Evolution in the Key of D: Deity or Deism?

This is the final post from John F. Haught’s book  Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life. The last chapter of the book deals with the concept of deity – who or what is this God that imparts meaning to the underlying facts of the material world?

I have been asked on a number of occasions, by e-mail, in comments, and in person, how my view of evolutionary creation avoids deism. Several have suggested that a view that accepts the evidence for evolution and does not see a need to search for evidence of God’s direct action in the history of the physical-material realm is, almost by default, deistic because it envisions a God who simply created the right environment and let it go.

On the other hand, a creationist view of any sort – young earth, old earth, or Intelligent Design, – sees a God who is intimately involved in the creative details of the world around us. God’s involvement includes, but is also empirically distinct from, the natural mechanisms we see around us.

Today I would like to focus on this question of the nature of God and his actions within the world around us. It is a big question for many…

Is evolutionary creation necessarily deistic?

How do you think of God and his intervention in or interaction with creation?

Haught has been tipping his hand on his thoughts of God throughout the book – while pointing to this last chapter. In an earlier chapter he noted:

Science, especially, after Darwin, has made it increasingly implausible to think of God as an actor or intervener in nature. … In a prescientific age, the sense of God understandably came to expression in oral traditions and scriptures that located divine action alongside natural causes; but in a scientific age, such reports cannot be taken literally. (p. 88)

Trying to figure out exactly how God influences the natural world, and especially life’s evolution, too easily ends up in shallow theological speculation. Inserting divine action into a series of natural causes not only sounds silly to scientifically educated people; it also in effect reduces God to being part of nature rather than nature’s abyss and ground. (p. 96)

In this last chapter Haught relies heavily on the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in developing his thoughts on the nature of God as understood in a scientific age. Rather than a Platonic view of God as static, outside of and above creation, or a view of God shaping and forming the universe, the earth, and life from behind, Haught suggests, following Teilhard, that we should think of God as up ahead calling creation forward with an attractive power that offers more and more possibility. Ultimately however Haught’s view of God  seems rather mystical, not consistent with the personal God revealed in scripture.

Are these the options we are left with?

  • A deist God who gets things going and steps aside to watch.
  • A mystical God-force calling the world forward into a new kind of becoming.
  • A tinkerer God who shapes, forms, and fixes – as though building a massive Lego world.

None of these seem particularly satisfying to me.

So some of my current thoughts… I agree with Haught that emphasis on God as explanatory mechanism at the level of chemistry and physics is troublesome; as though God’s ordained, created, “natural” mechanism is of necessity insufficient. It is better to go with the evidence as we explore creation and simply rest in the assurance that however the chips fall – God did it. Evolution and God are not competing explanations. If the evidence supports evolution – we have learned something more about how our world works and something more about our history, but who the creator is does not change.

The power of God seen in the majesty of the heavens is not impugned by scientific study of the stars. The power of God seen in the glory of the sunrise is not undermined by an understanding of the role that atmospheric conditions and optics play in the scattering of light. The power of God in creation is, I think, entirely consistent with the unfolding of potentialities and diversity in evolution. Life obeys the command to be fruitful and multiply.

Yet God does intervene in nature and  – more importantly –  interact with his creation and his creatures. To eliminate consideration of direct action as inconsistent with our modern scientific age, as an understanding that we have outgrown, is to walk away from orthodox Christian belief. The God revealed in scripture is not the deist cause who steps aside. He is not a mystical force calling creation forward, providing meaning in his eternal memory. Nor is he a tinkerer perfecting creation as it moves along. It seems to me that God, as revealed in scripture, is first and foremost personal. He interacts with his creation, develops and desires a relationship with his creatures, especially with mankind.

We see this in God’s interaction with Adam and Abraham, Moses and David, Isaiah and Jeremiah. In the very essence of Christian doctrine, God entered into his creation in the incarnation. He became like us, fully human, to meet us on our level, to redeem us, to enable us to become fully active in his mission in the world. The guidance of the Holy Spirit is the promise of a God active in creation and among his people. The relationship continues with Peter and Paul in Acts.

The Psalms in all their glory and emotion as part of scripture are a testament to this relationship. The incarnation is the ultimate embodiment of this relationship.

God is the foundation of all – but we see God most clearly in the context of this relationship; not as the answer to a scientific question or as the ultimate source of mystical meaning. We know God because he chooses to know us.

I don’t think that accepting the idea of evolutionary creation means, of necessity, accepting a deistic or even a mystical view. The move by some toward a deistic or mystical view has theological and philosophical roots, not scientific ones. Many of the arguments against evolutionary creation are also rooted in a philosophical assumption that requires objective evidence for God, and looks for God in the wrong place.

What do you think? Where should we look for evidence of God and what is the role of science in this discussion?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net

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