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God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution

John F. Haught
Published by Routledge in 2007

If, as Richard Dawkins says, Darwin’s theory of evolution allows one to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist, Haught’s theology allows one to be a scientifically-fulfilled theist. In this second edition of God After Darwin, Haught argues that not only can evolutionary biology (EB) be reconciled with Christian theology, but that EB is a great gift to theological thought. At the same time, he does battle with those who use EB as support for a metaphysic of anti-theism, a use unwarranted by the scientific evidence.

Haught harries the reader with a multitude of questions. Is evolution inconsistent with an overarching cosmic purpose? Is evolution merely a set of blind, mindless, mathematical rules? Is there no discernible directionality to evolution? Does evolutionary science explain human existence and the reasons for our moral behavior adequately? These and other questions are the stimulus for this book

Haught identifies three groups of thinkers who have written about evolutionary biology:

1.Philosophical naturalists. These believe that everything self-generates from dead matter. Randomness, nature’s laws, and vast periods of time can explain all reality. All that Darwin marveled at—beauty, grandeur, design, consciousness, and novelty in nature—arise ultimately as energy transforms matter mindlessly.
2.Intelligent design thinkers. Usually these are theists who argue that EB cannot explain the magnificent “irreducible complexity” found in nature. These complex entities must have arisen intact, without precursors. The grand designs in nature imply that there must have been a Designer.
3.Evolutionary theists. These argue that the insights of EB can be reconciled with the existence of a powerful, loving God. Haught and others go farther, arguing that EB is a great gift to theological discourse.

Haught begins by laying out the challenges of EB for theology. He asserts that, far from a threat, Darwin has given us a great gift and we need to construct a theology that embraces that gift. Before constructing that theology, however, he confronts Darwin’s two “dangerous ideas.” The first, Darwin’s notion of common ancestry of all living beings, threatens traditional theology because it flattens the sacred hierarchy of nature, painting humans as essentially no different from any other animal on the planet. Haught counters that nature is not flat, and that natural selection by itself cannot explain fully the novel and emergent properties such as metabolism, mind, and self-consciousness. Haught’s God is one who is working out a process of development in nature, one who “lures” all creation, including humans, toward a better future. He argues for a “sacramental vision of nature,” since it is filled with promise.

Darwin’s second dangerous idea is what Dawkins calls the “blind, pitiless, indifference of natural selection.” Nature provokes a mindless, dispassionate, competition that brings huge extinctions and boundless suffering, as brutes “red in tooth and claw” battle. Daniel Dennett, in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (NY: Simon andSchuster, 1995), endorses this second dangerous idea when he criticizes Teilhard de Chardin:“The problem with Teilhard’s vision is simple. He emphatically denied the fundamental idea: that evolution is a mindless, purposeless, algorithmic process” (89). For Dennett, a philosophical naturalist, EB destroys any hope that the universe has a purpose. The implications for theology are obvious.

Some EBs concede that, although the insights of EB cannot give meaning to the cosmos, humans can create meaning for their own lives. Yet, how can they divorce humanity from the cosmos, and create a small, brave island of voices crying out to the cosmos, “Sir, I exist,” when the vast, silent expanse of the universe responds (in the words of Stephen Crane): “Yes, but that fact has not created in me any sense of responsibility.” Haught believes that if the cosmos carries no meaning, individual persons can have no meaning either.

Haught agrees that EB does not and cannot carry within itself purpose or meaning. However, even “pure” Darwinism can carry certain metaphysical accretions. One of these is that the secret of “reality,” what is truly real, lies in primordial matter—a view that some-what uncharitably could be labeled “mud metaphysics.” Chance, regularity, and time act on matter, and these alone are sufficient to bring about all the beauty, complexity, and variety that we see in the world today.

If the nature of reality is rooted in primordial matter, morality and ethics have no overarching authority; right or wrong are determined politically. All truth is negotiated, and truth and morality becomes only one more strategy that selfish individuals can adopt for their own advantage, a strategy designed to deceive and coerce.

