OBSCURANTISM OR REDUNDANCY?
Some Further Thoughts on Evolution and the Creation of the Soul


Note: The following article was submitted to and published by the American Teilhard Association in its Winter 2000 issue of Teilhard Perspectives. It was written in response to an article by retired biology professor Edward Dodson of Ottawa, Canada, in which the professor attacked the British biologist Richard Dawkin's criticism of Pope John Paul II's admission that "evolution is more than just a theory."


Although I have no particular desire to defend biologist Richard Dawkins, still I think that Professor Edward Dodson's comments regarding Dawkin's charge of "obscurantism" in the Pope's position regarding evolution (Teilhard Perspectives, Vol 32, No. 2, Fall 1999, pp.11-13) deserve still further comment -- particularly in a publication dedicated to teilhardian thought.

For all the headlines at the time (October 1996) of the Pope's address to the Pontifical Academy of Science and his endorsement of the evolutionary origins of humanity, his position regarding the special creation of the human soul was essentially no different than that of Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical, Humanae generis, which may have been issued, at least in part, as a warning or precaution against some of the ramifications of Teilhard's line of thought. So while that earlier encyclical already admitted that the physical origins of humanity might be considered to be due to an evolutionary process, this latest pronouncement continues to insist that our spiritual nature is the result of a direct act of creation on God's part.

Whether this "yes -- but" position represents "obscurantism" or not, I suppose, depends on what one means by that word. But it seems perfectly clear to me that the latest papal position on this matter has really changed very little in the past half- century. In 1950 evolution as such was considered as admissible -- but only up to a certain point. In 1996 evolution is considered all but certain, but again, only up to a certain point. Yet this is really a rather strange position when one really thinks about it.

No doubt, Teilhard thought about it quite a lot. He spoke of a certain "threshold" that had to be crossed from animal life to truly human reflective life, much as that which had to be crossed from non-life to life. (See esp. PM, pp 88-89). But as Robert North, SJ, pointed out in his book, Teilhard and the Creation of the Soul (Bruce Publishing Co., 1967), if Teilhard's thought is followed consistently in this matter, the idea of a separate act of God to account for the emergence of the human soul is hardly necessary. Matter eventually gives birth to spirit. A separate creative act on the part of God would be clearly redundant. Teilhard, for prudential reasons, may have not explicitly stated this, but unless this is the case, his whole system of thought hardly makes much sense.

Furthermore, as North makes clear, and as is backed by contemporary biblical scholars, the whole idea of a "soul", at least in the Greek philosophical sense of an immaterial, immortal "substance", is really not compatible with the predominant mode of Hebrew thought. Otherwise, the idea of Resurrection makes little sense. Nonetheless, Christianity, attracted to the spiritual idealism of platonic philosophy, very early on developed a dualistic view of human nature, that of a "soul" entrapped in a body, or as the cartesians saw it, the "ghost in the machine". So (according to this prevailing view ) while one might adjust one's views of how the machinery got here, the "ghost" itself remains something of a foreign import.

In contrast, Karl Rahner -- who wrote a short introduction to North's work -- points out that God as creator has no need to act as a "cause" in any ordinary sense alongside other causes. "He is rather cause of all causes.... He does not (quoting Bonhoeffer) close up the gaps." (North, p.x) In his monograph, Hominization (Herder & Herder, 1968) Rahner used the classic aristotelian distinction between types of causes, suggesting (much as did Teilhard) that if the human soul can be said to be "specially created" by God, this only happens in the order of "formal" and "final" causality -- which is to say that what is produced in the order of "material" and "efficient" causality (i.e.,in the course of the evolutionary process) is nevertheless intended by God to become like God and to thus eventually become immortal. Or, to put it another way, as Teilhard once did as far back as 1920: "Properly speaking, God does not make: He makes things make themselves" ("The Modes of Divine Action in the Universe"; see Christianity & Evolution p. 28). Thus it would seem that our "souls" (or whatever we wish to call that in us which might survive death) are made, not directly by God, but primarily, even if not exclusively, by ourselves.

If so, then the intent behind the doctrine of the "immediate" creation of the soul needs to be restated in terms, not so much in its origins (after all, all of creation has its origins in God), but rather in terms of its special destiny. This is where the question comes in as to whether or not this special goal can actually be reached without a special assist along the way from God. Granted that there is a kind of evolutionary "push" towards this special goal (the "Omega") built into the evolutionary dynamism, can it be achieved without the effective "pull" of a divine attractor -- in other words, without the influx of God's grace? It would seem not (at least if we are to remain true to the Church's teaching in this matter).

