Christianity in the Time of Darwin
January 26, 2010 Length: 48:47
In part 3 of the Darwin series, Fr. Tom explores the Darwin era and what was happening at that time in Christianity.
This is the third in several reflections that I’d like to make about the relationship between natural science and the Christian Gospel, the Christian faith, particularly since what has been called the Darwinian Revolution, and very particularly using Darwinism and the theory of evolution to explain the nature of things and the origin of things and the species - the animal world including man - that’s given to us in the views of modern science [which] are greatly impacted by the teaching of Charles Darwin. The year 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his explosive work called On the Origin of Species where he develops his vision of the origin of species and the development of the great variety of species on the planet earth through a theory that he called ‘natural selection’. And this of course has tremendous impact on religion generally—and, of course, I use that term ‘religion’ in the sociological sense, because people speak about ‘science’ and ‘religion’—and as I will try to make clear in these reflections, I have great problems with simply speaking about ‘religion’. In my own opinion Christianity is the fulfilment of all religions; religions are themselves the product of natural selection in some way, natural contemplation. ‘Religion’ is very different from Christian theology and Christianity is not simply ‘one’ of the religions. In some sense it’s the fulfilment of them all and in some sense it’s the rejection of them all, but certainly you should not just put together in one pot Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, I don’t know, Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, and put those all together as if they were somehow the same thing.
And what I’d like to reflect upon right now is how exactly that particular issue - the issue of Christianity and the divisions among Christianity and Christianity’s place on the planet Earth vis a vis religions, in relation to other philosophies and religions - what the state of that was, what the condition of that was, during the lifetime of Charles Darwin. You know, what was going on? What kind of quote unquote ‘religious’ realities were very rampant in the time when Darwin was actually doing his scientific investigations and publishing his books? More particularly we could say what kind of Christianity or what kinds of Christianity or what [were] the phenomena of Christianity in Darwin’s own life? What would Darwin think about, what would he confront, if he was confronting Christianity, the Christian faith? What would his experience have been? What would have he have had to deal with? And then, in some sense also, how was the Christianity of his time dealing with science? How was it dealing with him, so to speak, and with those together with him, like Huxley and many others, who were raising incredibly significant and important, even revolutionary, questions about the Christian faith and about the Bible and about all kinds of things ‘religious’, to use that term, because of the discoveries of science, particularly those of Darwin himself?
So let’s just take a look at that century, and that would basically be the nineteenth century, virtually the entire century. Darwin lived from 1809 to 1882, so he in some sense spanned the nineteenth century. During that time Queen Victoria was the Queen of the British Empire; she lived from 1837 to 1901. So all of Charles Darwin’s life, certainly all of his adult life, was lived in Victorian England; in the British Empire, presided over or, actually, ruled over by Queen Victoria. But at that same time, you know, what was going on around the world and even in England was many revolutionary ideas that would bear their fruits—and their very bitter and ugly fruits—in the twentieth century. For example, the life of Karl Marx was from 1818 to 1883, almost totally the same time as Charles Darwin. And we should remember that Marx was in London; he wrote his Das Kapital in the London Library. And then other kind of social materialists… like Proudhon lived from 1809 to 1865. Bakhunin in Russia: 1814 to 1876. Feuerbach, who inspired both Karl Marx and the Nazis, national socialism, was 1804 to 1872, again, almost a total identical contemporary of Darwin. Then you had Nietzsche, 1844 to 1900, probably one of the most influential men in terms of modern contemporary, even atheism. And we should mention right now that he was the child of a clergyman; his father was a minister. In 1883 in France Renan published his Life of Jesus, which just said that he was a good man with God-consciousness and there was nothing divine about him. In America you had, exactly at the same time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the transcendentalist, the Unitarian. He lived from 1803 to 1882.
