Theology After Darwin 3

I am slowly working through a series looking at the impact that the evidence for evolution has on our theology. This series is based on a book of essays, Theology After Darwin (available from amazon UK or, as pointed out by a commenter, a search of on author = Berry and title = Theology After Darwin will yield a USA-based source for a new copy of the book at a reasonable price (HT PB)). David Fergusson, Professor of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh contributed a chapter to this book entitled Darwin and Providence. In this chapter he outlines what he sees as the four major theological challenges raised by a Darwinian or evolutionary view of creation and discusses how they were dealt with in the latter half of the nineteenth century making connection with our debates and questions today. In this post I would like to outline and consider his comments on these four issues.

1. God as remote from Cosmos. Much of the scientific development of the last several hundred years has found explanations for things that were previously inexplicable. These explanations – it is suggested – remove the need for the God hypothesis. All of the media hype over Stephen Hawking’s new book The Grand Design is centered on the claim that a natural or rational explanation removes God from the picture. Since the time of Newton, and perhaps before, there has been a stream of Christian thought that has maintained that this is the wrong approach to both God’s action in the world and the integration of developing knowledge. An increase in the understanding of the world is, quite simply, an increase in our understanding of God and his creative process. The stock response is a variant of:  “If evolution is how states of greater complexity emerge in the history of the cosmos, then it is open to the theologian to claim that this is how God does it.” (p. 76) Fergusson notes instances of this type of response within a few decades of the publication of Origin of the Species.

We do not need to seek gaps in scientific knowledge in which to interject the agency of God. By allowing these spaces to be filled by subsequent scientific research, we can concede this domain of explanation to the natural sciences.  At the same time, the theologian can insist that God has endowed the creation with the capacity to evolve increasingly complex patterns of life forms. To appeal to divine intrusion at the point when the latest scientific explanation falters is to give hostages to fortune. As science progresses so the gap is closed. In any case, such defensive strategies fail to recognize the different and complementary levels at which physical and theological explanations operate. (p. 77)

This path, however, can lead down the path toward deism. Is not the suggestion that God started the process and stepped aside?  Fergusson makes several comments in response to this charge.   First, while this view of creation is consistent with deism, it is not a one-to-one mapping. That is – other theologies, thoroughly personal theistic views of God and creation, are also consistent with this view of creation. Secondly Fergusson suggests that deism is not a monolithic view – deist should not be used as a pejorative label. Some so-called deist views retained a strong sense of providence, ethics, and eschatology. Finally, there are other forms of God’s interaction, sustenance, and involvement with creation. To say that God endowed creation with the power to create itself – to flower and grow – is not to say that he stepped away and then let nature take its course. As we flower and grow to maturity in relationship with God, so creation flowers and grows in relationship with the creator. Fergusson also brings in the trinitarian shape of Christian theology:

Those actions such as creation and preservation that are appropriated to the Father do not exclude the assignation of other actions such as incarnation, remaking, and indwelling to the Son and the Spirit, described by Irenaeus as the ‘two hands of God’. (p. 78)

2. The Role of Chance and the Loss of Providential Control. One of the big arguments against evolutionary process hinges on the idea of the providence of God. Charles Hodge at Princeton argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution on this ground.  Here is an important point:

Hodge could concede that a process of evolution was consistent with theism. However, the particular account offered by Darwin with its stress on natural selection led him to believe that it was metaphysically inconsistent with the teleological principle that belonged both to revealed and natural theology. If God were no longer in control of the course of life on earth, then it could not be perceived as proceeding towards an appointed end. (p. 79)

But evolution – even by “random” change and natural selection – need not be view as without purpose or direction. Certainly some today claim just this, especially some secular biologists defending the realm of science, but this tacks a metaphysical claim on top of the scientific observables. Steven Jay Gould made famous reference to the tape of life, suggesting that if the tape were rewound and replayed we would see a very different world around us, perhaps no intelligent life at all. But other views of the scientific observations can give a very different prediction. Evolution is a process constrained by a realm of possibility and some outcomes are, in fact, inevitable.  Simon Conway Morris makes this argument in his book Life’s Solution, but I have heard thoroughly secular colleagues make the same claim.

