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What Can Evolutionary Biology Contribute to Theology, and vice versa?

Let’s spell out these two questions. Can theologians consider what biologists say about the world important for their understanding of God? Can evolutionary biologists recognize as valuable, and learn from, a specific theological account of the world?

As a theologian and a scientist, I get asked the first question all the time: why should theologians bother with evolutionary science? Not only does evolutionary science seem to be outside theologians’ realm of expertise; ever since Darwin, this question has also raised the specter of hostility or tensions between theology and science — tensions that continue more or less unabated in contemporary culture, especially in the United States. But one of the reasons why theologians do need to bother with evolutionary science is related to the task of theology itself.

Theology concerns itself with the spiritual realm as well as the creaturely, material world. To forget that as creatures we are both spiritual and earthly beings is to open the door to what in the history of the Christian Church is known as the Manichaean heresy. This ancient set of beliefs took the world of matter to be intrinsically evil, standing in opposition to an intrinsically good, spiritual realm. The Manichean teaching was rejected by the early Church: St. Augustine, for example, countered this view with the traditional belief in the incarnation of God in the human Jesus, where God becomes fully human — fully material — but remains fully divine.

Some recent theologians have started to experiment with ways of understanding the incarnation by speaking of “deep incarnation.” The idea is that the incarnation is not only “deep” into human history but also into evolutionary history. In a landmark essay from 2001, “The Cross of Christ in an Evolutionary World,” Niels Henrik Gregersen reformulated Luther’s theology of the cross by arguing that the incarnation had ongoing significance for the whole of evolutionary history:

I propose a notion of a ‘deep incarnation’ according to which God has not only assumed human nature in general, but also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to decease and decay. In this sense the cross of Christ becomes a microcosm of the whole macrocosm of evolutionary history. The universal significance of the cross of Christ is thus to be understood against the double background of a high Christology which identifies Jesus with God the creator and ruler of the universe, and a deep incarnation in which God — the same God! — bears the costs of the hardships of natural selection.

This way of weaving evolutionary ideas into theology is not confined to Protestant or Reformed thinkers. For example, the Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) took evolutionary biology very seriously. Indeed, he spent much of his life working as a paleontologist in remote areas of China. Teilhard believed that scientific discoveries were part and parcel of divine revelation — he was an original and even controversial thinker, far ahead of his time. His belief that Christ was the Omega point to which all of evolutionary history ultimately pointed was a theological belief. But he grounded that belief in theories of evolutionary biology that were current when he was writing in the first half of the twentieth century.

Catholic theologian and priest Karl Rahner (1904–1984) also developed an approach to anthropology that took human evolution seriously (though he, like many other Catholic writers, had trouble squaring human uniqueness with secular interpretations of evolutionary theory). Teilhard and Rahner were both pioneers, but both sailed a little too close to the wind: they struggled to find convincing methods that gave sufficient scope to evolutionary biology as well as divine action. Teilhard absorbed evolutionary science in a way that was not sufficiently critical of the values embedded in scientific practice; Rahner did something similar in his evolutionary anthropology. Nonetheless, both theologians were successful in mapping out ways to combine the theory of evolution with the doctrines of the incarnation and divine transcendence.

My own preference in seeking a rapprochement between evolutionary biology and theology is to search for inspiration from historical figures prior to the Darwinian controversies, especially the medieval scholar Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas took the Aristotelian ideas that formed the basis of what eventually became modern biology very seriously, but he maintained a strong commitment to the difference between God and God’s creatures. Although his cosmology and much of his biological understanding are now outdated, Aquinas’s theological method allows a place for science (or “natural philosophy”) while recognizing its limits. Some scholars in recent years have been re-emphasizing the theological aspects of his writings, after many of his interpreters had for generations focused primarily on his philosophy, leaving a bare skeleton of thought that could not hold up on its own.