So you had all these incredible figures going on at the same time, and we’ll mention a bit later what was going on by way of reaction to all of these things in the Roman Catholic Church of the nineteenth century. But we just should mention right now, up front, that it was the time of Vatican I. Vatican I met 1869 to 1870, just when Karl Marx was working. You had the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary promulgated in 1854, five years before the publication of The Origin of Species. Lots of stuff was going on. But let’s very particularly take a look at Great Britain, and England particularly, in the lifetime of Charles Darwin. How was it? What was happening? What was going on? And what would he himself have been aware of, or perhaps aware of, around him in the Christian world and in all of the theological and doctrinal controversies of the day, especially those that have to do with the person of Christ and the interpretation of Holy Scripture and how the Christian faith was to be understood? Because of course at this time it was the great time of the beginning of the historical scholarship of the Bible: reading the Bible in terms of a religious phenomenon of humanity. You have that going on at the same time.
There’s a history of Christianity, a very popular one, that I’ve owned since 1955, I’ve had this book since 1955, called The History of Christianity by Kenneth Scott Latourette and I went to this book in preparing some of these talks and thinking about things, just to see what we could find. And what I did find was a very clear description of what was happening in England from 1815 to 1915, that’s the period that this particular historian, Latourette, is studying, that’s how he divided up his material. But I’d like to just read to you a lengthy paragraph from this book which kind of describes the spiritual, theological, social conditions in England at the time of Darwin that have to do with the Christian faith and specifically the Church of England. This is what he writes, he says:
Taken as a whole, in 1815 (—and that would be when Charles Darwin was six years old, in 1815—) the Church of England was far from healthy. It was rich in its endowments and its revenues, but it was closely bound to the existing order (—that is the Victorian period—) and its leaders were fearful of any change that would jeopardise their position.
And we might even add to that sentence the adjective ‘privileged’; they were afraid of anything that might “jeopardise their privileged position”. Privilege was a huge thing there, and Charles Darwin was a very privileged person, a very privileged person. As we’ve mentioned already, he never really worked, he was supported totally by his father’s wealth and he did all his scientific studies in the isolation and the seclusion of his own home. He engaged very little with anybody or anything except a handful of leaders of the scientific community and it seems that he didn’t have much interaction with Christianity and the church people at all except, we already mentioned, that his father—who only went to church twice, according to the Darwinian biographer Janet Browne, when he was baptised and when he was buried, once when he was born and once when he was dead, but that same father—was encouraging his son Charles Darwin to become a minister, to be ordained in the Church of England, because he would have a privileged position, he would own property, he would have a nice place to live, and he could just pursue his naturalistic studies without any interest virtually at all in the Gospel, the Christian faith or anything. He would just pro forma go through the functions of reading the prayers from the Common Prayer Book and go about his business living a very aristocratic, comfortable life without many duties and without any real problems in life relative to doctrinal convictions.
But, in any case, what we have here is this:
…in 1815 the Church of England was far from healthy. It was rich in its endowments and its revenues, but it was clearly bound to the existing social order and its leaders were fearful of any change that would jeopardise their privileged and comfortable positions. In a manner reminiscent of pre-Reformation abuses, pluralism, non-residence and carelessness in the observance of the services and sacraments abounded. Even some of the higher ecclesiastics drew the revenues for more than one post…
In other words they were getting paid by allegedly doing several different jobs and holding several different positions about which, in fact, they were doing virtually nothing. And they entrusted the performance of their duties to substitutes, we might even say their subordinates. Latourette continues:
In 1831 (—that would be when Charles Darwin was twenty-two years old, just about the time he was going on the Beagle voyage—) it was said (—apparently on the basis of official statistics—) that more than half of the clergy did not reside in their benefices.
In other words they had their parishes, they had their properties, their manses, their parish homes, their rectories, their churches, but half of them didn’t even live where they were. They were living somewhere else. Latourette continues:
Among the bishops were those who were distrustful of enthusiasms, (—‘enthusiasm’: that was a kind of technical term for charismatic, evangelical types of Christianity. They didn’t like any of that stuff, religious experience or anything, they didn’t like that—) they were worldly, they were indolent, luxurious and attached to the prerequisites of their office. Confirmation was often administered in a slovenly manner and, with notable exceptions, services were performed carelessly and in a routine fashion or were even neglected. Many cathedrals were in disrepair and were far from being centres of orderly worship and spiritual life.
