Are Christianity and the theory of evolution in contradiction to one another?
Right now, I’m taking an online enrichment course* that explores this question, along with the bigger question of what it means to be human. If you’ve ever read my blog before, or if you’ve seen the title of my book (It’s Good to Be Here: A Disabled Woman’s Reflections on God in the Flesh and the Sacred Wonder of Being Human), then you know why I jumped at the chance to take this course! For the next several weeks, I will be posting some of the things that I’ve learned from the course and the thoughts that I’ve shared with the class.
God and Evolution?
In my teen years, I picked up the notion from the larger culture that Catholic teachings and the theory of evolution are in contradiction to one another. To be clear, this is a misconception. St. Pope John Paul II attested that there is no contradiction, and Pope Benedict XVI seems to be somewhat baffled that people think that evolution can’t be true because, they believe, it would eliminate the need for a divine creator.
The scientific fact that creatures — including humans — have evolved from common ancestors does not in any way eliminate the need for an Uncreated Creator. Evolution would not be very scientific, and certainly not a fact, if it did that. There must be an Uncaused Cause.
God is, was, and always will be.
But that’s not what our larger culture seems to think.
I’ve always enjoyed watching science documentaries, because I find the physical formation of the universe, of our lovely little Earth, and of our own bodies to be thoroughly fascinating. However, these documentaries tend to present evolution as something driven by nature itself, as though “Nature” is the intelligence behind the natural world, and survival and reproduction are the sole reasons for life.
With certain words and imagery, scientific presentations can even make it sound like plants and animals are consciously making decisions about reproduction based on adaptation and survival of the species — which isn’t scientific at all. By confusing the reality of plants and animals, these kinds of presentations also confuse the reality of God. With bias and stylized telling, scientists, teachers, authors, and television producers can then easily lead people to think that a human being isn’t much more intelligent than a butterfly. What it means to be human is reduced to what is detected through our physical senses and the scientific method.
If you wanted to get to know a particular human being, what would you do? You might look at that person’s x-ray images and ask a radiologist to tell you about the person’s bone structure. Or you might ask a biologist to examine the person and teach you about his or her cells. But, of course, we know that we are more than bones and cells. Increasingly, however, people seem to be making the mistake that a geneticist can tell us everything that we need to know about a particular human being based on his or her genes.
Science is too limited to help us to get to know the entirety of a human being because science requires limitations — in order to scientifically study a human being, a scientist must limit, must reduce that lifeform into manageable, observable parts, like DNA. But DNA can only exist within larger structures and is affected by them. Just like cells and bones and atoms. The sum of manageable, observable parts is not the sum of life. It’s arrogance and foolishness to think that everything that exists can be observed by our physical senses or even calculated by our clever formulas. This prideful folly leads us to reduce Earth and humans — including ourselves — to mere things that we can manipulate for material purposes.
There is, however, much good that we can do with the discoveries that we make through our God-given gift of reason, the light behind the scientific method, when we remember that science has limitations. When we recognize that scientism (“science alone”) has terrible consequences (genocide for one), we are then free to explore the whole truth and live fully human.
“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth.” ~ John Paul II, Fides et RatioTweet
The above quote from St. John Paul II is important for everyone to understand. Faith and reason are not at odds, they don’t fight or contradict, they complement. Together they make us who we are as human beings. If, as religious people, we dismiss scientific knowledge, then we actually fail our humanity, for we are created both soul and body. To be fully human surely includes marveling with gratitude at the immense complexity and rich diversity of God’s Creation, while exploring the height, width, and depth of being human through both faith and reason.
Religious people, too, can be guilty of reductionism. Let’s not be guilty of reducing God’s creative majesty to something so finite that we can hold and understand the entirety of His creative works in one book, be it sacred or secular.
© 2020 Christina Chase
* the course — Human Animal: Origin, Beginnings, and Dignity — is from the Satellite Theological Education Program of the University of Notre Dame
Although crippled by disease, I am fully alive in love. I write about the profound wonder and terrible beauty of life while living with physical disability and severe dependency. Unafraid to ask life's big questions, I was briefly an atheist and considered other religions before finding, in God's choice to intimately share our humanity, what it truly means to be fully human. A revert to the Catholic Faith, I blog weekly and have written a book called It's Good to Be Here.