Aquinas’s understanding of science was somewhat different from our own, in part because medieval scholars did not divide up the disciplines in the same way that we do today. Nonetheless, his basic idea of an “analogy of being” — or analogia entis — between God and God’s creatures remains fruitful. This idea reminds us that whatever we say about God — for instance about God’s Goodness, Justice, or Wisdom — we say only by analogy to what these words mean in the human context, because God is not simply another being, more perfect than all other beings; rather, God is the ultimate source of Being as such, in which all creatures “participate.” This also means that whatever we say about the world is not fully adequate for understanding God, and that we find goodness, justice, and wisdom in the creaturely world only to the extent that they relate to — or participate in — the Goodness, Justice, and Wisdom of God. But how might this work out in concrete — and, in particular, evolutionary — terms? Is there more to say beyond the idea that the cross of Christ somehow shared in evolutionary pain and suffering through deep incarnation?

Here I believe a more recent theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988), offers a useful and productive concept, that of “theo-drama.” The idea is that God acts in human history according to a pattern that bears some analogy with the great drama of Christ’s life, passion, and resurrection. Now, Balthasar himself did not welcome evolutionary theory into this theological account, as he believed it far too wedded to materialistic philosophy. (Had he been trained as a biologist, like myself, perhaps he would have thought otherwise.) And, of course, in one sense, Balthasar was right to be skeptical: consider how the “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have polluted the field of evolutionary theory so much as to render those who do believe in God and evolution something of a laughingstock. Fortunately, that is beginning to change. But theologians should be much bolder than simply defending themselves against these critics.

Indeed, some new evolutionary theories are starting to make the “classic” interpretation of evolution by natural selection alone look a little thin. Natural selection presupposes that there are certain traits or characteristics that are “selected for” in given, fixed environments. These new theories — often grouped together as the extended evolutionary synthesis (EES) or niche construction theory (NCT) — suggest that this picture of natural selection is one-sided. In reality, organisms seek out new environments and then change those environments, constructing their own “niches.” This process of niche construction actively transforms the kind of selection pressures that were previously assumed to be constant. Human beings have changed their environments more drastically than any other living creature on the planet. So it’s not hard to see how, as the behavior of humans impacts their environment, the ecological niche in which humans live could provide a changing context for their gene expression. Now imagine this dynamic interaction happening not only to human beings but also to a whole host of other creatures — all interacting with and reacting to each other in a large, complex system. That intricate picture is what NCT is all about.

As a theologian, I find these new biological theories especially interesting, because theology can resonate with aspects of them while still keeping its distinctive voice. Theology can draw on evolutionary science without becoming a science alongside other sciences. (Even though Thomas Aquinas called theology a “science,” he meant by that something much broader than we do now in our own understanding of the term.) Here we return to Balthasar’s concept of theo-drama, of God acting in human history in a way that is analogous to the drama of Christ. I have suggested, for instance in my book Christ and Evolution (2009), that theo-drama be understood as analogous to biological accounts of niche construction. This is more than simply saying that both evolution and theology are becoming more relational in character, though it is this as well. Rather, it is about re-energizing the dramatic aspects of our evolutionary story and weaving that into an expanded version of theo-dramatic theory.

But I am getting carried away. I have not yet discussed the second question: why on earth would evolutionary biologists be interested in theology? On one level, of course they are not likely to take much notice, unless they are interested in the evolution of religion or defending themselves against the attacks of creationists. But during some joint research with evolutionary anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, it has become clear to me that evolutionary science can, in fact, benefit from theology too. In particular, theology can challenge in productive ways some of the deep-seated assumptions of secular anthropology, suggesting new lines of empirical research.

To take just one example, consider symbolic thought, which has gained considerable traction of late as one of the distinctive marks of human identity in evolutionary anthropology. We are the symbolic species, as neuro-anthropologist Terrence Deacon has claimed. But anthropologists have become so caught up in studying symbols that they have overlooked some other basic elements that may be important for anthropology, such as the imaginative capacity for wisdom. To be sure, the language of wisdom is vaguer than that of symbolic thought. But it does suggest a rich, relational view of human becoming that might help anthropology by encouraging it to look for different kinds of markers or “signs” in the paleontological record — traces of behavioral activities that animals other than humans are unlikely to have done. Perhaps a different kind of cognition — or wisdom — goes far back in the early hominin record, way back to Homo erectus?

