It’s not easy being a theologian in the 21st century. One of the main reasons is that science provides credible, non-theistic explanations for many of those “where did we come from?” questions that religion once had all to itself. Evolution seems to pose a particular challenge. John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown, tries to tackle the problem head-on in his book God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Westview, 2000).
Just so I’m clear, the problem we’re talking about here isn’t evolution — it is how to do theology and talk about God’s relationship to the world in the wake of evolution. Haught starts off by reviewing the three ways in which religion has responded to evolution: opposition, separation, and engagement. While separation (often discussed in connection with Stephen Jay Gould’s term “non-overlapping magisteria”), as a strategy, offers some advantages over opposition, it nevertheless seals off theology from what Haught sees as a needed encounter with evolution. God After Darwin is an attempt at such an engagement. He notes how rarely have theologians undertaken such an attempt: “It is not yet evident that theology has thought about God in a manner consistent with the data of evolution” (p. 81). I will summarize two of the topics in which his attempt at a “theology of evolution” seems to raise interesting avenues of discussion.
The traditional theological view sees Creation as basically a one-off event, whether one that happened six thousand years ago or one that happened 15 billion years ago. It’s worth noting that the Intelligent Design movement seems to adopt this view, with the dispute being between a purely natural Creation event (the scientific theory) or one in which God as Designer played an important and necessary part (the ID view).
Haught suggests this is too narrow and that there is no reason God’s creative activity needs to be limited to “in the beginning.” Instead, he suggests that Creation is an ongoing activity: the Universe is an unfinished and ongoing project, so to speak. He suggests that God is not just responsible for the order that is observed in the cosmos but also for the novelty that continues to unfold within it. (This presupposes that there is some degree of contingency in the world to support true novelty rather than simply realizing events that were fully predetermined.) And one way of looking at evolution is that it introduces novelty into the world. So this open creation view and evolution both posit novelty as a necessary aspect of the Universe.
I don’t know of any LDS position on continuous creation, but the concept does bring to mind this passage from LDS scripture, which hints in that direction:
The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words. (Moses 1:37-38.)
Are Humans Different?
The materialist approach to life is reductionist, trying (with notable success) to explain living things by identifying and analyzing the components and fundamental units of which organisms are composed. Of course, all living things can be reduced to tissues and cells and proteins and molecules. So is there any essential difference between you and your cat? If all living things can be boiled down to the same set of ingredients, is there any essential difference between them?
Traditional wisdom and religion said yes, establishing what Haught calls a “sacred heirarchy,” with inanimate things at the bottom, plants and animals in the middle, humans near the top, and God at the pinnacle. He notes that one source of opposition to evolution is the apprehension that evolution collapses this hierarchy:
By collapsing the sacred hierarchy, modern evolutionary materialism gives every appearance of having pulverized the cultural, ethical, and religious formations around which human life on this planet has been organized for many thousands of years. It is impossible to exaggerate the enormity of this great drama of dissolution. Clearly, then, a central task of theology after Darwin is to face as honestly as it can the question of whether the hierarchical structuring that constitutes the very backbone of our religious traditions is in any substantive and coherent sense recoverable today. (p. 64.)
The LDS view certainly affirms that humans are qualitatively different from other life. Quoting from Moses again: “For behold, this is my work and my glory — to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). But does science give us anything to work with here? Haught notes that “hierarchical thinking” is now part of this scientific discussion, with some emergent properties recognized as being grounded in complex systems or whole organisms but not derivable from independent components or pieces of the whole. Haught has a nice discussion of “information” as a broad concept, which he links to those emergent properties.
Though it is not physically separate, information is logically distinguishable from mass and energy. Information is quietly resident in nature, and in spite of being nonergetic and nonmassive, it powerfully patterns subordinate natural elements and routines into hierarchically distinct domains. (p. 70.)
Information: it’s not spirit or soul, but it does seem to be something that indisputably exists and does so independently of atoms and electrons. We are full of information, most dramatically in the DNA code we carry in each cell. How would you distinguish your sense of “you” as an eternal spirit or soul that gives identity and continuity to your existence from your sense of “you” as a unique and conscious bundle of information providing the same sense of identity?
The author didn’t make a strong claim for these or other ideas (and the last paragraph was my thinking, not his), he just tried to show that evolution doesn’t rule out consideration of possibilities that the strict materialist paradigm rejects out of hand. He concludes his lengthier and more detailed discussion with this careful assessment: “Science’s own growing awareness of the explanatory role of information in nature’s constitution allows us to embrace consistently both a religious vision — including a sense of cosmic meaning — and the carefully established results of evolutionary biology” (p. 80.)
Re-reading this post, I’m not sure I have really done justice to the discussion in the book. Other topics covered by Haught include eschatology, hope, and the idea of living out of the future rather than the past. He sees evolution, an open process that offers a future full of surprises, as not inconsistent with the hopeful future of Christian eschatology. He boldly suggests that we
align our religious existence with the natural zest for life that links us biologically to our evolutionary past. The inherent adventurousness of religion may then receive a new birth. (p. 189.)
Natural zest for life. An adventurous religion. Sounds like Mormonism to me.