by Robert Baldwin
from Signs of the Times No. 61 - Apr 2016
Bishop E. W. Barnes was prominent in the Modern Churchman’s Union (now known as Modern Church). In 1927 he delivered a series of sermons (the ‘gorilla sermons’) aimed at synthesizing liberal theology with evolution. In 2010 the Church of England Synod voted overwhelmingly to accept evolution. The current Pope is said to favour ‘theistic evolution’.
So is Barnes’ quest complete; are Christianity and evolution reconciled? Clearly not, given the salvoes launched at each other by atheists and (largely American) evangelicals.
Barnes promoted ‘science-shaped religion’. Since Barnes, Christians versed in science have made significant contributions (for example John Polkinghorne, Keith Ward, Arthur Peacocke), although usually from consideration of the physical than the life sciences. The latter pose more challenges. Conceiving of a creator setting the physical constants to ‘fine tune’ the universe is one thing but discerning the creator’s hand in unguided evolution is quite another. Although this article considers mainly the impact on Christian belief of evolutionary biology, the whole universe has evolved, from cosmic dust to complex life. In this general sense evolution stands for any process whereby change occurs by natural laws, not by imposition of a deity (cranes not ‘skyhooks’, to use Daniel Dennett’s terms).
The significance of this is illustrated in the 2016 Reith lectures. Professor Stephen Hawking quoted a famous conversation between Napoleon and Laplace who, when Napoleon asked where did God fit in to his scientific theories, said he had no need of that hypothesis. Hawking explains: ‘I do not think that Laplace was claiming that God didn’t exist. It is just he does not intervene to break the laws of science. That must be the position of every scientist’. This is a shrewd challenge to Christian belief in an interventionist God. Consider too this from the Christian geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973: ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. This means testing belief against evidence, as people can and do believe anything, whilst eschewing scientism, the ideology that science explains everything. Humility matters too, as none of us can know the future of science. I am assuming though that liberals agree that evolution by natural selection is not ‘just a theory’.
Consequently, in an evolutionary account there can be no original perfect order, no special creation and no fall of man. There is no rupture of nature to repair. Natural disasters are just that. Humans cannot be responsible for what occurred before they existed. This is uncontroversial for many liberal Christians. I want to argue though that it does not follow that there was nothing for Christ to die for.
Paul (Romans 7:15) describes a central human dilemma: ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do’ (NIV). In evolutionary terms the oldest part of the human brain is instinctual, acts rapidly and is geared toward survival; the limbic system mediates emotional responses and, much later in evolutionary terms, the frontal cortices mediate conscious reasoning. The instinctual and emotional centres operate more quickly than the reasoning cortex, so that reactions frequently occur ahead of conscious thought or outside of conscious awareness. This does not explain Paul’s dilemma, which he expresses theologically, but a biological approach is deeply informative about the peaks and troughs of human nature. Cod theology it may be, but is this not one way to think about ‘original sin’, not as moral weakness but as a struggle brought about by hominid evolution?
Clearly we are less in control than we think. Even less when one adds evidence that a significant proportion of our temperament is genetic; that foetal programming sets hormonal responses, such as to stress; that early attachments and the developmental environment produce enduring behavioural patterns; and that peer relationships and culture mould us. The complexity of human nature revealed by science therefore supports a merciful (to use Pope Francis’ term) approach to human behaviour rather than a judgmental one.
Christians attest to the Spirit of Christ giving strength to enable de-centering from natural (evolved) selfishness and herd mentality and re-centering by attunement with Him (‘feed on Him in your hearts’, as the Communion service has it). Again primitive theology it may be, but this version of what Christ came to do aligns spiritual experience with the reality of our evolved condition.
Evolutionary psychology suggests that the basic equipment for religious belief is furnished by evolution. Only in humans is Theory of Mind (knowledge that others’ have minds with their own intentions) developed to a degree that one can make a statement like ‘God understands that Bill is moved by Linda’s recent grief’. The basis of empathy, altruism and morality is in the evolution of cooperation and trust within kinships and cohesive coalitions of groups. Inter-dependence is deeply ingrained in nature, from the earliest eukaryotic (nucleated) cell formed by endosymbiosis to the alliance between humans and their skin and gut bacteria, without which hostile pathogens would invade. There is a deep message in this for environmental stewardship.
An evolutionary basis for altruism does not explain sophisticated phenomena like compassion. However, an evolved brain is necessary for it, and other complex mental states. Some biologists view religion as an evolutionary side effect (‘exaptation’), but the brain’s evolution is what accommodates religious experience - specific sets of neurons are activated during religious contemplation. Rather than religion as accidental, another perspective, promoted by theologian John Haught among others, is to see evolution as the only way for God to produce a universe of fruitfulness, with creatures capable of worship. If this sounds too teleological, convergent evolution (Simon Conway Morris) proposes that evolution is constrained by the properties of the material with which it has to work and the environment in which it operates. Re-running earth’s history might still result in complex life. A creator would know this.
Viewed scientifically, some Christian beliefs are untenable. Others, such as believing humans are the most important creatures or that man is intrinsically evil, require modification. Others still, such as the meaning of the Cross, can gain from science without degrading faith. Strikingly, evolution has given us the mental equipment to ponder all this.