Evolution and Magnalia Dei

By John W. Farrell


In the years since I first started writing about human evolution and the Church, there’s been an encouraging growth in the desire of Catholics to grapple with the challenges posed to some of the classical Christian doctrines by the science of evolution.

The most important one remains the doctrine of The Fall: Original Sin and our traditional understanding of the origins of the human race. This remains a stumbling block for apologists trying to square an historical acceptance of ‘First Parents’ or a unique first generation of divinely inspired humans with the reality of Homo sapiens’ more gradual emergence in time. (You can also see it with the growth of Catholic creationist sites in the U.S., some of which have clearly been the recipients of major funding and who reject any acceptance of evolution.)

What does it mean to say we’re fallen in a world that science and history tell us never knew paradise? Fallen from what? As far as archeology, geology and paleontology can show us–and it’s pretty far back–there has never been time in the history of life that did not know death and suffering. And not just death as it comes for individuals–but successive waves of extinction throughout the history of the planet. Indeed, one sees the same dynamic from a cosmic perspective, where our own solar system was born out of the ‘ashes’ of a previous sun’s supernova.

The late Herbert McCabe OP gave this question a lot of thought when he wrote about Original Sin in his collection of sermons and essays, God Still Matters. If we’re going to continue to talk seriously about a Fall, he suggested, then we need to turn it upside down. What befell humanity wasn’t a fall down–but a fall up.

“That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control. Once linguistic animals emerged with the interdependent powers of communication and technology, they had a capacity for aggression and destruction which went beyond anything that could be controlled by the old checks built into their biological systems.”    As an example, McCabe cited the built-in instinctive resistance to killing children with our own hands–and how this can and has been overcome by the perfection of weapons which can now kill from a distance. “The case is quite different when I kill a child at long range, when technology has separated the action from my immediate experience. Then the natural inhibition is simply not powerful enough. Anyway, the human animal in its short history has so far not found a way of adjusting to its own powers.”

This idea alarms some Christians opposed to evolution because it suggests that there is something missing or defective about all of creation, which the Bible tells us that God said ‘was good’ from the beginning. But as paleontologist Daryl Domning said in a book he co-wrote with the late Monika K. Hellwig, because Scripture says creation is good, doesn’t mean it’s perfect, nor that it is static: that aspect of The Fall which is universal to the whole of creation, Domning wrote, “is not to be understood as sinful or the result of actual sin, but merely as denoting that the world is imperfect or unperfected, though (with the help of grace) perfectible.”

 Another Dominican priest and scientist, Fr. Raymond Nogar, suggested we should embrace the disharmony and messiness that the evolutionary view of the world implies. Accounts of the universe of science that emphasized order and harmony, such as the mystical teleology famously proposed by Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, he would have no truck with. So-called cosmogonies of order and harmony, in Nogar’s view, were misleading.

“What is far more obvious to me is the disorder, the waste, the hectic disorganization of the fragments of the universe of reality,” Nogar wrote. Such a view is a painful one, he acknowledged, but we could now be confident that the old idea of cosmic harmony is an illusion which has collapsed once and for all.

“At least this must be said: When I look out (and inward) upon the world of reality, this is what is obvious and unimpeachable to me: The universe may, in point of fact, be one; when God looks upon the universe He may see it to be one; but when I look out upon the universe of matter, of man and of God’s handiwork, I do not see it as one.”

Teilhard’s mistake, according to Nogar, was that he tried too hard to embed Christ as the center of a new cosmic order, forgetting that the Incarnation (and indeed all miracles of God’s action in the world) are radical intrusions on the universe, not organic developments within it. Christ, Nogar insisted, “reveals Himself as the eccentric, the Lord not of the expected order, but the Lord of the Absurd.”

 Evolution, in other words, cannot be coerced into neat teleologies of order and design. Nor should it be. We should accept the messiness of this creation within which Revelation becomes an account of magnalia Dei, a succession of Divine intrusions.

John W. Farrell is the author most recently of The Clock and the Camshaft: And Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without (Prometheus Books)

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