I recently conducted a “classroom observation” of a colleague. This involves taking a seat in the back row, with the students who are streaming Netflix and, perhaps, passing a flask, and then “observing” the fellow at the lectern for an hour or so. It’s not entirely clear what one is supposed to be on the lookout for, but my policy is to make sure that he doesn’t expose himself, tell off-color jokes, or forget to show up. Within those limits, I figure it’s his class.
I do try to follow the drift of the lecture, not so much because it is interesting as because an hour is a long time. In my recent observation, the professor had occasion to allude to the obscure and hypothetical process of abiogenesis, and to mention that this process “no longer operates.” This piqued my interest.
I should mention that no student visibly started at this arresting statement. The diligent ones scribbled away in their notebooks, just as they have since the second grade. The negligent ones displayed their usual negligence.
As a Christian, I am, of course, committed to some sort of “creationism.” I’m disinclined to dogmatism when it comes to the precise manner in which the creative act took place, or the precise circumstances in which the Creator delegates matters to secondary causes, so the implausibility of abiogenesis is not the lynchpin of my faith. At the same time, I do find it curious, and perhaps of theological significance, that abiogenesis appears no longer to occur, if it occurred in the first place.
Before commenters begin pelting me with lectures on proteins or peptides or whatever else the specialists see as relevant, let me confess that my knowledge of abiogenesis rests entirely on the Disney movie Fantasia, specifically the dramatic scenes that accompany Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. You know: primal ooze, bolt of lightning, slithering salamanders, and then mighty T Rex rears his head and roars. No doubt the science has moved on a bit since 1940, but that’s my idea of abiogenesis.
And with that idea in mind, it does seem very odd that the process should have stopped. If it were not odd, it would have to be because we have a good explanation why it stopped. But based in my colleague’s rather offhanded remark, I take it that we don’t. After all, if primal ooze in the past was more abundant, or of higher quality, it would be a simple matter to mention this fact. The same is true of prehistoric lightning.
So, what occurred to me as I sat in the back row making my classroom observation was that my colleague had rather nonchalantly stepped across an intellectual crevasse that was, perhaps, only three feet wide, but which was at the same time about one thousand miles deep. And the diligent students scribbled away while the negligent students were negligent.
This unimportant incident points to a fundamental problem with the modern university. It’s not the football team, although that is a problem. It’s not the binge drinking, although that is a problem, too. It’s not even the fraternities. It’s the fact that there is no sun at the center of the universe. It’s the fact that what lies at the center is a crevasse. This crevasse may be only three feet wide, but it is a thousand miles deep, and all that professors do is nonchalantly step across it, while the diligent students scribble and the negligent students neglect.
Obviously I believe that the sun at the center of a university should be a true theology, since I believe that theology is the queen of all sciences, and that it is in relation to theology that all other sciences take their proper place and significance. But that’s not the point I wish to make here. I will concede the possibility of a university built around a stern and manly atheology. What I deny is the possibility of a university built around a crevasse.