Let me deal first with two of the main critiques I have of the book, both of which stem from the very nature of the thing as a collection of essays. The first critique is that this is not a book for beginners. By this I mean that it is a challenging book in terms of its intellectual content, but it is also a challenging book in terms of its perspectives. If you are completely unfamiliar with evolutionary biology, you will encounter foreign vocabularies and new logic systems. You will google terms like “genetic drift” and “teleology”; you will wonder whether Henri Bergson was a crackpot (he most definitely was, but Peck goes a long way towards rehabilitating the man). Further, you will wonder whether your faith requires you to be a vegetarian, whether we are good stewards of the Earth, and whether the Mormon view of Spirit as matter really makes any sense at all. These are all good things to learn and to wonder, but it requires a certain level of scientific and spiritual literacy that makes this book not easily accessible for all. Again, this is a collection of essays: was the author supposed to dumb himself down for the purposes of this collection? My suspicion is that these essays are already fairly dumbed-down as scientific essays go. As for the spiritual explorations of the book, it’s nice to get your assumptions challenged from time to time. But still, it’s inevitable that some readers will get mired in Part I and give up. This is a mistake.
The second critique is structural, although again I am not sure there is much to be done. The book is split into two parts, the first being a series of peer-reviewed pieces that hit the science and philosophy of existence and consciousness. The second part is a group of essays, blog posts and other published pieces on personal faith that takes into account the fundamental questions from the first part. The progression goes like this: you learn the science, you dive into the big, underlying questions of the world, and then you have a framework to talk about your faith and explain your worldview. However, the organizational divide in the book is not quite as neat and clean as one would like. If Part I is science and Part II is faith, there’s a little peanut butter in the chocolate (and there’s a little chocolate in the peanut butter). That’s perfectly understandable, as one informs the other in Peck’s mind. However, Steve never quite takes us from the Point A (the current science of consciousness, the possibilities of evolution and Bergsonian Élan vital) to Point B (Mormon environmentalism, the nature of souls and the role of God in the universe). He seems to have connected these dots within himself, but teases us somewhat as to how this is done. The result is a fairly prominent tonal gap from Part I to Part II, as we go from neural networks and Dawkins’ Mount Improbable to networks of saints and Mount Peale in the La Sals. Peck is revealing much about what makes him tick, but we don’t quite get to see the connections between all the gears.
Do these sound like major objections? I hope not. The net effect is a moving and challenging look at our faith and ourselves in a broader and more complex universe. Evolving Faith has much to offer. Those interested in raw intellectualism will sink their teeth into explorations of, say, whether subjective truth is a viable notion; those interested in wanderings of the Spirit will be fascinated as Peck describes a delirious episode brought on by a parasitic infection. If you’ve read Steve Peck’s work before you know that there is a certain duality to his writing. He has deep capacity for the natural and poignant (read the Two-Dog Dose” story, found in his Wandering Realities collection — also note that the author apparently likes to wander a lot). But Peck also has a taste for complexity, for taxonomy and science. It is fascinating to see these traits of his in a non-fiction environment. Perhaps this is the closest to the ‘real’ author we’ve gotten so far.
I apologize for the brevity of the review, but I don’t dare write much more about the book. This isn’t because there isn’t more to say — there is a LOT more to say. The questions raised in my mind from Peck’s book have no easy answers; raising them in this review will simply take too long. Questions like, how does Christ answer the ecological fact of the necessity of violence in the world? What, concretely, is the difference between spiritualism and Bergsonianism? Does Mormonism require a God that is the creator of this Universe? I can do no justice to mighty questions such as these. And if Peck does not quite wrestle them out, he has at least brought these and other significant inquiries to our mind. The capacity of this book to engender curiosity is perhaps its greatest value, and for this the author is to be applauded.