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On Yom Kippur, Considering the Moral Meaning of Theistic Evolution

Tonight is Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, a wrenching time when we look back on our moral failures of the past year and ask God to accept our repentance as Avinu Malkeinu, our Father and our King. In this space we've sometimes considered the theological implications of accepting a Darwinian picture of how human beings came to be. By the lights of so-called theistic evolution, God may have hoped for something like human beings to emerge from the otherwise blind, purposeless process of Darwinian evolution, but to see him as our creator or designer goes too far. What is the moral meaning of such an idea?

One of the phrases in the Yom Kippur liturgy asks of God, "The soul is yours, and the body is your handiwork; take pity on your labor." In the commentary on that verse by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the question is posed, "The Creator has mercy on his creation. This is one of the greatest foundations for any appeal for mercy, for how can he possibly continue to be angry at his creation? Even if we are unworthy of forgiveness on our own, God bestows mercy upon us as our Creator."

Is it really a small thing to imagine that God is our creator only in the very limited sense that theistic evolutionists imagine? I don't think so. Our claim on God's unmerited forgiveness depends in large part on his having intended us, designed us, fashioned us -- individually and as a race. Speaking personally, I as a father can't remain cross with my kids even when they've really acted abominably not only because I love them and because they're my kids, but because I share some of the responsibility for their being in existence in the first place. They represent, somehow, the fruit of my labor. How can I possibly keep being upset at them?

If that's true of a dad in relationship to his kids, who are innocent anyway, how much more so does an adult with plenty on his conscience need the forgiving mercy of his own Father in Heaven? Under a scientific view that leaves open the possibility that we really do reflect God's intelligent designing purpose, making us in a genuine sense his "handiwork" and the "fruit of [his] labor," we can make a plausible claim on his mercy. A very plausible claim, perhaps more so even than a child's claim on the mercy of his mortal father.

But under an extremely attenuated vision of God's involvement in our having come to existence, like that proposed by theistic evolutionists, it's much harder to see what claim I have on God's mercy. Not being his handiwork in any meaningful sense, exactly what relationship do I have to him?