Every five minutes another book appears explaining why our traditional understanding of God is outmoded, no longer acceptable among thinking people, and otherwise fit for the scrapheap. Books cite all sorts of reasons for this, but among the most popular is the notion that a grasp of Darwinian evolution demands a complete rethinking of theology. Theology is not alone, of course. As "applied Darwinism" grows ever more ambitious, its scope includes everything from the formation of galaxies to the eating habits of teenagers. Darwinism Today, a series of short, clearly written books published by Yale University Press, covers subjects such as "an evolutionary view of women at work" and "a Darwinian view of parental love." There is little, it seems, that doesn't need to be rethought in Darwin's wake.
Still, the claims for Darwin's impact on theology tend to be particularly sweeping. "Any thoughts we may have about God after the life and work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) can hardly remain the same as before," John Haught writes in the preface to his new book, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Westview Press). Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University and director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion, is one of a number of recent writers who insist on this fundamental divide: Before and After Darwin. (See, for another example, Finding Darwin's God, by Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller.) As a representative expression of a very influential point of view in the current science-and-religion conversation, Haught's work merits our close attention.
Naturally we first want some basic orientation; we want to know what has changed (or should have changed) so radically in our "thoughts about God" and how those changes are connected with Darwinism. Well, take this example for starters:
According to process theology, evolution occurs because God is more interested in adventure than in preserving the status quo. "Adventure," in Whiteheadian terms, is the cosmic search for more and more intense versions of ordered novelty, an other word for which is "beauty." God's will, apparently, is for the maximization of cosmic beauty. And the epic of evolution is the world's response to God's own longing that it strive toward ever richer ways of realizing aesthetic intensity.
Here Haught gives an overview of some modern theology that has engaged with evolution, rather than strictly presenting his own views. But as the book develops, it becomes clear that he shares the perspective outlined in this passage. There is nothing new in the notion that there is a supernal beauty in the unfolding of cosmic history. This is a theme that can be found running throughout the centuries of "pre-Darwinian" theology, though traditionally God is not imagined as a cosmic Walter Pater, seeking "ever richer ways of realizing aesthetic intensity."
What is distinctive in Haught's perspective, relative to the Christian tradition, is the notion that this beauty is dependent on God's not knowing precisely how the great artwork that is the universe will come out. He hedges a bit about what God does know. At one point, countering Stephen Jay Gould and others, Haught suggests that something like human consciousness would inevitably emerge in the kind of universe God set in motion. So God knew that much. But having effaced himself to create a more or less autonomous happening, he could not know in what particular corner of what galaxy this would occur. In Haught's theology, heavily influenced by the thought of the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, this originating God has put himself under "eternal restraint." This God is
a divine source of being that resides not in a timeless present located somewhere "up above," but in the future, essentially "up ahead," as the goal of a world still in the making. The term "God" in this revised metaphysics must once again mean for us, as it did for many of our biblical forbears, the transcendent future horizon that draws an entire universe, and not just human history, toward an unfathomable fulfillment yet to be realized.
Many readers will be surprised by Haught's invocation of the biblical witness. How can this picture of God be reconciled with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the personal God who wants to do business with us?
For the most part, Haught makes no effort even to begin reconciling this God with the God of Scripture, and we have to say that we just don't know how he would do so (or if he considers the question largely irrelevant).
There is, however, one significant exception, and it is not encouraging. Haught seeks to ground his account of God's "eternal restraint" in the Crucifixion. "The image of a vulnerable, defenseless, and humble deity may seem shocking to many," Haught writes, "but it is … in a God who submits to crucifixion that Christian faith invites us to put the fullness of our trust."
That is very true. But we also put the fullness of our trust in the Spirit promised to all those who say with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead.
The closer we look at Haught's book, the harder it is to see how the questions that preoccupy him are forced on us by Darwin. They seem for the most part to be questions about the nature, sovereignty, and foreknowledge of God, the problem of evil, divine action, and so on: questions that have been the stuff of theology from the beginning. Nor is it clear how Darwin provides new answers to these questions.
Consider, for example, the matter of God's foreknowledge. Many Christian thinkers over the centuries have acknowledged the tension between God's foreknowledge and human freedom, and have sought to resolve it in various ways. This has been a prominent theme in the work done by the "openness of God" group, including John Sanders, Gregory Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and others who have argued that, contrary to the dominant tradition, God does not know the future in the way that a chess player knows a game that has already been played (and which he is now playing through again). In many ways their "open" God resembles the God of Haught's theology.
But there is a crucial difference. Openness theologians appeal to the authority of Scripture. They point, for example, to many passages that depict God as changing his mind. Moreover, and crucially, they feel obligated to explain how their understanding of God can be reconciled with other, perhaps more numerous, passages that affirm God's foreknowledge. Now these efforts may not be satisfactory to classical theists, but there is no debate from either side about the normative status of the biblical revelation.
