Making Sense of Evolution: Design or drama?

As we saw earlier, John Haught thinks it’s something of a category mistake to oppose natural selection to divine action, as though these were explanations operating on the same causal level. As he develops his theology of evolution, Haught emphasizes that a major source of this confusion is thinking of God as a “designer.” This conjures up images of creation as a perfectly engineered machine and God as an omniscient engineer. But as naturalists like Dawkins and Dennett are fond of pointing out, the natural world doesn’t look like a perfectly engineered piece of machinery. It’s far messier and apparently wasteful than anything a competent engineer would come up with, considering the vast stretches of time it’s taken for life to develop and the countless billions of organisms that have perished in the struggle for existence. For this engineering mentality, the idea that the world could be the creation of a wise and benevolent God seems incredible.

Operating on similar assumptions, proponents of creationism or intelligent design try to salvage the reputation of God the engineer by rejecting the Darwinian account of life’s development, in part or in whole. If each species is a special creation of God, then we don’t need to posit the mind-boggling stretches of time and the vast waste that Darwinism seems to require. Once again, then, Haught argues that atheistic naturalism and creationism share a crucial premise: that God, if he exists, ought to resemble an omni-competent engineer. They differ only in whether the world can be seen as the product of such an engineering effort.

Haught thinks we should reject this God-as-engineer image altogether. God doesn’t engineer the world according to some heavenly plan where every detail is planned out in advance. God is better thought of as establishing the conditions under which the world can unfold according to its own immanent principles. God makes the world to make itself. This allows us to see the evolutionary process as a much more open-ended affair than the design model permits. God, Haught says, is the world’s “Absolute Future,” the one who calls it into new stages and forms of being. The world is not established according to a pre-ordained plan, but instead by the interplay of continuity and novelty that occurs throughout vast stretches of time.

Thus Haught proposes that we see evolution (including its cosmic preconditions) as analogous to a dramatic narrative unfolding “within” the being of God. Like a narrative, the meaning of the whole may not be evident until we reach the end. And like a narrative, the cosmic drama doesn’t necessarily take the shortest route between point A and point B, the way an engineer might prefer. The “waste” of evolution may in fact, Haught says, be the result of divine liberality. Life has taken the winding course it has, not because of a flawed or absent “design,” but because God allows creation to unfold according to its own principles.

Haught contends that this picture is actually more biblical than the designer-god of creationism. The God of the Bible is a God of “liberation and promise rather than the imposition of design” (p. 64) and “whenever the idea of God is separated from the conjugate themes of freedom and futurity, it is an idolatrous distortion” (p. 65).

A properly biblical theology of nature will view divine wisdom, providence, and compassion less as a guarantee of the world’s safety–as the idea of design encourages–than as an unbounded self-emptying graciousness that grants the world an open space and generous amount of time to become more, and in doing so gives it ample opportunity to participate in its own creative self-transformation. A God of freedom and promise invites, and does not compel, the creation to experiment with many possible ways of being, allowing it to make “mistakes” in the process. This is the God of evolution–one who honors and respects the indeterminacy and narrative openness of creation, and in this way ennobles it. (p. 65)

This still leaves a lot of open questions, like the how God influences the ongoing drama of life, as well as the question of theodicy (both of which I hope Haught will address later in the book). But the overall picture is, I think, appealing. When Christian theology overemphasizes “design,” the specter of divine determinism is never far away. And this always seems to result in a distorted and morally disturbing view of God. On Haught’s view, God is at work in creation, but as the empowering source of creaturely freedom, not the all-determining cause of everything that happens.

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3 thoughts on “Making Sense of Evolution: Design or drama?

  1. Very helpful, thank you. I don’t follow contemporary Catholics much but I will be looking for Haught’s book at the library.

    All I knew about Haught prior to this is that he stuffed Loftus pretty well in a little back-and-forth they got into recently on the Loftus page (in so polite a manner as the poor ex-fundie still references the discussion as a place to see how well he himself had handled the burden of Haught’s comment – which he had missed altogether, in my view).

    Thanks for this 2-part series.

  2. For some reason it makes me think of universal evolution and the concept of a multiverse with and infinite number of universes and a given percentage of them evolving physics during their early conditions that will conducive to the evolution of life. This holds true to the same principles of Darwinistic evolution, just as does every chemical reaction. It’s the shotgun approach. You throw infinity into the statistical calculation and you’re guaranteed results. What percentage of infinity ends up the way you want doesn’t really matter, .01E-2323 percent of infinity is still infinite. You can get anything you can possibly think of this way. Anything at all, including a universe that functions completely on the principles of religion as described by – pick a name, any name. Now, the question is, which one do we live in?

  3. Pingback: Making Sense of Evolution: God of the future | A Thinking Reed

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