This is the second in an occasional series of articles we will run in this year that scientists have dubbed “The Year of Darwin.”
Here’s a news item you’ve probably never read or heard: The issue was evolution. It drew some 40 Christians to the Augsburg College campus in Minneapolis. But this was no protest. These Lutherans were celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species.”
Religious opposition to the theory of evolution has dominated America’s headlines for so long that you could be forgiven for thinking that evolution forced stark choices for all people of all faiths: If Darwin was right, the scriptures must be wrong — or vice versa. If God created man in his own image, then humans couldn’t have evolved in a process that led through swamps to apes to me writing this article on a tool created with dazzling human intelligence?
The tradeoff never was that clear, though. While the spotlight focused on controversy, most people of faith were forming a far more nuanced understanding of how belief squares with Darwin’s theory.
And some actually embraced evolution. Take those Lutherans. Their Oct. 31 symposium was billed as a celebration of “our knowledge of the world — of God’s creation — gained through science and evolutionary biology.”
Now comes the to be sure, inevitably essential in a report about anything as complex as religion. There are Lutherans — indeed, whole congregations of them — who reject Darwin’s theory. Similarly, there are Jews, Muslims, Catholics and evangelical Christians who disagree with the views presented lower in this article.
Close to 60 percent of Catholics and mainline Protestants believe in evolution, according to a 2006 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Even evangelical Protestants, who have led the charge against evolution, split on the issue. More than one in four evangelicals in the poll accepted evolution.
|Humans and other||Total||Evang.||Mainline||Catholic||Secular|
|living things have…||%||%||%||%||%|
|Existed in present form only||42||65||32||33||12|
|Evolved over time||51||28||62||59||83|
|-Guided by supreme being||21||20||26||31||9|
|-Through natural selection||26||6||31||25||69|
|-Don’t know how we evolved||4||2||5||3||5|
Source: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Agnosticism, not atheism
Darwin’s own spiritual story is as checkered as American attitudes toward his landmark theory.
Enemies of Darwin’s theory have claimed that he was a closet atheist who hid his lack of faith from his devout wife, Emma, says the Darwin Correspondence Project where scholars have collected Darwin’s letters.
The letters themselves, though, reveal a profound ambivalence about religion.
Worshipers in Darwin’s day struggled to reconcile traditional creation stories with evolution, just as people do today. He deliberately was not helpful, insisting he was no authority on religion. Darwin seemed to assert that science cannot answer questions of faith, and scientists should not try to do so.
“Theology & science should each run its own course . . . . I am not responsible if their meeting point should still be far off,” Darwin wrote in 1866.
Darwin also said, though, that it gave him comfort to think that “the immense amount of pain & suffering in this world” could be blamed on a natural sequence of events rather than the direct intervention of God.
As for his own faith, Darwin wrote three years before his death to John Fordyce, an author of works on skepticism: “In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God . . . agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”
Darwin, who initially had studied theology at England’s Cambridge University with the aim of becoming an Anglican clergyman, may have kept quiet at home about his gradual shift to agnosticism. His pious wife believed in an afterlife, not only for herself but for the two of them to enjoy eternity together.
However, Darwin must have admitted something of his spiritual struggle to her. As early as 1838, she wrote this to him: “My reason tells me that honest & conscientious doubts cannot be a sin, but I feel it would be a painful void between us. I thank you from my heart for your openness with me … my own dear Charley we now do belong to each other & I cannot help being open with you.”
Whether he would have liked it or not, Darwin continues to influence religious thinking in Minnesota’s churches, synagogues and mosques. Here’s a sampling:
It was a busy Saturday at the Islamic Center of Minnesota where kids from all over the Twin Cities had come for religious training. But Shah Khan took time from his duties as a teacher of Islamic studies to talk about evolution. First, he booted up his Dell laptop and waited for his Qur’an file to open.
His explanation in summary is as follows:
I want to say something from Qur’an rather than just giving you somebody’s opinion. I have a PhD in biochemistry, and I work as a scientist. But I read Qur’an, to find out about creation. What we are studying today was already given 1,400 years ago.
And so, Khan read from the holy text — naming chapter and verse — about the creation of night and day, of the celestial bodies, of life from water, of animals that creep on their bellies or else walk on two or four legs.
Khan paused over verses dealing with the creation of man from sounding clay as a leech-like mass resembling a human embryo. God’s gift to that creature in particular was intelligence with instructions to use it, to read and learn.
