Barred spiral galaxy NGC1672 [Courtesy NASA] Ceiling of central rotunda, National Museum of Art of Catalunya

Is there a theology of evolution?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

Introduction

Even in the 21st century, many in modern society question evolution. A 2014 Gallup poll found that fully 42% of Americans believed that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." [Newport2014]. Needless to say, such sentiments are very different from the scientific consensus, which concluded many years ago that life on Earth evolved over many millions of years.

Although many believe that evolution conflicts with religious beliefs, the fact is that most major denominations have made their peace with evolution. Pope John Paul II wrote that "new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis." [Pope1996]. Similarly, an information packet on evolution approved by the LDS First Presidency declared, "Leave geology, biology, archaeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church." [BYUPacket1992].

One aspect of nature in general and evolutionary theory in particular that gives many Judeo-Christian believers some pause is its reliance on forms of competition that in many cases we would consider cruel. Parasites often destroy their living hosts from within. Female spiders, in many cases, devour their mates. And anyone who has watched a nature show on TV, with gazelles being chased by hungry lions, recognizes that nature is certainly "red in tooth and claw." This fact was noted by Charles Darwin himself, who wrote in a letter to his colleague Joseph Hooker [Darwin1856], "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature."

Many religious scholars have struggled with this issue, as part of the greater mystery of why suffering and evil occur. The philosopher David Hume, echoing an argument first made by the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 BC), asked [Hume1935, pg. 244], "Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then cometh evil?"

Russell's article on theological approaches to evolution

Robert John Russell, the Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (and a Ph.D. physicist) recently summarized recent research in this area [Russell2013]. In the present author's view, this is one of the best treatments of this topic in print. Although the author is an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ, the article is remarkably ecumenical, taking pains to include contributions from a wide variety of denominations. Here is a brief outline of his analysis. For full details, see Russell's article.

Russell begins by mentioning the key underlying principles for any discussion in this area:

  1. Accept methodological naturalism (exploring nature strictly via natural laws and causes) as the proper basis for the natural sciences, which is required for empirical investigations, but do not extend this to "metaphysical naturalism" (i.e., the notion that empirical science constitutes all truth), materialism or atheism.
  2. Resist the notion that theology or other nonscientific disciplines can be reduced to scientific precepts, with nothing left over.
  3. Reject scientism in all its forms. In other words, we must reject the notion that a scientific theory, such as evolutionary biology, is the sole legitimate basis for one's view of the world.
Russell then gives an overview of three "broadly-traveled ways" of viewing evolution. Some take inspiration from the beauty of nature, but nature's beauty has its problematic side, as anyone who has seen lions downing wildebeests on the Serengeti plain or leopard seals downing penguins in the Antarctic will acknowledge. Others have seen "design" in nature, and have taken this as evidence of divine creation, but such thinking often reduces to "God of the gaps" theology, which is vulnerable when science finds natural explanations for some types of design. Third, many espouse "theistic evolution," where God is seen as a governor of the creative process, which nonetheless operates largely via natural laws. This is the approach that most modern writers take (of scientific and religious backgrounds), but care must be taken not to completely trivialize the discussion.

Evolution, nature and the problem of suffering and evil

Finally, Russell explores the fundamental question of theodicy -- how does evolution fit into discussions of why suffering and evil exist in the world. In other words, how how can one view doctrines such as the Fall of Adam, the Atonement and God's benevolence in light of evolution, nature being "red in tooth and claw" and humans being subject to scurvy because mutations have canceled our ability to produce vitamin C.

One approach is to assert that God had no choice but to adopt Darwinian evolution as a mechanism for the creation -- there was no other logically possible alternative. In the words of Aubrey Moore, a nineteenth century British theologian [Moore1891, pg. 99], "Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend." Biologist (and Franciscan priest) Francisco Ayala has made this point very strongly in his writings -- evolution relieves us from assuming that God deliberately designed nature with such glaring and disheartening flaws. As Ayala explains [Ayala2007].

