Traces of God at the Museum

Traces of God in the Melbourne Museum?

Melbourne Museum is an exciting place to visit. Its galleries bring visitors face to face with its magnificent natural science collection, aboriginal history and culture, the wonders of the human body and the human mind, an experience of living flora and fauna of Australia, an introduction to the social history of Melbourne and wonderful evidence of the world’s pre-history in the evolution walk and gallery.

All its galleries and exhibitions contain what might be described as ‘traces of God’ in that they stimulate awe and wonder and curiosity and cause us to question our origins and the origin of our universe.

But one of the main questions that the Museum raises that is of special interest to Christians is ‘Has science (particularly evolutionary science) killed God?’ Have scientific explanations of the world eliminated the need for any other kind of explanation? This unit in RESource takes a look at the relationship between Science and Religion.

What are our questions?

All sorts of questions are stimulated when people come face to face with evidence of the age of the earth, the scale of the universe, the immense variety of living things.

  • Where does the world come from?
  • What happened to set it in motion?
  • How did life emerge?
  • Where do we come from and how do we fit in?
  • Are we random products of a random system?
  • Why are we like we are?

These questions are not simply scientific questions but are also of key religious and philosophical importance. People have been pre-occupied by these questions since human consciousness dawned. Human beings have always sought to explain themselves and their world.

The emergence of the Biblical account of the Beginning
Among these explanations there emerged in the Near East among the Hebrews, later known as the Israelites, narratives of the origin of the world and of human origins of singular moral and religious insight, beauty and power which suggested answers to these key questions. These narratives evolved, they were spoken, were refined, were written down, edited and eventually became the first chapters of the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. For centuries these chapters provided the Judaeo-Christian world with not only moral and religious answers but, in a pre-scientific age, with concrete answers about the origin of the world and of humans.

The emergence of the scientific account of Origins 
However, as human knowledge grew, especially in the areas of natural history and science, new insights into the ‘How’ of human origins emerged until, in the 19th Century, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution explained in the most satisfying way so far, the mechanics of the origins of living things. Since Darwin, science and its various disciplines have flourished. Hence the question that heads this unit. Has science replaced God as the most adequate explanation of the world and our place in it? If not, what is the relationship between religion and science and is there inevitable conflict between them? 

Before going further, gather student responses and listen to the range of points of view. What have students heard about the origin of the world and of human origins? What about evolution?

What have they heard, what have they read about the science/religion divide? What are their questions?

Can Science and Religion ‘talk’? How do they relate to each other?

Generally speaking people who have thought about the roles of religion and science have agreed that science deals with observations, explanations, collection of data, discoveries and theories that are able to be tested while religion is concerned with ultimate meaning and moral value.

An American thinker, Ian Barbour has come up with four models to describe the relationship between science and religion.

The Conflict Model
Some believe that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion and that one excludes the other. These tend to be people on the extremes in both positions. Keen proponents of scientific explanations like Richard Dawkins think that science can, or will eventually, explain everything and that religion is false, irrational and even dangerous.

At the other end of the ‘conflict’ spectrum are literal Bible believers who believe that the first chapters of Genesis provide a reliable, factual account of the origins of the world and that scientific explanations must therefore be false.

The Independence Model
Others see science and religion as essentially independent of each other, responding to very different human questions. Their subject matter is different, the methods of study are different, even the language is different. Fr George Coyne, former Vatican Astronomer takes this view as do most mainstream Christian Churches. They generally believe that science suggests answers to the ‘How’ questions. Religion suggests answers to the ‘Why’ questions.

 The Dialogue Model
A third position on the relationship between science and religion is that they are best understood in dialogue with each other. There are issues in both religion and science which impinge upon each other and the insights of each are important in reaching truly human conclusions and responses.

The Integration Model
Finally some have sought to integrate the insights of both religion and science by seeing God’s hand in scientific discoveries or theories and using insights from science to describe the action of God in the world of nature including humankind. This has lead on the one hand to the sometimes poorly thought out ideas of intelligent design proponents  and on the other, to the rather mystical theology found in the thought of the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. De Chardin was both a passionate scientist and a Christian mystic who sought to integrate his broad scientific knowledge with his profound faith.

 Further reading
further article on Teilhard by American theologian John Haught outlines some of his ideas about evolution towards the future in Christ.

An article in the Tablet’s Student Zone looks at how the science/religion divide has come about historically. It suggests that religion ‘because it has a long-developed expertise in moral philosophy and jurisprudence and because it continues to represent the beliefs and desires of the majority of people’ has a regulating role to play in relation to science where as history has shown, it is a short step between acquiring the ability to split atoms and disasters like Hiroshima.

What do you think?

• Are these four models a helpful way to sort out the relationships between science and religion?
• What are advantages and disadvantages of each position?
• Talk about which model best represents your understanding about how science and religion relate to each other?