Then he continues:
The bulk of the parish clergy, especially in the rural districts, were decent men who were interested in the physical welfare of their flocks, but they shared in the manner of life and the prejudices of the country gentry.
So the rural clergy were a parallel to the country gentlemen; they were gentlemen themselves, they cared for their flocks and they dealt with poor people and they were committed people in some sense, but they had “the manner of life and the prejudices of the country gentry”. And one of the prejudices that certainly was there at the time, which Charles Darwin certainly shared, was that British white Anglo-Saxon gentlemen were the cutting edge of the human race. They were the superior people on the planet Earth. In fact, when the evolutionary theory will be applied to society, by people like Herbert Spencer, the idea would be that if there’s an evolution of humanity on the planet Earth, however it came about, once you got to the human beings the most progressively involved and the highest forms were certainly the white Europeans, particularly the Anglo-Saxon ones. Of course, Hitler in Germany would pick this up and think of the Aryan race and the Germanic peoples as really the ubermenschen, the supermen, the highest evolved possible human beings, who had the right also… once kind of a ‘survival of the fittest’—which is a Spencer formula, it was not Darwin’s at first—had the right to survive and you were the fittest then you had to get rid of those who were not fit. And of course those who were ‘not fit’ were everybody else than you.
And of course at this time in the world, in America at this time, just at the time of Darwin’s life, you had the Civil War which had to do with racism, where huge numbers of Christians were saying that black people simply were not human, they were certainly not of the same value and the same intelligence and the same superior development as white people. And that they could therefore be owned and sold and used as slaves. And we should remember at this very same time that the great population of the peasant classes in Russia, to bring in Russia at this point, were also serfs. The serfs in Russia were freed only in the middle of the nineteenth century, in the 1860s, right about the same time as the Civil War in America was being fought. And we should remember at that time too that Russia thought itself as the cutting edge of humanity: autocracy, nationality, Orthodoxy, [this] was kind of the highest human achievement on the planet Earth. Russia was the Holy Russia; they were to teach the whole world about how to behave. Americans were teaching the whole world, the Brits were teaching the whole world, Germans were teaching the whole world, Russians were teaching the whole world, with an idea of being superior for various reasons, which they themselves developed, which then gave them prerogatives of dealing very poorly with other people. And in Russia, at the time of Queen Victoria in England…. You know, we should remember that, I believe, four or five of the granddaughters of Queen Victoria ended up Queens in countries whose populations were Orthodox: Bulgaria, Greece, Rumania and Russia. All had Empresses who were the direct descendants of Queen Victoria in England.
So the whole of Europe was at a monarchical time, but it was also this time of revolution against the monarchies—the American Revolution of course was earliest, but then you had the French Revolution and then you had the Russian Revolution as the last big one—in these other countries, based on Marxism and materialism: anti-religious, anti-Christian, anti-church, anti-imperial. In fact, it’s been said about the United States of America that our America exists based on the rejection and the hatred of bishops and kings. You get rid of the kings and you get rid of the priests and then you have the perfect society, that’s free and liberal and led by intellectual white people who are following their ‘reason’, their ‘natural reason’ and not some superstitious understanding of some ancient Jewish book called the Bible or something like that. Thomas Jefferson, as we know, rewrote the Holy Scripture, the New Testament, the Gospels. So did Leo Tolstoy in the end of the nineteenth century/beginning of the twentieth in Russia.
