You are here

Creation and Evolution


Credo for Today: What Christians Believe

Belief in Creation and the Theory of Evolution

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Charles Darwin developed the idea of the evolution of all living things and thus radically called into question the traditional notion of the invariability of the species created by God, he inaugurated a revolution in our world view that was no less thoroughgoing than the one that we associate with the name Copernicus. Despite the Copernican revolution, which dethroned the earth and increasingly expanded the dimensions of the universe toward the infinite, as a whole the firmly established framework of the old world view continued to exist and to insist, without modification, on the temporal boundary of the six thousand years that had been calculated from the biblical chronologies. A few examples may illustrate for us the tenacity (almost unimaginable today) with which people used to take for granted the narrow temporal parameters of the biblical world view.

In 1848, when Jacob Grimm published his History of the German Language, he regarded the age of mankind–six thousand years–as an undisputed postulate that needed no further reflection. W. Wachsmuth declared the same thing as a matter of course in his widely acclaimed General History of Culture, which appeared in 1850 and in this respect was no different from the general history of the world and of the peoples that Christian Daniel Beck had published in its second edition in 1813. The examples could easily be multiplied. Let these suffice to indicate the narrow horizon within which our view of history and of the world still ranged a hundred years ago and to show how unshakable was the Bible-based tradition of thought taken entirely from Judeo-Christian salvation history; what a revolution it must have been, after the immeasurable expansion of space that had preceded it, for a similar abolition of boundaries to take control now of time and history! In many respects the consequences of such a process are even more dramatic than those of the Copernican revolution could ever be. For the dimension of time touches the creature man incomparably more deeply than that of space; indeed, now the notion of space, too, is once again relativized and changed, inasmuch as space loses its firm, definable form and is itself subjected to history, to temporality. Man appears «as the begin that came to be in and through endless changes; the great constants of the biblical world view, the original condition and the final condition, become unfathomably remote–the basic understanding of reality changes: becoming replaces being, evolution replaces creation, and ascent replaces the Fall.»

Within the context of these reflections we cannot thoroughly investigate the host of questions that are posed thereby; we merely wish to state the problem of whether the fundamental world views of creation and evolution can (contrary to first impressions) coexist without forcing the theologian to make a dishonest compromise and for tactical reasons to declare the terrain that has become untenable as superfluous anyway, after having so short a time before insisted loudly on situating it as an indispensable part of the faith.

The problem has various levels, which we must distinguish from each other and evaluate separately. First, there is a relatively superficial aspect of the whole matter, which is really not entirely theological: the pre-Darwinian idea of the invariability of the species had been justified in terms of the idea of creation; it regarded every individual species as a datum of creation that had existed since the beginning of the world through God’s creative work as something unique and different alongside the other species. It is clear that this form of belief in creation contradicts the idea of evolution and that this expression of faith has become untenable today. But with this correction (and we will return again later to examine its significance and problematic character), we have not exhausted the entire scope of the concept of creation. When one rules out all individual creations and replaces them with the idea of evolution, then the real difference between the two concepts first emerges; it becomes clear that each one is based on a different way of framing the question. The extension of the concept of creation into the individual structures of reality was of course able for a long time to conceal this deeper difference and thus the real problem. Belief in creation inquires into the fact that there is being as such; its question is why anything exists at all instead of nothing. In contrast, the idea of evolution asks why precisely these things exist and not others, whence they acquired their particularity, and how they are connected with other formations. Philosophically, then, one would say that the idea of evolution is situated on the phenomenological level and deals with the actually occurring individual forms in the world, whereas the belief in creation moves on the ontological level, inquires into what is behind individual things, marvels at the miracle of being itself, and tries to give an account of the puzzling “is” that we commonly predicate of all existing realities. One could also put it this way: Belief in creation concerns the difference between nothing and something, while the idea of evolution examines the difference between something and something else. Creation characterizes being as a whole as “being from somewhere else.” Evolution, in contrast, describes the inner structure of being and inquires into the specific “from where” of individual existing realities. Perhaps for the natural scientist the problem as framed by belief in creation appears to be an illegitimate question that man cannot answer. The transition to the evolutionary way of looking at the world is in fact the step toward that positivistic form of science that deliberately restricts itself to what is given, tangible, and empirically observable by man, thereby rejecting from the realm of science as unproductive any reflection about the real foundations of reality. In this regard, belief in creation and the idea of evolution designate not only two different areas of inquiry but also two different categories of thought. That is probably the cause of the problematic relation that one senses between the two even after their fundamental compatibility has become evident.