Many of Haught's passages would be easy to translate into pre-Darwinian theological language. Consider this one:
contemporary astrophysics now provides reasons for concluding that even in the earliest microseconds of its existence the universe was not in a state of maximum entropy … but was already structured intricately according to the exceedingly narrow range of mathematical values that would allow for the eventual evolutionary emergence of inwardness and freedom.
What resists translation is Haught's emphasis on God's "eternal restraint," which conflicts irreconcilably—or so it seems—with the witness of Scripture and the theological tradition, which show God as actively engaging humankind. In neither case does the Darwinian perspective supply anything fundamental to the argument: the notion of an "absent" God long precedes Darwin, and appears in many traditions—as Haught himself acknowledges.
Similar disparities are evident in Haught's analysis of other issues, such as the problem of evil. "The picture of life he left us," Haught says of Darwin, "only fuels our perennial religious revolt against what seems to be God's indulgence of undeserved agony. By expanding the horizons of life's travail, Darwin gives unprecedented breadth to our sense of the tragic." The idea is that when we grasp the Darwinian picture of previously unimagined eons of evolutionary change, our sense of the problem of evil will not merely be increased quantitatively but will undergo a qualitative change: we will be compelled once and for all to reject the traditional understanding of God. But this appears to be a merely subjective response on Haught's part; he never establishes why we should respond in this way. And few readers who have struggled with the problem of evil are likely to find Haught's notion that "all the moments of an evolving world are harvested into the divine experience in an ever intensifying aesthetic pattern" more satisfying than the solutions that have been on offer since the time of Saint Augustine.
Indeed, few readers whose understanding of God is anchored in Scripture will even get halfway through Haught's book. That is a shame, for two reasons. First, negatively, Haught's book offers a clear introduction to an influential competing understanding of God. Second, positively, Haught raises issues that should be on the agenda of orthodox theology.
In particular, Haught's emphasis on the future, his passion for "our still unfinished universe," demands attention. He is right that too often orthodox theology seems to confine God to the past (though there is much in the tradition that serves as a corrective to that tendency). A good example is the way in which, in Protestantism, a strictly memorial understanding of the Eucharist became dominant (see Geoffrey Wainwright's penetrating book, Eucharist and Eschatology, for a deeper—and more biblical—understanding of the sacrament). Alas, this makes the absence of Haught's reflection on the role of the Holy Spirit all the more conspicuous.
And Haught is certainly right that theology needs to be in dialogue with science. For People of the Book, that dialogue must be informed by Scripture. Haught asks, "What would religious people think about their central teachings, about the existence of a transcendent principle of meaning, or about the authority of their moral codes, if they were to become fully cognizant of evolution and the puzzling story of life that it narrates?" Good question. I wish that Haught had attempted to answer it. It is not sufficient to put on a display of hand-waving, with exclamations about deep time and the unimaginable immensities of space.
Much of the debate over Darwin and God has focused on the conflict between the naturalistic worldview of the Darwinian establishment (and of Darwin himself) and Christianity. That conflict is real, and urgent, and likely to grow more intense. But perhaps—perhaps--the implications of evolution for theology have been exaggerated by both sides. The arguments go back a long way, long before Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle.
Illustration by Paul Turnbaugh
See our earlier articles on recent related books, "Inherit the Monkey Trial | Scopes-trial historian Ed Larson explains why Christians should be taught evolution" (May 23) and "We're Not in Kansas Anymore | Why secular scientists and media can't admit that Darwinism might be wrong" (May 19).
Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God is available from the Christianity Online Bookstore. The first chapter of his book is available here, along with a series of reactions. Miller's home page at Brown University offers, among other things, his review of Michael Behe's well-known book, Darwin's Black Box. In 1996, Miller was involved in an online debate with Philip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial. Miller discussedFinding Darwin's God on a Boston radio program in January. (You can listen to a recording here using the free RealPlayer.) Last month, Miller delivered the keynote address at a University of Kansas/ American Association for the Advancement of Science conference on teaching evolution in public schools.
John Haught, author of God After Darwin, is also the author of the 1995 book, Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. Haught adapted part of Science and Religion for an essay titled "Does Evolution Rule Out God's Existence?" He appeared as a guest on a 1995 edition of the PBS program "Think Tank," where he discussed the implications of evolution for theology. In January of this year, Haught and Miller spoke at a National Academy of Sciences conference titled "Beyond the Headlines: The Evolution of God and Darwin."
The Boston Phoenix, an alternative secular newsweekly, reviewed Haught and Brown's books in March. The review notes affinities between Haught's view of God and that found in process theology. Earlier this year, Christianity Today looked at the possible influence of process thought on certain streams of Evangelical theology.
Last year, the Christian Courier published a very balanced article on the relationship between faith and science. The Talk.Origins Archive has an essay titled "God and Evolution" at its site. The Web site for British-based Christians in Science includes the transcript of a public lecture given by one of its members entitled "Does Evolution Have Any Religious Significance?" Keith Miller, a Christian geologist at Kansas State University, has published an article called "Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation."
Books & Culture, a Christianity Today sister publication, has a series of Web sites relating to Christianity and science on its Web site, as well as a steady stream of related articles.
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