Several months back, I tried to bash the historical reality of a pervasive theological affirmation of evolutionary theory into the oversimplified narrative of religion against science. I've seen little evidence that my efforts did much to change the discussion. Today, I came across another example that reminded me that this history can't be repeated enough - and maybe it's not a bad idea to reflect just a tiny bit on WHY this constellation of historical data doesn't make into the overall picture of the science/religion dialogue as generally seen in 2012.
The journey continues past the sqiggle.
The piece I found today, while doing research for a different project, was a statement from the World Council of Churches about history. This is where the consensus of the primary international body of Christian churches was at in 1967:
According to the now dominant theory of evolution, man is the product of age-long natural development, moved forward by the forces of heredity and selection. Since the days of Darwin, there has been a latent temptation to use this theory as the basis of a materialistic and monistic ideology. Science itself, in virtue of its nature and limits refuses to make this extrapolation, yet on account of its important role in modern society, cannot help creating for countless people an atmosphere which makes them feel like elements in a powerful and irresistible evolutionary process. For some this feeling results in optimism, because they believe themselves driven towards a future of greater freedom and welfare. Others, on the contrary, fear that this freedom, as expressed in the power of nuclear fission, of keeping alive the congenitally weak, etc. will in long run destroy the human race.The blockquote is a prelude to a longer piece on the meaning of history, which the WCC located squarely in the evolutionary process.
The Christian Church shares in the bewilderment created by this new experience and understanding. For centuries the Bible has been thought of as witnessing to a small geocentric and static world, governed by a wise and almighty God, whose main interest is to help man, the crown of his creation, to his eternal destiny. Now, however, man looks insignificant indeed against against the background of the vast dimensions of time and space. The question must arise whether the God of the Bible has any relation to the modern scientific world-view, or has anything to say to the feelings of either optimism or pessimism which it creates in the hearts of contemporary men.
Christendom, embarrassed by these facts and questions, has often given evasive answers to this new challenge. These answers have either denied the clear facts of science (fundamentalism) or the essentials of the Christian faith (modernism), or else have tried to separate the realms of faith and science, by limiting God's work to the inner life and to existential decision, and by denying his relations to the visible realities of nature and history (pietism, theological existentialism). We may nevertheless acknowledge with gratitude that the Christian Church in its rich tradition has preserved many precious insights which can help us in this situation. We feel the obligation to look for such answers, nad to seek a new and better mutual relationship between the Christian message and the modern view of life and of the world.
- "God in Nature and History," in World Council of Churches, New Directions in Faith and Order, Bristol 1967 quoted in God, History, and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History
A while back, I revisited H. Richard Niebuhr's 1941 text, The Meaning of Revelation, which also takes the Darwinian model of evolution as foundational for any contemporary theological statement.
Faith in the person who creates the self, with all its world, relieves the mind of the pagan necessity of maintaining human worth by means of imaginations which magnify the glory of man. When the creator is revealed it is no longer necessary to defend man's place by a reading of history which establishes his superiority to all other creatures. To be a man does not now mean to be a lord of the beasts but a child of God. To know the person is to lose all sense of shame because of kinship with the clod and the ape. The mind is freed to pursue its knowledge of the world disinterestedly not by the conviction that nothing matters, that everything is impersonal and valueless, but by the faith that nothing God has made is mean or unclean. Hence any failure of Christians to develop a scientific knowledge of the world is not indication of their loyalty to the revealed God but of unbelief.As with the WCC statement, the question of history is primary in Niebuhr's, but an evolutionary cosmos is completely taken for granted.
These statements surely sound strange to many people, who are used to hearing more from people like Pat Robertson or Rick Warren as the representative voices of Christianity. For example, Sam Harris whisks past such a redoubtable mid-century theologian as Paul Tillich, dismissing him as a "parish of one." (End of Faith, 65). But note that the World Council of Churches statement, again made in 1967, was the consensus of several churches working together across national boundaries. If you've ever tried to get something through committee, you know how much compromise takes place. The statement wasn't the voice of an individual, it was standard. Tillich, who was one of the voices like the ones mentioned above, also made it to the cover of Time magazine in 1959. When a best-selling book can ignore historical context to the point that a major and influential voice is dismissed as a loner, something is off.
It wasn't until the 1990s that mainstream liberal Protestantism went into decline, and the reasons for that are many - the historian David Hollinger has suggested that one of the reasons is that they were able to achieve their cultural mission of multicultural "brotherhood," making for a sense that the institutional structures are no longer necessary.
The ecumenical leaders achieved much more than they and their successors give them credit for. They led millions of American Protestants in directions demanded by the changing circumstances of the times and by their own theological tradition. These ecumenical leaders took a series of risks, asking their constituency to follow them in antiracist, anti-imperialist, feminist and multicultural directions that were understandably resisted by large segments of the white public, especially in the Protestant-intensive southern states.Another liberal theologian friend said in response, "I'll take winning the cultural battle and losing the institutional one." But what strikes me as remarkable is how quickly recent history gets erased. Fifty years ago is not that long ago. The ascendance of conservative Christianity has not only eclipsed liberal religion, but made its basic assumptions and achievements seem completely anomalous.
It is true that the so-called mainstream lost numbers to churches that stood apart from or even opposed these initiatives, and ecumenical leaders simultaneously failed to persuade many of their own progeny that churches remained essential institutions in the advancement of these values.
But the fact remains that the public life of the United States moved farther in the directions advocated in 1960 by the Christian Century than in the directions then advocated by Christianity Today. It might be hyperbolic to say that ecumenists experienced a cultural victory and an organizational defeat, but there is something to that view.
History does not move "forward." It moves in cycles, in the reactions of one generation against the previous one, in fits and starts, in sudden revolutions met with backlash by reactionary forces. Your beliefs are none of my business. But a knowledge of the complexity of the historical record will help you develop your values, beliefs, and desires in a smarter way.