Evolution in the Key of D: Depth and Death (RJS)

This has been a busy summer for me – much more so than usual – and it has taken me a while to work through John F. Haught’s book  Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life.  I find this book something of a mixed bag.  It is interesting and useful for the perspective Haught brings to thinking about a layered approach to meaning within creation, but it is lacking in the overall view of God and incarnation. I am going to devote a few more posts to this book looking at aspects of Haught’s thinking. Today’s post will focus on Depth and Death, the next post on Duty and Devotion.The final post will look at Deity, the view of God, where we will consider both Haught’s view and how we might integrate Haught’s thinking on evolution with what I find to be a more traditional view of God and his action within creation.

A naturalist view of life sees evolution as an entry into a view of life devoid of meaning an purpose – there is a naturalist pessimism that leads as Haught puts it not to a “deeper (dramatic) ground” for the world around us but rather “as an opening to the void of absurdity.” We have a wondrous but pointless universe. It just is.  Daniel Dennett, Haught says,

… wants his college sophomores to watch how he can survive and even thrive after swallowing the poison pill of naturalist pessimism, and he promises to take his readers deeper than creationism and ID. But his quest for depth only lands in the spongy swamp of final meaninglessness. His journey into depth stops short of ever finding its way completely down through the abyss of chance, necessity, and deep time to the wondrous ground consisting of the cosmic narrativity that makes the drama of evolution possible in the first place. (p. 92)

Where do you find meaning and purpose in creation? Is there a depth to creation?

Haught looks at deep divine action to find the layer of meaning within creation. Returning to his analogy of a book he suggests that we will not find God directly at the level of grammar, i.e. chemistry and physics, but at the level of meaning and purpose. Dawkins and Dennett look at the paper, the ink, the alphabet, and even the grammar, and stop. All just is, and as a consequence is meaningless. But we must look at the meaning conveyed by the page – without refuting the alphabet or the grammar. Haught suggests that this search for the meaning is the most profound and theologically significant level.

Analogously, there is no specifiable place in natural history or in life’s evolution where, in order to make room for God, we have to look for an interruptive divine action that requires a suspension or special manipulation of the laws of physics, chemistry, or biology. Rather there are different levels of depth at which we may read nature. … Each reading level leaves out content that the other includes, but there is no conflict between the two readings, even though there is often disagreement as to which reading is more fundamental.

The important question then is not how God acts in nature, but how deep we are willing to look in our quest to understand what’s really going on in the drama of life and the cosmos. (p. 97)

In the natural sciences physics, chemistry, and biology provide different layers to life’s story; from particles to reactions to systems to organisms.  Each succeeding level rests on the others, but there is an added significance. Theological consideration adds a new meaning to the whole. “The fact,” Haught suggests, “that nature has an inexhaustible depth allows both science and theology to comment on the drama of life without coming into conflict with each other.” (p. 98)

I am with Haught here.

But then we come to death. The necessary role of death in evolution becomes an issue in considering the theology of evolution. Death is not merely a fact – seen in the paleontological record – it is essential to evolution and makes sense in the context of evolution. After all, without death there is no room for the new generations and kinds. We’ve had guppies for many years and the idea of a world without biological animal death of any sort is mind-boggling.

Even suffering is a natural part of the world. The sense of suffering is a survival mechanism that favors survival, if not of the individual, of the population.  “But,” Haught asks, “can one plausible connect nature to the purposes of a beneficent deity after looking at how evolution relies so heavily on death?” He continues:

However, unlike scientific naturalism, it is the task of Christian theology to make it clear that death has no intelligible place in the total – dramatically speaking, that means the “final” – scheme of things. It is theologically inappropriate to look for a rationally acceptable place for death in God’s creation. … It is not the job of theology to justify death by situating it solely within the context of a purely naturalistic understanding of the universe. Instead, theology asks whether the naturalistic view as such is intelligible.

So far, so good. But Haught’s overall discussion of death is unsatisfactory, to put it mildly, because it rests in a troublesome view of God (more of that in a later post). Among other things he suggests that death is powerless not because it is overcome or vanquished, but because all persons, all things, will live on in God’s memory of creation.

For even after the cosmos eventually dissolves, the story of its having been will still be true – preserved forever in God’s saving memory. Accordingly, the question of who I am, how I came to emerge from the universe, and whether I can be redeemed from absolute perishing – all this is inescapably bound up in the universe and its final destiny. In a communal setting, religious worship symbolizes my grateful consent to contribute my life and efforts to this everlastingly significant cosmic drama. (p. 107)

This is a bit too ephemeral for my reading and understanding of scripture. It may be consistent in a fashion with the idea of wispy immaterial beings playing harps on clouds worshiping God, a universe where the fundamental truth is not matter, but events, occasions, happenings, thoughts. But it is not consistent with bodily resurrection as described in scripture. It is not consistent with the bodily resurrection of Jesus or with our hope for the future. Haught passes over the resurrection in all of his discussion … in a classic reconstructionist manner: “Nevertheless, the early Christian community eventually came to interpret Jesus’ death by crucifixion as the decisive opening onto the final victory of life over death.” (p. 93)

But the teaching of the church – the apostolic witness is quite clear. Jesus appeared to the disciples. Luke 24:38-43 records that Jesus showed his hands and his feet and ate with them.  He said to them “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Paul points to the witnesses to the bodily resurrection when he describes the gospel message in 1 Cor. 15 “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” and he continues in 12-19:

Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.

