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Evolution, Theology of

Evolution, Theology of

The term theology of evolution connotes the systematic study of the religious implications of biological evolution. Any intellectually plausible theology today must face the challenges arising from the notion of life's common descent and Charles Darwin's (18091882) theory of natural selection.

The dominant religious and theological traditions, where they have not been utterly hostile to it, have generally ignored evolutionary science. Consequently, when philosophers such as Daniel Dennett (b. 1942) refer to Darwinian evolution as "dangerous," partly because it seemingly destroys in principle any rational basis for religious life and thought, theologians must respond to such a provocation. However, the theological encounter with Darwinian science is not limited simply to an apologetic reaction to those scientists and philosophers who interpret evolution in terms of materialist philosophy. From the days of Darwin himself some theologians (for example, the Anglican Charles Kingsley) have eagerly embraced evolutionary biology as a great gift, one that allows theology to express its understanding of God in fresh and fertile ways. In the same spirit a theology of evolution continues the quest to understand religious views of deity in light of new scientific information about the story of life on earth.

That theology can enthusiastically appropriate evolution, however, may initially seem incompatible with the apparent randomness, waste, vast temporal duration, and blind natural selection associated with Darwin's theory of "descent with modification." According to the Darwinian theory, since organisms produce more offspring than are able to survive, some of these simply by chance will be better adapted than others to their habitats. The betteradapted organisms will on average produce more offspring than other members of the species, and so nature will select their descendants for survival. Over a long period of time this process of natural selection can account for all of the diversity in life, as well as for the intricate design in organisms.

The synthesis of Darwinian ideas with the more recent understanding of genetics, which explains variations in terms of mutations of genes, is generally known as neo-Darwinism. In the present entry, the term evolution will refer to the ideas of Darwin as well as those of neo-Darwinism.

The theory that all living forms descend with modification from a single source by way of the mechanism of natural selection has proven difficult for many religious people and theologians to embrace, especially when natural selection is presented, as it is by many scientists, as the adequate explanation of life's design and diversity. Evolutionists hold that the relative differences that render one organism more adaptive (reproductively fit) than others are apparently random or undirected. For theology this raises the question of whether life in particular, and the universe in general, might not be utterly devoid of any providential guidance. The competitive struggle for survival between the strong and the weak, in which the best adapted are selected and the ill-adapted perish, suggests that we live in an indifferent, impersonal universe. The entire process of evolution is accompanied by what seems to be an enormous amount of suffering, waste, and an unnecessary enormity of time, thus making us wonder what sense we could possibly make of the notion of an intelligent, compassionate God who truly cares for life, humans, and the universe.

All of the world's dominant religious traditions originated long before we had any inkling of the fascinating but shocking Darwinian account of life's story on earth. It would seem, therefore, that all of these religions, if they are to remain intellectually persuasive to their scientifically educated devotees, must now respond to evolutionary biology in ways other than simply ignoring or repudiating the neo-Darwinian convictions shared by the vast majority of contemporary scientists. So, even though the present entry focuses primarily on the implications of evolution for Western theology, much of what is said here may be applicable also to the religious thought of other traditions as they begin to look closely at the story of life on Earth.

Theological responses to Darwin

Theological responses to the Darwinian challenge fall naturally into three classes: opposition, separatism, and engagement. Here the first two will be given only brief treatment, since the third alone seems to encounter the science of evolution with the spirit of gratitude and enthusiasm that can lead to a constructive theology of evolution.

The first response is to insist that Darwinian evolution is incompatible with any religious or theological vision of the universe. The so-called creationists and scientific creationists can be located here. Interpreting the biblical creation accounts literally, creationists claim that Darwin's theory offers a whole new creation story, one that contradicts the biblical accounts. The idea of evolution seems to conflict with the accounts in Genesis of human origins and of the Fall. If there were no historical Adam and Eve and no "original sin" then, the creationists ask, what need would there be for a savior? Scientific creationists go even farther, claiming that the Scriptures give us a better scientific understanding of life's origin than do contemporary biologists.

Other representatives of this opposition response include contemporary proponents of Intelligent Design Theory such as Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, and Michael Behe. Representatives of this movement are not necessarily biblical literalists, but they view Darwinism as incompatible with every form of theism. Evolutionary science, at least in their view, is inseparable from philosophical naturalism or scientific materialism, a vision of reality that explicitly rules out the existence of God. Johnson, for example, repeatedly asserts that Darwinian biology is inherently atheistic and that secularists are now using evolutionary ideas as a weapon in a culture war whose objective is to topple traditional religious cultures and concomitant ethical values. Theologians from the second and third group (discussed below) likewise observe that at least some prominent Darwinians present evolutionary science in the guise of materialist ideology. However, they vehemently reject the assumption that evolutionary biology is inherently materialistic or atheistic.

