Evolution in the Key of D: Descent and Drama (RJS)

I recently received a copy of John F. Haught‘s new book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life. Haught is a Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University and Professor of Theology Emeritus. He testified at the Dover trial on Intelligent Design back in 2005. His book opens some interesting topics for discussion and is certainly worth a few posts. Chapters four and five deal with a discussion of descent and drama – common descent and the drama of life.

One of the rather definite conclusions of evolutionary theory is that mankind is part and parcel of the animal kingdom. There is, or appears to be, no foundational difference between humans and chimpanzees (see this story for and interesting example). According to Haught:

If human beings have descended in a continuous way from the simplest forms of life, and if we share so much of our genetic makeup with chimps (as much as 96 percent) and even bacteria, what can be the biblical stories of Adam and Eve’s special creation possibly mean? In what way, if at all, are human beings special? (44)

The integration of science, including evolutionary biology, will consider and grapple with the dignity of human life and the drama of the universe.

Is the dignity of human life a problem as you consider the possibility of evolutionary creation?

In his chapter on Descent Haught suggests that the difference is not found in reductionist biology but in something else – perhaps  the information content. It is not that information demands design – but that information is a concept that goes beyond simple reductionism.

The spirit of reductionism may still be alive, but the consensus is growing that comprehensive wholes such as living organisms cannot be reduced to their elemental constituents without losing something significant in the translation.

In the case of living beings, one dimension that gets lost in simpleminded reductionism is the dimension of “information.” Information means that more is going on in life and evolution than merely molecular and atomic activity.  … Information is not reducible to matter and energy but it is no less natural. (pp. 49-50).

We are more than chemicals and reactions, there is a future toward which we move. The future has goodness, beauty, and  purpose. Haught sums it up like this:

Without diminishing or denying the results of scientific research, a theology of evolution locates the whole drama of life within a vision of the universe still open to becoming more deeply infused with being, goodness, and beauty as it is drawn toward its Absolute Future. Within this biblical setting our special human status and value, as well as the meaning of what it is to have a soul, must have something to do with our capacity to be grasped, renewed, and dignified by the inexhaustible Future we call by the name of God. (p. 52)

There are some interesting ideas here, playing into the concepts of mission and purpose. It is also consistent with the fact that the creation story in Genesis story did not depict a static perfection – it is (even with out the Fall) the beginning of a process of becoming. It was good – not done. On the other hand – the idea of God as Future is disturbing. It is, or appears to be a deist, not a personal theistic view of God. Haught defers to the last chapter of the book to explain the concept and I am interested to see how he develops it there.

This leads to the next chapter: Drama.  According to Haught a Christian theology of evolution connects with the transformative drama of life, with the whole of creation growing into the abode of God.

Theologically speaking, the central point of interest is whether the Darwinian drama should be read as tragedy or comedy. Do all the countless moments of the life-story add up to absurdity and nothingness in the end? Or is there a direction to the story, possibly even a redemptive climax yet to come, an outcome that might give a lasting meaning to it all? (p.54)

For Haught the chemical and physical processes of life differ from the inanimate processes through the capacity for expectation, the striving to overcome, to survive, to thrive. A purely material view of evolution bleeds the drama out of it – leaving contingency, accident, and meaningless rambling.

A finished creation whether arising from a young earth view, or an old earth progressive creation, also removes the drama of life from the picture – there is no expectation, purpose or climax.

The flawlessly engineered world they prefer would be dead on delivery. Since it would already be perfect, it would also be finished; and if finished, it would have no future.

In other words there  could be no dramatic transformation going on in the kind of universe they idealize. Determined by a hypothetical intelligent designer to correspond impeccably in every detail to an eternally fixed master plan, such a world would be devoid of contingency, indeterminacy, freedom, and futurity that give a truly dramatic character – and possibly meaning – to evolution and the larger world process. (p. 63-64).

