It’s rare that you find a newspaper article that actually addresses theology in depth, so I was surprised to see the Chicago Tribune Magazine article this past Sunday on “The New Theology” regarding theistic evolution. The article highlights several Christian scientists, physicist Howard Van Till and geneticist Francis Collins among them, who have reconciled their Christian faith with evolutionary theory by adjusting their view of God.
“If your faith requires supernaturalism, or a God who wields overpowering control over nature, then yes, evolution will challenge that,” says Van Till, who took early retirement from Calvin College in 1999.”The key is to correct your portrait of God,” he says.
It’s an audacious suggestion, but transforming the way people think about God has become a vital mission for a wave of scientists and theologians who want to place the natural world at the forefront of religion. They see themselves as spokespersons for an emerging religious majority that has been obscured by the excesses of stubborn creationists and the iconoclastic broadsides of scientific atheists.
Evolution, they contend, is more than a soulless explanation for the development of life. It is a glimpse of a divine plan so subtle it’s almost invisible.
The article correctly notes that such a view will ironically bring scorn both from Creationists and from scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins, whom the article also highlights.
In a curious way, Dawkins and his fellow scientific atheists espouse the same notion of God that drives their sworn enemies, the creationists who oppose teaching evolution in public schools. For both camps, the only God who makes sense is one who designed all life with exquisite attention to detail. Scientific atheists disavow such a religion; creationists embrace it.
But what if both sides started out with the wrong idea of God? What if their pitched battles were the fruit of a shared misconception, one that conceals evolution’s potential for new religious insights? The greatest challenge may be for believers to understand evolution as it is, not as they wish it would be. Indeed, many scientists and even theologians believe that Darwin’s theory requires throwing out old ideas about divine design.
Theologian John Haught from Georgetown University, author of God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, goes on to describe this new view:
Don’t think of God as a meticulous designer of life, Haught urges. A detailed design would have limited the paths that living things could take. Instead, he says, God’s love led to a world that’s always open to new directions for life, without the need for overpowering divine supervision. The chance-fueled nature of evolution doesn’t disprove God’s existence, Haught believes. It’s what God wanted.
“Love persuades, it doesn’t force,” Haught says. “God doesn’t compel the world to be a certain way, and that’s because of how love works. God lets things be, and lets the weeds grow up with the wheat.”
The Biblical foundation for Haught’s view of evolution goes back to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, which describes how Jesus “emptied himself” to become human. It’s a crucial image, Haught believes. That idea of divine emptying–“kenosis” in Greek–offers a way of understanding all of creation. Instead of a mighty autocrat, it portrays God as a self-humbling servant, content to let the universe evolve and novelty emerge.
An evolutionary view of religion means the same forces that made life change constantly in the past are still at work, leaving our future uncertain. Haught believes such an open future is perfectly compatible with the messages of hope and promise that are central to Christianity.
Personally, as a theistic evolutionist myself, I find Haught’s ideas very compelling, and actually very resonant with what I consider to be a biblical view of God (if not so consistent with certain aspects of classical theology, which I would argue is too heavily influenced by Greek notions of divine omnipotence and immutability.) In fact, several years back, emerging church leader Brian McLaren wrote a book entitled The Story We Find Ourselves In, which details how evolution complements the scriptural story found in Genesis and throughout the Bible. In other words, one isn’t required to do complicated theological gymnastics with the biblical text to see how evolution can fit with a Christian conception of God.
Of course, the article does make a point to highlight those who would disagree with me and other theistic evolutionists on that point, including an Amish woodworker (I’m not kidding), Intelligent Design advocates like William Dembski, and of course, Dawkins too.
[Dawkins] gives a pass to big thinkers like Albert Einstein, who famously insisted that “God does not play dice with the universe,” and Stephen Hawking, who pondered the ability of physicists to “know the mind of God.” They were talking about an impersonal God embodied in the intangible laws of physics, Dawkins believes. What he can’t accept is an “interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought-reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering” God–the God that Dawkins believes is central to most religions.
Not that theistic evolutionists have no answer to the question of divine intervention:
Kenneth Miller of Brown has suggested that God might nudge events in the natural world through imperceptible changes at the quantum level. Other believers, like Francis Collins, say that old-fashioned miracles are perfectly consistent with a scientific worldview because science is concerned only with natural processes, not God’s supernatural action. Collins says his standard of evidence for believing in a miracle is high, but he doesn’t dismiss them out of hand.
“For me, as a believer who sees God as the author of natural laws, why would it be such a stretch to imagine that such a being could, on rare occasions, suspend those laws?” Collins says.
At any rate, the article makes pains to point out that the point of all this has nothing to do with “proving” (or disproving) God’s existence through science. Theistic evolutionists’ goals are more modest.
Collins says he hopes to correct the defensive crouch that many churches have taken against modern science, as if fearing that each new finding had the potential to challenge old beliefs.
“My dream is to bring together open-minded, deep-thinking scientists and theologians to try to construct a new theology of how the universe is put together and how God works within that universe,” Collins says. “It should be a celebration theology instead of a defensive theology.”
Just speaking personally, I think that’s a good goal. My only issue with the article was the way it painted theistic evolution as something new, as if Christians were just now discovering how to reconcile their faith with scientific discoveries. In truth, theistic evolution has been around as long as the theory of evolution itself. The only thing new here is that these sorts of views, which moderate and progressive religious believers have long embraced, are finally getting more attention from the mainstream media, and more people are realizing that the popular narrative of irreconcilable conflict between faith and science, perpetuated by people on both the Ken Ham and the Richard Dawkins ends of the spectrum, isn’t the only option out there.