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E: Redemption, Evolution and Cosmology

So far I have given a rather detailed summary of some of the leading directions scholars have taken over the past four decades regarding theologies of creation and anthropology in light of cosmology, physics, evolution and genetics. Now however as we turn to redemption, christology, and eschatology, we approach the frontiers of theology and science. There has simply been less attention paid to these areas, and in what has been written, the challenge posed by the natural sciences has been not been as thoroughly met. Thus the summary here will be more sketchy and thematic. I hope the reader feels invited to offer new suggestions about this material, for there is much to be done here!

As we have already seen, theologies of the human person in light of evolution, including the meaning of the imago dei and of sin and its consequences to human and non-human nature, are treated in detail in the literature although in very differing ways. Now, when we turn to theologies of redemption, these differences resurface in terms, for example, of the nature and work of Christ and the meaning and scope of salvation. The point of departure for most scholars is that God shares in the suffering of the world and heals us through Christ and the power of God’s Spirit. Still, broad and fundamental questions underlie this view: 1) Is Christ radically unique or in continuity with biological and cultural evolution? 2) Does redemption apply to nature, i.e., does nature need to be saved? 3) What is God’s relation to “natural evil” and in turn how do we deal with the problem of theodicy in light of evolution? 4) What is the relation between sin, redemption and biological death? 5) Is an expansion of the scope of redemption from human life to all life on earth sufficient, or should we take it to include the universe as a whole as suggested by the theme of the ‘cosmic Christ’? And if so, does this cohere with scientific cosmology? These questions were already present, to one degree of another, in the climate of the 1930s - 1950s when Teilhard de Chardin framed his elegant synthesis of science, theology, and spirituality.Teilhard’s work was recently revisited in the March, 1995 issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 30.1. See also Karl Schmitz-Moormann, Theology of Creation in an Evolutionary World (Cleveland,...Today, with enormous growth in the sciences and with over half a century of philosophical and theological reflection on them since Teilhard’s time, we find a broad spectrum of responses to these and related issues. It might help if we first sort them roughly into two reasonably distinct positions:

a) Sin is a radically new phenomena in humankind with no roots or preconditions in our evolutionary past; it can be traced without remainder to an entirely human (usually personal, social, economic, political, institutional, and so on) context although its consequences spill over in destructive ways into the environment. The evolution of life on earth and the natural ecosystems of which the human species is a part, including the death of organisms and the extinction of species, are seen as unequivocally good, the creation of a loving God. Death is part of finite creation and will remain present in the new creation.

A number of questions arise here. This position minimizes the problem of “natural evil” or any association between pain, suffering, death, and extinction with a brokenness in nature that would challenge its unequivocal goodness. Thus while it involves profound descriptions of human sin this approach offers no ‘explanation’ of its occurrence in us as a species, no broader context in evolutionary history by which its genesis in us alone can be understood. I refer to this problem as ‘the Fall without the Fall’. In effect it leaves us radically distinct from an otherwise benign universe in terms of our sinfulness, yet radically in continuity with that same universe in terms of our evolutionary history. Moreover, the scope of redemption is ‘planet Earth’, indeed, the human species and nothing more, radically separating the scope and meaning of creation and redemption theologies. In some writings there are suggestions of a time in human prehistory when we, too, lived in the world without sin, suggesting an ‘Eden without Eden’ reading of our past which seems starkly in contrast with human evolution. It also leaves unanswered the question of death and the ‘groaning’ of all creation: is there really nothing here to which redemption can speak a word of hope?

b) Sin per se (‘moral evil’) is an entirely human phenomenon, but it emerges with the evolution of humankind out of a variety of preconditions that fade back indefinitely into the past of life on earth and, in turn, to the fundamental character of the laws of nature and their instantiation in cosmology (‘natural evil’). Human biology is continuous with its evolutionary ancestry, a participant in vast predator/prey cycles, vulnerable to bacterial and genetic disease and the inevitability of death. Human culture, though dependent on novel features such as written language and complex speech, emerges continuously from the preliminary forms of culture found in our hominid ancestors and in primate and even mammalian evolution in general. These ancient evolutionary factors present in human biology and culture are inevitably involved in the meaning of sin, whether defined in traditional terms as disobedience to God or in alternative ways, including violence to our ecological habitat (and thus indirectly to God). But this means that while sin is still a matter of personal and communal responsibility, it is in some irreducible ways inherited and inevitable. Thus to discuss prehuman nature theologically requires language both of goodness and of natural evil. Moreover, the ‘groaning’ of nature suggests that death is both ‘natural’ and yet to be overcome for all of creation in an eschatological transformation of the earth and perhaps even the cosmos. Thus the work of Christ takes on cosmic proportions in a universe considered as the subject of transformation into the ‘new creation.’

A number of questions arise here as well. Theodicy: If sin and moral evil have roots in the evolutionary and cosmological past, and ultimately in the underlying laws of nature, doesn’t this implicate God, the creator of these laws, in the processes of natural evil or render fundamentally ambiguous the ‘goodness’ of God’s creation? How are we to understand the theological distinction between moral evil and natural evil if we stress the continuity of humankind with all of nature? If death is not related to sin, why is it to be overcome eschatologically? If death is to be overcome eschatologically, what purpose does it serve in nature and how is it to be treated in a theology of creation? How can we think eschatologically about the cosmic Christ and the transformation of the universe into the ‘new creation’ given scientific scenarios for the future of our planet (e.g., the nova of the sun), the eventual dissipation of matter into simple elementary particles, and even of the universe (e.g., the cosmic ‘freeze’ or ‘fry’ scenarios)?

In my opinion the problems entailed in both positions are extraordinarily challenging. They have certainly not been adequately answered by any writings to date, and they pose a genuine set of challenges for future work. The following sections are intended to illustrate the subtle ways certain aspects of these two positions are taken up and combined in particular ways by various scholars.

Contributed by: Dr. Robert Russell

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