In one of my childhood books, there is a brief but well-known poem written by Robert Louis Stevenson that runs as follows: “The world is so full of a number of things,/ I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” This is on a page introducing a section titled “The World About Us.” The illustration shows a little boy dressed as a kind of caveman/king, sitting under a tree and surrounded by a variety of wildlife. The young reader is obviously intended to be dazzled by the sheer diversity of creatures over which human beings are set.
Although the book does not by any means have a Christian orientation, as I look at this page, I am reminded of Psalm 8: “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea.”
As Christians, we are probably most impressed with the diversity of God’s creation when we walk in the woods, visit a tropical rain forest, or scuba dive in the Caribbean. There we encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and amphibians, not to mention plants. Sometimes we are even tempted to identify creation itself with the natural world only. When we do so, we tend to contrast God’s creation with the products of human culture typically found in city buildings, art museums, orchestra halls, and grain silos. Yet if we would bother to think a little more deeply on the matter, we would likely admit that even human culture and society admit of a similar diversity that could be summed up by Stevenson’s poetic dictum.
What are some of these diverse manifestations of cultural formation? Perhaps most obvious and basic are marriage and family, which are the foundation for the birth and rearing of new generations. As human beings are worshipping creatures, we are also presented with the communities within which such activity takes place, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, each of which occupies its own distinctively styled building. A glance at a globe reveals that the land surface of the earth is covered with states, within each of which something called government holds sway and exercises political authority. Finally, there is an array of less basic, but still significant communities, including business enterprises, labour unions, professional associations, art museums, sporting teams, consumer co-operatives, political parties, symphony orchestras, dance troupes, schools, universities, charitable organizations, recreational clubs, chambers of commerce, and drama clubs.
The differences among these societal forms are not difficult to grasp because they are firmly anchored in human experience. One need hardly have a graduate degree to recognize that, say, church and state are simply different. No one would think of misconstruing voting in an election with receiving the Lord’s Supper in the course of the liturgy. Few would mistake the teaching that occurs in the classroom for the raising of children taking place within the family. In the same way, to return to the natural world, hardly anyone is inclined to confuse a zebra with a polar bear or a boa constrictor with a walrus. These are quite plainly different things.
However, what is clear to ordinary experience is not necessarily subject to the same degree of clarity when it comes time to make theories about it. In fact, in recent centuries the most influential works of philosophy and science have often sought to reduce the complexity of God’s world to a very few simple building blocks. In 1859, Charles Darwin published his famous book, The Origin of the Species, in which he argues that all of earth’s living things developed through a process of natural selection from less complex to more complex organisms over millions of years. Opinions vary, even among believing Christians, on the degree of continuity among the various species, including humanity.
At the same time, it would be difficult to deny that Darwin’s enterprise as a whole is based on a deliberate effort to get around the biblical statement that God created everything after its own kind ( LINK: Gen. 1:25). In short, it represents an effort to reduce biological diversity to an undifferentiated organic life. Similarly, recent advances in genetic engineering, which see scientists inserting the genetic material from one species into another to enhance a desired quality in the latter, risk crossing any number of created boundaries while ignoring the potential dangers of so doing. Finally, many physicists have been motivated by the quest for a single particle or principle to which everything in the universe can ultimately be reduced.
Christians should readily agree with Oliver O’Donovan’s statement that “unity is proper to the creator, complexity to the created world.” But secular philosophers and scientists generally find it impossible to agree with either part of this affirmation. Because they deny that there is a creator, they are inevitably driven to look for a principle of unity within the cosmos itself. This almost always entails embracing some form of reductionism. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, reductionism means an “attempt or tendency to explain a complex set of facts, entities, phenomena, or structures by another, simpler set.” The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines reductionism as “the doctrine that a system can be fully understood in terms of its isolated parts, or an idea in terms of simple concepts.”
The problem with reductionism in all its forms is that it neglects the layered character of reality, pretending that the world can be understood as, say, so much physical matter. That a particular event might have multiple levels of meaning or causality is deliberately ignored as scientists attempt to locate an ultimate causal origin. Following its logic, reductionism would exclude the possibility of poetry. We could no longer speak of beautiful sunsets. We could speak only of the visual effects of sunlight refracting through earth’s atmosphere as it rotates. We could no longer speak of falling in love. We would have to echo Greta Garbo’s Soviet Russian character, Ninotchka, in Ernst Lubitch’s 1939 film of that title: “Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological—or, shall we say, chemical?—process.” We could no longer sing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” to describe the beginning of a happy day. At most, we could say, “Oh, how elevated are the serotonin levels in my brain as earth revolves to receive the sun’s light.” (Even Richard Rodgers would have had difficulty setting that one to music!)
To reduce means to make things smaller, or at least to make them look smaller. But God’s world is bigger than we tend to think it is. Unbelieving scientists may suppose they have reduced everything to biological or material causality, even if, ironically, they have also expanded our knowledge of the immensity of the universe. Yet this does not stop artists from producing paintings and sculptures. It cannot prevent friends from enjoying each other’s company. It will never keep people from believing that they are or are not being treated justly by political authorities. It will not stop worshippers from praying fervently for an ill loved one or thanking God for his gracious blessings. “The world is so full of a number of things. . . .”
In this space, I expect to explore this diversity within God’s world from a number of angles. As a political scientist, I naturally tend to look at the political or legal side of things, and this will certainly be reflected here. But I will also be examining trends in the larger culture as various forms of reductionism, often called ideologies, battle it out in the public square. Stevenson’s poem will provide the controlling theme. In the next issue of Comment, I will look at efforts within the Christian tradition to account for the pluriformity of creation.