In one of his early books, Untimely Meditations , Friedrich Nietzsche spins a tale that, in paraphrase, goes like this: Once upon a time, on a minuscule planet orbiting a mediocre star on the edge of a backwater galaxy, clever little animals emerged from the slime¯and not longer after began using puffed-up words like truth and goodness . Unfortunately for them, their little C-grade star eventually cooled, during which these pathetic little creatures died out too . . . and with them their proud words. Upon the demise of these sad, floundering animals, the universe shed not one tear but merely looked on from its cold, infinite, uncaring skies.
I take it for granted that no Christian can believe this tale, haunting as it is. But how can it be refuted? Plato certainly denied it; but then he would, wouldn’t he? After all, those pretentious words like truth and goodness got their inflated meaning from him most of all. Or maybe revelation can rescue us from Nietzsche’s nihilism, since Genesis says we are created by and for God. But what kind of authority does the Bible have? How does it "prove" Nietzsche wrong?
Here’s the problem: Pope Pius XII said in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu that "the ancient peoples of the East, in order to express their ideas, did not always employ those forms or kinds of speech which we use today; but rather those used by the men of their times and countries. What those exactly were the commentator cannot determine as it were in advance, but only after a careful examination of the ancient literature of the East." Does not such a methodology, though, threaten to make the Bible a mere artifact from the past?
To add to this problem, biblical interpretation, especially of Genesis, is also affected by not just the historical but also the physical sciences, as Pope John Paul II noted in a message to scientists and theologians in June 1988:
If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflection upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei , the problem of Christology¯and even the development of doctrine itself? What, if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe?
Taken in isolation, these two quotations make it seem that the Bible is being hit from two directions at once: the sciences of archaeology and history determine the Bible’s past meaning, and contemporary sciences, biology and cosmology primarily, determine what we are allowed to find credible today. But how and where is the Bible allowed to speak on its own terms? Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and former chairman of the drafting committee of the Catechism of the Catholic Church , has long been concerned with these questions; and in his latest book, just published by Ignatius Press , Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith , he addresses this question of the meaning of the Bible for today .
But that means he must first address this prior question: not how the Bible should be judged by the sciences but how it acts as judge of them . As a teacher of the Catholic faith, the author of course accepts what Pius and John Paul have taught about the legitimate role of science in determining the meaning of the Scriptures. But these papal statements are for the cardinal, so to speak, merely propaedeutic and would lead us astray if they did not eventually give us a greater understanding of what the Bible intends to communicate quite independent of the deliverances of the sciences.
In effect, this book is an extended meditation on the meaning of several verses of the Bible that directly challenge the conclusions often taken to be the result of evolutionary and cosmological discoveries¯quite independent of these verses’ provenance in the ancient Near East: "In the beginning, God created . . . " (Gen. 1:1); "He created everything according to its kind" (Gen. 1:11); "He upholds the universe by his word of power" (Heb. 1:3); "You have made him [man] little less than God" (Ps. 8:6); "All things were created for him [Christ]" (Col. 1:16); and "Subdue the earth" (Gen. 1:28).
Taking a cue from another statement in John Paul’s message of June 1988 (that "science can purify religion from error and superstition, religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes"), Schönborn openly avers: "Belief in God as Creator is not an obstacle but rather the opposite. Why should belief that the universe has a Creator stand in the way of science? . . . There are in fact an enormous number of scientists who . . . not only make no secret of their faith, but positively affirm it and see no conflict between science and their faith."
That point, of course, makes only a sociological observation. The teacher of the Catholic faith, however, can go much further; and at a crucial juncture in his argument, the cardinal quotes Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), which directly asserts a positive connection between faith and science:
Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not overrule the moral law, can never conflict with the faith, for the things of this world and the things of faith derive from the same God. Indeed, the humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, however unawares, by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence and made them what they are.
Note, however, that this assertion must cut both ways. On the one hand, believers must accept the well-established results of scientific research and not trump them with false readings of the Bible. As Gaudium et Spes says in the next line (unquoted by the cardinal), "Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science." On the other hand, when the results of science seem to conflict with the faith, the believer can be quite certain that the conflict is only apparent: either (1) because the evidence is ambiguous and is sure to be superseded later; or (2) because, even when entirely reliable, it does not carry the philosophical and religious import claimed for it by atheists; or (3) because Christians have misunderstood their faith by confusing a mode of expression with the truth that mode intends to express.
