8.7 Evolutionary Thinking in Religion

With the advent of Darwinism, religion has been treated by the naturalists as man's evolving concept of a felt practical relationship with what is believed to be a supernatural being or beings. This supernatural concept emerged because of man's eternal quest for the meaning of life and death (1). Humans in some way seem to be in conflict with their own reason. Naturalists believe the universal instinctive religious impulse serves the important social function of providing a supernatural nonrational sanction that impels people to act in a socially responsible way. Such an impulse has survival value for it is indispensable for social progress (2).

Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a contemporary of Darwin, had devised an evolutionary scheme to explain the development of social and religious institutions even before the publication of Origin of Species. According to him, the craving of man's religious impulse for simplification and unification of ideas leads religion through three stages of metamorphosis: fetishism (separate will animating material objects), polytheism (many gods acting through things without the things being themselves alive), and monotheism (everything being brought under a single, abstract will) (3).

Comte believed that evolutionary ideas also took the form of progressive revelation in the exegesis of the Bible. However, the liberals' view of biblical revelation is in contradistinction with the view held by evangelicals. Every idea in the Bible is viewed by liberals as having undergone an evolution from a primitive and childlike origin to the culminated scope and height in Christ's gospel. On the other hand, evangelicals believe God unfolds more and more concerning Himself and His will for humans in the course of biblical history. Liberals believe that the revelation of God has progressed from the crude Old Testament idea of God as a fearful and merciless tyrant who does not care for individuals except as they are temporary members of the social group. They believe this idea of God was modified throughout the shattering experience of the Israelites being [288] exiled. The Psalms are treated as an anticipation of a personal God who finds expression in the person of Jesus Christ (4).

The rise of higher criticism also strengthened the perspective of liberalism on the Bible. It is alleged that a substantial portion of the earlier books of the Bible (e.g., the Pentateuch) were not written until hundreds of years later than the events they describe. In addition; the great similarities between the biblical version and the Babylonian version of the Flood (see II. 5.3) cast doubts on the originality and authenticity of the biblical record (5). The Bible has since been treated by liberal scholars as containing human errors and outgrown teaching, despite its essential message of vital personal realization.

In a bold step toward the total incorporation of the evolutionary concepts into the biblical framework, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881-1955) attempted to modify the entire Christian message. In his analysis, original sin is not treated as the result of a particular historical event but rather the negative forces of counterevolution evil. This evil is a mechanism of the creation of an incompletely organized universe, according to Teilhard De Chardin. He believed God has been creating since the beginning of time through a continuous creative transformation from within the universe and individuals. He taught that the cross of Christ does not symbolize as much the atonement of sins as the ascent of the creation and the progress of the world through revitalization that is symbolized by the blood of Christ. According to Teilhard De Chardin, Christ is no longer the Redeemer of the world from the damnation of sin, but He is rather the apex of evolution and gives meaning and direction to the world.

Christianity, then, is preeminently a faith in the progressive unification of the world in God. It is more universalistic, organic, and monistic than individualistic, revelational, and monotheistic (6). Under the liberal tradition, the mission of the church is to alleviate human suffering in direct harmony with the inevitable progress fostered by evolution. The concern with the life to come is largely repudiated.

Although some of the evolutionary concepts may have provided useful working tools in certain areas of human experience, e.g., economics and education, the outcome of the naturalistic emphasis is a relativistic humanism. Despite the optimistic outlook of some naturalists such as Bertrand Russell or John Dewey, recent naturalists, particularly in Europe, have been quite nihilistic.

Nihilists do not have a basis to justify the significance of their actions. Since humans are a product of chance in the evolutionary scheme that has somehow adopted a purpose and duplicated the chance-produced pattern, their actions are absurd. Chance is irrational, causeless, purposeless, [289] and directionless. It does not justify the teleological process of evolution and disallows humans to be free from the closed system of the universe to have self-determination. Therefore, nihilists cannot make a positive statement about whether what they seem to know is illusion or truth.

