Last month there was a news story that one third of Americans don’t believe in evolution, and surprisingly that number is increasing in some groups. As for myself I would not say that I “believe” in evolution (belief being a different faculty of the human person than what is used in evaluating evolution or any other scientific theory), but I am thoroughly convinced by the evidence for evolution and accept whole-heartedly the theory of evolution. And what is more, I can see no conflict between thoughtful acceptance of evolution as a scientific theory and religious faith.
Here is how I see the relationship between the two: Scientific evolution, propelled by the engine of natural selection, pushes forward (though in evolution, properly speaking, there is no “forward”) the diversification of species into ever greater variety and complexity. And that is it. There is no goal, no objective, no endpoint towards which evolution is aiming. It just pushes, to all appearances, aimlessly. Species arise, thrive, are wiped out and then replaced by something new. We humans as a species are currently in the limelight, but it was not always thus and may not always be so. Evolution just keeps chugging along with no apparent end in sight.
But that is only half of the picture. On the other side, if I may phrase it that way, is the work of the Holy Spirit. From the beginning of time, from the instant of the big bang, the Holy Spirit has been at work, but not pushing development from below, but rather pulling it from above, enticing, alluring, calling matter and spirit into more complex forms capable of receiving and responding to the Holy Spirit (that is us). While evolution pushes onward the Holy Spirit draws forward to an ever greater self-communication of the Spirit, of God’s own life. God has a plan and a goal towards which all creation (including you and me) is drawn. I believe this is part of what we mean when we proclaim in the Creed each Sunday “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” Our hope for eschatology (the end times) is that God will be all in all. Creation has a goal and a purpose. It is not all “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Rather, it is God’s communication of God’s self to all creation.
Now this process does not happen in a neat and orderly way. I wish it did. It offends my Germanic sensibilities of order and thrift. But it does not happen in an orderly way. Evolution puts the Federal government to shame in terms of waste. It seems totally random and pointless. But it is not.
A good way to think about this is St. Matthew’s Gospel 1:1-17. It is the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to Jesus. As Matthew presents it, it is a mess. There are obstacles to the succession, there are dicey situations with prostitutes and adultery, there are wars, exile, slavery, empire, civil unrest, captivity, you name it. The history of the Chosen People looks as random and pointless as the history of any people or group you can find. But when you look back in hindsight it begins to take on the shape of a plan. In verse 18 we read, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” Through all that messy human history of some 1,600 years of the Hebrews from Abraham to Jesus God was at work. God was preparing for the coming of His Son, writing straight with crooked lines.
Something analogous is happening in creation but over a much broader scope of time and space, making it even more complicated. None-the-less, God is pulling creation forward in a messy, tangled, complex way that we cannot really see from our vantage point. Someday I believe that we will, but we have to await the revelation of the children of God at the end of time.