by R. Jeffrey Grace
As I argued in my article The Church and the Cosmological Revolution, the opposition by the Catholic Church to Galileo and the cosmological revolution in general, was due to a pastoral concern. To summarize my argument, the news that the Earth was NOT the center of the universe shattered the common understanding of how everything was put together. In that understanding, the new vision of the sun at the center of the universe and Earth as one body among many that circled the sun was tantamount to saying that there was no God. The church leaders knew very well that such a radical change in world views would leave the vast majority of believers without a framework for understanding who God was and where we stood in relation to God. They may not have articulated it quite this way, but they understood the threat. It would take a very long time for theologians to articulate an understanding of God within this new vision… and in fact, to this day the struggle to do so continues. It’s not only the Catholic Church nor even Christianity that struggles with the new vision… many religions are still going through the same struggle. The modern day version of this struggle is being played out in the so-called “Intelligent Design” debate.
The “Intelligent Design” movement consists of a collection of conservative religious groups that are striking the pose of “concerned enlightenment” by presenting their argument as an honest attempt to “keep the debate” open regarding evolution and human origins. The many problematic features of this movement have been well documented and the responses to their legal challenges are well known (see Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District). I’m not really interested in discussing those issues here… I’m more interested in discussing the theological motivations of this movement as well as the theological implications of evolution. There are many theories of how evolution proceeds, but the fact that everything evolves is well established. This alone is significant and has deep ramifications for theology. It should also be noted that this is not just a matter of biology… not just a matter of how we understand ourselves as human beings. Evolution is cosmological, or in other words, everything that exists evolves.
The problem with the Intelligent Design approach is two-fold. The motivation is pastoral, but I don’t think it serves as such for those who believe in God at all… in fact, I am convinced that it undermines their faith and leaves them nothing to work with in articulating a faith that is coherent within the context of what we know of our world. It also undermines science, because the arguments that are emerging from the movement make it clear that science itself is the target and the goal is to render it one “belief system” among others. Science is not about faith, so the result of their efforts is effectively, if not intentionally, a repudiation of science as a discipline.
There are many key areas that could be focused on, but let’s start with this three:
1. Creator God, Creation. How can we talk of a creator if all that exists is in the process of evolving, ever changing?
2. Image of God. How does this effect our understanding of ourselves as made in the image of God? How do Adam and Eve fit into this picture?
3. Divine Acton. How do we understand and talk about God acting in the world if everything is evolving?
The first theological issue to look at which I believe is critical to the process of talking about God in the context of our knowledge of evolution is the issue of creation, or the creator God. How can it be said that God created everything if everything is in a constant state of change, constant evolution? Personally, I don’t think this particular issue is problematic from within a Thomistic framework, which is a theological framework in which God is on a different ontological plane than the rest of reality. In other words, a reality that is in a constant state of change was already a part of the classical Thomistic understanding of created reality. God as such was not a part of created reality but rather was the source of all created reality and as such did not enter into the constant state of change. I suspect that it would take very little effort to understand evolutionary reality within a Thomistic framework. There are other aspects of Thomistic thought that would make it a difficult … but I do think it’s possible. The Thomistic framework is but one among many, however; There are other ways of conceptualizing God that would include God on the same ontological plane as the rest of reality.
Another problematic area within this issue are the implications for biblical interpretation. This is true more so for those who maintain a very literal interpretation of Genesis… not so much for those Christians who see the creation account in Genesis as mythology… “Mythology” understood as the language of storytelling, which is used to convey a religious truth, namely, everything that exists is dependent upon God for existence.
Basically, the point I want to argue for here is that I believe it is possible to talk coherently about a God that is the source of all that there is within the context of understanding that all this is, is constantly evolving. In other words, this is an argument that the concept of God as creator is meant to convey a dependence of reality upon God and not to convey that God makes everything, or that God forms everything. This is where we begin to enter into one of the other issues: divine action. We will take that up in due course. For now, let me propose a concept of God: God is that which is the reason anything at all exists. In other words, to answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I would offer, “Because God wills it so.” This therefore means that we don’t look to sacred scripture, such as Genesis, to tell us how things came to exist. Science tells us that… it just doesn’t tell us why things exist at all. Genesis tells us that we exist because God wills it so. The question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” does not seem to be a scientific question.
Image of God
So “How does evolution affect our self understanding as being made in the image of God?” There are several problems that evolution seems to create for the concept of humans as made in the image of God, but I think the big ones are, 1) If humans evolved from lower forms of life, then this means humans are not radically different from animals… does this mean we are but one kind of animal among many? 2) If humans appeared on the scene through the process of evolution, then what are we to make of Adam and Eve and, consequently, the doctrine of Original Sin?
The first problem, “Are we but one kind of animal among many animals?” would have to be answered yes, I believe. However, what kind of animal are we? To answer that, let me pose a few more questions: How many animals react in horror when they are told (can any other animal even be told this?) they are one animal among many? How many animals feel guilty and evil because they eat other animals? How many animals own mirrors? I ask these to point out that, even if we understand ourselves as one animal among many, we’re still a rather remarkable animal. The fact that the human race is on a continuum of being, as it were, with all animals doesn’t change the fact that as animals go, we’re pretty distinctive.
