Friday, 21 August 2009

Diverging Differences and Unwavering Unities

Some background: this was included in a discussion titled "Ask a Theistic Evolutionist" on Facebook. I decided to give a brief introduction to differing viewpoints.

Diverging Differences and Unwavering Unities

Ask a theistic evolutionist, a noble topic fraught with one key problem: there are a range of beliefs. Many theistic evolutionists have only the lowest common denominators in common; belief in God and acceptance of the theory of evolution. I will take a brief look at varied responses to different issues.

The reason behind such diversity of belief here may be denominational as various denominations have been perfectly able to accept evolutionary theory and each of course has its own doctrines. It may be due to the lack of both time since Darwin’s impact and theologians able to properly address the position. Or it may even be simple human nature.


Turning to Genesis we find that all Christian theistic evolutionists will declare it a source of spiritual nourishment; not a textbook of science but insight into the Creator and His will for us. Go any deeper and differences may appear. Is Genesis literal or allegorical? Although I would suggest that most would read it as totally allegory, there have long been those who take the ‘day-age’ approach or the more refined ‘framework’ reading and insist that much is still literal, only requiring delicate interpretation (not the brutish approach of the YEC).

Did God choose the wording or was man inspired? There are two obvious lines of thought here, the first being simply that God chose the symbolic format of Genesis, deeming it a better way to approach the teaching of spiritual truth without getting bogged down in the likes of big bang cosmology and nucleotide synthesis. The second line of thought favours the inspiration of God, with man choosing the mode. In this view it has been seen as: purely poetic; as an intensely crafted allegory; as spiritual truth wrapped in the ‘science’ of the day; and as an anti-Mesopotamian polemic showing the might of the one true God in distinct contrast to other prevailing contemporary myths (none of these views are of course mutually exclusive).

God’s action.

God’s action and presence in the world is always a difficult topic and justifiably has presented many responses. There are views which border on ID, to views where God is almost deistic; there are views where God pulls the strings, to views where He tempts from the sidelines; there are views which become almost pantheistic, to the relatively recent rise in panentheism’s popularity. A point or two of concurrence here are the concepts of God ‘interacting’ with creation through natural processes as opposed to intervention, and the idea of creatio continua.

The two extremes of God’s actions present very different view. The most Deistic view has God setting the ball rolling, not needing to intervene in any processes (M. Wiles holds this view I believe). However, Christianity is theism and not deism so at the very least this view restricts God’s actions to those of Biblical narrative and of course Christ (the soul may also be an intervention, more on that later). To those holding this view God remains the eternal sustainer, but many find this unsatisfactory in describing a personal God.

A step up from this stems from St. Thomas Aquinas’ views of divine causality as present but hidden within secondary causalities. Austin Farrer described God as able ‘to work omnipotently on, in and through creaturely agencies, without either forcing them or competing with them.’ But again, such an account is weak and its vagueness makes it suitable for those hoping to rapidly dismiss the issue.

Conversely there are those who desire to see God’s action in every event in natural history. On one extreme is pantheism, the identification of God as the world, replacing divine transcendence with complete divine immanence, usually rejected as un-Biblical. On the other extreme is the idea that God guides mutations, directing evolution towards mankind (or simply sentience), a view of God which pleases some yet suggests God’s use of evolution is profligate when He seems to be doing it Himself (or even incompetent if He is intervening).

Between the two lies panentheism, another view fraught with diversity (I will address two types). In process theology God is ‘both this system and something independent of it’. God is often seen as dependent on the world (though not always) and is seen as participating in the processes of the world and being affected by them. In this view God seeks to ‘lure’ the outcome without forcing it (a God of persuasion not compulsion). This presentation has God’s plan ultimately coming to fruition without force, though John Polkinghorne chides this view by saying that ‘in reacting against a God seen as a dominating Cosmic Tyrant, process theologians appear to have settled for a Marginal Persuader.’

Another form of panentheism is gaining favour as it puts God at the heart of all without denying His transcendence. The standard definition is ‘that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him, but (as against pantheism) that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe.’ A view in which Kallistos Ware described god as expressing ‘God’s self from within’ and as ‘inexhaustibly immanent, maintaining all things in existence, animating them, making each of them a sacrament of God’s personal presence.’ To classical theists this is simply a challenge to correct over emphasis on transcendence and Polkinghorne even presents the idea of panentheism being true as an eschatological fulfilment and not a present reality.