But this leads us already to a second level of the question. We have learned to distinguish two aspects of belief in creation: its concrete expression in the notion of the creation of all individual species by God and its real intellectual starting point. We have established that the first aspect, that is, the concrete form which the idea of creation had taken in practice, has been abolished by the idea of evolution; here the believer must allow himself to be taught by science that the way in which he had imagined creation was part of a pre-scientific world view that has become untenable. But as far as the actual intellectual approach is concerned, the inquiry into the transition from nothingness to being, we have managed for the time being to note only the difference between the two categories of thought; the theory of evolution and belief in creation belong, with respect to their ultimate fundamental orientation, to entirely different intellectual worlds and have nothing at all directly in common. Meanwhile what are we to think about this apparent neutrality that we have thus stumbled upon? That is the second level of the inquiry which we must now pursue further. Here it is not very easy to make progress, because there is always something very delicate about comparing categories of thought and about the problem of whether they can be related to each other. In doing so one must try to position oneself above both categories of thought and thus easily ends up in an intellectual no-man’s land, in which one appears suspicious to both sides and soon gets the feeling of straddling the fence. Nevertheless, we must make the attempt to grope our way farther. As an initial observation, we can state that the inquiry of evolutionary thought is narrower than that of belief in creation. By no means, therefore, can evolutionary doctrine incorporate belief in creation. In this sense it can rightly describe the idea of creation as something of no use to it: by its very methodology, it is founded upon the compilation of positivistic material, and such a belief has no place within its scope. At the same time, of course, it must leave open the question of whether the further inquiry proposed by faith is per se justified and possible. In any case it may regard this, in terms of a particular concept of science, as extra-scientific, but it cannot rule out the question as a matter of principle or say that man should not address the question of being as such. On the contrary: such ultimate question will always be indispensable for man, who confronts the ultimate in his very existence and cannot be reduced to what is scientifically demonstrable. But this still leaves us with the problem of whether the idea of creation, being the broader subject, can for its part accept the idea of evolution within its parameters of whether that contradicts its fundamental approach.

Reasons of various sorts seem at first glance to favour the latter argument: after all, the natural scientists and theologians of the first generation who said so were neither foolish nor malicious: on either side they certainly had their reasons, which we must take into account if we do not want to arrive at hasty syntheses that will not withstand challenges or are simply dishonest. The objections that come to mind are of quite different sorts. One can say first, for instance, that belief in creation has been expressed for centuries as faith in the creation of the individual species and in the notion of a static world view; now that this has become untenable, the belief cannot abruptly toss this ballast aside; rather, it has become  entirely inapplicable. This objection, which today no longer seems very serious to us, becomes more acute when one reflects that even today faith still necessarily regards the creation of one particular creature as indispensable: the creation of man. For if man is only the product of evolution, then spirit, too, is a random formation. But if spirit evolved, then matter is primary thing and the sufficient cause of all the rest. And if that is so, then God vanishes and, with him, Creator and creation automatically. But how is man – one among many beings, however excellent and great he may be – to be kept out of the chain of evolutionary developments? Now this shows that the creation of individual creatures and the idea of creation itself cannot be separated quite so readily as it may have appeared at first. For it appears to be a matter of principle here. Either all individual things are the product of evolution, including man. Or else they are not. The second hypotheses is ruled out, and so the first remains; and this appears now, as we have just realized, to call the whole idea of creation into question, because it abolishes the primacy and superiority of spirit, which in some form are to be regarded as a fundamental prerequisite for belief in creation.

