God loves Homo naledi too

Reading this fascinating account of the recent discovery of Homo naledi–“a baffling new branch to the [human] family tree”–I couldn’t help thinking that Christianity hasn’t really come to terms with the history of human (and proto-human) existence as it’s increasingly being revealed to us.

When evolution first began to be debated in Christian circles it was possible to accept evolutionary theory but still draw a bright line between humans and the rest of creation. Sure we may have developed from “lower” forms of life, but we possessed unique capacities that set us apart. We had a “soul”–perhaps divinely infused at conception or some other point during our prenatal development; we had “free will”; we could reason about abstract concepts; we could respond to God’s will and commune with the divine, etc. Other animals, particularly higher primates, might appear to possess some of these abilities in rudimentary form, but it wasn’t much of  stretch to still see humans as standing on one side of a great divide, with the rest of animal creation on the other.

However, as paleontologists have started to fill in the blanks in the evolutionary record, a murkier–and stranger–picture has emerged. Various kinds of proto-humans existed–most of them for much longer than Homo sapiens has so far. Some of them–Neanderthals and now possibly H. naledi–coexisted (and interbred) with us. Some of them seem to have possessed at least some of the capacities we have traditionally identified as uniquely human. For example, the discovery of the remains of over a dozen H. naledi in a deep cavern in South Africa may indicate a ritualized burial.

The upshot is that modern humans are increasingly shown to be deeply woven into the fabric of nature–more so than most traditional theology has admitted. And in geological time (never mind cosmic time) the duration of our existence and prominence on Earth is less than a blink. Nonetheless, it’s still hard for us not to see ourselves as the pinnacle of life and the center of history.

But if, as Christians are supposed to affirm, God loves and cares for all of creation, what role do proto- or other-humans play in God’s economy? Are we so sure that God’s most important dealings with human-like creatures occurred during the handful of millennia covered by the Bible? (As a thought experiment, one can extend this in the other direction: our far-distant descendants may differ radically from us in any number of ways and may, for all we know, be spread out through the galaxy, interbreeding with other species to create previously undreamt of forms of life. Are we sure nothing of equal religious significance will occur during that time and under such radically different circumstances?)

In principle, adjusting to the idea that we aren’t at the center of human (or quasi-human) history isn’t that different from absorbing the notion that the Earth isn’t at the center (spatially or temporally) of the cosmos, or that other creatures have value independent of us. But I don’t know that Christianity (or maybe any of the world’s religions) has really incorporated the implications of this in its theology, not to mention its piety, liturgy, and ethics. Our worldview–at least the one that’s presupposed by much of the church’s teaching and practice–still seems to put all the big events in the past, and it assumes that things will continue in essentially the same manner till the end of time. But given how briefly humanity as we know it has existed, what reason is there to think it represents the “normal” state of affairs?

I certainly don’t know what changes in our thinking and practice (if any) are called for. But it may be that the radical contingency of human existence as we know it has implications we’ve barely begun to consider.

Evolution, Adam, Paul, and the Gospel

I’m not sure I was part of the target audience for Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, but I still got a lot out of it. Enns reviews the scholarship around the composition and authorship of the creation story, as well as its historical context, and argues that the Adam story (i.e., the version of the creation story found in Genesis 2 and the story of the fall in Genesis 3) simply isn’t trying to answer the question of human origins in the way that a scientific account would.

Rather, the creation story (and the OT more generally) is, Enns says, an exercise in Israelite national and theological self-definition in light of competing religions and a history of unfaithfulness, exile, and calamity. In particular, the Genesis creation story can be read as responding to the similar (though also very different) creation stories of the surrounding cultures (Egyptian, Babylonian, etc.), and enunciating the distinctive Israelite view of who God is.

Placing Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern setting strongly suggests that it was written as a self-defining document, as a means of declaring the distinctiveness of Israel’s own beliefs from those of the surrounding nations. In other words, Genesis is an argument, a polemic, declaring how Israel’s God is different from all the other gods, and therefore how Israel is different from all the other nations. (p. 6)

If this is right, Enns says, there is no inherent conflict between Genesis and evolution: the accounts are simply answering different questions.

