Evolution and the Christian God

We must frankly return to the Christian view of direct Divine agency, the immanence of Divine power from end to end, the belief in a God in Whom not only we, but all things have their being, or we must banish him altogether.
-- Aubrey Moore
An important book by John Haught of Georgetown University addresses this topic. I have read it, but have not modified this essay to take it into account. The book is God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution.

Another book has been critically well-received and bears on this topic: Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?, by Michael Ruse. My review of this book was published in Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith, March 2002.

Throughout this essay I use Madeleine L'Engle's somewhat awkward invention of "El," short for Elohim, as the appropriate pronoun for a God who transcends femaleness and maleness.

In response to this posting on the Mad Scientist Network, I received the following question:

You said "These days, many Christian theologians claim that an evolutionary universe fits unforcedly into the Christian conception of God." I wonder if you can give me further information about this, coz this is a question that hang around in my mind for a long time and don't know who to ask.

I will address three aspects of the Christian conception of God, which allow an evolutionary universe to fit easily into Christian natural theology. Clicking on [note] will take you to asides and other parentheticals.

The Christian God is a God of Love.

1 John 4:8 tells us that God is love. This appears difficult to reconcile with an evolutionary universe, in which waste [note], pain and death seem ubiquitous. Yet most 20th-Century natural theologians insist that the two ideas are fully reconcilable.

The clue is found in the platitude, "If you love something, set it free." God loves El's creation so much that El is willing to allow it to make itself, even if such freedom is painful and destructive [note]. This "world free to make itself" was recognized by Christian thinkers as a positive good as soon as On the Origin of Species appeared in print. Of course, not all theologians agreed; many still do not. But the reconciliation of evolution and creation is more than possible along these lines.

If this doesn't satisfy, consider two things about the Christian worldview. First, death is not considered final, and so, while death is a real grief and a trauma that cannot be minimized, it cannot be the last word for anyone dependent upon an eternal and loving God. The fact that evolution involves death is not an utterly evil thing, even for animals; animals, too, are expected to pass through death to find a share in the eschatological Kingdom of God (see, for example, Isaiah 11:6-9).

Second, suffering is seen (and not just in Christianity!) as redemptive. Many writers have described suffering as a discipline given to us by God to help us become better people (as CS Lewis pointed out, God is not "a kindly old grandfather in heaven, who doesn't care what they do as long as the young people are happy"). But the evolutionary understanding of God's work in the world goes deeper than that, in fact to the core of Christian theology, belief and practice, for

The Christian God is a God who suffers.

Central to Christianity is the Cross of Christ, on which he suffered and died to redeem the world. If the Cross is central to reality (and this is the Christian claim), then we should expect to find hints of it in God's created universe, just as Johannes Kepler found hints of God in the heliocentric solar system (see The Discovery of Kepler's Laws by Job Kozhamthadam). [note]

Kepler found a central Sun, giving light to the entire system, a reflection of the God who sheds grace on all creation. In the same way, many 20th-Century theologians find the death and renewal that are positively required by an evolutionary universe to be a reflection of the God who died on the Cross for the redemption of the world, and rose again to renew and redeem creation. [note]

God, Christians claim, became Incarnate to in order to share in the suffering needed for the universe to make itself, and in order to redeem that universe. The Christian God who suffers is a humble God, willing to welcome anyone who wishes to know El. El is willing to suffer a prolonged and humiliating death that El's creatures may have the opportunity to know El better; El extends grace in abundance to anyone who asks, no matter what her/his faults; in short,

The Christian God is a shameless opportunist.

God, as near as we can tell, values unforced love so much that El is willing to risk rejection rather than overwhelm people with the Divine Necessity of worship. The consequence is that God, in most Christian theologies, is willing to meet El's creatures at least halfway. God will reinforce any sincere steps, even baby steps, toward a relationship with El.

God doesn't care how anyone came to take those steps, or who that person is. The important thing, to God, seems to be that one of El's creatures is responding to El. An evolutionary world-picture extends this to take account of the fact that beings with the intelligence to recognize their Creator could appear anywhere, under rather different circumstances, and in fact may appear more than once.

What this says about the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is unclear, but God seems reluctant to tell us more than we require for our own immediate needs. The Incarnation may be once-for-all-creatures (a position many favor), or it may be a provision only for humans; God isn't saying. Many are not comfortable with this, but I have a background in military intelligence and so the idea that I may not have a "need to know" comes easily to me.

Christianity and Evolution.

Picture this: God created a fruitful universe (an anthropic universe) in order to have others with whom to share El's love. El is willing, like all true lovers, to allow the beloved to be itself, and so relinquishes control (though perhaps not guidance). Intelligence takes time to evolve, but what is that to the Eternal? And once intelligence appears, God gently guides it, through natural (and perhaps supernatural - theologians differ on this) revelation, to know El better so that El's creatures may return El's love.

Not only is an evolutionary universe fully compatible with the Christian God; one may ask whether we could not have predicted evolution on the basis of Christian theology! [note]

At a conference I attended recently, one speaker brought up an important point. It is often argued that God would not create by way of evolution (or, to use the speaker's example, an initial Big-Bang singularity) because of the "wastefulness" involved. The speaker maintained that this is a ludicrous argument, which fails to take the infinity of God seriously.

Consider that there are two types of virtues: absolute virtues, which are goods in and of themselves, and conditional virtues, which are responses to specific events or conditions. Love is an absolute virtue; were all beings as God, love would still be good (indeed, the Trinity can be thought of as the expression of a God who is Love - which must be given to other persons, not applied to oneself). Compassion, on the other hand, is a conditional virtue that requires suffering to call it into existence. If there were no suffering, there need be no compassion.

In the same way, "waste" is conditioned on a finitude of resources: time, material, energy, and so on. An infinite and omnipotent God cannot waste because El can have no shortage.

21 April 1999: I took my five-year-old son roller skating this evening for the first time. I knew that he would have problems; and he did have several falls and bumps. But he was so intent on learning to skate that I could not interfere, even though the learning process involved the real danger of injury (he was learning by holding onto a low brick wall, and I thought several times he might scrape his face on it).

I am indebted to Prof. David Fergusson of the University of Aberdeen for this concise statement of the sound theological underpinnings of this assumption:
...the point ... is to distinguish the unoriginate nature of God from the contingent world in such a way as to render creation a free act but one which corresponds to the divine essence. To be free yet consistent with the divine nature, the act of creation must manifest but not replicate the prior essence of God.

David Fergusson, review of Religion and Creation by Keith Ward, Zygon 35(1), 211 (2000).

Some have extended this to talk of a God who suffers with the universe, an empathetic God who loves all El's creation but shows El's love by allowing it to become whatever it will. This will seem strange to those who draw their theologies primarily from the great Doctors, Augustine and Aquinas, for whom God is unemotional, impassive. But we should remember that the idea of an impassive God was developed in the atmosphere of neo-Platonism, which held empathy and emotion to be imperfections. The God of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, is certainly not impassive: El gets angry; El changes El's mind; El takes pity on El's people and shows them mercy.

Most of what I have set out in this essay has precedent in theology conceived and written well before Charles Darwin was a twinkle in old Erasmus Darwin's eye. Indeed, Augustine speculated on an evolutionary universe in the 5th Century!

Copyright © 1999 by Daniel J. Berger. This work may be copied without limit if its use is to be for non-profit educational purposes. Such copies may be by any method, present or future. The author requests only that this statement accompany all such copies. All rights to publication for profit are retained by the author.

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