A Theology of Evolution

Since the time human beings became conscious of their existence, of the reality that they will die, and of the awareness that birth creates new life, they have wondered where they came from, why they were there and what happened to them when they died. They regarded these happenings with awe and with fear, and in that awe and fear they worshipped the powers of the natural world. They came to believe that supernatural beings controlled the sky, the earth, and their lives.

In the circles around the hearth fires of their caves they began to create stories of how life began, how the earth and sky began and why death takes loved ones away. Stories of creation are part of every culture in every time. They helped people of long ago understand what happened to them in their daily lives. They worked out relationships with the powers of nature that held an awesome control over their lives.

Over centuries human beings explored their world and built on the experiences they gained. They accumulated what they learned into fields of knowledge that challenged the fear of things they did not fully understand. Over those ensuing centuries of time matters of faith mixed with accumulated human experience, often with resulting conflict and dissention. As religions formed and solidified their specific myths and people engaged in systematic and scientific inquiry about their world, this conflict escalated. In time a declared war between science and religion created rigid walls of animosity. Reason and faith became realms unto themselves. An uneasy truce emerged that was shattered in 1859 when Charles Darwin published his research and findings in his book, The Origin of the Species.

Today we are celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin on February 12th 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He was part of the Deist Unitarian movement of the time and we lay claim to him in our pantheon of famous and not-so-famous religious ancestors. But we are also celebrating the reason for his fame, the 150th Anniversary of the publication of his book in 1859. And the demarcation between religion and science is being permeated and re-evaluated in nearly 1,000 congregations in 14 countries this morning as part of the Clergy Letter Project on faith and evolution.

Unitarian and Universalists engaged in such a dialogue over a century ago and it enabled our forebears to embrace reason and scientific inquiry embodied in this theory of evolution without denying the wonder and power of their faith in God and in the dignity of humankind.

In 1900 the Rev. Dr. Marion D. Shutter, minister of the Universalist Church of the Redeemer in Minneapolis, Minn. presented 12 lectures titled Applied Evolution in which he placed Darwin’s theories within the context of Universalist theology. Each of these lectures were attended by 1,000 to 1,200 people and were considered seminal in providing Universalists of the time with an understanding of these new theories and how they would strengthened their faith and beliefs.

He began his lectures with a case for how science aided religion by stating that "the long battle between Science and Religion was, to a certain extent, upon both sides a mistake.

"not only is there no real conflict," he stated, "when we come to understand the subject, religion, or religious thought, so far from suffering disaster at the hands of science, has been the actual gainer. It has lost nothing but some unscientific notions that were long, but erroneously, supposed to belong to religion. It is better without them. It stands upon solider footing. It can make stronger appeal to the human intellect."

Shutter defined three gains that religion has made from science.

First: Science quickened the sense of truth in religious thought, awakening it to the real nature and value of truth, and the right methods for its discovery. Science has taught theology to look at facts as they are, and not as it wishes or hopes or imagines or guesses them to be.

Second: Science has taught Theology something about right methods of reasoning. There are not two distinct methods of reaching objective truth. We cannot receive by direct revelation that which depends upon study and research. We cannot accept by faith that which contradicts our common sense. Historical and scientific assertions made in the name of religion and relations to religious subjects must be submitted to the same methods of reasoning and the same processes of investigation to which we devote all other statements upon all other subjects.

Third: Science is also delivering Theology from the wretched habit of defending doctrines on account of their supposed usefulness. The scientific spirit has been defined as "the love of truth for truth’s own sake." Science has greatly enlarged our conceptions of the universe. Science has to do simply with the facts and process of nature; it has no word concerning either origin or destiny. These are questions for philosophy."

Shutter writes:

"But suppose one starts out with the belief in God as the power before all things and back of all things, must he surrender that belief when he stands in the presence of the revelations of modern Science? On the contrary, as one’s conception of the universe enlarges, his ideas of God must become expanded and exalted.

"We have not lost God; we are just beginning to find Him. He is greater than we knew. He is nearer than we realized. He is better and wiser than we dreamed. We have not lost God; we have only lost an old idea of His way of doing things.The God of Evolution is inside of Nature and not outside of it. When we consider that man himself is a part of Nature, and the best part of it, we must find God also in him, preeminently in him."

"...the scientific theory of resident forces compels us to find intelligence, purpose, and righteousness in some power within the universe itself and not apart from the universe; we must find ‘God resident in nature, at all times and in all places, directing every phenomenon, a God in whom, in the most liberal sense, not only we, but all living things have their being, in whom all things exist, and without whom there would be and could be nothing’.

"Let us now try to show what specific changes in theological thought are made inevitable by the idea of God as perpetually present and operative in the world.

"First of all, science has given us a real universe, that is, a system of things pervaded by unity and order.

"To the principles of evolution, we must add the discovery of the conservation and correlation of forces. The "total energy of the universe is constant, no energy being created or destroyed in any of the processes of nature, every gain or loss in one form of energy corresponding precisely to the loss or gain in some other force or forces." We must, therefore, find God in connection with this one eternal and unvarying energy. But what if there are but one power in nature, and not two or ten thousand? And what if this one power be the Infinite and Eternal God? It is precisely to this point that Science is driving us. In this view there is no room for a devil or spirits of evil. In this view there is no room for a Trinity. In this view there is no room for natural evil. The sterner and more violent operations are necessary parts of the same system.

