I embraced evolution early. That is, while I was still a congregant of a church and amongst fellow believers who rejected it, I decided to affirm it. I still remember proudly proclaiming its falsehood in science class while my teacher smiled patiently to himself. I’m still embarrassed about that moment, even though it’s been decades and I really should get over it. I was a teenager, for crying out loud. Have you met teenagers?
I should be careful here, though. My father was the pastor of my church. While I do remember some occasions in which my parents put forward challenges to evolutionary theory, they didn’t seem to care about it much. The majority of the indoctrination came from well-meaning Sunday School teachers and some less than well-meaning blowhards that find a home in any good church. In fact, my parents’ best friends who are also (naturally) Christians named their first born son Darwin. It took me too long to realize what radicals these family friends were.
Evolution made sense to me. I soon accepted that it needn’t contradict scripture. One could faithfully read Genesis and still accept evolution. The more I thought about it, the more I came to see the two (yes two!) creation accounts in Genesis as in minor conflict with each other. If the writers of the scriptures couldn’t decide, why should we be so rigid in our stance on another much more reasonable story about how the world came to be? I mean it just makes sense, doesn’t it? Our common human experience (thanks phenomenology!) confirms it even without a detailed understanding of evolutionary biology.
The church didn’t see it that way in the 19th century. Broadly speaking, both the Roman Catholic Church and the modern Evangelical movement reacted to Darwin’s brilliant theory by doubling down on their respective sources of authority.
Ex Cathedra was introduced to the Roman Church at the first Vatican Council. This put more authority into the hands of the Pope. When he (gender purposefully masculine for obvious reasons) so chooses, he can make infallible statements. This has only occurred twice, though. Once it was enacted to pronounce the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary and another to pronounce the dogma of her Assumption into heaven. This means if the Pope really enjoys his halibut one day and says, “This is good enough for Jehovah!” he will not be making an infallible statement. But if he likes it so much that he decides to state that he is speaking ex cathedra, then that halibut is now infallibly delicious.
Despite this reaction to Darwin, however, it needs to be said that the Roman Catholic Church does not reject Darwinian Evolution. Most non-Catholics would be surprised by how reasonable the Roman Church can often be. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Evangelicals. Care must be taken to acknowledge my simplistic generalization here. “Evangelical,” despite being a perfectly Biblical word, is too vague a term. We all think of something different when we hear that word. The usage here refers to the greater non-denominational evangelical movement that finds its foundations in the U.S. It will never be a very precise usage. Rather, I’m sure it will end up too often being a straw man at which I can hurl my resentment.
The broadness of the term comes with its lack of central authority. Generally speaking, they responded differently to Darwin’s scientific revolution. It is in this period that we find the concept of scriptural inerrancy start to become more popular. New ridiculous arguments arise hoping to debunk Darwin like the concept of a young Earth (only 6,000 years old!) or micro-evolution (fine, we’ll accept that there is some evolution like dog breeding, but that’s it!).
I couldn’t stomach this nonsense. I embraced evolution wholeheartedly as the enlightened individual that I am. As I learned about biblical studies, I came to understand that Genesis was probably edited and updated regularly before it became canon. I learned how similar the first creation story is to Babylonian myths from the same period that the Jews were there in exile. Not only that, but the differences between the Babylonian and Jewish accounts were more striking than the similarities. Take, for example, the fact that God created human beings, both male and female in God’s own image in the Jewish version. That’s unique in ancient religions. So my relationship with evolution was firmly planted and unshakable.
Unfortunately, my relationship with God was not. If I left it there, I would have been fine. Just accept both and move on without thinking. But something started to nag at me. I suspect it came in the form of a particularly pithy quote from that magnificent bastard, Christopher Hitchens. He said,
Evolution is, as well as smarter than we are, infinitely more callous and cruel, and also capricious.Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
Callous, cruel, and capricious. He’s right. Or at least, I can’t figure out how he’s wrong. I mean look at the world we live in. There is majesty, to be sure. Ocean sunsets and mountain vistas inspire us to look heavenward. But orcas tossing seals in the air for the sheer fun of torturing another animal? That’s much harder to find the influence of God’s loving hand. There are countless examples of creatures exploiting and torturing other creatures from the ducks’ corkscrew penises with painful spines to sea otter necrophilia. How is this part of God’s loving plan for the creation?
I haven’t been able to find a sufficient answer. Most arguments I have been able to find in regard to evolution refer only to the mechanics and particulars of creation accounts. I haven’t been able to find a theological defence of the horrific process of evolution. The closest I could get was my own attempt at a loose connection between the crucifixion being God’s entrance into the suffering he created within the world. But that feels like a stretch or, at least, my mind can’t make a clear and reasonable argument for it.
I know I’m supposed to conclude with some kind of resolution of the conflict. Welcome to my world. I live in a constant state of inner conflict. I would rather that than living in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. I would rather say nothing than say something wrong about the being that demands to be honoured as almighty. I want to believe a loving God exists and I firmly believe evolution is the best explanation we have for how the world came to be what it now is. Unfortunately, I cannot reconcile the two. I’m ok with that. I’m not thrilled but I can live with it.