Thursday, August 11

Charles Darwin, Theology and Evolutionary Perspectives

One of the major points of debate in Christian circles is that of origins, often framed as a "science vs. religion" debate, or a "creation vs. evolution." How can theology speak to this continuing conversation? How does an evolutionary perspective interact with the Christian tradition? In order to plunge into this ocean of intrigue, we must begin with Darwin. Charles Darwin (1809-1882), famous for popularizing and developing a unified theory of evolution, argued that all species - including homo sapiens - are products of “natural selection.” Darwin originally delayed the publication of The Origin of Species, largely because he was well aware that his ideas and theories flew in the face of contemporary assumptions and beliefs concerning human origins. His idea concerning the "descent by modification" was the gradual process by which various species evolved and changed. It in effect contradicted the prevailing world view of Darwin’s time, which had spoken of such ideas as spontaneous generation. However, around 1844 an anonymous booklet titled "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" was published, which discussed what we now refer to as stellar evolution as well as the transmutation of species - the idea that preceded Darwin's theory of natural selection. Darwin felt that this little booklet that was being widely circulated prepared the general public and the scientific community for his Origin of Species, so in 1859, he finally published his work.

One must point out, however, that Darwin was not the first to think of evolutionary ideas. Thales of Miletus (640-546 BC) thought that life originated in water,1 and his student Anaximander (611-547 BC) thought that humans evolved from fish or fishlike forms.2 Xenophanes of Colophon (570-475 BC) recognized that fossils showed how life evolved,3 and Democritus (460-370 BC) taught that primitive people began to speak sounds then moved to words.4 Medieval Islamic authors held similar theories, largely due to their revival of ancient Greek classical texts. Therefore, although Darwin’s theory of evolution was new, it was not altogether unheard of. In fact, there are a number of people who may have influenced Darwin’s idea: Jean Baptiste Lamarck (who held that characteristics gained over a lifetime were inherited), Thomas Malthus (his theory of population growth), Comte de Buffon (came up with the idea of calculus, which helps modeling for evolution), and Alfred Russel Wallace (independently almost wrote essentially what Darwin wrote, but Darwin published first; they held parallel ideas). His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was one of his primary inspirations, as well as Charles Lyell, James Hutton, and Georges Cuvier - who first started assembling different skeletons and was making classifications of plants.

(Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain)
One of the charges often leveled at Christianity is that as a whole it is anti-science. Although there are a good number of modern Christians (especially in various American Christian denominations) who oppose different scientific discovery, there are also a large number who do not, and have not. Consider that it was a Belgian Catholic priest, Georges LemaƮtre, who discovered the Big Bang! It was an Augustinian friar, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), who discovered modern genetics and is considered the father of genetics, which helped lead to the discovery of evolution. Consider that it was a Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, who is credited as developing the Scientific Method. Further, despite commonly held beliefs surrounding the Galileo case and the Catholic Church, Galileo was actually a Secular Franciscan, studied medicine at a Jesuit monastery, had two daughters who became Poor Clares and spent their lives in the convent, and Galileo was especially close to one of the Popes of the time. It is also true that many of the Jesuits who also specialized in astronomy supported the research of Galileo at the time.5 (For more information, see: Galileo, the Church and the Heliocentric Affair)

Despite this and other interactions between science and religion, there is a vast body of evidence that resistance to the theory of evolution remains strong in some parts our society today, long after Darwin's work was published. Take for example the often cited Answers in Genesis, a Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) organization headed by Ken Ham. The YEC movement has been made famous through Ham’s debate with Bill Nye, through the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the life-sized Noah’s Ark they have built in Kentucky. AiG is not the only organization to espouse this kind of view, there are others - such as the Institute for Creation Research, Creation International and others. The basic beliefs are that the Genesis narrative is literally true, particularly Genesis 1-11, that God created the universe 6000-24,000 years ago, that it only took God six, literal, 24 hour days to create, that modern dating methods do not work and everything merely "looks old," that Adam and Eve were real people, that there was a real, global flood - believed to be the source of fossils, that there was a real Tower of Babel, and finally, that dinosaurs and man lived together. Many Christians, however, instead accept alternative interpretations of the Genesis narrative or other understandings of origins, such as the view of Theistic Evolution, in which the divine Creator uses the processes of descent by modification, natural selection and such as a chisel to make the world, so to speak, just as Michelangelo would use a chisel to sculpt, yet he would remain the sculptor - or in other words, God is the artist, who uses a tool (evolutionary processes) to sculpt the world.

