The Origins of Life: An Episcopal View

Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop, The Episcopal Church

As an Episcopalian, I understand that all of life is originally created good, created to be in relationship with God and with the rest of creation. Life is a gift, the good gift of God to be used for the highest purpose for which it was intended.

Human beings are meant to be stewards of creation. Everyday, creation and revelation continue in divine-human partnership as God works in the minds of scientists, inviting us all to share in discovering the wonderful mysteries of creation. In this light, I find no difficulty in holding together my faith and the best of recent science.

Episcopalians acknowledge three sources of authority on questions of faith: scripture, tradition and reason. Our scriptures are the writings of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), the Christian writings (gospels and epistles) and several other books called the Apocrypha.

Tradition means the fruits of millennia living in community — our ways of worship and our ways of interpreting scripture, which include the analogical and metaphorical.

Reason implies, as one old hymn puts it, that "new occasions teach new duties." We believe that revelation continues, that God continues to be active in creation, and that all of the many ways of knowing — including geology, evolutionary biology, philosophy, and arts such as opera, punk rock or painting — can be vehicles through which God and human beings partner in continuing creation.

Given this worldview, we are compelled to use the resources God has given us. Not to use our brains in understanding the world around us seems a cardinal sin.

As a scientist and an Episcopalian, I cherish the prayer that follows a baptism, that the newly baptized may receive "the gift of joy and wonder in all God's works." I spent the early years of my adulthood as an oceanographer, studying squid and octopuses, including their evolutionary relationships. I have always found that God's creation is "strange and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139).

Looking to scripture, the first creation story (Genesis 1-2:3) speaks of the origins of all things as the creation of God, who was, is and will continue to be the source of life and all that is: water, light, time, the stars and planets, Earth and all its living inhabitants.

The second creation story (beginning at Genesis 2:4) speaks of God's relationship with human life and observes that humans have from the beginning felt the urge to set themselves up in place of God, in an act that has been called sin, idolatry or hubris. This story insists that this act is predicated on the ability to choose, whether rightly or wrongly.

Theologians speak of this gift as free will, and it applies equally to the contingent nature of all creation. The underlying premise of Darwin's theory of evolution is fully in accord with a contingent understanding of the nature of all things.

A third story, the cosmological story of creation, answers the question about the origin of all things with some variation on the theme of the big-bang theory. In the beginning there was nothing, and all that is came to be as a result of an incredibly powerful force beginning in a singularity.

Scientists employ Darwin's theory of evolution as the best framework for understanding the complexity of creation and its ongoing development. It seems to be objectionable in some religious circles because of its fundamental assumptions that the Earth is ancient, has changed radically over geologically lengthy eras, and that one form of life has led to another, in processes that in some cases have been gradual and in others very rapid.

The vast preponderance of scientific evidence, including geology, paleontology, archaeology, genetics and natural history, indicates that Darwin was in large part correct in his original hypothesis.

I simply find it a rejection of the goodness of God's gifts to say that all of this evidence is to be refused because it does not seem to accord with a literal reading of one of the stories in Genesis. Making any kind of faith decision is based on accumulating the best evidence one can find — what one's senses and reason indicate, what the rest of the community has believed over time, and what the community judges most accurate today.

That is not to say that the tradition or community understanding is always correct, as we might note in the aftermath of Galileo's discoveries. When the various sources of authority seem to be in tension, we must use all our rational and spiritual faculties to discern the direction in which a preponderance of the evidence points. To do otherwise is to repudiate the very gifts God has given us.

Originally published on on 8 August 2005