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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, A.D. 2011
Religion | OrthodoxyPatristicsScripturePermalink


Thanks, first, for your many kind words about my poor comments over at VFR. I don’t feel they were quite warranted, but then if I did, I’d be even more insufferable than I am. Your praise is indeed a high honor; I have been following your site rather faithfully for some time, and while this is the first time I have felt moved to comment, I have been impressed with your penetration, breadth of knowledge, irenic temperament, and serene good cheer. 

I have thought about the Fall a bit. I, too, cannot gainsay the impression that evolution is a fact. It seems to me no more remarkable, or difficult to explain, or for that matter easy to explain, than motion in general, of which it is a department. I, too, am not interested in whether the world was created all at once a moment ago, and only seems to stretch back so very far into the past, or whether it really does stretch very far back into the past, so that its creation has, from a creaturely perspective, “taken time.” Sub specie aeternitatis - that is to say, in very truth - there can be no difference between these two alternatives. Yet whether temporal procedures really do, in an absolute sense, take time or not, it is apparent that we are from our own creaturely point of view - the only one possible to us - temporally ordered, so that each moment of our experience stands as deriving from a set of causes - from, i.e., a past - and ordered to a set of consequences - toward, i.e., some futures.

So, from our perspective, things change. They evolve. Whether species evolve or not, seems to me to be rather a trivial question, compared to the question of how things in general can evolve. For it is not easier to explain how a billiard ball is translated from one side of its table to the other, than to explain how hominids evolved from apes. If a billiard ball at point x really is, wholly and in truth, a billiard ball at point x, it seems almost impossible to understand how that same ball could ever, ever be still the ball that was completely at point x and also be now the ball that is completely at point y. You may talk until you are blue in the face about the difference between essential and accidental properties, and I shall honor your for so doing, and by the way agree with you; but it shall still seem to me that the 8 ball at x with momentum A is a totally different entity (albeit not, perhaps, a totally different sort of entity) than the “same” 8 ball at y with momentum B. For remember that for the 8 ball to change from x/A to y/B, everything in the universe had to change concomitantly, and coordinately. For the 8 ball to accomplish that translation, literally everything in the universe had to change with it; so that, at the end of the translation, the whole universe was a different universe than it had been prior to the translation. Now, how this sort of thing could be accomplished seems to me to be almost incomprehensible. So that, explaining how some macromolecules changed does not seem particularly intimidating, as a problem, by comparison.

From our perspective, then, we are in time, and things change, and it sure looks like change is ubiquitous. I see no difficulty, then, in biological evolution. The world as it now stands indicates that there were once dinosaurs, just as it indicates that there was once a thriving metropolis at Persepolis, just as it indicates that I was at the store earlier today and bought a few things, and just as it indicates that I’ve had a beer this evening – there stands the bottle, still somewhat cool.

I am not so interested then in reconciling the details of the story of the Fall in Genesis with the geological and archeological record. The idea that such a reconciliation might be needed seems to me to be a fundamental methodological misprision.  Genesis is not an accounting in natural history, it is an allegory of the basic truths about the world. And the Fathers seem to agree with me: whether or not there was ever a walled garden, or a tree, or an apple, the story is true, in just the same way that the story of the spirit of God moving across the face of the waters of Chaos is true, whether or not there were in Chaos anything that we could really compare with waters we have known.

Posted by Kristor on Monday, February 14, A.D. 2011

The real difficulty for me about the story of the Fall, then, is to reconcile it with the Laws of Nature. I notice in particular that entropy seems to be a basic feature of our world. Death seems to be built into it at the most basic level; indeed, death may be the only way that physics can be sure that there is a direction to time built into the equations. What sense then can it make to talk of this world’s Fall from a prior state in which entropy did not afflict it? Indeed, is not the notion of a world where entropy does not occur incoherent? For entropy, at root, amounts to nothing more than the principle that not everything can happen. It is the law of economics, and tragedy, writ large; writ cosmologically large. A molecule cannot be forever both at point x, and also at some point over there at point y. In order for anything to happen, all the goods available in everything else that might have happened must be sacrificed. The molecule must sooner or later choose between x and y. And if it does change from x to y, the order of things – for the entire cosmos - that had before obtained will have to change with it. All the values inherent in the state of the cosmos prior to that change will also be changed: some for good, some for ill. But, since it is always going to be creatures that are doing such changing, we may rely upon their preponderant failure to achieve anything like perfection in their evolutions, so that if anything changes, we may rely upon the fact that some values will necessarily be lost forever in the process. Not only will we lose the values present in the prior state of affairs, but we will fail to achieve the full perfection of the values potentially available in the state toward which we move. Creaturely change, then, entails devolution. 

