Matthew Hill
 on March 30, 2016

Evolution and Holiness

A new book attempts to understand Wesleyan “holiness” theology in light of evolutionary science.


evolution and holiness book

INTRO BY JIM: We often use the label “Science and Religion” for the academic discipline, but the reality is that there are many sciences and many religions. Even if we confine ourselves to the intersection of evolution and Christianity, there are still quite a few variations to be found.

At BioLogos we try to be fairly neutral about the theological traditions people identify with (see our faith statement that sticks to the basics), but obviously people themselves are not neutral in this regard. Our president’s last name gives her away as part of the Dutch Reformed community. My own heritage is rooted in Anabaptist and Wesleyan Holiness movements. Because of this, I’ve been involved in the Wesleyan Philosophical Society, and there have become acquainted with Matthew Hill. Even though his new book is exploring the implications of evolution for the theological commitments of Wesleyan theology, I thought all of us might benefit from hearing his perspective.

I teach at a university that is closely affiliated to a local church. One of the pastors was asking me about my book, Evolution and Holiness, and he said something to the effect of, “What on earth does evolution have to do with becoming a holy person, let alone John Wesley?” In other words, what he was really asking was: what’s the point? Why does it matter where humans came from when all that matters is where we’re going?

I get it. It’s an understandable question. If what really matters in life is our spiritual journey then this “evolution stuff” is either irrelevant at best, or threatening at worst. This context is the environment in which I was raised—a milieu that saw the study of evolution as not necessarily hostile to our faith, but certainly not helpful.

Essentially I had to make a decision as to whether or not I would cast aside a theory of science that has wider scientific consensus than the theory of gravity. There is agreement in fields as disparate as astronomy,  biology, geology, and chemistry. And, like many of you, I came to the realization that if I was going to be a critical participant in this world—both intellectually and spiritually—then I needed to try and wed my faith in light of science.

I’m a Wesleyan, for better and for worse! I was practically born in the back of a Wesleyan church and have my ordination in a holiness tradition. While I certainly don’t think John Wesley was perfect (his home life is a place to start critiquing), I do believe his theology and ethics represent the kind of blend between Western and Eastern Christian thought that makes his ideas attractive to many traditions.

Here’s the crux of Wesleyan theology: Wesleyans believe that it’s possible to achieve sanctification. There’s a lot of fancy words we use to describe this—perfect love, Christian perfection, and sometimes even “holiness”—but they all have the same concept in mind: through the help of the Holy Spirit, sin is not inevitable. Even if you don’t buy into this concept, which is completely fine, I’ve found this idea of Christian perfection to be philosophically consistent. Essentially, if humans have the capacity for free will, which most of the Christian world believes, then with the help of God we could always—in every particular situation—avoid sin. If one strings together a series of those particular occurrences then one is on her or his way to being holy. It’s obviously much more nuanced than that, but this is the nuts and bolts.

So because this theology is true, which I believe it is, and the theory of evolution is true, which scientists near-unanimously confirm, I started asking the question about how these worlds might fit together. And what I found out was that Wesleyan ethics has a unique lens to help understand not only evolutionary theory, but also some of the contemporary quandaries within the field.

Let me illustrate with an example: A man lives in a rural part of the Ontario Province in Canada in a poor community. Everyone around him drinks excessively, and so does he; the difference between this man and his peers, however, is that he happens to be a First Nations Canadian (the Canadian equivalent of “native American”) compared to his European-descended friends. Unfortunately for this man, he has a genetic disadvantage that his friends do not have: he’s lacking an enzyme that quickly breaks down alcohol, making him more predisposed to alcoholism than non–First Nations people. Is he less morally responsible for his actions than his friends? Are there ways he might overcome the biological roulette that led to his disease?

Questions like this are never easy to answer. Yet genetic predispositions like this are actually quite common. Perhaps the broader and more interesting question concerns how moral behavior is constrained by our biological makeup. If one can locate these influences, it might be possible to understand the environmental conditions that contribute to moral behavior.

Despite recent advances within the study of evolution, theology is still coming to terms with what this new knowledge means for how we understand moral behavior. It is my attempt to locate this book at the intersection of theology and the sciences and seek, in part, to answer some of the following questions: How does the theological concept of “holiness” connect to contemporary understandings of evolution, and can these two fields fully explain moral traits such as human altruism? If genetic explanations do not fully explain human altruism, what role should we give to environmental explanations and free will? How do genetic explanations of altruism relate to theological accounts of human goodness and holiness?