So this was going on all over the world. But there was this conviction, [let’s] read that sentence again: in Great Britain “the bulk of the parish clergy, especially in the rural districts, were decent men who were interested in the physical welfare of their flocks, but they shared in the manner of life and the prejudices of the country gentry.” They were better educated and probably more moral than their predecessors of the fifteenth century pre-Reformation days, but they left very much to be desired. The prevailing system of feu-rents tended to shut out the poor and to identify the Church of England with a particular class, and that class, of course, was the high class. It was the higher class. Now, going over against that particular picture, you might even dare say attacking that particular picture, would be various movements. And I think, just for the sake of our reflection today, we could say that there were three movements that really went over and against that particular condition, the establishment of the privileged, classed Church of England in the nineteenth century. And it’s interesting to note that in the nineteenth century, in 1851, again just eight years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, a census was taken in Great Britain about church attendance and that census demonstrated that about 40% of the population were in church on Sunday March 30th 1851, about 40%, which meant 60% were not in church. And then it says of those who were in church, about 52% were in the Church of England, the established church. That’s about half, little more than half. But 44%, which is just a little bit less than half, were at Protestant, non-conforming churches. And then it said only about 3.5% were Roman Catholics.
Now, what were the three reactions to this condition of the Church of England? Well, we just heard of one of them, one of them was the non-conforming churches, who at the time of Darwin were already almost half of the population in England. Now, who were these non-conforming churches? What was non-conformity? Well, basically they were Congregationalists, those who came to America, Puritans, and they were pretty much straightforward Calvinists, Calvinistic type people who believed in the sovereignty of God and were against kings, against priests and against bishops. [People] who held that there was total depravity of man but the [limited] election by God of those who he chose to be among the elect, that the election was limited, I mean salvation and redemption was limited to the elect, and that there was definitely limited atonement; only the chosen were atoned. And then you had, in addition, you had this irresistible grace, where if God chose you, you were chosen. And in America they certainly felt that they were the ‘chosen people’. Someone said that the whole American idea of us being the ‘chosen people’ was a secularization of Calvinism. At first America was elected because it was a Christian country, chosen by God to be the light of the world, the beacon on the hill, and all that mythology, you might call it, or ideology of the earliest Americans who settled the New England colony.
But then you had the Enlightenment type of people, the Unitarian type of people, which was also part of the dissension in England religiously. In addition to the non-conforming Calvinists and Congregationalists you had Unitarians. Then you had others too: you had Baptists, you had Methodists who were not Calvinists, who said God doesn’t choose you, you choose God, and they went around preaching. Even American preachers like Finney went over to England in order to preach the Enlightenments, to get people to accept Jesus as their personal saviour in a Methodist type of Christianity. Then you had Charismatic movements, then you had Quaker movements: pure spiritualists, no sacraments at all, no church at all. So you had a whole bunch of different kinds of understandings of the Christian faith coming out of Protestantism at that time and these were all challenging the Church of England itself.
And many of those people who had those particular ideas, even Methodists at first, then Unitarians even, they were still members of the Church of England. Charles Darwin’s wife, for example, was a committed member of the Church of England, but she herself went to Unitarian chapel and then she kind of joined the more established church, but she held her Unitarian positions as well. And, generally speaking, people like Thomas Jefferson in America and Ralph Waldo Emerson and those people, they were Unitarians, they were Deists. They believed in God, but not the Trinity, not the Incarnation and not the Blood Redemption, not the Virgin Birth. And then of course later on in that century the fundamentals of the Fundamentalists would be over and against that kind of Christianity. So the Fundamentalists—and there were fundamentalists in all of these churches in a certain sense, but not modern American Fundamentalism, that was a nineteenth/twentieth century phenomenon, even, in America at the beginning of the twentieth century—actually even in reaction to modern science and Darwinism, the Fundamentalists would hold the reality of the Virgin Birth, the virginal conception of Jesus, the physical Resurrection from the dead, the inerrancy and absolute sufficiency of the Bible as a book for Christian faith, the substitution theory of atonement which frees us from the wrath of God because Jesus gets punished in our place and sheds his blood. And then you had the imminent Second Coming of Jesus and then huge debates about dispensationalism, this post-millennial, pre-millennial “Will he come on Earth and reign? Will he reign after? Will there be Rapture?” and all that kind of stuff. All this was being formulated in the nineteenth century over and against the Church of England.
