The case for a theology of evolution


A writer on theology charts the development of a growing body of work on a theology of evolution.

I have been reading William Joseph’s In Search of Adam and Eve: A case for a theology of evolution (2011), and found myself reflecting on a stream of theological thinking that is likely to grow over the coming decades, namely a theology of evolution.

This is a difficult book but one worth reading. The author holds degrees in science as well as in philosophy and theology and for twenty years taught religion, physics, mathematics and computer science. In this book he explains how and why it is important for theologians to take science, and the theory of evolution in particular, very seriously indeed. He would agree with Teilhard de Chardin who said, ‘I am convinced that there is no more substantial nourishment for the spiritual life than contact with scientific realities, if they are properly understood.’ ‘Science’, Joseph quotes someone as saying, ‘is thinking God’s thoughts after him’.

Joseph begins by drawing our attention to the massive revolution in our understanding of the universe and ourselves that was brought about by the novel approaches developed by Copernicus and Galileo. For centuries human beings had believed the earth to be at the centre of the universe and to be motionless, a view shared by the authors of the Book of Genesis who envisaged a static universe and presented human beings as God’s masterpiece. But this view was overturned by Copernicus in the 16th century; Galileo built on this and helped to develop the notion of science as the investigation of things that are measurable, repeatable and thus predictable. After Copernicus and Galileo there is a radical change of focus as human beings begin to grasp the fact that the earth and its inhabitants are no longer at the centre of the universe and the universe itself is gradually revealed to be much bigger and a good deal more complex than was previously thought.

The theory of evolution

This understanding of the universe was itself greatly expanded by the arrival in the 19th century of the theory of evolution and the notion of natural selection. Where Genesis considered that God had created the different species of plants and animals in their present state, evolution teaches us that plants and animals developed from earlier forms and that all living species on earth may have had one common origin. And what is true of living things is also true of the physical universe as a whole and of planet earth in particular: they have evolved and are evolving.

The reaction of the Church to the scientific revolution was at first defensive, since it appeared that science was eroding the authority that scripture and the Church itself had traditionally commanded in Western society. The condemnation of Galileo is a case in point, but as Joseph makes clear the treatment of Galileo was centred on the Church’s defence of its authority more than on his allegiance to the new scientific method.

But it took the Catholic Church a long time to come round to accepting the probability of evolution. In the encyclical Humani Generis of 1951, Pope Pius X11 said that while it was quite in order for those properly qualified to inquire into the question of whether the human body ‘comes from pre-existent and living matter’, faith requires us to believe ‘that souls are created immediately by God’.

The problem with this view, which was repeated by Pope John Paul II in 1996, is that it considers the human being to consist of two substances, body and soul. This is a dualistic view disowned by most reputable theologians who consider the human being to be but one substance, one that combines animality and body with soul or mind, where the latter is understood as a capacity for thinking, willing and acting, a capacity that requires freedom and, in doing so, imposes on the human person the responsibility for choosing between actions that are right and virtuous and those that are wrong and sinful. If I understand him correctly, Joseph would consider the former – animality and body, including the operations of the brain – to belong to the domain of science and the latter – soul or mind – to belong to the domain of philosophy and theology.

A new vision of creation

What is distinctive about the new theology of evolution is its repudiation of the cautious and defensive approach to evolution manifested in the papal pronouncements, and its enthusiastic embrace of evolution as God’s chosen method of creation, its vision of creation as an evolutionary process which manifests God’s intention and purpose. It avoids the dualism of body and mind and considers human consciousness itself to be the product of evolution. As the author says, ‘Humanity is evolution become conscious of itself’.

Evolution is the window into the mind of God as far as human beings are concerned. Religion and science complement each other. Science is about the how of the material and physical dimensions of reality; it has nothing to say about value or purpose. Religion is about our spiritual life, our relationship with God, about the why of human existence. Human beings are physical, intellectual, artistic, social and moral beings. Where in much of the Old Testament God is likened to a human ruler who must be obeyed, today, as Jesus taught and demonstrated, love, mercy and compassion are the new norms: God desires mercy and not burnt offerings. A moral life is what counts; rather than following set rituals, we should live from the inside out.

Joseph is keen to dial down conformity with ‘orthodox belief’ and to dial up good conduct and good works. In this way many non-Catholics would qualify for sainthood and religion would be seen to benefit the stability, viability and survival of the human species along with the wellbeing of the individual.