In order to work toward answers to these questions, I use the lens of Wesleyan ethics to offer a fresh assessment within the interface of evolution and theology. In the end, reading such questions through this perspective has brought me to the following practical conclusion: Intentional community can provide the environmental conditions within which people may develop holiness, even beyond their genetic inclinations. If this is true, then what is at stake is not only the future of the Church but also the fine-tuning of human evolution.

For starters, I begin the book by introducing the reader to major questions concerning evolution, theology, and holiness through multiple examples and anecdotes. While my task in this book is not to argue for the validity of human evolution—as I assume a position of evolution throughout—I try to establish a very brief account of human evolution to make sure the reader and I are on the same page.

It is here, early on, where I address why the existence of altruism is a problem that needs to be explained and solved within evolutionary theory, because it seems to go against the idea of individual selection. How can something that, by definition, reduces individual gene fitness end up being a behavior trait? To answer this question, I explain evolutionary theories of altruism while showing the possibility of biological unselfishness, drawing upon concepts such as kin and reciprocal altruism as well as game theory. In other words, evolutionary explanations of altruistic human action, especially on the basis of genetic evolution alone, are not fully satisfying. Essentially, what biologists decipher from our genetic past does not prescribe what our future action will necessarily be, or what our moral behavior should be.

But what do we do about the long lineage of human genetics? Biological constraints on human behavior, both genetic and environmental, impact human freedom and moral responsibility. One cannot simply ask humans to “be moral” or to “be altruistic.” Different people reside in different locations on the spectrum of biological and environmental constraints. I aim to demonstrate that although altruistic behavior is significantly influenced by biology, it does not mean that all altruistic actions are solely limited to neurobiological processes. Humans have the ability (unique amongst animals) to overcome influences on their behavior.

The reader will so far have seen that evolutionary biologists have found evolutionary links to prosocial behavior. These discoveries might appear to put the idea of holiness in jeopardy. It would seem that an individual does not need to be concerned about experiencing holiness if she or he is bound by genetics. Or, it might make more sense to simply cultivate inherited behavioral traits. Likewise, if genetic understandings of Homo sapiens convey that humans are predisposed to certain moral behaviors, either being more selfish or more selfless than others, does the notion of Christian holiness mean that humans no longer have to worry about their genetic history because they can “spiritually overcome” such heritages? Then one might wonder if “holy” Christians somehow use free will to “trump” genetics. Within the intersection of evolution and theological ethics rests other important explorations that I address in this chapter. I show that explaining human selfishness as a mere “defect of the will” is reductionist at best; instead it is a defect of the person. One cannot have only care for either the spirit or body in some kind of reductionist dualism. Furthermore, when an individual works within her or his community, the individual can develop the kind of character necessary to be able to overcome genetic constraints.

Finally, being more practical in nature, I end by showing how, given that the biological human condition rests somewhere between total selfishness and altruism, there are some environmental constraints that end up pushing individuals closer to altruism. I rely on the example of John Wesley’s community groups which found a way to work within biological constraints, while utilizing environmental constraints, to encourage people to be more selfless, and ultimately, more holy. It is obviously anachronistic to say that Wesley knew about the biological human condition. Instead, he placed people in groups for both the practical reasons of organization and the theological reasons of engendering holiness. This environment is what I will call Wesley’s “world of constraints.” Through this rigorous community he nurtured group members’ biological proclivities toward altruism and mitigated egoistic tendencies. Wesley engaged the biological human condition in order to promote the holistic altruism that was at the heart of his drive toward holiness. When individuals dwelled within these intentional communities, they exhibited the distinguishing virtues of selflessness and altruism. Furthermore, this book concludes by addressing an important question: how does someone living in the midst of contemporary understandings of evolutionary theory— which view the human condition as not totally depraved by egoism—follow Wesley’s example and nurture Christian holiness?

There are several other natural questions that come as a result of this study which I address, such as,

  1. If one can be holy despite biological and environmental proclivities how do we understand theological ideas such as original sin?;
  2. How do we understand concepts such as the new heaven and the new earth in light of the holistic Christian anthropology?; and
  3. How might these understanding give us deeper empathy for those struggling with morally negative biological and cultural urges?

Above all, what I hope the reader will come away with is this: one does not have to check science, their brain, or even their conviction at the door when pursuing a life of Christian devotion and holiness. I hope you enjoy the book!