Haught counters this second dangerous idea by arguing that by itself, EB cannot explain the rise of novelty or the great discontinuities that we observe in the course of evolution. Examples of these include metabolism, life itself, mind, and self-consciousness. He notes that even Dawkins and Dennett agree that one cannot explain complex entities fully by reducing them to their chemical and physical components. Thus, philosophical naturalism takes apart, but it cannot build. Even as it questions outdated worldviews, it is incapable of building any new worldview by itself because it cannot automatically harvest meaning from the vast, silent cosmos.

If EB by itself is impotent in wresting meaning from nature, evolutionary theology holds great promise of doing so. The idea of evolution aids us in getting rid of the pretentiousness of natural theology, helping us dispense with trying to fathom God by simple notions of a divine architect. Evolutionary theology conceives of ultimate reality, not as mindless matter, but as embodied in the self-emptying, suffering love of God who shines through the unhurried eons of evolutionary development. This theology “claims that the story of life, even in its neo-Darwinian presentation, provides essential concepts for thinking about God and God’s relation to nature and humanity” (39).

This Darwinian story is one of randomness, regularity, and temporality. Randomness refers to the probabilistic development of the natural world by fits and starts: mutations, blind alleys, backpedaling, diversification, and variability. Regularity refers to the laws that govern the world such as gravity and energy transfer. These laws are invariable since the beginning of time; they order and channel contingent events. Temporality refers to the vast eons of time that allow contingency constrained by law to work out continuous evolutionary development. This world of contingency, law, and temporality is the great arena in which faith can see God at work, and where hope for a better future can arise.

To the Christian, EB reveals the sacred depths of the mystery of God’s creative activity. Further, it demonstrates the “humble self-restraint” of God. The overriding image of God’s relation to the world is one of kenosis, meaning “…the self-withdrawal of any forceful divine presence, and the paradoxical hiddenness of God’s power in a self-effacing persuasive love that allows creation to come about and to unfold freely and indeterminately in evolution” (104). Kenosis implies that God does not intervene in nature’s struggles directly, but rather is self-limited and hidden. The cross is the most striking image of kenosis—God gives up all power over the world so that God can display divine love abundantly. Here, the absence of God’s power opens up the possibility of God’s love. Creative love demands that the world be free, distinct from God. We see this freedom in the indeterminacy of physical things at their core, including the events in natural selection. These proclaim to us that the world is uncoerced. “Thus, I have envisaged God’s self-concealment in an unavailable future as coinciding with the paradoxically intimate divine ‘absence’ associated with the notion of kenosis”(127).

Traditional theologies emphasize order and design, but do not account for process. For Haught, EB narrates a story of an unfolding process of increasing directionality and aesthetic intensity, since “God’s compassionate embrace enfolds redemptively and preserves everlastingly each moment of the cosmic evolutionary story” (127). We do not find ultimate explanations of life in the dead past (mud metaphysics) but rather in an unforeseeable future to which God invites us. In this vision of the story of life we have a God who makes promises; we have a metaphysics of the future. The emphasis is less on the completed design of creation, and more on the beautiful perfection of the future where God resides “up ahead,” drawing us, luring us. Faith means being grasped by that which is to come. “The grandeur of the river is revealed not at its source but at its estuary” (De Chardin). Jürgen Moltmann declares, “God means future.” As Haught puts it, “Nature is essentially promise” (151).

Haught spends a whole chapter on Intelligent Design theory (ID), probably because of its salience in the news and because of his personal involvement in a Pennsylvania court case in 2005 that concerned the teaching of ID in the public schools. Proponents of ID, which is both a set of ideas and a movement, argue that many forms of life began abruptly, with their detailed anatomy intact. Rather than developing through a long period of evolution, these organisms showed immediate evidence of design, manifesting an “irreducible complexity” that cannot be explained by a gradual evolutionary development of component parts over millennia past.

Haught argues that ID is merely an update of the older theological argument from design. However, in emphasizing nature’s beautiful design, ID ignores the multitude of bad designs in nature. If beautiful complexity is an argument for the hand of a Designer, to whom do we attribute all the death, deformities, and suffering in nature? These disasters and catastrophes make it clear that the cosmos is not following some pre-conceived plan; God is more and better than that. In reality, ID is an ultimate explanation (an argument for a Designer) and thus lies outside the province of science.

