Home Sacred life The ethics of evolution

Perhaps it is my biologist parents, or my gaelic genes, but the festival of creation, the drama played out among billions of living creatures every day has always been a first testament for me. Older than the first oral tradition that eventually grew into the Hebrew Bible. Old as atoms colliding for the first time, or the first faint rays of light rushing headlong outward from the start, messengers racing to a destiny with those who would be waiting to see and learn billions of years later.

The natural and the divine simply are, inextricably linked. So when Scott Bader-Saye (Professor of Ethics, Seminary of the Southwest, and pretty cool dude) commented in a seemingly off hand manner (no ethicist is ever really off-hand), that there was a problem with evolution, my mind began running. Simply put he argued evolution runs counter to what God expects of us: Justice for the weak and the vulnerable. Survival of the fittest? The strong praying on the weak? It’s a problem, he said.
I’m not so sure. Oh from our anthropocentric view of course it is. But perhaps it is that view itself that causes the problem. We see the injustices in our society that are spoken against in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures when we look at the animal kingdom. We watch lions chase down a sick gazelle and wince, surely in a just world such a gazelle would be protected, cured, not preyed upon?
Life and death are linked, and death has, for us, been something to fear. But I think perhaps we must move past that understanding and realize that death is simply a given for life. Without it there can be no life. Even if the lion and the lamb someday were to lie down together and graze, there would be death for the grass. The death of the grass however, is immediate resurrection for the doe, whose death gives resurrection in the moment of her death to the wolves, and so it goes on through the round of time. The telos of each may not be merely “deerness” or “wolfness” so much as to experience and provide resurrection through their own, eventual death.
I believe that creation, like its creator is not static. It rolls forward in perpetual change, because creation never ceases. It was a not a painting set once and meant to remain so forever, but for Eve’s transgression. It has more in common with a symphony, or perhaps a jazz improv session. The beauty comes from the very fact that the notes change, each giving way to the next in due course. It is only human beings who long to never have to bow they way off stage, to never give up the spot light to the next performers.

Actually the image of an unchanging, set creation that comes with the loss of evolution sounds less like a garden of Eden created by a Creative, wild, powerful, awe inspiring God and more like a child’s diorama. Staid, safe, plastic. Is evolution so counter to God? Is it unjust, or does it, rather, reveal a creative God. A God whose speaking is not finished, who is still allowing creation to hazard yet another wonderful and strange adaptation here, there. As individuals come and go across this concert stage the great symphony of life goes on building on what has come before like a crescendo of chorus.

There was a time when the great forests of the midwest were filled with packs of wolves, and their clearings were populated by herds of white tailed deer. The wolves hunted the deer. They preyed primarily on the sick, the old, the weak. Only the fastest, the most alert, with the best ears and noses survived to produce another year’s fawns. Only the wolves that worked together, communicated, and had the stamina to outrun the swift deer went on to raise next year’s pups. And so it went. Until we came, and soon there were no wolves.

For most people that seems far more just. No long did the sick or the weak among the deer need to fear the terror of fang and claw. No more would wolf packs run down the fawn its mother did not guard well, or the elderly buck who had broken his leg. But what most people will never see is the horror that took the place of that cycle of death and resurrection. Once shiny deer hides grow dull over ribs that stand out like fences, because the herd has grown far too large for their food source. The weak, and the ill die slow agonizing deaths of days, or weeks. The old buck with his broken leg now limps desperately about, trying to reach food and water while pain tears at him and death takes many long days to come.

And while the individuals suffer, the species does too. Is it evolution that is unjust, or is it our disconnect from the Creator who formed us that makes it seem so fearsome? After all, is death’s sting the fact that it occurs, or that we do not trust God’s grace to catch us and carry us on; to bring life out of death. Christ has conquered death, we sing, but the wheel of life continues to turn. Death did not end at its defeat, only its power over us ended. We (supposedly) re-awoke to what the squirrel and the deer and the lion already knew, singing the song of creation with their Creator God. But we keep forgetting.

We do not cry in sorrow at the injustice of our fingernails as their excess length is cut away, for they have served their purpose to protect and help manipulate. Now those tiny bits of organic matter can become the start for something else, a whole host of composting bacteria, whose own waste and deaths raises the cycle back around the wheel.

When the wolf pack culls the deer herd of those who cannot outrun them do they do an injustice, or continue to improve the symphony being directed by a God whose words spawn the unimaginable furnaces of stars, the terrifying vastness of galaxies, the infinitely intricate play of life that has sung a long changeable, and achingly beautiful song for billions of years before we thought to call it unjust.

Does evolution fly in the face of the mercy of God? Or is it its own kind of wild, undomesticated grace? Does it call us to humbly accept a creation and Creator that has been playing since long before we arrived at the party, and that knows the score far better than we.

A wolf and a deer are not the same as the billionaire who preys on the laborers in his factory, who denies them just wages and a chance at a dignified life. In the language of creation such a one works counter to evolution, which seeks the best for the whole of the community. We have used our power to think we may step out side the forces of creation. The truth is we could learn from them. We could learn from the deer who senses danger and raises her white flag tail to warn all the rest, that they may flee together. We could learn much from the wolves who hunt as a pack for the good of the pack, bringing back hard won food to the young and the injured. We could learn a great deal from the song of creation, if we can set aside our fear and join the chorus; we’re welcome, God has saved us seats.

Comments? Opinions? Think I got it wrong? I’d love to hear, add your comments below!

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