Many people wonder why if God created the world, God didn’t make the world a better place. Wouldn’t God have wanted a world in which there was not so much suffering?

I was moved to ponder this question by the recent passing of my friend, Fr. George V. Coyne, S.J. George was the Director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006; in that role, he was a tireless champion of a mutually respectful dialog between science and religion. I got to know him late in his life, when he was appointed to the McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at LeMoyne College here in Syracuse, NY.

George was a lifelong fan of the writings of his fellow Jesuit, the paleontologist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard’s ecstatic evocation of the spiritual meaning of evolution has inspired many readers, not just Catholics. His views weren’t always welcome in the Church; Teilhard taught that evolution constituted an ongoing process of creation, an idea that is not easy to square with a straightforward reading of Genesis.

George was both a devout Catholic and a committed scientist. Teilhard’s thought spoke to him deeply. It was when George was in seminary that Teilhard’s works were condemned by the Holy Office. Shortly thereafter, the head of the seminary called George in for a talk. “I’m no longer allowed to keep Teilhard’s books in the seminary library. I know that his books speak to you. Here, you take them.” Perhaps this is when George was inspired with his life mission to keep alive the dialog between religion and science, even in difficult times. (It is important to note that, in the most recent decade or so, Teilhard’s thought has been thoroughly embraced by the Church.)

Readers of the Sinai and Synapses blog might want to seek out Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man, a profoundly inspiring book in which he foresees evolution leading to the future spiritual fulfillment of life in what he called the Omega Point. Sometimes in Teilhard’s account, I have to say, scientific precision takes a back seat to the ecstatic vision. In one of my last conversations with George, I expressed my misgivings about Teilhard’s science. “It’s poetry, Peter,” he said, “Read it as poetry.” (For more recent Catholic thought fully consistent with our best scientific knowledge, readers can turn to one of Teilhard’s most important successors, John Haught.)

The world of Jewish thought hasn’t produced anyone as single-mindedly devoted to reconciling evolution and religion as was Teilhard. But perhaps that’s because it didn’t need to. Even though we and Christians share the book of Genesis, our traditions of reading it have been worlds apart. To cite just one important example, consider the commentary on its first verse by our most important exegete, Rashi (1040 – 1105). He says, “This verse calls aloud, ‘Explain me!’” He continues, “The text does not intend to point out the order of the acts of Creation.” Thus, at the core of our Jewish tradition stands a powerful bulwark against a temptation to insist that creation really took just six days, six thousand years ago.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to say that Judaism has always known about evolution. It has been 20th and 21st century Jewish thinkers who have shown how to think in evolutionary terms within our traditional categories of thought. One prime example is the philosopher of biology Hans Jonas (1903 – 1993), whose 1961 lecture “Immortality and the Modern Temper” contains what he calls a “modern creation myth” that is a powerful meditation on how to see evolution in a religious and moral context. Similarly, Rabbi Arthur Green’s Radical Judaism (2010) is in large measure an exploration of Green’s belief that “evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time.”

Perhaps the most famous Jewish example is Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel. He wrote, “Evolution, which proceeds on a path of ascendancy, provides an optimistic foundation for the world. How is it possible to despair at a time when we see that everything evolves and ascends? When we penetrate the inner meaning of ascending evolution, we find in it the divine element shining with absolute brilliance.” This is a rather Teilhardian way of seeing things.

Of course, it isn’t only the Catholic Church that has struggled with evolution. We Jews have our fundamentalists, too, people who think that a literal interpretation of the Genesis account is warranted. A recent example is the affair surrounding Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, who has written several books “show[ing] how some of the greatest Jewish thinkers explained Judaism and Genesis in a way that complements modern science rather than conflicts with it.” In 2004 a letter appeared, signed by several high-profile Ultra-Orthodox rabbis, condemning Slifkin’s books as heretical and insisting that he withdraw them. Slifkin refused and has the support of many other leaders in the Orthodox world. It is a troubling reminder that notwithstanding Rashi’s comment on the first verse of Genesis, Judaism is not immune to the kinds of difficulties faced by Teilhard in his own religious community.

Still, we can be proud of the deep religious tradition that has enabled the vast mainstream of Judaism to confront evolution honestly and even to find profound meaning in it. Doing so can be a spiritual resource for coming to terms with the imperfections of the present state of the world in which we live.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Dr. Peter Saulson is Martin A. Pomerantz ’37 Professor of Physics at Syracuse University, and is also a member of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas in Jamesville, NY).

Photo by Fred Romero