Christians today misread Genesis when they try to engage it, even minimally, in the scientific arena. Rather, they must follow the trajectory of the postexilic Israelites and ask their own questions of self-definition as the people of God: In view of who and where we are, what do these ancient texts say to us about being the people of God today? (p. 33)

However, things are a bit different when we come to Paul. Enns notes that Adam doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the OT, and there is certainly no developed theory of “original sin.” Moreover, later Jewish tradition creatively interpreted the Adam story in a variety of ways, many at variance with what became the standard Christian version.

But Paul does seem to think (as demonstrated most clearly in Romans) that Adam was the first human being, historically speaking, and that his disobedience has infected the rest of humanity. For Paul, Adam’s transgression is the cause of sin and death—the predicament from which we are delivered by God’s great act in Jesus. Thus, many have argued, Paul’s gospel only makes sense if there was a historical Adam and a historical fall.

But this is too quick. As Enns argues, Paul is working backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus, not forward from a theory of original sin. Paul’s reading of the Adam story is not a “straight” reading, but a creative reinterpretation in light of the crucified and risen Messiah (as was much of his use of the OT). As Enns puts it:

In making his case, Paul does not begin with Adam and move to Christ. Rather, the reality of the risen Christ drives Paul to mine Scripture for ways of explicating the wholly unexpected in-breaking of the age to come in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God. Adam, read as “the first human,” supports Paul’s argument about the universal plight and remedy of humanity, but it is not a necessary component for that argument. In other words, attributing the cause of universal sin and death to a historical Adam is not necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a fully historical solution to that problem. To put it positively, as Paul says, we all need the Savior to deliver us from sin and death. That core Christian truth, as I see it, is unaffected by this entire discussion. (p. 81)

I’ve tried to make a similar point before. I don’t think that when people responded to Jesus it was because they saw him as a  solution to “the Adam problem.” They experienced a concrete liberation from something that oppressed them: illness, possession, guilt, etc. This experience of liberation was not contingent on some prior theory about the origins of sin, suffering, and death. The Adam story can powerfully express the universal human predicament, but we needn’t take it as history to make sense of the Gospel.

“Deep time” and religious belief

Keith Ward reviews what sounds like a pretty interesting book on “deep time” and the possible future evolution of religious beliefs.

The acceptance of deep time — of the fact that the universe has existed for billions of years and that it will continue to exist for billions of years — could, if inwardly digested, have a radical effect on human religious beliefs. In the first two chapters of this book, Schellenberg presents the scientific arguments for this view, and argues that the far-future beliefs of whatever succeeds the human species are liable to reduce our own early and primitive beliefs to virtual irrelevance. This is true in science, and we should expect it to be true of religion, too.

You could see this as the cosmic and temporal analogue to recognizing that human religious beliefs already vary widely across different communities. For many people, realizing that their own beliefs are at least partly contingent upon chance and circumstance introduces an element of doubt. The thrust of Schellenberg’s argument seems to be that contemplating what our beliefs may look like to our far-future descendents is cause for even greater skepticism.

Ward provides some good reasons for thinking that we needn’t lapse into wholesale religious skepticism, though. If there is an ultimate reality that human beings can come into contact with, it seems plausible that our experiences of it to date would not be wholly misleading.

I suspect that anyone who postulates that there is a supremely valuable source of universal and ultimate good will expect to find some specific instances of human contact with, and transformation by, this good. A search for revelation will begin, and you might expect to find that while such instances do not disclose all the truths there are to be known about the ultimate, nevertheless they provide accurate information which is not seriously misleading about the nature and goals of human existence.

But he also says that Schellenberg makes a strong case that “religious believers should be much less dogmatic, especially about very detailed and obscure and controversial beliefs” and that they should be more open to developing their beliefs in light of new insights.