Post-Enlightenment scientific culture encourages questioning, creativity and imagination, the qualities that made possible the scientific revolution. Joseph would like religions to follow the example of science in this, encouraging a questioning and creative approach to theological issues in a non-threatening environment. Scientists are allowed to make mistakes and to get things wrong – so too should theologians. He even envisages a Vatican as operating rather like the Royal Society and becoming a clearing house for rival ideas. Peer review rather than episcopal authority ought to decide the rightness or wrongness of conflicting ideas. The growth of what is called ‘secularism’ is not the fault of secularists but a consequence of the Church and religions in general being out of touch with modern scientific realities and the scientific mentality. For this reason he is very tolerant of the existence of a large number of Christian denominations and indeed of world faiths; science allows a multitude of opinions to co-exist until one or, as happens, a coalescence of several, is eventually shown to be the most successful.

Original sin

One casualty of Joseph’s approach is the notion of an Original Sin. He sees original sin as a theological idea got up to explain the evil in the world. However, he believes it to be redundant as the evil that exists in the world is what we would expect in a universe that evolved in line with the laws of biology; he draws an analogy with the discarded scientific idea of the ‘ether’. His argument against an original sin is that it is hard to believe that 150,000 years ago, when humans first evolved, God interrupted the laws of physics in order to create an immortal being, one who was destined never to die. This was the belief of Augustine, who initiated the notion of original sin and considered death to have been introduced as a punishment for the first sin. Evolution does not work in the absence of death and if the first humans were created immortal they could not have evolved. What is more, if all life forms are a result of evolution, a state of original justice, which some theologians have claimed to have existed prior to the Fall, is simply not credible.

There are a good many Catholic theologians who have called for the notion of original sin to be discarded. The list includes the Jesuit palaeontologist and theological visionary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Franciscan nun Ilia Delio, Jesuit Jack Mahoney, William Joseph, popular preacher and columnist the late Daniel O’Leary, as well as scripture scholars Joseph Blenkinsopp and Herbert Haag. Most of these theologians reject original sin on the grounds that it is not compatible with evolution. The scripture scholars tend to reject the notion of original sin on the grounds that it cannot be justified by appeal to scripture. In this they are joined by the eminent Scottish Protestant Hebrew bible scholar, James Barr, who claims that most Old Testament scholars reject the traditional interpretation of chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis.1 I might add that I am with the scripture scholars on this, having argued in my book, The Fall and the Ascent of Man, in favour of an alternative interpretation of Genesis chapter 3, one that differs radically from that put forward by St Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century.2 My interpretation goes further than most since I claim that the story told in Genesis 3 is actually about hominization, the ascent of the famous couple to full human status through the acquisition of self-awareness; this is not only compatible with evolution but supportive of it.

Daniel O’Leary not only rejects the traditional Augustinian interpretation but denounces it, seeing it as having had a negative influence on Christian theology, as having given rise to what he terms a ‘Sin/Redemption’ theology based on the belief that God’s first plan for the Earth was shattered by the sin of Adam and Eve. This sin cost us happiness and perfection and cost Jesus his life; human beings became a ‘massa damnata’.

O’Leary favours another theology, a theology of ‘nature and grace’ or a ‘theology of Creation’, which he describes as ‘a beautiful love story’. In place of ‘Sin/Redemption’ this theology – which he calls ‘suppressed theology’ – goes along with Aquinas’s claim that God’s infinite love for humanity was expressed first in Creation and then finally and fully in the Incarnation. O’Leary thinks that the theology he was taught as a boy was of the ‘Sin/Redemption’ variety and says that it is leading to the disintegration of the Church. He quotes Mahoney and Teilhard as viewing original sin as an encumbrance, ‘a stumbling block’, and Ilia Delio as saying that ‘God is conceivable only within the context of evolution’.

The scale of the paradigm shift these authors are advocating can be grasped only if we see ‘God as the inner dynamic of evolution, and evolution as the work of the Holy Spirit.’3 In short, the Creator

In Search of Adam and Eve: A case for a theology of evolution, by William G. Joseph, was published by CreateSpace Publishing in 2011.

1 James Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, (SCM Press. 1992), p ix

2 Joseph Fitzpatrick, The Fall and the Ascent of Man: How Genesis supports Darwin, (University Press of America, 2012)

3 References to Daniel O’Leary are from his last book, An Astonishing Secret, (Columba Press, 2017)

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.