We can reach the conclusion espoused by Haught on the victory over death if and only if we disregard scripture.

Layered meaning – depth, drama, and direction. Haught has some good insights as we move forward. His response to the scientific materialist is profound. There is more to life than chemistry and physics, the simple facts of evolution, just is there is more to a page in a book than paper, ink, spelling, and grammar. But Haught’s integration of this depth, drama, and direction into a robust Christian theology is sorely lacking. We have to find a better way to understand the fact of evolutionary creation and the role of death within this creation.

We are left with a big question – one of the biggest. I don’t expect to resolve the issue quickly.

What do you think – how can we understand death in evolutionary creation and in the nature of the world we see?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net

  • Scot McKnight

    Excellent sketch and a good challenge to Haught while proposing death in evolutionary processes is not a simple issue to resolve. I agree: living on in the memory of God isn’t enough.
    Perhaps a way to begin pondering death in the evolutionary process and even in the creative processes of God (as well as in saving history) is to examine it through the lenses of finitude for all created matter and the brevity of life for such created beings. Once we posit finitude death follows.
    Or, is that assuming what needs to be explained?

  • pds

    The Design Spectrum
    It seems to me that Haught does not have much of anything helpful to add here.

    For even after the cosmos eventually dissolves, the story of its having been will still be true – preserved forever in God’s saving memory. Accordingly, the question of who I am, how I came to emerge from the universe, and whether I can be redeemed from absolute perishing – all this is inescapably bound up in the universe and its final destiny.

    Having read the book, do you think his theology is orthodox?

  • RJS

    I think he has some good ideas worth discussing – but his understanding of God, God’s interaction with the world, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is inadequate. It is not biblical.
    The challenge is to take the insight – and see how it fits with a more thoroughly biblical, Christian understanding of God.

  • http://www.thesusan.com Susan

    I heard Dawkins on The radio program, Fresh Air. When Terrie Gross asked him about the question of meaning, he snarled, “The universe doesn’t owe us meaning! If we want meaning, well that’s just tough!” And yet he went on to say he found meaning in the beauty of (meaningless) creation. If there was no meaning to anything, why is this fellow writing about it, attempting to make sense? Seems like a mobius strip, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  • pds

    It’s free country. But I can think of thousands of books I would rather read than the speculations of what seems to be an evolutionary mystic. (I read the section you took your quotes from on Google books.)
    I am glad he is on your team. 😉

  • pds

    Susan #4,
    Dawkins’ books contain the same contradictions. He cannot live consistently with his worldview.

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

    Dawkins’ books contain the same contradictions. He cannot live consistently with his worldview.

    Alternatively he just understands the questions vastly differently than you or Haught. But we discussed this topic at great length before.

  • Rick DeLano

    I propose that we request of the evolutionists a rigorous scientific proof of the evolution they claim- that is, a physical demonstration of the building up of information in the genome via random mutation/natural selection (or, for that matter, any other mechanism) sufficient to account for the descent of all forms from a primitive progenitor.
    What’s that?
    They can’t?
    Just so.
    It is a monumental waste of time to attempt to integrate a fraud into theology.
    Neo-Darwinism is a stupendous fraud.

  • http://krusekronicle.typepad.com Michael W. Kruse

    As Woody Allen once quipped, “I don’t want become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal by not dying.” 😉
    As my mother has been nearing death, I’m taken in two directions. At one level, death is just the final episode in the stages of life. It should embraced. Yet there is a part of me that feels death is terribly unjust. It is the ultimate indignity.
    I like what Henri Nouwen writes about life being a process of dying. As we move through life one thing after another is taken from us until we are finally all we have is God. And after death all that was taken from us is returned and so much more.
    Is this they way God intended it for human beings … that like the caterpillar into a butterfly … we morph from this existence into an existence that is presently veiled? I can’t say. I can’t fully reconcile evolution and our present order with what is promised by God. I embrace it as mystery (though I do enjoy speculating.) I suspect it will likely be something quite unexpected by us.

  • Peter Ferrari

    Perhaps my mind is too simple for this discussion, but are we accepting naturalist evolution as foregone?

  • RJS

    First – I’m sorry.
    Second, I think to an extent we have to embrace it as a mystery. I find that I can’t really imagine a world without some kind of cycle of being – which makes the future truly something else. Human death – at least the way it plays out in our world – is an evil.

  • RJS

    I accept evolution as a given – the evidence is, to my mind, clear. Some who comment, write here regularly favor an old earth progressive creation or intelligent design approach with more direct action of God in the process; I don’t presume to speak for all. (And some are not theists at all.)
    But in either theistic view there is a depth to creation that goes beyond the physical and chemical material that make up life, and in either view the problem of death remains an issue we must consider.
    That the earth is not a few thousand years old originally created with a very different form and physics, destroyed by the fall is taken as a given by most of us – based on the evidence.

  • http://Timstafford.wordpress.com Tim Stafford

    I appreciate your ongoing review of John Haught, and share your assessment. It seems to me that his view of revelation is entirely based on nature. That prompts some very helpful insights into our reading of nature, but it leaves him willing to settle for very wispy conclusions on ultimate matters such as death. You may be interested to know that I did a parallel multi-part review of his book Deeper Than Darwin. See my blog timstafford.wordpress.com under science.