Ought scientists have the freedom to experiment and research unfettered by other considerations? What is the role of religion, ethics and morality in relation to science?

What are the origins of modern science?

Though it is quite common to hear people speaking as though there is a natural conflict between science and religion, especially in contemporary debates, a key reason that modern science emerged in Western society is actually because the Judeo-Christian view of God enabled it.

Why do we say that?

The Creation accounts of Genesis made it clear that entities like the sun, moon, stars, the earth, animals were not divine beings to be worshiped and feared but were simply created things that could be explored without danger to human beings or disrespect to the Creator. While there have been enormous contributions to scientific study from other cultures especially the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and the Chinese, a fundamental impulse toward modern, scientific study as we know it is a result of the scriptural demythologising of creation found in Genesis. Nature gods previously understood to be responsible for the rains, for the seasons, for fertility and so on were shown in Genesis to be no gods. Science could be pursued as a study in cultures influenced by the Judeo-Christian scriptures because, according to Genesis, order characterised creation, so discovering its laws and principles was perfectly possible.

But surely the history of the Middle Ages shows that Christianity squashed free thought and scientific study?

The Middle Ages have often been described in a way which implies that after the glories of the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, a pall of darkness, caused largely by superstitious Christians, fell on European minds. This view is disputed by scholars who point out that modern science could not have developed as it did without the tradition of learning and reason pursued and encouraged by the Church in the Middle Ages.

If revolutionary rational thoughts were expressed in the Age of Reason [the 18th century], they were only made possible because of the long medieval tradition that established the use of reason as one of the most important of human activities.’ (Prof. Edward Grant)

James Hannam wrote a brief column in the Guardian showing that many of the legendary conflicts between the Church and scientific study are quite literally ‘legendary’. He develops this theme at further length on his website Medieval Science and Religion

Were any of the great scientists Christians?

Throughout the past 2000 years many prominent scientists have been convinced Christians and this continues into the present day. Theologians too have taken the questions and challenges that science raises seriously. One example is Alister McGrath an English theologian who is captivated by both science and theology. Read his article ‘Science and Faith at Odds?’ in which he challenges the idea that ‘real scientists’ do not believe in God.

Prof. Ken Miller is an American biologist. His article in the Boston College magazine, ‘In the Beginning’, shows the compatibility of science and faith as well as the limits of each of their competencies. It is his view that ‘the dispute over evolution will never be settled unless we address the central fallacy of the anti-evolution movement—namely, the claim that evolution is inherently antireligious’.

An interview with Fr. George Coyne and Br. Guy Consolmagno (past and present Vatican astronomers) is a sound bite of a program recorded for the Speaking of Faith radio program in the US. The interview avoids specialised language and the two speak very personally and occasionally amusingly of their lives as scientists and Catholics.

What about evolution and the controversy with Creationists?

One area in which there seems to be particular conflict between science and religion is the challenge that evolution apparently poses to the creation stories in Genesis. In parts of America this has escalated into a full scale battle. But is there really a conflict between the genesis creation stories and science? Is it impossible to maintain faith in God as the creator and first cause of everything while accepting the scientific theory of evolution?

Scientific Explanations of Origins

Firstly it is worth exploring the theory of evolution? What evidence is there for it? What do we know about it? Is it a satisfactory explanation of the diversity of species and the development of human life?

If you a bit hazy about what the theory of evolution is all about even after tapping into the shared wisdom of the class, the Berkeley site is excellent and should answer any scientific questions about the process of evolution. Becoming Human is an interactive documentary exploring human origins which provides an outline of how scientists understand the development of human beings over time. Finally, a brief Q and A on evolution answers some of the most frequently asked questions.

• Would you say that scientists know enough about evolutionary theory to have confidence in it as the most plausible explanation of how life on earth emerged? Why or why not?

Creationist Explanation of Origins

Creationists regard the Genesis accounts as historic/scientific explanations of the origins of the world. While there are quite a few different forms of Creationism, ‘young earth’ creationists believe in the ‘special creation’ of each separate species in six days, beginning a few thousand years ago.

At the other end of the creationist spectrum, ‘intelligent design’ believers incorporate scientific thought, including evolution, into their understanding but maintain direct intervention by God in the development of ‘irreducibly complex’ mechanisms such as the eye. However there are significant difficulties with the intelligent design theory from both the scientific point of view and the theological point of view.

  • Explore the point of view of those who see the Creation stories not as metaphors, providing religious and philosophical insights into the nature and being of God and human life, but as a genuine scientific explanation of the universe. You could do this by reading, searching the internet or interviewing people who belong to religious congregations who have a Creationist world view.
  • Students might reflect on how they and their families have understood the origins of the world and of life. How have students been influenced by particular points of view about the relationship between science and religion and particularly between belief in God as Creator and the theory of evolution?

