A friend commented about my post of last week: “You seem overly strong on evolution.”
Perhaps I am but as an historical theologian I am very much aware of changes in human understanding and ethical behavior. I see these changes as part of what I would call cultural evolution. Evolution is about much more than the arrival of the first human beings. It is about our evolving understanding of what it means to be a human being, about what is natural or unnatural, and about what is moral or immoral behavior.

Slavery, for example, once existed in many cultures. In the earliest written records, slavery is simply an accepted institution. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1760 BCE) prescribed death for anyone who helped a slave escape or who sheltered a fugitive slave. The Bible mentions slavery as an established institution.
Even after the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many Southerners refused to revise their proslavery views. In their minds, slavery had been divinely sanctioned. They pointed to texts like Ephesians 6:5-8 where Paul states: “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.”

Today we can affirm that slavery is neither natural nor moral.

Another example of cultural evolution is moving away from misogyny and the cultural denigration of women. The historical Jesus taught and acted in ways we might consider feminist today. Jesus promoted equality, showing that women and men are equal in dignity and value and spiritual depth. Women were the first official witnesses that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Nevertheless by the second century, as Christianity moved into the Patristics Age, strongly influenced by “Church Fathers” like Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE) and Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE) who said that being a female is a curse given by God, the virus of misogyny began to infect church leadership. It lasted a long time.

Even medieval Christian giants, like Thomas Aquinas, were distorted and demeaning misogynists. Aquinas often cited with approval Aristotle’s infamous affirmation that “the female is a misbegotten male.” And Aquinas himself declared that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten. (ST Ia q.92, a.1, Obj. 1)

In Western culture misogyny has lasted a very long time. I was surprised and amazed, for instance, that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, in a draft opinion obtained and published last week by Politico, had based his justifications for overturning Roe v. Wade on Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English judge and jurist. Hale’s misogynist arguments have caused damage to women for hundreds of years.

Hale (1609 – 1676), just like a lot of fundamentalist extremists today, believed that women were made from Adam’s rib and that therefore God did not make women as autonomous beings but as obedient helpmates for men doing — whatever men wanted. In his treatise Historia Placitorum Coronæ (“The History of the Pleas of the Crown”) Matthew Hale affirmed that marital rape was totally legal, because a man owned a woman’s body as an extension of his own and could do whatever he desired. Hale was also responsible for the trial and execution of women for witchcraft. His legal opinions would be used as a base for state execution of women and children both in England and in the Americas. Those women executed for witchcraft were overwhelmingly poor and single. Most were widows. Judge Hale and his contemporaries considered independent women a serious threat in society, because they were not owned and controlled by a father or a husband. That meant such women were unnatural, dangerous and often evil. Thanks to Hale, there was even a serious debate about whether or not women, who were not Christian, were even human beings.

Nevertheless, in our current phase of cultural evolution, most people would argue that misogyny is neither natural nor moral.

Just in my lifetime I have seen several evolutions in the understanding of human nature and human dignity.

I remember when black people, where I was growing up, were demeaned as inferior humans. I remember when I was in high school one of my uncles, using his favorite ethnic slur, said “Ni**ers have small brains” making them incapable of abstract thinking. Then he laughed and said “but Ni**er men have big sex organs, making them natural-born rapists.” Disgusting.

My uncle was not pleased, but I was delighted when, in college, my classmates and I happily participated in the 1963 civil rights march in Detroit. It was the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.

I remember, as a Catholic boy with a Protestant Dad, when the local Catholic priest told my fourth grade class that we as Catholic boys and girls “had the true faith” but those Protestants belonged to “a false religion.” I found it crazy and painful. And it is pure nonsense. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is much bigger than the Church of Rome.

And as an obnoxious kid, I remember joking about the “Red Skins” (Native Americans) and praising General George Custer (1839 – 1876) who fought Native Americans in the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana Territory. He was killed along with all of the five companies he led. This action became romanticized as “Custer’s Last Stand.” Jack was such an ignoramus. But his understanding and values have evolved. Change happens.

Cultural evolution continues. Today we defend LBGTQ rights. I do support same-sex marriage. In fact, right now 70% of U.S. adults support same-sex marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church still teaches that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” That teaching, in time, will change. Remember that great churchmen once taught that women are “defective and misbegotten.” The Catholic Church is a slow-change institution.

Nevertheless, we do have changed understandings. Changed understandings, however, are not enough. Changed understandings demand changed behavior.

