Excerpt of From the Dust of the Earth

Excerpt of From the Dust of the Earth: Benedict XVI, the Bible, and the Theory of Evolution by Matthew J. Ramage


The claim that evolution undermines Christianity—that it renders the “God hypothesis” unnecessary—is standard fare in our culture these days. It is an assertion that I encounter often in my work as a Catholic educator, typically in the context of trying to help students who come to me struggling because somewhere along the line they had been told that the theory of evolution is incompatible with their faith. Sometimes, the challenge takes the form of the allegation that the science of evolution renders Christian faith unsustainable. At other times, it is the opposite: that a commitment to one’s faith means precludes the acceptance of evolutionary theory. Individuals who find themselves in this situation—university students and others—have often been well catechized. They know the story of salvation history. They love Jesus Christ and are committed to living as his disciples. However, they often struggle in vain to find sane answers to their questions due to the widespread assumption that faith and evolutionary theory are incompatible. Regrettably, one reason that seekers often run into this difficulty is that would-be apologists for the faith too often respond to the challenge of evolution simply by referencing verses from Genesis that are assumed to be historical but in reality contradict the known facts of our universe’s history. In the case of Catholics, one also encounters two spurious claims: first, that evolution must be rejected because many Church Fathers held the Adam and Eve narrative to be historical; second, that magisterial documents preclude the acceptance of evolutionary theory. These claims are made despite the fact that the Fathers were neither literalists nor primarily interested in scientific questions and that the Church has never condemned evolution. That some Christians reply to scientific discoveries in this way is only natural. The modern theory of evolution is less than two centuries old, while the Christian faith has endured for two millennia. Moreover, much of the most compelling evidence for Charles Darwin’s original theory has only surfaced in recent decades. When I was studying biology as an undergraduate, the human genome—which provides breathtaking confirmation of the gradual evolution of Homo sapiens—had not even been completely mapped. The same holds true in other areas like the fossil record, which is being filled in better and better with each passing year. Indeed, as I write this book, just last week my family and I trod a path in Utah alongside fossilized dinosaur footprints from the Jurassic Period (almost two hundred million years ago) that were discovered by humans just twenty years ago. That said, the reality is that the conclusions of genetic and paleontological science are not any more obvious to most people today than was it obvious to ancient people that the earth revolves around the sun, that continents drift and collide to form mountains, and that all physical objects are drawn together by a mysterious force called gravity

The difference between evolutionary theory and such realities is that most people in our society are now used to them, yet it must be remembered that they were not immediately obvious without modern science and were unknown to the writers of the Bible. Add to this the fact that nonspecialists seldom have the occasion to study the vast body of evidence in favor of human evolution but that they do have some knowledge of the Christian tradition, and it is easy to see why the modern scientific theory is at times perceived as a threat to faith and rejected accordingly.

Although there is certainly merit to consulting ancient texts for wisdom on how to illumine present issues, unfortunately Christians who reject evolution on the basis of nonscientific authorities often fail to see the point at issue when someone is struggling with their faith over a perceived conflict between faith and evolution. If my experience is any indication, replying with nonscientific sources to someone versed in evolutionary theory is not likely going to cause him to dismiss conclusions that he has arrived at through his God-given use of reason. Indeed, to one who has encountered powerful evidence of man’s gradual evolutionary origin, it may give the impression that one has to choose between his faith and reason—a battle that reason will rarely lose. In the words of Henri de Lubac, a dear friend and theological mentor of Joseph Ratzinger: “To one who has seen a problem, the most beautiful and true things, uttered by someone who has not seen it, are but words and yet more words.” As a Christian disciple, educator, and father, I deeply appreciate the concerns of traditional believers who are cautious when it comes to evolutionary theory, and I do not think that their wariness of the scientific community is entirely unfounded. After all, scientists and biblical scholars are fallible mortals who can have their own prejudices and agendas, a phenomenon Pope Benedict XVI identified in commenting, “Science has opened up major dimensions of reason that previously had not been accessible. . . . But in its joy over the greatness of its discoveries, it tends to confiscate dimensions of our reason that we still need.” Further, it is admittedly difficult to explain why some things are considered essential to the Christian tradition (e.g., the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, to name just two) while others that were once typically assumed to be such (e.g., geocentrism, the direct creation of two first humans, etc.) are today generally regarded not to be. Noting this understandable concern, Cardinal Ratzinger writes of our current situation:

“T]here is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness
and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide
behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun
by a kind of “reason” that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously.
Along with this there is another disquieting consideration. For one can
ask: If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between
image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere—as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central—the cross and the resurrection of the Lord?”

I find it remarkable how lucidly this quote captures the worry of a slippery slope so frequently felt by Christians when broaching questions at the intersection of Scripture, science, and doctrine. That said, what concerns me more than a potentially slippery slope is that our Church’s brightest people (especially the young) will increasingly abandon their faith if we let our worries get the best of us and back them into the corner of having to defend the indefensible by forcing them to reject evolution. Following Ratzinger’s lead, I would say that the question ought not to be how we can defend the faithful against the advances of this science but rather how we can engage in dialogue with it so as to more deeply penetrate the mysteries of the Christian faith and, in turn, illumine the science with our faith.

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