I'd appreciate comments on the following statement of my general position
re. the relationship between evolutionary science and Christian faith.
I was a panelist in a Critical Issues Forum sponsored by The Creighton
Center for the Study of Religion and Society on Tuesday, Feb. 25 on the
question "Evolution & Creation: Conflict Resolved?", prompted in part by
Pope John Paul II's address on October 30, 1996 to the Pontifical Academy
of Sciences. Panelists were Father Dennis Hamm, S.J. (Theology Dept.),
Dr. Ted Burk (Biology Dept.), and me (Biology Dept.). Father Richard
Hauser, S.J. (Theology Dept.) moderated. It was very well attended. I gave
the following prepared remarks after the other two panelists had given
theirs. Dr. Burk is the Chair of the Dept. of Biology, and an agnostic (a
wonderful person, I might add, as are Fr. Hauser and Fr. Hamm).
Thanks much for any suggestions of how I might more clearly articulate a
theistic evolutionary perspective!
Chuck Austerberry's Prepared Remarks for a Critical Issues Forum - Feb. 25, 1997
I appreciate the comments made by Fr. Hamm and Dr. Burk. Like
Fr. Hamm, I believe in both evolutionary science and Christianity. Like
Dr. Burk, I expect continued conflict involving the two. For the many,
many people, such as I, who pursue evolutionary explanations while
maintaining faith in Christianity, the question of why the conflict
continues is important.
In a minority of cases, the conflict is simply between science and
theology per se. In these cases, the warfare analogy is apt, at least on
the evolution battlefield. Scientific materialists and/or complete
reductionists, such as Richard Dawkins, William Provine, and Daniel
Dennett, have little if any respect for religious faith. Biblical
literalists like Henry Morris and Duane Gish practice an odd kind of
"special creation" science, but they have little or no respect for
mainstream evolutionary science.
However, many people accept both evolution and Christianity at the
same time, or at least they respect both to a significant extent, so the
simple warfare analogy between science and religion usually doesn't apply.
Of course, minor skirmishes may still go on between theistic evolutionists,
as well as internally within the minds of individual theistic
Do struggles or problems arise because true boundaries exist
between science and theology that are not always respected? Some sort of
distinctions or boundaries between science and religion certainly exist,
and part of what Pope John Paul II and Dr. Robert Russell did last October
was to model how boundaries between science and religion might be
recognized in an atmosphere of mutual respect. However, the boundaries
between science and religion are surprisingly difficult to define. For
example, are science and theology concerned with two distinct realms, such
as a natural world and a supernatural world (the dualistic or
compartmentalistic approach), or are they complementary approaches to one
reality ? Whether concerned with separate worlds or separate approaches to
one world, are science and theology completely independent?
A complete independence position is superficially appealing in that
it would seem to insulate us from conflicts. But when taken to extremes,
complete independence is not very satisfying, nor very defensible. Science
and theology do have some genuine similarities in their methods (which I
think run on separate but somewhat parallel tracks), their purposes
(understanding, making sense of reality), and even their objects of study
(for example, what does it mean to human?). Now I am not in favor of
completely integrating science and theology either; attempts to do so can
result in bad science and bad theology. In fact, I think that's what gets
the reductionistic materialists as well as the Biblical literalists into
trouble. So both complete independence and complete integration fail in my
opinion. Some interaction between science and theology is appropriate. In
fact, I think it's one of the most important enterprises that we might
pursue. It's very challenging, though. The interaction between science
and religion happens on pretty wide intellectual space rather than on
neatly divided real estate. I'll mention just a few points that seem
helpful to me, and then we'll move into the discussion portion of this
1) My concept of the Universe is that it is God's creation, all of
it, and that it was, is now, and ever shall be totally dependent upon God
for its very existence. I didn't make up that concept, of course - I
received it from Christian parents and teachers and friends and from
authors I've never met, most importantly the authors of the books of the
Bible. From these sources I've received a faith perspective centered on
Jesus, one that Pope John Paul II and many others have beautifully
expressed. Too often I fall far short of Christ's example, but the
metaphysical position still is very dear to me. It gives my life its
deepest meaning. I feel it is based on a reasoned judgement of the
available evidence, not simply on wishful thinking.
