An Inordinate Fondness for Variety


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An Inordinate Fondness for Variety
By Bobby Neal Winters

There is an old idea that God speaks to us through nature. Jesus used the language of the natural word to describe theological concepts all the time. Ironically, once we entered into the scientific age, this fell out of favor. When asked what one could learn about the creator could be learned about the Creator from a study of His works, JDS Haldane is said to have replied, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” While this is certainly humorous, I think that looking at nature with spiritual eyes can be very revealing.

God speaks to us through nature, but we have been very slow in learning nature’s language. The ancients could only see certain things because they had neither the tools nor the means of travel that are available to us.

Neither did they have the benefit of the experience that they themselves gave us. The practice that came to be what we call science today built up a vast storehouse of methods that work and do not work. Occasionally, they do come upon a larger bit of the picture that, when viewed through spiritual eyes, gives us insight into God. When I say this, I am speaking very particularly about evolution. This may lose me some readers that are of a more fundamentalist bent than I, or they might simply read the rest with a darkened heart, but I pray their forbearance.

We as a species have a collection of information in our gene pool about how to build humans. No two humans are exactly alike, but there is something about any two humans that will make us say that these two humans are both, well, humans. The similarity between any to representatives of a species is caused by a commonality in the information in their genes.

Environment also acts on the appearance of individuals. A person who is sickly as a child or who grew up during times of famine, is likely to be smaller than the same person would have been if he had not been sickly, or if he had not been malnourished. However, the environment also acts upon species in a subtler, but more lasting ways. The environment serves as a filter. Genes that cause an early death, or that cause infertility in all who carry them tend to be removed, while those that aid in health or fertility proliferate, and so our gene pool is not constant. One might use the analogy of a library. There are lots of books in the library. Over the course of time, books will be destroyed and books will be purchased. A good library will keep the books that are of continuing value, but will not replace those that are not.

Now consider two libraries that begin by having identical collections but are in different locations. Say one is in the mountains, and the other is by the sea. The same books are available to each of these libraries, but by virtue of their different locations, different books are found to be useful. For instance, the library in the mountains might tend to collect books on hiking, while the library by the sea might have a similar propensity for books on sea diving. In the long run, the library in the mountains might have a huge special collection of hiking books to the exclusion of anything about sea diving, while the library by the sea has an imbalance in the other direction. If we were to examine these libraries through a lens that allows us only to see their holdings on outdoor activities, we might swear that these libraries never had anything in common, and yet it is quite possible that the rest of their selections are quite similar, perhaps even identical.

Natural selection works in a way similar to example above. I chose the library analogy for what I believe to be a good reason. Natural selection is all about information. Indeed, the process that we see in the evolution of species occurs in other areas as well like languages. A group that speaks a common language might separate into two different groups and go into regions that are geographically isolated from each other. Each group would be in a different environment with different linguistic demands. They would stretch their existing vocabularies in order to fit novel situations in their respective environments. There would be new words gained through mistakes and wordplay. There might be vocabulary that is gained by contact with other language groups. Over a sufficiently long period, the languages that are used by each of the two groups might become mutually unintelligible to the other in spite of a large group of common words.

In each of the cases described above, there is a communication between the natural environment and an information system. The first case is a communication between the environment and the books in a library, and the second is a communication between the environment and a language. The evolution of species by means of natural selection is also a communication between nature, on one hand, and the gene pool of a breeding population on the other.

An organization of humans can be an information system as well. In particular, religions are information systems. Any given religion is a collection of beliefs and practices that are acquired over time. To use religious language, let me say that acquired beliefs are filtered by interaction with God. This interaction might have a large number of manifestations among which I would include biological and sociological means, but I would not limit the interaction to just those two methods.

Religious groups can be separated as well. The jungle of churches within this country serves as a powerful witness to this. The means of church separation can be geographic, political, social, or, dare I say it, even religious. Over time, differences grown beyond those for the original split. The churches involved each develop their own unique practices and cultivate their own unique beliefs. However, some commonality is retained with the original religion and the other branches thereof. Depending upon the lens that his used, the commonality might appear to be either small or large.

Protestants, so it seems, have perfected the art of religious diversity. There are all stripes of Baptists, Holiness, and Pentecostals. A drive down almost any highway in the “Bible Belt”, will confirm the variety of belief. As far as the religions concerned are actually creating their uniqueness in interaction with God, the variety is a good thing. It is possible that splits occur over points that strongly affect a church’s ability to survive in the world. In such a case, the church that pursues the wrong opinion might become extinct. It is also the case that occasionally splits are caused by a piece of false information entering the system. However, as long as the truth is preserved, the variety displayed might be said to approach the fullness of God.

As I have affirmed the value of variety, let me now speak of the value of unity. In order to do that, I will refer back to my analogies of the libraries and languages. The libraries still contain quite a bit of common information. If there is communication between the libraries, they can share the things that are useful in their own environment with the other. The idea of interlibrary loan is one such example. However, in the absence of any unifying mechanism, this is lost.

Different language groups often retain a common dialect in which the two groups can speak. During World War II, a soldier from the Bronx would be able to communicate with a soldier from Alabama through a common dialect even though each of the dialects involved would be almost mutually unintelligible. Each of the groups was able to profit from the experience of the other because they were able to communicate.

If unity is maintained within the diversity, each of the groups involved will be able to profit from the very different experience of the others. Within the context of religion, the Roman Catholics, for example, have a mechanism that facilitates the creation of diversity within unity. This is the religious order. The Franciscans are different from the Benedictines who are different from the Dominicans. Each of the groups has its own emphases, traditions, and history while maintaining unity within the context of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament also serves as an example of diversity within unity. While the individuals within a marriage are separate as humans, they are together something new. As it is written, “The two shall be as one flesh.” A married couple has all of the capabilities of the individuals plus new capabilities that neither of the individuals had alone. The most obvious example is the ability to produce children. Indeed, in the production of children, this is amplified as sperm and egg unite to form a life. Alone, neither the sperm nor the egg is a reproductive organism, and yet together, they combine to form a life.

The scientists tell us, that the production of great variety is an advantage that sexual reproduction has over other means of reproduction. More variety means that life has a greater chance to survive amidst a challenging universe. Even the cynical Preacher of Ecclesiastes saw this:

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:
If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

While Haldane was jesting when he spoke of God having and inordinate fondness for beetles, he might have been more on the mark to say that God has an inordinate fondness for variety but a variety under a unifying principal.
(Bobby Winters is an Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas.)
Hi Bobby. Good to see you out and about.

It doesn't pay anything monetarily, but the article found a good market here at my computer desk. Wish I could be of more help, but it's a good read. Surely it can find other markets, as well.:)

Hi Bobby:

Very good analogies that are well suited to today's dilemmas regarding what we may be doing to ourselves technologically. I just posted on this elsewhere on the CR board.

You might wish to contact someone over on the Center for Progressive Christianity web site. I used to post over there alot last year, but the boards have withered over the past months. However, someone in the administrative structure might know of a place for your article.

Thats a really nicely thought out little peice. Just I dont get the link to John, Paul, george and Ringo. Then again, I am a little dense:) Personal I am inordinately fond of the 'white album'.

Thank you for the post.

I have just recently found this site and did devour all of your threads in the first several visits.

I now have this site linked with the purpose to review daily as best I can the new posts but to specifically see if you have posted new threads.

You recent absence I am sure is felt by many.