Now here is the punch line, Khan said:
Allah creates what he wills. For truly Allah has power over all. This is the main important concept in Islam which every Muslim believes, God willing. Whatever Allah wills, he can do.
How does that square with Darwinism?
Qur’an says that creation of man is very different from every other creation. Animals do not have a soul. So if man is to evolve from animals, from apes, where would he get the soul? Allah created souls of all human beings from Adam to the last person to be born.
If I start taking fishes from the ocean and putting them on the surface of the land, how many do I have to take before they turn into amphibians? I have never seen this. Nobody — not even Darwin — has seen this. How many of us have seen an ape turning into a human being? We have not.
All of these are theories posed by evolutionists. What I see in Qur’an is concrete proof. We in time are trying to understand what God already has created. Sometimes we prove our theories. Sometimes we disprove our theories.
As a Muslim, the Qur’an gives me clear science. I read it with 100 percent belief in it. I don’t look at it critically. It is God’s scripture.
Roman Catholic perspective
Thomas West met me in Whitby Hall, a grand old building that calls to mind Catholic tradition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul where he is a professor of systematic theology.
Here is his summary of that tradition as it speaks to evolution:
The initial Roman Catholic reaction to Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” was muted — neither ferociously negative nor enthusiastically positive. Catholics were not wedded to a literalistic interpretation of scripture. Tradition was virtually as important. And there could be many different ways of reading scripture, from the literal to the highly figurative.
The church’s main concern was preserving the uniqueness of the human being.
By 1950, under a conservative pope, Pius XII, the church officially accepted the view that the evolution of the physical body did not contradict the Catholic faith. However, Pius XII also insisted that in the moment of conception of a human being there had to be a distinct divine act whereby an immortal soul was inserted into the biological cell.
There are Catholic thinkers now who go further and say they don’t have to be committed to that “immediate creation” of an individual soul. But they may not say it out loud because the Vatican still has the immediate creation idea.
That is not to say modern Catholics agree with all evolutionary thinking.
The Catholic way of thinking isn’t well described, for example, by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s principle of “nonoverlapping magisteria.” Gould holds that science is concerned with operations of nature while religion deals separately with matters of value.
Catholics do see some overlap, though. We don’t simply say, “Oh that’s scientific business and we have our religious business.”
Evolutionary theory can say something about how God operates in the world. It doesn’t prove or disprove God. But it can confirm faith. You can say, “Wow, what a thrillingly complex way of going about creating the world. That long temporal process shows the grandeur of God in a way that the scriptures with their relatively simple presentation of creation don’t quite match.”
Science in practice is methodologically atheistic, that is to say it cannot bring God into the explanation as a cause. That’s fine. If you bring God into the picture you are exceeding the reach of the scientific method. What we don’t like is metaphysical atheism, claiming on the basis of what you know scientifically that there is no other reality. To us that exceeds the reach of their method. And more than a few scientists have got that confused.
There is more truth than just scientific truth. There are different ways of knowing, and there is a reality out there that exceeds the reality that is reachable by scientific reasoning.
Does the subject of evolution even come up at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, I asked the senior rabbi, Marcia Zimmerman. She shook her head no, but then corrected herself.
Here is her explanation:
On our new year, Rosh Hashanah, we said it was the year 5770. That was supposed to be the time since the creation of the world. But people said, “Well, wait a minute — 5,770 years doesn’t work with what I learned in science class.”
The question opens a window to the paradoxical and mystical aspects of Judaism, to Kabbalah thinking which seeks to connect the limited understandings of mere mortals with the workings of an infinite and eternal creator.
Our tradition has struggled with this reality for a very long time. Judaism doesn’t believe that science comes out of nowhere, like it is separate and distinct from religious tradition. Jewish mysticism says nothing is thought about or created that isn’t within the realm of God.
There are two stories about the creation of human beings in the book of Genesis. One says God created male and female out of the dust of the earth. The second one is the story of Adam and Eve. If we could come from dust, why not from animals? We are unique and different from other animals. That is clear within Judaism. But that doesn’t define how we got here.
There is a great Hasidic tradition that you should have in your pocket two sayings. One is from dust I have come to dust I will return which is this idea of humility — that we are nothing, absolutely nothing. The other is that the world was created on my account — the sense that you not only are something but you are really something.
You have to live in between those two worlds.
