What I’ll write, as always, will likely prove unpopular.
But to say what I think, when I have thought much about an issue, especially if the issue itself is consistently brought up before me, is an imperative I have strongly felt all of my life.
Of late, more articles and opinion pieces than I’ve ever before noticed on the matter of the theory of evolution have circulated in the most ostensible of Orthodox English-language digital media.
They share that they are decisively negative toward that theory. Most even speak in an almost apocalyptic tone of the dangers involved for an Orthodox Christian should they be so blind or thoughtless as to actually assent to it’s probable truth on the best evidence we have for now.
Holy Orthodoxy and the theory of evolution are inherently and irremediably irreconcilable.
So goes their account.
The cardinally important question to be asked of everything —is it true?
I don’t believe so.
Not only that, but I strongly feel that there are more dangers in insisting on an anti-evolutionary opinion as essential to an Orthodox Christian than there are vice versa.
First the problem has to be framed in its basically Anglo-American context. I have never before had this with Russian Orthodox people from Russia.
Most Russians have no difficulty in reconciling their biology classes with their Orthodoxy. I even have the good luck to be friends with several biologists and people who, while not biologists by career, have completed a university-level degree in biology. They seem not to be able to see the contradiction that so troubles Western creationists.
In fact, after the Origin of the Species the most important work in the building of the modern theory of evolution is a book entitled Genetics and the Origin of the Species. It integrated Darwin’s account of origins with the then emergent field of genetics. It was written by Theodosius Dobzhansky —a glowingly brilliant mind and faithful son of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Only recently with the translation of certain books by Seraphim Rose and the publication and distribution of others by Fr. Danil Sisoyev has it been becoming a live issue in our Church. A potentially bottomless well of divisiveness for the future—it isn’t what one ought to remember them for.
We must note as well with no little sadness that outright translations of Protestant creationist works into Russian are beginning to be felt as important contributions to the problem. It is tragic to see books with explicit heretical underpinnings becoming a standard reference for Orthodox believers. Textbooks of sorts with which to unsettle other believers and question their Orthodoxy.
Alexei Osipov, professor of the premiere Theological Academy of Moscow, put it perfectly when he said that for Holy Orthodoxy both evolution and creationism are permissible in principle. Which, if either, is true or most probable is a question of a strictly scientific order and not one of theological dogma.
Evolution, as a theory of biological origins, taken apart from any consideration as to whether or not there is a God—is indeed a hard sell. Irreligious proponents of the theory concede it’s so.
John Barrow and Frank Tipler, as an example, once gave a list of 10 prerequisites for the eventual evolution of life on a planet comparable to the earth in size, material make-up and spatial positioning relative to a star similar to our sun.
According to Barrow and Tipler themselves, the star that would serve the purpose of our sun in the scenario should have died before even one of the ten prerequisites obtained. All 10 obtained in our case.
Evolution is not the bludgeon with which to beat about the head those with religious convictions. I grant that, from Huxley to Dawkins, there have been people who try to use it as such. But I insist that that was not Darwin’s aim nor is it why biologists universally support it ever since.
And it is as emphatically as I may make it certainly not an elegant materialist alternative to religion. An accidental interplay of particles producing life, is a deeply unsatisfying place to put the full-stop. Barrow and Tipler’s answer is not that it is logical or convincing. It is that it is so whether we like it or not. It happened.
It is the physical evidence that makes biologists of all kinds of religious convictions and private philosophical opinions accept that something like Darwin’s theory of origins seems to be the way life came about on earth. A Protestant pastor with a preferred translation of the Jewish (not Orthodox) canon of the Old Testament—is not in a position to know better than them.
And why should there be a hostile reaction to the theory on our part as believers?
Fine. It’s hard to accept, if not absurd, on materialist suppositions. But if we believe in God and the spiritual world—why should it be difficult to believe that all 10 conditions were fulfilled? Make it 100. More. God can.
But does it not take away God’s chance to create? If it’s a process and not just God making everything direct and immediately?
Following after the example of our Lord and God and Saviour Christ Himself, I’ll answer a question with a question.
Did God create you? I suspect yes is your answer reader. How? Abracadabra and there you are? I trust your aversion for biology hasn’t taken you so far as there.
Yes God made you. But it was a 9 months process that began with spermatozoa and chromosomes and an egg cell and saw you develop from a foetus to a full-bodied baby; ready to open eyes never before seen by the world onto a world you had never before seen yourself. Is that not an evolution of sorts? And if that is how God makes men now, why should we be so afraid of that He may have made life like that originally?
Why can’t life have come about over time purposely? Perhaps even actively aided in its accomplishment by the holy angels (who holy fathers say are always acting behind the veil of nature; the hare we don’t see in the bush that makes the leaves move).
Now things come to a head here.
The primary problem for Protestants lies in their soteriology (the theological study of the nature of salvation)—a soteriology the Holy Orthodox Church of Christ does not accept. This soteriology colours their—but not our—entire theology and so finally their way of seeing the world.
In mainstream Protestantism creation does nothing but get in the way of God. From the fall of the angels to that of Adam, we are forever spoiling God’s kasha.
The God of Protestantism intervenes directly to amend this. First by torturing His incarnate Son and then by arbitrarily saving people “by grace” (which for them means basically “for free” owing to Jerome’s choice of a Latin word; it isn’t an energy of God or a gift). And once you’re saved you’re always saved. So put that, if you will Sir/Madame, in your pipe and smoke it!