I do think that Christians in particular are prone to thinking that most of the important development of our religious beliefs has already happened. We look back to the writing and formation of the Biblical canon, the great councils of the early church, and maybe the Middle Ages or the Reformation (depending on our church affiliation) as codifying, more or less for good, the right way of understanding who God is. This is probably inevitable to some extent because Christianity is based on a historical revelation. But another important motif of Christian faith–though one not emphasized as consistently–is the messianic, future-oriented dimension. Christianity teaches that the Kingdom has not come in its fullness and we still see “in a glass darkly.” This might lend support to the idea that our current beliefs about ultimate reality will undergo indefinite revision. But this has to be kept in balance with the conviction, which most Christians would share, that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus provide a reliable indication of what God is like.

Science, faith, and cognitive dissonance

Slate‘s William Saletan wrote a post about the much-publicized debate between creationist crackpot Ken Ham and Bill “the Science Guy” Nye in which he argued that, while creationism is a “delusion,” it’s largely harmless because people can compartmentalize their wacky theological beliefs and function perfectly well in modern society. They can even work successfully in scientific and technical fields.

He followed this up with a, to me, more interesting post about Jennifer Wiseman, a scientist working on the Hubble telescope project. Dr. Wiseman is not a young-earth creationist like Ham, but she is a Christian who believes in miracles, like the resurrection of Jesus. When asked how she reconciles science with her belief in divine intervention, Dr. Wiseman responded that miracles are

outside of the natural working of the forces of nature, and so science is not equipped to address that one way or the other. Science is equipped to address how things normally and naturally work. So as a scientist, I study the universe in the way it normally and naturally works and has worked throughout the whole history of time. I don’t look for anything else, because my scientific tools are not equipped to measure anything else. But does that mean that nothing outside of the normal, natural physical processes that science can address ever happened or ever does happen? Well, science can’t answer that question.

Saletan calls this “a textbook case of compartmentalized religion” and says that “[y]ou’d have no better luck talking Wiseman out of her belief in the Resurrection than you would talking Ken Ham out of his belief that God breathed life into the first man.”

But I don’t think this is right. “Compartmentalizing” implies a kind of cognitive dissonance, or even a “double-truth” theory of the kind held by some Medieval philosophers. This was the view that a proposition could be true in philosophy but false in religion; they occupied separate domains and could never conflict. At the time, this was an attempt to reconcile Aristotle’s philosophy (the best natural science of its day) with Christian doctrine, but it was one that the church ultimately rejected.

Based on her comments, though, I don’t think that’s what Jennifer Wiseman is doing, and I don’t think compartmentalization in Saletan’s sense is necessary for believers. A better way to think about this is that there is an order to the universe that includes but also transcends the order discerned by science. God’s actions, by definition, do not fall under the natural laws that science investigates because God transcends the order that those laws describe. On this view, there’s no intrinsic contradiction in saying that scientific laws describe the “normal” operations of nature but that God may act in ways that exceed them. Common observation tells us that dead people don’t come back to life in the normal run of things; but if “the normal run of things” doesn’t have the last word, so to speak, then such a miracle may be possible. God is the one, after all, who creates and sustains the normal operations of nature, and miracles (if they occur) are expressions of this same Power. There is one reality and one truth, but science only comprehends those aspects of reality which its methods are appropriate to.

Now, just because something can be believed without contradiction doesn’t mean that it’s true, and I haven’t said anything about whether beliefs in a divine order or miracles are justified. But the point is that it’s possible to integrate a scientific and religious view of the world without the kind of epistemic compartmentalizing that would allow something to be scientifically true but religiously false (or vice versa).

Modern science, classical theism (3)

One of the impulses motivating “revisionist” views of the divine nature (process theology, et al.) is not only that they can seem more consonant with modern science, but that they provide a more intimate and relational view of God. Many theologians have argued, in fact, that seeing God in responsive, relational terms such as those offered by process theology is truer to the biblical portrait of God. This view has widespread currency in recent theology. Even theologians with important differences from process theology have accepted that God is in some respects changeable and affected by what happens in the world. These included feminist, liberation, and other “contextual” theologians as well as “neo-trinitarian” thinkers like Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson. Such thinkers tend to emphasize the differences between the biblical God and the Greek-inspired God of classical theism.