The first difficulty requires patience, and church teaching can handle the last one, as Pius XII did when he clarified that the "literal" meaning of the Bible refers to the meaning intended by the author of the original text in its original setting and does not depend on some superimposed literalism defined by a one-dimensional fundamentalism. But the second difficulty can only be dispatched through the hard work of spotting the inevitable contradictions that are bound to crop up whenever scientists or their atheist popularizers stray beyond their competence.
In that regard, Schönborn can be quite witty. He recounts the story of one of his brother Dominicans harping at table every day about a book he planned to write that was going to prove that man is not essentially different from the other animals. Finally, another Dominican grew weary of these tiresome annunciations and asked, "Father, will this be an autobiography?" The rest of the brethren all laughed¯except for the putative author, who kept silent.
My favorite example comes from an interview Richard Dawkins, England’s most pious atheist and loudest Darwinian, gave to an Austrian newspaper, Die Presse (July 30, 2005), where he made this whopper of a concession: "No decent person wants to live in a society that works according to Darwinian laws . . . . A Darwinian society would be a fascist state." With that move Dawkins has undercut his whole project, which requires that Darwinism be made applicable in all areas of life. His ethical critique of Darwinian dystopias itself testifies to man’s uniqueness, specifically his possession of a conscience independent of evolutionary forces. And once conscience asserts its independence, it’s but a short step to establish that the same holds true of man’s natural desire for God.
But at this point I must wonder if the cardinal himself does not go a bit too far in disengaging Darwinian insights from political economy. Although hardly the main point of his book, the author concludes with a swipe against the neo-liberal economist Friedrich von Hayek and even seems to endorse the economic philosophy of New York Times op-ed panjandrum Paul Krugman. Admittedly, this view is tucked inside a quotation from an Austrian economist, but, as Schönborn cites him with approval, I think it bears notice:
The United States economist Paul Krugman is right when he writes that a textbook on neo-classical micro-economics reads like an introduction to microbiology. In economics, the close relation to biology is seen especially in the writings of Hayek, . . . [who came from] a family of biologists, [and who] talks explicitly about a "sifting" by the market. Hayek holds that a high rate of unemployment¯like excess population in the animal world¯is economically desirable, so that natural selection can have something to work on . . . . Decoded, this amounts to saying that we have to get rid of the European social model.
I dispute this reading of Hayek at several points. After all, there are perfectly harmless applications of the term "natural selection" that do not entail anything nefarious, as when we say that bloated corporations become "less fit" and thus inevitably lose out in the "struggle" to win investors. No literal slaughter of corporate managers takes place, nor did Hayek recommend killing off the unemployed. I do not deny that classical neo-liberal economics stands in tension with Catholic social doctrine, but that hardly renders the "European social model" unproblematic either.
I am reminded of a remark Arnold Schwarzenegger made when he was running for governor of California: he emigrated from Austria to the United States in his youth, he said, because as soon as Austrians turn eighteen they start talking about their pensions. (The fact that he is now recommending universal health care in California is irrelevant to the observation and only shows he is being a true politician, pandering to an electorate that is perfectly willing to make use of "free" services as long as they don’t notice they have to pay for them.)
Plus, I think a good argument can be made that the cradle-to-grave social services provided to most European citizens have contributed to the demographic lethargy and cultural ennui that worries so many Christian commentators, on both sides of the ocean. And let us not forget that other variants of political economy, socialism certainly (and , even more perversely, National Socialism ), took the trope of natural selection leagues more literally than anything dreamed by Hayek. For that reason, they are those Darwinian systems of political economy that truly merit the condemnation of the Church (as the current case of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela proves, whose program of state-sponsored socialism is meeting fierce opposition from the Catholic bishops there).
As I say, the cardinal’s criticism of the Darwinian genealogy of neo-liberal economics is but an aside to an otherwise fine book; but it does show yet again how difficult it will be to follow the mandate of Vatican II when it calls on Catholics to attend sufficiently to the rightful independence of science, economics very much included. That said, his main point will always remain valid: There is no need for believers to worry about the false claims of the science-hijackers: "Everything that is, is created," says Schönborn. "That is the first, fundamental statement the Bible makes about reality." Which means that everything we encounter, rightly interpreted, is a gift. "What do you have that you have not received?" Paul asks rhetorically (1 Cor. 4:7).
For Paul¯and for all Christians¯this is the most significant statement that the Bible can say to science: Everything that comes to us is pure gift, precisely because it has been gratuitously, graciously, and freely created by God. If you want purpose in your life, don’t look to biology, look to creation, that gracious bestowal of existence from which all other blessings flow, including life in all its splendid biological complexity.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, the seminary for the archdiocese of Chicago.