Evolution is our fundamental reality

(Dreamstime / Agsandrew)

Editor's note: This is a companion piece to the column by Ilia Delio that was posted on July 1.

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We are living in the midst of several major crises, including the environment and the institutional church. Does academic theology play a role here as well? Well, yes. As co-creators, we can begin to resolve some of the problems by better integrating theology and science.

Teilhard de Chardin is one the most important thinkers of the 20th century because he integrated theology into the wider current of modern science. He rightly stated that religion cannot be done outside or apart from the basic insights of modern science.

How often I have heard statements like "Evolution is not a proven theory" or "There are different theories of evolution" or "Quantum physics is an incomplete theory." If science actually followed these narrow ideas, we would not have electricity, running water, and certainly not computers and cellphones. We would live agrarian lives, travel by horse and buggy, and die at young ages.

Albert Einstein was a young unknown Swiss patent officer who dared to think differently about space and time and challenged Isaac Newton's ideas, eventually overthrowing the Newtonian framework. Did he have all the answers before he published his paper? Absolutely not. His theories opened up new windows and new conflicts.

Scientists continue to battle back and forth about quantum physics and a dynamic expanding universe but as the evidence continues to mount, Einstein's theory of relativity is seen to be correct. There is no such thing as absolute space and time, and matter is a form of energy.

Science has never waited until all the data is in because the data is ongoing; there is no terminus ad quem. However there does come a point when a sufficient amount of new data corresponds to experience and the prevailing paradigm shifts in a new direction, as Thomas Kuhn wrote in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

The scientist, like the theologian, must work through the tools and methods at hand to see if the insight is true, that is, if it is consistent with other data and with the larger phenomena of experience. But there is no arriving at a final set of set of data with 100% approval by scientists. Rather, every insight is a new beginning and every discovery is a new question. If science proceeded like religion, we would still be somewhere in the Dark Ages.

So why do theologians resist or circumvent the insights of modern science? This is a complex question because it reflects the way theology has developed in the church, the philosophical foundations of theology, the appropriation of theology by the church, and the manner of incorporating theology into the teaching of the church.

The institution safeguards the deposit of faith — but what really is being protected if that faith is no longer vital or essential to peoples' lives? Raimon Panikkar said to the effect that a Christology that cannot utter a divine Word falls on deaf ears. Our theology has become too small and narrow and we are not dealing with the most fundamental book of revelation, and that is the book of nature, as science understands nature today.

Teilhard stepped back and saw that religion and evolution belong together. That is, there is a religious dimension to cosmic and biological evolution that appears in the rise of human consciousness, first among pre-axial people religions, then in the axial age and the emergence of world religions. Christianity is a first axial religion marked by the rise of the individual and the rise of the institution.

We are living at the dawn of a new axial age, what Ewert Cousins called "second axial consciousness." This new level of consciousness differs from the first axial period in that it is no longer a consciousness of the individual but of the collective whole. Second axial consciousness is cosmic, collective, communal and ecological and it is the consciousness of younger generations.

Teilhard defined evolution as the rise of consciousness and saw the problem of Christianity in the 20th century (prior to the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council) as one of increasing irrelevance: Christianity "isolates [its followers] instead of merging them with the mass. Instead of harnessing them to the common task, it causes them to lose interest in it." In The Divine Milieu, he lamented that "far too many Christians are insufficiently conscious of the 'divine' responsibilities of their lives ... never experiencing the spur or the intoxication of advancing God's kingdom in every domain of humankind."

Lynn White made a similar claim, that Christianity is ambiguous toward the world; it is anthropocentric, otherworldly and dualistic. Constantly pointing to heaven, we learned to ignore the earth.

This was Teilhard's insight as well. Religion should energize and activate human creative potential in the building of the earth, he said, not isolate us from engaging new ideas and relationships. Religion as a dimension of evolution concerns the development of the human community, an integrated development that respects the earth and our total environment.

Teilhard did not see evolution as a forward movement without resistance. Rather the forces of history acting on humanity must either complexify and evolve humanity, or force humanity to wither. He felt that without a collective commitment to the future, the process of evolution could ultimately collapse in on itself and result in cosmic death.

The only solution he indicated is not "an improvement of living conditions," as desirable as that might be; rather evolution must be toward more being, that is, not only an evolution of consciousness but a new phase of life in the universe toward unification of mind by which the whole cosmic evolution progresses toward greater unity.

This kind of rhetoric is completely outside the theological canon and yet it brilliantly gets to the heart of the problem. We must come to terms with the fact that we are in evolution and this is a difficult point for both the institutional church and the academy.

Evolution is not a theory or an idea; it is our most fundamental reality. Teilhard was aware that a renewed planet of life will not arise if religion does not undergo a radical transformation of ideas, acquire new metaphors, and tell a new story that can harness the spirit of the earth along the lines of evolution. He devoted himself to developing a new theology of evolution in an effort to renew the vital religious dimension of cosmic life and spoke of the vitality of the church in movement, a Christogenesis.

The kind of religion we seek today, he thought, cannot be found in the religious traditions of the past linked to static categories. "God has become too small to nourish in us the desire to go on living and to live on a higher plane," Teilhard lamented. Science now tells us that the cosmos has become a cosmogenesis and this fact alone "must lead to the profound modification of the whole structure not only of our thought but of our beliefs."

What is needed, he thought, is a new religion that can utilize all the "free energy" of the earth to build humankind into greater unity. He suggested that the different religions must come together and find an axis of convergence through respect, dialogue and encounter, meeting on the level of mysticism and action. Without religious convergence, we are left with "unsatisfied theism."

Teilhard did not see Christianity as normative of religion but normative of evolution and the direction of evolution toward cosmic personalization, which is the building up of the body of Christ in the universe. The further evolution of humanity toward greater unity, he said, "will never materialize unless we fully develop within ourselves the exceptionally strong unifying powers exerted by inter-human sympathy and religious forces."

Rather than a religion that focuses only on individuals and heaven, he said, people are looking for a religion of mankind and of the earth that gives meaning to human achievements, a religion that will enkindle cosmic and human evolution and a deep sense of commitment to the earth.

Teilhard felt that any religion that remains detached from the earth and from the movement of evolution leads to "unsatisfied theism" or "a–theism," not a rejection of God but a rejection of religion disconnected from the impulses of cosmic life. Because religion is a vital dimension of evolution, he thought that religion is the necessary energy to vitalize the earth into a new unity, a new planetization that is now taking place on the level of the internet and global community.

Without the vitality of religion at the core of evolution, Teilhard indicated, we have no real direction and thus no real future together. Hence, we need a theology that can speak to a world in evolution and we need a church that can vitalize a world in movement.

If the church truly desires to make a difference in the world through a living Gospel, then it is time to bring theology into dialogue with the sciences. More so, we must accept evolution as our deepest reality and understand God's work in a world of change and complexity. Every theology student and seminarian should enroll in science classes for at least the first year of study, and every trained theologian should do theology with evolution as a starting point. Words like "being" and "nature" belong to the first axial period. Second axial language includes complexity, cybernetics, information and systems.

If we can realize that we live in a very large, dynamic universe, that evolution and the rise of consciousness is what impacts our understanding of God, and that without modern science at the core of our theological thinking, we cannot adequately preach the Gospel, then a new church can emerge.

Despite the mess we are in, God is still the power of the future and this power is truly known when we begin with a science charged with faith. Or as Alfred North Whitehead said, "religion will not regain its power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science"

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of 16 books, including Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015), and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe.]

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