Religion and the Physical Sciences. Kate Grayson Boisvert. Greenwood Guides to Science and Religion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008.
The cosmic evolutionary story has evoked a rich array of responses in the Christian religious domain. Its cosmic narrative of growth and change, its apparent fine-tuning for living beings, and possibilities for abundant life raise long-standing religious questions of divine action, design and purpose, and God’s relation to the universe and to humanity. On the one hand, cosmic evolution has clearly presented a deep challenge to religion, especially for some conservative Christians. The apparent absence of a divine creator, the immense time scales involved, and the suggestion of a random, chance-driven evolutionary process all fly in the face of literal readings of Genesis I. This perceived conflict galvanized some creation-ists into political action in the arena of public education, a cause more recently and avidly pursued by the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. On the other hand, many in the religious community view cosmic evolution as compatible with belief in a God who created and still acts in the universe. They hold positions which range from the more conservative “progressive creationism” to the more liberal “theistic evolution” (Scott 2004). Most mainstream and liberal theologians and laypersons, as well as a significant number of evangelical Christians, fall in the latter category. Typically, they endeavor to explore common ground with science by examining traditional religious concepts of divine action, natural theology, design, cosmic purpose and God’s relation to the world in the light of the new cosmology.
Young Earth Creationism
Cosmic evolution is most firmly opposed by groups which have, since the 1960s, been calling themselves “scientific creationists.” The appeal to scientific legitimacy, and not Biblical authority, was necessitated by several historical factors, which are well-described in a definitive study by historian Ronald Numbers, The Creationists (1992). At mid-century antievolutionists had been successful in eliminating evolution from school textbooks for thirty years following the 1925 Scopes trial but nonetheless found their movement waning, due to internal disagreements about time scales and the paucity of scientifically trained members. Moreover, many young newcomers sought accommodation of their religious views with mainstream science. A creationist group that formed in 1941—the American Scientific Affiliation—took no position with regard to belief, and many members began to shift their thinking away from strict creationism. A second factor was the reinvigoration of science curricula in the post-Sputnik era and the return of evolution to textbooks. Antievolutionists were galvanized to respond but faced new constraints. Culturally, science had become more powerful, and a 1968 Supreme Court decision striking down Arkansas’ antievolution law necessitated a shift to new tactics—focusing on the scientific rather than biblical aspects of creationism and promoting equal time for evolution and scientific creationism in the classroom.
This was the tack taken by the late Henry Morris, generally acknowledged as the founding father of the “Creation Science” movement and responsible more than anyone for the creationist revival of the 1960s. Trained originally as a hydraulic engineer, he brought strict creationism back on the scene with the 1961 publication of Genesis Flood, which he coauthored with theologian John Whitcomb. The book revived the early twentieth-century flood geology theory of Seventh Day Adventist geologist George McCready Price and laid down the fundamental tenets of Young-Earth creationism: Biblical literalism, recent creation for Earth, a fall that initiated the second law of thermodynamics and a global flood that in a year’s time distributed all the geological layers. He founded institutes of trained scientists who adhered to these beliefs, including the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) near San Diego in 1972, and two years later published a textbook, Scientific Creationism, with Christian and public school versions. Although later court cases also banned the teaching of creation science, its beliefs have exerted an enormous influence among conservative Christians both in the U.S. and abroad (Numbers 1982, 543-44). Today a number of organizations promote strict creationist beliefs, among them Creation Research Society, the Seventh Day Adventist Geoscience Research Institute, and Ken Ham’s worldwide ministry Answers in Genesis. Efforts of these organizations have no doubt contributed to the apparent rise in antievolution sentiment in the later twentieth century. When the creationist revival began, a survey of California churchgoers revealed that around 30 percent opposed evolution; by the early 1980s 44 percent of the U.S. population agreed with the statement that “God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years”—a Gallup Poll statistic that has remained steady at 44-47 percent for the last 25 years (Numbers 1992, 300).
The basic tenets of Creation Science, as published by the ICR (Morris 1980), can be summarized as follows. First, the physical universe and all life forms were “supernaturally created by transcendent personal Creator” and each life form, including human, was created in its mature “functionally complete” form. The soul of man was specially created separately from his physical form. Thus creationists share with all orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims the basic creatio ex nihilo belief in “one self-existent eternal Creator, who called the universe itself into existence [from nothing] in the beginning, as well as all its laws and systems” (Morris and Parker 1987, 20). The belief about special creation of the human soul, apart from the physical body is, interestingly, shared by the late Roman Catholic Pope, John Paul II (Peters 1998). Creationists diverge from mainstream Christian theologians in believing that “creation was ‘mature’ from birth” and the “universe had an ‘appearance’ of age right from the start” (Morris 1980, 209). For some, this belief applies not just to living things but also to stars and galaxies, which are believed to be “unchanged” and “constant” (Morris 1985, 13).
