Georgetown University Press, £18.75, 188pp £16.80 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration, By Jack Mahoney


The relationship between Christianity and science has long been a fraught one, whether you go back to the persecution of Galileo by the Inquisition in the 17th century, the rejection of Darwin by the ecclesiastical bigwigs in the 19th, or the current stand-off between militant atheists among the scientific community, such as Richard Dawkins, and a Church that still has faith in miracles.

Yet there is, as Professor Jack Mahoney argues in this short, dense but enlightening book, plenty of common ground to explore, if only the centuries of mutual antagonism can be rolled back. His focus is the whole question of evolution – still causing tensions in schoolrooms 152 years after Darwin published his game-changing book, especially in the US with advocates of "intelligent design" slugging it out for access to impressionable young minds with the majority who accept "natural selection".

Mainstream Christianity long ago dropped overt hostility to Darwin, and even manages to speak of him fondly on occasion, but it has held back from the next logical step, bringing theology and evolution into meaningful dialogue. Christianity, Mahoney argues, "has been strangely silent about the doctrine of evolution" because to accept it wholeheartedly would then involve a redrawing of the theological map. Yet that is precisely what he wants it to do.

As a breaker of taboos, Mahoney has form. A Jesuit priest, and a distinguished professor of moral and social theology at the University of London, he ruffled feathers in the Vatican in 1984 with his book, Bioethics and Belief, advocating dialogue between medicine and religion. His thoughts on the moral status of the embryo were perceived as not in line with official teaching. And woe betides anyone who dares to question the Pope on the embryo.

This time round, Christianity in Evolution risks causing similar ripples when it argues that embedding evolution in theology would necessitate a wholesale reappraisal of such time-honoured Christian concepts as Original Sin, the Incarnation and the Fall. So Mahoney presents the life of Jesus, the divine made human, not so much in terms of a sacrifice made to atone for our sins, as countless generations of Christians have been told, but as part of an evolutionary cycle. "God [in the person of Jesus] became a member of the human species in order to provide the human race with a human expression in Christ...of the divine altruism that would counter any innate evolutionary tendency to aggressive self- or tribal interest."

By the same measure, Jesus's death and resurrection saved us not, as traditionally taught, from our fallen nature, the legacy of Adam and Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden, but from mortality that is otherwise "a normal feature of all evolutionary life".

Mahoney is revising theology as he goes along, and producing – for me at least – an attractive and relevant blueprint. It is, he stresses, a first draft, something to provoke debate, not the finished item, but his impatience in the lack of progress is evident in his willingness to confront cherished beliefs in his own church. It is the sort of approach that, in the past, cost thoughtful believers their careers: men like another Jesuit, the French palaeontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was sent into exile in China in the 1930s for revisiting the concept of Original Sin. Yet today, 50 years after his death, Teilhard is regarded by some who seek an accommodation between religion and science as a prophetic voice crying in the wilderness.

He and Mahoney may one day be mentioned in the same breath. Whether that happens will depend, to some extent, on the willingness of the Catholic authorities and Christian leaders to think again, embrace change, learn the lesson that loyal dissent is what has moved their theology forward, however resisted in its time.

This is not an easy book to read. It requires commitment and stamina, but those who summon up these qualities will be richly rewarded. For it shows, for once, Christianity looking forward in partnership with the modern world of science, rather than holding itself aloof and apart in a time-warp. "I prefer to understand theology," writes Mahoney, "as a continuing dialectic between belief and experience, which involves the continuing attempt to make experience-sense out of faith, and faith-sense out of experience." Like much of the book, you have to think about this a while before its meaning hits home.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power