And so, the theory of evolution has given us food for thought and interpretation. It also has opened minds to the notion that the seven days of creation are not like days we would know today but could have been thousands and thousands of years. It has opened new perspectives on references in the Talmud to other worlds and to 974 generations before Adam.
Rather than fighting science, a Jewish perspective reflects Albert Einstein’s thinking when he said, “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”
Scientific thought, including evolutionary theory, adds a deeper meaning to religious ideas and to a Jewish perspective on the world. It isn’t in conflict with that perspective. It enriches the perspective.
Evangelical Christian perspective
While evolution is an old, settled subject in Jewish synagogues and Catholic colleges, it is a point of intense debate on the leafy campus of Bethel University in Arden Hills, said James Beilby who teaches systematic theology there.
Many of our students come from conservative evangelical backgrounds. They take an introduction to biology class where evolution is presented as true — and that really scrambles their categories.
Evolution comes between faculty members too. It gets hotly debated around questions of how we even approach this subject. Do we approach it assuming this is what the science says? Do we approach it assuming this is what the Bible says? Or do you hold those two together and bounce them off each other?
Bethel is a microcosm of the Evangelical world right now with respect to evolution, not that Bethel speaks for Evangelicalism. But it is an interesting bellwether in that there is no single perspective.
I am an example. I grew up in a conservative Baptist tradition, a home where if you believed in evolution you were an atheist.
Now there are many people, myself included, who are open to the idea of God using evolution to create. But I also take scripture very seriously when it says we were created in the image of God. It is important for Evangelicals to preserve that, even though there are lots of ways of understanding what it means to be in God’s image.
A lot depends on what’s meant by Darwinian evolution. Some people argue that to be an evolutionist is say that everything came about by Darwinian forces and those forces were unguided. So those people smuggle naturalism — atheism, if you wish — into evolution. All Christians would probably have a problem with that.
I object to the assumption that if you are going to have real scientific knowledge, you have to bracket the question of God’s action in the world or pretend that God doesn’t exist. As Christians, it’s possible to do scientific work allowing for unique action by God. That changes how you look at fossil data, how you look at the details behind evolution.
The Scopes trial in the 1920s was a key historical moment. Fundamentalists felt attacked in the culture, and so we hunkered down with a bunker mentality. It was almost a cataclysmic moment in terms of laying down the position that this is what we believe, and we have a right to believe what we want. We’ve lived with that for almost 90 years.
Then Evangelicalism came along saying, “No. We want to engage society.” But there always has been that tension: Do we go out in the world and fully engage or do we stay inward focused.
On this issue I think Evangelicals are increasingly willing to engage the secular scientific world. But that doesn’t mean there is any one position.
Before launching into this perspective, Alan Padgett told me that he is a Methodist even though he teaches systematic theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.
In terms of attitudes towards evolution, that is a distinction without a difference, he said. It is rare for any mainline Protestants to have problems with the theory of evolution.
So here is his Lutheran/Methodist perspective:
For most Lutherans, any serious objection would begin with the idea that evolution implies atheism. Beyond that point, none of the main Lutheran doctrines is particularly troubled by evolution. When Lutherans say, for example, that the scripture is the word of God they don’t mean that in some literalistic way. They never have.
The good thing about Darwin is he makes us read the Bible for what it always was. Namely, parts of it are very symbolic. Where are you going to really find the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or talk to a snake? It just never was a literal story. And if you try to make those parts into literal, historically factual stories you distort the bible.
On another question, can we still believe that humans are created in the image of God if we evolved from lower life forms like every other organism on Earth?
I don’t see any reason not to believe both that we evolved and that we’re in God’s image. Being in the image of God speaks really about a function that we have on Earth: To worship God, to care for the world, to love each other and to bring forth children.
Well that could still be true if we evolved from animals!
We were created on the sixth day with all of the other land animals. We don’t even get our own special day. That doesn’t mean we aren’t special or unique in some ways. It’s just that the uniqueness needs to be understood in the context of fellow creaturehood.
To the extent evolution would come up among Lutherans, it would be in a context of trying to understand where we are today in terms of faith and the meaning of the scriptures. Sin, for example, is an issue it raises. Lutherans are strong on the doctrine of original sin. Well if humans evolved what happens to the story of the fall in the book of Genesis? Does that still have meaning? I think the answer is yes.
But our understanding has to be revised in the light of science. In the Lutheran tradition, science is not something outside of faith. Instead, it is an aid to thinking clearly about the meaning of faith.
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.