So you had this inner dissension without much major theological work. There were some pretty good people, in my opinion, for example a guy named John F. D. Maurice, who was a Unitarian and then became a more straightforward Trinitarian theologian. He lived from 1805 to 1872, exactly, you might say, parallel to the life of Charles Darwin. I discovered him recently and I really love his theology, but that poor guy was really persecuted by just about everybody else in sight for how he understood things. And that kind of very vitriolic and virulent type of fighting among the various Christian groups was going on while Charles Darwin was studying barnacles and earthworms and pigeons and orchids and trying to come to terms with the data that he had collected on the Beagle and to try to understand, you know, how nature works. That’s what Charles Darwin was doing in the seclusion and isolation of his home, while all of this was going on around him. And he almost became a minister in the Church of England so that he could do that. By divine providence, we would say, he was spared that and we were spared that and he never did become a minister and he had no interest in it at all personally. But it’s amazing to think that he almost did. He went to the university to study theology, divinity and ended up doing geology and being influenced by Henslow and then ending up on the Beagle and then ending up the father of modern evolutionary theory and modern science in many ways. But you see what was going on at that time among the Christians.
Now, we should mention also, debates were going on vis a vis the Roman Catholic church. Now you notice that in the statistic of 1831 only 3.5% of the population in England were Roman Catholics. But there was a movement towards Roman Catholicism over and against the Church of England and its pluralism and diversity and its decadence and its privilege. So, for example, right in the middle of the nineteenth century, 1851—again eight years before the publication of On the Origin of Species—you had a man named Manning becoming Roman Catholic, becoming an archbishop and becoming a cardinal of the Roman Catholic church. Then you had a huge figure in Roman Catholic history who lived virtually identically his life at the time of Darwin, Darwin was born in 1809 and he died in 1882. A man named John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and he died in 1890. And John Henry Newman is probably one of the most, I mean certainly one of the most, famous converts to Roman Catholicism in modern times. And he was a member of the Oxford Movement with people like Keble and Pucey and Froude, who were really trying to recover ancient Christianity: they were reading Church Fathers, they didn’t know what to do. And a number of them became Roman Catholics, of course the leader of them was Newman, who himself became a cardinal. But then they had at that time to really come to terms with Roman Catholicism in perhaps one of the most conservative, radically anti-modernistic periods of its entire history.
So we should remember [that] at the time when Manning and Newman were becoming Roman Catholics in England it was the time of Vatican I. The first Vatican Council was 1869 to 1870. 1869, ten years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. And at Vatican I… of course we Orthodox know for sure, Vatican I is probably the most despised Council among Orthodox Christians of the entire Roman history, because Vatican I was the Council that claimed that the Bishop of Rome, on the basis of prerogatives given to the Apostle Peter, on the basis of absolutely unacceptable Biblical exegesis to us Orthodox, and on the basis of even some false documents, like the Donation of Constantine and the Isidorean Decretels, it claimed that the Pope of Rome was the Supreme Pontiff and that he was the Vicar of Christ on Earth. And Vatican I dogmatised the teaching that the Roman Pope actually has direct and immediate episcopal jurisdiction over every Christian in the world, or he should have, including all of the other bishops, including the other Roman Catholic bishops, and that a Roman Catholic bishop was only valid by virtue of his communion with the Vatican and with the Pope of Rome. And then it also said that when the Pope of Rome spoke ‘ex cathedra Petri’, ‘from the seat of Peter’, his teaching on faith and morals was infallible, it had to be accepted by every single Christian in the world and it had to be accepted of itself and not out of any consensus of the faithful in the church. In other words, the Pope could give dogmas ‘ex sese et non ex consensu Ecclesiae’ that were infallible in and of themselves by virtue of his speaking them and not from the consensus of the Church at all. Now, of course, that remains the greatest obstacle between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians and ancient Christians, because Orthodox claim ancient Christianity knew nothing about this. And John Henry Newman had to develop a teaching of the development of dogma in order for himself to be able to accept it… I’m almost tempted to say ‘to swallow it’.