Clearly, there is no room in this picture for any phase of cosmic evolution, even in stars where fixed physical laws operate, but there is some agreement with science’s anthropic thinking, or at least its implications for design. Young Earth Creationists certainly agree that the Earth “is uniquely designed for life,” for a benevolent God would naturally design the cosmos and Earth perfectly for its inhabitants. They mostly avoid the anthropic principle, however, because physicists formulate it in an “atheistic,” old-universe framework and reject design. Morris and Parker bemoan that this “popularization of evolutionary pantheism…is not accepted as a testimony to divine design, but as a deterministic outcome of cosmic mind” (Morris 1985, 23). One creationist astronomer asserts that it is time for creationists to “retake this argument” (Faulkner 1998).
Second, there has been no evolution of one kind of creature into a different kind. Some microevolution has occurred within kinds, but such changes are “horizontal,” allowing survival, or are “downward,” impairing it. Strict creationists argue that macroevolution is not scientific because it has never been demonstrated, and it furthermore violates the second law of thermodynamics, which decrees that closed systems always tend toward greater disorder and not to greater complexity. When evolutionists reply that the earth is an ‘open system,’ where local order can increase with outside input of solar energy, creationists argue that this requires a blueprint and energy conversion processes, which evolution’s mechanisms cannot provide. Mutations are negative or neutral, and natural selection can only sift out the harmful ones and preserve the present order, not create new complexity. In theory, evolution might possibly occur in open systems, but no one has ever observed such overcoming of the second law (Scott 2004, 143). As further support for the impossibility of evolution, they often cite Gould, who likewise criticizes slow, gradual change as insufficient to form new species, but suggests instead rapid periodic evolutionary bursts, or “punctuated equilibrium.”
Third, the geological record in rocks and fossils can be accounted for by catastrophic events in the past that obey natural laws. Much scientific evidence points to a “relatively recent creation of the earth and the universe” Other evidence exists that most of the fossil-bearing rock layers” formed in an even more recent global hydraulic cataclysm.” Strict creationists argue for a young Earth in a number of ways: disproving theories that require an old universe, identifying phenomena inconsistent with an ancient age, finding flaws in age-dating techniques, and presenting evidence consistent with alternative theories. Much evidence simply allows for a young Earth rather than requiring it, however, and the whole issue is secondary to the crucial question of whether creation or evolution occurred. In fact, the most important reason that a young Earth has become part of Creation Science orthodoxy is theological (Morris and Parker 1987, 254; Peters and Hewlett 2003).
A young universe is possible if the Big Bang never happened, and Morris attacks the Big Bang theory on thermodynamic grounds: “The very idea that a primeval cosmic explosion could somehow generate a highly ordered and complex universe seems preposterous on the very face of it. Explosions produce disorder, and this ultimate explosion would surely have generated the ultimate in disorder, as the primeval state of the universe” (Morris and Parker 1987, 260). Numerous other arguments proposed for a young universe and solar system were reviewed and evaluated not long ago by creationist astronomer Danny Faulkner—motions of galaxies in clusters, the paucity of supernova remnants, the population of bright comets, interplanetary dust, planetary magnetic field decay, and the moon’s recession rate from Earth (Faulkner 1998). Morris and Parker list over sixty pieces of evidence supporting a young Earth, including several mentioned by an “old-Earth evolutionist,” which mostly involve rates of buildup versus depletion of chemicals in Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, or crust (Morris and Parker 1987, 288-91). A central argument questions methods of radiometric dating, whose flaws, they claim, rest in unproven assumptions and poor verification. The method assumes a closed system, no possible initial contamination by the end product of decay, and a constant rate of decay over time—none of which Morris agrees are valid, as they are unproven and not provable (1985, 138-39). Furthermore, creationists argue, the method fails to verify things of known age, and different techniques yield inconsistent results for the same sample (Scott 2004, 154-55).
To argue for past catastrophic events and a recent worldwide flood, creationists use fossil distribution in rock layers consistent with global flood activity, layers showing sudden change, and evidence consistent with the presence of an atmospheric “vapor canopy” before the flood, which produced a forty-day global rainfall. Higher polar temperatures, increased atmospheric pressure and higher oxygen content would have prevailed before the flood and a sudden, permanent decrease in polar temperatures afterwards. All of these are consistent with fossil evidence—tropical plant fossils in arctic and Antarctic regions, a very large number of tropical animal fossils which conceivably perished all at once, and very large earth-bound and flying reptiles whose existence could have been facilitated by the preflood atmosphere of greater density and oxygen content (Scott 2004, 147-48).
In sum, assuming a very great age for the Earth and universe is simply unnecessary, unless one is trying to “accommodate evolution and the uniformitarian interpretation of the geologic column.” If evolution never happened and the geologic record is explainable by the action of a catastrophic flood, “then there is no need to think the Earth and universe are much older than humankind and the beginnings of human history” (Morris and Parker 1987, 273). And there are theological reasons to favor this idea. An old Earth in which animals suffer pain and death millions of years before man arrives suggests a cruel God who doesn’t regard death as the “wages of sin” and punishment for Adam’s disobedience. Christian theology holds that death and destruction, including thermodynamic decay, are all the result of Adam’s fall into sin. If they occurred before man was here, it invalidates the meaning of Christ’s dying on the cross to redeem us from sin—perhaps the most central of all Christian doctrines.