Haught notes a great irony: the ID movement shares much in common with the “soft-core atheism” of its sworn opponents, people like Dawkins and Dennett. The proponents of both ID and metaphysical naturalism are dualists: both argue that no accommodation between religion and EB is possible. They think that one cannot embrace EB and believe in the existence of God as well. In contrast to both of these, Haught offers an evolutionary theology that transcends this absolutism.

Religious people often object to EB because it impugns the idea of a just, compassionate God. How could God allow all that natural selection entails, with the painful suffering and deaths of myriad individuals, and even extinctions of whole species? A response to this question is called a theodicy. Haught observes that certainly we do not need EB to create the need for theodicy—our world teems with undeserved suffering, pain, and inhumanity. Genocide, holocaust, the horror of warfare—all these interrogate the heavens for an explanation. In addition, what of suffering not caused by humans? Earthquake, floods, fire, and even the law of gravity can annihilate multitudes of people. No one has suggested that the law of gravity challenges the existence of a loving God. Yet, how does one speak of a loving God in the midst of all this chaos?

Mud metaphysics cannot give any meaning to this suffering. Since the cosmos as a whole is meaningless, individual suffering can have no meaning either. Haught suggests that the free will that God gives to nature implies that there will be suffering. Yet God is not withdrawn fully. Just as a father stands by his son in a dark hour, God is the accompanying God. This accompaniment is seen most fully in the suffering Christ on the cross. God cares about human suffering, even when not alleviating it immediately.

Who should read this treatise on the theology of Darwinism? Reading Haught demands that one be conversant with some theology, philosophy, and evolutionary biology, but his lucid prose allows any educated person to sort her way through it. All those who wish to untangle the mystery of biological evolution and its implications for theism should read Haught’s work, certainly all who are interested in the problem of theodicy, and especially all Christians who practice the biological sciences.

In summary, Haught provides an overarching explanation of evolution from a theological point of view, and articulates the value of using evolution for theological contemplation. He explodes the argument that EB is a defeater for Christian theism. He demonstrates the utility of EB for theological reflection and insight.

Nevertheless, the book leaves unanswered some important questions. First, Haught argues that God is immanent in the world, but he leaves unexplained exactly how God works in nature. Haught critiques ID theories, but suggests, as they do, that God intervenes, molds, or influences the development of life in some way. If the self-emptying humility of God forbids tinkering with the creation, how exactly does God act in nature, and how does God act in one’s own life? How does God work in the world if God is self-absent, withdrawn? How does God produce novelty? If God does not produce it directly, are we left with a deistic God who wound up the world like a spring and then walked away? Surely not, if indeed God is drawing us from the future. Years ago, Bernard Ramm warned us not to overpopulate the universe with miracles of special creation. Yet, Christians surely believe in more than an absentee proprietor who has no power to act.

Second, Haught speaks of a God who resides “up ahead,” in the future. He embraces Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of a God who is bringing all things to perfection and completion. However, he suggests also that the future is unavailable, or “open.” If so, how do we visualize God “luring” all of creation from an unavailable future? Haught is unclear whether this future is unavailable only to humans, or whether it is unavailable even to God.

Finally, Haught has a huge commitment to evolutionary biology and its explanations of the unfolding of life. Could this presentist fascination with current scientific ideas be going too far? Should a theologian make so complete a compromise with EB when EBs themselves are still debating exactly how and when natural selection works? Nevertheless, theology’s task is to engage people where they are, not where they will be in one hundred years. Thus, it is permissible and advisable for theological pugilists to engage the current giants of our time. Indeed, they must engage EB, since “…evolutionary biology neither requires a materialist metaphysics nor provides ultimate explanations” (208).

Cite this article
James P. Hurd, “God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:1 , 175-179

James P. Hurd

Bethel University (Indiana)
James P. Hurd, Anthropology and Sociology, Bethel University