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Friday, February 11, A.D. 2011

Orthodoxy and Evolution

Last week, I read an interesting post on The Observer of Deacon Andrei Kuraev’s “Can an Orthodox become an Evolutionist?” (original source) Deacon Andrei teaches at the Moscow Theological Academy, and he has been prominently involved in the evolution debate in Russia. He finds the “creationist” arguments offered by American Protestants problematic, and he seeks to show how biological evolution does not contradict Christian doctrine. In this article, he attempts to address traditional Orthodox concerns by offering an interpretation of Genesis that could coexist with the non-metaphysical (and hence, non-materialist) claims of contemporary evolutionary theory. Unfortunately, the article is insufficiently written and edited, owing, I assume, to Fr. Andrei’s limitations in English. However, his ideas are worth considering. I also recommend the readers’ comments, which provide additional insights.

I agree with Fr. Andrei on many points. It is necessary for educated Christians to engage philosophy and to learn from what “secular” knowledge offers. Contemporary biology overwhelmingly supports the theory of evolution, and the evidence for it, while not absolutely compelling, demonstrates to an impartial observer, who has no other commitments or interests in the judgment, that life has indeed evolved on earth. We know that evolution occurs because we have witnessed it. We also know from the vast fossil record that we have collected that flora and fauna varied much throughout the various stages of prehistory. Biological evolution explains the evidence in a coherent way that does not do violence to our understanding of the world. I have addressed creationism and Darwinism previously, noting that there are significant problems with the Darwinian explanation of evolution. However, I hold no doubts about biological evolution as such. I am, therefore, grateful for Fr. Andrei’s reflections on how evolution relates to Christian doctrine.

I learnt something from Fr. Andrei’s article that I never considered before. He notes that the biblical language stresses the actitivity of the earth itself in the stages of creation:

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. . . .

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. . . .

And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so. And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.

This is exciting and remarkable, and I am embarrassed that I have never thought about it. The text shows that the world itself is creative and dynamic, though God creates through it. Without God, the world is nothing. Yet, at the level of creation—of the limited and of the particular—natural causality manifests the creative energies of God. It is this metaphysical attitude that makes natural philosophy possible, where there is both an eternal source of being and a temporal level of reality wherein particular beings interrelate. Natural philosophy, or “natural science,” concerns itself with the latter, while the metaphysical foundation for the intelligibility of such research rests with the former.

I also think that Fr. Andrei makes an excellent point about intellectual honesty. We should always keep in mind why we judge things so. We must not become blinded to the assumptions and motivations that cause us to render one judgment rather than another. Moreover, Fr. Andrei wisely emphasizes the distinction between Christian doctrine and theologoumena, or personal opinions about religious matters that may or may not be correct. As Orthodox Christians, we should always strive for the truth, but we should be mindful of our ignorance and limitations. Not everything has been revealed; not everything is clear. Among such issues is the debate about evolution. That said, there are problems that biological evolution raises.

I do not find the issues of the six day creation or of the young earth important. It is clear that the first part of Genesis is mythic discourse. By myth, I do not mean false. Rather, myth is not a logical or analytical exposition of the truth. The mythic involves, among other things, a poetic, symbolic narrative that conveys certain truths. After all, what is a day before the creation of the sun? Genesis is significant in the lessons about creation that it provides. God creates the world, and the world is good. Whether such is accomplished in a week or in fifteen billion years does not matter. As such, I am sympathetic to Fr. Andrei’s project. Yet, I think that there are other theological lessons essential in the Genesis story, and I think that Fr. Andrei’s interpretation fails to salvage them.