The naturalist perceives man as a complex machine with a brain that has arisen from the functioning of matter. Since it is not logical to assume that matter has an inclination to lead a conscious being to true perception of itself, humans do not have any solid reason for confidence in their own reasoning capacity. Darwin questioned the trustworthiness of the convictions of the human mind because of its lowly origin (7). His own theory of a human's origin must therefore be accepted by an act of faith (8).

Naturalistic influence in theology with its overextended attitude of analytical criticism of the Bible has smothered the reverent appreciation that has been afforded to it throughout Christendom. The Bible is no longer treated as a unique revelation of God but rather as a great book of religion to be studied just like any other great book of humankind. Using the naturalistic approach, the naturalist considers most of the traditions and philosophies of the Israelites to be outgrown with time, and the only essential message of the Bible is considered to be the practical experience transmitted by the Hebrews to represent the deepest needs, direst struggles, noblest aspirations, and the finest hopes of the human soul. However, the search for this unformulated experience for a human's inward salvation and love without exercising mental discipline in perceiving the historicity of the biblical account has degenerated into sentimentality (9).

The direct social consequence of naturalism is the introduction of ethical relativism. James Sire summarizes it this way:

Naturalism places man in an ethically relative box. For man to know what values within that box are true values, he needs a measure imposed on it from outside the box; he needs a moral plumbline by which he can evaluate the conflicting moral values he observes in himself and others. But there is nothing outside the box; there is no moral plumbline, no ultimate, non-changing standard of value (10).

This form of relativism has expressed itself in the development of situation ethics that shifted from a hierarchy of values to a fluid spectrum of values in the relativization of the absolute by "agapeic love" (11).

Evolutionistic naturalism suffered a staunch defeat with the turning of the century. The havoc of two devastating world wars shattered the evolutionists' dream of inevitable progress. The rise of National Socialism in Germany and its incredible travesty on human dignity has deepened man's inward frustration and cultural discontent. [290]

New theories have developed in the quest to understand humankind. Existentialism, which stresses existence rather than essence, with the human's subjectivity being the meaning of existence, has flourished in atheistic and theistic forms to try to quench man's yearning for meaning in life. In recent years, Eastern pantheistic monism has lured disillusioned young minds who are fed up with the contradictions they have perceived in naturalism. They have observed its antirationalism, syncretism, quietism, and its simplistic lifestyle. Naturalism, Eastern mysticism, and animism find their expressions in the popular New Consciousness movement, which points humans to their salvation through a mystical experience transcending time, space, and morality. Supposedly this is brought about by evolutionary transformation of the inner being to be united with world spirits who inhabit the natural universe (12).

A revitalizing trend has also been initiated in American religious life in the reemergence of evangelical Christianity in the public scene as a life-transforming power with its balanced development both in biblical scholarship and in spiritual maturity (13). Dissatisfied with the naturalistic interpretation of life, humans are awakening to the reevaluation of their own nature in increasingly diversified directions and in a more holistic context.


References 8.7

1. Lewis, J. The religions of the world made simple. New York: Doubleday; 1958.

2. Hofstadter, R. Social Darwinism in American thought. Rev. ed. New York: Braziller; 1965.
3. James, E. O. The beginning of religion. London: Hutchinson's University Library; 1952: 11.
4. Fosdick, H. E. The modern use of the Bible. New York: Macmillan; 1930: 11.
5. Stromberg, R. N. Intellectual history of modern Europe. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1966: 349.
6. Teilhard De Chardin, Pierre. Christianity and evolution. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; 1971.
7. Darwin, C. The autobiography of Charles Darwin and selected letters. Letters to W. Graham (July 3, 1881). New York: Dover; 1958.
8. Sire, J. The universe next door. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity; 1976: 78-91.
9. Fosdick, H. E. Modern use of the Bible. 169-207.
10. Sire, J. The universe next door. 90. [291]
11. Fletcher, J. Situation ethics, the new morality. Philadelphia: Westminster; 1966: 44-45.
12. Sire, J. The universe next door (chapters 6-9).
13. Henry, C. Evangelical summertime? Christianity Today. 21 (13): 38; 1977.