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Book reviews >

How the Church relates to Darwin

Edward Dowler reads essays that offer anuanced picture of this engagement

Reading Genesis after Darwin
Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson, editors
OUP £15.99
(978-0-19-538336-2)
Church Times Bookshop £14.50

Darwin and Catholicism: The past and present dynamics of a cultural encounter
Louis Caruana, editor
T. & T. Clark £65 (hbk); £19.99 (pbk)
(978-0-567-47631-9 hbk)
(978-0-567-25672-0 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £58.50/£18

READERS of the Church Times are now familiar with the genre of books directed at the new atheists, and these two stimulating collec­tions of essays add to that number. Barton and Wilkinson’s book, the fruit of a series of lectures at St John’s College, Durham, focuses especially on the challenges posed by reading the book of Genesis in the light of Darwinian science, wide­ly believed to discredit it en­tirely.

In Caruana’s book, a group of predominantly American Roman Catholic scholars engage with the history of the Church’s engagement with Darwinism, and the implications of this in, among other things, social, political, and ethical thought.

Both books critique some of the central arguments that Richard Dawkins and others have so success­fully articulated. These include the belief that Darwin’s ideas were uni­versally condemned by a hostile Church, committed to the idea of a six-day creation in 4004 BC; that Darwin’s supposed conflict with Christianity reflects an archetypal and ongoing battle be­tween science and religion; and that Darwinian-inspired ideas represent rationality and progress in stark opposition to religion’s superstitious bigotry.

In answer to these, both books remind us that mainstream Chris­tian­ity has never been committed to understanding Genesis as a scienti­fic account of the universe’s origins. They remind us that the relation­ship between science and Christian­ity is far more complex than many people imagine, and that the Church has often sponsored rather than just repressed, scientific endeavour.

Indeed, the scientific impulse to investigate and scrutinise the world in the beauty and regularity of its natural order is deeply inspired by the understanding of creation in the monotheistic religions.

Moreover, Christianity, in par­ticular the tradition influenced by St Thomas Aquinas, assumes that the truths derived from revelation and those gained by true observation of the world are ultimately compatible, since ultimately God is the author of both.

Both books further remind us that some versions of Darwinism are not benign. Darwinism can, for example, ground reductive accounts of what it is to be a human being, and undermine the notion of free­dom. Notoriously “Social Darwin­ism” scarily extends the biological idea of the survival of the fittest into a programme for other aspects of human existence, such as ethics and politics: “multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

Both of these sets of essays admirably present a textured and nuanced picture of Christian engagement with Darwinism. Perhaps they are at their best when they honestly acknowledge that, on a range of issues, Darwinian science does pose some big questions for the Church. Such questions con­tinue to include the apparent cruel­ty of the process of natural selection within a creation that Christians believe to be fundamentally good; the problems that surround claim­ing a unique status for human beings if we share a common an­cestor with other species; and what to make of the doctrine of the Fall.

Some of the more inspiring essays in both volumes reflect on the way in which Darwinian science might help us to be better disciples. For example, Darwinism helps us to understand the creator God as one who continues to create instead of just starting things off at the begin­ning (Aquinas, rather than Deism). It fosters the key virtue of humility, giving us, as Astley argues, a stronger sense of human contin­gency and dependence. And it trains us to be open to God’s new and surprising future, described by Haught as “providence-as-promise”: a future much more glorious than the one that human beings contin­ually plan for themselves.

These suggest that contempla-tion, and not just aggressive re­buttal, might be part of a truly Christian response to Darwin.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar-designate of Clay Hill in the diocese of London.

Order either of these books through CT Bookshop

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