Darwin in Chicago

You may have noticed that Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday just came and went without too much trouble. On the whole, A Good Thing, in my view. No Christian can accept materialism, of course. Much neo-Darwinism and its militant atheist spawn (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, et al) claim materialism as the sole truth. But Darwin himself and his modern followers like the late Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard believed that evolution, as they understood it, simply could not speak to the existence or non-existence of God. All of modern science was initially defined as a value-free study of the physical world. The moral judgments that all people still make (including neo-Darwinists) and their speculations about what may or may not transcend the physical universe cannot be handled by that mode of thinking. It’s like asking a nuclear physicist to decipher a Valentine’s Day card.

Of course, there are equally bad attitudes on the religious side. Some of our fundamentalist friends back themselves into corners from which they have to posit a 6000-year-old planet, dinosaurs and humans existing simultaneously (they didn’t), or a God implanting fossils to deceive the impious. In the modern technological world, every religious person needs to be vigilant about the subtle ways in which materialism is peddled under the guise of science (again, they are two different things). But a Christian who believes that both faith and reason are essentials of sound religious belief – Catholics have a long and honorable tradition here – needs to let the scientists do what they do so that we can know the world God actually created, not the one some people wish or imagine He created.

I was thinking about such things in Chicago last week, which, contrary to all appearances, is not merely a monument to the principle of survival of the fittest. Not everything revolves around the shenanigans of former Governor Rod Blagojevich or the continuing saga of his would-be fundraiser, and for-the-moment senator, Roland Burris. Some phones in the city, I’m told, are not even tapped.

The occasion was a seminar on the question “Is There a Human Nature?,” sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, an independent Catholic organization at the University of Chicago. Lumen Christi is doing some of the best work in the world in bringing the Catholic intellectual tradition into dialogue with the very highest secular scholarship. Francis Cardinal George, the brainy Chicago archbishop, is a strong supporter and participant in this work. Jean-Luc Marion, a French Catholic philosopher who recently became one of the “immortals” of the Academie Française spends one semester a year in Chicago and lectures for the institute. During any given academic year, figures like Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and Leon Kass, along with equally eminent thinkers from Germany, Britain, or Poland, turn up on programs. Lumen Christi pursues both faith and reason as vigorously as any institution, Catholic or not, in the world.

Last week’s discussion on human nature was something to witness. It not only addressed complex scientific matters, while remaining faithful to classical Christian teaching. If it were better known, it would help get us past the simple-minded polemics that continue to poison the relationship between religion and science. For instance, John O’Callahan, the gifted young director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame (successor to The Catholic Thing’s Ralph McInerny) laid out an interesting philosophical understanding of Creation. God creates ex nihilo (from nothing), which means He does not act on pre-existing matter or even inject matter into a void. Creation, for us, unfolds in time, but God is outside of time and His creative act is continuous and enables secondary causes at every moment, including human free will. From that standpoint, it’s easier to see how the human soul might be directly created by God at the moment each of us is conceived. God did not let evolution go on and then “miraculously” intervene. His creative act started (in our perspective) some 15 billion years ago, but is actual at every moment and active in a particular way in the creation of each soul in its unity with a body, the traditional definition of human nature.

Brendan Purcell, an Irish priest and professor recently retired from University College Dublin, looked at some of the evidence from archaeology and anthropology about when we can see identifiable humans. The evidence converges at one point: when symbolic signs and objects are included in burials – something to accompany the deceased beyond this world into another. There lies a scientifically verifiable and clear dividing line between the merely animal and the rational animal we call human beings. The capacity for symbolic representation makes understanding possible and introduces for the first time in the history of the universe, as far as we know, something that transcends the interchanges of matter and energy studied by the sciences. Why else do we believe, say, that human freedom and conscience are to be respected as nothing else?

These are just brief summaries of very rich arguments that warrant much greater dissemination in our culture. Many people today feel that reason only operates in science and faith is merely a kind of poetry. There’s plenty that’s brewing in the Catholic tradition beyond that, however, and it’s the kind of thing that could drastically reduce antagonism between scientists and believers, and recast both as common seekers after the fullness of truth again.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.