Now, of course, there was virtually no relationship with Eastern Christianity at this time at all and Eastern Christianity at this time, we should remember, was just emerging out of four hundred years of Islamic domination under the Turks in the Balkans and in the East. And in Russia it was a time when the Church was simply under the control of the monarchy of Russia: there was censorship, there was oppression. Bishops were transferred, they had no real powers, they were ruled by the Holy Synod that was patterned after the reformed Church that Peter the Great brought in. And there was a radical Westernization of Russian Orthodox Christianity at this time, including Orthodoxy even generally. For example, in the nineteenth century theology in the Russian seminaries was taught in Latin and they followed the Peter Canisius catechism and so on, very scholasticized and very, in some sense, very decadent. And the living Patristic spiritual mystical liturgical tradition was preserved just here and there in some monasteries and in people like St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. But these people had to kind of drop out of the institutional Church in order to maintain their sanity and in order to live their spiritual life, and they were very questioned. You take the Optina Elders: oh, they were terribly persecuted by the Russian political and ecclesiastical establishment. I mean, for example, St. Ambrose of Optina: the bishop who buried him after he died, the bishop was on his way to the Optina Monastery to suspend St. Ambrose from his eldership. He got there [and] he was dead, so he buried him. Leonid of Optina, also a canonised saint, was excommunicated with his nuns I think three or four times.
So this was a time of repression of spiritual life and a bursting out of spirituality over and against decadence in practically every place of Earth. And in England you had this small but rather influential party of people, as they used to say, ‘crossing the Tiber’, in other words becoming Roman Catholics. And you have this now in our modern time as well, even in America. Some kind of rather famous Protestants, like John Neuhaus and Wilkins and others, Thomas Howard the Evangelical, becoming Roman Catholics. You have these famous Catholics like Hilaire Belloc in England, who in the twentieth century said, “I’ll take an infallible decree from Rome every morning with my newspaper and my coffee, because I want an authoritative church who will teach me the truth over and against all this other nonsense that’s going on in the modern world.”
So there was a kind of anti-modernism in the air, so to speak, in many, many different ways, because that was the battle. The battle was the conservatives versus the liberals, the traditionalists versus the modernists, the fundamentalists versus the rationalists. All this was just like a huge big battle going on that we are all the heir of now in the beginning of the twenty-first century. And we should remember also about the Roman Catholic church, in addition to the Vatican I you had the anti-Modernist statements, you had these encyclicals of the Pope’s, Pastor Aeternus, Lamentabili, you had the Index of Books, you had the Syllabus of Errors, you had the oath against Modernism, you also had the infallible decree about the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in 1854, five years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, you have the Lourdes revelation about the Mother of God calling herself the Immaculate Conception in 1858. Then you have in 1848 the Eastern Patriarchs writing against Rome saying all this is terrible, all this is not according to the Gospel, all this is not how we understand Christianity.
So over and against the decadence and the establishment and the prestigious position of the Church of England, you had the non-conformists within that church: Congregationalists, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, Enlightenment people, Deists. All of these were kind of religious movements based in Biblical criticism and philosophical positions over and against the Church of England—which actually even began because of Henry VIII and his marital problems—and the Thirty-Nine Articles which [were] trying to balance everything and make something acceptable to everybody, and it just didn’t work. Then you had the Roman Catholic reaction against modernism and Darwinism and modern science and so on, that reached its high point exactly at the time of the last years, last decades, of the life of Charles Darwin.
But then you had a third reaction against all of this and that was pure and simple materialism. We mentioned already Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Frederick Nietzsche, Proudhon, Bakhunin, Renan: they were simply materialists, just simply atheistic. Maybe agnostic if they were a little bit more honest and a little bit more open-minded; they would say, well, we really don’t know about all these things. And Charles Darwin himself, he argued for agnosticism. He did not argue for atheism. In The Teaching Company’s CDs that I purchased that I mentioned before [with] Frederick Gregory, [it says] that there’s a time towards the end of [Darwin’s] life when a leading materialistic atheist wanted to visit him and he wanted to speak with him but he didn’t want to bring him into his house because Darwin’s wife was a believer and so he got Darwin’s wife to invite her pastor from her church in the Church of England to come to the meal where this atheist was coming. His name was Buchner, he was from Germany. And there’s a report of that luncheon where the minister is there, his wife’s minister, who he knew very well, whom Charles Darwin knew and was friendly with all his life. But I think it’s accurate to say Darwin was just not interested in this; he was not interested. He was interested in barnacles and earthworms and pigeons and orchids and skeletons and fossils and that’s what he was interested in. But when he invited them and they had the discussion, he made the argument for benign agnosticism. He said, “Why don’t we just say that we don’t know? Maybe there is a God, maybe there’s not.” He refers to God seven or eight times in On the Origin of Species. He ends [it] speaking about Creation. I don’t think he ever tried to work it out at all, but he certainly was not a militant atheist, at least it doesn’t appear that way. Some people cast him that way, maybe they’re right, I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem that he was that way. Thomas Huxley was, he was ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ and viciously attacked religion and so on.
