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# Tuesday, May 29, 2007

As a subscriber to First Things and Touchstone, I know that musings upon the compatibility or incompatibility of Christian faith with evolutionary theory are not in short supply.  Neither, of course, are the unceasing dialectics on the truth or falsity of evolution, including all the usual suspects and alternatives.  But this may come as a surprise to those who only follow these topics as flare ups occur in the national media--there are no assertions being made in these thoughtful magazines that Catholics, or any Christians, must adhere to literal creationism.

The authors writing for these magazines are well-known names in general (the Pope himself wrote a recent article, as well as Supreme Court Justice Scalia), and First Things in particular hosts some of the icons in the evolutionary debate.  These aren't oddball nobodies, and I only say that to quell any imaginations that the voices in these magazines are on the sidelines--these are people of note and, in many cases, authorities in the fields upon which they're opining.

The most recent discussions have been around the feasibility of the formal notion of "intelligent design," which as I understand it revolves around arguments against chance-based evolution due to irreducible complexity in organsims, such as the eye.  One may note in this that it is not an argument against all evolution, nor is it an argument for literal (seven literal days as in the biblical account) creationism.  I am not going to say much more on the details of the theory because I'm not qualified and would probably get it wrong anyways.  My point is simply that there are respectable Christian positions in the evolutionary debates that are not the oft-touted literalist creationism.

This came up recently for me at work.  We were brainstorming ideas for visualizing something, and the idea of evolution came into play, so I tossed out, half-joking, that we should show a fish crawling out of water and turning into a monkey or something like that.  Rather joltingly, a co-worker blurted out "hey, I thought you didn't believe in that," to which I, dumbfounded that my beliefs were brought up in that context but more annoyed at the misconception of my beliefs, just stared, smiled, and moved on.

Being busy like we are, I had to set it aside and just focus on what needed to be done, but now that I have the luxury to propound what I actually believe (in what I think is a proper medium and place for such exposition), let me say that Christian faith does not presuppose literal creationism.  In fact, it doesn't even preclude strict evolutionary theory, biologically speaking.

This message still seems newsworthy; the popular misconception of the Christian being the ostrich with his head in the sand in regards to evolution (and science in general) is still in force, as evidenced by my co-worker's remark.  This doesn't surprise me; I still recall reading the headline "Pope Says Evolution Compatible with Faith" back at university in 1996 (before I became Catholic myself).  It made an impression on me because I was in fact raised in the milieu that evolution is inimical to the faith, so there is definitely some truth to the stereotype.  Plus, the literal creationists tend to be the ones who make the most noise and controversy, which is likely why the stereotype exists and persists.  So I have to be patient and understanding with those who hold the stereotype, but I also want to do what I can to dispel it--to make some noise of my own.  Sadly, "Catholic Software Creator Says Evolution Compatible with Faith" doesn't promise to make much noise, but I can try.   

As this article mentions, Catholicism has long been reconciled to the possibility of an evolutionary biological mechanism in nature.  Despite the ever-popular sensationalizing of the Inquisition and the Church's treatment of Gallileo, Catholicism has a very positive view of reason and science.  Philosophy and learning have ever been a bulwark of Catholic (Christian) faith. 

For example,  St. Justin Martyr, an early second-century Christian (as in less than 100 years after the Christian Church was founded), championed the idea that there is truth and wisdom to be found in non-Christian learning.  He specifically builds on St. John the Apostle's (the disciple of Jesus and author of several New Testament books) description of Jesus as the "Word" (i.e., Logos, which is Greek for the faculty of reasoning) of God, the Word made flesh.  This passage has been the basis for much deep theological reflection over the milennia, and St. Justin is just one of the earliest examples of the friendship of Christian faith and reason.

One only has to lightly peruse a book on the Fathers of the Church, the discussions and resolutions of Church councils, or a handbook on medieval scholasticism to see that from its very origins and consistently throughout its 2000-year history, Christian faith has been deeply rational and embracingly friendly to learning.  The first universities were Catholic, and many of the greatest thinkers throughout Western history have been Catholic, including several of our current Supreme Court justices.

The exceptions to this friendship have occurred only when there is a perceived threat to the faith, and in those cases, it is not a fear of science per se but rather a sincere and generally well-founded concern for souls.  While I think it is true that this concern was misdirected and even abused at times, the point remains that it is not a general enmity for science or learning that animates those actions we see as negative but rather an overreaching of the pastoral impulse--to protect souls at all costs, even at the cost of the body or of freedom.  It is hard to understand the medieval mind on this point because our society today is different in very dramatic ways,  but that particular point is subject enough for multiple books (and numerous books have indeed been written, such as Characters of the Inquisition). 

The issue here is that even the sensationalist examples that are usually used to support the assertion that Christianity (and, in particular, the Catholic Church) are anti-rational, anti-science, and/or anti-learning are just not true.  In fact, they're patently false, at least for Catholicism.  There are some branches of Christianity, particularly the the Protestant fundamentalist ones, that may live up to the stereotype, but the vast majority of Christianity (in general) and Catholicism, specifically, embraces and has embraced learning that does not directly come from Divine Revelation.