Pulling things together a bit, the drama of life, of creation, has a purpose, a goal, a Destination. But one thing that an evolutionary understanding of creation requires is a recasting of theology in terms of this process of becoming. The vision of drama, of potential, of growth is part of the Biblical narrative from the beginning. Genesis, Exodus, the Conquest, the Kings, the Prophets, the Exile, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Future. In a more traditional reading of our story there is perfect creation destroyed by the Fall and an ascent to perfection once more (not on our doing – but as God’s plan). The idea of evolutionary creation isn’t counter to the drama of the biblical narrative, it is the precursor and an integral part of the overall becoming of creation. But it does influence or change how we think about the nature and purpose of creation. It also changes, gives a twist or context, to how we think of mankind as special, created in the image of God and of the nature and consequence of the Fall.

What do you think – is this drama of life, this mission, this process of becoming a key piece of Christian theology?

If you wish to contact me you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    I like this. Everything seems to have its place in a harmonious whole. And this is the vision we read of in Scripture, to be fulfilled at last in the new creation in Christ.

  • Scot McKnight

    I agree that the drama of life and history are integral to Christian theology and eschatology. And the notion of a whole being more than the sum of its parts make sense to me.
    I wonder if you think this is a God of the gaps approach?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    We are more than chemicals and reactions…

    Well, duh. We all recognize that arrangement matters critically. A bunch of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, chocolate powder, and so forth can be made into a delicious chocolate cake (say, if my wife’s doing the baking) or an inedible mess (if it’s in my hands).
    People aren’t just “chemicals and reactions”; so far as I can see they are extraordinarily special, literally unique patterns and processes of “chemicals and reactions”.
    Consider software on a computer – the same program can run on a Mac, or a PC, or even on Linux or a phone or whatever. (And, conversely, a particular computer can show a useless YouTube video or run a complex simulation testing a cancer drug). The software needs the substrate of the computer to run, but it can use multiple substrates – and this doesn’t require anything supernatural to happen. (BTW, atheists can decry ‘simpleminded reductionism’, too.)

  • Crev C

    We have taken our arrogance to a new level. Having taken Lyell’s theories and Darwin’s to a new juxtaposition, we now assume their words are more credible than God’s. In the search for knowledge, it appears we are willing to ignore real information for imagined. God’s Word still stands, Evolution is in deficit. Still an unproven hypothesis, but given higher regard as truth than God’s word. How imperiled we’ve become.

  • http://arbevere.blogspot.com Allan R. Bevere

    Along with Scot’s question… what do you think of John Polkinghorne’s argument that the God of the gaps approach is not all that problematic? I almost hesitate to ask this question because it has been awhile since I reviewed his argument, and right now I am 500 miles away from my library, but if you have any thoughts on this, it would be appreciated.

  • SamB

    Off subject but a question… Is anyone experiencing trouble with IE and this site? Recently the back arrow that lets you return to where you were before you went to a posting doesn’t work anymore. This is the only site for me that it doesn’t work.

  • RJS

    Crev C,
    No – it is not a matter of taking Darwin over God. It is a matter of realizing that evolution is not unproven, the data is overwhelming. It is a matter of realizing that it is not a matter of either evolution or God – but both evolution and God.

  • RickK

    “Evolution is in deficit. Still an unproven hypothesis…”
    Please, just don’t.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek

    If the question asked were: “is the drama of life, mission, and the process of becoming a key piece of Christian theology?” I would answer in the affirmative.
    But if the “this” is a reference to understanding these things through the lens of an evolutionary worldview… that’s were I struggle.
    How do we understand the concept of “Covenant” in the evolutionary scheme? At what point does morality, responsibility, relationship and other matters enter? What distinguished one primeval ape creature from another in terms of an eternal state with God?
    But how can the “this” (evolutionary construct of “drama of life”, “mission” and “profess of becoming”) have anything to say (least of all being a “key”) to CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY? If we want to talk pure, secular natural science, then sure. But I reach my impasse when we begin to discuss these things in light of Christian Theology. That’s my struggle.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    In what way, if at all, are human beings special?