But what we see going over and against the scene in the Church of England at the time of Darwin was dissenting forms of Christianity, a very radical anti-modernist Roman Catholic movement and then the pure scientistic materialism, atheism, just saying all of this is complete and total nonsense and [this] was the roots of people nowadays like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who say: we’re not going to be benign, patting religion on the head. We’re not going to say, well, we’re just agnostic, we just do not know. We’re going to make metaphysical conclusions from natural science, and the metaphysical conclusion from natural science will be atheism. And that religion, as Hitchens will say, just “poisons everything”. And, whatever uniqueness you want to claim about Christ and the Christian Gospel, you just plunk it in with all the other religions and say all of this is nothing but superstitious nonsense, a way of trying to explain things before you could understand them scientifically. And the more you understand scientifically, the more God is eclipsed, until finally God is eclipsed completely, like Laplace said to Napoleon; when Napoleon asked him, “Where does God fit into your theory?” Laplace, in France, said, “I have no need for that particular hypothesis.”
And so there was no need for that particular hypothesis. And certainly there is a sense where it is, I believe, even true to say, if you’re dealing with purely natural science, if you’re studying rocks and fossils and birds and plants and animals and skeletons and you’re studying their physiognomy and you’re studying their structure and you’re looking at earthworms and you see how they reproduce and you see how bees organise their life and you’re looking purely at natural science, it probably would be right to say the ‘God hypothesis’ doesn’t fit in there except as a ‘God of the gaps’ to explain what you can’t explain. And my opinion is that’s not a very good way to go about it. And it seems like that we’re beginning to understand that very clearly now, finally: that there is natural science which is one thing and then there is metaphysical theology which is another. And then there is the Christian faith, which is not simply one species of a genus called ‘religion’ in the same way, I don’t know, a collie or a terrier would be one species of a genus called ‘dog’. You know, that’s not how it works. And there has to be some kind of a synthesis between physics and metaphysics. There has to be some kind of an understanding of how natural science, that has its own method, relates to theological and spiritual life, based on the Gospel of Jesus and its interpretation of Holy Scripture, which is dealing with other issues. But they’re not purely separated issues; I think that’s what we want to talk about in these reflections.
You know, one of the modern Darwinian thinkers, named Gould, who wrote about evolution but he actually criticized Darwin’s theory, he had a different theory, he had punctuated evolution rather than slow gradual changes. But anyway, Stephen Gould, he said there are kind of two areas and they have their own method, they have their own way of dealing with things: one is natural science and the other is theology—he called it ‘religion’, which I don’t like—but, in other words, they are different things. Now some people say, well, yeah, they should be kept separated and they’re just two different questions and two different avenues of discourse, two different [things] and one is one and one is the other. Nevertheless, there has to be some kind of integrated vision; in other words, we have to get to the point where we believers in Christ and the Gospel and the resurrection of the dead and everlasting life and that there really is a God who begets a Son from all eternity who is born on Earth of the Virgin Mary, how do we people who believe in all that, how do we relate to natural science? How do we relate to just studying earthworms and barnacles and fossils and all kind of things and how do we relate to that and to the theories of the people who study those things, who claim that it is simply true that the world is billions of years old and not six thousand years old? That it is simply true that certain types of animal existence have emerged and have evolved from other forms? How do we deal with all that? And then of course the scientists themselves, including even Dawkins and Hitchens, they have to come to terms themselves with how do they, what do they think about theology, what do they think about God? Now, they can think that it’s radically atheistic superstition and be against it, but they do have to think about it and they do have to make their arguments of why they would say so.
