It is often assumed that Darwin was no
friend at all to Christianity, but writing thirty years after Darwin first
published the Origin of Species,
Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore had offered a different appraisal. He suggested
that Darwin had appeared in the guise of a foe, and done the work of a
friend. As we
look back with more than a century of additional hindsight, what might a sober
reflection on the impact of evolution upon theology yield today? Was Moore
correct to call Darwin a friend to theology, or is the popular perception of
antagonism the right one? I shall argue that this question deserves two
Firstly, yes and no. Driving this
response is the thesis that many, if not all, of the challenges to Christianity
that are associated with evolution were in place before Darwin developed his theory
of natural selection. So, in this respect, evolution should not be
characterised as a foe. However, it is true that Darwinism has come to serve as
a very effective rallying-point for foes of Christianity. The challenges
facing theology are real, so inasmuch as debate over evolution keeps them in
the public eye, it could be argued that this is not the work of a friend.
Secondly, yes, evolution has done the
work of a friend because in being forced to reflect upon and respond to these
challenges, theology has been constructively advanced. There have been three
kinds of advancement: a revision or rejection of some incoherent theological
doctrines, the addition of new theological insights prompted by interaction
with the natural sciences, and finally a re-examination and conscious
restatement of some doctrines as intrinsically paradoxical or mysterious and
therefore resistant to corroboration with scientific investigations.
I shall show why the question of friendship
hides a multiplicity of issues, and why two responses (at least) are needed. A
full assessment of the effects of evolutionary theory upon Christianity would
need to cover the numerous aspects of theology that it has undoubtedly
influenced, as well as the historical and sociological dimensions; the problem
of evil and suffering is one that deserves particular attention. However, for
the purposes of this short study I shall restrict my analysis to the influence
of evolution on the doctrine of providence.
I shall first explore the principle ways in
which evolution is held to present challenges for Christian theology. I shall
then show how the challenges are revised versions of prior critiques, stem from
misunderstandings of evolution, or are due to an unwarranted philosophical zeal
on the part of some popularisers of scientific naturalism.
Having established that evolution is not
necessarily a foe for Christianity, I shall then re-examine the current state
of the evolutionary sciences and assess the potential connections to theology,
paying particular attention to the relevance of ongoing research and
philosophical debates. I shall then suggest ways in which the evolutionary
sciences can do the work of a friend for Christianity, focussing on the
concept of providence.
shall use the term Darwinism to refer to the belief that natural selection is
the principle or single mechanism that accounts for the development of all life
on Earth, from the most simple living beings to all of its current diversity,
including humans. I shall use the term evolution to refer to the much broader
theory that biological history can be explained in terms of natural processes
over time and that biology itself fits within a cosmos which is also evolving.
For readability I will occasionally refer to Christian theology and the
Christian religion as theology or simply theism. Finally, I will occasionally
interchange the terms divine providence, divine action, and divine agency, once
again purely for readability. I will draw attention to instances where different
terms are used for specific reasons.
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