I’m glad to see that The God Who Weeps makes some room for Darwin, but I wish it had made more.
Theologically, Darwin is a sticky widget. Here, the fact of biological evolution can be approached in one of three ways: (1) we can shut the door and pretend we’re not home, (2) we can allow it occasional, supervised visits and hope it doesn’t make too big a mess, or (3) we can allow that we are the visitors in the house that it built.
Weeps accommodates something like the second position. And, to the extent that it does, this is a big and welcome step forward in mainstream Mormon discourse.
It’s good for us, as Mormons, to own up to the messy and uncomfortable aspects of our history. And, in this sense, a willingness to own our seer stones, racism, and polygamy may be just as vital to our future as a willingness to own our deep biological past. Recent or distant, locked in vaults or bones, history is history. We can’t afford to play games white-washing Brigham Young or Mitochondrial Eve.
But I’d like to see us take one step more. I’d like to see us explore – carefully and charitably and experimentally – what it might for mean for Mormons to see evolution not just as a local twist in God’s top-down management of a wholly rational real but as indicative of a fundamental truth about the contingent world to which both we and God find ourselves given.
Weeps seems willing to answer the door but (like any wise investigator) it doesn’t want to let the discussion move much beyond the doorstep. The following passage is representative:
Darwin explained how random, incremental change over millions of years, leads to many species developing from one original source, and he proposed mechanisms and processes by which the giraffe acquired his long neck, and our species the miraculous human eye. . . . In sum, he made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist. Why, then, do we need faith in God and things eternal? Perhaps because the development of complex human beings, with self-awareness and lives filled with love and tears and laughter, is one too many a miracle to accept as a purely natural phenomenon. Perhaps because the idea of God is a more reasonable hypothesis than the endless stream of coincidences essential to our origin and existence here on earth. (204/2408)
Darwin gets a nod, here, but really only to juxtapose the weak contingency of evolutionary processes with the reassuring rationality of a strong theism.
While I think this seriously underestimates the explanatory force of these “natural” processes, I also think that Weeps is expressing a solid, acceptable, mainstream theological response to evolution: evolution can be taken seriously as a creative process but only insofar as it is an instrument in the hands of a guiding intelligence. Otherwise, evolution involves one “miracle” too many.
This same sentiment is on display in a later passage that chides Darwin for his inability to account for something as powerful and gratuitous as the beauty of the natural world:
Darwin was sure that even those spectacles of nature that overwhelm us by their beauty, from the peacock’s tail to the fragrance of an English rose, serve not man’s purposes but their own, which is survival and reproducibility. If anything in nature could be found that had been “created for beauty in the eyes of man” rather than the good of its possessor, it would be “absolutely fatal” to his theory. In other words, maple leaves in autumn do not suddenly transform into stained glass pendants, illuminated by a setting sun, in order to satisfy a human longing for beauty. Their scarlet, ochre, and golden colors emerge as chlorophyll production shuts down, in preparation for sacrificing the leaves that are vulnerable to winter cold, and ensuring the survival of the tree. But the tree survives, while our vision is ravished. The peacock’s display attracts a hen, and it nourishes the human eye. The flower’s fragrance entices the pollinator, but it also intoxicates the gardner. In that “while,” in that “and,” in that “but it also,” we find the giftedness of life. (615/2408)
I really like this passage. In fact, it is one of my favorites in the book. It is a pitch perfect description of giftedness or grace. But the passage seems to me to offer a stunning account of exactly how evolution does work, not a rebuttal that is “absolutely fatal” to its credibility.
Evolution works by way of exaptation. The fundamental process is one in which gratuitous features are purposelessly generated and then these features get repurposed by extant systems for some other productive end. The “while” and the “and” and the “but it also” fit perfectly with a Darwinian picture. In fact, they epitomize how natural selection works.
What does this mean? What does it mean if something Weeps sees as key to defending the gospel ends up also being key to defending evolution itself?
Generations of theologians are jealous of our day. On no merit of our own, we’ve inherited the task of probing the theological implications of the planet-sized shift in our self-understanding imposed by the latter-day revelations of biological evolution and deep geological time.
Roll up your sleeves.
May God’s grace shine through us as we bend ourselves to it.
Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).