CHRISTIANITY IN EVOLUTION: AN EXPLORATION by Jack Mahoney Georgetown University Press, Pounds 18.75, 188pp Pounds 16.80 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
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. …