This type of theological influence on science is at the heart of the debate between creation scientists and mainstream science and theology, but some scholars question the real nature of the conflict. Peters and Hewlett argue that despite its popular image and some scholarly assessments, the debate is not a simple case of science versus religion—of Christian theists versus materialistic scientists; it is more a debate within science and within religion. In the science struggle two rival theories are competing to explain scientific facts. A debate also ensues over what constitutes proper science—what kinds of theories and explanations are acceptable and how data is selected and used. Creationists limit “scientific explanation” to what can be observed and known in the present and label any extrapolations or speculation about the past or origins nonscientific or metascientific. Mainstream scientists demand that hypotheses be testable and revisable. Many, both atheists and believers, soundly criticize creation scientists and reject them as scientists, for careless and selective use of data in service of an ideology, refusal to allow evidence to take them where it will, inconsistent use of extrapolations, and proposing untestable hypotheses. Creationists level exactly the same criticisms at evolutionary scientists.
The religious aspect centers on what constitutes good theology and which of two ideologies is correct. Creationists argue that Earth’s ancient appearance is not real, but evangelical Christian physicist and astronomer Howard van Till criticizes this as “poor theology,” suggesting a God who is “deluding us.” They also argue that anything but a young Earth interpretation destroys essential Christian doctrines of redemption. Theologian Langdon Gilkey noted that creationists confuse “scientific language about facts of the present world” with “theological language about transcendent God” and therefore make a category error, conflating different levels of knowing (Peters and Hewlett 2003, 90-91).
Creationists see that they are fighting an ideological battle against all the forces supporting evolutionary thinking, which include liberal Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and virtually all other world religions as well as secular materialism and atheism. For creationists, the degradation of humanity underlying evolutionary thinking has produced all the immorality, evil, and loss of values in the world today, and they see themselves as waging a spiritual struggle to save the soul of modern man. Opponents counterattack that the black and white thinking and fervent exclusivity that characterizes fundamentalist beliefs is itself a source of intractable world, societal, and personal conflict.
Old Earth Creationism
Young Earth creationism lies at the extreme end of a wide spectrum of creationist views. Although there are not always sharp boundaries, along the spectrum one observes decreasing adherence to biblical literalism and increasing acceptance of science and its picture of cosmic evolution (Scott 2004, 57-58). What all versions of creationism share is the belief that God brought each “kind” of living being into existence by a special act of creation.
Two forms of old Earth creationism which preserve some degree of literal adherence to the biblical six-day creation but accommodate geological time scales are the Gap (or Ruin and Restoration) and the Day-Age theories, which were most popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. According to the Gap theory, the creation of matter and life in Genesis I:1 was followed by a long time gap, in which multiple catastrophes and creations took place that laid down the geological strata. About 6,000 years ago, a new creation occurred in six 24-hour days that culminated in Adam and Eve. Adherents of this view include leading Pentecostal ministers and the Christian Geology Ministry, an Internet-based fundamentalist Bible study group. A position held more widely in the last two centuries was Day-Age creationism, in which each day represents a long time period (thousands or millions of years). As with young Earth and Gap theories, however, there is no evolution within or between species. Adherents point to a rough correspondence between creation stages in Genesis and life’s evolutionary path, but ignore certain contradictions. Day-Age adherents included the famous Scopes lawyer William Jennings Bryan (Numbers, 1992; Scott 2004, 61-62).
Today the stance taken by the largest number of creationists is “Progressive Creationism,” a view first named and elucidated in 1954 in a seminal book by evangelical Baptist theologian Bernard Ramm, entitled Christian View of Science and Scripture. Originally drawn to the Day-Age theory, Ramm believed that Genesis I gave a general historical sketch but not reliable scientific information. He sought to synthesize aspects of evolutionary science and the Bible by merging the “pictorial-day” theory of Genesis I, wherein creation was “revealed pictorially” but not actually made in six days (or ages) with “progressive creation,” wherein God occasionally acted directly to create new “root-species,” which “radiated” into today’s species. In this way God prepared, over millions of years, a fitting home for man, the pinnacle of creation. Ramm’s ideas helped many evangelical Christian biologists accept evolution fully, although he himself never did (Numbers 1992, 185-87).
Progressive creationists accept the scientific findings about the Big Bang, Earth’s age, and the long span of time for Earth’s geological and biological development but reject major parts of biological science, especially macroevolution, or any naturalistic development of one “kind” from another. The appearance of each kind was due to unique, special creation by God from nothing, using means outside the realm of naturalistic science. To make this argument, British physicist Alan Hayward uses studies by non-Christian scientists to criticize Darwinian gradualism and natural selection. In the same book, Creation and Evolution (2005), he interprets Genesis to include both divine creation over long epochs of time and the figure of Adam as an historical figure.
