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All Creation Groans: Darwin, Christianity and the Environmental Revolution

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Jay Smith, YTI President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

October 24, 2017


When the name “Charles Darwin” is mentioned in the company of 21st century Christians, one will get a mixed group of responses, from the “prophetic voice of religion,” to “the destroyer of the faith.” In reality, Darwin was a gentleman naturalist. Coming from a wealthy family, Darwin briefly attended medical school, but after losing interest, was sent to Cambridge by his father to study for the Anglican priesthood. While at Cambridge, he became intrigued with the idea of “the parson-naturalist” and began to see science as a “religious natural theology.” After his voyage of investigation on the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin began to shape what would later become evolutionary theory. Darwin’s intention was never simply to debunk religion; his intention was to better understand what he saw as the obvious processes of nature.

In the midst of the turbulent 19th century, Darwin created waves among the religious establishment since his views not only countered the views of popular naturalist theologian William Paley, but also the literalist reading of scripture and human origins favored by the evangelicals and Pietists of his day. Theological luminaries such as American Charles Hodge and the Englishman E.B. Pusey confronted Darwin’s theories with well-reasoned arguments that either exalted scriptural truth and divine design theory (Hodge) or sought to separate the authority of revelation from the authority of science (Pusey). Christians in the 20th century either carried these arguments forward to support a “fundamental” Christianity, or uncritically imported Darwin’s theories into a religious matrix in the name of “progressive” Christianity. By the middle of the 20th century, Christianity had separated firmly into two camps, liberal and conservative: those who affirmed Darwin and a scientific approach to faith, and those who affirmed the supremacy of the Bible in all matters and a literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation narratives.


Young Christians in the 21st century, however, have not settled for this uncomfortable détente. For 20-something Christians, Darwin’s work affirms the connectivity between human kind and the rest of creation, affirming the idea that humans were created from the “dust of the earth” and will return there again after death. A steady stream of recent Old Testament scholarship affirms a basic view of the Genesis creation account that refuses a “literalist” interpretation. Genesis chapter one has a basic non-scientific message: God created, and that creation is good. An examination of the language of Genesis does not lend itself to a modernist interpretation of morning, evening, and a 24-hour day. Additionally, the concept of “God” as inscrutable Creator allows an understanding of creation that could either be instantaneous, over six billion years, or over six undefined periods of darkness and light. Ultimately, the Genesis passage is designed to support the idea of God as Creator, not a strict 144-hour period of creation. Interestingly, the narrative lends itself much more readily to the possibility of an evolutionary creative process!


Darwin’s conclusions are the culmination of a long line of inquiry by a number of naturalist-scientists regarding the intricacies of nature and the observable natural processes. He is neither savior nor devil. His conclusions are not an indictment of Christianity per se, but rather an unintentional destabilizing of the institutional church of his day. This version of the church pushed back against evolutionary theory because it believed biblical revelation was in jeopardy. The real problem lay with a faulty understanding and enshrinement of scripture. Thus, Christians were divided over how to understand this new knowledge, depending on how they understood the inspiration, function, and interpretation of the Bible. This division, however, is becoming less pronounced in a postmodern and post-Christendom world.

Reasoning Faith

Today, young Christians want to affirm human reason and its quest to understand the nature in the cosmos. They also desire a faith that reveres mystery, beauty, and wonder. They easily identify with the idea that God created in a process filled with wonder, and that his creation is good. The ultimate offshoot of this love of revelation and appreciation for science is a renewed appreciation of the earth. Earth is home to homo sapiens. We are of the earth and exist in relation to the earth. Darwin reminds us of this fact.


A contemporary dominionist view of humankind asserts human independence from the rest of creation, and thus dominance of the earth, regardless of the outcomes for the earth. Frederick Clarkson notes, “Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological camp, means, or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.” This theologically oriented concept has influenced how many conservative Christians view not only the earth, but also other human beings. Dominionism has had tremendous political influence in the United States and has grounded the concept of “American Exceptionalism”, which has influenced, and even encouraged, the unsustainable consumption of natural resources, as well the marginalization and subjugation of other human beings.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory reminds all human beings, but especially followers of Christ, that we are part of the earth. All human beings have a responsibility towards the earth and towards each other. Sometimes human beings have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. This is especially true of Americans wedded to the ideas of dominionism and exceptionalism. Christians and other religious adherents who have enshrined faulty understandings of scriptures and have forgotten about our joint responsibility towards the earth need to recapture the love, passion, and wonder Darwin had for creation.

Stewards of Creation

Darwin is not the devil and the Bible is not a science text. This sounds like some kind of liberal heresy already. But the issue is recapturing a healthy vision of the creation account in the opening chapters of Genesis and the role of human beings within it. Earth is our home. Human beings were created to “tend the garden,” cherishing it, cultivating it, and protecting it—even protecting it from ourselves if necessary. The model Jesus portrayed to the world was of one who lived in complete harmony and partnership with nature. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” The earth suffers today because human beings have forgotten their responsibility as stewards of creation. Christians who consider themselves “Biblical” need to re-read and reflect on Genesis 1 and 2. We need to recover our commission as stewards of the earth. None of us would ever dismantle our houses to the point where we no longer had a roof or a foundation. We should not treat the earth, our home, that way.