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April 2009

CHARLES DARWIN – SECULAR SAINT

By Keith Rowe

The centenary of Charles Darwin’s birth is a chance for Christian congregations to recognise and celebrate the contribution he made to our understanding of life’s origins and to the renewal of Christianity. It is an opportunity to welcome truth from wherever it comes.

The suggestion that there is an inevitable conflict between scientific descriptions of life and those found within the Bible is a tragic distortion. Science and religion are complementary pathways to truth, two attempts to grasp the inner meaning of life. Each discipline needs the wisdom of the other.

Charles Darwin is inescapably linked with the word ‘evolution’ – the view that all life, including human life, evolved from simpler forms over an incredibly long period. He was among the first to suggest life had evolved as a natural process without the interference of an all-powerful, controlling deity. From the beginning his views were controversial.

I invite you to identify with those who describe Darwin, despite his somewhat casual attitude toward organised religion, as a ‘secular saint’. His research-based understanding of life has forced us to rethink and enrich our understanding of the presence and purpose of God. That, surely, is saintly work.

Let me offer some reasons why we might honour Darwin as a secular saint.

Firstly, in speaking of life as an evolutionary adventure he affirmed that no static perfection is possible. Change, development, hopefully progress but often regression is woven into every part of nature. All else is changed once we accept that change is written into the deepest levels of reality. We belong to an evolving universe and we are part of a cosmic adventure.

Secondly, Darwin had a disciplined love of nature and explored how all of life is interconnected. Darwin’s journey of discovery began as a boy and continued till his death. As the naturalist aboard the Royal Navy ship Beagle he visited South America, Tahiti, the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius and South Africa. Wherever he went he studied the flora and fauna and amassed a significant collection of fossils and animal and plant life.

Back in London Darwin pored over his collection. He observed interconnections between species and how similar species differed depending on their geographic location. This is the heart of Darwin’s greatness. We are not short of collectors but what both the church and society still need are thinkers who see the interconnections that bind life together as a unity within a larger mystery.

In 1859 he published his great book ‘The Origin of Species’. Since then gaps in his argument have been filled in and the work of palaeontologists and genetic scientists has confirmed the directions Darwin charted. Today evidence for the reality of biological evolution is overwhelming.

The standard theological texts of Darwin’s time assumed that ‘almighty God’ had created each species exactly as they are in nature. Nature was said to resemble a giant watch made with such attention to detail that there must be a heavenly watchmaker. Darwin suggested that all species, including humanity, were the result of a long and natural process of biological evolution. There was no need for a divine watchmaker.

Clearly he contradicted the literal understanding of Genesis. While some theologians welcomed this, others claimed one must choose between Darwin and the Bible. His challenge to traditional interpretations of the Book of Genesis is further reason why we should recognise Darwin as a secular saint. He helped free the church from slavish obedience to a literal understanding of the Biblical text. He thereby helped the church realise the essential life-giving meaning of texts that had been seriously misinterpreted by the church.

Darwin described the evolutionary process as a somewhat haphazard and painful journey. Nature may be beautiful to behold but it is also an arena marked by violence, extinction, and a struggle to survive. Only those able to adjust to the environment in which they exist endure. Here is a further reason why we might describe Darwin as a secular saint: he faced the unhappy truth about the shadow side of existence. We may not welcome it but it’s the way things are and seems to be a precondition for the emergence of beauty, consciousness and community. Darwin observes that from famine and death, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are, being evolved. There is, he suggested, grandeur in this view of life.

Darwin’s insights have caused Christians to rethink our understanding of the nature and presence of God. He is among those who helped the liberal church jettison the inherited view of God as a distant deity interfering with creation through miracles, coercive action and punishment. This has helped us to return to the more Biblical image of God as present within all of life.

God is within the evolutionary process, not outside like a director conducting from afar. There is purpose at the heart of creation represented by the constant invitation of God to choose love rather than violence, community rather than selfish existence, beauty rather than discord. God is pervasive, an energising and transforming presence, weaver of newness, like an artist bringing beauty to birth, luring creation toward fulfilment in community.

A final reason we should recognise Darwin as a secular saint is that he opened the door to an enhanced understanding of our human vocation – our high calling to share in the process of creation. Some complained Darwin wanted us to believe we were descended from monkeys. How, they still argue, could we be related to monkeys yet still be made in the image of God?

But why should our kinship with the rest of the animal world be offensive? We are part of creation and we’re linked with all other life. To describe humans as made in the image of God is to recognise we are conscious of the evolutionary adventure and by our actions help shape the future. The consciousness that is present throughout creation is intensified and embodied in humanity. We are literally co-creators with God.

This is the human vocation, and in Jesus we catch a glimpse of how we may participate creatively in shaping a future that reflect the beauty, justice and harmony that lie at the heart of the Christian dream.

For followers of Christ in the 21st century, the most important Biblical creation passages are not those that describe creation in the terms of a pre-scientific cosmology but those that envision a future marked by peace and invite us to participate in evolution’s next steps. These are the passages that speak of beating swords into ploughshares, peace between groups that differ, and communities learning how to gather in the marginalised and allow everyone to share in the riches of creation. Rather than describe our beginnings the Bible is a book and Christian theology is a discipline that point towards new futures, the next steps in the evolutionary adventure.