2) Many of the theological problems associated with Darwinian
evolution are not specific to evolution, but are merely emphasized by it.
Long before Darwin's theory of evolution, theologians and philosophers have
argued about free will vs. determinism, the problem of moral evil, the
problem of natural evil, whether or not God is omnipotent and omniscient,
what happens after death, what happens when people pray, whether Genesis
should be interpreted literally, etc.
3) What is known about the universe, and about God, is a tiny, tiny
fraction of what's there. It's as if we are peering through tiny peepholes
with various types of lenses, and some peepholes give very different views
than others, but they're all tiny, and on top of that our eyesight isn't
always so good.
4) The modern scientific method is one of the best methods we've
got to open up and look through more peepholes. We're still trying to
comprehend something incomprehensibly bigger and more complex than our
limited senses and imaginations. And yet, the amazing thing is that we've
been as successful as we have been using science. The comprehensibility of
the universe is just as striking as are its vastness and complexity.
5) The explanations modern science provides consist of combinations
of random contingencies and lawful necessities - God is not an appropriate
part of modern scientific explanations (note that this does not exclude God
from the reality being explained, just from the scientific explanation).
The arbitrary practice of excluding religion from scientific explanations
is like the separation of church and state: it's meant to protect each one
from the other, not invalidate one or the other, nor imply that one must
choose between the two. I want to keep my religion and my science
appropriately distinct, not because the realities studied by these systems
of thought are necessarily autonomous (I think God's activity is not
limited to miracles, but includes what we now call natural law), but
because the methods of inquiry (peepholes) are generally of different types
and require the use of different types of lenses to look clearly through
them. For example, scientific explanations are based on repeatable
observations, or at least on processes that can be tested by repeatable
observations. The Incarnation of Christ, for example, was not such an
6) Multiple kinds of knowledge are valid. One can describe a
painting by describing the chemical composition of the canvas and paint.
One can describe the image represented in the painting, such as a still
life or a nature scene or a portrait. One can describe the mood or feeling
evoked by the painting. All such descriptions are valid. They are also of
quite different kinds. The scientific description would be incomplete by
itself. Artists don't paint pictures so scientists can analyze their
7) I think the Bible teaches that not everything that happens is
God's will. Pain, evil, and happenstance are acknowledged in the Bible.
When asked by his disciples why the tower of Siloam killed a particular
group of 18 people when it fell, Jesus didn't explain why the tower of
Siloam killed those particular people. He did, however, say that those 18
people were no worse sinners than all the other people living in Jerusalem.
8) I think the Bible also teaches that things aren't totally out of
control. Events unpredictable by human observers are called random or
chance events, but don't think they're all unpredictable by God. I don't
know whether God could enjoy playing games of chance - God might not help
but know the outcome! On the other hand, it's possible that God doesn't
care how many fingers and toes we evolved to have even if God does care
whether human consciousness evolved. Just what random chance means to God
I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if God makes creative use of what
we call random chance.
9) Some have said that humans now seem removed from our former
position at the center of the universe, displaced initially by the
Copernican heliocentric model of our own solar system, and more recently by
the recognition that our sun is only one of trillions of stars, and that
even here on earth we are only one of millions of species of organisms have
inhabited this planet. My response is that contemporary physical cosmology
suggests that the universe had to be as large and as old as it is to have
provided the materials and time required for the evolution of carbon-based
life as we know it. God's extravagance and patience may be beyond our
comprehension, but nonetheless, through the God-Man Jesus Christ we mere
humans may personally encounter our Creator.
Charles (Chuck) F. Austerberry, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology, Creighton University, Omaha, NE 68178
Phone: 402-280-2154 (Office) and -2321 (Lab)