The following is a review of Gayle E. Woloschak’s article, “The Compatibility of the Principles of Biological Evolution with Eastern Orthodoxy,” published in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 55.2 (2011).
I added Gayle Woloschak’s article on evolution and Orthodoxy to my reading list for a couple of reasons. For one, it goes to my interest in the culture wars and the ideas that fund them. It also bears upon my role as a recovering-evangelical convert to the Orthodox Church and the way I evaluate the impact people like me have on Orthodoxy at large.
Woloschak’s basic argument is that denying evolution is theologically problematic for an Orthodox Christian. She seems a bit surprised that she even has to argue her own thesis because denying the insights of science is not really Orthodox. It is a recent phenomenon she attributes partly to a large influx of converts.
The fathers of the church generally refused to read Scripture in any kind of literal way. Some of them, she says, even seemed to anticipate the theory of evolution. St. Basil, for instance, does speak about the six days of creation, but he also says that creation was not completed in six days. Creation, he said, is still being created. According to the author, rejecting evolution can lead to an exploitative view of nature. Only when we realize that human beings “and every other speices share in unity as they evolved into diversity” can we arrive at “a profound ecological consciousness and a view of humans as priests of creation” (213).
The author is partly right on that point, but plenty of evolutionists have exploited nature, too. In my opinion, exploitation of nature receives greater support from the eschatology of fundamentalism (which maintains that the world and all that is in it are supposed to suck, and the more they suck, they sooner Jesus comes).
It takes Woloschak a while to get to what I think is the heart of the problem. One reason Orthodox “fundamentalists” cite for rejecting evolution is that our theological sources presume an original perfection that has been lost. Eden has fallen. But evolutionary theory sees death and violence at the very beginning of the process of creation. These two narratives are not immediately compatible.
She attempts to overcome this problem by invoking the somewhat controversial theologian, Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, who viewed Eden not so much as a lost paradise but a memory of our future. It is that perfection to which all creation is orientated and which, until it arrives, we experience in both grief and hope.
I tend to be a fan of Bulgakov in part because he is able to think faith and science together in tension. This is not only more Christian (because in my humble opinion biblical fundamentalism of any kind can only sustain itself by a remarkable act of dishonesty with one’s own intellect). It is specifically more Orthodox. Evolution is materialistic, and so is Orthodoxy. But our “advantage” over evolution is that we are able to, in a sense, complete it by keeping its materialism in its proper place. Says Woloschak,
Our passion for the immaterial and striving for the edenic state are expressions of our spirit and essential ingredient of our being ‘made in the image and likeness of God.; That part of our being need not be explained by biological evolution, nor could it be.