only hope that Professor Wilson returns the favor and writes a response to Mr. Berry. Two great minds, who represent radically different understandings of the nature of human life, engaging each other in a public debate might actually expand our understanding of the limits of human knowledge.

My one criticism of Mr. Berry’s book-length essay is that, despite the example he makes of the Earl of Glouchester, he seems to believe that Professor Wilson’s though has moved beyond redemption:

Edward O. Wilson looks forward to “a Magellanic voyage that eventually encircles the whole reality” . . . This presumably will be the long end run that will carry us and “the environment” over the goal line of survival.


But in an earlier book, Biophilia, Mr. Wilson set forth a far different conclusion, one which he has now evidently repudiated [italics are mine], but which I wish to affirm: “That the naturalist’s journey has only begun and for all intents and purposes will go on forever. That it is possible to spend a lifetime in a magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree” . . .

I sympathize with Mr. Berry’s attempt to combat the reductionism embodied in Professor Wilson’s Consilience. But he indulges the same tendency himself by reducing Professor Wilson’s work to his latest (and, perhaps, ill-considered) book. Better, as a Christian, to hold out the hope that the man who could write that sentence in Biophilia will one day recognize the error of his recent work and return to the fold. Better, too, to give him credit for at least recognizing—unlike so many other intellectuals—that science, religion, and art do not necessarily have to be at odds. (This is not to say that Professor Wilson is a believer: “On religion I lean toward deism but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics,” he writes in Consilience.)

Still, hope does not always triumph: Several years after I heard him deliver his sermon on God and physics, the Christian Reformed pastor was tried, convicted, and defrocked by his denomination for teaching that Christ was not the only way to salvation. After all, if a physicist can define God, and faith can be reduced to the knowledge of mathematical formulas, what need is there for Christ?


[Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, by Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint) 153 pp., $21.00]