So much ink has been spilled in the so-called debate over evolution and creationism that it hardly seems worth spilling any more. Suffice it to say, evolution by natural selection is a fact and saying so shouldn’t be controversial, regardless of whatever else you believe.
Such wild-eyed radicals as Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis and Pope John Paul II have all convincingly argued that the Bible should not be read as a science textbook and that the scientific truth of evolution can coexist with the spiritual truth of God.
Given this and the overwhelming scientific evidence, the real question is not whether evolution exists or whether it can coexist with religion. It does, and it can. The real question is how evolution fits into our understanding of Christianity.
This is not an easy question. Most theological issues have been percolating for centuries such that the options for any particular issue tend to be limited, each backed by a seemingly endless amount of theological study. This is not the case with evolution-related theology. Evolution is just too new. There’s obviously nothing in the Bible about it. Augustine was never able to address it. Nor Aquinas, Anselm, Luther or Calvin.
Yet evolutionary theory raises all sorts of questions about not only our creation but about our relationship to God, sin, suffering, revelation and nature. That we lack the basic scriptural and theological background to address these questions is an incredibly frightening thing — even more, I think, than a commitment to biblical literalism — which is why there’s been such resistance to it among Christians.
It doesn’t help that most modern theologians approach evolution with a sort of blase shrug, not all that different from Graham’s approach, who was content to merely say there’s not “any conflict at all between science today and the Scriptures … whichever way God [created man] makes no difference as to what man is and man’s relationship to God.” Evangelically speaking, this is true, which is of course the main concern of a popular evangelist such as Graham.
But in any other sense, if God’s Creation is centered on the mechanism of evolution, it is perfectly reasonable to ask why this is so. And what of the suffering that survival of the fittest ensures? And what becomes of the doctrine of original sin in an evolutionary creation? And what does it mean to be made in the image of God if we are descended from something other than human? And so on. To simply assert that there’s no difference at all between evolution and a story understood most literally as being about God forming us with a giant pair of hands is clearly unsatisfactory.
Lewis, for his part, seemed to understand this. In “The Problem of Pain,” he laid out his understanding of evolutionary creation as filtered through a metaphorical reading of Genesis, in which “for centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle for humanity and the image of Himself.”
At some point, these proto-humans developed self-awareness, and with this they gained the image of God and became completely human. And at some point after this, they fell. “Someone or something whispered that they could become gods.”
As the title of the book those quotes come from suggests, Lewis was extremely concerned with suffering, not just in humans but in animals as well. To accept evolution is also to accept an intense amplification of that suffering. Indeed, it is to accept suffering as intrinsic to the act of creation itself.
Lewis dealt with this problem by positing a variation to original sin: While sin entered human history through our earliest forebears, the universe was corrupted long before that. Evolution is, in this formulation, God making the best of a bad situation.
This assumes, however, that creation is possible without suffering, when in fact sacrifice is unavoidable in creation. In writing this column, I am sacrificing my time and energy. Admittedly, that’s not much of a sacrifice, but the point stands. To create something, you have to give up a part of yourself.
In this way, the first act of suffering in the universe was not ours and not an animal’s, but God’s. The spark of suffering that led to all the suffering of the universe was, I would argue, not a corruption, but the suffering of God giving up a huge part of himself to create a self-creative universe that in turn created us and everything around us.
This builds on the ideas of Catholic theologian Jon Haught, who argues that Creation must be understood not as something that happened a long time ago, but as an ongoing process. That is to say, the project of Creation is not finished. Given this and that suffering is intrinsic to creation, there is of course great suffering in the world. None of this is to suggest that suffering is OK or undeserving of our empathy when we see it around us. Precisely the opposite, in fact.
Years before Darwin, Tennyson described “nature red in tooth and claw.” We face a world before us crippled by suffering and created through suffering. We behave in ways we now recognize as immoral and selfish because of amoral genetic material our ancestors passed on to us in their fight for survival. But we try not to.
And just as we work to overcome our own personal nature, we work to create a world that suffers a little less. Not by shrinking from the suffering of the world, but by doing as Christ and wading directly out into it, by identifying with those who suffer the most. Not because we’ll actually succeed, but because not doing so would be to let our Being win at the expense of our Becoming.
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.