A prominent spokesman for progressive creationism is Hugh Ross, a trained astronomer who now operates his own ministry, Reasons to Believe. A central theme in such books as The Fingerprint of God (2000) and The Creator and the Cosmos (1995) is that the physical universe reveals God’s existence, character, and purpose, and that since both the cosmos and the Bible are revelations from God, they will never conflict, when properly understood. His writings are both scientific and devotional, celebrating advances in science as tools for expanding and deepening our understanding of God. He finds the anthropic coincidences compelling evidence for divine design. After listing almost six dozen examples of fine-tuned properties in the universe and in the Galaxy-Sun-Earth-Moon system and calculating a staggeringly low probability that they will all occur together—10-53— he says there is no possible conclusion but a Creative Designing God at work throughout time. In a more recent work, Creation as Science (2006), Ross presents his own “scientific creation model” as a testable hypothesis alongside those of young Earth creationism, naturalistic evolution, and theistic evolution. While he finds many critics among both strict creationists and scientists, he himself implores all scientists, theologians, and philosophers to overcome their rivalries and engage in interdisciplinary dialogue to interpret scientific facts and understand cosmic purpose (Ross 1995, 15).
Design by an intelligent being is also the hallmark of the newest player in the creation/evolution arena—Intelligent Design (ID). ID is often considered a variant on progressive creationism, since both reject macroevolution, accept microevolution and support the idea that the origin of life and new species required design by an intelligence operating outside of natural laws. ID proponents, however, reject the creationist label, as they make no claims about the nature of the designer (Peters and Hewlett 2003, 103). Because they do not offer their own origin theory but aim primarily to critique Darwinism and naturalism in science, it is impossible to assess their views on cosmic evolution, and most probably there is a very wide range of views from acceptance to denial in the ID community. What they all agree on is that the totality of evolution could not have happened on its own without the agency of an intelligent designer.
The ID movement originally grew out of developments in biology in the later twentieth century: critiques of reductionism, natural selection, and molecular evolution in neo-Darwinian theory and hints that something more than naturalistic Darwinism was needed to explain life’s origin and complexity. Many in the movement were influenced by the insights of chemist-philosopher Michael Polanyi, who argued in the 1950s against biological reductionism and came to believe that something “beyond physics and chemistry encoded DNA” (Witham 2003, 115). His ideas influenced an early book, Mystery of Life’s Origin (Thaxton 1984), which examined problems with biogenesis research, including the origin of information in complex molecules, and introduced the possibility of interventionist intelligent design. A year later biochemist Michael Denton critiqued a central aspect of Darwinian theory in Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, which revealed problems in producing more complex life forms by random changes in genes. Although not a design enthusiast himself, Denton argued that inferring design was not based on religious assumptions but emerged inductively by strict use of the logic of analogy. By the late 1980s the term “intelli-gent design” was coined and being promoted in a supplementary high school textbook by Dean Kenyon, Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. Later, in Darwin’s Black Box (1996) biochemist and evolutionist Michael Behe made the most extensive case yet for why “irreducibly complex” biochemical processes must be the product of intelligent design and not gradualist natural evolution. Thus, as the movement was developing, its first major goal was to challenge neo-Darwinian theory.
A second focus of ID’s current leading group—Fellows at the Center for Science and Culture (CSC) at the Discovery Institute in Seattle—is to establish a sound theoretical and observational basis for detection of design and to use it to find examples in nature. Developing a method for inferring intelligent design has been the main contribution of philosopher-mathematician William Dembski who proposes the “explanatory filter” method of detecting “specified complexity” (described in the last chapter). Because intelligence is difficult to define, detection of one of its products—information—has been used in his arguments. By analogy, where “complex specified information” exists in nature, an intelligent agent is inferred. Other key players who make the design argument and elucidate numerous examples in nature include Behe, who focuses on complex cellular biochemical processes; philosopher of science and CSC Director Stephen Meyer, whose specialty is origin of life studies; and astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, who looks to the large-scale universe. Gonzalez and others fully embrace all the anthropic coincidences as clear evidence of design, but he takes them one step further—noting that the unique set of conditions for habitability also renders the Earth a unique site for scientific discovery. For him, this correlation is the “strongest evidence for purpose in the universe to date” (Witham 2003, 139).
Although critics associate ID advocates with the now disfavored natural theology of the past and label them creationists in disguise with a covert religious agenda, ID proponents are eager to distinguish themselves from both. In Intelligent Design Dembski claims, “ID is at once more modest and more powerful than natural theology …[which] reasons from the data of nature directly to the existence and attributes of God” (Dembski 1999, 107-8). ID is more powerful in providing a more precise detection method than the intuitive analogical reasoning of earlier design advocates such as Paley. It is more modest in making no claims as to who the designer is and for what purpose or end something was designed. “To connect the intelligence inferred by the design theorist with the God of Scripture,” Dembski says, “is a task for the theologian” (Dembski 1999, 107). In this way, ID proponents claim to differ considerably from the biblically oriented creationists, although they certainly share opposition to naturalistic, Darwinian thought.
