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Learn how evolutionary biology and Darwinism, rather than contradicting biblical beliefs, complement and build our understanding of God's creation, the future and our redemption.


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God, Evolution and the Redemptive Future

by John F. Haught

Picture 30 large volumes on your bookshelf. Each book is 450 pages long, and each page represents one million years in a story that unfolds over the course of 13.7 billion years. This set of books tells the story of our universe as seen today by the natural sciences. The Big Bang occurs on page one of Vol. 1, but the Earth doesn't appear until Vol. 21, 4.5 billion years ago. Life flickers forth languidly for the first time (at least terrestrially) in Vol. 22, but it doesn't begin to blaze until around the end of Vol. 29 when the Cambrian explosion takes place. Dinosaurs don't appear until around the middle of Vol. 30, only to become extinct on page 385. The age of mammals takes up the last 65 pages of Vol. 30. Traces of our hominid ancestors show up several pages from the end of the last book, but modern humans don't become visible until the bottom of page 450. Israel, Pentecost and the Church? These show up only in the last line of the last page of the last volume.

The question for lovers of the Bible, therefore, is what this immense cosmic story has to do with the narratives of creation and redemption as depicted in the prescientific sacred texts on which we base our religious lives. And what are we to do with the "anthropomorphic, one-planet deity" that astronomer Harlow Shapely referred to in his complaints about the limited horizons of our terrestrial faiths?

The religious sensibilities of most people, we must admit, were shaped within the context of visions of the cosmos entirely innocent of science. How then can our faiths find new life in the context of a 13.7-billion-year-old cosmos still coming into being? For Christians, how can such restructured faith have any continuity with biblical tradition?

Above all, can biblical faith now be rendered consistent with Darwinian portraits of life? Christians are still finding it hard to digest evolutionary biology and its puzzling pictures of what happened in the last eight volumes of our story. It's not hard to understand why. The evolutionary chronicle of how living forms gradually and tortuously appeared over several billion years is not the same story the Bible tells about life's creation and the origin of species. The struggle, suffering, death, waste and enormity of time that accompany life's evolutionary unfolding make us wonder sometimes whether God cares for the world of the living at all.

And yet, after many years of thinking, teaching and writing about Darwin's picture of life, I have come to the conclusion—contrary to what some Christians might expect—that evolutionary science is a great gift to theology and faith. Evolution is exciting, adventurous and sometimes disturbing, but ultimately it can expand our sense of the Creator's largesse. Evolution, moreover, fits comfortably two of the most basic of biblical beliefs: (1) that God, in humble, self-giving love, embraces the world without reserve, and (2) that God makes promises that keep opening up the world to an always new future.

After looking briefly at some of the difficulties Darwinism raises with respect to biblical faith, I shall propose that the idea of evolution can be a stimulus to any theology that takes these two biblical themes seriously.

Darwinian Difficulties

Darwin's theory is remarkably simple. It has two main facets: first, all forms of life descend by way of gradual modification over the course of time from a common ancestor; second, new species emerge because of the working of natural selection. Natural selection means that only those organisms that are most able to adapt to their respective environments will be "selected" by nature to survive long enough to produce offspring.

The common ancestry of life is not terribly hard to reconcile with the Bible. In fact it supports palpably the biblical sense of the creative unity underlying all living beings. Confirmed by the science of genetics, it also situates us humans in the setting of an earth community where we are kin to all forms of life and have a special responsibility to care for them.

The mechanism of natural selection, however, is harder to swallow, since it seems to entail competition, tragic loss and what Darwin called the "struggle for existence." Only those organisms with favorable variations emerge as reproductively successful, while unfavorable (nonadaptive) forms of life die out before bearing offspring. Within a population of finches, for example, those birds that are lucky enough to have beaks that can crush the varieties of seeds available in their habitat have a better chance of surviving and reproducing than those that don't. So Darwin was led to conclude that over a long period of time small adaptive changes have brought about the variation of finch species in the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere. Likewise with other species: if lots of time is available, minute changes can eventually produce all the diversity in the life-world. And time there has been aplenty, as geology and cosmology have now clearly demonstrated.

Because evolution seems so wasteful, heartless, and unnecessarily drawn out, it is difficult for many devout people to believe that a providential God would allow life to come about this way. As a matter of fact, the life story is not one solely of combat and competition. Cooperation, enjoyment, heightening of consciousness, along with great beauty and "grandeur" (Darwin's own word), attend the process. Still, there is no doubt that most organisms perish before they have an opportunity to reproduce, and more than 99% of the species of life that evolution has brought about over the last four billion years have now become extinct.

So one can't help asking about this darker side of evolution: why so much struggle and death? And why does evolution take so long? Why would God "fool around" for billions of years before creating humans able to worship? Surely an infinitely intelligent creator could do a much better and more efficient job of engineering!

In Genesis, we recall, God creates life effortlessly and perfectly "in the beginning." Yet according to evolutionary biology living species emerge only gradually, amidst much experimentation, grappling and perishing. When Darwin's theory first appeared in 1859 it was difficult to map his troubling new "creation story" onto the biblical narratives. Apparently it still is.

In Darwin's day evangelical piety was thriving in both England and America, and people tended to take the biblical accounts of origins quite literally. Geology, of course, had already exposed a fossil record that had taken millions of years to form, but clever readers could contrive scenarios to reconcile the new findings with a literal interpretation of the Bible. In our own day creationists still reject Darwin's story as untrue because it is unscriptural.

