Christianity’s Evolution Problem

What theological sense can Christians make of a natural world that operates on Darwinian principles?

Evolution need not be threatening to religion. But it is clear that evolution is a threat to Christianity because many Christians have yet to come to grips with its implications. Conventional wisdom might say that the chief problem with evolution is that it challenges Biblical creation narratives, but the problem is deeper.

As a Roman Catholic, I have never found evolution to be a difficult personal or academic issue. Pope Pius XII made it clear in Humani Generis that Darwin’s theories should not be rejected out hand. Pope John Paul II also made the emphatic statement that “truth cannot contradict truth” as he presented a nuanced discussion of evolutionary theory’s relationship to Catholic understandings of the human person. The head of the Vatican Observatory made it clear that “intelligent design theories” diminish God as well as science.

Because of this background, I have found it curious that some evangelical Christian institutions of higher education do not teach evolution in their science curriculum.   But I must admit that I do find it interesting to read defenses of geocentrism and other Biblically based worldviews — but to me the defenses are intriguing as cultural artifacts, not as intellectual positions. Defending the inerrancy of literalistic readings of the Bible is far removed from the mainstream of Catholic thought.

But there is a problem with evolution nonetheless. My views in this regard have changed in dialogue with many evangelical colleagues whom I respect. For them, the issue is not Biblical inerrancy as much as it is probing the theological implications of Darwin’s theories. For example, if there is no radical distinction between humans and animals, when do human beings become “human?” When does a human have a “soul” that can be saved? More broadly, what theological sense can Christians make of a natural world that operates on Darwinian principles?

The problem of evolution then is a Christian problem that stems from theology’s reluctance to fully grapple with the implications of Darwin’s theories. Indeed, one of the more interesting areas of contemporary Christian reflection has to do with understanding evolution’s impact on our understanding of the nature of human beings as well as considering the complex social, philosophical, and political implications of Darwin’s work. To be sure, much of the resistance to evolution comes from a need to defend a particular construal of “Biblical truth” — after all, if the Bible is shown to be false in one aspect, it throws into question the entirety of scripture. Some of the resistance also stems from a misunderstanding of what a scientific theory actually is. But the real problem with evolution is that Christians have yet to reflect deeply on how they fit into a Darwinian world.

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Mathew N. Schmalz
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