Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 4, 1999
A failure to deal with controversy
Kansas decision on evolution attempts to skirt questions of vital importance
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
An old debate in American politics was revived in early August when the board of education in the state of Kansas voted to strip most references to the theory of evolution from its new standards for science education from kindergarten through to high school.
While not exactly a replay of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, this does seem to be an interesting 1999 variant.
The decision means that local school boards in Kansas will have no incentive from the state to teach evolution, though they are not prohibited from doing so. A new state test, designed to measure student achievement in science will not include questions on evolution.
The new Kansas standards make no mention of "creationism," which regards a literal reading of Genesis as an alternative scientific hypothesis to evolution.
The state board distinguished between "micro-evolution," the theory that random genetic mutation combined with natural selection can produce changes within a species, and "macro-evolution," defined as the theory that one species can evolve into another.
The conservatives on the board said they could accept the former but not the latter. Therefore, we will not ask any questions about the adequacy or inadequacy of evolution.
You can almost hear them saying, "If we pray hard enough and long enough, maybe the issues will simply go away."
Their decision reminds me of an experience that I once had visiting a seminary in Chiclayo, Peru. After touring the seminary library, I asked the rector, "Why are there no books on liberation theology on the library shelves?"
Without batting an eye, he quickly replied, "We expect them to learn that after they graduate." I sighed, "Another important teachable moment lost because of an inability to deal constructively with controversy."
Catechesis on creation is of major importance. It concerns the very foundations of human and Christian life for it makes explicit the response of the Christian faith to the basic questions: "Where do we come from?" "Where are we going?" "What is our origin?" "What is our end?" "Where does everything that exists come from and where is it going?"
These questions are decisive for the meaning of and orientation of our life and actions.
The questions about the origins of the world and of our human species in particular have been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of human beings.
These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give thanks for all God's creative works and for the understanding and wisdom given to scholars and researchers.
In Darwin's time the argument for evolution by natural selection was, as usually the case in sciences such as geology, concerned with past unrepeatable events, a matter of inference to the best explanation. What makes the best sense of the data?
The supporting data have expanded enormously since his time and unequivocal evidence for the relatedness of all living beings has come from molecular biology since the discovery of the DNA structure and its relation to the structure of proteins in a wide range of living organisms being inter-related because of a common origin.
In spite of arguments among biologists and other scientists, the evidence for the role of natural selection as the principal agent of change is overwhelming. Therefore, it doesn't shock or surprise me when Pope John Paul says evolution is "more than a hypothesis," while at the same time insisting that divine action was also needed to explain the origins of humanity.
The great interest accorded to these scientific studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences.
It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or even when humanity appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin: Is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called "God?"
And if the world does come from God's wisdom and goodness, why is there evil? Where does it come from? Who is responsible for it? Is there any liberation from it?
Since the beginning, the Christian faith has been challenged by responses to the question of origins that differ from its own. Ancient religions and cultures produced many myths concerning origins.
Some philosophers have said that everything is God or that the development of the world is the development of God. Others have said that the world is a necessary emanation arising from God and returning to God. Still others have affirmed the existence of two principles, Good and Evil, locked in permanent conflict. Some admit that the world was made by God, but as by a watchmaker who, once he has made a watch, abandons it to itself, etc.
Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding the beginning of a response to the question of origins. Nevertheless, beyond this natural knowledge, the God of the covenant progressively revealed to Israel the mystery of creation.
For all Christians the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources.
The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of the Scriptures to express in their solemn language the truths of creation - its origin and end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man and woman, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation.
The solution is not silence but a shared struggle to arrive at the truth. "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face, Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
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