The Genesis Wars: Forgetfulness of Christ?
I’ve had several interesting discussions lately probing the account of Creation in Genesis, on the one hand, and the scientific theory of evolution, on the other. Discussions of human origins are endlessly fascinating! Too often, however, they carry a high emotional cost. They may even trouble our Faith.
These negatives arise, frankly, from thinking about the whole matter in the wrong way.
A thorough analysis of the various theories of human origins, and of how to think about the related issues properly, would extend far beyond the scope of a single essay. For a look at the various scientific theories, consider reading Thomas Fowler and Daniel Kuebler’s The Evolution Controversy, which I reviewed ten years ago in Evolution: The Missing Link. To probe more deeply into the philosophical problems which plague our discussions of both theology and science, consider Gerard Verschuuren’s Aquinas and Modern Science: A New Synthesis of Faith & Reason, which I briefly reviewed last week along with three other relevant books in Four ways to grasp natural meaning from the God Who Is.
But there are three different kinds of errors—one philosophical, one theological and one spiritual—which account for all of the anxiety we may feel when we get into these discussions, and for our tendency to cling to details that do not really matter as if they are keys to our supernatural destiny. It is these three errors which I will discuss here.
The Philosophical Error
It is extraordinarily unfortunate that so many scientists, along with the larger secular community, tend to see scientific knowledge as a substitute for explanations formerly provided by religion, and by Christianity in particular. Whatever the merits of the theory of evolution, for example, as a simple matter of recent history it has been used intellectually, socially and culturally as a kind of club with which to beat religion over the head. As a result, Christians often feel that if they are to remain secure in their Faith, they must cling to older, more congenial theories or at least discredit today’s regnant theories. Nor is evolution the only issue which has produced this difficulty. It also happened with the theory of heliocentricity. This problem typically afflicts Catholics far less than Protestants, who, believing in sola scriptura, have lost the Church’s understanding of how to read Scripture.
In any case, the whole quarrel is rooted in a gigantic category mistake when it comes to what we mean by “creation”. When scientists consider creation, they are actually talking about the sequential steps by which everything in the universe was fabricated. But that is not creation in either the philosophical or the religious sense; it is simply “construction” or, expressed more personally, “craftsmanship”. A scientist explores how natural processes work to produce the various kinds of natural results which we see today. But the concept of Creation does not address the question of how material things interact and how material reality is constructed in time.
Creation addresses the question of why anything should exist at all. In other words, it does not answer a scientific question but a philosophical one. How do matter and energy come to be? How is material reality sustained in being? Note that this is not primarily a temporal question, a question of “when”. It is a question of causality, and we should not think of creation as part of a temporal sequence. After all, the very concept of time is a relationship involving matter in motion through space. The power to create is the power to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, “before” time, that is, utterly outside of what we know as time itself. Moreover, as a matter of simple causality, what we call “creation” must always be sustained by an uncaused cause that we call God. Creation exists now because of God’s power. Were there no God, there could never be anything—ever—even if the universe were eternal.
A self-subsistent being, whose essence is to exist, brings things to be in a way that lies far beyond the purposes of the physical sciences to explore, for these presuppose a material universe within a temporal framework. The first error on both sides of these discussions is to make an absurd category mistake. The error on the Christian side is to let a category mistake cause us spiritual anxiety.
The Theological Error
The primary theological error which causes so much additional anxiety has been bequeathed to us primarily from the Scriptural literalism of Protestantism. Catholics sometimes fall into this trap as well but, as a matter of historical fact, the vast majority of Christian angst over the theory of evolution is produced by the simple Protestant error that Sacred Scripture is our only source of Revelation and a rule unto itself. Thus each person must be able to understand it easily (never mind how many sects understand it differently). It follows, first, that Scripture must be as plain and obvious as a twenty-first century newspaper story and, second, that each reader ought to be able to assert authoritatively what it means. If we cannot trust the “plain meaning” of the very first book of the Bible, what can we trust?
But Catholics know, or ought to know, that Scripture is written in a variety of genres, not all of which are even remotely historical in nature, and that the sure meaning of Scripture (apart from the many spiritual benefits we receive under the influence of the Holy Spirit while reading it and applying it to ourselves) can be asserted definitively only by the authority of Jesus Christ the Son of God as exercised through the Church He founded. Now, with regard to Genesis, the Church in the person of Pope Pius XII has stated that the theory of evolution may be explored as long as we are guided by two “facts” which we know from Revelation and which the Genesis text really does imply: First, that every human person is a descendant of a single set of first parents; second, that God infuses a spiritual soul into each and every human being (which, in fact, is what makes us persons, which other material beings are not).