Prevailing lines of thought hold that the openness and unpredictability found throughout nature (particularly at the quantum level) allow for interaction and direction which do not require the Divine to alter the fabric of creation. Though causality is an issue not addressed or even understood by many (and requires too much detail for now).

A point of agreement among many, if not most, theistic evolutionists is that God restricts His action to an extent in order to let the other truly be. In allowing creation to make itself independently, it allows for a loving freedom, from which free will can naturally emerge. God’s will ultimately plays out, but with a certain amount of improvisation involved.


God’s action has diverse responses and so does the problem of suffering. Evolution presents a newer challenge to theodicy, with some lines of thought seeing it as an aid to answering the question of natural ‘evil’. The past is like a graveyard; dig through the strata and you will find thousands of examples of extinction, victims of environmental change and failed evolutionary experiments abound. If God is good, as Christian claim, this needs explaining.

One response to this challenge is to dismiss it, emphasising instead the relativity of suffering. Kenneth Miller states that there are two points to keep in mind. The first being that cruelty is relative; giving examples of his enjoyment of a lobster dinner and the viciousness of his cats who keep his barn vermin free. The second point is that we cannot call evolution cruel when it simply reflects nature in its savagery. All organisms will eventually die, some will reproduce, some will not. This indifference is satisfactory for some but not for all, though it is certainly a step up from some outdated views that only human suffering matters.

This view is often complemented with an emphasis on positive aspects of evolution. There are those that like to downplay the notions of competition, death, suffering and selfishness in evolution; favouring instead the notions of cooperation, beauty, complexity and altruism. It can be pointed out that although extinction is unceasing, mankind and all other extant life forms are the current champions of evolution, the peaks of a long line of survivors. Emphasising the positive aspects of evolution is necessary but does not remove the issue.

A popular approach to the problem is to extend free will to all creation. This requires a kenotic act of self-limitation from God, allowing the world to be free and act through both chance and necessity. Much in the way God does not will the act of murder yet allows it; He also allows the processes of nature to run their course. The same processes which allow life forms to adapt also allow cancers to form. Suffering is seen as a necessary cost to allow the freedom of a fruitful exploration of possibilities for creation. The risk taken is a sacrifice of love by God. W.H.Vanstone commented that “The activity of God in creation must be precarious. It must proceed by no assured programme. Its progress, like every progress of love, must be an angular process – in which each step is a precarious step into the unknown; in which each triumph contains a new potential of tragedy, and each tragedy may be redeemed into a wider triumph.”

The ‘suffering as necessity’ approach is espoused by Keith Ward. He raises the possibility that God creates things with the capacity to frustrate God’s purpose. This point extends to the view that conflict and destruction are essential to development and creation; that struggle leads to excellence. This view is directly in line with the natural processes observed by science. He states “since all things exist ‘in Christ’, in the mind of God, the possibility of conflict, opposition, destruction and chaos may exist by necessity in the idea of any created universe containing free rational creatures.” He calls upon two Biblical principles; that God created all (Isaiah 45.7); and that God wills good (James 1:17).

With suffering being seen as necessary, the concept of God as the Great Companion in suffering comes forward. Prevalent in process thought, but not exclusive to it, God’s participation in suffering comes from His love, His divine sacrifice in allowing creation to be. If suffering is indeed a necessity to allow emergence in evolution, then God is not indifferent but must allow it.

To extend many of these views (which are not inherently mutually exclusive) the concept of the fall is not missing from theistic evolutionary thought. It does however take on a different form in that it is not tied to a specific moment when Eve and Adam ate of the tree, but instead to our material nature and that which pervades the creation from which we emerged. A material world is a fallen world, one which is not of the same essence as God and can thereby be free. Fallen man can truly choose God.

A similar view which I recently came across (and have admittedly not fully grasped) puts nature in rebellion against God, akin to and possibly orchestrated by God’s fallen angel Satan. My first reaction is to wonder at the root of causality in which such a limited spiritual being can bring about death and suffering to such a degree, but I must read more before dismissal (espoused by Charles Foster).