In light of this, Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod (see previous posts here and here) ask “Can a transcendent God be a personal God?” That is, can a God who exists “outside” of time and space and who brings the entire history of creation into being through one timeless divine act also be related to individual human beings in a personal and responsive way?

C&O think the answer is yes:

[C]lassical theism presents us with a God who is infinitely responsive, who has responded so fully and so completely in the one divine act of creation that no further response is possible or needed[.] In the one infinite act of creation, past, present, and future for us , God responds to all our prayers and petitions, answers all our needs, all guided by an infinite divine loving wisdom and wise loving. . . . And while God’s response to us is itself eternal and unchanging, it unfolds for us in the fullness of time. Thus God responds to this prayer in our here and now. And if we do not pray, God does not so respond. Prayer is meaningful, it does change the situation, and God does act in response to our prayers. But this does not amount to some intervention along the lines of stirring an inactive God into action, but is part of the one creative act of God who brings into existence everything that is. (p. 128)

God has, in effect, “already” taken into account every action, intention, prayer, and desire in the history of the universe and responded accordingly in the single, eternal creative act.

But even on this view, there seems to be an aspect of God that is contingent, namely God’s perfect response to the world. For if God had chosen to actualize a different world from among the (presumably) many possible ones, then to the extent that the choices, prayers,etc. of the people in that world were different from ours, God’s response would have to have been different. This seems to imply that God is not wholly unchangeable, at least on the assumption that God’s actualization of other worlds than this one was a genuine possibility.

Maybe C&O would respond that God is nevertheless not dependent on creation because it is God who chooses which possible world to make actual. This certainly distinguishes their position from those forms of process theology that deny creation ex nihilo and appear to give creation an independent ontological status. I agree with C&O in rejecting such a view. But I’m less certain how much daylight there is between their position and the more moderate “dipolar” theism espoused by someone like Christopher Southgate or Keith Ward. Both Southgate and Ward affirm creation ex nihilo and thus God’s ontological ultimacy; but both also argue that there is an aspect of God that is involved in and affected by what happens in the world.

It’s not clear to me that C&O couldn’t accept the modified dipolar theism of Southgate and Ward while still upholding their other positions. In fact, both Southgate and Ward make arguments similar to theirs in relating theism to modern science. Alternatively, C&O could bite the bullet and say that the actual world is the only possible world. God’s creative act would give rise to this world out of necessity, rather than from God’s free choice. This seems to be essentially the view of Schleiermacher, whose views C&O’s arguments echo at several points. While this would salvage divine impassibility, it would seem to mean giving up on genuine contingency in the world. If this is right, it raises the question of whether “classical theism” is as stable a construct as it seems.

These questions aside, I don’t want to suggest that Creator God, Evolving World is a bad book by any means. I found it incredibly stimulating (as these posts might suggest!) and also found a lot to agree with. Plus, at a time when “classical theism” has become something of a bogeyman, it’s refreshing to see it defended and brought into conversation with contemporary issues.

Modern science, classical theism (2)

According to Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod’s (C&O) view, God creates in a single divine act “outside” of time and space (see the previous post). In Thomas Aquinas’ terms, God is the primary cause of the existence of everything that is, while creatures are secondary causes within the time-space framework. The implication is that God can’t be invoked to explain particular events within the world. This implies that there is no competition between scientific and theological explanations.

But what does this imply for the problem of evil? “If God chooses this universe, in all its details from beginning to end in a single act, why does God allow there to be suffering and evil?” And how is God’s providence over history exercised?

