How the Church relates to Darwin
Posted: 02 Jun 2010 @ 00:00
Edward Dowler reads essays that offer anuanced picture of this engagement
Reading Genesis after Darwin
Stephen C. Barton and David Wilkinson, editors
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)
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.
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