Evolution -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Evolution is a dirty word in some Christian circles. I made my peace with evolution a long time ago, as you can see by my book that goes by the title Worshiping with Charles Darwin, (Energion, 2013). But the question of how religion and science relate has yet to be fully answered. There are, of course, as Martin Marty points out, fundamentalisms of religion and science that will not give room for other's existence, but that need not be us. In this essay, Marty reflects on the recent discovery of the sounds made by gravitational waves. It leads him to a reflection on a speech given by a Dominican priest and scientist years ago that speaks to the messiness of our realities. I invite you to read and reflect on the relationship of faith and science. 

By MARTIN E. MARTY   FEB. 15, 2016
Skulls showing human evolution.                                         Credit: JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock.com
Even bigger news this week than U.S. presidential campaigns came from the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a group of over 1000 scientists who have been working to detect ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves.

Dennis Overbye, in last Thursday’s New York Times, led off with “A team of scientists announced on Thursday that they had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light years away, a fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”

The gravitational waves which conveyed the chirps held “power 50 times greater than the output of all the stars in the universe combined,” in the event that seems “destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science.”

Immediately some in the press and on the internet posed this news against the background of polarities: “science versus religion” or “evolution versus creation.” They revisited battles of the 1920s, which have continued ever since.

Those conflicts seem to belong to the “long ago,” but the span of 1920s to the 2010s is rather brief in contrast to that of “a billion light years.” It provides perspective—or does it rob all sentient beings of perspectives which they habitually had brought to such events?

I stopped short of both the 1920s and “a billion light years” to think of a lecture delivered by the late Dominican Fr. Raymond Nogar, a Chicago-area neighbor who did much to advance Catholic and other Christian thought about evolution. During his lecture Nogar said something about the universe as we know it, or at least about our cozy corner in the solar system. Would it freeze? Or overheat?

I forget whether the sun would die or we would get too close to it. This would happen in—was it?—two billion years. In the question period an audience member asked Nogar whether he had said “two million” or “two billion.” He answered “two billion.” The relieved questioner: “Whew! For a minute I thought you’d said two million years.”

I tell such stories as a way of helping frame thought about these themes in a time when they can too easily be reduced to old culture-war side-tracks recalling old Fundamentalist theology versus old Fundamentalist science.

Many Dominican Catholic and Protestant and Jewish theologians have long addressed these troubling and creative issues to positive advantage. They remind us that faith and reason, theology and science, etc. come in many forms and should be re-posed now, 100 years after Einstein, from many fresh angles.

In a review of a reprint of Nogar’s Lord of the Absurd, Patrick Marrin quoted Nogar, whose mode of faith was not that of optimistic Teilhard de Chardin, who was in vogue in Nogar’s prime. Nogar’s mode of faith was, Marrin notes, more like that of Thomas Merton or Flannery O’Connor.

Nogar: “The God of the strange world of Fr. Teilhard is not the one I have come to believe in. His is the Lord of the neat; mine is the God of the messy. His God governs with unerring efficiency; mine provides with inexcusable waste. His God is impeccably regular; mine is irresponsible. His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the absurd.”

Those are only two options among the two million—or is it two billion?—ways of experiencing faith and delighting in science. Marrin: “The Lord of the Absurd is worth reading as a testament to hope in an age when everything that rises seems stuck between breakdown and breakthrough. Keeping faith is everyone’s prophetic calling.”


Winston, Kimberly. “Darwin Day notwithstanding, evolution debate keeps, well, evolving.” Religion News Service, February 11, 2016.

Overbye, Dennis. “Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory.” New York Times, February 11, 2016, Science.

Masci, David. “On Darwin Day, 5 facts about the evolution debate.” Pew Research Center, February 12, 2016, Fact-tank News in the Numbers.

Marrin, Patrick. “A spirituality rooted in absurdity.” Review of The Lord of the Absurd, by Raymond J. Nogar. National Catholic Reporter online, December 4, 1998.

Nogar, Raymond J. The Lord of the Absurd. Reprint edition. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

Image: Three skulls showing human evolution. Credit: JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock creative commons.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com. If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-policies.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  www.memarty.com.
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