C&O deploy a variation of what Christopher Southgate calls the “only-way” argument. That is, this world, with its attendant suffering, is a “package deal” of sorts. You only get free personal agents like human beings through a process like the evolutionary one, “red in tooth and claw” though it may be. This is because the processes that make life possible are also the reason that suffering exists. The growth of life depends on predation, plate tectonics lead to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and genetic variation occasionally produces genetic disorders.

There is no you or I apart from the total world order that confronts us in creation. It is not as if God made all the component parts of creation and stuck them together to make the universe. Rather, the universe is an intelligible whole and our existence is inseparable from the existence of that whole. (p. 86)

We may think we can imagine a creation without suffering, but it’s not clear this is really the case:

In the end we have no idea what it means to create a universe, or what might be possible or impossible in such a creation. While it is easy for us to imagine a world without suffering, such imaginings might not translate into a coherent and intelligible world order. If the whole is not intelligible, then such an imagined creation is a mere pipe dream, a fantasy, not realizable in fact. (p. 89)

This line of response, assuming it works, may take some of the sting out of so-called natural evil. But what about moral evil–evil deeds intentionally chosen by free agents like us? Here C&O turn to a version of the free-will defense. They lean heavily on Augustine’s account of evil as a privation to argue that the choice of evil is a lack of purpose or meaning. “The evil act has no cause sufficient for the act, and so has no cause. It is our failure in the realm of achieving the good” (p. 97) and so “God is not the cause of this deficiency simply because it has no cause” (p. 98). God is not the cause of evil, but human freedom–which in itself is a great good–makes evil possible.

God’s providence, in this view, consists in the superintendence of the entire created order. God does not “intervene” as a secondary cause among secondary causes, but God wills a universe into existence that includes evil as an inextricable element. This is either because, in the case of natural evil, it is an unavoidable side-effect of certain kinds of finite existence, or, as with moral evil, because it is made possible by the exercise of creaturely freedom.

Beyond this, though, C&O suggest that there is a divinely originated response to evil on the level of practice. “[I]f evil is a lack, something that is missing that should be there, then the solution to the problem of evil is to make up for what is lacking, to repair the damage done, and turn the evil act into an opportunity for a greater good, the good of conversion, forgiveness, and mercy” (p. 99). They propose that God responds to evil by giving human beings the resources to live toward the good by taking suffering and violence as an opportunity for mercy and forgiveness. For Christians, of course, the life and death of Jesus is the ultimate expression of this response, which “has the power to change history, to shift us from decline and restore the path of genuine progress” (p. 101).

(I have some questions about C&O’s account, but I’m going to save them for my final post in this series.)

Modern science, classical theism (1)

Cynthia Crysdale and Neil Ormerod’s book Creator God, Evolving World is fighting a two-front war. On one side, they argue, against scientific atheism, that an evolutionary worldview is compatible with theism. On the other front, they uphold a form of classical theism against various revisionist views like process theology that ascribe change, passibility, becoming, and temporality to God.

C&O offer a characterization of natural processes as an interweaving of universal laws and more probabilistic events. Nature is neither purely deterministic–with phenomena deducible from universal, invariable laws–but neither is it wholly “random” or chance-like. As revealed to us by the sciences, nature is better understood as a series of relatively stable systems of nested complexity.

There is order and regularity–some things occur in the same way always and everywhere, all things being equal. Other things occur without a systematic pattern or a direct causality but according to probabilities. And just as the two types of inquiry intersect and are mutually creative, so those events that occur according to probabilities (by chance) and those that occur systematically (according to natural laws) interweave to make a stable world process that is nevertheless subject to conditions that change. (pp. 31-2)

It is sometimes thought that theism is incompatible with a world of chance, but C&O argue that a certain directionality can be perceived in the world process–toward greater integration and higher levels of complexity. Subatomic elements stabilize in atoms, atoms stabilize in molecules, molecules form living organism, organisms increase in complexity and integration, and consciousness, and eventually self-consciousness, emerge from life. This process is not pre-determined; there is a genuine element of chance, as each of these levels of complexity is built on contingent events. But we can nevertheless trace a general arc toward greater complexity.

