Evolution and faith in dialogue

After 150 years, Darwin's theory still presents challenges
February 12, 2009

Late one evening, driving home through Regina, Kentucky, the Rev. Johnnie Ross was pulled over by a police officer. He examined his identification, noting, "Father Ross?" The officer, a Baptist preacher, had seen the bumper art of the Christian fish kissing the Darwin amphibian on Ross's car and demanded an explanation. At 2:30 a.m., they were still talking.

The compatibility of evolution and Christian faith originally was a huge challenge for him, said Ross, rector of Saint Raphael's Church in Lexington, Ky. When asked at a high school graduation party at the Methodist congregation of his youth what he wanted to be, he had said a biologist. His Sunday school teacher took him aside and told him, "Science is Satan's way of confusing the faithful."

Ross was devastated and elected to major in speech, English and theater at the community college he attended rather than place his salvation at stake.

When Ross transferred to Berea College, he had to walk past the science building to get to the humanities building. Struggling with his call to study biology, he sought out the chaplain, Father Parker, who asked him why he thought it had to be either science or salvation.

The longest walk he ever took, Ross said, was the 1/3 mile home from church that Sunday in his hometown. The shortest was across the quadrangle to change his major.
"The struggle brought me to the Episcopal Church," he added, "and it found me by the grace of God."

The challenge of evolution

Science's big challenge, from the perspective of Ross's Sunday school teacher, was, of course, evolution. Two hundred years after Charles Darwin's birth, some still consider it a threat.

The Episcopal Church affirmed at the 2006 General Convention "that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith." How that compatibility is understood varies among Episcopal and Anglican scientists.

Sandra Michael, co-convener of the Episcopal Church Network for Science, Technology and Faith, said evolution never was an issue for her because "I did my Ph.D. under a famous evolutionary biologist, G. Ledyard Stebbins," so evolution was always a given in her understanding of the world.

"When I decided to spend more time with my faith, I didn't have a struggle," said Michael, distinguished service professor in the biology department at Binghamton University in New York.

Like Ross, Stephen Stray, assistant professor in the microbiology department of the University of Mississippi Medical School, also contrasts faith informed by evolution with "the faith I remember from [being] a child in Sunday school." Though not brought up in a fundamentalist household in his native Australia, he said, he still needed to consider evolution as he matured in his faith.

Simon Conway Morris, professor of evolutionary palaeobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, England, recently re-read Darwin's On the Origin of Species to see "if such an exercise might lead me to either re-think or re-formulate my immersion in Darwinian theory."

"The results were interesting," he said. He realized again how some might see Darwin's theory, published 150 years ago, "as a total explanation.

"It isn't, of course," he said. Conway Morris, whose research is on the evolution of metazoans (multicellular animals with differentiated tissues and organs), is known for his books and lectures that challenge the reductionist, materialistic view of some evolutionary biologists.

"One can see that Darwinism is fine so far as it goes, and evolution is a fact," he said. "But that is only the beginning of the story."

While for Conway Morris the evolution of human beings was inevitable, Thomas Lindell, deacon and professor emeritus in the Department of Cell Biology at the University of Arizona, would beg to differ. For Lindell, the challenge that arises from evolution is "the notion that human life is privileged" – that is, that the appearance of Homo sapiens on the scene was somehow inevitable. Yet Lindell sees this as a positive challenge, one that causes us to explore the role of metaphor in traditional creation theologies.

Toughest question

For many, the thorniest question evolution asks theology arises from theodicy. As Christopher Southgate, a theologian at the University of Exeter in England, put it: "If suffering is the driver of the evolutionary process that God has made and used, how can we continue to speak of the goodness of God and God's care of creatures?"

Southgate has explored that question, using Romans 8 as a springboard, in his recently published The Groaning of Creation. From his perspective of interdisciplinary research and teaching on many science and theology topics, he notes that, "once you get beyond naive squabbles about creationism and that caricature you get from [British geneticist Richard] Dawkins and others [among the ‘new atheists'], there are some interesting questions to explore."

Both Southgate and Lindell see kenosis, or God's self-emptying in love, as a key to understanding evolutionary creation. Both also say that this perspective, which enriches our thinking about God, has implications for our behavior toward the rest of creation.

"If I internalize this wonderful revelation," Lindell said, "I am bound to do likewise and behave in a way that involves a sense of responsibility to use my gifts and talents for the good of others."

For others, it is especially the rich diversity of life on earth that connects what they know from evolution and what they celebrate about God.

Conway Morris issues an invitation to "stand on the shoulders of Augustine.

"Look around you: Is not our world a marvellous place? Self-fructifying, complexity mysteriously arising out of uttermost simplicity, even to the extent of mind evolving so it can understand the glory of creation."

"I love the thought of being connected to an amazing host of different creatures, and I want to share this perspective," said the Rev. Finn Pond, biology professor at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash, and a deacon and Third Order Franciscan. "One response to the marvels of biological systems is to offer praise and thanksgiving to God."

Understanding evolution has "given me a greater sense of the creativity of the Creator," says Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who has advanced degrees in marine biology and oceanography and worked as a research scientist before entering the ministry. "It's the 'gift of joy and wonder in all God's works' that we ask for the newly baptized. I spent 15 years of my life engaged in exploring that creativity in the oceans, and continue to delight in and wonder at the immense complexity and interconnectedness of all that is."

Stray said he had come to recognize "the need to understand the world as a system where all the constituents are the neighbors I need to love, not considering just humans and nothing else."

But Conway Morris may have the simplest answer to the question of how understanding evolution has informed his choices and actions with regard to the rest of creation: "Humility."

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