By Dr. Amanda Alexander
As an adult child of divorced parents, I’ve learned that in marital disputes, there is “his side, her side, and the truth.” In the messy conflict that sometimes accompanies the breakdown of a relationship, we often pick the version of events that best fits our own narrative about how the world works. Sometimes, we may even be fed a story that is untrue in order to bring us around to a particular side in a conflict. Our task as adults is to realize that the truth of what happened may be far more complex than we believed at first.
Something similar can be said about the conflict between faith and science. By the time I was in high school, the faith community in which I was raised had convinced me that geology and evolutionary biology were antireligious lies. At the same time, my high school biology teacher made no attempt to hide her scorn of my biblical literalism and my belief that God had created the world in six days. Even in college, Darwin remained a villain in my imagination. It would take years before I came to realize that the conflict between faith and science that I had felt so keenly was, in effect, made up.
Take, for example, the reaction of the Christian faithful to the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859. Seven months following its publication, in June 1860, a series of lectures was held at Oxford University. In these lectures the scientific evidence for evolution was presented and discussed. The story, as it has been passed down, is that, on June 30, 1860, (Anglican) Bishop Samuel Wilberforce engaged Thomas H. Huxley, sometimes referred to as “Darwin’s bulldog,” in a debate over the truth of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. According to popular legend, Wilberforce used his theological training to try to defend the biblical account of creation and sought to discredit the theory of evolution by suggesting that it implied humans were recently descended from monkeys. Huxley’s rebuke effectively destroyed Wilberforce’s credibility and showed him “to be an ignorant and arrogant cleric.” The image popularized in the public imagination is that of “Huxley’s triumphant defeat of a reactionary religious opponent” (Alister McGrath, The Big Question).
The problem is, this version of events at the “Huxley-Wilberforce Debate” actually comes from an article written by Isabella Sidgewick and published in Macmillan Magazine in 1898 – nearly 40 years after event. Though Sidgewick was present at the meeting, her memory of the event contradicts most accounts published shortly after the lecture series.
The facts suggest a much more amicable discussion. In addition to being the Bishop of Oxford, Wilberforce had also been vice president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In the same month this now legendary meeting took place, he published a review of Darwin’s Origin of the Species – a review which carefully considered the scientific case for evolution, not any religious concerns. In that review, Wilberforce wrote that he had “no sympathy with those who object to facts… because they believe them to contradict what it appears to them is taught by [biblical] Revelation” (quoted in McGrath, The Big Question).
Wilberforce’s cautionary comment about those who would reject science because it appears to contradict what is revealed in scripture may sound odd to us today. This is in part because what Wilberforce understood by biblical Revelation and what many people today understand are quite different. Popular media gives the impression that Christians have always believed the biblical story of creation to be a literal, scientific account of how God created the world. However, this form of biblical literalism actually has its origin in a book, The Genesis Flood, published in 1961 by two American fundamentalists, John C. White and Henry M. Morris.
The deeper tradition of the Church allows for a much more nuanced accommodation of scientific theories like evolution. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a literal – by which he meant literary – commentary on Genesis sometime between 401 and 415 A.D. In it, he upholds the belief that God brought forth all of creation out of nothing in a single instant. That act of creation, like a seed, contained within it “things that would start burgeoning with the onset of time, whether vegetation or animals (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis).” Augustine writes that God endowed creation with potentialities and capacities which would emerge gradually. The development and growth of these latent capacities is, according to Augustine, never random, but always guided by God’s providence.
Though Augustine had no inkling of evolutionary theory, he models for us a way of thinking about the theological truth of scripture that does not have to conflict with scientific reasoning. If we follow his lead, we can move beyond thinking about evolutionary theory as an attack on or even a threat to our faith. Instead, it can be an invitation to reflect deeply on God’s abiding presence to and providential care for the whole of creation as it unfolds and reveals its dazzling God-given potential.
Amanda Alexander has a Ph.D. in systematic theology, has taught at numerous Catholic universities and for the Ministry Formation Institute, currently teaches English at Notre Dame High School in Riverside, and is a member of St. Adelaide parish in Highland.