Tuesday 3 January 2006

Creation and evolution: a letter from Karl Barth

Karl Barth wrote the following letter to his niece, who had written to him asking about creation and evolution:

Basel, 18 Feb. 1965

Dear Christine,

You have had to wait a terribly long time for an answer to your letter of 13 Dec.—not because of indifference, for I am sincerely interested in your welfare, and in that of your mother and sisters, and am always pleased to have good news from Zollikofen [near Bern, Switzerland].

Has no one explained to you in your seminar that one can as little compare the biblical creation story and a scientific theory like that of evolution as one can compare, shall we say, an organ and a vacuum-cleaner—that there can be as little question of harmony between as of contradiction?

The creation story is a witness to the beginning or becoming of all reality distinct from God in the light of God’s later acts and words relating to his people Israel—naturally in the form of a saga or poem. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain the same reality in its inner nexus—naturally in the form of a scientific hypothesis.

The creation story deals only with the becoming of all things, and therefore with the revelation of God, which is inaccessible to science as such. The theory of evolution deals with what has become, as it appears to human observation and research and as it invites human interpretation. Thus one’s attitude to the creation story and the theory of evolution can take the form of an either/or only if one shuts oneself off completely from faith in God’s revelation or from the mind (or opportunity) for scientific understanding.

So tell the teacher concerned that she should distinguish what is to be distinguished and not shut herself off completely from either side.

My answer comes so late because on the very day you wrote, 13 Dec., I had a stroke and had to spend several weeks in the hospital.

With sincere greetings which you may also pass on to your mother and sisters,

Uncle Karl


Anonymous said...

"An organ and a vacuum-cleaner" - brilliant! - right up there with "an elephant and a whale"!

A bon mot that also demonstrates what Uncle Karl said elsewhere about something lacking in fundamentalists (creationists) that he had in oodles: a sense of humour.

Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...

Interesting comments, to be sure. And in the main, correct, I think. One has to keep ones investigations in a discipline confined to the methodology that the scientific discipline affords. And clearly sacred theology and the biological sciences do not employ the same methodologies.

I think, however, that when one becomes concerned about the issues of evolution, one has in mind the specific overlap the conclusions of evolution have with that body of revealed truth already adhered to in sacred theology. I have in mind some of the comments of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis (1950):

"35. It remains for Us now to speak about those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless more or less connected with the truths of the Christian faith. In fact, not a few insistently demand that the Catholic religion take these sciences into account as much as possible. This certainly would be praiseworthy in the case of clearly proved facts; but caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved. If such conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized can in no way be admitted."

One feels an intuitive tug that there is some degree of overlap between the conclusions of evolutionary theory and that which has been divinely revealed, as pertains the beginnings of all things. The problem is not in their respective methodologies overlapping. It is in their conclusions. Therefore, it seems a bit hasty to me (especially as of 1965) to state "there can be as little question of harmony between as of contradiction."

Anonymous said...

JKC raises an important issue about the relation between science and theology, one seldom addressed by non-liberals who fence off the two discourses as referring to different objects, deploying different methodologies, etc., and who then conclude that they could no more be in conflict than could, say, "an organ and a vacuum-cleaner".

His felicitous metaphor notwithstanding, Barth himself, as a formidable critic of the Enlightement, could not have been unaware of the image's apparent acceptance of and subjection to the Kantian cloven fiction well-known as the "fact-value" distinction, which is the basis of all modernist epistimologies (cf. the equally pernicious "is-ought", "public-private", "political-religious" dichotomies). But, of course, all but the most trivial facts are value-laden, and values that have no purchase in particularity are, well, rather valueless.

Only those among us who are paid-up members of the schools of Kierkegaard or Bultmann would argue that history has little or no bearing on faith. Why should science be any different? If we exclude the empirical altogether, isn't there a danger that our theology becomes docetic, obscurantist, or just plain irrelevant?

No, against their Balkanisation, I am sure that there has to be a certain amount of "permeability" between scientific and religious discourses. Indeed the church has always adapted to demonstrable scientific discoveries and to proven, or at least to-date unfalsified, scientific theories - even if dragged along kicking and screaming! And, moreover, even when it has meant adjusting, or even discarding, some traditional teaching - or at least accepting that the teaching is now discussable - e.g. over the virgin birth, eschatology, and - now - over homosexuality.

I accept that there is a danger here of the tail of experience wagging the dog of doctrine - but then a dog that has lost its tail is a freak, and, if the tail is large enough, the dog may lose its balance. In any case, my main point is that some serious work of the teasing-out variety needs to be done on the relation between science and theology.

k said...

Fascinating. Where'd you find this letter?

Anonymous said...


To save Ben the time, you will find the letter in Karl Barth Letters: 1961-1968 edited by Jürgen Fangmeier and Hinrich Stoevesandt, translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromily (T & T Clark,1981), p. 184.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these interesting comments -- and thanks, Kim, for supplying the reference.

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