August 6th, 2005


Theological Notebook: More Follow-up to Schönborn

I see that John and Luke are at it again in these pages: sorry guys, I'm hosting my Dad and we're off to my sister's tomorrow, and I don't have time to jump in or even respond at this moment. And if I were really being good about my exams, not until November.

Another story has been posted, one I've not even closely read yet, but looks like a contribution to the discussion that the original essay has provoked, and in this case is by one of the Vatican's most noted scientists, the head of the venerable Vatican Observatory, Father George Coyne, SJ. One thing that this seems to be getting at, and is a point with which I wholeheartedly agree is that evolution is, as such, a far more compatible notion to Christian theology than a static view of the universe.

As a theologian, I've long noticed that despite the way atheist philosophy (and those 19th and 20th century thinkers who were socially or political hostile to Christianity) immediately tried to spin the scientific discoveries regarding evolution into a popular argument against the truth of Christianity--and were very successful at doing so at a popular level--the fact of the matter was that the "universe that stood still" that was held up in comparison to the evolutionary model had very little in common to 20 centuries of Christian language, both in experience of and reflection upon God. In the Christian experience, in fact, one of the most ancient models of understanding humanity's relationship with God over the course of human history was change and development, or, if you will, "evolution," particularly as cast in pedagogical language, of God educating humanity.

In other words the relationship between God and humanity started in a most basic or primitive way: encounter leading to promise. Cult eventually developed, leading to a long period of moral and theological development among the Jews, who took centuries to truly embrace monotheism, to understand that the reality of God was a reality of an entirely different order than the mythological gods among whom they repeatedly tried to root their God, and that reality was rooted in God, rather than God being a character and factor within reality. The moral development of Judaism was entirely rooted in this growing realization, as ethics always follows metaphysics. The revelation in Christ began to take Judaism into a long-prophesied international and multi-ethnic universal mode.

In short, all of this program of education being one of a constant husbanding of human spiritual gifts, nurturing and developing their capabilities and leading them on to new possibilities, both for themselves as believers and for their fellows whatever their state. In the scientific mode as a description of a universal process, evolutionary theory would have (and today does) find a much more welcome home than a language of a static, unchanging universe without development, opportunity and danger. I'd be very glad to see that awareness--of the parallel character of Christian and evolutionary languages--begin to be a given at the popular level. Hearing people quoting the same old propaganda lines of the Scopes Trial on the scientific level, or of Voltaire on the historical or philosophical one, is beginning to be too lame for words.
Vatican astronomer says evolution important for insights into God
By Catholic News Service

LONDON (CNS) -- The theory of evolution, rather than negating the need for God, helps believers understand that God's relationship to the universe is that of a nurturing parent, said Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory.

But there is a "nagging fear in the church" that evolution is incompatible with a divinely planned universe and this fear has historically created "murky waters" in the church's relationship to science, he said in an Aug. 6 article in The Tablet, an independent Catholic weekly newspaper published in London.

The article criticized a July 7 article in The New York Times by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna. The cardinal said that an "unplanned process of random variation and natural selection," both important parts of evolutionary thinking, are incompatible with Catholic belief that there is a divine purpose and design to nature.

In clarifying comments made afterward in Austria and reported by Kathpress, an Austrian Catholic news agency, Cardinal Schönborn said that evolution as a body of scientific fact was compatible with Catholicism, but that evolution as an ideological dogma that denied design and purpose in nature was not.

Father Coyne said that science is "completely neutral" regarding the philosophical and theological implications of its findings, but this does not prevent believers from using the best scientific data available to improve their understanding of God.
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Just in from taking Dad out to dinner at the Twisted Fork, where I took Katie Ellgass the other day. I had the Rosemary Chicken again, which still was exquisite, but this time had an Italian Pino Grigio with it which turned out to be a bad choice: too acidic and sharp for the mild richness of the chicken in its mushroom ragout. But damn!--it was a fine dusk for eating at a sidewalk table in Milwaukee.