    Sometimes a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. Look at “chaotic” systems, where a slight change in parameters leads to a massive change in how the system behaves, going from simple and regular to unpredictably varying. Look up the Lorenz Attractor sometime.
    We’re on the same continuum as animals. But the speed of an airplane as it takes off is continuous, too. And at a critical speed, it suddenly leaves the ground…

  • RickK

    Christian theology has a destination. It is arguable that when both Jesus and Paul indicated that that destination would be reached within the lifetimes of some of their followers, and when that failed to happen, that Christianity lost its destination and has been looking for it ever since.
    Naturalism, the drama of life, has no destination. It’s just a journey. And with honest, educated, compassionate effort, we can minimize the suffering of those sharing our journey.

  • RJS

    Scot and Allan,
    All gap type arguments are not equally troublesome, neither are all design arguments for that matter. RickK and Ray will likely claim that I am inserting “God” into a meaning gap. Perhaps that is true. But meaning is also a gap that science can only answer by disavowing the true significance of the question. No goal – just minimize suffering of those sharing the journey.
    The scientific answer to other questions (e.g. morality) is true, but I will suggest it is incomplete. Again because it can only complete the answer by disavowing the significance of any real completion. Morality is fundamentally utilitarian.
    I don’t have Polkinghorne at hand either, so I cannot see what he has to say on the issue.

  • RJS

    I am not sure I agree entirely with Haught’s direction, but we’ll see. I think we will get deeper into some points that will bear on your question and comment.
    I guess one point to discuss – is the idea of perfection destroyed by The Fall a fundamental feature of Christian theology?
    Could the story be more along the lines of a Good Creation growing into fullness (be fruitful and multiply)? The Fall is a relational fall between God and mankind. The biblical narrative is a narrative of putting this right, coming to climax in incarnation (life, death, resurrection, ascension). Not to say that we are there yet, but the scene has changed.

  • Paul Burnett

    RJS, the Fall is more than just a relational fall between God and mankind – it’s between God and all of creation for all of past time. Whether you accept the Old Earth God of deep time and evolution, or the God of Young Earth Creationism and Flood mythology, God is extravagantly wasteful.
    Noah’s Flood arguably killed 99.99+% of all terrestrial life – Darwin’s evolution has seen the extinction of 99.99+% of all species that ever evolved. It appear it’s not just Man that’s affected by the Fall – it’s all of earthly life.
    So here’s a question for the Old Earth Creationists: Did Adam’s (and Eve’s) Fall somehow retroactively affect all prior life forms?

  • RJS

    Romans 8 speaks of creation groaning and anticipating. But I do not see why this passage should be taken to imply the Fall modifying all of creation. Certainly it has been interpreted that way at least some of the time – but not as an overwhelming consensus. It is also not an overwhelming consensus that the Fall introduced all of biological death. Even Calvin in his commentary seems to assume non human death. He claims that without the fall mankind would have moved to the next stage at the end of a lifetime without decay and return to the dust of the earth. He did attribute natural disaster and bad weather to the fall however.
    The fall of mankind also did not introduce evil and sin. After all – Satan was already the tempter. And the snake is cursed, his progeny were cursed for his crafty act. I.e. if we take Genesis 3 seriously, not only was Satan culpable (from Revelation not Genesis) but the earthly animal – the snake – was guilty and culpable.
    To try to hold that the Fall of Adam is the root of all evil in the world is simply illogical on the face of the text, even before we get to the science.

  • BradK

    Ray #10
    Are you looking at what is uniquely human as something of an emergent property? If so, I tend to agree with that assessment.
    Crev C #4
    “We have taken our arrogance to a new level. Having taken Newton’s theories and Einstein’s to a new juxtaposition, we now assume their words are more credible than God’s. In the search for knowledge, it appears we are willing to ignore real information for imagined. God’s Word still stands, Gravity is in deficit. Still an unproven hypothesis, but given higher regard as truth than God’s word. How imperiled we’ve become.”
    Does this seem silly? If so, please understand that this is basically how what you wrote looks to scientists and to others who understand evolutionary science.