The second of the three responses is the separatist one. Separatists are those who prefer in general to keep theology and science as far apart from each other as possible. They claim that unnecessary confusion on issues in science and religion occurs if we fail to distinguish scientific ideas from religious beliefs. In their view, theology deals with a completely different set of questions from those that scientists are asking. Theology is concerned with questions about God, human destiny, or ultimate meaning, whereas evolutionary science inquires about physical, efficient, material, or mechanicalthat is, proximatecauses of events in nature. These two sets of questions, the religious and the scientific, are so distinct that, logically speaking, they cannot contradict each other. Consequently, since evolutionary theory is part of science, it cannot in principle be placed in a competitive relationship with theology. Many followers of the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth (18861968) as well as existentialist theologians fall in this separatist camp.

A good number of theologians, philosophers and scientists are comfortable with this separatist position. But others question whether this is the most courageous and fruitful approach that theology can take when it comes to evolution. A third position, engagement, goes further than separatism. It endorses the latter's concern to avoid conflating or confusing science and religion, but it advocates a more positive theology of evolution. Engagement theologians are aware that in the real world science inevitably affects our theological understanding. Evolutionary biology, therefore, will in some way influence our ideas of God. One can hardly expect to have precisely the same thoughts about ultimate reality after Darwin as people did before. Evolution, this third approach suggests, can even enrich our theological conceptions of God. Darwin's great idea, instead of being theologically dangerous (as the opposition camp holds) or simply innocuous (as the separatists maintain), may turn out to be a great stimulus to constructive theology. Recent examples include the contemporary work of Denis Edwards, John F. Haught, and Holmes Rolston III.

A theology of evolution does not seek refuge in pre-Darwinian design arguments, a quest that is destined to bring theology into unnecessary tension with science. Scientists, after all, seek to provide purely natural explanations of design, including the ordered complexity of living organisms; so the attribution of organic design directly to special divine intervention will be taken as an inappropriate intrusion of theology into an inquiry that lies in the domain of potential scientific illumination. Moreover, focus on design may cause us to ignore the randomness and disorder that accompany the emergence and evolution of life.

An understanding of God as self-emptying love, on the other hand, may provide the foundations for an evolutionary theology that neither interferes with scientific exploration nor edits out the messiness in Darwinian portraits of life. While it is obliged to reject what it takes to be the deadening materialist ideology within which neo-Darwinians often package their popular renditions of evolution, a theology of evolution based on a kenotic understanding of God as humble, self-giving love seems, at least to an increasing number of theologians, to be consonant with, and illuminative of, the astounding discoveries of evolutionary science itself. (The Greek word kenosis literally means "emptying").

Prospects for a theology of evolution

Theology, therefore, may begin its reflections on the life process by asking not whether evolution is compatible with the idea of an intelligent designer, but whether the sense of God as it is operative in actual religious awareness can, without in any way interfering with scientific work, plausibly contextualize the findings of evolutionary science. A theology rooted in actual religious experience is obliged to understand the natural world, including its evolutionary character, in terms of a specifically religious notion of God. And so, if the ultimately real is thought of by religious believers as endlessly self-emptying compassion, then theology must strive to understand Darwinian evolution as somehow consonant with such an understanding.

Evolutionary scientists, of course, will immediately want to know how any theology could plausibly reconcile trust in divine providence, the belief that God provides or cares for the world, with the fact of randomness or contingency in life's evolution. A theology of evolution would not try to brush this question aside with the reply that the idea of the "accidental" is simply a cover-up for human ignorance. Accident or chance is no illusion, but a very real aspect of nature. Moreover, an element of indeterminacy is just what theology should expect if the universe is grounded in a God whose essence, as Christians and others believe, is self-giving love. For if God really loves the world as something truly distinct from the divine being itself, then the cosmos must always have possessed some degree of autonomy, even during the long span of prehuman evolution. As even medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas observed in Summa Contra Gentiles, there has to be room for contingency and chance in any universe that is distinct from God.

Not only indeterminacy, however, but also the remorseless regularity of the laws of nature, including natural selection, seems providential. If nature is not to dissolve into chaos at each instant of its becoming there must be a high degree of consistency to the cosmic process. In this respect, the impersonal rigidity of natural selection would not be regarded as any more theologically problematic than the laws of physics.