A major goal underlying their challenge to Darwinism and their proposal of design detection methodology is to topple a foundational principle of modern science—naturalism, methodological as well as philosophical. Not only do they seek to confront materialist interpretations of science; they also want to change the rules of science itself by gaining acceptance for causal agents that go beyond natural laws and processes, in particular intelligent ones. They often speak of this goal in militaristic, political or even medical terms, as the “impending demolition” or “unseating” of scientific naturalism or “finding a cure” for it. To this end, CSC also sponsors social science and humanities research on the cultural effect of scientific materialism and initiatives to improve science education by presenting weaknesses as well as support for Darwinian theory. Opposing Darwinism and the whole of naturalism in academia has been the focus of another leading light of the movement—CSC Advisor Philip Johnson, a UC Berkeley emeritus law professor. In Darwin on Trial (1991) he not only critiques evolution science and reviews the educational legal battles but also criticizes the biased mind set of a scientific establishment too deeply entrenched in the paradigm of naturalism even to consider evidence for divine action (Peters and Hewlett 2003, 105-6). He explores this position more fully in The Wedge of Truth (2000).
Although Dembski and Meyer believe that Intelligent Design can form a helpful bridge between science and theology, it meets with fervent criticism from both sides. Critics of ID focus on numerous issues: the failure to distinguish science’s naturalistic method from belief in materialism, violation of the “rules” of science, use of “God of the gaps” reasoning, insufficient accounting for the flexibility of natural selection, and failure to produce a testable alternative hypothesis for life’s origin and development. There is, for example, a very wide range of views among ID advocates as to how and when the designed feature—complex specified information (CSI)—is introduced and works in nature. Some design advocates propose that it was “front-loaded” at the very beginning and gradually becomes active over time—a position that is vulnerable to being labeled deism. Others envision that it emerged by intelligent activity in discrete interventions over time. With such a prominent role for information, however, all agree that Darwinian naturalism is not an option.
Moderate and liberal Christians generally embrace both cosmic evolution and belief in a supreme God who created, sustains and continues to interact with the world. In the last twenty-five years 35-40 percent of the population as a whole, as revealed by Gallup Polls (2007), have consistently held this view, expressed as follows: “human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process.” Theistic evolution is supported by the Roman Catholic Church, mainline and liberal Protestant denominations, and a significant body of conservative, evangelical Christian scientists—members of the American Scientific Affiliation (as declared in official statements printed in Voices for Evolution [Matsumura, 1995]). In 1996 Pope John Paul II articulated his own particular version of theistic evolution. He endorsed evolution as being “more than a hypothesis,” a theory well supported by independent lines of research and capable of explaining the time line and mechanism for physical development of living creatures, including humans. However, science can never explain how our spiritual nature arises. He endorsed Pope Pius XII’s position that “if the human body takes its origin from preexistent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God” (Peters 1998, 150-51).
The Pope’s statement well illustrates the kind of challenge religious leaders and scholars face in forging a sound position of theistic evolution. The task is to reconcile two key positions. One is the seemingly self-sufficient evolutionary process driven by the blind, apparently purposeless operations of chance and natural selection. The other is belief in the special dignity of the human being and in the action of a loving, purposive God who designed and still guides the whole process to some consummate end. All who approach the dilemma must answer certain basic questions. If God created and is still guiding the process, how exactly does he interact with nature to accomplish his ends without disrupting natural laws and how can its chancy, purposeless appearance be understood? What conceptions of God are consistent with a full acceptance of both evolution and Christian theology? Can design by God now be detected in the natural world in the fine-tuning of physical laws for life and the progress of living forms toward greater complexity and consciousness? Does this call for a teleological explanation and provide the basis for a new natural theology and perception of purpose in the cosmos? If all is seen as part of God’s purpose for creation, how can one accept as just and God-ordained a process full of pain, struggle and evil—the problem of theodicy?
Needless to say, these are each enormous and important theological subjects, and they have been explored in a vast literature by scholars who have grappled with them in a great diversity of ways. Some focus on specific issues, such as divine action, teleology, or theodicy, while others address all the questions together within comprehensive metaphysical systems, such as neo-Thomism, process theology, Trinitarian theology, or the thought of Teilhard de Chardin. A number of helpful sources review various positions through a variety of organizational rubrics—among them Barbour’s typologies for ways of relating (1997, 2000), Peters and Hewlett’s spectrum of positions regarding divine agency and divine purposiveness in nature (2003), Russell’s typologies of theological views of divine action (1995) and his categorization of noninterventionist models of God’s agency (2000), and the classification of models of God and views of divine agency in Southgate et al. (1999), to name but a few. Much excellent discussion of divine action can be found in Keith Ward’s 1990 study Divine Action and three volumes of scholarly essays from conferences about scientific perspectives on divine action convened in the 1990s by the Vatican Observatory and the Graduate Theological Union’s Center for Theology and Natural Science (CTNS) in Berkeley, California (Russell et al. 1993, 1995).