The same necessity of authoritative determination, by the way, applies to our other source of Revelation, Sacred Tradition. For Sacred Tradition (big T) does not consist in what Christians have commonly said or written over time, much of which could be merely prevailing cultural notions. All of that is human tradition (little t). Sacred Tradition is those things revealed by Christ which have been carried on from the apostles through the Christian community. Once again, only the authority of the Church can safely distinguish Tradition from tradition—Sacred Tradition from mere human traditions (such as those Our Lord mentioned when he said “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mk 7:8)).
In this context, Genesis is as compatible with evolutionary theory as it is with the individual direct “fabrication” of each species and of Adam and Eve. For example, the following verse fits either theory like a glove: “The LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man [that is, the human person] became a living being” (Gn 2:7). Even the order of creation (in one of two different accounts of it in Genesis) is remarkably similar to the order posited in the theory of evolution. Either way, God created the material universe from nothing, giving it a distinctive nature with its own proper potentiality such that it would develop in accordance with His design, and He sustains it in being at every moment. Again, created things must be continuously “caused”, as they cannot be self-subsistent without being God. Without God’s conservational power, then, creation must cease to exist.
Nor should our sense of “what is fitting” enter into this question. When we know certain truths, we can often see ways in which they are “fitting” (such as the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Our Lady, so fitting for the Mother of God). But to argue for the truth of anything due to “fittingness” is the weakest of all arguments, as it depends on our own understanding (often culturally-conditioned) of how ideas “ought to” fit together before they are actually known to be true. No, our argument with scientific theories is not based on either theology or fittingness, for scientific theories must be debated on their scientific methodological merits. Rather, our argument is always with scientists who make category mistakes (and with a larger culture which does the same). Our objection is against pushing scientific claims into realms in which the very nature of their disciplines prevents them from having anything to say at all.
The Spiritual Error
We come now to the final problem I wish to treat in our tendency to be spiritually discomfited when the ideas we have derived about human origins from our own reading of Scripture are called into question by scientific theories. The reason for this anxiety is that we so often lose sight of how we know and have Faith in God at all. We forget that we are not talking just about “religion” here, as if all religion is alike, or as if all religion can have value only insofar as philosophy can confirm it or it is widely accepted and practiced.
We forget, in other words, that we believe because of the witness of Jesus Christ. For a wide range of reasons, some of which differ based on our own inner life and experiences, we accept as a matter of historical fact that Jesus Christ did the following:
- Lived at a particular time and place in history;
- Claimed to be from God and taught a remarkably sublime doctrine;
- Performed a great many astounding public miracles to prove his authority;
- Founded a Church with Peter and his successors at its head, holding “keys to the kingdom of heaven”;
- Predicted his own death and resurrection;
- Was crucified, certainly died, and was buried—but rose from the dead as He said, appearing to a great many people both individually and in groups.
When all is said and done, we are not really concerned about what we might call the visible action of God in history at Creation (a concern in any case fraught with philosophical and historical confusion). Rather, we are concerned with the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into human history through Jesus Christ. Our Faith can be secured only by Christ. Given this authentic foundation, we have nothing to fear, no matter how much or little we think we understand about loosely-related issues raised by other fields of study. I do not mean our Faith is in any way an irrational commitment, as I would hope this discussion makes perfectly clear. But our Faith does not depend on our understanding of the book of Genesis, how it is to be interpreted, what it reveals about human origins, what others have to say on this complex question, or on the prevailing attitude in our culture toward various scientific theories.
Nor does our Faith depend on whether we think it more fitting that God would have created Adam and Eve individually rather than selecting them as two individuals of a species into which to infuse the souls that made them not only materially human but, at long last, persons in his own image. In a similar manner, our Faith did not depend four hundred or so years ago on whether the theory of geocentricity, which seemed to demonstrate the importance of man in Creation, is more fitting than that of heliocentricity, which seemed to demonstrate our material insignificance—except that God, through no merit of our own, chose to elevate us to the status of sons and daughters.
No, our Faith depends on Jesus Christ, as mediated to us through His Church. While we are right to find the interpretation of Biblical texts a fascinating and fruitful subject, we are subject to the Church alone in assigning definitive meaning to these texts. For the rest, we should read, meditate, and experience the Holy Spirit’s gentle instruction in the love of God. In this personal context, some texts may have great meaning to us at one time or another, move us not at all on other occasions, and hold little personal interest of any kind to many other equally good Christians. Read St. Augustine’s book on how to read Scripture, aptly entitled On Christian Doctrine.
Finally, we should grant the force of the comment made by Cardinal Baronius over four hundred years ago when, in commenting on the Galileo case, he stated: “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” One of the first rules of Biblical interpretation is that we must keep the purpose of the sacred text in mind. To that purpose, modern science—properly understood as science—has never been, and can never be, a threat.
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