The debate between evolution and Scripture evolves

By Brandon A. Evans

First in a series

The theory of evolution has often sparked intense debate, particularly in a religious context, but a greater understanding of Scripture has dampened those flames—to a degree.

Recent events have highlighted the tensions that still exist.

The State Superintendent of Georgia recently considered banning the word “evolution” from all textbooks because of pressure from conservative Christian groups. The idea was rejected.

The State School Board in Ohio earlier this month gave approval for “intelligent design”—the idea that creation reveals an order that is indicative of a higher power who created it—to be discussed in science classes during evolution studies.

The decision has sparked debate among scientists and others, who see it as a veiled attempt to bring God and creationism back into the curriculum.

Missouri is considering House Bill 911, which would require schools to buy new textbooks that give attention to intelligent design.

But intelligent design and creationism are two very different things, and only one of them is truly opposed to evolution.

For many years, Christians read the Book of Genesis only in a literal light—and many still do. The universe, the earth and all life on it were created in six days. That is, after all, what the text says.

Since then, six days has ballooned into billions of years and the simplicity of creation has exploded into something so complicated that surely only God can understand it.

The theory of evolution, in contrast to the story in Genesis, basically states that plant life, animal life, and eventually human life, all slowly evolved over thousands of millions of years. The fossil records and the dating of the age of the earth back up this theory. A line can be drawn, for example, between a branch of ancient chimpanzees and human beings through a slow progression.

The evidence for evolution is not weak.

The immediate problem that this runs up against is not scientific speculation but religious speculation. The text of Genesis is very clear in how God made the first man out of the dirt on the sixth day.

Contrasting that, though, is the voice of Pope Leo XIII in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus. “ ‘Whatever [scientists] can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures,’ ” he wrote, quoting St. Augustine.

So how can the scientific facts about evolution reconcile with the Scriptures that we as Catholics believe to be divinely inspired and without error?

Benedictine Father Damian Dietlein, professor of Old Testament theology at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, said that the Bible is not so interested in telling science or history, but rather, it is intensely interested in speaking about the truth.

“The intention of the account in Genesis is to tell us that God is the one who is the creator,” said Benedictine Father Bede Cisco, director of Indianapolis programs for Saint Meinrad School of Theology.

Another important lesson that is taught in Genesis is that “after God creates each thing, God says that it is good,” Father Bede said.

Pope Leo XIII wrote that “[The writers of Genesis] did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time.”

The argument about how to read the Bible, Father Damian said, goes back to Galileo arguing that the Bible doesn’t tell us how the heavens go but how to go to heaven. The famous astronomer took the stance that the earth revolves around the sun and also took the heat that came from such an “unbiblical” stance.

The author of the Genesis text probably had no idea of how the world was actually created. In fact, he probably wasn’t one person, either.

“It’s hard for us to understand a book being written over a thousand year period,” Father Damian said. Current biblical scholarship suggests that the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Old Testament—didn’t reach their final form until the Babylonian exile, around 2,500 years ago. And that only happened after many years of oral tradition.

Still, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council teaches that “the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety … have God as their author (Dei Verbum, 11).”

“There’s a lot of meaning in those words [in Scripture] and they need to be approached in different kinds of ways,” Father Bede said. “All of human knowledge is helpful in interpreting the Scriptures.”

For starters, one has to look at the context in which something was written, why it was written and in what style. The Psalms were written in a very different style than the letters of Paul, which were written in a very different style than the books of the wisdom tradition in the Old Testament.

Obviously, many things that Jesus said are not to be taken literally, such as his command to forgive one’s brother seven times 70 times instead of just seven times. The message is that one should always be forgiving—it does not stop after the 490th offense.

On the other hand, when Jesus said “This is my body” at the Last Supper, it was to be taken exactly as it was said.

The Church is our guide to understanding how to read the Bible, along with biblical scholarship, .

