By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I just read a fantastic book about faith and science: Christopher Baglow, Faith, Science and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge. I highly recommend it to every teacher and catechist, or to anyone interested in the topic.
One of its greatest insights concerns the evolution of life. We don’t have to see evolution as a closed story where brutality and suffering dominate everything; there is simply no discovery of reason or science that would force us to do that. In fact, we can see evolution unfolding in a way that is open to the Creator and leading ultimately toward love. Baglow, in fact, looks at the Resurrection as the last act in the dramatic story of life.
Scientifically, we follow the story of evolution as life develops from single cells to plants and then to increasingly intelligent animals, watching as nature rises to ever-higher forms. Animals become more intricate and meaningful as they express deeper and more intense desires for what is good, as the drive for food and progeny leads them to desire sociability, cooperation and sacrifice. We watch life approaching its most impressive ascent when these desires, in human beings, are marked by freedom and thus can become expressions of love. So far most people, Christian or not, are ready to follow the story. But Christians, with the eyes of faith, can then see life reaching its peak when love overcomes death at the Resurrection of Jesus, who as “the firstborn of many brothers” (Rm 8:29) is something like an ‘evolutionary leap’ completing the dramatic story of life.
Jesus’ resurrection is like the last note in a long melody that makes the preceding notes beautiful. On their own, or without the last note, the preceding notes sound unfinished and even ugly. So too the notes of evolution. Living things yearn for fulfillment, but alone they inevitably disintegrate. Animal desire and even human love are tragically stopped by death, and if death is the last note then we certainly have a jarring melody – hardly the tranquil ‘music of the spheres’ we long to hear. However, the Christian ear is attuned to a final note. As we look upon the sufferings of life, we expect to see more than unanswered pain, because in the resurrection of Jesus we have “a reason to hope” (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) that this melody is coming to a glorious crescendo.
The Resurrection of Jesus shows that the story of life is unfolding within the divine love, and that by God’s design love will ultimately conquer death. Death doesn’t get the last note. Our desire for goodness is not a fragile accident tolerated by biology. Love was always God’s plan, and in Jesus it is to become the foundation of a “new heaven and earth” (Rev 21:1), the determining power in a new biology, if you will. By the light of Jesus, Christians glimpse a glory shining in the sufferings of everything that lives and yearns: our unmet desires for goodness are not doomed to final frustration, since we need only wait in hope for the consummation of creation.
This reminds me of one of my favorite moments in the movie The Thin Red Line (1998). This movie, which is a terrifying and nonetheless beautiful story about war, offers various perspectives in which to see death. Some characters see only senseless pain, and so they despair of human life as having any more value than dirt and grass. Others see every moment of life, even suffering, as an occasion to reach for a goodness they hope will endure – fidelity and love; and thus in their sufferings they glimpse a new world coming to be, a new creation, or rather this creation finally come to its full birth, evolving to its definitive life under God.
In one of the most terrible battle scenes of the movie, in which there is so much pain and destruction, the camera suddenly turns to a bloody baby bird, struggling to stand as it drags itself dying through mud. A few scenes later, we viewers are invited to examine our eyes, to reflect on how we view the world: the lead character says, “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain. [That] death’s got the final word. It’s laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through him.”
We know the ambiguities of life and death in our universe. Christian faith encourages us to believe that this story is unfinished, that “nature, red in tooth and claw” is waiting for the final notes of creation to sound and thereby recolor and defang its appearance. God is not finished with us. Our world is still evolving, still coming to be. As we wait for the final note, we can still glimpse the impending glory, leaving us with “something smiling” through us.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.