[More about Evolution Weekend here. A version of this appeared on their website in 2010.]
Darwin was the first thinker to convince most scientists that the remarkable variety of living things can result from everyday processes. There’s no need for some sort of controlling outsider to interrupt. Something as complex as human DNA did not require some agency like you and me (only smarter) to design it in advance. Instead, we can see DNA as one of many results of what is popularly called “natural selection.”
What is natural selection? According to biology-online.org, it’s “a process in nature in which organisms possessing certain genotypic characteristics that make them better adjusted to an environment tend to survive, reproduce, increase in number or frequency, and therefore, are able to transmit and perpetuate their essential genotypic qualities to succeeding generations.”
That seems a fair enough statement, although I would point out that the adjustment isn’t just about the organism or its traits, because whenever you have a different organism or trait you have a slightly different environment too. So natural selection is about when changing organisms, changing traits, and changing environments turn out to “sync.” For as long as they all do, the players involved tend flourish.
If you look at it that way, natural selection illustrates a more general principle that extends far beyond biology, and which I gladly embrace for a number of reasons: Things tend to flourish when their relationships are mutual. (I mean “mutual” as in “mutualism,” symbiotic relationships, not as in “mutually assured destruction.”)
That’s no guarantee of anybody’s happiness, of course. It doesn’t mean that you or I will flourish because we play well with others. It doesn’t mean that life isn’t often nasty, brutish and short for many organisms, including human organisms. But it does at least suggest that mutuality is more than just a fluke in the whole scheme of things.
To me, a priest and theologian, this is good theology, not just biology: Mutuality underlies the flourishing of everything. St. Augustine said something like this about God in On the Trinity (8.5.11-14): God is the unlimited interplay of mutuality that we call love. God is the mutuality that underlies everything, and that would include the mutuality that shows up in natural selection (though of course Augustine hadn’t heard of Darwin). If he were in a receptive mood (he often wasn’t), Augustine might have greeted natural selection as a kind of sacrament—a limited enactment of the unlimited life of God. It doesn’t prove or disprove the presence of any version of “God,” but it suggests that current biological theories and ancient ideas about God have a potential to “sync,” just like organisms, traits and environments.
But of course, that all depends. It depends on whether people are willing to be more flexible about the ideas they hold dear.
Can they be more flexible about their views of the Bible? Do they have to make claims for it that it never clearly made for itself? Or can they more honestly let it be what it seems to be—a diverse collection of literature by ancient peoples who found themselves caught up in a reality and a purpose they couldn’t fully fathom?
Can they be more flexible about ideas of God? Does God have to be a childish projection of helicopter parents—a controlling but invisible somebody who will swoop in and fix all our messes if we behave? Or could God be much more than that—more engaging, more intimate, but not controlling, and not so easy to describe in everyday terms?
Can they be more flexible about what’s reasonable to believe? Does everything we regard as real have to be established by an hypothesis you can test with observations? Or are some aspects of reality too pervasive and too engaging to be tested that way?
People who insist on rigidity tend to be either militant fundamentalists or militant atheists. (Why is it that almost every militant atheist I meet was raised a fundamentalist? Maybe they’re both versions of the same mindset.)
People who welcome flexibility—whether theist, atheist or something else—do not feel driven to make a conflict out of this. The rigid types consider them wishy-washy and muddle headed. But maybe they’re just more honest and aware.
So you can view current biological theories and ancient (or current) ideas of God as enemies, and many do. But you can also view them as symbionts, and believe it or not, many do that too, though they don’t make the headlines so often. And, most disconcertingly, how you choose to view them may influence what they eventually come to be.
My suggestion, and I think it an eminently reasonable one, is: when in doubt, opt for mutuality.
A Collect for Evolution Weekend
Holy One, from whom, through whom and in whom we and all things exist: You raised up your servant Charles Darwin to challenge your people’s complacency with his uncompromising search for truth and his generosity of spirit. Open us and our communities to serve as welcoming habitats for all who explore the complexities of the world you have given us, through the communion of your Spirit in Jesus Christ. Amen.