Furthermore, if nature is truly distinct from God, as most theists maintain, a theology of evolution would not be surprised that nature is given considerable amplitude for wandering about experimentally, as evolutionary biology has shown to be the case with life on earth. If God's creative and providential activity includes a liberating posture of letting the world be something distinct from God, rather than of manipulatively controlling it, theology can hardly be surprised that the world's creation does not take place in a single, once-and-forall magical moment, but instead takes many billions of years. The reason theologians give for this temporal extravagance is that God cannot give the divine self, in grace and unrestricted love, to a universe that is not first allowed to be itself, that is, something truly "other" than God. We may wonder, then whether a universe created instantaneously in complete finished perfection would possess the requisite "otherness" to be loved by its creator.

Of course, to scientists skeptical of theology the prodigality of evolution's multi-millennial journey seems impossible to reconcile with a religious trust in divine intelligence and providence. Surely, if God were intelligent and all-powerful, creation would never have taken so long or ambled so awkwardly over thirteen or so billions of years. Here the scientific skeptics would be joined by creationists and intelligent design defenders in a common objection: a truly competent creator would not have gone about the business of creating a universe in so bumbling a fashion as Darwin's science has pictured it.

However, a theology of evolution would argue that a God of love wills the independence of the universe, and that all of the evolutionary indeterminacy in the journey of life is consistent with the idea of a God who longs for a universe of emergent freedom. A theology of evolution would even claim that any universe embraced by divine love must inevitably have the opportunity to try out many different ways of existing. Evolution's randomness and deep temporal duration, therefore, are not necessarily signs of a universe devoid of providence, but are features that could be seen as essential to the genuine emergence of what is truly other than God.

A theology of evolution portrays providence, therefore, as rejoicing in the evolving autonomy of a self-creating universe. It claims that only a narrowly coercive deity would have collapsed what is in fact a long and dramatic story of creation into the dreary confines of a single originating instant. Instead of freezing nature into a state of finished perfection, a God of love would generously endow the universe with ample scope to become a self-coherent world rather than letting it be a passive, puppet-like appendage of deity. A divine providence that assumes the character of self-humbling love would risk allowing the cosmos to exist and unfold in relative liberty. And so the story of life would take on an evolutionary character not in spite of but because of God's care for the cosmos. For this reason, attempts to cover up the messiness of evolution by portraits of nature as consisting essentially of order or design devised by an intelligent designer would be taken as theologically impoverishing.

A theology of evolution, therefore, revels in Darwin's ragged vision of life rather than trying to trim off its uneven edges. It maintains that evolution may help theology realize more clearly than ever that God is more interested in promoting freedom and arousing adventure in the world than in preserving the status quo or legislating impeccable design. Biblical faith has always been aware of God's concern for human liberation. Now evolutionary science allows theology to connect its ideas of a liberating deity more expansively to the larger story of life's ageless emancipation from triviality.

What then about the problems of original sin, evil, and the fact of suffering in evolution? The idea of original sin after Darwin cannot refer literally to events in a historically factual Eden. One interpretation then is that original sin means that each person is born into a world already vitiated by humanity's habitual turning away in despair from the imperatives of life and the evolutionary adventure of self-transcendence. Furthermore, as Jesuit geologist and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin (18811955) often noted, as long as the universe remains unfinished it will have a dark side to it. Original sin and evil in general cannot be understood apart from the fact that the universe has not yet been perfected. In this context, one meaning of sin would be our deliberate resistance to the world's ongoing evolution. An unfinished universe allows for hope, and an evolutionary theology would claim that the world's inhabitants are given the opportunity to participate in the momentous work of continuing creation. Not to do so would, in an evolutionary context, be disobedience to the will of God.

Finally, an evolutionary theology would also extend the picture of God's empathy far beyond the human sphere so as to have it embrace and redeem all the struggle and pain in the entire emergent universe. It sees God as responsively enfolding the whole of creation and not just human history.

See also Evil and Suffering; Evolutionary Epistemology; Evolutionary Ethics; Human Nature, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Kenosis; Sin; Theodicy


darwin, charles. the origin of species (1859). new york: bantam classic, 1999.

dembski, william. the design inference: eliminating chance through small probabilities. new york: cambridge university press, 1998.

dennett, daniel c. darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. new york: touchstone, 1995.

edwards, denis edwards. the god of evolution: a trinitarian theology. mahwah, n.j.: paulist press, 1999.

haught, john f. god after darwin. boulder, colo.: westview press, 2000.

korsmeyer, jerry d. evolution and eden: balancing original sin and contemporary science. mahwah, n.j.: paulist press, 1998.

rolston, holmes, iii. genes, genesis, and god: values and origins in natural and human history. new york: cambridge university press, 1999.

schmitz-moormann, karl. theology of creation in an evolutionary world, in collaboration with james f. salmon. cleveland, ohio: pilgrim press, 1997.

teilhard de chardin, pierre. christianity and evolution, trans. rene hague. new york: harcourt, 1969.

john f. haught

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