Chance or Purpose

Creation, Evolution,
and a Rational Faith

By Christoph Schönborn

Ignatius. 181 pp. $19.95

During the year just past, much attention was paid to a spate of atheist tracts, notably Sam Harris'

Letter to a Christian Natio

n, Christopher Hitchens'

God Is Not Great

, and Richard Dawkins'

The God Delusion

. Less attention was paid to a spate of books by scientists who happen also to be believers - biologist Joan Roughgarden's

Evolution and Christian Faith

, astronomer Owen Gingerich's

God's Universe

, and geneticist Francis Collins'

The Language of God

.

Though the media buzz has tended to focus on the science-vs.-religion angle, it is worth noting that only four of the aforementioned books are by scientists and three of those argue against such a conflict. That said, it is also worth noting that none of the books is by a theologian, and Dawkins' book suffers - as does Hitchens' - not only from a relentlessly hectoring tone, but also from a tenuous understanding of both philosophy and theology. (In fairness, Dawkins seems to have read the Bible pretty thoroughly and is openly appreciative of the Authorized Version's glorious language and literary significance.)

Christoph Schönborn's

Chance or Purpose

offers a look from the theologian's side. Schönborn, the cardinal archbishop of Vienna, studied theology under Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Together, they edited the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Schönborn's new book may be said to have evolved out of an article of his that appeared in the New York Times in July 2005 headlined "Finding God in Nature," in which the cardinal seemed to place Catholic doctrine uncomfortably in alignment with intelligent design theory.

In his book, however, he goes out of his way repeatedly to differentiate between evolution as the best scientific explanation we have of how species come about and evolution as an ideology maintaining that natural selection has rendered all religious faith untenable.

In doing so, he says a number of quite interesting things, among them this: ". . . nowadays, whenever people talk about 'design' and a 'designer,' they automatically think of a 'divine engineer,' a kind of omniscient technician. . . . Here, in my view, lies the most profound cause of many misunderstandings - even on the part of the 'intelligent design' school in the U.S.A. God is no clockmaker; he is not a constructor of machines, but a Creator of natures."

Schönborn does not regard "the methodical exclusion of divine involvement" - sometimes called "methodological atheism" - as amounting necessarily to a denial of God's existence. It is, rather, "a straightforward method of science [which] cannot assume the existence of a 'clockmaker' who intervenes. [It] is looking for mechanisms and sets of conditions that can explain the way things happen."

What the theologian's perspective contributes most to this debate is that the term

God

, as theologians understand it, simply cannot be an object of scientific inquiry: God "is not just one cause among others. . . . He does not shape something that already exists. . . . [His] act of creation is not in time. . . ."

Science studies nature, and God is not a part of nature.

What is perhaps most interesting is the extent to which Schönborn is sympathetic to the views of the controversial Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose 1960 book

The Phenomenon of Man

(boasting a foreword by no less an evolutionist than Julian Huxley) gave a Christological spin to evolutionary theory (Christ "becomes the visible center of evolution as well as its goal, the 'omega-point' ").

Linking evolution to Christ may sound bizarre, but it is central to the point of Schönborn's book, evident in its title. Need evolution be thought of as a matter of pure chance? Or might it be purposeful?

There is much to be said for Teilhard's attempt to harmonize faith and science. The prologue to the Fourth Gospel refers to Christ as the Logos. Schönborn points out that the Greek word

logos

, while it does mean "word," can also mean "essential determining factor." In this respect, it has much in common with the Chinese word

Tao

; in fact, the Chinese translation of the Fourth Gospel begins with the phrase, "In the beginning was the Tao. . . ."

The idea that a living principle of intelligence and personality inheres in being itself and is essentially connected to a supernatural intelligence and personality that transcends being is fundamentally what authentic religion is about.

Institutions and doctrines and even revered texts, to say nothing of flawed human beings, may obscure and confound that insight - and indeed often have, and with grave consequences - but it is no less profound and worth upholding for that.

"It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," the Psalmist tells us. "But," as D.H. Lawrence noted, "it is an even more fearful thing to fall out of them."

Contact books editor Frank Wilson at 215-854-5616 or fwilson@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/frankwilson

.