Taking evolution seriously: theology comes of age

by John Wijngaards, The TABLET 10 June 1989

I have often wondered how long it would take theology to come to terms with the far-reaching implications of evolution. So far theologians have by and large managed to evade the issue, limiting themselves, perhaps, to a desultory discussion on how evolution does not by itself exclude causa­tion by a Creator. The implications for the awakening of human morality, for God’s relationship to the world, for incarnation, redemption and the Church, have usually been ignored. Prophetic figures like Teilhard were kept on the periphery; tolerated as bridge builders to unbelieving scientists. Evolution was not admitted to be a key fact, bound radically to affect our interpretation of revealed truth.

Daly deserves credit for exploiting with more determination than others before him the theological significance of the evolutionary theory. In a number of sensi­tive chapters in this excellent condensed modern Sumtna, he brings together new approaches to God which result from our awareness of belonging to a chaotic, turbu­lent, suffering and mutating universe.

The traditional image of the dominant, inflexible, unemotional, transcendent First Cause is giving way to the more truly biblical picture of a God who accepts limitations and risks failures, who loves and suffers, who shares the thrills

More daring than this is Daly’s linking of evolution and original sin. After discus­sing, and discarding, classical and modern interpretations of original sin, he boldly proposes that the heart of original sin is a process of alienation from themselves which human beings had to undergo as part of their hominisation. As our human ancestors developed from animal existence to human responsibility, they necessarily passed from a state of harmony to a state of conscious tension with the outside world, with their group and their inner psyche. The process of alienation was partly tragic, Daly says, because as a consequence it clung unavoidably to the emergence of creative and free will, partly moral because it was aggravated through human sin.

I find Daly’s view, which is a radical, biological adaptation of an idea earlier expressed by Tillich, an exciting proposition that will need further study.  Traditional theologians may object that he short changes the Council of Trent; one hazard of creating thinking being how to cope not only with what councils said but with how they are being read. More scriptural work may also need to be done, for instance on the intrinsic link hinted at by Daly between Paul’s description of “the sin that lives in me” (Rom.7:17) and “the sin that entered the world” (Rom.5:12). Though Paul could not say anything meaningful about evolu­tion as such, it is significant that he identifies in sin the elements both of person­al guilt (Rom. 1:18-3:20) and of our tragic interior dividedness incurred by evolution (Rom.7:14-25).
If alienation and suffering were unavoid­ably inherent in our evolving human condi­tion, God’s coming to our support through incarnation and redemption becomes, if not necessary, at least understandable.

Daly interprets Jesus and his work within this perspective.

Salvation involves not only reconciliation with God, but also liberating human beings from all the destructive tendencies they carry in themselves, which threaten the world.

By carefully defining and assessing the theological terms he employs, Daly, who lectures at Trinity College, Dublin, shows himself a good teacher. The ancient and modern writers he quotes are well selected; though readers who are not familiar with the history of theology may occasionally fail to interpret them within their own contexts. The style is terse; and not without humorous asides. Try this: “There is a kind of supernaturalist snobbery which likes to dwell on the thought that man has been made little less than an angel (Ps.8:5), but not on the thought that man has come from the slime of the earth via some fascina­ting species similar to those that can be seen in zoos and museums.”