One helpful analogy when discussing science, theology and the Christian tradition is that of the "Two Books" of God's Revelation: the Bible and what we call the "Book of Creation." The Wesleyan Quadrilateral would refer to theology as being made up of four parts: Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason, but perhaps we may more widely define "Scripture" as the revelations of the Creator, which would include this "Book of Creation." Thus, the task of theologians is to "read" this book of creation in light of scientific findings and integrate them into our theological understandings, and vice versa. This idea of the "Two Books" is also not a new one. It is found in early Church writings such as St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, Origen of Alexandria and St. Augustine. it can be inferred from the writings of St. Paul in Romans 1:20, it is mentioned by the Franciscan friar St. Bonaventure, as well as St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, and many modern theologians who use it today.6 One organization, Biologos, in light of this understanding, holds that "Christians should think of Scripture and Creation as two “books” that should be read together for understanding the fullness of God’s self-revelation."7

Robert Boyle (1627-1691), an Anglo-Irish inventor, chemist, physicist and natural philosopher, once commented that “The book of nature is a fine and large piece of tapestry rolled up, which we are not able to see all at once, but must be content to wait for the discovery of its beauty, and symmetry, little by little, as it gradually comes to be more and more unfolded, or displayed.”8 From an evolutionary perspective, we may say that relationship is progressive - and God is progressive with God's relationship to creation. In fact, the term “evolution” comes from the Latin evolutionem, meaning “unrolling” or “an opening of what was rolled up,” and what is the foundation of Christianity if not continuous revelation and unfolding? Darwin himself once said, "I see no good reasons why evolution should shock the religious feelings of any... it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws."9

When considering Scripture and theology in light of evolutionary science, the book of Genesis is what is discussed the most - as the first few chapters deal with origins. As such, some have taken an approach to try and fit a literal Adam and Eve into the evolutionary framework, suggesting that at some point in evolutionary history, God endowed our early ancestors with the gift of reason and free will, thus situation Adam and Eve into the evolutionary timeline. Others point to passages early in Genesis to try and fit in what we study today in science with the ancient text; for example, one may believe that Genesis 1:3 which says, "Let there be light..." is the record of the words spoken by The Divine which triggered the Big Bang and set the universe into motion. Or, some may consider evolutionary processes to be found in Genesis by citing verses such as Genesis 1:24, "Let the earth bring forth...", suggesting that God imbued the earth with the creative ability to bring forth life and the conditions for life to flourish.

The Poetic structure of Genesis 1
Others look at the religion vs. science debate from a literary perspective. They suggest that Genesis 1 is structured much like a poem, with stanzas and repetition, and was not intended to give a literal, historic and scientific narrative of the origin of the universe. Rather, it was intended to provide a poetic and artistic narrative that is similar in many respects to other creation stories found in Near Eastern mythologies. Certainly, there are poetic devices in place - such as verse 27, which demonstrates a parallelism similar to how most of the Psalms are structured. The picture to the left also demonstrates the many repetitions within the opening chapter. Some scholars will note that Genesis 1 is laid out much like a liturgical poem, with the response given as "And God saw that it was good," and also containing poetic elements of symmetry and parallelism. Consider just a few of the poetic parallels and thematic parallels in each of the seven days: day one has light and dark, day two has sky and sea, day three has sea and land, day four has sun, moon and stars, day five has birds and fish, day six has animals and humans, and day seven is capped off with divine celebration.10

One scholar, John Walton, puts forth a theory in his book The Lost World of Genesis One. Walton notes that in ancient times, other Near-Eastern nations close to Israel believed that gods dwelled in temples. When they built a temple for a god, they would set up an image of that god on the sixth day of the celebration, and on the seventh day they would rest. Walton argues that Genesis 1 serves a purpose as a functional origin story, wherein God sets up his "cosmic temple." Then, God puts his image in creation - his "temple" - on the sixth day and rests on the seventh day, just as can be found throughout ancient Near Eastern mythologies. Walton believes that this first chapter is written as such to show that the God of Israel trumps all of the other foreign deities, demonstrating his power, majesty and might. Genesis 1 shows the divine sovereign sending forth, issuing commands and declaring dominion over everything - not only of an earth-bound temple, but of the entire "cosmic temple." Other writers have suggested different ways of interpreting the narratives found in Genesis. For example, Peter Enns notes in his Evolution of Adam that Adam serves in a quasi-preistly role  in the Garden of Eden, perhaps foreshadowing the future covenental relationships. Thus, Adam fills the role of a literary character who foreshadows the role of future priests in Israel, demonstrating that just as Adam cared deeply for the garden of Eden and all of its inhabitants, so too much the priests and teachers of the law care for Israel (their land) and all of its inhabitants.