Having said all that, I also believe it doesn’t hurt us to realize we humans are on a continuum of being rather than something totally different than the rest of the animal kingdom. It used to be taught, and surely is to this day in some circles, that humans are vastly different than animals. As recently as 1950, Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Humani generis (“Of the Human Race”) insisted that, even though evolution was compatible with Christian faith, a Catholic still must believe that God intervenes to create the human soul. However, I am convinced that this was a requirement of neither science nor even faith; it was a philosophical requirement… it had to be maintained in order to sustain the logic of a particular philosophical understanding of the human being. I suspect it would be much more constructive and productive to Christian faith to revisit that particular philosophical problem rather than demand that Christians reject science.
The second problem, “What happens to original sin if Adam and Eve really didn’t exist?” is really a problem of explaining original sin, since the story of Adam and Eve are important as explanations of how original sin entered into the picture. Do we really need to affirm, against science, that the human race began with two humans created by God from the soil of the Earth in order to affirm that things are really a mess in the world… everywhere we look we can find broken relations.
It also helps to keep a very important fact in mind: Beginning with at least Augustine, original sin was seen as something transmitted physically during the act of sexual intercourse. From this “insight” we can then see the logical connection to the need for Adam and Eve to pass on original sin. If this is the best we can do to explain where sin comes from, I think we best hang up our hats and give up.
How do we understand and talk about God acting in the world if everything is evolving? A good example of the problems that arise relating to the question of how God acts is the issue of God acting to create the human soul. As I noted, in his encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII insisted, “…the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God”. He arrived at this conclusion, I suspect, because of a logical need stemming from a philosophical view of human nature. I believe this was a serious mistake because it’s possible, I think, to maintain a commitment of faith without tying this commitment to a specific philosophical position.
This philosophical position is discernible in the following excerpt from Humani Generis,
36. For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.
The philosophical problem here lies in Pius’ (over) separation of the human being into body and soul, to the extent that God acts in a special way to create the human soul, while the human body is created through evolution. The problem is clear… why are we called to insist that God has to act in a special way to create the human soul? Is God incapable of creating the entire human being through the process of evolution? So it would seem, given Pius’ philosophical understanding of the human being. However, this is problematic. For one thing, the discipline of science cannot tell us anything about the human soul as understood in Catholic teaching. According to Catholic teaching, the human soul is immaterial, in the sense that it is not available to the senses and therefore cannot be an object of scientific understanding. Pius was mixing apples and oranges when he insisted that science should understand the human soul as “immediately created by God” for a body that was the product of evolution. I really have no idea what Pius expected from science in this regard… but if he expected a scientific account of the human being that included a concept of the soul, then there is a serious problem with his expectation. I suspect that the soul is a concept meant to convey the insight that human beings are moral creatures, in the sense that human beings are responsible for their actions and are capable of making moral choices.
The concept of the soul has taken some hits as of late. Within the sciences, you will not see any treatment of the soul… it’s considered to be a concept that is outdated. This is not to say that all scientists will argue that humans are capable of making moral choices… but it is a problem nevertheless. Many scientists recognize the ability of humans to make choices and thereby affirm that humans are morally responsible…but how to account for the ability to make choices is truly a problem for science.
So, to bring this back to what we began with: divine action. How we understand God acting in the world impacts our understanding of our selves as human beings. The question, “How can it be said that humans are morally responsible?” arises because in the past we have understood ourselves as moral agents due to the belief that we have free will. Free will has been explained as a power belonging to human beings by a belief in the existence of an immaterial soul. This soul has been understood as something NOT produced by the process of evolution, but rather something created or infused into the human body by God. Our ability to make choices is now under suspicion mainly due to the fact that the scientific understanding of human beings does not deal with immaterial realities such as an immortal soul that is created by God and infused into the body. So the problem faced now by those who believe in God and also accept the validity of evolution is quite thorny when the topic turns to understanding the human being. Do we have souls? If so, what are they… spirits or…? If we don’t have a soul, then do we really have free will? Without an immaterial soul, wouldn’t it be true that all of our actions are determined by biological processes… that we really don’t make choices, we just think we do?
Those who are not troubled by the absence of an immaterial soul do have problems with the implications such an absence would have on the concept of free will. It’s a thorny problem for both atheists and theists alike.
For the theist that accepts evolution as a reality an added complication arises with the subject of the soul. If we do have souls, do they evolve? How can something immaterial evolve? If the soul is material in some sense then where is it located and can it be seen?
This question is ultimately a question about divine action, because in all these questions the underlying question is, how does God create the soul if there is such a reality? In fact, I believe that answering this underlying question may serve to provide the groundwork for conceptualizing the soul in such a way that it makes sense within an evolutionary framework. Also, it appears that there is an underlying topic to all of this that is crying out to be addressed: Ontology. Isn’t it possible that the complications we face are ultimately traceable to the underlying question of how, exactly, is reality and being structured? Maybe our current model of “material/immaterial” needs a serious overhaul? Maybe then we can begin to make sense of how God acts.