by Howard Grace
Howard Grace taught maths up to A-level in a Comprehensive school for many years. Fifteen years ago he left that to launch a programme, which has led to doing over 800 interactive sessions in Sixth Forms around the UK, with international teams of young people on subjects related to ‘Purpose in Life’ and ‘Motivation’. He and his wife Maria give leadership to the Newbury PCN group.
As a Christian who is centred on the spiritual aspect rather than on literal doctrinal interpretations, I see no conflict between evolution and my faith. In fact a realisation about how humanity is evolving shows me an inspiring path ahead. I personally see the evolutionary process as an expression of God. (In saying this I am not assuming anything about the nature of God which I personally have come to understand in a mystical sense.) But before considering the moral and spiritual implications let us consider briefly how this evolutionary process has developed. There seems to be a large consensus on four distinctive steps.
The first step is that about 13.7 billion years ago the universe started with a big bang. How this came into being is a mystery to our present understanding. The Milky Way galaxy, which we are part of, is thought to have evolved about 10 billion years ago, and the earth about 4.6 billion years ago. (The exact figures I quote may be debatable but that does not concern me here. The point is that we are talking about huge periods of time.)
Life on earth, in its simplest form, is believed to have begun to evolve about 3.5 billion years ago. It thus happened about 10 billion years after the big bang. It is the second of the four steps that I see as distinctive. From this eventually evolved an immense variety of more complex plants and animals.
Right to the present day, the vast majority of life on earth is not conscious, but at some recent stage during this time consciousness arose. Some animals developed who could think and be aware of what was going on around them. They had brains. This for me is the third distinctive step.
It is largely agreed now that some mammals have some form of consciousness. However although conscious they wouldn’t be able to ponder the origins of the universe, the nature of love and things like this. It is worthy of note though that bees, salmon and many other species reach a stage at the end of their lives where, by instinct, they relinquish their personal existence for the ongoing propagation of their species. Also, many parent animals have an instinctual defence of their young.
Then human beings came on the scene hundreds of thousands of years ago. Thus, even our most primitive ancestors have only been around for a time which is about ten-thousand times less than when the universe kicked off. However, in this extremely short time we have evolved into beings who can think about and question so many things including the origins of the universe and our own being. How has ‘matter’ evolved to be able to think about itself!? To me that fourth step in evolution, which has led to our self-consciousness about our own place in the universe and our desire to survive, is as remarkable as the first step. This questing ability has led to an extraordinary acceleration of scientific achievement, especially in the last 200 years. So, although human beings are only a minute part of life’s story, they are having a huge impact on this planet. It is this I would like to focus on now.
As self-consciousness emerged, becoming self-centred would also seem to have been a natural aspect of the fourth phase of the evolutionary process. However in recent millennia, as humanity has further evolved, some people have sensed that we should develop beyond being so egocentric. Love means that we should be prepared to sacrifice for our loved ones. And even beyond that. Such concepts as right and wrong have emerged. Religions have developed which suggest that all human beings are brothers and sisters, and in some circumstances the common good should even come before our own lives. Great people like Gautama Siddharta, who was given the title “Buddha” wrestled with the need to embody ‘non-self’. I suspect that his inner struggle, which came from a totally different context and culture, was of a similar nature to what Jesus ultimately experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both were set free from the personal survival mentality. Many other human beings have struggled with this development in our spirit which puts humanity above our own lives. Some succeed more than others. But where is this leading us? Where is this conscious process heading?
To me religion has been a natural stage in our evolutionary process. We have wrestled with questions of meaning and purpose, and our religions have all tried to address this stirring in our spirits. It may be that now the human quest away from self-centredness is the next step in this process? However, it is distinguished from earlier evolutionary stages in that it is a conscious one.
A few days ago, in my morning time of reflection, I wrote, “I am a Christian. But in my heart I’ve moved beyond the doctrines of religion.” I think that what I respond to in Jesus is the total self-giving to his deeper inner leading which, because of the society and times into which he was born he understood and expressed in terms of God’s will, “Thy will be done.”
I am nowhere near that stage of crossing out the ego. But I wrestle with it as an aspiration, and Jesus is my inspiration and guide on that path. Paul Tillich wrote about “The God who lives beyond the Gods of men and women.” Could it be that our next step as humanity is to accept that we know as much about the Divine dimension as a cantankerous toddler knows about the complexities of life which he/she will encounter in full maturity.
Moral and spiritual implications
The fourth step has given rise to self-consciousness. This has enabled us to make conscious decisions which could now effect the next stage of the evolutionary process. We can decide (and to some extent are deciding) that it is not the path of the survival of the fittest and strongest we want to be on, but the development in people of love, care and selflessness.
This is affecting our attitude towards such issues as global warming. It is not only instinct that leads some to make decisions for the common good, rather than just to live in a way that is convenient to ourselves. In varying degrees we are thinking for future generations. To be realistic, though, the picture is not all rosy. A biologist friend of mine pointed out that, “For 99.99% of the time that there has been life on this planet there were no humans and everything got along OK. Now this experiment by Nature with this clever, self-conscious being is leading to countless thousands of other species being driven to extinction. If the other 10 million or so species could vote we’d be sent packing.”
Focussing on the positive impulse however, we are aware that there are so many needs out there. Our journey forward is not primarily a personal struggle with self. It is a total giving of self for the needs of others, the environment, the living world and humanity. As a Christian I see this as what Jesus was embodying. And it was his living and dying challenge to the whole of humanity to follow his path of total self-giving as the way forward for us all to emulate.
I sense that we are thus an integral part of the essence of God. The conscious submission of the ‘self’ – of our hearts, minds and wills – to the infinite, encompassing, Divine Spirit could be the next step in the evolution of humankind. To be part of that may be a big step in faith. But whatever our beliefs about the source of that inner impulse, for each person the next step involves a moral and spiritual choice.