Friday, July 20, 2007

Evolution and Theology

Earlier this summer, I had a post about the theological implications of evolution. My basic point was that if you accept both evolution and Christianity, evolution necessarily has important implications about the nature of God.

I recently ran across a wonderful essay by Georgetown theologian John Haught who summarizes the various theological views of evolution. After describing the "conflict position" (which holds that evolution and faith in God are in conflict) and the "contrast position" (which holds that evolution and faith in God are reconcilable, he then describes the "contact position", which is mine--evolution itself needs to inform our view of God:

Evolutionary science deepens not only our understanding of the cosmos but also of God. Unfortunately, many theologians have still not faced the fact that we live in a world after and not before Darwin, and that an evolving cosmos looks a lot different from the world-pictures in which most religious thought was born and nurtured. If it is to survive in the intellectual climate of today, therefore, our theology requires fresh expression in evolutionary terms. When we think about God in the post-Darwinian period we cannot have exactly the same thoughts that Augustine, Aquinas, or for that matter our grandparents and parents had. Today we need to recast all of theology in evolutionary terms.

In fact, evolution is an absolutely essential ingredient in our thinking about God today. As the Roman Catholic theologian Hans K√ľng puts it, evolutionary theory now makes possible: 1) a deeper understanding of God--not above or outside the world but in the midst of evolution; 2) a deeper understanding of creation--not as contrary to but as making evolution possible; and 3) a deeper understanding of humans as organically related to the entire cosmos.

Skeptics, of course, will immediately ask how theology can reconcile the idea of God with the role of chance in life's evolution. This is a crucial question, and the contrast position's casual conjecture that chance may not really exist is unsatisfactory. In fact, chance is quite real. It is a concrete fact in evolution, but it is not one that contradicts the idea of God. On the contrary, an aspect of indeterminacy is just what we should expect if, as religion maintains, God is love. For love never coerces. It allows the beloved--in this case the entire created cosmos--to be or to become itself. If, as theistic religious tradition has always insisted, God really cares for the well-being of the world, then the world has to be something other than God. It has to have a certain amount of "freedom" or autonomy. If it did not somehow exist on its own it would be nothing more than an extension of God's own being, and hence it would not be a world unto itself. So there has to be room for indeterminacy in the universe, and the randomness in evolution is one instance of it.

In other words, if the world is to be something distinct from God it must have scope for meandering about, for experimenting with different ways of existing. In their relative freedom from divine coercion, some of the world's evolutionary experiments may work and others may not. But divine love does not crudely interfere. It risks allowing the cosmos to exist in relative liberty. In the unfolding of life, the world's inherent quality of being uncompelled manifests itself in the form of "contingent" occurrences in natural history (as Stephen Gould insightfully emphasizes), or in the random variations or genetic mutations that comprise the raw material of evolution. Thus a certain amount of chance is not at all opposed to the idea of God.

A God of love influences the world in a persuasive rather than coercive way, and this is why chance and evolution occur. It is because God is involved with the world in a loving rather than domineering way that the world evolves. If God were a magician or a dictator, then we might expect the universe to be finished all at once and remain eternally unchanged. If God controlled the world rigidly instead of willing its independence, we might not expect the weird organisms of the Cambrian explosion, the later dinosaurs and reptiles, or the many other wild creatures that seem so alien to us. We would want our divine magician to build the world along the lines of our own narrowly human sense of clean perfection. But what a pallid and impoverished world that would be. It would lack all the drama, diversity, adventure and intense beauty that evolution has produced. It might have a listless harmony to it, but it would have none of the novelty, contrast, danger, upheavals, and grandeur that evolution has in fact brought about over billions of years.

According to the contact position, God is not a magician but a creator. And this God is much more interested in promoting freedom and adventure than in preserving the status quo. Since divine creative love has the character of letting things be, we should not be too surprised at evolution's strange and erratic pathways. The long struggle of the universe to arrive at life, consciousness, and culture is consonant with faith's conviction that love never forces but always allows for the play of freedom, risk and adventure.

Love even gives the beloved a share in the creative process. Might it not be because God wants the world to partake of the divine joy of creating novelty, that it is left unfinished, and that it is invited to be, at least to some degree, self-creative? And if it is self-creative can we be too disconcerted that it has experimented with the many different, delightful, baffling and bizarre forms that we find in the fossil record and in the diversity of life that surrounds us now?

Ever since Darwin scientists have found out things about the natural world that may not be consistent with an innocent notion of divine design such as the one proposed by Paley and lampooned by Dawkins. But the new discoveries of an evolving cosmic story correspond very well with the self-giving humility of the God of religious experience, a God who wishes to share the divine creative life with all creatures, and not just humans. Such a God renounces any will to control the process of creation and gives to creatures a significant role, indeed a partnership, in the ongoing evolution of the world. Such a gracious self-giving love would be quite consistent with a world open to all the surprises that pertain to evolution.