Jesus was not a racist. He was not a misogynist. He said nothing about homosexuality. He was prophetic, not just in words but primarily in his ethical behavior, showing acceptance, care, and compassion for all people. Jesus was radically transformative.

  • Jack

9 thoughts on “Evolution and Human Understanding and Ethical Behavior

  1. Thank you for the necessary reminder that our moral and ethical understanding evolves over time. You are a wonderful teacher!!

  2. Dear Jack,
    This is another of your inspiring, in-depth, and clarifying epistles that help us think and live the example that Jesus gave us. Evolution, contrary to many fundamentalists, is part and parcel of a lived-faith and not a contradiction of deep spirituality. To evolve is to be open to truth as it is revealed to us. Thank you, Jack, for your profound and touching words!
    Frank Skeltis

  3. Jack – love your wisdom on the continuing evolution of the human person. I have a few observations, however, and offer them as follows: (1) I am keenly aware that fear/guilt are no longer sufficient motivators to keep younger people under religious control. (2) Younger people are wonderful demonstrations that we only live once, and if/when we find our truth, there is no point in waiting for any institution to change its teachings to catch up with reality; that is a very unreasonable demand. (3) Having just returned from Germany, and taking note of the stronger presence of Martin Luther in northern parts of the country, it is my belief that Pope Francis ought to be bold and canonize Luther. What statement would that make? It is time for bold leadership in the world, especially in the USA, where it appears that the Puritan ethic and evangelical fundamentalism have taken control of the minds and hearts of a significant portion of the American population. Democracy is too valuable as an institution to allow the repetition of the No Nothings to return, yet they seem to have a significant and growing impact. Is it not time for those who have enlightened understandings of religion/morality to make bold proclamations to denounce the false teachings and stake a claim on a more informed understanding of a God who expects nothing more or less than humans recognizing one another as equals, i.e. men/women, gay/straight, citizen/immigrant and the list goes on and on.

  4. Your reminder is so timely, thank you, because it is to easy to succumb to despair when overwhelmed by too much “news” that is not the Good News. It all seems too much bad news at once, every day, with never a moment of transformation.

    Backing away from addiction to watching catastrophes unfold without end, I recall two particular reflections from Teilhard, in “The Human Phenomenon.”

    First, the ball is in our court: “Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself… each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself.” I think that means humanity can redirect itself, which is a pattern in the spheres of other life that also evolves. In other words we ourselves on this fragile Earth, our island home, are the responsible party -from- our past and -into- our future.

    Second, the Wide Old World of Nature carries us along with a tender indifference (as Camus says). In the course of her evolutionary project, we, Sapiens, are aware of formidable obstacles that challenge our stretch into the noosphere. Waring into challenges is itself an act of courage, faith and hope, that is a credit to the spirit of humanity, willing to risk working together in harmony, eventually, without letting too much ego, like nationalism or hyper-patriotism, get in the way. What is striking is that Teilhard, for all the disappointments in his own life, would not stake out a middle ground because evolution will overtake it. “Between … absolute optimism or absolute pessimism, there is no middl way because by its very nature progress is all or nothing.” That is radical and prophetic, as was Jesus, like you said. That is the Good News on which we can stake a claim, that change is happening, transformation is upon us.

    1. Yes indeed. I remember having a discussion with Archbishop Jean Jadot one day when I was really down. He looked at me, smiled and “it is winter now but spring will come.”
      Warmest regards

  5. Yes, springtime resumes in Virginia, where I now live, which means staking up young perennial shoots (“controlling youth”) as well as searching for old stakes marking the demise of the annuals. Gardening, like archaeology, puts one literally “in touch” with the Earth, as it evolves and revolves, in relationship to the Sun, to photons & synthesis, to clarity and translucence.

    “Staking a claim,” to which Mr. Sankovich refers, spurs me on to continue prospecting for honesty and “transparency” among personalities who shape society (politicians, bishops, etc.).

    Staking a claim, or planting a coup-stick, like Dr. Luther’s line, “Here I stand: I can do no other,” demands of us courage to be honest, even if risking errancy in the face of what must done at the moment for the sake of others. Such honesty, humility really, is rare, a pearl of great price, worthy of the quest. As Ben Franklin said, “Truth will out,” or sprout anew, like seeds nurtured in the duff and turf of former times. Nature, the FIrst Scripture, has its own ways, which includes mutation and metamorphosis, akin to the burgeoning noosphere.

    Thank you, Jack & Joe, for your encouraging words.

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