Cosmic Evolution and Christian Theism as Independent
One approach to reconciling Christian faith and cosmic evolution is simply to accept both fully but regard them as separate and independent from one another, a position held by many conservative and evangelical scholars, neo-orthodox theologians, and Christian existentialists. Conservative scholars who hold to independence are not necessarily biblical literalists, but they do give central importance to scripture, the message of Christ’s atonement and the personal experience of conversion and transformation through Christ. They also take very seriously the findings of modern science.
Evangelical Christian physicist and astronomer van Till of the Reformed tradition exemplifies this position. In The Fourth Day he argues for a clear separation of scientific questions about the internal workings of the cosmos (material properties, behavior and cosmic history) from religious ones about the external relationships (questions about status of nonmaterial being, origin, governance, value and purpose). These two types of questions have “categorical complementarity”; that is, they seek knowledge of different aspects of the cosmos. By keeping them separate, it remains very clear when one is taking a scientific versus a theological perspective. Van Till is critical of both scientific creationism and philosophical naturalism for their disregard of this important distinction.
In van Till’s “creationomic perspective” the findings of science are interpreted theologically in the wider framework of Biblical truth, but both are highly respected. Thus the scientific picture is fully appreciated for the “dynamic order” it reveals—a “magnificent tapestry woven from the different strands of temporal development to form the intricately designed pattern of cosmic evolution.” The same thing, when viewed in Biblical theological terms, is “an inexhaustible tribute to the boundless vastness of divine creativity”—a far greater creativity than creationism’s sudden making of a finished product (van Till 1986, chapters 10 and 12). In similar pairings, the “integrity of the created order” is seen theologically as expressing “the unity of God,” and science’s “natural law” reveals God’s “faithfulness.” It is noteworthy that while van Till’s view exemplifies independence in clearly separating scientific and religious questions, his theological exploration of cosmic evolution and other scientific findings seems to move him beyond this label.
Regarding divine action and teleology, Van Till follows Augustine in holding that all the potentialities for this process were present at the beginning and then gradually realized over time without any special divine intervention. There are no gaps which God must fill. Thus in biological development God provided all the possibilities for workable living forms and the process that led to them—mechanisms which the scientists can study. However, any consideration of the governance or purpose of the unfolding process can only be considered from a wider religious framework and not reasoned directly, as in natural theology. While divine action in nature appears to have been relegated to the beginning, as in deism, van Till holds that God still acts directly through “special revelatory and redemptive acts” (Barbour 2000, 103).
Protestant neo-orthodoxy, exemplified by Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth and his followers, and Christian existentialism emphasize an even more distinct split between scientific and religious spheres. Neo-orthodoxy sought to return to the Reformation principle of the central importance of Christ and revelation but at the same time fully accept science’s evolutionary findings as belonging to a different realm. Genesis I carries only a theological message about the goodness of creation and its complete dependence on God and not a literal message describing physical beginnings. Knowledge of transcendent God can only come through his direct revelation to the human person and never through reason via arguments for design or natural theology. Barth also uses the concept of primary and secondary causality to express his belief that God’s supreme rulership over nature, which is always foreordained to obey his will, exists on an entirely different level from human activity. On the secondary level, natural laws operate and humans have a certain freedom, but all causation derives from God, and creatures find that in truth they can only submit to his will, as a pen must submit to the hand that writes with it. Christian existentialists, such as German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, likewise split the subjective and objectives realms, concerning themselves only with the personal, direct relationship with God (Barbour 1997).
Theistic Evolution: Dialogue and Integration
A large number of theistic evolutionists seek a closer relationship than independence between scientific and theological understanding of cosmic evolution. They typically begin this task by assuming the basic Christian belief: God is both the transcendent Supreme Being who has brought the whole cosmos and its governing laws into being out of nothing, and the active continuing Creator, present within the universe and using natural laws and mechanisms to increase the complexity of both nonliving and living forms. They then ask how this accepted truth can be interpreted in the light of science. For example, the theological notion of God’s “creative and providential action in the world” is seen as being accomplished through neo-Darwinian evolution—“Evolution is thus the way God creates life” (Russell 2000). All happens as science describes, but God is in some way directing and guiding and/or immanent within the process. Exactly how he accomplishes this without “intervening” and disturbing the natural causal order is the central subject of much current research in theology and science.