So, the lively debate between natural science and scientific investigation andtheology, metaphysics, the meaning of it all, not simply the facts of it all, but the meaning of it all… What is its purpose, does it have a purpose? All of these things remain very lively issues and I’m going to take up some of those issues in the further reflections: how would an Eastern Orthodox Christian who follows what we believe is ancient Christianity—which is neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant of any kind—how do we relate to all of this stuff, or how might we relate, let’s be very modest, perhaps, tentatively, how might we go about dealing with these issues? Because I am convinced myself that there is a truth, that the Darwinian Revolution and atheistic scientism is “the greatest engine for atheism in our time”. It’s the greatest temptation to our children and grandchildren; to draw conclusions from natural science in the area of theology with the ultimate conclusion being [that] the best you can do is be agnostic and the, so to speak, more radical thing you can do is just to be and out-and-out crusading atheist and be against any kind of God or Gods as simply superstitious and outdated idiocy and stupidity and ignorance. You know, we have to deal with that.
But if that whole scientific revolution that is often symbolically connected with the name Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution, if that’s “the greatest engine for atheism in our time” as someone said, my own opinion is that equally powerful for atheism was the state of Christianity, were the teachings of Christianity, was Christian doctrine, Christian theology. The way that Christians dealt with their own Scriptures, their own Bible; the stupidity and ignorance of that—in my opinion, God forgive me—and the reactions, like for example integrous Roman Catholicism, with Papal infallibility, just pronouncing truths about everything, including natural science. You know, that probably contributed as much to atheism as the Darwinian Revolution and the scientific revolution did. Because, on the one hand, you have people who say they cannot believe the Christian Gospel on the basis of science. But you have other people who say they cannot believe the Christian Gospel on the basis of Christian doctrine and Christian behaviour.
So if there are as many atheists made by reading Marx and Darwin and Nietzsche and Feirbach and whatever, historical criticism of the Bible, there are probably also a goodly number of atheists who simply cannot accept what the Christians are teaching. Especially if they think that the Christians are teaching that God directly made every butterfly and that the Earth is only six to ten thousand years old and dismiss natural science as simply atheism by definition and rationalism and pride and arrogance and the refusal to bow down before the Bible or something, in a very strange interpretation of that Bible, whether it be Calvinistic interpretation or historical critical interpretation or ‘enthusiastic’, like among the Methodists or something. In other words, the Christians haven’t done a very good job. We, Christians, have not done a very good job understanding our own faith and understanding how that faith interacts with science. And I think the hour has come for us to really take a good look at how we do that and perhaps even to try to formulate—in the most tentative, humble, modest way—at least raise the issues, at least raise the questions that need to be answered and then to try to answer the questions in a proper way that would simply be, to use that good four letter word, true. That would simply be true. What is the truth? Not only what is the truth about man, humanity, earthworms, barnacles, pigeons and monkeys and chimpanzees and human beings, but what is the truth about the one true and living God? What is the truth about Jesus Christ, who is a historical personage who is claimed to be God’s Son and raised from the dead? You know, what is the truth of how you should read and understand the Bible? Not only how you should read and understand On the Origin of Species, but how should you understand Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus and Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Apocalypse? All these are huge questions and they are life and death questions, certainly for Christians.
So, this is what we’re going to try to continue to deal with, very tentatively, very carefully—not very carefully, because I’m not a careful person, God forgive me!—but at least tentatively, at least humbly, at least intuitively, like, what seem to be the issues? What are the issues that we have to deal with if we’re going to understand how natural science relates to the Gospel of God in Jesus Christ? What do we have to deal with? What are some of the things that we certainly have to deal with? That is what I’m going to be trying to deal with, in a very humble, simple, absolutely superficial and tentative way, in a few reflections still to come.
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