One approach to God not creating death is to point to Biblical instances where God commands it – killing of firstborns, Sodom and Gomorrah etc.

In rounding off the lengthy dialogue on suffering it should be mentioned that as Christians we often make sense of it in light of the Easter sacrifice. Ultimately all suffering will be conquered and the new creation will prevail.


Another issue to address is the contingency of evolution. A popular response is that it allows for fruitful exploration of possibility in a free creation through the interplay of chance and necessity. In this view contingency is to be embraced and one may point to historical contingency where God is not seen as absent by most theists. On one end of the spectrum lies the previously mentioned view that God guides mutation, erasing the need for any further explanation of contingency – it simply isn’t real – but raising other theological issues.

A recent view, almost an extension of anthropic principle, is based on the work of Simon Conway Morris. He has written extensively on the prevalence of convergence in evolution, arguing that constraint is so pervasive that the evolution of sentience is almost inevitable (made more so by the extent of the universe in some views). In this, he and others perceive hints of Divine desire, even to the point of appearing to talk of some things existing outside of nature, with nature discovering them. Song is one example and it is talked of as though there is a Platonic form acting as a template (consciousness may be another example).


‘In God’s image’ is viewed as spiritual by most Christians, theistic evolutionists especially, but the details differ. In its most naturalistic form, the belief goes that God does not even intervene here, that instead what we may refer to as the ‘soul’ is another emergent property of evolution; our capacities to contemplate our existence and to acknowledge the Creator for example. Being in His image simply means our abilities which mirror God’s, brought about by evolution. A more ‘interventionalist’ view sees many of these capacities arising through evolution, but that our link to God is not material and must therefore come by the grace of God. In this context the work of God and evolution are mutual, with ‘His image’ representing both natural attributes and our divine link. This view required God to step in at some point in history (viewed as in line with Genesis narrative).

Some, possibly many, take this further and credit evolution with the physical, giving the mind to God. Moral attributes and sentience coming straight from God; the body from evolution. The most directly creative view of God in theistic evolution is found mostly in Islam but also in Christianity occasionally. This view credits evolution for all of life’s diversity but humans were made directly by God. This view comes mostly from the way God’s action differs in the creation accounts when forming mankind. Some will even suggest that the Eden story was true and that this world, where evolution was taking place, was where Adam and Eve were sent.


Among scientifically minded theologians a relatively recent idea has arisen where Christ is viewed in evolutionary terms. This view is more common among those who emphasise Christ’s humanity, seeing him as the ‘new emergent’, a new stage both in evolution and in God’s activity. It presents a continuous view between mankind and Jesus, with Jesus unveiling a new possibility for mankind. This position of course can undermine Christ’s divinity (something many would wish not to do).

Science and theology

A point of discussion which is not often addressed by theistic evolutionists is the relationship between science and theology. I will use Ian Barbour’s categories of conflict, independence, dialogue and integration.

Conflict is unanimously rejected amongst proponents of TE. It results in the complete dominance of one discipline over another, rubbishing the harmony theistic evolutionists seek. Choosing the claims of science over theology leads to atheism; antithetical to the theistic beliefs held. Choosing the claims of faith over science leads to creationism (YEC); antithetical to the scientific sensibilities held. Conflict of science and theology is therefore not plausible for TE.

Independence is a position held by some and was most notably termed NOMA by Stephen Jay Gould. Placing the two disciplines in separate compartments is an ostensibly wise tactic, until claims are made by each side which address the same issue, ruining the illusion.

Dialogue is a more tenable position, often termed POMA – partially overlapping magisterium. For the theistic evolutionist science and theology can inform each other. Religion must listen to what science tells us about the physical world; science is offered a deeper, more personal account of reality in which its findings have a home.

Integration attempts a greater merging of science and theology. Normally one of the disciplines is accommodated by the other, potentially threatening its explanatory power. In practice this often results in the obsequiousness of theology to science due to its power in explaining natural phenomena so acutely; theology had no similar boast.

I hope I have clarified some issue of difference amongst Christians who accept the ‘theistic evolutionist’ label whilst highlighting some key common ground. I have quite possibly missed out some key views (I know I glossed over some orthodox views of God’s action almost to the point of omitting them) and may have misrepresented or not done justice to some positions. I apologise if I have done so and will happily accept correction or addition.

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