The point at which we depart from a secular approach to learning is the point at which it becomes irreconcilable with Divine Revelation.  And it is, in fact, this point which is the crux when a Christian is bound to deny some scientific theory.  Evolution in particular has long been bound up with an underlying materialist philosophy, and it is this philosophy, rather than the biologicial theory of evolution, that a Christian should reject.  The essential problem of the materialist evolutionary philosophy is the underlying assertion that "this is all there is," i.e., that the material world is all there is, that there is no spiritual reality and, correspondingly, no Supreme Spiritual Being (God).

The popular view of evolution is imbued with this theory, and that is why there has been (and remains to be) so much debate between Christians and non-Christians around evolution (excepting, of course, the literal creationists, who object to anything but a literal interpretation of the creation account).  Those who believe in evolution are stereotypically also materialists because, theoretically, evolutionary processes free one from having to believe in a creator.  If we are, after all, just the product of chance mutations over millions of years, what need have we for a God to have created us?  This thinking extends into cosmology where the study of physics enables us to theorize about a universe that either always has been and/or continually recreates itself.  Freed from a physical or biological need for God, those who desire to reject Him now seemingly have a scientific basis to do so.

Historically, Christians have (and rightly so to some extent) seen these scientific theories as inimical to Christian faith.  The key lies in disentangling the materialist philosophy from the biological theory of evolution and from theories pertaining to the formation of the cosmos.  Inasmuch as a theory does not entail the rejection of Christian faith (which does include God's creation of the cosmos, including humans), Christians are free to believe it.

In the case of evolution, if you don't read the creation account strictly literally, it is conceivable that God could have created the world and in a manner that accords with the theory of evolution, i.e., using natural mechanisms that he built into the fabric of the universe.  The key moment of creation, inasmuch as man is concerned, comes with God's "breathing life" into us. 

It is in fact oddly believable that God did use evolution, allowing our human form to develop until the point at which he imbued us with spiritual life.  This would explain the seemingly sudden generation of civilization from what we think of as pre-history.  It could allow for the development of other physically similar, human-like species that ultimately died out.  The creation account certainly follows something of an evolutionary account from the creation of the cosmos, to the formation of the earth, to the growth of vegetation, to the animal life originating in the seas, then the air, then on land, and then ultimately humans whom he gave the "breath of life." He did not breathe on the other creatures that were also alive, so clearly the creationary moment for man was not the giving of physical life but of spiritual, and it is this that makes us different from the animals--our spiritual, God-like (we were made "in his image") nature.

Divine Revelation is even less specific about the creation and nature of the universe, so many of the theories about the universe that cosmology proposes are acceptable--as long as the universe can ultimately be held to be a creation of God.  I think we could even say that a universe that keeps recreating itself in time could be synthesized with Christian faith because there is still room for God to have set this self re-creation in place.  Even an eternal universe could be conceived of as long as the quality of "eternal" is understood to mean existing as long as time has existed.  In other words, it is possible to conceive of God's eternal nature to be such that he existed prior to the creation of time, that he is "eternal" in the sense that he is outside of time so that temporal terminology and thinking doesn't apply (is absurd) when speaking of him apart from how he interacts with time as a created thing.  Thus in one sense of the word "eternal" (existing as long as time has existed and continuing to exist as long as time does) the universe could be eternal without denying that God created that concept and reality of "eternal" because he himself is "eternal" in the since that he exists outside of time.

The point is not so much to theorize about what is or is not the truth in terms of the creation of the universe and man but rather to illustrate how Christians can faithfully accept what science has to offer.  I should note that although Christian faith can be compatible with evolution and theories about the universe in general, we are under no compulsion to adhere to any of these particular scientific theories. 

I am often amazed at what seem to be boundless extrapolations (from the specifics of dinosaurs to evolution to the creation of the universe), but I am more amazed that popular society seems to accept them all without any critical thinking.  I for one remain non-committed to these theories; I retain the same healthy skepticism for them that many reserve for propositions about God. 

For me, God is much more real, more verifiable than the theory of evolution or the big bang, and I also happen to think that my relationship (or lack thereof) with God has a much greater potential impact on my personal happiness (and those around me).  Therefore, I think it is a far better use of my time to invest in my spiritual life than worrying about whether or not I share 97% of my genes with a chimp.  Seems logical and reasonable to me. :)

To wrap things up, Christian faith is not at enmity with reason or even with material science--it cannot be--because, as St. Justin Martyr highlighted, truth is truth and can be found outside of Divine Revelation in non-Christian philosophy and the material sciences.  Where there is truth, we should embrace it.  Where it seems to conflict with our faith, we should strive to understand how it does not.  Science, when understood correctly, can only serve to enhance our faith, for as our understanding of the amazing complexity and beauty of the material world increases, so should our amazement at and love for our Creator increase.   Our faith should complement and enhance our learning.  Like cocoa without sugar is bitter, so is learning without faith (Eccl. 1:18; a.k.a., "ignorance is bliss").  However, when we combine faith with our learning, we get something joyous, sweet, and delicious.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 9:43:01 PM (Eastern Daylight Time, UTC-04:00)  #    Disclaimer  |  Comments [0]  | 
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