On a narrative level, many different religious traditions, philosophies and non-religious individuals have come together to form a grand narrative, an "Epic of Evolution." In other words, "The Great Story (also known as the Universe Story, Epic of Evolution, or Big History) is humanity's common creation story. It is the 14 billion year science-based sacred story of cosmic genesis, from the formation of the galaxies and the origin of Earth life, to the development of self-reflective consciousness and collective learning, to the emergence of comprehensive compassion and tools to assist humanity in living harmoniously with the larger body of life."11  This "Epic of Evolution" is one way in which all religious and non-religious can dialogue, develop, discuss and have a narrative framework in which to work.

Developing an evolutionary theology brings about a number of wondrous new insights and considerations. For example, consider the beauty of the inter-connectedness with all other beings. St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), though not aware of the Darwinian theory of evolution, modern genetics or modern biology, was fully aware of the sacred connection that exists between all things. Francis celebrated and embodied this in his famous Canticle of the Creatures. In it, St. Francis refers to everything in relational terms as "brother and sister"; as in "Brother Sun," or "Sister Moon." From an evolutionary perspective, bearing in mind that all living beings are interconnected and related, this adds an even more layered depth of meaning. Insights such as these, when more fully explored, bring about a wider breadth to the grand narrative of God's work in history, as well as how we relate, care for and connect with the creation around us. If we are all related, how much more should we desire to care for creation! Another consideration is that every single atom that exists has existed since the moment of creation, meaning that the atoms which make up your body were once something or someone else entirely. Genesis 2 describes the creation of man from the dust of the earth, and today we would recognize that our bodies are made of elements from the stars!

On this point, Christian theologian Elizabeth Johnson notes, "Understanding the human species as an intrinsic part of planetary and cosmic matter has far-reaching implications for the meaning of incarnation. In this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. Theologians have started to use the phrase "deep incarnation," coined by Danish theologian Niels Gregersen, to express this radical divine reach into the very tissue of biological existence and the wider system of nature. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself what Jesuit Father David Toolan has called 'the signature of the supernovas and the geology and life history of the Earth.' The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed... By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. In place of spiritual contempt for the world, we ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, part of the flesh that the Word became."12

What then are we left with? When we mix Darwin, theology and evolutionary perspectives, and we consider the movement of Christian thought and practice in today's world, we are again reminded of the need for a new theology for the this third millennium. Many of the questions we ask are very anthropocentric. Some believe that the only purpose of everything before us was to bring about the existence of humanity, "God's greatest jewel." But again, this is very human-centric thinking, and fairly limiting to the creative potential and action of the Divine. Where do we see the action of the Divine throughout geological history? In what ways do we find the relationship between God and early ancestors? Where do we find the movement of the Spirit in the Cambrian explosion, a period marked by an outburst of creative energy? If homo sapiens have only existed for 150,000-200,000 years out of the 4.6 billion years of Earth's history. or the 13.7 billion years of cosmic history, what does this mean for our place in history, our place in the universe and our place in the Divine plan for the cosmos? Certainly, the modern debate over origins - particularly between Young Earth Creation and evolutionary perspectives - will continue to go on, but when we view theology through the lens of evolutionary history, what we end up with is an Epic Story filled with beauty, progression and continuation. May the Divine Spirit grant us the insight and discernment as we continue to venture forth into this hitherto unknown country and journey on this voyage of discovery.

"There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into few forms... endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." 
 - Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species-

Endnotes
[1] Birdsell, J.B. Human Evolution. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1972. 22. Print.
[2] Thompson, B. The History of Evolutionary Thought. Fort Worth: Star Bible & Tract Corp., 1981, 29.
[3] Glass, B., Owsel, T. and Straus, W. Forerunners of Darwin: 1745–1895. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1959. 6. Print.

[4] Macior, L., Introduction; in: Dodson, E.O. and Howe, G.F., Creation or Evolution, University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, p. viii, 1990.
[5] In 1611, after publishing his Messenger from the Stars, Fr. Christopher Clavius, the chief mathematician and astronomer at the Jesuit Collegio Romano wrote to Galileo to inform him that the astronomers at the college confirmed his discoveries. Where Galileo ran into trouble was when he began claiming his theory as fact without first having actual evidence. Many of his ideas had already been disproven by other scientists, but he refused to acknowledge this.
[6] Mann, Mark. "The Church Fathers and Two Books Theology - Blog Series. Biologos, n.d. Web.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Boyel, Robert. The Christian Virtuoso. Ed. Works of Thomas Birch. 1744. Print.
[9] Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of the Species. 6th ed. Print.
[10] McLaren, Brian. The Story We Find Ourselves In: Further Adventures of a New Kind of Christian. Book 2. Print.
[11] Dowd, Michael. "What Is The Great Story?" The Great Story. N.p., n.d. Web.
[12] Johnson, Elizabeth. "For God so Loved the Cosmos." Environment. U.S. Catholic, 2013. Web.

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