Towards a theology of evolution


Even in the 21st century, many in modern society question evolution. A May 2012 Gallup poll found that fully 46% 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.” 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.” Similarly, an information packet on evolution approved by the LDS First Presidency concludes, “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.”

Russell’s article on theological approaches to evolution

Part of the problem is that few writers, from either science or religion backgrounds, have explored the notion of evolution in the context of modern Judeo-Christian thought. To that end, 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.

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. 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:

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.

A second response to the existence of natural evil 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.

While each of these approaches has its merits, Russell calls for continued exploration of these issues from theological, philosophical and scientific grounds. Perhaps this is a good start.

For additional discussion, see Evolution theology.

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