Human Evolution and Christian Ethics – review

Human Evolution and Christian Ethics, By Stephen Pope, March 2011, Cambridge University Press, 374 pages, ISBN 978-0-521-17550-2, RRP £26.99.

This is the first paperback version of an important text in theological ethics that was published in hardback in 2007. Some of the chapters were written on Templeton Oxford workshops between 1999-2002. So readers should not come to this book expecting it to be attuned to the latest developments in bioethics (such as recent work on stem cells, or reproductive technology). Rather the book’s importance lies in its engagement with underlying theoretical issues.

Pope is Professor of Theological Ethics at Boston University and explores his theme from the Roman Catholic literature. Evolution was formally and fully accepted in John Paul II’s speech to the Papal Academy in 1996, ‘The Origin of Life and Evolution’, but with the vital proviso that ‘the direct and independent creation of the soul by God is acknowledged.’ (81) This is an absolutely crucial fault-line in the debate. If an entity or aspect of human existence is privileged and kept entirely separate from the scientific account, then a full conversation between the theology and the science is not possible. So it is to say the least peculiar that ‘soul’ does not appear in the index and is not the subject of further discussion.

That said, it is encouraging to see an engagement with this crucial topic starting theologically with Irenaeus of Lyons’ resonant pronouncement that ‘the glory of God is a living man, and the life of man consists in beholding God’ (86) and scientifically with an acceptance of the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. Pope reviews the field, lamenting that the conversation has been so limited. But in doing so he falls into the sort of mistake that so weakens such conversations. Not only is a classical Roman Catholic perspective presumed in the crucial issue of God’s relation to time, and providence, but vital work on the relation of human being and becoming is neglected because it does not happen to have emerged either from Roman Catholicism or yet from within North America. I think particularly of the contributions of Arthur Peacocke, especially in his Gifford Lectures, which receive quite inadequate attention.

This is all the more disappointing because Pope does treat work by evolutionary reductionists such as Richard Dawkins. Here Pope is acute in pointing out the character of Dawkins’ rhetoric, though his conclusion that E.O. Wilson is an enemy of institutional religion is not borne out by Wilson’s hopes, expressed in The Future of Life and Creation, that religious thought will be able to influence hearts and minds in the direction of healing the ecological crisis.

Later chapters treat the vital question of altruism, on which Pope has written extensively, natural law, and issues of sex, marriage and family. This is a rich resource which Cambridge are right to have made more widely available. But it is also as I have indicated a missed opportunity in various respects, and limited by being already some years old.

Christopher Southgate, University of Exeter 

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Author: | Date: 6 June, 2012 | Category: Book Reviews | Comments: 0


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