Now some have tried to get around this problem by saying that the human body may be a product of evolution, but the soul is not by any means: God himself created it, since the spirit cannot emerge from matter. This answer seems to have in its favour the fact that spirit cannot be examined by the same scientific method with which one studies the history of organisms, but only at first glance is this a satisfactory answer. We have to continue the line of questioning: Can we divide man up in this way between theologians and scientists–the soul for the former, the body for the latter? Is that not intolerable for both? The natural scientist believes that he can see the man as a whole gradually taking shape; he also finds an area of psychological transition in which human behaviour slowly arises out of animal activity, without being able to draw a clear boundary. (Of course, he lacks the material with which to do so–something that often is not admitted with sufficient clarity.) Conversely, if the theologian is convinced that the soul gives form to the body as well, characterizing it through and through as a human body, so that a human being is spirit only as body and is body only as and in the spirit, then this division of man loses all meaning for him, too.

Indeed, in that case the spirit has created for itself a brand-new body and thereby cancelled out all of evolution. Thus from both perspectives the theme of creation and evolution seems to lead in man’s case to a strict either-or that allows for no intermediate positions. Yet, according to the present state of our knowledge, that would probably mean the end of belief in creation.

With that, the beautiful harmony that seemed to stand out clearly on the first level of the inquiry has completely dissolved again, and we are back where we started. How are we to make any progress? Well, a little while ago we had touched upon a middle level that at first seemed unimportant but now could prove to be the center of the inquiry and the starting point for a defensible answer. To what extent is faith bound up with the notion that God created the individual fundamental realities of the world? This way of framing the question may seem at first somewhat superficial, but it follows logically from a general problem that could very well represent the middle stratum of our whole question: Can the notion of a world of becoming be reconciled with the fundamental biblical idea of the creation of the world through the Word, with the derivation of being [Sein] from creative meaning [Sinn]? Can the idea of being that is expressed therein coexist intellectually with the idea of becoming as outlined in the theory of evolution? Concealed within these questions is another quite fundamental question about the relation between world view and faith in general. This will be a good place to start. For in trying to think at the same time as a believer in creation and a scientist (that is, according to the theory of evolution), obviously one will attribute to faith a different world view from the one that previously was accepted as the authentic world view of faith. In this process, actually, we even find the heart of the whole matter around which our reflections have been circling: faith is robbed of its world view, which seemed however to be faith itself, and is connected with another. Can one do this without dissolving its identity? That is precisely our problem.

Here it may be somewhat surprising and at the same time liberating to learn that this question was not asked for the first time in our generation. Rather, the theologians in the early Church were confronted in principle with the same task. For the biblical world view, as expressed in the creation accounts of the Old Testament, was by no means their world view; basically it appeared to them just as unscientific as it does to us. Although people often speak simply of  “the ancient world view”, it is a considerable mistake to do so. Viewed from outside, it may appear unified to us; for those who lived in it, however, the distinctions that seem insignificant to us were decisive. The early creation accounts express the world view of the ancient Near East, especially of Babylon; the Church Fathers lived in the Hellenistic age, to which that world view seemed mythical, prescientific, and in every respect intolerable. One consideration that helped them, and ought to help us, is that the Bible is really a literature that spans a whole millennium. That literary tradition extends from the world view that shaped the creation passages of the Wisdom literature, which give a picture of the world and of the creation accounts in Genesis, which of course are not uniform themselves. The first and the second chapters of this book present largely contrasting images of the course of creation. But this means that, even within the Bible itself, faith and world view are not identical: the faith makes use of a world view but does not coincide with it. Over the course of biblical development, this difference was clearly not a theme for reflection but rather was taken for granted: that is the only way to explain the fact that people changed the forms of cosmological speculation in which they portrayed the idea of creation, not only in the various periods of Israel’s history, but also within one and the same period of time, without seeing that as a threat to what was actually meant.