“It is necessary to determine the proper sense of Scripture, while avoiding any unwarranted interpretations that make it say what it does not intend to say,” Pope John Paul II said in 1996 during an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Father Bede said that a sacramental approach needs to be taken to Scripture in the sense that “a sacrament is a rich encounter with God that needs to be viewed in several different ways.”

Conventual Franciscan Father Leopold Keffler, who teaches field biology and natural science at Marian College in Indianapolis, said that people like those who wrote Genesis used the only knowledge they had to come up with a model of physical Creation—their primary message was the theological implications of a loving and all-powerful God.

In the end, that’s all we’re doing today, he said. Our best model for understanding creation is the Big Bang and natural selection, but that will be refined in time.

“Who knows how primitive they’re going to say we are when they look back at us a thousand years from now?” Father Leopold said. “Science is always a self-correcting process. What we say is not the last word, but just the current best word.”

We try to explain how God created intelligent life in the best way that we know how, which is, at this point, evolution.

“I find it the only logical explanation for how things got to be the way they are,” Father Leopold said. He earned a doctorate in biology at the University of Mississippi.

“When you look at the fossil record, it’s very clear that humans have evolved,” said Richard Miller, a professor of biology at Butler University in Indianapolis. “There are enough fossils showing enough differences in brain size, anatomy, teeth.

“The details, [though], in human evolution, are not well known. I would say that there’s not a very strong consensus at this point.”

Natural selection, the theory put forth by Charles Darwin, is one way of explaining evolution. It is how evolution took place that is still up for grabs—while most people recognize evolution as a well-established and grounded theory.

Dietlein said that he has “never really had a problem accepting evolution.”

“Today … new knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis,” Pope John Paul II said in his 1996 address.

Established theories can hold great weight in the scientific world, such as the theory of gravity or the theory of relativity. It was this statement of the pope’s that led the Catholic Church in understanding that not only was evolution acceptable to study, but that it now carried great academic weight because of independent proofs from many fields.

These remarks of the Holy Father further re-emphasized the sentiments of Pope Pius XII, who wrote an encyclical in 1950 that stated that evolution could be studied and discussed fairly, so long as its tenets did not come into direct conflict with Catholic theology. He said that while evolution may inquire into the origin of the human body, one must always hold that God alone creates the soul.

This regards what is called the rightful autonomy of earthly affairs. Science should deal with evolution and religion should deal with theology.

“There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful,” Pope Leo XIII said in his encyclical.

Some have tried to resurrect creationism under various titles such as “scientific special creation”—all such theories state that God directly created all life on earth at certain points, whether in six days or in various points of geologic history.

Father Damian said many of these attempts have an underlying agenda of biblical literalism.

Creationists, said Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary theorist from Harvard University, have lately been selling their belief as scientific creationism, which he calls a “self-proclaimed oxymoron.”

Creationism, he said, does not raise any important intellectual issues about biology or evolution. Its main source of “science” is a literal reading of the Bible.

Some creationists believe that gaps in the evolutionary record prove the idea that God stepped in abruptly.

Gould, however, has spent much time explaining how evolution occurred often in surges of life—a theory that gives scientific answers to creationist claims that God worked in the gaps of evolution.

“Creationism is a local and parochial movement, powerful only in the United States among Western nations, and prevalent only among a few sectors of American Protestantism that choose to read the Bible as … literally true in every jot and tittle.”

With this background of debate, it is understandable that many would be leery of what is known as intelligent design—and it may be that some of those advocating it do have in their heart a belief in creationism.

But held purely, intelligent design is far more scientific than and not nearly the same as creationism.

Intelligent design, in and of itself, does not deny evolution, but only qualifies it by saying that our complex, evolving world was created by a “Designer” in it’s beginning and was guided by him over time. Christians would know that Designer as God.

Some of the proponents of intelligent design have also raised questions about the scientific accuracy of some of the theories concerning how evolution worked.

Thus, for many, debates over evolution have shifted to these “how’s” of evolution and the theological baggage that comes along with them—from the menace of social Darwinism to the misunderstood idea of a world that happened by chance.

(Next part: The theological implications of natural selection.)

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