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The Church and Evolution


Question & Answer

Q: By Phyllis
Do you think that the Church has adequately explored and explained the spiritual aspects of evolution? What does it mean spiritually that we evolved from apes?
A: By Brian D. McLaren
Dear Phyllis,

Thanks so much for your question. It’s one I have a special interest in. I’m a lifelong lover of nature, and from my earliest childhood, I would beg my mother to take me to the library to check out books on plants and animals. Like a lot of young boys, I was fascinated with dinosaurs, especially because there was a stream beside my house that was full of rocks with fossils. I thought evolution was beautiful and sensible, and I remember the conflict I felt when I heard preachers mock evolution and decry Charles Darwin as a devilish figure.

When you ask if “the Church” has adequately engaged with evolution, in general, the answer is a clear no. Thankfully, there have been a few who pioneered a theology of evolution, especially among Catholic thinkers, notably Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955). He was a Jesuit scholar, trained in paleontology. More recently, other Catholic scholars like John Haught and Sr. Ilia Delio have engaged with Teilhard’s thought and enriched it with more contemporary scientific and theological insight.

Another key figure in taking evolutionary thought seriously was the great philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947). He is often called the father of process philosophy, and in his wake, brilliant Protestant Christian theologians developed process theology. Notable among them are John Cobb, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Catherine Keller, Philip Clayton, and Tripp Fuller. The great science fiction writer Octavia Butler could also be seen as a kind of process theologian, expressing her vision in fiction rather than nonfiction prose.

Much of this work has not yet made it into the average pulpit or pew in churches, sad to say, even though it is gaining ground in academic circles. I’ve been working hard to remedy that, especially through my books The Story We Find Ourselves InWe Make the Road by Walking, and especially The Galapagos Islands: A Spiritual Journey, where I get to explore Darwin and evolution in some depth.

As you know, according to evolutionary theory, we aren’t exactly descended from apes. Rather, we and apes descended from common ancestors, and our existence today is connected to the whole web of life, in which we are very literally all related, part of one family tree, part of one story that includes all of life and even all the planets and stars, matter and energy, and space and time. It is a beautiful and grand story, full of poetry and wonder, and it invites centuries of theological reflection and celebration — not just among academics, but among all of us who inhabit this evolving universe. May your question and this response hasten that reflection and celebration!

~ Brian D. McLaren
About the Author
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors, church planters, and lay leaders called Convergence Leadership Project. He works closely with the Center for Progressive Renewal/Convergence, the Wild Goose Festival and the Fair Food Program‘s Faith Working Group. His most recent book is Faith After Doubt.  He is the author of the illustrated children’s book (for all ages) called Cory and the Seventh StoryThe Great Spiritual MigrationWe Make the Road by Walking, and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings. He has written for or contributed interviews to many periodicals, including Leadership, Sojourners, Tikkun, Worship Leader, and Conversations and is a frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs.

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