But what role does God play in this? C&O criticize the view, popular in science and religion circles and best exemplified by process theology, that God is also to some degree subject to chance and contingency. It is sometimes maintained that the God of classical theism–characterized as impassible, eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient–is inconsistent with a dynamic, evolving world-process that includes unpredictability and chance as essential elements. To be related to a changing world, God would also have to change.

But C&O argue that classical theism is actually more congruent with the world-picture offered by science than process theism and related views. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between primary and secondary causes, they contend that God is better thought of as the primary cause of all that exists–the ground of the entire world-order. The entire cosmos is contingent in the sense that it could have not existed, and God is the necessary being who actualizes this particular universe from a sea of possible universes.

Contrary to process theology, C&O say that it is difficult to make sense of the notion that God is subject to time and change. Drawing on relativity theory, they point out that there is no non-relative “now” that God could be present in. In fact, physics indicates that time is actually an aspect of the material world, so God as creator is also the creator of time. As Augustine saw, there is no sense in asking what God was doing “before” creation, since time is an aspect of the created order itself.

Yet, this doesn’t mean that there is no chance in the universe or that everything is determined. God actualizes this particular universe with its necessary laws and contingent events. God does not need to be invoked as an explanation for particular events (the “God of the gaps”). Rather, God is the ground of the entire series of events:

With perfect intelligence, God grasps all possible worlds, with all possible branchings, in all possible “universes,” precisely as possibilities, in a single act. With perfect wisdom and love, God chooses one possibility in its totality from its beginning to its final consummation, from all the myriad options presented by divine intelligence, in that same creative act. In Martin Ree’s expression, God “breathes fire” into one of the many mathematically possible worlds on offer. And so with complete power God realizes that one possibility, making it the one universe that exists, the one we inhabit, in all its necessity and contingency, determinisms and chance events, again in a single divine act. God’s election of this creation eliminates none of its contingency because God knows, loves, and creates this universe with precisely this set of contingencies “built in.” We do not need to place God in time in order to preserve the contingency of the universe, nor do we need to eliminate a divine and efficacious providence. For God is the answer, not to the contingency of chance events per se but to the much more profound contingency of being. It is the contingency of the very being of the universe that requires a necessary being as its source. Once we grasp this fact of divine transcendence, transcending matter, space, and time, the divine knowledge, love, and creation of the lesser contingency of chance events is implied as an automatic consequence. (p. 55)

C&O go on to discuss the implications of their view for providence and the problem of evil, human agency, ethics, and whether a transcendent God along the lines of classical theism can still be a “personal” God. I plan to dedicated at least one more post to their book.

Miscellaneous links and such, mostly theological

This post strikes a good balance in responding to the controversy over a tweet Calvinist preacher John Piper posted immediately after the tornado in Oklahoma.

I enjoyed this podcast of some philosophers discussing Schleiermacher’s “On Religion.” Although they don’t seem to be very familiar with his more explicitly theological work–particularly The Christian Faith–which provides some important context in discussing his views and overall project.

The new pope seems to be taking the “preferential option for the poor” pretty seriously (via bls).

I’m in the middle of this biography of John Wesley. So far my takeaway is that Wesley was in many ways an extremely admirable person, if not necessarily a very likable one. (Of course, the same could be said of many great figures in church history.)

And here’s a new trailer for the upcoming Superman movie:

Nature’s “transparent rational beauty”

The kinds of considerations I was discussing in the last post are very similar to those that physicist-priest John Polkinghorne offered as part of a “modest” natural theology in his book Belief in God in an Age of Science. I posted on this several years back, but here’s the relevant portion of the post reproduced:

In the first chapter Polkinghorne discusses what he calls the “new natural theology.” There are two aspects of the physical world, Polkinghorne thinks, that provide “hints” of the existence of God. The first is the fact that our minds are fitted to understand the deep structure of the physical universe and that this structure can be expressed in elegant mathematical forumlas. “This use of abstract mathematics as a technique of physical discovery points to a very deep fact about the nature of the universe that we inhabit, and to the remarkable conformity of our human minds to its patterning. We live in a world whose physical fabric is endowed with transparent rational beauty” (p. 2).

