In his theological prolegomena to his massive magnum opus, the Church Dogmatics, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth makes the following claim:
God may speak to us through Russian communism, through a flute concerto, through a blossoming shrub or through a dead dog. We shall do well to listen to him if he really does so. … God may speak to us through a pagan or an atheist, and in that way give us to understand that the boundary between the Church and the profane world still and repeatedly takes a course quite different from that which we hitherto thought we saw [CD, I.1, 60f.].
My contention is that the work of Charles Darwin may well prove in certain respects to be something of an ambiguous extra ecclesial ‘word’ that may fruitfully aid recovery of theology’s proper subject matter, but only through critical reflection identify many of the muddles we have fallen into. Thus the task is not to ask first and foremost ‘what would a theological account look like if Darwin is taken seriously?’ That would theologically be an improper start, an example of which can be found in a claim made by Arthur Peacocke to the effect that ‘The aim of … [his] work is to rethink our ‘religious’ conceptualizations in the light of the perspective on the world afforded by the sciences.’[i] Rather, the question is this: can Darwin’s account help the theological reading of the scriptures? The distinction is crucial: theology as Wissenschaft (or critical study) does not follow the winds of scientific fashion, but seeks to provide an account of the matter appropriate to it. That it does follow fashion unself-consciously is testimony not to good theological order but to a certain unnaturalness or disorder, a cultural captivity that results in rational domestication and thus distortion. Yet in order to reason well about its subject-matter theology is to be attentive, firstly, to the enculturation of its students, and, secondly, to the vast range of possible overlaps with ‘other’ ways of attempting to tell the truth of things.[ii] Thus theology does not engage with science in order to prevent it from operating in “a cultural ghetto” as Peacocke claims, but rather because ‘all truth is God’s’. And critically observing these moments of correlation do not emerge from ‘compromises’ as young-earth creationists John Whitcomb and Henry Morris had earlier accused Bernard Ramm of doing when speaking positively of Darwin.[iii] This, for someone like Barth, then, is not theology’s securing its voice but rather developing its properly fragile witness to the grace of God.
[i] Arthur Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 3. Cf. Peacocke, ‘Biological Evolution and Christian Theology – Yesterday and Today’, in John Durant (ed.), Darwinism and Divinity: Essays on Evolution and Religious Belief (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 101-130 (p. 102).
[ii] Peacocke, Theology for a Scientific Age, pp. 6f.
[iii] John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Creation Flood (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961).