What is the Catholic attitude to Evolution?
Some Catholics believe that because some scientists who accept evolution are so strongly opposed to faith that the theory of evolution itself attacks God and so must be rejected. This is not so. The scientific explanation of evolution is entirely neutral in relation to faith as most science is. The facts of evolution neither confirm, nor refute, the existence of God.

It is also worthwhile noting that while the Catholic Church firmly believes in the creation of the world by God it does not share the view of creationists that Genesis is a scientific account of how creation happened. It might be helpful to read a Catholic response to Creationism to clarify your understanding of how the Church views this line of thought.

What is a Catholic response to the science of evolution?

Catholics are sometimes asked ‘Do you believe in evolution?’. Evolution is not an article of faith to be believed in but a theory which Catholics can accept or reject on scientific grounds according to how convincing the scientific evidence seems to them. Most Catholics, familiar with the evidence have no trouble accepting the theory of evolution.

While for centuries, the Genesis account was generally accepted as an explanation of origins because there was no scientific explanation, theologians as early as Origen and St Augustine in the 4th Century interpreted Genesis as theology rather than as natural history while St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century, long before evolution was proposed, had no problem with the idea of the autonomy of nature:

For Thomas (Aquinas)…God, as primary cause, is not threatened by the existence of real secondary causes in nature, including those causes which evolutionary biology investigates.”(William E Carroll).

What happened in the 19th Century?

So when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution came to prominence in the 19th Century, Catholics were less confused than other denominations which had adopted a more literal reading of the Bible, though there was still unease among many. Historically, the Catholic Church has been relatively neutral in relation to the theory of evolution and although Darwin’s findings were highly controversial in Christian circles, Darwin’s writings were never put on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books.

John Henry Newman, the great English Catholic theologian and contemporary of Darwin had this to say in 1868 in a letter to a friend:

‘I do not fear the theory [of evolution] ……….It does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago, gave laws to matter. He first created matter and then he created laws for it – laws which should construct it into its present wonderful beauty, and accurate adjustment and harmony of parts gradually. We do not deny or circumscribe the Creator, because we hold he has created the self-acting originating human mind, which has almost a creative gift; much less then do we deny or circumscribe His power, if we hold that He gave matter such laws as by their blind instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see …
Mr Darwin’s theory need not then be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill …
‘At first sight I do not see that “the accidental evolution or organic beings” is inconsistent with divine design – It is accidental to us, not to God.’ 

How does the Church understand the Creation stories in Genesis now?

At the present time the first chapters of Genesis are understood as inspired aetiologies. An aetiology is a symbolic story which explains why things are as they are. The creation stories of the first two chapters of Genesis reveal something of the nature of God, the goodness of God’s creation, the origins of man and woman, their dignity and identity, their roles and relationships. Chapter 3 also provides explanations of evil-doing and suffering. Pope Benedict XVI before his election as Pope wrote ‘In the Beginning’, reflections on the Creation Narratives in Genesis which are worth pondering.

If this is so, why does confusion about evolution among Catholics still persist?

It is true that many Catholics have been confused by the scientific explanation offered by the theory of evolution and the discoveries of science on the one hand and the symbolic interpretative stories in Genesis on the other. This has been especially apparent when evolution is presented, either by scientists or by believers, as necessarily atheistic.

Quite simply it is not necessarily atheistic.

The solution is to clearly differentiate between the task of science and the task of the scripture and appreciate the truth of both. As Pope Leo XIII famously commented in Providentissimus Deus in 1893, ‘Truth cannot contradict truth’.

The Design of Evolution briefly reviews the Catholic position during the 20th century before discussing Cardinal Christophe Schoenborn’s apparent endorsement of  ‘Intelligent Design’ in 2005. However Cardinal Schonborn later wrote, ‘Since I have no ability to defend, or interest in defending, Intelligent Design Theory, I will step back…’ (First Things April 2006).

Is there anything about theories of evolution that the Church does oppose?

What the Church does oppose is not the scientific explanation of the evolution of life in itself but interpretations of evolution which deny the existence of God or deny God as the ultimate cause and end of everything that exists. In 2004, a document prepared by the International Theological Commission (headed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger) entitled Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God contained an analysis of evolution and its relation to Catholic teaching. It asserted in #64, that materialist, reductionist and spiritualist forms of evolutionary theory (e.g. some of the positions taken by Richard Dawkins) couldn’t be reconciled with Christianity. These theories are philosophies not science and as such can certainly be challenged.

Archbishop Rowan Williams discusses Human Origins with Richard Dawkins and challenges aspects of his thought in a debate at Oxford University recently. It is long (90 minutes), and sometimes a bit obscure but well worth a look. The civility of the debaters is a pleasant contrast to many other discussions on this topic.

