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Swimmer against Rome’s tide

by
14 May 2012

Edward Dowler on an evolutionary thinker

iStock

Christianity in Evolution: An exploration
Jack Mahoney

Georgetown University Press £18.75
(978-1-58901-769-6)
Church Times Bookshop £16.70

COMMENT has recently been passed in these pages on the ten­dency of New Atheists and Christian apologists to lob grenades at one another from different sides of the wall, in a way that, while it is often quite good fun, can also be un­edifying and unproductive.

Perhaps we are now beginning to see the start of a different style of engagement. From the atheist side, the philosopher Alain de Botton argues in his latest book that reli­gion (although, in his view, false) does have its uses. From the Chris­tian side, in Christianity in Evolu­tion, the eminent moral theologian Jack Mahoney proposes that the Church should now more thoroughly accept the thinking of evolutionary scientists and philo­sophers, and allow her theology to be reshaped by it.

He argues that this will entail a profound rethinking of the nature of, among other topics, the human condition and the work of Christ.

In relation to the former, to accept evolution is to accept that there never was a fall of man at some particular point in time: “the fall”, he writes, “is a fantasy, and fallen nature a theological fiction.”

Contrary to what is often as­serted, it is not, in Mahoney’s view, possible to retain the theology of Original Sin intact while rejecting its outer historical casing in history and biblical exegesis: both must go. If that leads to human beings’ having a reduced sense of the sin­fulness of human beings, then it is, he argues, “not before time” that we should let go of this Jewish, Augus­tinian, and Tridentine fixation.

So far as the work of Christ is concerned, we should primarily see Jesus’s death and resurrection as saving us from death (rather than from sin), and thus bringing us into a new stage of development: “the resurrection of Jesus was an evolu­tionary breakthrough for humanity. . . through Jesus human beings are being saved from the evolutionary fate of individual mortality.” Christ’s work, moreover, ushers in a new ethical era, in which the competitive­ness and self-centredness of natural selection are superseded by an al­truism that reflects God’s own creative generosity.

Mahoney is curiously dismissive of some lessons that modern history has taught: that, for all their ex­plan-atory power, theories of evolution and natural selection do not explain every aspect of human existence, and are positively lethal in the wrong hands. For example, such approaches can breed a false utopianism, in which the vision of a perfect society is pursued, whatever the cost to individuals, and the weakest go to the wall. For all its problems, the theology of Original Sin continues to ring true to the tragic, complex, and flawed charac­ter of human existence as we cur­rently experience it.

Mahoney belongs to a Church presided over by an Augustinian Pope, who has encouraged a theo­logical climate that favours the “hermeneutic of continuity”. For these reasons, his ideas are unlikely to be viewed with much favour, since they themselves represent a rupture with the mainstream Western theological and moral tradition rather than an evolution from it. It will be interesting to see how they are received.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill in the diocese of London, and the author of the SCM Core Text Theological Ethics (Books, 11 May).

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