"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Evolutionary theology

Yes, it feels like a so-bad-it's-good Chuck Norris movie. At the climax of yet another such flick, the words of the steely-eyed hero played by Chuck resounded in the villain’s head: “It’s time…to die.” The poor fellow promptly turned around to see Chuck fire a live RPG into him. In tackling the subject to which my title alludes, I feel like that villain. I can sense some combat-hardened defender of orthodoxy behind me, ready to fire his overkill and watch me blow up. The time has come to address the subject; indeed, that time is overdue in the Church. But at least I’m not the villain of the piece, and the conversation will continue regardless.

I do, after all, have a legion of well-intentioned company. A few weeks ago, as my radio droned over my chores, I heard Barbara Bradley Hagerty conducting an NPR piece that their webmaster entitles “Evangelicals Question the Existence of Adam and Eve.” At first, I rolled my mind’s eyes: Since when is it news that not all evangelicals, never mind other sorts of Christian, are fundamentalists?  Of course it’s possible for a faithful Christian to doubt that the first several chapters of Genesis are literal history. E.g., the chronological order of creation described in the first chapter does not square with that of the second—a fact that surely cannot have escaped the notice of whoever first put these stories together in a single written text. And many scholars, including one Joseph Ratzinger, have pointed out the similarities between Genesis and Babylonian myth. As a Catholic, I tend to think of the first eleven chapters of Genesis as myths and legends given a distinctive theological interpretation in their divinely inspired, written form. What’s important is not that they be history as the modern mind understands that genre, but that their theological interpretation be—well, divinely revealed truth. That, to be sure, must bear some relationship to what literally happened in the past. But it’s not clear exactly what that is, and it’s doubtful that we can ever get clear enough about it to satisfy intellectual curiosity. I’m far from alone in that attitude, not only among Catholics but among Christians generally.

But despite my inclination to let the matter rest there, other Catholics won’t. I’ve noticed over the years that whenever the question of humanity’s origins comes up, many thoughtful Catholics will take the evolution of the body for granted (as did Pope John Paul II), but all will zero in on the question of monogenism.

Last week, e.g., science writer John Farrell observed on his blog at Forbes.com:

The question arises: Can theology adapt to the findings of science? Can the strict monogenism of the human race as traditionally understood by Christians, be modified to the scientific consensus that the human species originated in a small population, not a single couple? In famous cases, of course, such as the trial of Galileo, and acceptance of the reality of heliocentrism, the answer is yes, though it took the Catholic Church a long time to officially come around. But as Coyne points out, the erosion of the idea that the human race descended from a single couple is something that is much more necessary to the theology of salvation in Christian tradition than is the issue of, say, whether God really made the sun stand still for Joshua and the Israelites. Christians have for centuries adapted to a more allegorical interpretation of many books in the Old Testament. But not the Book of Genesis and its account of the Fall and Expulsion from Eden.

The question at issue here is really dual: Did the human race today descend from a single couple? And: Is an affirmative answer to that question necessary for preserving Catholic soteriology? From a scientific standpoint, the first question seems to be settled in the negative. Many faithful Catholics think the second is settled in the affirmative. So, to that extent, we have a conflict. Farrell worries that the Catholic Church has not tried to resolve the conflict. He’s right to worry, for the conflict is a serious test of faith for many educated Catholics.

At the magisterial level, the only explicit treatment of the matter we find is Pope Pius XII’s  1950 encyclical Humani Generis. Here’s the passage Farrell quotes, like many others before him:

For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

That came partly in response to the speculations of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, who indeed had little compunction about coloring outside the lines of orthodoxy. The Vatican, needless to say, was not pleased. Even today, most champions of orthodoxy believe that Pius XII settled the matter in favor of monogenism, “science” be damned. But I’m not so sure about that.

Since I’m not a scientist, and my academic credentials are not in theology, I’m not the one to solve the problem. But I suggest that, to make progress, we should first ask whether the conflict is real or apparent, temporary or permanent. For answers, there are three basic options:

  1. The conflict is real and permanent: the “surrender” option.
  2. The conflict is real but temporary: the “truce” option.
  3. The conflict is only apparent: the “creative” option.

WWhich option is the faithful Catholic to take?  Clearly not (1). Since the Church has long insisted that “reason” and “faith” complement rather than contradict each other, surrendering the confirmed results of natural science to theological dogma on this point is not an option. So the debate among thoughtful Catholics is really about whether to embrace (2) or (3). Do we settle for a temporary truce, waiting science out a while longer? Or do we take the present results of science for granted as a point of departure for some creative theological re-thinking?

It’s tempting to go for (2). Science does develop and change, after all. Prima facie, waiting science out still seems to be the Vatican’s preferred route. Largely for that reason, it is the preferred route of orthodoxy’s champions. But after six decades of scientific progress since Humani Generis, continued silence on their part is a theological and apologetical embarrassment. What, then, can be done with the creative option while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy?

As a philosopher, my instinct is to look for the logical wiggle-room. And in Pius XII’s words, that’s what we find. To be sure, it is irreformable dogma that an individual couple committed the first sin and transmitted the resulting loss of grace to their descendants as “original” sin. With the usual two exceptions understood, those descendants are all of us. But a conflict with current science arises only if we assume that the “generation” by which original sin is transmitted logically entails that a first couple, Adam and Eve, were the first humans in a purely natural sense, i.e. the genetic sense. Nothing in magisterial documents requires adopting that assumption. So it is no more theologically irreformable than scientifically defensible. We may and should dispense with it.

Why not hold instead that Adam and Eve—whoever they really were, and wherever they really lived—were the first humans in a supernatural sense? As a couple, they were the first people to be called and elevated by grace to a state of fellowship with God meant to culminate in a greater union with him. That doesn’t entail that they were genetically the first humans. It entails only that they were the first humans God gave a destiny beyond Nature. So when they sinned and lost his grace, they largely reverted to Nature, which is the state all of us since then find ourselves in until we are somehow incorporated into Christ.

Of course such a proposal raises many questions. There are always questions, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But centuries ago, the Church slowly came to see that affirming biblical inerrancy did not entail rejecting heliocentrism. It is not unreasonable to imagine her coming to see that affirming monogenism need not entail rejecting evolutionary biology.

OK, time to duck the RPGs….

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