I’ve been reading a very cool book by Christopher Southgate called The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil. This short book hits on several topics that I’ve discussed here: the relation between evolutionary and theological accounts of nature, the understanding of sin and redemption in the context of an evolutionary universe, and the problem of animal suffering.
It’s the last that makes Southgate’s book unique. While most theodicies focus (understandably) on human suffering, Southgate, who has a background in both biochemistry and theology, has chosen to write a book about the suffering of non-human animals, and whether it is reconcilable with the existence of a loving God. This is what he means by “evolutionary theodicy.”
In carrying out his project, Southgate pursues a strategy that has been used by others. The evolutionary process, a process by which certain values are realized, such as the existence of a diversity of sentient creatures, contains, as a necessary component, a certain amount of suffering. If God wanted to create a world with such creatures, Southgate suggests, it had to take place by means of a process very much like the Darwinian one that modern biology investigates. Southgate calls this the “only way” argument, as in, this is the only way God could bring into existence the kind of creatures that exist in the world, so some amount of pain and suffering is necessary if there’s to be a world like ours. He calls this an unprovable, but reasonable, postulate, given what we know about how life developed.
Along with other proponents of evolutionary theodicy such as Holmes Rolston, John Polkinghorne, and Arthur Peacocke, Southgate rejects a historical “fall” as an explanation for the suffering that exists in the natural world, whether in its more literalist, creationist forms or as a “cosmic” fall as suggested by thinkers like David B. Hart. There is simply, he says, no evidence for such a fall. Certainly it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the story of life’s development as presented by modern biology with the idea that the sin of the first human beings was the cause of nature’s “fallen” condition.
However, Southgate also rejects “cosmic” fall narratives on the grounds that they posit a kind of dualism within creation: there are good parts and bad, “fallen” parts. In Southgate’s view, the good and bad effects of natural processes are far more tightly bound together than cosmic fall proponents recognize. They arise from inseparable aspects of a single creative process: “it was the same type of tectonic movement in the Indian Ocean that did so much to make the Earth’s surface what it is, with its extraordinary diversity and richness of biosphere, that caused the tragic and devastating tsunami of December 2004” (p. 34).
And yet, Southgate doesn’t simply affirm that “whatever is, is good.” After all, his book is called “The Groaning of Creation,” and he takes seriously the notion that the natural world is in travail, a state from which it is waiting to be delivered. Creation is good, but it is incomplete and contains persistent evil. More specifically, he thinks there are kinds of suffering and disvalue that standard evolutionary theodicies don’t adequately deal with. These are
This means that any adequate theodicy will emphasize not only that suffering and extinction occur as necessary concomitants of the evolutionary process, but also
In future posts I’ll discuss Southgate’s trinitarian theology of creation, his eschatological views, and the ethical implications he draws for human beings as participants in God’s redeeming work.
Index of posts in this series is here.