Yet this is precisely where the Church's adherence to the platonic concept of a naturally "immortal soul" (because it is seen as directly created as a kind of spiritual or incorruptible "substance") runs into conflict with any deepened appreciation of the doctrine on grace, much more an appreciation of Christianity in general. For if human nature is complete, "body and soul", in and by itself, grace is seen as insuring a happy immortality, but hardly essential for the full realization of ourselves as human beings, at least in this life . To this extent, the whole "supernatural" order becomes something of a redundancy -- a kind of frosting on the cake. (It should be noted that it was Henri DeLubac's critique of this outlook in his book Le Supernaturel that is believed to have been the other principal target of the 1950 encyclical. Like Teilhard's Le Phenomene humain, DeLubac's book was for a long time denied publication. But unlike Teilhard, DeLubac lived long enough to see its eventual publication and himself made a Cardinal.)

Rather than seeing grace as a participation in the divine nature which alone can make humans godlike (hence immortal) -- which is the understanding of grace in the Eastern Churches -- Western Christianity has ended up making grace, even "sanctifying grace", more or less as an adjunct to insure a happy eternity, one that seems to have little to do with the ultimate meaning of the whole of evolution itself. So too, the doctrine of the Incarnation, the ancient Christian belief that "God became man that man might become God" is reduced to an insurance policy for "souls", implying a disembodied view of a humanity that could just as well have been tested, like the angels, in some purely spiritual realm. It is to this extrinsicism that we can trace much of the contemporary world's indifference to or even hostility to Christianity, and what Teilhard described as condition of "religious schizophrenia" among Christians themselves. (See "What the World Is Looking For...." in Christianity & Evolution, pp 212-13.)

Instead, what the world needs is a renewed vision humanity and its destiny within the context of evolution, and to accomplish this we must totally situate humans, both in terms of body and soul, within the evolutionary process, not to downgrade the status of humanity, but to fully upgrade it to its place as the spearhead or crown of evolution on our planet. But this cannot be done unless we are willing to fully integrate our view of the origins of human nature within the evolutionary process -- a move that, paradoxically, is also necessary in order to fully appreciate the necessity of the Incarnation and Redemption to bring about not just the completion of humanity, but of evolution itself.

Whether the present Pope would be willing to admit this kind of thinking remains problematic, especially when wedded to the idea that the Church can never have made a mistake. Granted that the doctrine of the special or "immediate" creation of the human soul appears to go back to very far in the history of Catholic dogma, but as North emphasizes, the context of the earliest formulations were concerned with quite different questions, particularly the threat of emanationist pantheism. Later arguments were to erupt concerning both the function of the soul as the "form" of the body and various ideas of "traducianism" -- whether or not the individual human soul takes its origins from those of its parents, an idea that had certain resonances with some of those held by St. Augustine and his ideas about the transmission of original sin. Yet to deal with these problems, the Church often switched philosophical tools, using concepts derived from Platonism then Aristotelianism, and apparently, back to quasi-Platonism again. All this may seem ancient history, but considering some of Cardinal Ratzinger's more recent statements about certain philosophical truths -- and he explicitly singled out the Church's traditional understanding of the nature of the soul -- as being altogether necessary to our understanding of the faith, even if not directly a matter of divine revelation, it is clear that the present Pope or the magisterium has not moved beyond Humanae generis in this matter.

Thus it seems highly unlikely that the present Church leadership is about to change this presupposition of the special or immediate creation of the soul. The present Pope is deeply imbued with a "personalist" philosophy that lays great stress on human uniqueness but which, true to its existentialist roots, tends to see humanity as an anomaly in an otherwise uncaring universe. So too the Church's present position against abortion even from the point of conception also seems to reflect this divine interventionism -- even though there was along history in past ages when theologians held that "ensoulment" could not take place until the fetus had developed more distinctly human characteristics. It may have not been a view that the soul "evolves" concomitantly with the human body, but it certainly was a view that found it difficult to imagine the presence of a soul without the requisite physical infrastructure.

In view of all of this, there is some truth, I think, to Dawkin's charge, which, even if it doesn't rate the epitaph of "obscurantism", certainly appears to smack of a certain kind of dualistic thinking that really doesn't take evolution all that seriously. Or even if it admits the fact of evolution on one level, is unable to see its truly spiritual dimensions and potentials. Not that Dawkins sees them much either. But either way, this whole episode shows that acceptance of Teilhard's vision still has a long way to go.

Richard W. Kropf
Johannesburg, Michigan


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