"In the next place, science has taught us the universality of law, the continuity of the process of nature, and so our idea of the methods of God must be made to harmonize with these conditions.

"The distinction between natural and supernatural is utterly and forever abolished. There is but one realm. Call it what you will. The whole subject of the miraculous must pass under revision. Mysteries there may be; but violation of the laws of nature by Him who impressed them upon the universe is out of the question. Once these violations were supposed to be proofs for the existence of God. To-day it is felt that the order which everywhere prevails, is an infinitely better proof.

"In the third place, science has abolished the old form of the argument from design, and obliged all who believe in God to re-read His plan and purpose.

"If we look with awe and reverence upon God, when we believed the universe so small, with how much greater reverence should we regard him, now that the crystalline roof had been lifted, and worlds without number are seen revolving beyond! If we knelt with adoration before God when we believed his work extended through but six thousand years; If we felt that God was being pushed out of his universe when the law of gravitation was discovered, how much more clearly do we now see, that it identifies him all the more closely with his universe."

Once a theology of a creator was moved within the creation of everything, it was a natural step to deduce that human beings were also created out of the stuff of the universe, and, in the early theologies, of planet Earth in particular.

Shutter believed that "Man, instead of being created by a single fiat of omnipotence some thousands of years ago, is seen, in the light of this revelation, to have first risen to his feet, at least one hundred thousand years ago, and then wandered through the forests and caves and jungles of the earth, instead of dwelling in a beautiful garden; that he first made implements of wood and stone, and battled with the beasts, almost as wild and savage as the beasts himself."

Shutter provides us with, in his mind a proof, for the scientific rationale in this theory of evolution through a detailed description of how the human body has developed through the centuries, and how all other animal life forms have followed the same developmental process.

He writes, "Man, together with all higher vertebrates, is built upon the same general plan. The same style of anatomical architecture prevails in all cases. Bone for bone corresponds throughout. Fin of fish, paddle of whale, wing of bird, foreleg of quadruped, arm of man, and all the other bones, these hinged upon a vertebral column, surmounted by a skull. The plan is everywhere the same. On the theory of special creation, if man was made at once and without reference to the animals, we should have looked for a distinguishing, individual frame. On the theory that man is derived, by successive modifications, from the animal, the resemblances that are so obvious are easily explained, and this is the only theory that rationally accounts for them." It is part of a natural order of life.

"And when nature took this ground-plan [seen in the theory of evolution] and began to build a man upon it, she did not go out after new and different material; she simply transferred the organs of the lower animals and bade them perform the same functions nature simply modified the organs to the needs of new circumstances, according to the needs of the evolving being. And these organs that nature modified and carried over for the use of man, are made of the same kind of clay [as all other life forms]—not a whit finer.

"There are some organs in man’s body which have been derived by modification from organs in lower forms of life which there served a different purpose. The ocean life and its necessities had left indelible marks...the chief characteristic of a fish (for example) consists of gills which communicate outwardly through slits in the neck. When the fish came ashore, of course it took Nature a long time to perfect an air-breathing apparatus adapted to the new conditions But Nature is very economical—miserly, indeed, is Nature. Nature said: "What am I going to do with that old water-breathing machine? I expended a good deal of time and labor on that. It is altogether too good to throw away." So soon as land-life really began, hearing became a necessity. Nature concluded to hold on to the gills and gill slits, she set to work upon the highest up of the five gill-slits and slowly elaborated it into a hearing organ. The ear of man is the gill-slit of the fish re-worked. In the human embryo, at a certain stage, all the rest of these openings are found.

"The flesh of animals and the flesh of men are heir to the same physical ills, and thus prove their kinship. To make a particular example, Darwin shows that the nerves of taste are the same in monkeys and men. Darwin is quoted asserting the story that natives of Northeastern Africa used to catch wild baboons by exposing vessels with strong beer, by which the [baboons] were made drunk. On the following morning, they were very cross and dismal, just like their human brethren: but unlike their human relatives and ever wiser, when beer or wine was afterwards offered them, they turned away with disgust.

Thus evolutionary theory, after showing the path that human life traversed through the centuries, gave religion a new way to understand the creation of humankind. Shutter wrote, "And we hold that it is better and nobler, -- better to have risen from cave and jungle than to have fallen from Eden; better to have developed from the animal than to have degenerated from the angel; better to have begun at the bottom and toiled to the top, than to have begun at the summit and rolled down to the base; better to have the golden age before us than behind us; better to be on the way to perfection, with hope and courage, than to be trudging dis-crowned and dishonored, away from perfection."

I conclude with these words of Harvard biologist, Edward O. Wilson, "For us the history of life and of the universe as told by science becomes more than a sequence of strange and arresting events. It becomes our personal and shared story, our creation story, our sacred story." Wilson calls it our Evolutionary Epic and states, "The evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have." For him, ‘myth does not mean falsehood, but the grand narrative that gives us a placement in time—a meaningful placement that celebrates extraordinary moments of a shared heritage. For those of us who have not only learned but embraced the evolutionary scientific story of our roots know ourselves to be reworked stardust, biological beings with a multi-billion year pedigree. We know these facts deeply, and for us they’re as empowering as any tale that has ever come alive in the flames of a fire at the mouth of a cave or in the vaulting echoes of a cathedral."

Reading: "Creation is a Wonder" by Thomas E. Ahlburn