Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why Evolution Is Darwin’s Great Gift to Philosophy and Theology

Daryl P. Domning, self-described comparative biologist, teaches anatomy at Howard University in Washington, D.C. With the late theologian Monica Hellwig he wrote Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution. In the 9/28 edition of the National Catholic Reporter, Domning has an article, “Unfinished business: Evolution offers an explanation of original sin.” The full text is at

In Domning's view, Darwin’s discoveries tell theology that it was metaphysically impossible for God to create “anything physical at all” apart from physical evil and an inherently selfish instinct to survive. Pursuing this understanding brings him very close to Whitehead’s description of God as “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.” Excerpts from the NCR article follow:

Physical evil (suffering and death) is in every case a result of something physically coming apart. Molecules, or larger bits of me, come apart in ways that hurt or kill me, whether by dismemberment of my body, burns, broken bones, toxic attack by disease organisms, or mutations of my DNA that cause cancer. All such changes are made possible by the simple “breakability” of all matter, right down to the subatomic level: Anything made of parts can come apart.

Not even God could create out of matter a universe in which this wasn’t true since that would involve a contradiction. As for moral evil (sin), it too will be unavoidable wherever intelligent creatures have free will -- especially ones evolved by Darwinian natural selection, which enforces self-centered behavior, hence, “original selfishness” or original “sin” as the price of survival.

We only exist thanks to the accidental copying errors in our ancestors’ genes that natural selection has preserved, just as we are inclined to sin by the genetically (as well as culturally) encoded selfishness that same selection has enforced. Moral evil has literally evolved out of physical “evil.”

The theological mistake we have made is thinking that God has a choice of whether to tolerate bad stuff in this good universe. But the Creator has no choice: The only alternative to making creatures that would suffer and sin was not to make anything physical at all. Only at the price of walking with us in our sufferings, even sharing them in person (and finally saving us from them in “new heavens and a new earth”), could God create such as us: beings freely capable of a personal relationship with their maker.

And more and more I … sympathize with the crises of faith that a fundamentalist approach to life’s ultimate questions needlessly inflicts on so many of my fellow Christians. The theological upgrade is now available, however, in a growing body of work by evolutionary theologians, and the unfinished business of installing it in all our churches should no longer be postponed.

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