Darwin and Christ

From a provocative list of propositions (via John Schwenkler) about the great evolutionist and religion:

From the beginning, it was moral panic more than scientific scruple that drove Christians to jump on the bandwagon of anti-Darwinism. But it wasn't just driven by the ignominy of the common biological ancestry of all hominids ... even more significant was the elimination of teleology from the study of nature and its implication for social ethics. But this is actually exceptionally good news. Because the fact that "the causal heart of Darwinian theorizing is against the idea of progress" (Michael Ruse) clears an intellectual space for biblical eschatology: more precisely, for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the world's apocalyptic counter-evolutionary moment in which the weakest kata sarka turn out to be the "fittest" kata pneuma. John Howard Yoder famously said that "those who bear crosses are walking with the grain of the universe." Strictly speaking, that should be: against the grain of "nature, red in tooth and claw" (Tennyson; cf. Romans 8:22), and with the grain of the new creation, where babies play with sidewinders (cf. Isaiah 11:8).

As this provocation suggests, the debate over Darwinism and Christian faith, properly understood, has less to do with the question of whether we should think of God as a designer who fine-tunes flagella, and more to do with how the theory of evolution fits into the deep and interesting tension that's always been at the heart of Christian accounts of creation. On the one hand, we inhabit a universe whose combination of order and majesty - the laws of nature and the astonishing beauty of the world they undergird - is to be taken as evidence of God's existence and His goodness. On the other hand, we inhabit a world that's been corrupted by sin, and that "groaneth and travaileth in pain together" as it awaits renewal and rebirth. And from Paul to Thomas Aquinas to C.S. Lewis, Christian thinkers have labored over the balance between these two premises, returning again and again to the question of just how fallen the world really is.

If Darwinism poses a challenge to Christianity, then, it's on grounds that have less to do with God's existence than with His nature, and the nature of the world. The realization that evolution by natural selection has produced humankind effectively heightens the role of physical evil in creation: A material world shot through with suffering and death isn't just a necessary backdrop to the human drama, it's the mechanism that's made human existence possible in the first place.

This realization doesn't necessarily undercut the traditional Thomist understanding of physical evil. If we agree with Aquinas that physical evils are necessary to the existence of a material universe, then there's no logical bar to saying that they're essential to the genesis of a creature made in God's own image as well. But if you dwell on the sheer scope of physical evils involved in this process, as any serious consideration of evolution forces you to do, you can see the intuitive appeal of the alternative approach suggested in the passage above - in which evolution-by-natural-selection is treated as part of the essential fallen-ness of the world, and "Nature red in tooth and claw" becomes one of the powers and principalities that Christ came to overthrow.

As I've suggested before, this treatment of the problem of physical evil would require a not-insignificant re-examination of the traditional understanding of the Fall. But at the very least, these are the kind of questions that evolutionary theory ought to prompt Christians to debate, instead of expending their energy arguing about, say, whether special creation was necessary to produce the eye.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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