The sense of this internal breadth of faith began to disappear when so-called literal exegesis started to gain wide acceptance and many people lost sight of the transcendence of the Word of God with respect to all of the individual forms in which it is expressed. However, at the same time – from around the thirteenth century – the world view also became fixed in a way hitherto unknown, although in its basic form it was by no means a product of biblical thinking but, on the contrary, could only with some effort be reconciled with the fundamental data of biblical faith. It would not be difficult to uncover the pagan roots of that world view, which later on was thought to be the only Christian world view, and to point out the same by which we can tell even today that faith made use of it, although it could not become identical to it. But we cannot go into that subject here; we must limit ourselves to the positive question. Whether belief in creation, which has outlasted so many different world views and at the same time has influenced and leavened them by its critique and thus furthered the development, can continue to exist as a meaningful statement in light of the evolutionary understanding of the world. Now faith was not identical to any one of the previous world views and then, of course, becomes entrenched in them, and it is clear that faith cannot and should not be identified with our world view either. It would be foolish and untrue to try to pass off evolutionary theory as a product of faith, even though the latter can be said to have contributed to forming that intellectual world in which the theory of evolution could come about. It would be even more foolish to regard faith as a sort of illustration and corroboration of the theory of evolution. The level of its questioning and answering is completely different, as we determined earlier; all that we can try to do is to determine whether the fundamental human question with which faith is associated can still be legitimately answered, even in present-day intellectual circumstances, as it is by belief in creation, and thus in what form the evolutionary world view, too, may be understood as an expression of creation.

In order to move forward, we must examine more closely both the creation account and also the idea of evolution; both of these things, unfortunately, are possible here only in outline form. Let us ask first, then, starting with the latter topic: How does one actually understand the world when it is viewed in evolutionary terms? An essential component, of course, is the notion that being and time enter into a fixed relation: being is time; it does not merely have time. Only in becoming does it exist and unfold into itself. Accordingly, being is understood dynamically, as being-in-movement, and it is understood as something directed: it does not always revolve around the same state of affairs but rather advances. Admittedly, there is no neutral standard available that would allow us to say specifically what should be regarded as better or less good and, consequently, when we could seriously speak of an advance.

Nevertheless, the special relation that man assumes with respect to all the rest of reality entitles him to regard himself as the point of reference, at least for the question about himself: insofar as he is at issue, he is no doubt justified in doing so. And when he measures in this way, the direction of evolution and its progressive character are ultimately indisputable, even if one takes into account the fact that there are dead ends in evolution and that its path by no means runs in a straight line. Detours, too, are a path, and by way of detours, too, one arrives at the goal, as evolution itself demonstrates.

Of course the question remains open whether being, understood in such fashion as a path – that is, evolution as a whole – has a meaning, and it cannot be decided within the theory of evolution itself; for that theory this is methodologically foreign question, although, of course, for a live human being it is the fundamental question. For this reason current natural science explains its limits rightly acknowledging that this question, which is indispensable for man, cannot be answered within science but only within the framework of a “faith system”. We need not be concerned here with the opinion of many people that the Christian “faith system” is unsuited to answering this question and that a new one must be found, because they thereby make a statement within their own faith-decision and outside the parameters of their science.

With that, however, we are now in a position to say precisely what the belief in creation means with regard to the evolutionary understanding of the world. Confronted with the fundamental question, which cannot be answered by evolutionary theory itself, of whether meaninglessness or meaning [Sinn] would lead, the faith expresses the conviction that  the world in its entirety, as the Bible says, comes out from the logos and represents the temporal form of its self-actuation. From the perspective of our understanding of the world, creation is not a distant beginning or a beginning divided up into several stages, but rather it concerns being as something temporal and becoming: temporal being as a whole is encompassed by the one creative act of God, which gives it, in its division, its unity, in which at the same time its meaning consists, a meaning that is unfathomable to us because we do not see the whole but are ourselves only parts of it. Belief in creation does not tell us what the meaning of the world is, but only that there is one: the whole back and forth of being-in-becoming is the free and therefore inherently risky actuation of the primordial creative thought from which it has its being. And so today, perhaps, we can understand better what the Christian dogma of creation was always saying but could hardly bring to bear because of the influence of the model from antiquity: creation should not be thought of according to the model of the craftsman who makes all sorts of objects, but rather in the manner in which thought is creative. And at the same time it becomes evident that being-in-movement as a whole (and not just the beginning) is creation and that likewise the whole (and not merely what comes later) is proper reality and proper movement. To summarize all this, we can say: To believe in creation means to understand, in faith, the world of becoming revealed by science as a meaningful world that comes from a creative mind.