In summary, the "hypothesis" of God, taken in consort with (and not as an alternative to) evolutionary theory, can help account for the complexity and consciousness that evolution has brought about. God may be thought of as the transcendent source not only of the order in the universe but also of the novelty and turbulence that evolution has brought with it. God creates by inviting (not forcing) the cosmos to express itself in increasingly more diverse ways. As novelty comes into the evolving world, the present order has to give way. And what we confusedly refer to as "chance" and "chaos" may be the result of the breakdown of present arrangements of order in the wake of novelty's coming into the world.

The ultimate origin of evolutionary novelty is God. God's will, in this version of the contact approach, is the maximization of novelty and diversity. And since the introduction of novelty and diversity is what turns the cosmos into a world of beauty, we may say that the God of evolution is a God who wants nothing less than the ongoing enhancement of cosmic beauty. Thus an evolutionary picture of the cosmos, with all of its craziness and serendipitous wanderings, corresponds quite well with the biblical understand of an adventurous and loving God as the One "who makes all things new."

However, God's role in evolution is not only that of being the stimulus that stirs the cosmos toward deeper novelty and beauty. Religious faith claims that the same God who creates also promises to save the world from suffering and death. This would mean that the whole history of cosmic evolution, in all its detail and incredible breadth, is permanently taken into God's loving memory. The suffering of the innocent and the weak, highlighted so clearly by evolutionary thought, becomes inseparable from the divine eternity. Theology cannot tolerate a deity who merely creates and then abandons the world. God is intimately involved in the evolutionary process and struggles along with all beings, participating in both their pain and enjoyment, ultimately redeeming the world so that nothing in its long evolution is ever completely forgotten or lost.

Read it all here.

To me the key is this--the God of evolution is a creator, not a magician, but a God who remains engaged with his creation.

UPDATE: Welcome readers from the Richard Dawkins forums. I urge that all of you read the full Haught piece because it discusses Richard Dawkins' view that science and faith are indeed irreconciable. The point of this portion is that if you beleive in both evolution and God, what does this tell you about the nature of God. If you don't accept the existence of God in the first place, of course, this will seem a pointless exercise. Similarly, if you reject evolution, this exercise makes no sense.


Jeff said...

I have been meaning to comment on your evolution-related blog entries for some time, but have not had an opportunity. Evolution is certainly a hot issue in Christian churches, especially among those belonging to Evangelical denominations like myself. I think both sides - pro and con - have become so emotional on the subject, that we fail to truly understand one another’s views. We set up straw-men and proceed to tear them down. I find many evolution supporters use the extreme views of young-earth creationists when criticizing intelligent design, rather than addressing those with progressive (old-Earth) views. Likewise, many Christians over-simplify evolution in an attempt to discredit it.
During my time in college, I took many several courses in anthropology and geology. While far from a Ph.D. on the subject, I have somewhat of a basic understanding of scientific principles and thought. With that said, and despite my time at the university, I still hesitate to embrace evolution. I don’t believe that evolution, per se, violates biblical teachings, so that is not a stumbling block for me. Simply put, evolution fails to answer many of my questions about the development of life on Earth. If you can recommend a good book on the subject that could waylay my reservations, I would certainly like to read it. Christian apologists have written many books to refute the views of evolution. Perhaps there is an evolution version.
Furthermore, I have to admit that the atheistic motivations behind many who support evolution also cause me reservation. In fact, some are militant regarding their belief that there is not a god. If one begins with the presupposition that there can’t possibly be a god, your scientific findings will certainly state the same. Such individuals are more closed minded that they accuse certain Christians of being. Scientists for years embraced religion - Newton, Galileo, as well as many today. However, mainstream science today looks at religion as anti-intellectual.
I could write much more, but I will end with that. Thanks again for the posts.

Chuck Blanchard said...


A good place to start would be the Language of God by Francis Collins. Collins is an Evangelical Christian and also a biologist (he headed the Human Genome Project). He does a good job of discussing evolution from th point of view of a believer.

I have also found that my own church has a wealth of materials on creation. They can be found here

Another good Christian voice on this is Chriss Tilling, a young theologian (with an Evangelical bent) whoe wrote about evolution quite recently here.

Steven Carr said...

'It allows the beloved--in this case the entire created cosmos--to be or to become itself.'

This is stark contrast to mankind who did not let smallpox or polio 'become itself' , but tried to exterminate part of God's created cosmos.

As Professor Steve Jones said when accused of playing God 'Somebody has to'.

Steven Carr said...

The article tells us nothing about the nature of God. It is devoid of content.