There is another important point that has been raised in considering the providence of God in relationship with evolutionary creation.  In fact there is a positive theological gain – evolutionary creation brings home the important reality of a God who is deeply involved in both nature and history. He doesn’t simply step in to intervene at isolated points in time and space, but is always involved. God can be seen as a sustaining, creative, guiding presence. In fleshing this out a bit more Fergusson turns to Peacock and Polkinghorne. Free action, both ours and God’s, is an important concept in this discussion.

One standard criticism [of Polkinghorne’s view]  is that it is another God-of-the-gaps account. Polkinghorne’s response to this is to argue that all rational agency requires an openness in physical processes when viewed in terms of lower-level description. The openness is not a function of ignorance so much as an inherent feature of the world as we experience it. (pp. 82-83)

But there is a place where we must simply take a step of faith so to speak. We lack a fully coherent account of God’s action and of our action, but this is no reason for abandoning our theological convictions or our intuitions about human freedom and responsibility.

3. The Intensification of the Problem of Evil. The view of evolution as requiring a perpetual warfare between species leads to questions about pain and suffering in creation. Why would God create a less than perfect world?  Part of the problem here is mere choice of words and perspective – evolution is going on around us today as it has in the past. It was no more bloody and violent than the world we see today. Predation, prey, parasite and pathogen played a role, but with an intensity common to our every day life. Mutation is not a perversion of God’s plan, but part of the process – and some mutations will cause individual human and animals much suffering.  Nonetheless an image of a fight to the death between warring species overstates the case.

The problem of evil is old, and perhaps the best response is to turn to the book of Job. The response to the suggestion that evolution intensifies the problem of evil, as some theologians soon realized, is a chastened humility.

The theologian has no business reading off the details of divine design from the pages of natural history.  The only index to providence is that of faith in Christ – more speculative and comprehensive accounts should be eschewed. At the same time Darwinism may also helpfully save the theologian from embracing too narrow an anthr0pocentrism. Given the relatively late emergence of human beings and the extent to which animal life has evolved for much of the time with no reference to ourselves,  we cannot assume that God’s plans are solely directed  toward our species. God must have more in mind than the evolution of humankind. (p. 84)

But that is a problem in its own right and brings us to Fergusson’s fourth theological issue raised by evolution.

4. The Threat to Human Significance. If mankind is not the pinnacle and purpose of all creation, what are we? If we evolved in continuity with the animals what makes humans distinctive creatures? This issue will be discussed in more detail in the next post – a post that centers on the chapter by Francisco Ayala “Being Human After Darwin.”

Some comments and impressions on these issues. We’ve discussed the first three of these issues from various facets over the last couple of years. Theologians and Christian thinkers have pondered them for 150 in the context of Darwin’s theory of evolution. While an evolutionary view of creation can contribute to a view of God as remote from the cosmos, a loss of providence and purpose, and an impression that evil is an insurmountable problem in our understanding of God, I don’t think that these problems are anything new. In a more positive light our increased understanding of the nature of the world helps us wrestle with these issues and a better understanding of the nature of God is the inevitable result. God reveals himself both through relationship in special revelation and in the general revelation of our world.

A better understanding of natural process forces us to think about and understand the nature of God and of his interaction with his creation. God is not simply the answer to puzzles, the explanation for the unknown. Rather – he is in all and sustains all, the so-called natural process is not independent of the work of God.   Denis Alexander made this same point in his chapter on intelligent design. Darwin’s theory – and all that has come later – forces us into  a deeper and more profound understanding of the personal God revealed in scripture and incarnate in Christ Jesus.  John tells us “In the beginning was the Word,…  All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.”  Paul tells us “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” This is our center and our understanding.

The role of chance in evolutionary creation is over-rated. I think this is a non issue, no more a problem with evolutionary creation than with quantum theory. And no more a problem than with incorporation of free-will in a more deterministic direct action view of creation. The problem of evil is much bigger than the problem of evolution – and we would profit by looking at the nature of the world God created as we try to wrestle with the nature of a good God and providential natural evil. We cannot tie all to the fall and guilt of mankind. The book of Job makes this point in profound literary form.

Do you find any of these four issues significant as you think about the possibility of evolutionary creation?

How are developments in science, as seen in these four points, drawing us to think in fresh ways about God and God’s action in creation?

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