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Letter: ‘Charles Darwin and St. Patrick’

The best time to celebrate the life of St. Patrick, I believe, is in every month other than March and I keep a framed picture of his likeness over my desk at home - next to the framed photograph of Charles Darwin. March is fine to celebrate the legacy of Celtic culture in general and the heritage of Ireland in particular. I think, however, that St. Patrick has much to offer the world’s spiritual development and people - irrespective of race, color, or creed - can benefit from his grace and example.

The inescapable fact is, St. Patrick could not have brought Christianity, literacy and the other trappings of civilization to the Emerald Isle if he did not first acknowledge that the Irish were heathen savages; barbarians who preoccupied themselves with mindless rituals to false gods and what Darwin called, in describing man’s rise from the apes, “the grossest superstition.” Taken a slave in his youth by Irish tribesmen, St. Patrick nevertheless returned to Ireland as an adult convinced that, their barbaric state aside, the Irish were children of God and sons and daughters of Adam and thus capable of Salvation. He understood that although human beings are citizens of the City of God, they are also residents of the City of Man and, consequently, only by elevating the state of the latter could men and women more fully comprehend the former. That’s an awesome thing to contemplate: the pagan Greeks and Romans believed in a civilizing mission out of the Classical esthetic; Christians believed in a civilizing mission out of a desire to cultivate the spiritual in the temporal world. (A goal shared by Islam, Hinduism, and other civilizing traditions throughout the world’s cultures.)

In another age, great scientific minds would also appreciate this duality. Most recall Sir Ronald Fisher, for example, as the evolutionary biologist who pioneered statistical genetics in the 1930s. He was also a eugenicist and this belief in improving the genetic endowment of the human species came not merely from his genetic studies but from his devout Christian theology. Homo sapiens, he reasoned, must be improved else it’ll degenerate back into some animalistic state oblivious to the existence, will, and revelation of the Creator.

Certainly we can speak of changing our species through evolution and redemption; the worldly and the spiritual, civilization and salvation. But we, like St. Patrick returning to Ireland, must acknowledge our pathetic state. The intellectually honest man or woman in 2011 must consider that more Americans care about Britney Spears and Wal-Mart than Shakespeare and Mozart. That’s hardly surprising in a country that spends more money on booze, pornography and gambling than on preserving national monuments; that erects billion-dollar sports complexes for poor people to spend their money watching millionaires play children’s games in cities where schools, hospitals and firehouses have closed their doors for lack of corporate, governmental and public support. Americans have taken their freedom, progress, tolerance and diversity and created a vast moral, cultural and intellectual wasteland. What a legacy for the children and grandchildren.

Seen in this light, museums, libraries, art galleries, concert halls and churches are really oases in the desert and like oases in all deserts, they must constantly be fed from the wellspring and for the former that means a font of civil pride and service to the community. Events, educational programs, fund-raisers, community outreach, films, guest speakers, lectures, exhibits and workshops are essential to their very existence and mission and without which they join the closed school building, the abandoned hospital and the defunct firehouse as a boarded-up monument to the personality flaws of individuals and the dysfunctional nature of what sadly passes for “modern society.” But these institutions can’t do it alone. They require the enormous commitment of people who believe in the institution, believe in the principals of the institution’s founding, and believe that the institution has a future. Yet even here we’ve seen examples of our spiritual malaise: an epidemic of apostates and a decadent ethos in which excellence and achievement is neither expected nor respected. Its plague has infected those charged with the governance of society’s civilizing institutions. We might loathe admitting it, but America is a place that is every bit as barbaric as the Ireland St. Patrick encountered early in the fifth century. It’s a disillusioning realization, but like St. Patrick, I believe that even the most cynical and apathetic can become righteous before something that’s greater than them.

Like Darwin, I believe in change and improvement, in evolution.

Every Feb. 12. the world marks Darwin Day. Every March 17 the world observes St. Patrick’s Day. But - as the framed pictures overlooking my desk testify - I consider every day of the year a time to celebrate the meaning of both men in our everyday lives.

Paul Manton