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A natural selection

Why a faith-based magazine feels it's important to sponsor a museum exhibit on Charles Darwin

By David Wilson

My colleague Rev. Lee Simpson called to me from her office one morning late last winter. “Did you hear William Thorsell on the radio last night?” she asked.

Thorsell runs the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Lee, The Observer’s operations director, had heard Thorsell on CBC’s weekday drive-home show plugging a new visiting exhibit about the life and work of Charles Darwin. In the course of the interview, Thorsell mentioned that the museum had been unable to secure any corporate sponsorship for the exhibit, which was highly unusual. Follow-up news stories painted an even starker picture: major corporate sponsors had shunned “Darwin and the Evolution Revolution” everywhere else it had been mounted — in New York, where it originated, in Chicago, in Boston. The consensus was that Darwin and evolution were “too hot to handle.”

To me, that’s like saying gravity is too hot to handle. But let’s be charitable and concede that corporations in the U.S. have a legitimate fear of getting caught in the crossfire of the ugly evolutionary wars that have raged in recent years over attempts to get evolution banned from the classroom or discredited as a science. What I can’t accept is the U.S. creationist chill creeping across our border.

“Do you think we should sponsor the exhibit?” Lee asked. The more we thought about it, the more we were drawn to the conclusion it would be consistent with this magazine’s history of advocating a healthy, respectful relationship between religion and public education. That stance actually goes back to Darwin’s own era, when our founder, Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist minister, fought for the establishment of public education in Upper Canada. Sponsoring the exhibit would also make a statement: if a small faith-based operation like ours isn’t afraid to support a museum exhibit that encourages people to think about their place in creation, then large secular corporations shouldn’t be afraid either.

We went to see the exhibit for ourselves. I was struck by how it captured the intellectual excitement of Darwin’s age, the sense that his theory of natural selection helped humans unlock some of the mysteries of life —  maybe not the why, but the how. I found myself musing on how the theory evokes the inherent beauty of a creation that is constantly and eternally evolving. And I was impressed by the exhibit’s straightforward take on the historic tensions between religion and evolution. There is nothing in the Darwin exhibit that threatens or diminishes religion or people of faith. Interestingly, I bumped into a United Church minister who was touring the exhibit with his wife and two friends. I asked him what he thought about it. “Great,” he said. By the end of the day, we were sponsors.

Our sponsorship consists mostly of promotional favours. The financial portion comes from money earmarked in our budget for special projects. From the outset, our hunch was that readers would support what we were doing. And they have, overwhelmingly (see Letters, page 6).

This is a project of The Observer, not The United Church of Canada, but clearly it has touched a nerve of goodwill toward the United Church. I’ve been amazed by how many people have written or called to say how proud they are to be United Church members.

I’ve been doubly amazed by the number of people outside the church who’ve called to express their admiration. I wonder if there isn’t a lesson here for the United Church as it discerns a path into an uncertain future: engage with the culture, and maybe the culture will engage with you.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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