Jeff P. Jones
Dan Namingha, New Mexico Desert, Acrylic on Canvas, 48"x48" ©2019
Disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate
but was at last complete.
— Charles Darwin
In 1979, on the Sunday morning drive to church with my parents, the phrase dust of the ground plays in my mind. Seven years old, I sit in the back of our Dodge Monaco, leaning forward, arm draped over the front bench seat. I look from my mother to my father as downtown Denver’s skyline passes in the distance.
Dust was dirt. But was that first handful—the one destined to become Adam—like the dry sandy stuff in our backyard where the dogs pooped? Or closer to the clay the shovel hit a foot down? I try to picture the dirt of Africa, where my father says the Garden of Eden was, and can almost feel it slipping through my fingers.
At church, I go off to Sunday School and my parents, to the adult class. Ours is a small congregation—usually less than twenty warm bodies, all white. Missionary Baptists, we disdain drinking, dancing, and divorcing. And though I willingly believe all that is taught (and why not?—belief comes naturally), I dread the kids’ performance before the sermon when the pastor’s wife calls the children to the stage. I want to stay where I am, safe in the pew.
“Go on,” my father urges. He turns his knees to the side for me to pass.
And because I’m an obedient child, I step past him and my mother into the sanctuary’s center aisle, that dreaded spotlight space. Onstage, hands jammed in my pockets, I sing what’s required, “I’m in the Lord’s Army” or “Deep and Wide” or any number of other ditties.
Safely back in the pew, I listen to the sermon until I grow bored then do what I do every Sunday—gaze up at the beams of wood on the sanctuary’s high ceiling. For some reason, the knots on those wooden beams fascinate me. They look like dark stars arrayed in random clumps, and if I were held prisoner in this place, I would survive and avoid insanity by staring at them for hours. For a game, I constellate them: rooster, dog with half tail, dragon. It’s the sort of thing I do most Sundays. But today as I glance down, the preacher catches my eye. He gives me a sharp look, and I feel the sting that I’m meant to.
Why should I be forced to listen to the adult sermon? I try anger, resentment, ignorance, but I know one thing for sure: After today, I can no longer gaze up in carefree wonder at the wooden universe.
Those who study the evolutionary basis for religious belief contend that the human brain developed to detect agency in the surrounding environment—that is, potential predators and prey—and this is why we see living things in amorphous shapes: animals in clouds, human figures in shadows, gods in constellations.
I’m nine years old. The congregation sings as the preacher shouts over them. He calls for lost souls to come forward and be saved. Even now, almost fifty, I can hear the song as clear as day:
Just as I am and waiting not,
To rid my soul of one dark blot.
To Thee whose love can cleanse each spot,
I come, O Lord, I come.
Again I’m walking that dreaded center aisle between the pews, not to sing a song with the other kids but in answer to the altar call.
The night before, I lay in bed, riddled with guilt. In the backyard I had teased our dog Hector until he snapped at me. God had seen me do it, this much I knew; and I sensed His displeasure. When I helped an ant along its way or kicked a neighbor’s rock back into their landscaping, I pictured Him nodding in silent, majestic approval. He knew my thoughts as well. When I wondered what it would be like if my parents died or if I failed to say my bedtime prayers—there He sat on His eternal throne, shaking His head. Faith life for me was a performance for an all-mighty audience of One, the ultimate agent in the sky.
But teasing Hector—our beloved basset hound whom my mother called “Old Man”—proved my deeper depravity, my sinful nature, my need for a savior. I hated the cruel side in me so bad that it hurt, an empty ache in my chest.
On top of it all, the timing was auspicious. Lisa, the girl who lived two doors down, had witnessed to me in my front yard the other day. She told me how she knelt in her bedroom and spoke to God. “It just takes one prayer, and then you’re saved forever.”
My father had been saved when he was seven. At church camp, I once saw a boy of five accept Jesus, the preacher joking that the youngster offered as his reason that he didn’t want to go to hell. But my salvation prayer wasn’t motivated by fear of hell, more like fear of myself. And so I offered complete prostration.
“Jesus,” I prayed, “I know that I’m a sinner. Forgive me and come into my heart.” Ask him into your heart, won’t you? we heard at the weekly altar call. I said the prayer twice to make sure, then felt relief surge through me.
Though I could hear the tv playing in the living room, I didn’t rush out to tell my parents. I lay weeping in my bed, the magnitude of my act amplified by my solitude. Eventually, I fell asleep.
So now I step into the dreaded aisle, a public proclamation of my decision, and walk toward Brother B. He takes my hand and leans forward. I put my mouth to his ear and whisper my news.
Two weeks later, I stand shivering in waist-deep baptistry water. The congregation looks on, and I’m nervous. In the time since my salvation prayer, I find that all the same feelings and thoughts are still there. Maybe baptism, though, will speed my transformation. I’ll go into the water a skinny, self-conscious boy then rise anew.
Brother B, standing with me in the water, tells the congregation of Christ’s passing into the grave, his ensuing resurrection. The water grows colder. My arm skin domes over. Finally, Brother B braces his forearm against my spine and palms my skull. With his other hand he covers my nose with a handkerchief and squeezes my nostrils shut.