But then what would that mean for theology? That part is still a puzzle. But the broader point is clear: theology and evolutionary science can challenge and influence each other in fruitful ways. They should not avoid or neglect each other, nor merge into each other; rather, they should strive to be in creative, mutual interaction — perhaps even to transform each other, at least in part, by asking new and helpful questions.

Discussion Questions:

    1. Why do you think deep incarnation is an important theological concept? What are its implications? Its limits?
    2. What kind of philosophical assumptions are at work for an evolutionary biologist? For a theologian? Is it possible to do both at the same time or not?
    3. Do you think the terms ‘analogy of being’ and ‘theodrama’ are helpful in the debates between theology and evolutionary biology or not? Why?
    4. What insights arise from newer evolutionary theories such as NCT and why are these significant for theology?
    5. Science might challenge aspects of theological belief, but are you convinced that it can work the other way round as well?

Discussion Summary

I tried to show in this essay that the common supposition that evolutionary thought and theology are inevitably incompatible with each other is just as mistaken as a simple fusion of the two, as in evolutionary theism, where God simply works through evolutionary processes. I was delighted to see the questions asked, since they are all questions that I have asked myself from time to time as I have struggled to think through more carefully the complex relationships between evolutionary biology and theology.

In this piece, I refer less to God as Creator and more to a Christology that engages with evolutionary questions and topics. I also outlined an understanding of salvation history through an expansive version of “theo-drama” that includes other creaturely beings. In general, I argued that the relationship between a theological perspective and one parsed through the evolutionary sciences is best thought of in metaphysical terms as being analogous, rather than in literal correspondence. This prevents us from thinking that everything that science tells us about the evolutionary processes can be woven literally into a theological register. Yet, with that caution in mind, there are aspects of the evolutionary account that do resonate with important theological topics.

Many of the readers’ questions focused on ways in which this resonance may or may not arise and, in particular, aspects of the evolutionary story that could be viewed as incompatible with standard Christian beliefs. For example, if Christ overcomes death, why is there so much death in evolutionary terms if Christ is also deeply incarnate? Or, what if species other than humans also have capabilities for symbolic (or implied, religious) thought? Would this threaten the special place of humans as made in the image of God, which is characteristic of the Christian tradition? Finally, how many scientists are ready to adopt newer evolutionary theories such as the extended evolutionary synthesis? And would they really be willing to listen to theologians?

I sought to address all these excellent questions by drawing on some distinctions aided by philosophical tools as well as theological insights. For example, there is a difference between the idea that death and predation in the historical record are necessary for evolution — in that things could not have been otherwise — and the idea that such things are inevitable in the world as known to us, as given. In the latter case, it is not necessary that things be created this way; there may be hope for a future in which the world is transformed. In deep incarnation, Christ is present with creatures in their suffering and pain, just as Christ has suffered real pain himself, but that does not mean pain and suffering have the last word in an eschatological perspective. Mortality is not evil in the way that other deliberate actions of violence are evil.

So our evolutionary knowledge does raise huge questions about theodicy, such as how to affirm the goodness of God in an evolved world that is full of suffering and pain. But I am less convinced by philosophical explanations of suffering — for example, that it permitted the opportunity for freedom to emerge, or that it provided the occasion for making human souls — and more convinced by theological responses, namely that Christ is present in the suffering, though we are not in a position to know the reason why.

As for other creatures also being in some way related to God, this is a topic that even secular scientists are starting to ask, in their own way. For instance, scientists have observed that other primates seem to have what might appear to us to be a religious sense. A few have even suggested that some repeated practices of chimpanzees such as throwing rocks at large selected — sacred? — trees may be a form of religious ritual. That, albeit controversial claim may just push the question further about the relationship between symbolic thought and religious sense. But it is still important, since it indicates an evolutionary convergence between humans and chimpanzees in ways that are more than just physical. I don’t think such findings say much about the evolution of our religious traditions if only because of the timing: the split between chimpanzees and humans from a common ancestor occurred millions of years ago. Still, it is noteworthy that scientists are coming to theologians and religious scholars in order to seek their help in answering questions that arise from their scientific work but which they do not feel competent to address on their own.

New Big Questions

  1. What mental capabilities are needed in order to experience religion? How did these evolve?
  2. In what ways might evolutionary theories influence Christian eschatology?