by Sean O’Leary
Atheists argue that humans evolved in a purely natural process without any need for God. If one believes in the ‘Theory of Evolution’, this can sound somewhat plausible. As a former biologist, I tend to ask the question of whether evolutionary biology can explain every aspect of human nature, including consciousness and the phenomenon that we mean when we call ourselves persons i.e. our awareness of being a self, being an ‘I’, relating to the other as a ‘you’?
This article describes how I understand the reality of human evolution today, but it remains an ongoing struggle to write about this very difficult topic because it requires us to address several big questions at the same time. When I ask whether evolution explains every aspect of our nature, I think that the answer is most likely ‘no’. I do not have to insist that the answer is ‘no’, as I have no reason to reject the possibility that God created our existence as personal beings in a way that is consistent with evolution. There is really no conflict between evolution, understood as what we can learn about the development of living things through several generations over vast time scales, and belief in God.
Every creature resulting from evolution is part of God's creation. Our current knowledge of evolutionary biology, with its emphasis on unpredictability and chance seems from a purely scientific perspective to support the absence of purpose and meaning in the existence of living things. But maybe we misunderstand evolution or maybe evolution is simply inadequate to understand creation. I find evidence for this inadequacy in our inability to use evolutionary biology to explain all aspects of our own nature.
Once I am open to the possibility that evolution has a purpose and direction, despite its reported dependence on random events and apparent unpredictability, I begin to see evolution as the creative self-expression of God.
When I think about the findings of science and my own faith, I begin to see myself as a human being who can be understood in part by science, but in much more important ways through personal relationships, including the relationship that I have with God.
My everyday experience of life leads me to believe that our bodies and souls are a unity. I don’t have to separate my body and soul to think about evolution. All I need to do is separate out what I find meaningful (personal relationships etc) from things that I do not fully understand. I can now comprehend my personal being as a creature within an evolutionary creation.
My understanding of science has matured over time. I now see science as partial understanding. It is just one approach to knowing amongst the many ways of knowing that we have as human persons. In this sense, I don’t see science as complete. Furthermore, I no longer worry about how I can add to science to make it complete or if this is even possible. If we use the image of a street map to represent scientific knowledge, we can never add everything to the map until it is as complete as the reality it represents.
When we open our hearts and minds to the message of creation and to the voice of conscience, we contemplate the profound reality of God.
My understanding of God has also matured through my own life and I pray that it will continue to mature in the future. For me, God is no longer an engineer tinkering with evolution who took over 3 billion years of trial and error until he finally developed a living creature worthy to receive a soul.
Now, I realise that God is personal being in the absolute and all of creation is his personal expression. Creation is so much larger than me and its grandeur proclaims God's glory. This view also honours the human person as the only creature in this vast expanse of time on earth that bears the ‘image of God’.
Christians know the ‘first humans’ as Adam and Eve. As I ponder the significance of evolution within a larger faith context, it seems clear to me that God created the ‘first humans’ to:
go well beyond our biology;
say ‘I’ and ‘You’ – the basis for beginning to understand the truth of relationship and love;
be self-aware and wonder about the ‘meaning of existence’;
make judgements of truth, beauty and goodness;
know God in some way and seek God’s guidance and help.
As Pope Francis states in Laudato Si, God has written a ‘precious book’ consisting of ‘created things present in the universe’. He also urges us to see that everything is interconnected and that all of creation is a ‘kind of universal family’. The Pope also writes that ‘the creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality’.
In my own personal experience, recognising our origin from the ‘dust’ of the universe and our kinship to all life on earth is a profound spiritual experience made possible by God. The biblical accounts reveal to us powerful truths about human reason, freedom, speech, morality, love and death. The divine wisdom that they represent are a true mirror for our self-discovery.
The key point is that we can truly experience God’s love and appreciate God’s goodness. God works through creation and through divine revelation. Therefore, I can say with certainty that God is the source of our existence. God is also the source of the greatest act of giving in human history through his only son Jesus Christ.
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. Our spirituality is incarnational, meaning we contemplate the wholeness of our lives, body and soul working together as a unity. For me, the light of Christ truly illuminates the mystery of our existence.
Christ who is the perfect image of the Father welcomes us through the Holy Spirit to fully participate in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Within this divine relationship, the mystery of all being finds its fullest meaning.
‘The Problem of Pain’ or ‘Mere Christianity’ by C.S. Lewis
‘Communion and Stewardship – Human Persons Created in the Image of God’ by the International Theological Commission. Available on the Vatican Web Site.
‘Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis. Available on the Vatican Web Site.
‘Chance or Purpose – Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith’ by Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn.