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From Darwin to Zygon – Signs of Reconciliation

By Paul Chaffee


Surveying science and religion from an interfaith perspective, this month's theme, has been daunting. The subject is encyclopedic, spanning multiple vast arenas that overlap. In the midst of the buzz and abundance, though, an appalling scientific illiteracy among religious leaders and politicians along with the general public seriously burdens our culture.

Forty-six percent of Americans deny evolution and believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. That’s a scary factotum considering climate change, ecological disruption, a growing vulnerability to pandemics, and global poverty, to name just a few areas where scientists and religious activists need to understand each other and learn to pull together for the sake of the Earth and our own survival.

The heart of the contemporary and largely bogus ‘war’ between science and religion has hinged around evolution. So this issue starts out with Darwin, mentions the trial where John Scopes was convicted of illegally teaching evolution, and moves to the embrace Michael Dowd makes in Thank God for Evolution. For those not trapped in a literalist, exclusivist understanding of their particular religious story, Dowd et al open wonderful new opportunities for everyone, people of faith and practice and those with none.

Dowd’s manifesto in “New Theists” is included here, as well as an introduction to his work and his video titled “Evolutionary Christianity.” That title may sound oxymoronic or bizarre to the uninitiated, but here’s the challenge: give “Evolutionary Christianity” five minutes and see if you are tempted, indeed, compelled to listen for the next 20!

An encouraging factor in all this comes from thousands of scientists, along with more than 11,000 clergy organized by Michael Zimmerman, in the story he tells here about the Clergy Letter Project and its development. Their movement brings the good news into congregations that science and evolution can inform our spiritual understanding, enriching rather than robbing us of faith. The good news comes in many forms. The brief sampling here this month is the tip of the iceberg of residual benefits when science and spirituality respect and inform each other. Matthew Fox’s review of The New Universe and the Human Future brings the elevated dialog joyfully home.

A New Narrative

In the midst of thousands of science and religion discussions these days, perhaps the most provocative emerging theme is the notion of a “new narrative” about who we are and why we’re here. It is not a narrative that supplants the “narrative” each faith proclaims and follows; rather it informs and adds dimension and texture to what we already hold precious. Elements of this new story include: beginning 14 billion years ago with the birth of the universe; recognizing the intrinsic connectedness among us all, including animate and inanimate nature; recognizing the reality, the actual expression of “God” or “Spirit” or “Emptyness” or the “Ground of Being” in every atom of the universe; and a progressive, evolutionary impulse moving us forward in new, creative ways.

If that seems a lot to chew on, perhaps it will make a bit more sense after reading some of the gems in this issue. Clearly we are in new territory here, frightening in some sense, but liberating and transforming for those who take the risk.

One might wonder why an issue on science and religion would conclude with an essay on Occupy theology. If you read Rory McEntee and Adam Bucko’s Occupy story to its end, you’ll find a Jesuit paleontologist and theologian invoked, the man who set the table for the science and religion dialogue we enjoy today. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s remarkable mystical vision, drawing deeply from both fonts, was condemned and banned by the Vatican in 1939, a judgment that didn’t begin to soften until after Vatican II, years after Chardin’s death in 1955. His vision and genius live on, though, making this issue of TIO possible.

Finally, those with a passion for this stuff need to find their way to the American Teilhard Association. For the academically inclined, don’t ignore the Zygon Journal, a vibrant 40-year-old publication on science and religion with dozens of interesting essays.

Finally, treat yourself by exploring Metanexus. It focuses on “BIG History, BIG Problems, BIG Questions” in an exploration of how science can improve life on Earth.