Polkinghorne rejects as implausible the view that our ability to comprehend the fabric of the physical world and express it in the language of mathematics is a mere by-product of our evolutionary development:

No one would deny, of course, that evolutionary necessity will have moulded our ability for thinking in ways that will ensure its adequacy for understanding the world around us, at least to the extent that is demanded by pressures for survival. Yet our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life. (p. 2-3)

He likewise rejects any “constructivist” account of knowledge which says that we merely project our preference for mathematical reasoning onto the physical world. “Nature is not so plastic as to be subject to our whim in this way” (p. 3). The great discoveries of physics, however aesthetically pleasing they may be, depend on the belief that it is nature speaking to us in revealing aspects of its deep structure.

Revisiting this, it now looks to me like Polkinghorne is stealing some argumentative bases with his statement that it “beggars belief that this [capability for understanding the world] is simply a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life.” That is to say, just because something seems surprising or astonishing doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Polkinghorne might well reply that in the absence of a convincing account of how it could happen “naturalistically,” this “remarkable conformity of our human minds to [the universe’s] patterning” does provide a “hint” that something beyond blind natural processes is at work. So the question is whether there is such a convincing account (or maybe more basically what such an account would have to look like). Or is it enough to say that it’s simply a contingent fact–resulting from our minds’ long evolutionary history–that we’re able to successfully model aspects of reality?

Schleiermacher vs. theistic evolutionism

So-called theistic evolutionists sometimes distinguish themselves from creationists by saying that God used evolution to creation life on earth, rather than creating it directly through a special divine act. I’m generally sympathetic to this view, at least in the sense that I’m a theist who believes that evolution is the best account going of how life developed on earth.

However, after reading Schleiermacher, I’m having second thoughts about theistic evolution, or at least how it’s frequently explained. This isn’t because Schleiermacher was a “creationist”–at least not in the sense that we would think of that term. He certainly didn’t take the biblical creation stories to be offering historical or scientific accounts of how God made the world.

What he did think was that everything that exists is an expression of the divine creativity. Schleiermacher has an austerely non-anthropomorphic view of God: it’s a mistake, he argues, to think of God as one cause among other finite cause, or as one agent among others. There are not divine actions, but a single, eternal divine activity that expresses itself temporally in the unfolding of the created universe. God doesn’t act in response to events in the world on an ad hoc basis; everything that happens, happens because it is part of the whole created order which is willed by God. Science is capable, in principle, of giving a fully adequate account of the interconnections between events in the world; at the same time, though, the entire created order is grounded in the single divine creative act.

This implies, according to Schleiermacher, that for God there is no distinction between means and ends. Thus, to talk about God using evolution as a means of bringing about some other good (e.g., the existence of human beings) is to lapse back into the very anthropomorphic language he criticizes. Everything that exists is inextricably bound up with everything else, and we are in no position to suss out what is an end and what is a means. Or more accurately, everything is both end and means  because everything that exists is interdependent. Regarding the divine wisdom, he says this: “There is nothing outside the world which could be used as means; all things within it, rather, are so ordered that viewed in connexion with one another they each stand related as parts to the whole; while every particular in itself is so entirely both things–means and end–that each of these categories is constantly abrogating itself and passing over into the other” (The Christian Faith, § 168).

So I think Schleiermacher would say that “theistic evolutionism,” at least in some forms, is guilty of errors similar to those of “vulgar” creationism. That is, to the extent that it tries to identify certain natural processes as means that God uses to achieve a particular end, it is still thinking of God as a finite, personal agent. He would deny, I think, that Christians have any particular stake in the theological significance of evolution. Christian faith is grounded in our experience of redemption in Christ, and this transfigures our view of creation, allowing us to see it, in its entirety, as a gift of God’s good pleasure.