Perspective

Perspective: Crossing the divide between science and religion: a view on evolution

In Brief: 

"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Tertullian famously asked at the end of the second century of the Christian era, alluding to the dissonance which existed even then between the secular and the sacred views of reality. Some eighteen centuries later, the Bahá'í teachings offer this answer: there has ever been only one city, which has been viewed from different perspectives - as those who explore its twisted alleys and dead-end streets on foot and those who fly over in an airplane and see the larger pattern that it embodies.

Many people today question the place of religion in an age of science. This is understandable: the extraordinary success of the scientific method at providing a nearly seamless explanatory framework for the physical world has acutely challenged traditional religious beliefs.

Perhaps nowhere is this challenge more apparent than in the theory of evolution. For some, evolution is the ultimate scientific theory: simple, powerful, and elegant, it offers an explanation of the great mystery of how life, order, and complexity can arise from lifelessness and chaos. For others, evolution threatens to undermine deeply held beliefs about the meaning and purpose of life: it pushes the Creator from the cosmic stage, replacing a universe suffused with meaning with one that is cold, pitiless, and utterly indifferent to human suffering.

For many thoughtful people, believers or not, neither extreme seems adequate. They intuitively understand that there ought to be no contradiction in both embracing the theory of evolution and holding the conviction that human life has a higher origin and a larger purpose than the mere struggle for survival.

Yet coming to a satisfactory resolution of the tension between those two ideas cannot rationally take place without a seismic shift in perspective.

And it is in the Bahá'í writings that one finds just such a perspective, one that both embraces the scientific truth behind evolution and yet also upholds the Divine nature behind ultimate reality.

The starting point for Bahá'ís is the rejection of the excessive emphasis on received wisdom, accompanied by the striving to see the truth with one's own eyes and the willingness to acknowledge the limitations of one's deepest assumptions. "Nor shall the seeker reach his goal unless he sacrifice all things," Bahá'u'lláh stated. "That is, whatever he hath seen, and heard, and understood, all must he set at naught..."

Closely allied to such a commitment to the unfettered investigation of reality is the conviction that, in the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "religion and reason are the same; they cannot be separated from each other." Since reality is one, and the truth cannot contradict itself, it follows not only that religious belief must be in harmony with scientific fact, but that "if religion does not agree with science, it is superstition and ignorance."

These ideas prepare the ground for addressing a central issue that lies behind the debate about evolution, and that indeed extends to every front in the conflict between science and religion: how can the idea of an active Creator, who continually cares for and occasionally intervenes in His creation, be reconciled with the idea of a world whose workings can be traced in every detail to the operation of fixed mathematical laws?

The problem, according to the Bahá'í Writings, is that human language is an inadequate tool to describe ultimate reality and that the mind is an inadequate tool to comprehend it.

"That which we imagine is not the reality of God," wrote 'Abdu'l-Bahá. "He, the unknowable, the unthinkable, is far beyond the highest conception of man." If God is beyond our highest thoughts, then the language that describes God's existence, His design of the universe, and His intervention in human history, however powerful and evocative, must in the end fall short of the reality, like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon.

But if human thought cannot touch ultimate reality then what possible relevance does that reality have to the world? While inaccessible in its essence, traces of it can be discerned in what 'Abdu'l-Bahá has called "the book of creation" and "the written book."

The first "book" is nature, which expresses the purpose of the unknowable essence as it unfolds in endless patterns in the observable universe. As Bahá'u'lláh stated, "Nature is God's will and is its expression in and through the contingent world."

The second "book" is revelation, by which is meant not a static and arbitrary set of doctrines delivered to mankind in finished form, but that progressive and dynamic power, conveyed through the written word, that has transformed human consciousness throughout the ages and which draws individuals out of the narrow confines of their own self-interest into ever-widening circles of regard for others.

This book of revelation has expressed itself through the succession of manifestations of God - Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and, most recently, Bahá'u'lláh - that have given to humanity the sacred scriptures of the world's independent religious systems.

How are such considerations useful in the context of the evolution debate?

First of all, and independently of the compelling evidence of the fossil record, the Bahá'í concept of the world is at its core both organic and evolutionary. Nature and religion are defined in virtually identical terms in the Bahá'í Writings as "the essential connection" inherent in "the realities of things." So the two "books" are both inextricable parts of a single evolutionary story which begins with the first primitive cell and culminates with the emergence of global consciousness.

But traditional religious beliefs, including the Bahá'í teachings, emphatically uphold the uniqueness of man and his special destiny. How can this perspective, which sets man apart from the animal and which implies that evolution has a predetermined course, be reconciled with the undeniable fact of common descent and with the apparently blind forces of chance mutation and natural selection?

A metaphor drawn from the Bahá'í Writings may offer a solution. In them, man is referred to as the "fruit" on the "tree" of existence. By implication, the other plant and animal species can be likened to the other parts of the tree: leaves, roots, bark, and so forth. Each part shares common descent from one seed and becomes differentiated in time. Last to appear is the fruit, which existed in potential from the beginning - and in this sense it was always the fruit, never leaf or root or bark. As Shoghi Effendi stated, "man was always potentially man, which is just another way of saying the Cause contains the power to produce the effect; in this planned and integrated universe, he was part of the plan from the beginning, so to speak."

In the growth of a physical tree, as in the development of the evolutionary tree, chance can play a major role. The chaotic forces of wind and weather can greatly alter the course of the tree's development, and entire branches may even be broken off in a storm - as suggested in the case of evolution on Earth by the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs. There is no way to predict in every detail the final shape of the tree, or on which branches the first fruits will appear. What is certain is that if the tree survives to maturity, somewhere the fruit will appear - that fruit being not the physical form of man but that power of self-awareness which is capable of pondering the mystery and meaning of its own emergence.

Such an organic conception of the emergence of human life need not imply - as in some versions of so-called "intelligent design" theory - that the blueprint of life was fixed at the beginning. It does predict that, throughout the universe, and wherever conditions permit, life and consciousness will be emergent tendencies of matter.

"What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Tertullian famously asked at the end of the second century of the Christian era, alluding to the dissonance which existed even then between the secular and the sacred views of reality. Some eighteen centuries later, the Bahá'í teachings offer this answer: there has ever been only one city, which has been viewed from different perspectives - as those who explore its twisted alleys and dead-end streets on foot and those who fly over in an airplane and see the larger pattern that it embodies.

- by Steven Phelps

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