The Evolution of Evolution

My family was convinced that talk of evolution was part of a larger conspiracy to remove God (and all those who loved God) from society...

By the Stream - Apak Studio

I was born into a small, country Bible church—a close-knit community held together by family ties, a sense of common decency, and a suspicion of most ideas that lay beyond our faith horizon. Our greatest sense of threat came from a strangely faraway and disembodied source—the theory of evolution.

As part of the American fundamentalist movement that gained definition in the early 20th century, my family was convinced with end-of-days fervor that talk of evolution was part of a larger conspiracy to remove God (and all those who loved God) from society. Biological evolution was presented to me as a categorical opposition to the idea of God and of any universal coherence. It was also a sheer impossibility to us—that accidental mutation in a directionless cosmos could create the intricate wonder we beheld around us each day.

I became a bit of a zealot in high school under the tutelage of a charismatic Sunday School teacher, and I remember proudly receiving an “A” from my atheist biology teacher for writing a persuasive paper on the topic of “scientific creationism.”

Because I moved through college in conservative educational circles, nothing challenged my assumptions—until I entered an Episcopal seminary a decade later, when the conversation about origins started anew. There I learned methods of biblical interpretation that examined the story beneath the story—how the world we live in shapes the stories we tell. I better understood the psychological depths from which religious language first arises and how I could reconcile religion’s intuitions with modern science. Still, despite my change of mind, the concept of evolution remained academic—a way of explaining the fossil record, but little else.

Recently, my husband and I moved from New York City to the edge of the Housatonic River, one of the most scenic and least despoiled rivers on the East Coast, among steep crumbling hills that are remnants of the once-tallest mountains in the world during a distant time when the Himalayas were still underwater. I now spend much of my time outdoors among these hills.

In the warmer months the river is a near-constant feeding frenzy at every level of the food chain—“red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. But as I observe the whole of it from my meditation rock on the river’s bank, an exquisite, undulating, and poised balance appears. It is easy to imaginatively sit on a yet higher perch at the river’s edge and see how the cyclical seasons are in fact part of ever-expanding epoch-sized spirals forward, where species are coevolving and becoming ever more interdependent in a unified web of being.

Further, each year scientists report new wondrous discoveries that reveal, among other things, increasing depths of mystery and connectedness in the cosmos. Spiritual and scientific communities alike are speaking with increasing reverence and humility about the complexity, elegance, and interrelatedness of the quantum universe.

It feels like I am waking up to the wonder of the natural world for the first time. Evolution no longer seems like an accepted theory, but rather a lived experience, and one of the most spiritual ways of witnessing the cosmos. As my wonder at the evolutionary nature of the universe expands, my sense of God changes as well—less external and more organically embedded in the formula and fabric of the whole expanding cosmos.

Evolution no longer seems like an accepted theory, but rather a lived experience, and one of the most spiritual ways of witnessing the cosmos

I’m not sure we’ve fully taken to heart the implications of a cosmos that has evolution as its DNA from beginning to end. A universe that from the first moment has self-created ever more complex levels of organization and relationship, as it spreads out energy, seems to me to be the very opposite of mindless and directionless. It begins to feel like an incredibly “safe” and coherent universe to live in.

Karen Armstrong writes: “One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.” Reading my news feed, I’m viewing many current events as carnivorous and precarious and indifferent as the cycle of animal life on my river. Yet at a slightly more comprehensive or contemplative level of observation, I can imaginatively see the larger patterns of evolution relentlessly unfolding. We are on the cusp of something—a phase change. There are already glimpses of germinating seeds sprouting out of rotting social, political, and religious structures (think #arabspring, #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and all other socially inclusive movements). Perhaps Enlightenment and Evolution fit together like binary stars.

Some quantum theorists are beginning to say that it’s hard to even talk about the existence of any particle in itself, apart from its relationships with other particles. Existence is relationship.

Love is relationship at its core expression. Perhaps those who speak of a cosmic, evolving relatedness of all things and those who speak of Divine Love are discovering common ground. How wonderful, and a bit ironic, that science now hands evidence to religion’s intuition that love—relationship—is what keeps us together.

And how timely. Perhaps now the two may finally lay to rest the squabble around the question “Where did we come from?” and turn our common will to the more pressing question of where we are going—as the climate heats up under human greed, making life unsustainable for millions upon millions within decades. Can we re-relate our species to our planet’s ecology so that we may continue to coevolve with it?

It seems certain that the combined knowledge, curiosity, insight, and wisdom of science and spirituality together will be needed as catalyst for this next critical chapter of our evolution.

—Fr. Daniel Simon