Evolution Rather Than Essentialism? 


This is the 7th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post is Church Fathers and Essentialism – essentialism was the predominating view in the sciences until the 19th Century when the biological sciences taking the lead from Darwin began to change their understanding of how biology actually works.

The change was moving away from Plato’s essentialism in understanding what it is to be human.  (Has it proved essentialism false? I don’t know, not being a scientist.  This requires further study.  But if evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr is correct, essentialism is not supported by the findings of biology or genetics). The Church is going to have to decide whether it is committed to Platonism’s philosophical assumption of essentialism in defining what it is to be human.   If the Church embraces Plato’s idea of the norm (essentialism), of what it is to be human, the Church may not be able to embrace the insights that biology/genetics offers us about what it is to be human.  This in turn might raise the question as to whether we really believe that Christ is fully God and fully human (human as now understood by science).


With the study of DNA and  genetics a real change has occurred in what we understand it is to be human and the Church of truth has to reconsider its understanding of human nature.  While many might be frightened by such a discussion, still the Church is committed to teaching truth, and has to be able to clearly express what it understands about truth in relation to genetics, biology, and science.   As the Leader of the Apostles, Peter, tells us: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

Interestingly, Anglican Theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke credits Darwinism with offering the most effective rebuttal of Deism because it causes us to take the material world seriously and to recognize that God is not just a Creator who only acted in the distant past in a one-time creative event.  Rather, we recognize that God is still at work in creation today as its nourisher and Lord.  “Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’” (John 5:17)  The immanent God continues to be an active force in creation – all of the natural laws were created by God to make His will achievable on earth.  Peacocke writes: “But it was Charles Darwin’s eventually accepted proposal of a plausible mechanism for the changes in living organisms that led to the ultimate demise of the external, deistic notion of God’s creative actions and to a renewed emphasis on God’s immanence in the created natural world.” (“Theistic Naturalism” in ALL THAT IS: A Naturalistic Faith for the 21st Century, p 18)  God never disappeared from creation but has remained active in it through the very natural processes which God brought into existence (such as physics, chemistry, reproduction or genetics).  God has enabled humans to be part of this creative process – not only through41004769924_8d2d6631d1_w human reproduction but also in giving humans creativity and inventiveness. Humans have created substances and compounds which never existed in nature but which have benefited us in technology, industry and medicine.   Creation is ongoing and both God and humans are bringing about change in our world and in humanity itself.  Humans by being conscious no longer are carried along by evolution, but have begun to shape and effect genetics – both our own and that of every being on earth.   We sing a hymn which says “every soul is enlivened by the Holy Spirit” – the implication being that God is active in the creation of every human being, even in the mother’s womb where genetic change takes place).   God works in and through space and time to accomplish God’s own intentions.  As Peacocke says, “a revived emphasis on the immanence of God as Creator ‘in, with and under’ the natural processes of the world unveiled by the sciences becomes imperative if theology is to be brought into accord with all what the sciences have revealed since those debates of the nineteenth century” (“Theistic Naturalism” in ALL THAT IS: A Naturalistic Faith for the 21st Century, p 19).


Someone might still object that evolution requires randomness in nature, and this is opposed to the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God.   However, even Patristic theologians recognized there is a randomness built into God’s creation.  Elizabeth Theokritoff writes: “Side by side with his insistence that everything is rooted in the will of God, Maximus also sees in creation a certain ‘random movement devoid of divine presence,’ which will ultimately cease to exist when God will be all in all [Ambiguum 7 (PG 91, 1092C)” (LIVING IN GOD’S CREATION, pp 58-59).   Science has simply shown there is a randomness built into nature as can be seen in genetics, reproduction and in the quantum world. Science studies the fallen world, and all that is part of it.   These ideas do not just arise from atheistic presuppositions, as obviously St Maximus already accepted the idea as part of God’s creation, though admittedly he felt that randomness belongs to the fallen world and will eventually cease.  It is true that science is exactly limited to studying this world of the Fall.


It is also the case that a certain amount of randomness in nature is also a sign that everything is not predetermined.  Orthodoxy rejects all manners of predestination whether theological or genetics.  God’s will allows for the unpredictable and for mystery in creation, something science continues to discover.  God’s way and logic is not limited to what humans can comprehend or quantify.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).  Mystery or randomness may only mean that there is knowledge or a logic at work which is beyond what humans are capable of grasping (yet?).  It is an admission that there might be a limit to human knowledge or logic such as is suggested by things like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  This is not a problem for theists, but may be a roadblock for those who wish to believe that humans are the most intelligent beings (or the closest thing to an omniscient being as is possible) in the universe.

Next:  Mystery and Uncertainty