The reading I have done over the last few weeks has been done in airports, on airplanes, and in waiting rooms during medical appointments for my wife. One of the books I have begun to read is Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth Johnson.
She wants to give a positive religious exposition of the theory of evolution.
I have three things from the first 40 pages that I have read so far.
First, the title of the book comes from the book of Job. In Job 12:7-10:
But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
And the fowls of the air, and they will tell you;
Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you;
And the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
In whose hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind?
This passage clearly implies that God discloses himself in the world around us and that what we learn by observing nature supports the notion that “the hand of the Lord has done this.” That is the tone of this book. Let us not see what Darwin observed as a threat, but as a disclosure of spiritual truth.
Second, Johnson writes out of Catholic tradition. In many places I see (and she acknowledges) the influence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He was a Jesuit priest trained as a geologist and paleontologist who developed a theology that took evolution into account. I have a friend who sees little or no value in Teilhard since he writes semi-poetically and does not seem to have much substance. What she misses, and what many who just read one of his books often miss, is that he is building on the philosophy of Henri Bergson. I think contemporaries of Teilhard understood this. You can criticize Bergson’s philosophy, but it is a substantial piece of work. Teilhard takes much of Bergson’s work for granted.
Bergson broke out of the static Aristotelian and Thomist categories to develop a dynamic view of emerging evolution pushed along by an immanent life-force, elan vital in French. I am no expert on Bergson but I understand and sympathize with him more than I do with Whitehead. If you are going to develop a theology that takes evolution into account, Bergson is not a bad place to start.
Third, Johnson gives an exposition of Darwin’s work that is compatible with the impression that I have of Darwin. His doubt about God was driven not by his scientific theory, but by the personal experience of the death of two of his children. I know how soul-wrenching the death of a child can be. It is an experience that can breed cynicism and doubt. Yet Darwin never became hostile to faith in the way some of today’s atheists are. His wife was religious and Darwin respected her faith.
Here is a fact that I had not realized. Darwin edited On the Origin of the Species seven times. It was not until the sixth edition that he used the term evolution. Instead, he called it “descent with modification.” I wonder if the idea of modification would have been as objectionable to many.