As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life. They were not a result of deficient or malevolent design. ... Evolution by natural selection is Darwin's answer to Paley. It is also the solution to the last prong of the problem of evil.

Catholic theologian John Haught adds the following [Haught2008, pg. 107]:

As the ultimate ground of novelty, freedom, and hope, the Christian God offers the entire universe as well as ourselves the opportunity of ongoing liberation from the lifelessness of perfect design. Evolution, therefore, may be understood, at a theological level, as the story of the world's gradual emergence from initial chaos and monotony, and of its adventurous search for the more intensely elaborate modes of being. The God of evolution humbly invites creatures to participate in the ongoing creation of the universe. This gracious invitation to share in the creation of the universe is consistent with the fundamental Christian belief that the ultimate ground of the universe and our own lives is the loving, vulnerable, defenseless, and self-emptying generosity of God.
This is discussed in more detail at Advantages.

Russell's article mentions some other approaches that some writers have taken in discussing evolution. One is to assert that God's actions are "hidden" in the processes of good and tragedy that we see. These writers note that Christ's redemption of evil and the dead was achieved behind the face of his death on the cross. In other words, God acted invisibly within the tragedy of the cross to save the world.

A third approach is to note that Christ's redemption could not have been complete without it subsuming all aspects of nature. In this light, it is clear that human life must be connected with all life on earth through common parentage and descent. These writers often quote Romans 8:22: "For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." A fourth approach is to see the resurrection of Christ as the beginning of the transformation of the universe into a new creation.

Evolution as part of eternal progress

Along this line, although it was not mentioned specifically in Russell's article, some religious figures see evolution as part of an eternal quest of progress. For example, in 1952 LDS President David O. McKay observed [McKay1952]:
[S]cience dominated by the spirit of religion is the key progress and the hope of the future. For example, evolution's beautiful theory of the creation of the world offers many perplexing problems to the inquiring mind. Inevitably, a teacher who denies divine agency in creation, who insists there is no intelligent purpose in it, will infest the student with the thought that all may be chance. I say, that no youth should be so led without a counterbalancing thought. Even the skeptic teacher should be fair enough to see that even Charles Darwin, when he faced this great question of annihilation, that the creation is dominated only by chance wrote: "It is an intolerable thought that man and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long, continued slow progress." And another good authority, Raymond West, said, "Why this vast [expenditure] of time and pain and blood?" Why should man come so far if he's destined to go no farther? A creature that travels such distances and fought such battles and won such victories deserves what we are compelled to say, "To conquer death and rob the grave of its victory."

For additional discussion, see Progress.

Is nature entirely "red in tooth and claw"?

Along this line, it is important to keep in mind that nature is not entirely "red in tooth and claw." Many organisms exhibit remarkable cooperative behavior. This point has been made perhaps most strongly by biologist Frans de Waal in a recent work that documents numerous examples of altruism, sharing and compassion among primates and other animals [deWaal2009]. Numerous specific examples of compassionate and altruistic behavior, highlighted by de Waal and others, and given in This is discussed in more detail at Elevating.

Conclusion

It is true that both scientists and theologians have been lax in answering one issue that has frequently been raised by those who are reluctant to accept evolution, namely how does evolution fit in to a larger Judeo-Christian theological framework. Nonetheless, a significant body of literature on this topic has been written. Robert John Russell's article, mentioned above, is a good resource, as it summarizes numerous other studies from writers representing a broad range of religious denominations and philosophical preferences.

Also, nature is much more than "red in tooth and claw." Nature has endowed humans with the capacity, seemingly far beyond the requirements of our basic survival, to contemplate our very existence. Such considerations led Charles Darwin to declare, as the final paragraph of Origin of Species [Darwin1859]:

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

For additional discussion, see Elevating, Evolution-progress and Violence.

References

[See Bibliography].