Symbolic of the prominence of the evolutionary idea in contemporary thought is the occurrence of "evolved" as the last word of the famous closing paragraph of Darwin's The Origin of Species, 1859. While not original with the emergence of Darwinism, evolution has nevertheless been intimately associated with it and has in the intervening century become one of the most comprehensive concepts of the modern mind. Consequently the issue cannot be stated in terms of the restricted alternative whether any one phase of evolution (especially the biological) is still "only a scientific theory" or long since "an established fact." Neither is it a matter of holding out the hope that if only enough fault can be found with Darwin the church's doctrine of creation will automatically be accepted and religion can then be at peace with science.
Rather, the evolutionary dynamisms of today's world compel a more realistic confrontation. One area of reality after another has been analyzed and described on the basis of some kind of progressive change until the whole may be viewed as a single process. The standpoint of the one who views this unitary development may be avowedly atheistic in the sense of ruling out the supernatural (Sir Julian Huxley) or just as avowedly Christian in the sense of finding in evolution an infusion of new life into Christianity, with Christianity alone dynamic enough to unify the world with God (Teilhard de Chardin).
In whatever way the process may be ultimately explained, it has come about that an idea which has been most thoroughly explored in the field of biology (lower forms of life evolving into higher) has by means of organismic analogy found universal application. Phenomena thus accounted for range from physical realities (evolution of the atoms and expanding galaxies) to man and his social experience (the evolution of cultural values) including his understanding of time and history (the evolutionary vision of scientific eschatology). Hence there is posited a movement of cumulative change in the organic and the inorganic; in the evolution of life and of man, of social institutions and political constitutions, of emerging races and nations, of language and art forms, of school systems and educational methods, of religion and doctrine; and of science and of the theory of evolution itself.
In the 1959 University of Chicago Centennial Discussions of Evolution After Darwin a working definition given to the term evolution was that of a long temporal process, operating everywhere, in which a unidirectional and irreversible natural development generates newness, variety, and "higher levels of organization" (Vol. I, p. 18; Vol. III, p. 111). A noteworthy feature of these discussions was the forthrightness with which at least some of the participants presented evolution in an uncompromising opposition to any notion of the supernatural and in a consistent upholding of naturalistic self sufficiency in a cosmos which was not created but which has evolved.
With biological evolution (ostensibly a matter of pure science) thereby becoming a metaphysics of evolution it needs to be determined whether religion's proper quarrel is with the science which permits itself such dogmatic extension or whether the misgivings are primarily with the particular philosophical interpretation involved. To the evolutionary concept in general there are however (in spite of innumerable variations) basically two religious reactions.
As in the days of the Scopes trial all evolution may still be denied on the grounds of a literalistic interpretation of the Bible, especially Genesis 111. Not content with the commitment of faith in the Creator expressed in the First Article of the Apostles' Creed this interpretation may demand a specific answer also to the questions of when creation occurred and how long it took. On the premise of a literal acceptance of the Scriptures as authoritative also in matters of science the whole of past existence is comprehended within the limited time span of biblical chronologies and genealogies. The vastness of astronomical time with its incredible number of light years may be accounted for as an instantaneous arrival of light and the eras of geological and biological time with their strata, fossils, and dinosaurs pointing to the existence of life and death on the earth ages before the arrival of man may be reduced to one literal week of creative activity.
On the other hand there are those who can no more close their eyes to the evidence which substantiates some kind of lengthy evolutionary process in the opinion of the vast majority of those scientists most competent to judge than they could deny the awesome reality of God's presence in nature and their own experience of complete dependence upon the creative and sustaining hand of God revealed in the Scriptures. In reference to creation, Langdon Gilkey (Maker of Heaven and Earth , 1959, pp. 30 f.) interprets the doctrine as affirming ultimate dependence upon God and distinguishes it from scientific hypotheses which properly deal with finite processes only. Among Lutheran theologians George Forell (The Protestant Faith, 1960, p. 109) sees the doctrine of creation not as expressing "a theory about the origin of the world" but as describing man's situation in the world, and Jaroslav Pelikan (Evolution After Darwin, Vol. III, p. 31) presents the creation accounts of Genesis as "not chiefly cosmogony" and furthermore sketches a development in the church which by the 19th century had emphasized those aspects of the doctrine of the creation to which Darwin represented a particular challenge and had neglected other important aspects which could be maintained independently of biological research.
An assessment of the prevailing situation makes it clear that evolution's assumptions are as much around us as the air we breathe and no more escapable. At the same time theology's affirmations are being made as responsibly as ever. In this sense both science and religion are here to stay, and the demands of either are great enough to keep most (if not all) from daring to profess competence in both. To preserve their own integrity both science and religion need to remain in a healthful tension of respect toward one another and to engage in a searching debate which no more permits theologians to pose as scientists than it permits scientists to pose as theologians.