Ethics After Darwin

John ArmstrongScience

Last evening I attended a stimulating lecture, and even more stimulating discussion afterward, on the subject of Christian ethics after Darwin. The lecture was presented by Dr. Stephen J. Pope, author of The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love (1994) and Human Evolution and Christian Ethics (2007). Dr. Pope teaches theology at Boston College, a Jesuit school, and was the chair of the department of theology. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago under James Gustafson, one of the most important ethicists in the second half of the twentieth century. I was invited to attend this lecture, sponsored by the Albertus Magnus Society at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, by my good friend, Dr. Keith Berndtson. Keith is my personal physician and serves as an ACT 3 adviser. This subject is of particular interest to Keith and me and I wanted to share this time with my friend.

First, the controversial stuff. Dr. Pope accepts macro evolution without serious question. He believes it is a simple fact and there is no serious debate about the scientific evidence. He spoke of four ways that people can respond to these facts. One is to attack them, an approach taken by those who feel they have to defend a literal reading of Genesis no matter what the evidence says. Another approach is neglect. A third is to embrace evolution and then to embrace scientific naturalism. He rejected all three options and presented a view that regards evolution as a fact but maintains an essentially orthodox view of Christian faith and theology. Genesis, in his reading, is clearly not to be taken as literal history but rather as a story that explains the fact of God and how ancient writers understood God's role in the beginning. While I do not fully agree with Pope I am convinced that the fundamentalist approach to evolution is booby-trapped with false land mines and trip wires that are not necessary for Christian apologists. How we interpret Genesis surely requires a different approach than the one of many fundamentalists who take it as "literal" in the most strict sense. A knowledge of the early church fathers will make you immediately cautious about reading Genesis as a "literal" reporting of historical facts, at least as we think of facts in many conservative circles. The war between science and theology is often a waste of the effective mission of Christians and thus the church is wise to move away from these conflicts as much as possible.

Second, Dr. Pope presented an excellent case for how social Darwinism and ethical relativism are both wrong. He argued strongly that naturalism is not the necessary consequence of accepting scientific Darwinism. He asked, "What does it mean to be human in the light of evolutionary science?" How do Christian ethics reflect the nature of the human person as understood within the modern landscape, one that is obviously very different than the pre-Darwinian age? Pope's specialty is the relationship between ethics and evolutionary theory. His basic argument against the impact of Darwinism on Christian ethics revolved around the idea of radical reductionism. We have too easily reduced to science matters of faith and life. We should embrace the science with what Pope called "emergent complexity." In good sacramental and Catholic fashion he argued that we can embrace the past without being enslaved to it at the present.

Finally, Dr. Pope's primary argument, which I found very helpful, was to explain how ethics can and should work with deep Christian impact in the present world. He argued for "solidarity." By this term he reasoned that we must pursue a justice that is rooted in God's love. We must resist natural self-preferences in favor of solidarity with all other human persons. He cited the famous Charles Taylor who said, "We are the most highly individualistic culture that has ever existed." The answer, said Pope, is a radical (Christian) solidarity with the entire creation, a solidarity that maintains a real creator/creation distinction. Pope wants to make us more conversant with the whole of creation, accepting it sacramentally, while we do not give up the idea that God is the creator and grace is the real answer to our human problem. 

I had the opportunity to converse in private with Dr. Pope at the end of the evening. I listened to him speak to about ten young adults who were his former students. As they talked about justice and compassion for the poor, and how he had taught them to practice Christian ethics in his classes, I felt like I was sitting in the class of a master teacher who understood how to motivate young people to follow Christ in radically faithful ways. It was impressive! Dr. Pope and I spoke about two theologians: Tom Torrance and Jurgen Moltmann. He knew a little about Torrance, the famous Reformed theologian who passed away recently. Torrance wrote a great deal more about the intersection of Christian faith and science, perhaps more than anyone else that some evangelicals read. (Alister McGrath has also made a huge contribution in this area of science and faith and remains a solid evangelical as well.) I mentioned Moltmann because he helps show how "hope" fits into a view of the future that takes scientific progress, and human sin, very seriously.

All in all, it was a fun evening for me. I love attending an event like this one in a context that is very different from my own. Listening to the audience frame questions was an adventure in itself. People ranged from seriously reflective Christian orthodoxy to ideas about native American spirituality that saw creation and God as virtually one and the same. As I drove home I wondered again: "Why are evangelicals so fearful of such dialogue?"