How, then, could there ever have been a state of things where there was no death? How could any creature, even the angels, escape death?

This may seem like a deus ex machina, but: God. When creatures are wholly governed by God, they can in moving from x to y always be sure of increasing the beauty, orderliness, and harmony of things. They can be sure always that they are moving everything toward greater fullness of being. For God’s creative resources, his capacity to rescue a situation and provide it a path forward to a future that preserves and enhances all the values it already expresses, while at the same time opening up new creative possibilities, are infinite. There is no reason in principle, for example, why the Baroque should ever be exhausted as a source of musical novelty and delectation. There are an infinite number of Baroque compositions that could be written and performed and enjoyed. But ditto for the Classical. The Classical does not contradict the Baroque. But creatures can do only so much of either; their ontological budget is finite. Not so with God. God can supply to creatures the resources to explore the Baroque forever, and to explore the Classical, too. He cannot enable the creatures to explore them both simultaneously, any more than he could create a rock that he could not lift; but he can provide them with the resources sufficient to an everlasting project.

Posted by Kristor on Monday, February 14, A.D. 2011

The Fall, then, was from that plenitude. Once turn from God, and ipso facto you turn from that fullness of being. The Fall afflicted the whole cosmos. How? Not, I think, because of the Sin of Adam. His sin came late in the game; for one of the first creatures had already fallen. Adam and Eve, when they fell, fell for man. But their Fall was not the first.

The second great problem of the Fall, it seems to me, is understanding why a being like Lucifer, chief among the seraphim, would choose to sin. The answer, I think, is the same as the answer given in the story of Eden. For why would Adam and Eve disobey God? How could they have been so stupid? Because they knew no better, before they sinned. Think about it. Until you have hit your thumb with a hammer, you don’t really know how important it is to avoid doing so. Adam and Eve were wholly innocent. They had no idea what it could mean to do wrong, or even what “wrong” was. So likewise with Lucifer when he fell. He knew everything that had ever happened since the first creation. But nothing had ever yet Fallen; he could not have known what a Fall would be like. He knew only what it was like to be an obedient seraph. What it is like to be a disobedient seraph was a thing that was incomprehensible to him, far more incomprehensible than the experience of a bat is to us. Disobedience did not seem bad to him, ex ante; for, having lived only in Heaven, he had no idea what “bad” might be. Why not, then, disobey?

So he Fell. And with him, went the whole created order. There was War in Heaven. The whole creation was turned away from God, forced by the necessity of the maintenance of good causal order among things to reckon with Satan’s Fall, and thus to be affected thereby; and has tended ever since toward death. Entropy is inescapable for any closed system. When the cosmos had turned away from God, it closed in upon itself. Grace still gets in everywhere (that’s why there is still a world from one moment to the next); but it is reliably wasted. Frittered away; God forgive me. Yet there is no ontological necessity that any creature should turn away from the Divine influx, even in the midst of this world’s turbid stream; and, it is impossible to turn away from that influx altogether and still exist. So that, to the extent things exist, they are somewhat subject to God. So, Adam and Eve might not have Fallen.

This at least is how I reckon it.

Posted by Kristor on Monday, February 14, A.D. 2011

Jesus’ dead body came back to life after three literal days, Elisha’s bones made a dead man come back to life, Elisha used a stick to make an axe head float, the Blessed Virgin gave birth to God in the flesh, Naaman dipped himself in the Jordan 7 times and his leprosy was gone, Phillip immediately vanished out of the Eunich’s sight after he baptized him, a napkin used to wipe Paul’s face healed people who touched it, the Holy Spirit made people speak in different languages instantly (no Rosetta Stone programs in those days!), Icons cry and drip oil, Holy Fire appears at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but God didn’t create the world in 6 days? 

I don’t trust science, and since science is always changing and finding itself to be wrong, I am opting to believe what the Scriptures say, literally, “because the Bible tells me so.”  Why all the time-wasting talk about the ridiculous notion and theory called evolution? 

People say “well, what was a day before the sun appeared? Could have been a gazillion years!”  Well, the sun was created on day 4, so then did the day (yom) suddenly become a literal day?  I think it is best if all the self-proclaimed geniuses that speak for God and somehow know how He created everything should zip the lip.  Quit talking about evolution. 

I love your blog, though.  And your defense of Orthodoxy.

Posted by Paul on Friday, April 22, A.D. 2011
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