“We have, with all the grace we can pray for, to learn to start over again”, I was told in Dublin, that troubled city, where priests feel it not safe to wear their clerical garb as they walk down the streets, for fear of the backlash associated with paedophilia.
Balancing the wisdom of the ages with new insights is undoubtedly a very major challenge. But it’s essential. It could lead us to “the best of times”. That is why I am pleased to be with you.
So, again, where do I actually stand? The most wonderful words in the New Testament are those of Christ saying “I came not to condemn, but to save sinners from their wickedness”. I do believe that there is wickedness in the world, but I also believe that God works through us to overcome such wickedness. The world is to me both scientific and mysterious but I don’t need miracles that are beyond natural law to convince me of that.
I stand in awe of goodness; of a Mother Teresa or a Nelson Mandela, or of the young German theologian, Dietrich Vonhoffer facing execution in his lonely prison cell on the day war ended – his death was the voice of triumph, not the Nazi bullet. Or of that young Chinese student trying to face down the tank in Tiananmen Square as it crushed his body… or of that dying farmer in County Galway.
We are a most awesome species. Are we up to using our minds well to care for God’s world? Can we start to bring Heaven to Earth?
Our family Bible was printed in 1791. On every page it gives Archbishop Usher’s chronology worked out in 1650. My ancestors learnt that Creation took place at 6.00pm on the afternoon of October 22nd 4004BC. The walls of Jericho fell in 1441BC and David went in and out of the lion’s den in 537BC. In 1650 Usher was taken very, very seriously. He had worked out an historical chronology for all the events listed in the Old Testament. At that stage, and well into the early years of the 129th Century, there simply was no other technology. If we had been alive then it would not have taken much “faith” to believe this… it had to be self-obvious. But an appreciation that there were other ways of looking at things had started to emerge through the speculation of 17th Century philosophers, and through the work of scientists such as Galileo, Newton and Bacon. By the mid-19th Century the technologies to investigate our origins, be it human or geological, were beginning to be more perceptive.
Although Charles Darwin did not publish “The Origin of the Species” until 1859, he had largely worked out the principle of Natural Selection fifteen or twenty years earlier. It was not just his natural wish to “tweak” the details that delayed this publication. It was Darwin’s deep-seated fear for what this would do to Man’s belief system that, quite simply, made Darwin ill. Darwin was a very “good” man; he was kind, considerate, caring and indeed a very “moral” man. What he had discovered, with the technologies that were available to him at that time, was that evolution was driven by the ability of species to fit into their ever-changing environment. That’s a complicated sentence; intentionally so. Darwinian theory is often paraphrased with the term “survival of the fittest”. What Darwin actually said was that “It was not the strongest that necessarily survive best, nor the most intelligent, but those that fit in best”. In other words those who were the most adaptable. That’s what the concept of “fitness” means.
His theory appealed to the popular imagination. It was something people could understand from their own experience. But it completely denied divine purpose. Nature was cruel and remorseless. By itself Natural Selection was ultimately materialistic and utilitarian and evolution did not proceed according to a pre-ordained plan.
Darwin was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived, yet he was very aware of the limitations of his own knowledge. That knowledge was constrained by the technologies available to him. He guessed the processes of inheritance, though his work pre-dated Mendel’s theory of genetics, and of course he died eighty years before Crick and Watson discovered the mechanism of DNA.
Darwin sensed, however, that there was something else going on in the human mind. That, in terms of the life of each individual, was infinitely more significant than the influence of genetics on the individual’s physical state. In 1871, in his less well-known work “The Descent of Man” he wrote, “Important as the struggle for existence has been and ever still is, yet as far as the highest part of man’s nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, intuition, religion, etc., than through Natural Selection; though to this latter agency maybe safely attributed the social instinct which affords the basis of the development of the moral sense”.
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“The moral sense”. Just what did Darwin mean? For that matter what had Adam Smith meant when, nearly a hundred years earlier he had noted man’s extraordinary ability both to make moral judgements, including dispassionate judgement on his own behaviour, in the face of his overriding passion for self-preservation and self-interest. We are, Smith acknowledged in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, complex beings.