Fr. Andrei suggests that Eden does not represent the cosmos as a whole but is simply a garden—a place protected from the rest of the universe in which God places Adam. Hence, the heavens and the earth developed according to the theories of modern science, including the evolution of species from inanimate constituent elements. In the fullness of time, God placed an evolved being from that cosmos—we might guess a primitive hominid—into the Garden and gave him a rational soul. This garden was a paradise exempted from the forces of nature—the forces of decay, and therein this new creature was to mature. Fr. Andrei may follow Irenaeus in seeing Adam as an immature being who was being groomed for the cosmic role that he one day would be asked to fulfill—that of the cosmic mediator, the priest of creation, the role of which Maximus the Confessor explained so beautifully. Adam in the garden was free from death and disease. He was to be a steward of God’s creation, being above that creation. However, Adam transgressed his vocation and brought about the fall. For Fr. Andrei, this lapse did not rend the nature of the whole cosmos, but it sullied human nature alone. Adam’s sin brought death into the world, but Fr. Andrei thinks that this is only spiritual death and the consequent physical death of man alone. The consequence for the rest of creation was simply the absence of the appointed good steward.

My problem with Fr. Andrei’s proposed theory involves two points. First, his interpretation does not do justice to the cosmic consequences of the fall. As I wrote previously, it is important to remain aware of why we judge things as we do. I think that the Christian doctrine of the fall is extremely important. It explains, insofar as explanation is possible, the disconnect between the empirical evidence of a tragic world and the noetic understanding of ideals. Even if we accept that any created world will be necessarily imperfect, as it is not God, it seems that the evil in the world is worse than simply being less than perfect. We intuitively grasp that the created world is marred. Humean dismissals of the desire for and love of perfection as projected irrational wishes do not make sense. Why would the human soul hunger so ravenously for the impossible? Why would men evolve to hold, rather universally, such ideas that would make them less reproductively fit? For they invest their energy and talents in pursuing what Hume and his ilk regard as falsehoods—goals such as justice, righteousness, order, stability, and beauty. Indeed, the normal human understanding of the world is illusory according to this reductionist view. That is unacceptable to me. The universal human inclination to contrast the “ought” with the “is” indicates a fissure between the world as we find it and the world as we know it to be in its essence. Undoubtedly, this disconnect allows for much error, and projected desires along with lack of wisdom contribute to such error. Nonetheless, I think that our intuition is correct that the fallen world falls short of the intended divine pattern. Laying the blame for this shortcoming upon human beings corresponds to our own daily experience. We are doubtlessly the cause of most of our woes. That even existential evils are to be traced to human sin seems right in that it absolves God—the perfectly good—from blame. I do not worship a malign power; I worship the source of being, goodness, and truth. The story of the fall allows for that, and Fr. Andrei’s interpretation removes the cosmos too far from the fall, dismantling the basis of Christian theodicy. Furthermore, the special exemption of Eden from the laws of the universe appears inelegant, and the cosmic role of man pales in comparison to that of traditional Christian doctrine.

Second, I find it repugnant that Fr. Andrei fails to see non-human death as death. For he argues that animal death is simply the cycle of life, and we should not be bothered by it. Yet, his position seems to contradict itself. For why would God exempt the animals in Eden from death unless death itself, even for the beasts, was evil? So as not to trouble young, impressionable Adam? Yet, why would something normal and natural and good such as the generation and decay of the beasts trouble Adam unless such dissolution was indeed evil, as it surely is. Death, loss, and the irrevocability of dissolution are repulsive to us. It is not simply human death that we find lamentable. I do not understand the casual dismissal of other species’ deaths. I do not even understand the casual dismissal of the destruction of inanimate things. The nature of the world as we find it—fallen nature—continually does violence to our desire for permanence and intelligibility. The wheel of time is unsettling in its destructive character. Of course, we can see the silver lining of generation and decay—namely, generation—but half of the system is troublesome.

It is for these reasons that I cannot accept Fr. Andrei’s interpretation of Genesis. I do not know how to reconcile the Eden myth with what we know of the natural world. Yet, I am committed not to accept an attempt at reconciliation that treats either inadequately. I trust that the two views cohere, but I am unable, at least at present, to see how.

Update: See “Kristor on the Fall,” “Evil Christians,” “Unde Malum,” “Kristor Promotes Ignorance,” “Kristor Elucidates the Darkness,” “Before Choice,” and “Kristor Poses Evil Problems” for this post’s continuation.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, February 11, Anno Domini 2011
Religion | OrthodoxyPatristicsScripture • (4) Comments
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