‘How’ Questions, ‘Why’ Questions and Your Questions

What questions does the science of evolution suggest answers to?

The science of evolution DOES help answer questions such as:

  • How did life on earth evolve?
  • How did species differentiate?
  • Is all life interconnected?
  • How are we related to other primates?

These are examples of ‘How‘ questions, i.e. questions about process.

What questions does the science of evolution not suggest answers to? 

The science of evolution DOES NOT suggest answers to these kind of questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Why do I exist?
  • Why does anything exist?
  • Has life any meaning?

These are examples of ‘Why questions, i.e. questions about meaning.

What are your questions about faith and evolution?

  • Have students use some of the questions above to interview each other to gather what class members already know or think and to encourage further questions. Students may like to record interviews with each other if flip cameras are available and develop a class presentation of the topic.
  • Extend the inquiry beyond the classroom by suggesting that each student asks two or three other people: family members, friends, about their responses to these questions before approaching either their teacher or consulting books/websites etc.
  • Explore the possibility of finding an ‘expert’, a theologian and/or a scientist, who would be prepared to dialogue with students on the topic either face to face or via Skype or email.

What do the religions of the world contribute to explanations of origins

You might explore what stories of origins exist in Hinduism and Buddhism.
Closer to home, Aboriginal Dreaming stories often explain origins and in doing so illustrate what is most significant and important in the beliefs of the people.

Explore the possibility of speaking to Aboriginals familiar with their traditional stories. Several Catholic Education Offices have indigenous members of staff who are familiar with the stories and what they mean. Aboriginal Catholic ministries also exist in most capital cities. Try to discover the kind of truth believed to be contained in the indigenous creation accounts. For example: Do the Aboriginal people believe literally that Bunjil the eaglehawk is responsible for the formation of the bay now called Port Phillip, or are their creation stories primarily spiritual? What are the implications of the Bunjil creation story for how humans ought to act now?

Are the creation stories of the world answering the same questions about origins as the scientific explanation does? What are their deeper meanings? Are they comparable to the Genesis creation stories of Judaism and Christianity?

Some quotations

Peter Edward Hodgson, English Nuclear Physicist. Author of about 20 books on nuclear physics and theory of relativity. 
‘Although we seldom recognize it, scientific research requires certain basic beliefs about the order and rationality of matter, and its accessibility to the human mind . . . they came to us in their full force through the Judeo-Christian belief in an omnipotent God, creator and sustainer of all things. In such a world view it becomes sensible to try and understand the world, and this is the fundamental reason science developed as it did in the Middle Ages in Christian Europe, culminating in the brilliant achievements of the seventeenth century’.

Mgr. George Coyne, Astronomer and Director of the Vatican observatory 1978-2006.  
“I have friends who pray that science will never discover or explain certain things. I don’t understand that. Nothing we learn about the universe threatens our faith. It only enriches it.”

Pope John Paul II in October 1996, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
“This theory (evolution) has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.”

Pope Benedict XVI in July 2007.
Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.

Prayer in relation to Creation, Evolution and the Natural World

St Francis of Assisi is universally known for his deep appreciation of creation. The Canticle of the Sun is one of St Francis’ best known works and there are many settings of it. This is a version with images.

A more contemporary prayer is this extract from de Chardin’s book Hymn of the Universe
Blessed be you, mighty matter, irresistible march of evolution, reality ever newborn; you who, by constantly shattering our mental categories, force us to go ever further and further in our pursuit of the truth. Blessed be you, universal matter, immeasurable time, boundless ether, triple abyss of stars and atoms and generations: you who by overflowing and dissolving our narrow standards of measurement reveal to us the dimensions of God.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ

Having looked at both St Francis’ prayer and Fr Teilhard de Chardin’s, try composing a ‘Canticle of the Museum’ based on 5 or 6 things you were especially impressed by during your museum visit.

Alternatively look at this Canticle from Chapter 3 of the Book of Daniel and use it as a model. Use visual images from your museum visit to enrich the impact of your canticle.

(Photography is permitted in the Museum except in the Bunjilaka Gallery, the reproductive section of Body and Mind and a small portion of the Melbourne exhibit which pertains to Aboriginal activity).

You may like to use or adapt one of these two prayers in relation to science as prayer during the unit.


  • How could you contribute to the partnership of science and faith?
  • Do you understand how they complement each other?
  • What implications do your decisions have for your own lifestyle and Western industrial/technological lifestyle in general?
  • How important is the created world to you?
  • How do you see yourself and your peers participating in the ‘ongoing evolution’ of the world?
  • In which direction would you want your actions and choices to steer humanity and the world we live in?
  • What insights of Genesis 1-3 might  influence your actions or choices?