For Protestants, this is how God’s relations with creation work. It’s all direct, all initiative is with Him. As the central text of another religion vehemently opposed to the theory of evolution puts it: He says be. And it is.
Holy Orthodoxy is an altogether different religion than that.
The Lord God loves variety.
That He created an entire class of creature whose name means an intermediary between Him and other created beings—angel: ambassador or messenger—is almost alone enough to prove it.
He could have warned Lot directly somehow. But He sent angels to bring him and his family out of Pentapolis.
He could have guided Tobit inwardly and cast out the demon from Sara and healed his father’s blindness by Himself. But He sent the archangel St. Raphael to do all this.
He could have given the news to the Virgin that she was to be the Most Holy Mother of God by rearranging the stars into the Annunciation—He sent St. Gabriel.
He can and does guide and guard all creation—but He does so by means of His holy angels, whose number fixed the boundaries of the earth, who protect whole nations, peoples, cities and every individual human being personally.
The Lord God the Church knows doesn’t just do things first person directly all the time. He loves to delegate power and responsibility.
The same is so even of man. To quote St. Macarius Metropolitan of Moscow (as cited by Father Pomozhansky in his introduction to Orthodox dogmatic theology): “As the image of God, the son and inheritor of the Heavenly Father, man has been placed as a kind of intermediary between the Creator and the earthly creation. . .so that by concentrating the aims of all existing visible creatures in himself, he might through himself unite all things with God, and thus keep the whole chain of earthly creatures in a harmonious bond and order.”
Our soteriology goes against the Protestant idea of a God Who imposes Himself directly on creation to accomplish His aims and ends with us.
We have to work out (κατεργάζομαι) our own salvation, as the holy apostle Paul taught. And as Christ Himself warned, he who puts his hand to the plough but looks back is not worthy. It is they who persevere to the end that shall be saved. Synergy and podvig are the watch-words.
The Only-begotten Son of God came down from heaven and for us and our salvation became man. He gives Grace—Благодать—the Divine energy without which we cannot do what we must—save our sinful souls. But it is us who have to ask, accept and struggle to hold it and increase it.
And salvation is not a once and for all affair. It is not even attained completely in this life-time. The refashioning of ourselves into the Image of the God-man out of the broken image of Adam is not finished in this world. It too is an evolution of sorts, culminating in the Resurrection.
But to return to creation, in the text of the first chapters of the holy book of Genesis itself we don’t see God stating “Be” and it is. The Lord God, rather, makes and calls into action the created world and it responds in cooperation; becomes fruitful, brings forth in abundance, increases and multiplies.
It is always a dialogue with God. Even the choice to make man at all took place within the Tri-hypostatic Godhead as a cooperative creative decision.
“Let Us make man.” Not “Be” and man was.
In addition to the dangers of taking heretics for authorities to judge other Orthodox Christians by and rejecting a scientific theory for reasons predicated purely upon a heretical soteriology, there is the troubling consequence that it presents people, particularly young boys and girls, with a false dichotomy. One that often ends with them leaving behind religion as antiquated precisely for the fact that it is alleged to be implacably opposed to basic biology.
Those who have been taught that it is either God or evolution having come into contact with the physical evidence at secondary school or university or by some other means even later in life, will tend to leave behind religion rather than biology. Sermonizing and all hours at Sunday school stand no chance when the consensus of the scientific world are arrayed against them. And in a certain sense this is as it should be. But they should never have been forced to pick a horn of this dilemma to impale themselves on to begin with.
What is a right, an Orthodox approach to physical science?
The holy fathers generally when they write of things we today would suppose fall within its range, are wrong. They believed in animals that don’t exist, related inaccurate geographical information and more. More often than not, because that is what their contemporaries, who were not Christians, believed.
And we ought not to be ashamed of their errors. It is a demonstration of the standard of their education and the quality of their personal culture. Our fathers in the Faith were men who knew the live issues of their time and were familiar with current ideas.
A principle upon which a sound Orthodox approach to the physical sciences might proceed, is the governing conviction that God knows how the world works. If we discover a physical phenomenon or process, it isn’t a surprise to God.
If then a text from Sacred Scripture seems to me to contradict what we have found in the physical world, I should not then conclude “Well so much the worse for the world because the Bible says.”
It is neither nature nor God that is wrong here. The fault lies in my reading of the text, not the text itself. And certainly not in the deliverances of the physical senses regards a public and repeatable or recurring phenomenon.
And if one is looking for scientifically accurate statements about the physical world in the first place—I should confidently say that at all events they are plainly reading it wrong.
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk describes Scripture as God’s love-letter to humanity. One would have to be pre-eminently crass and insensitive to begin sifting a love-letter’s phrases for scientific accuracy.
The Gospels are spiritual. They are to be read spiritually. We ought to read them prayerfully and try to carry it into our lives. They’re for the deepening of one’s spiritual life, softening of one’s heart and cleansing of one’s soul.
Fire for repentance, incitement to prayer, stepping-stone to our highest hopes; inexhaustible treasury of faith, hope and love. Source of direction and consolation, not scientific information. They tell us about the unseen that sees us.
If we read the Bible that way, I think there would be less needless divisions stemming from questions in fields of science that so few of us are really competent to seriously discuss anyway.
And that would be the least benefit.