  • stephen

    We usually wrestle with the scientific community about origins, but what about destinations? Scientists believe in 6 billion years or so our sun will swallow up the earth. All that information that has been evolving will just be consumed and turned into cosmic dust. And way before that, a sizable meteor could wipe out life on earth in an instant. And that will be that.
    I don’t see where science will ever confirm the role of humans as being in any way unique, or the future as one of increasing beauty and goodness directed by God. It seems to me, science says the future is dead.
    The only place I find hope is in Christ and my belief that the reality of God’s creation is transcendent and beyond the scope of material science.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Brad@16 – Yup, pretty much. For example, many animals have primitive language – but we have one extra bit, grammar, and that makes a huge difference. The difference between “give ball I” (a demand) and “I give ball” (an offer). That’s just one difference, of course, but it’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
    Bees and other eusocial insects aren’t drastically different, biologically, from the non-social insects – but a few differences in behavior make eusocial insects exceptionally successful as insects go. A few minor difference at the biological level make a huge difference at the macro level there…

  • DRT

    I just one word for this, Star Trek. If one were a dedicated Trekky and watched at least the original and next generation series one would see this same evolutionary optimism for the future of what humanity could become. I think the Epistle of Roddenberry to the United States is a great topic.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    One more thought. I had a friend stand in my kitchen and say that he could not ever accept evolution because of the thought that we are like the animals…the look of digust on his face was telling.
    I think I was in 3rd grade when I realized that we too are an animal and had a similar feeling of revulsion. Now I think that is one of the coolest things! When my inner monkey wants to play it plays! I think it is healthy for people to get in touch with their animal.

  • http://sechumanism.blogspot.com/p/secular-humanism.html Patrick

    Why is there an evolution-creation debate? In spite of the fact that the evolution hypothesis is stuck in step 3 of the 7- scientific method and there are 4 gaps in the hypothesis that evolutionary scientists admit cannot yet be explained, Evolutionists have already won. Evolution is taught in public schools, creationism is prohibited. Evolutionists have won in the courts. The media unanimously supports evolution. Why don’t Evolutionists simply ignore the Creationists’ objections? Or, why not point out that Creationism is not within the purview of science because God is not a falsifiable hypothesis nor can he be proved by science?
    Consider the fact that of the 6 major theological positions on creation, 3 allow for evolution, albeit with a divine influence of some sort, such as to fill those 4 gaps that scientist are struggling with. There are 2 reactions when a Creationist proposed theistic evolution as an answer to the incomplete hypothesis testing and the 4 gaps. An evolutionary scientist would respond by admitting there is no scientific explanation for the gaps, as yet, and dismiss the influence of God as something outside the purview of science. The Evolutionist philosopher, however, becomes extremely agitated at the mention of God because Evolutionism is about atheism, not science.
    As a philosophy, Evolutionism is not held to the rigor of hard science – the scientific method can be ignored. As a philosophy, Evolutionism can object to theism whenre hard science cannot comment. Evolutionism is a major cornerstone of Marxism and Human Secularism because is supports those philosophies built on atheism. Twenty-five percent of the Humanist Manifesto is devoted to opposition to religion and theism, and the establishment of evolution and atheism. As long as there is a God, those philosophies fail. But Darwin supplied the “missing link” to their philosophies,; a way to explain how we got here – without a God.
    Science and faith are not mutually exclusive, but theism and atheism are. So when a supporter of evolution attacks creation (and usually the Creationist), he does so as a philosopher, not as a scientist. And, when a Creationist opposed evolution, he must do so as a philosopher/theologian – not as a scientist. An excellent resource regarding the creation-evolution debate can be found at http://sechumanism.blogspot.com/p/secular-humanism.html