Many scholars are attempting to find a middle path between two extremes—one being a God who is removed to the beginning or acts only on the whole and never in particular circumstances, as in deism and uniformitarianism, and the other being a God who is continuously active but intervenes supernaturally in the causal order, as in traditional theism. The goal is to understand how God might act in a manner that does not interrupt the causal flow, in a real “objective” way (not just subjectively perceived) and in special or particular situations—a view that has been called “non-interventionist, objective, special divine action” (Russell 1995). In the following review (which follows the classification of Southgate et al. 1999), the first three approaches are conceptions in which God acts on the world as a whole—at the macro level—without using any natural gaps in the causal order. The second three exemplify approaches where God acts in many specific instances, utilizing gaps or indeterminacies which may exist in the physical world. Additional approaches explore the relation of theology of the Holy Trinity to evolution and holistic syntheses of evolution and Christology.
Neo-Thomism One significant approach uses the principle of primary and secondary causality developed by St. Thomas of Aquinas and later reformulated and utilized by many Catholic and some Protestant scholars. God is seen as the primary cause who acts in nature through secondary causes—the laws of nature that science studies and the actions of human agents. By his primary action God gives existence to and sustains the entire natural world and endows secondary causes with the power to operate. The level at which they operate is complete unto itself, requiring no direct intervention by God. The entire process of cosmic evolution can be viewed as God’s “continuing creative action” in the universe, as Jesuit astronomer William Stoeger describes:
If we put this in an evolutionary context, then, and consider what we know of the complexification of structure and the diversification of physical, chemical, and biological processes from a time shortly after the Big Bang, we see that we can conceive of God’s continuing creative action as being realized through the natural unfolding of nature’s potentialities and the continuing emergence of novelty, of self-organization, of life, of mind and spirit. (Stoeger 1995, 248-49)
In Stoeger’s view one must fully accept the wholeness and integrity of both the created world and science. Neither life’s emergence nor the rise of consciousness necessitated direct divine action. He also emphasizes the difficulty of truly understanding divine action. His direct or primary action of creating and preserving, for instance, “occurs at the very core of our beings and is hidden from our eyes.” It is equally difficult to understand the “causal nexus” between God and secondary causes—whether God imbues those causes with his will using natural laws, or uses laws relating to the personal and to consciousness that go beyond the ones we know (Stoeger 1995, 252-53).
A scholar who contributed enormously to forging a connection between Thomistic divine creative action and scientific evolution was the influential Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. For him, the whole evolutionary process is driven by the indwelling of God’s power of transcendence in matter, which creates an urge to self-transcend and develop into something truly new. The process itself, as a secondary cause, requires no divine intervention; it emerges from a primary cause—the presence of God’s own transcendence within the material world (Mooney 1996, 158-59).
Peters and Hewlett also discuss divine action in evolution in terms of primary and secondary causation, emphasizing how the scientific method, limited as it is to physical measurement and to secondary causes or their effects, is “blind to primary causation.” Since Darwinian theory developed solely through the scientific method, it can only involve secondary causes and make no statement about God as a primary cause, a task which must be left for the theologian. They emphasize how God’s primary action operated not only at the beginning but “over the entire historical sweep of the created order, even to its eschatological limit” constantly drawing novelty from all its potentialities (Peters and Hewlett 2003, 170-71).
In its basic formulation neo-Thomism separates scientific and theological descriptions, and in that sense it illustrates a relationship of independence. However, many of the scholars who use neo-Thomistic concepts seem to advocate a closer relationship than total independence (Stoeger, Rahner, Hewlett), while others do not (Barth).
God’s Creativity and Top-Down/Whole-Part Causation One prominent scholar who has considered and written extensively about divine action in the light of cosmic evolution is the late physical biochemist and Anglican theologian Arthur Peacocke. He notes how the new dynamic, evolving cosmos necessitates a change in our concept of God—from one who just creates and maintains a static order to one who sustains a continual process of creativity. At every instant of time God is immanent in nature “creating …in and through the perpetually endowed creativity of the very stuff of the world” and making “things make themselves,” as expressed by a Victorian novelist he quotes. “The processes themselves … are God-acting-as-Creator” (Peacocke 1998, 358-59). There are no gaps where God acts over and above the normal processes. The metaphor of a composer illustrates the relation he sees between transcendent and immanent God: a composer transcends his music, but deeply absorbed listeners experience his creative nature (his “inner musical thought”) as immanent within it (Peacocke 1993, 176).
Peacocke fully embraces chance as an integral part of the creative process of God, who is the “ground and source” of both chance and law. Chance allows for the maximum exploration of potentialities of animate and nonanimate forms, and the constant interplay of chance and law determines the course of evolution. He sees it as “the only way in which all potentialities might eventually, given enough time and space, be actualized …it is as if chance is the search radar of God, sweeping through all the possible targets available to its probing” (Peacocke 1993, 120). While the outcome is open-ended and not predetermined at the microlevel, there are inherent tendencies for life and complexity and consciousness to develop, so that there could be “determinate ends” at the macrolevel—such as the evolution of intelligent humans who could interact with God. A number of other theologians have also discussed a positive role or interpretation for chance in a theistic world, among them Haught (1984, chapter 6; 1995, chapter 3), Barbour (1997, 239-40), and Ward (1996).
