(This is Neil.) As you might guess from my recent silence on the blog, I’ve been rather busy. I do want to eventually return to earlier discussions, particularly on late medieval liturgy and discernment, but those posts, alas, will have to remain in the realm of possibility for at least a couple weeks.
God and evolution is an ambitious topic. But the Anglican priest and theologian Sarah Coakley, in the most recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin, has a fascinating short (apparently compressed) article promising a “new solution” as part of a research project that she is co-directing. Perhaps we can discuss it? The Rev. Dr. Coakley begins by assuming a “classical” understanding of the Christian God, retaining the traditional divine attributes, not having recourse to deism, or, say, the positing of a temporal God.
She then identifies three questions that must be faced if one wishes to relate a good and providential God with creation:
1. How do we understand the relationship of God’s providence with the “prehuman dimensions” of creation?
2. How does God’s providence relate to human freedom and creativity?
3. How does one reconcile a good and omnipotent God with the presence of evil?
But the apparent problems are further intensified when we accept modern evolutionary theory. Why is this?
1. It is more difficult to see God’s guidance of the “prehuman dimensions” of creation given the contingency and randomness of evolutionary mutation and selection.
2. It is more difficult to relate God’s providence to the human freedom imagined in much evolutionary theory, in which it is rendered either a “cruel illusion” caused by a deterministic process or a “will to power” that is incompatible with divine guidance.
3. It is more difficult to reconcile the existence of a good and omnipotent God with the presence of evil, given the “nature red in tooth and claw” suggested by modern evolutionary theory.
Many of these difficulties, Coakley suggests, comes from a “common contemporary misapprehension,” namely, the belief that God “competes with the evolutionary process as a (very big) bit player in the temporal unfolding of ‘natural selection.’” Instead of occasionally – and problematically – intervening, God actually undergirds and sustains the process of evolution from within as well as without. There is no “distance” between God and the evolutionary process that must be breached. Or, “to put this in richly Trinitarian terms: God, the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual invitation and lure of the creation to return to its source in the Father, yet never without the full – and suffering – implications of incarnate Sonship.” He is “poured out,” yet “kenotically ‘self-hides’” in the evolutionary process.
How might we imagine this? Coakley proposes Peter Geach’s “chess master model.”
The basic idea is this: God is like a chess master playing an 8-year old chess novice. There is a game with regularities and rules; and although there are a huge number of different moves that the child can make, each of these can be successfully responded to by the chess master – they are all already familiar to him. And we have no overall doubt that he is going to win. The analogy with God and the evolutionary press, or with human freedom, admittedly involves some stretching. For a start, God has created the whole game. Also, God timeless knows what will happen in any different scenario depending on what moves occur. But there is a crucial difference here between God knowing what will occur and God directly causing what occurs; for in this model the contingent variables and choices occur at the level of secondary causation (albeit undergirdingly sustained and thus primarily caused by God).
The divine chess master’s plan never requires that he disrupt the game, perhaps by arbitrarily changing the rules or by getting up from his place to threaten the novice player between moves, in order to constantly guide its course.
Coakley then goes on to say that we imagine divine guidance constraining human freedom because we erroneously believe that God makes “human autonomy competitively constrained by divine action, rather than thinking of true human freedom as precisely right submission to the graced will and action of God (my emphasis).” We are free not when we can establish some sort of “distance” from divine guidance, but when we are led in the Spirit through Christ to the Father.
Furthermore, we misunderstand the “problem of evil” in Christian theology if we presume that death is the worst thing that could ever possibly happen. There is no justification for avoidable suffering or cruelty, Coakley is very quick to say. But we should regard death, painful as it is, as merely the “prelude to resurrection.” Death, “spanned by the Spirit’s announcement of resurrection hope,” does not mean that the “risk” of creation is unspeakably horrific, because the “sting” of death is not the finality that threatens to reduce everything in our lives to completely meaninglessness.
Once more, then, God does not occasionally cross a “distance” to intervene in the evolutionary process or infringe upon our freedom, interrupting long periods of inexplicable (and inexplicably cruel) absence. He is always intervening, “perpetually sustaining us, loving us into existence, pouring God’s self into every secret crack and joint of the created process, and inviting the human will, in the lure of the Spirit, into an ever-deepening engagement with the implications of the Incarnation, its ‘groanings’ (Romans 8), for the sake of redemption.” Only at times do we humans perceive this – when the “veil becomes ‘thin,’” we might say. Especially, Coakley suggests, in the unexpected, but – from a theological point of view – very natural, event of Christ’s Resurrection.
Based on all of this, Coakley rejects three possibilities. The first is the dogmatic atheism that goes beyond all empirical evidence and “can give no convincing account of its own pessimistic reductionism.” The second is Intelligent Design, which is not only problematic scientifically but theologically, since it assumes a God who occasionally intervenes from a “distance” in scientifically detectable ways.
But the third possibility she rejects might actually be one that is initially appealing to us. (And Coakley’s position is closer to it than, say, Intelligent Design.) This would be the “no-contest” position that is ever “hermetically sealing the boundaries between science and theology.” We might imagine an extraordinary strict division of labor between the scientist who determines the how of creation, and the theologian who concentrates on the why of creation. They never need to quarrel, because, really, they never need to meet. But should God be rendered completely invisible in scientific fields? Are we once more sentencing religion to a realm of private and subjective preference away from the apparent rationality of the public realm?
Of course, the “no-contest” position is “to be affirmed for its right insistence that God and the evolutionary process are not, so to speak, on the same level, whether temporally or in substance.” But can the two distinct disciplines of science and theology ever inspire each other?
Coakley answers positively. Evolution, after all, has three fundamental principles: besides mutation and natural selection, there is cooperation. Thus, we can observe that the evolutionary process includes “an ever-present tendency against individualism or isolationism,” one that actually “favors cooperation, costly self-sacrifice, and even forgiveness; it favors in due course a rudimentary human ethical sensibility (so Marc Hauser), and thus delivers – already in the realm of the higher prehuman mammals – tendencies toward empathy, toward a desire to protect others close to one at the cost of personal risk.”
What does this mean? Do we see a “‘natural’ praeparatio in the processes of selection for the potential later heights of saintly human self-sacrifice (only ultimately comprehensible as a response to grace)”? This consideration is not meant to provide some sort of “proof” for a clever apologist’s arsenal, but rather part of a “cumulative set of considerations” that could help render credible “an incarnational God, a God of intimate involvement in empathy, risk, and suffering.”
What do you think (especially, of course, about cooperation as a “‘natural’ praeparatio”)?
(For my post on Sarah Coakley on the Resurrection, please see here.)