Science in general, and Darwinism in particular, have challenged the sacred texts by issuing what seems to be a shockingly new creation story. Bringing the narrative of creation by God into consonance with the new biology and cosmology is a project that many believers consider futile. At another extreme, atheistic evolutionists, still biblical literalists at heart themselves, dismiss the Bible as a set of "myths" incompatible with scientific knowledge.

A Way Forward

The first step beyond this unnecessary impasse is to realize that the Bible is not in the business of dishing out scientific information, but instead something much richer and deeper. Also, Darwinian biology is science, not revelation. This kind of clarification was already implicit in Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Providentissimus Deus which appeared at the end of the 19th century. There the pope advised Catholics never to look for scientific information in the Scriptures. Biblical scholar Raymond Brown once remarked that this simple papal instruction spared a whole generation of Catholics the anguish of trying to squeeze prescientific religious texts into the mold of modern science.

Nevertheless, many Christians—possibly half of those living in America—still prefer to view the Bible as scientifically and not just theologically accurate. Inevitably, on these terms at least, evolutionary biology will appear inconsistent with biblical "truth."

But if one can come to realize that the Bible is not science, and that Darwinian science does not give ultimate explanations, then the way is clear to reflect on evolution explicitly in the light of the Bible's revolutionary understanding of God. We must ask whether and how a biblical vision of God might illuminate the life-world as evolutionary biology now understands it. I believe that two prominent aspects of the image of God that emerge from our revelatory sources are especially helpful in this project.

The Descent of God

The first of these is what I shall call "the descent of God." Philippians 2:5-11 states that Jesus was "in the form of God," but that he emptied himself and became a slave. Throughout the centuries theological reflection has often, though not always, taken this intuition of early Christians (possibly expressed first in an early liturgical hymn) to mean something most surprising but also unsurpassably healing. What is being emptied out is, in some mysterious sense, the very being and power of God. By carefully meditating on the totality of Jesus' life and especially his crucifixion many (though not all) Christian thinkers have arrived at the "scandalous" conclusion that God is humble, self-emptying love that embraces all creatures in a most intimately relational way.

This picture of divine love, for some, will be harder to accept than evolutionary biology. After all, isn't God all-powerful rather than self-humbling? When I lecture on God and evolution someone in the audience invariably makes this protest. The idea of the humility of God seems too radical for those whose image of power is based on the style of potentates. Yet, it is interesting to note that in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, even Pope John Paul II pointed out that the kenosis (self-emptying) of God should be the fundamental theme of Christian systematic theology. I believe God's kenosis must frame the theology of evolution also.

As Anglican theologian Donald Dawe points out, in accepting the limitations of incarnate life, God did not stop being God. God the Creator chose to live as a creature, fully accepting our limitations. But, Dawe continues, "the audacity of this belief in the divine kenosis has often been lost by long familiarity with it. The familiar phrases —he emptied himself [heauton ekenosen], taking the form of a servant,' 'though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor,' have come to seem commonplace." Even so, Dawe argues, it is this belief in divine self-emptying that sums up the "radically new message of Christian faith" (The Form of a Servant, Westminster Press, 1963).

I think the doctrine of divine descent allows us today to speak of God's compassionate embrace not just of humans and their own history, but also of the entirety of nature. God seeks intimacy with, and retains in loving memory, the entire 30 volumes of cosmic history and not just the last line of the last page of the last installment. St. Paul would have agreed. All of creation, he said, groans for redemption (Romans 8:19-21).

The Divine Promise

The evolution of life on Earth cannot happen without the coming of a constantly new future. And from a biblical point of view it is God's promise that opens the world up to the future. This means that God is the ultimate explanation of evolution. Evolution happens finally because of the perpetual dawning of a new future for the world.

Christianity, as the Protestant theologian J—rgen Moltmann notes, is essentially a religion of the future. It worships a God whose very essence is to be Future. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner concurs. God, he says, is the world's Absolute Future. And so, in a very deep sense "revelation" must mean "the arrival of the future" (Wolfhart Pannenberg). I believe, along with the Jesuit geologist Teilhard de Chardin, that evolution makes good sense if we place it in the context of a world perpetually open to the coming of God.

It is true that the story of evolution's journey into the future is accompanied by loss, suffering and death. Even the whole Big Bang universe will itself eventually come to a physical end. But evolutionary and cosmic perishing need not be seen as final, at least if we situate it all beneath the shadow of the Cross and the promise of new life. Nature indeed is cruciform, but to Christian faith this means that evolution occurs within the horizon of resurrection as well. The God of life will finally and completely engulf and destroy death in all its appearances.

To those who trust in God's promise of redemption, evolutionary death and extinction cannot be the final word. An infinitely compassionate and resourceful God of the Future is the ultimate redemptive repository into which the entire series of cosmic occurrences flows. Strengthened by hope, Christians need not turn away from science. Learning more about nature and its history can only enlarge our sense of divine creation and redemption.

John F. Haught is Thomas Healey Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous books, especially on science and religion.

Next: The Parousia (by Wilfrid Harrington, O.P.)

Praying With Scripture

Our understanding of the God to whom we pray should be transformed through the years. We should gradually come to a deeper, broader comprehension of God in much the same way our human relationships develop and grow with the years. Meaningful connections, like creation itself, evolve over time. How is this reflected in our prayer life?
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