But this already clearly delineates also the answer to the question about the creation of man, because now the foundational decision about the place of spirit and meaning in the world has been made: the recognition of the world of becoming as the self-actuation of a creative thought includes also its derivation from the creativity of the spirit, from the Creator Spiritus. In the writings of Teilhard de Chardin we find the following ingenious comment on this question: “What distinguishes a materialist from a spiritualist is no longer, by any means (as in philosophy, which establishes fixed concepts) the fact that he admits a transition between the physical infrastructure and the psychic superstructure of things, but only the fact that he incorrectly sets the definitive point of equilibrium in the cosmic movement on the side of the infrastructure, that is, on the side of disintegration.” [1] Certainly one can debate the details in this formulation; yet the decisive point seems to me to be grasped quite accurately: the alternative materialism or a spiritually defined world view, chance or meaning, is presented to us today in the form of the question of whether one regards spirit and life in its ascending forms as an incidental mold on the surface of the material world (that is, of the category of existing things that do not understand themselves), or whether one regards spirit as the goal of the process and, conversely, matter as the prehistory of the spirit. If one chooses the second alternative, it is clear that spirit is not a random product of material developments, but rather that matter signifies a moment in the history of spirit. This, however, is just another way of saying that spirit is created and not the mere product of development, even though it comes to light by way of development.

With that we have reached the point at which we can answer the question of how in fact the theological statement about the special creation of man can coexist with an evolutionary world view or what form it must assume within an evolutionary world view. To discuss this in detail would naturally go beyond the parameters of this essay; a few notes must suffice. We should recall first that, with respect to the creation of man, too, “creation” does not designate a remote beginning but rather each of us in view along with Adam: every human being is directly in relation to God. Faith declares no more about the first man than it does about each one of us, and, conversely, it declares no less about us than it does about the first man.

Every human being is more than the product of inherited traits and environment; no one results exclusively from calculable this-worldly factors; the mystery of creation looms over every one of us. This would then lead to the insight that spirit does not enter the picture as something foreign, as a second substance in addition to matter; the appearance of spirit, according to the previous discussion, means rather that an advancing movement arrives at the goal that has been set for it. Finally, it would have to be noted that precisely the creation of spirit is least of all to be imagined as an artisan activity of God, who suddenly began tinkering with the world.

If creation means dependence of being, then special creation is nothing other than special dependence of being. The statement that man is created in a more specific, more direct way by God than other things in nature, when expressed somewhat less metaphorically, means simply this: that man is willed by God in a specific way, not merely as a being that “is there”, but as a being that knows him; not only as a construct that he thought up, but as an existence that can think about him in return. We call the fact that man is specifically willed and known by God his special creation.

From this vantage point, one can immediately make a diagnosis about the form of anthropogenesis: The clay became man at that moment in which a being for the first time was capable of forming, however dimly, the thought “God”. The first “thou” that–however stammeringly–was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed. For it is not the use of weapons or fire, not new methods of cruelty or of useful activity that constitute man, but rather his ability to be immediately in relation to God. This holds fast to the doctrine of the special creation of man; herein lies the center of belief in creation in the first place. Herein also lies the reason why the moment of anthropogenesis is the rise of the spirit, which cannot be excavated with a shovel. The theory of evolution does not invalidate faith, nor does it corroborate it. But it does challenge faith to understand itself more profoundly and thus to help man to understand himself and to become increasingly what he is: the being who is supposed to say “thou” to God in eternity.

[1] Cited from Claude Tresmontant, Einführung in das Denken Teilhard de Chardins (Freiburg and Munich, 1961), 45.

J. Ratzinger, Credo for Today: What Christians Believe (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), pp. 32-47.