“I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
I fight the strange feeling of being tipped backward into water. I want everything to be natural, but I get hung up on the particulars—the unexpected handkerchief on my face, the smell of Brother B’s aftershave, the fact that I’m fully dressed in the water. It’s cold and confusing, though there’s nothing to do but let it happen. Hard as I try, I can’t recall what it’s like to rise up, so maybe I am granted some reprieve from the superego in this moment. As I stand there dripping, I expect something profound—voices in my head, a sudden clarity—but there’s just a vague sense of still wanting to please, of having taken the proper step toward adulthood.
Afterward, someone hands me a towel in the changing room. I strip and towel off then hurry into dry clothes. Out in the sanctuary, the church is singing as they wait to extend to me the right hand of fellowship for the first time. I hear their voices mingling, familiar and beautiful, as they rise to the ceiling.
In the coming years, a bogeyman comes to haunt my belief in God: the theory of evolution. When, in my teens, we get a new pastor, he delights in telling the story of Charles Darwin supposedly renouncing his great theory when on his deathbed. Once, after services, I ask Brother S for his source. He promises to track it down for me but never does. I don’t ask him out of doubt but as part of a larger desire to document the lie of evolution that has led so many astray.
In our church we call nonbelievers “the lost,” and no one is more lost than those who believe Darwin’s theory. To be lost is the worst thing imaginable—existing outside of God’s grace, headed for an eternity in hell. (In an exception, children who haven’t reached the “age of accountability”—a grouping with terrifyingly vague boundaries—escape such damnation.) And those who encourage the lost to stay lost deserve special condemnation. This includes the egghead scientists who push evolution as a way of contradicting our beloved Genesis.
A few years ago, at my grandmother’s funeral in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Missionary Baptist preacher, lacking, apparently, much knowledge of the woman herself, veered off his eulogy script to rail against evolution for several minutes. Though it enraged me (by then, no longer a member of any church), it was familiar territory, and I said nothing of my feelings later when I shook his hand.
Who am I to evangelize the evangelists?
When I’m in high school, my parents split. I get a college scholarship nearby, so I live with my father and bus downtown to the commuter campus. Such is my hubris that, as a freshman, I decide, among an array of possible electives, to take Anthropology 101. I do so with a single goal: to find evolution’s fatal flaw.
It doesn’t take long. Discounting the Big Bang, which seems like an easy but amorphous target, I find what I take to be evolution’s false heart—a counter creation story not of dust but of water and amino acids, a primordial mass floating in the seas for millions of years until a bolt of lightning struck in just the right place and inspired the first single-celled organism to life.
“A one in thirty million chance,” my teacher says. “But once it happened, it happened, right? After all, people win the lottery all the time.”
I don’t agree. I can’t.
Yet the particulars nag, and I indulge in more anthro classes until I’m won over gradually in spite of my resistance—won over by the weight of physical evidence, the care with which archeologists piece together the progression of forms, the majesty of nature and its inherent logic, every species a puzzle that, with the application of the scientific method, reveals answers built on sense and not emotion.
I try to get my father to join me in these revelations, I try to take him with me—but he has too much invested in the Bible’s literal truth. He grew up in a Missionary Baptist church in east Texas and is, himself, an ordained preacher in our denomination. While in seminary, a visiting preacher spoke to his class about “the ripe fields of the lost” in Colorado, and my father’s dream grew from there. His divorce from his first wife ended that dream, and he became a city planner instead.
“What about natural selection, small changes?” I say one day in the car on the way home from church. He looks like a shorter, stouter Patrick Stewart, handsome in spite of a bald pate, and he wears a bushy silver mustache.
I resort to a crazy scenario to prove my point. “If there were these random metal discs,” I say, “with razor-sharp edges that flew around all the time six feet off the ground and chopped tall people’s heads off, people would eventually be born only shorter than six feet tall. Don’t you agree?” I’m arguing with him as I argue with myself, testing the theory’s limits with extremes.
He glances at me, his blue eyes edged with distrust. “I don’t know that. You don’t know that. I’m not going to admit that.” Hypotheticals aren’t his bag. He grows angry, shakes his head. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
I end up majoring in anthropology, thrill at just how many hominin species have been found. Study the mitochondrial DNA evidence, our family scrapbook. Meet Jane Goodall at an event. Read On the Origin of Species for myself, amazed at Darwin’s careful thinking. Cradle, in a physical anthropology class, the skull casts—the originals freed from their sleep in the African soil by an archeologist’s brush—of Homo erectus and Australopithecus. Trace their brow ridges and cheek bones with my fingertips.
Feel the undeniable family link.
What kind of conspiracy would all the various fossils—Australopithecus afarensis and africanus, boisei and robustus; Homo habilis and heidelbergensis, ergaster and neanderthalensis—have to represent if we keep pitting evolution against belief?
And though I never give up my faith entirely, what I return to again and again is this: irrefutable bones in the soil.
Where I live now, on the Palouse in northern Idaho, the sun colors the hills of wheat golden in the fall. I find it impossible that four decades have passed since I draped my arm over our car’s bench seat and looked from my mother to my father and thought of the dust of the ground.
An hour to the east there’s a lägerstatte that my seven-year-old son and I love to visit every year. We pay our $20, and with an axe, I hack a slab of shale from the hillside while he chases grasshoppers. Then we lay the slab on its end, and, using a butter knife, he pries it open. Like a book. If we’re lucky, the book splits open and reveals an intact ancient leaf. Then something even more incredible happens. For a few seconds before oxidation, the leaf shows its colors—green, red, yellow—from the day it fell 15 million years ago.
Too fast, the color fades, but we carve the leaf from its stony page. We wrap it in newspaper and plastic and take it home.