Peacocke conceives of God as acting on the world-as-a-whole perhaps through “top-down” or “whole-part” influence. In the former, processes at higher levels affect those at lower levels; an example would be the way a mind operates on a body, an idea incorporated in his God-as-the-world’s-mind model described below. In whole-part influence conditions at the boundary or in the environment of a whole system—a biological ecosystem or a nonequilibrium chemical system, or, again, a brain in a body—constrain or direct the individual behavior of component parts. Such nonlinear systems can spontaneously become more ordered without violating the law of entropy—producing “order out of chaos,” as Ilya Prigogine first called it. In the same way, novelty and higher level properties might emerge in nature. God, then, as the whole “environment of the cosmos,” could bring about the emergence of novelty in particular parts (Southgate et al. 1999, 257).
Peacocke uses a number of rich metaphors to describe his panentheistic conception that God is both transcendent to and immanent within the world. One image which underscores the combined importance of those two qualities is that of the mother who gives birth to the world within her own body. Another fruitful model is that of the composer who is still improving and creating his symphony or a choreographer who allows for individual decision on the part of dancers. Theologian Conrad Hyers similarly suggests that the interplay of lawful order and chance is analogous to the way an artist works with a particular medium. Just as a poet or dramatist or novelist intersperses the unexpected spontaneous idea with a overall direction or plan, so God might work with order and chance in the universe (Barbour 1997, 241-42). It is interesting to note the similarity of these images with ones some scientists envisioned (Chapter 4).
Embodiment Models A number of theologians, including Peacocke, envision God’s action on the whole of creation as analogous to the way in which a mind works within a body. Such models make the strongest use of analogies to human action, while also stressing the immanence of God in creation. In this analogy, evolutionary history is the result of the intentions of God’s “mind” being acted out upon God’s “body”— the physical world. Theologian Sallie McFague also suggests this model in The Body of God, as well as conceptions of God as mother, lover, and friend. The interactions important in such human relationships—empathy and mutual interdependence—are stressed over the dominance of an all-powerful creator as in the monarchical model of God. In God’s World, God’s Body Grace Jentzen goes further to propose that the world is the “medium of God’s life and action.” The relationship is different from that of humans to their bodies: God, as perfectly embodied, is more omniscient about the world than humans are of their bodies and has total awareness of all events, acting both universally and in special events (Peacocke 1993, 168; Barbour 1997, 320; Russell 2000). Other feminist theologians who elaborate on the model of nature as mother are Elizabeth Johnson, who celebrates the merging of God’s transcendent and immanent aspects in the mother-creator image, and Anne Clifford, who calls for a similar merging of the biblical creator God with dynamic, evolving nature in the image of “nature as a mother giving birth” (Russell 2000).
Philosopher Philip Clayton has expanded richly on the “panentheistic analogy,” arguing that “God’s action can be much more coherently conceived if the world bears a relationship to God analogous to the body’s relationship to the mind or soul” (Clayton 1997, 100-101). For example, by analogy with automatic functions within a human body, the action of natural laws can be interpreted theologically as automatic actions taking place within the body of God. Intentional action, however, must be understood using our most solid ideas about mind-body relations, and a view he favors sees “mind as an emergent property of a particularly complex physical system—a property which can then be causative in that system” (Southgate et al. 1999, 252-54). He shares Peacocke’s view that such emergence is God’s immanent creative activity at work. Panentheism, he thinks, develops naturally from reexamining theism in the light of science and even offers a closer relationship between the being of God and humanity than classical theism. Whereas traditional Christianity would speak of sensing the divine as our creator or sustainer or perhaps through direct communication, panentheism offers a fourth mode of being “aware of God because we are within God” (Clayton 1997, 102).
Chaos Theory Modern science suggests that there are intrinsic gaps or unpredictable, spontaneous occurrences that leave openings or opportunities in the causal flow. Theologians have been exploring such gaps as ways God might bring about desired results in the world without directly intervening. Both chaos theory and quantum mechanics appear to offer such possibilities.
Physicist and Anglican theologian John Polkinghorne and others have advanced the idea that an arena for divine action might be chaotic systems, in which very small triggers can amplify into large-scale effects. This is the well known “butterfly effect,” by which the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world causes a storm half the world away a month later. Polkinghorne has argued that this extreme sensitivity to initial conditions can produce very unpredictable behavior—not just because we can’t know them but, in his view, because they are genuinely open. God can therefore act by injecting not energy, which could be observed, but “pure information.” No input of energy is needed because God exists everywhere, even at the microlevel. However, the “active information” will not enter via “localized mechanism” but will rather have a “holistic top-down character” involving the “the formation of a dynamic pattern” or an overall context. He relates this combination of non-material “information” and a physical matter to the metaphysic of dual-aspect monism in which the physical and mental or spiritual aspects are complementary attributes of the same stuff of the created world. This mental or spiritual world might be the means whereby God’s information comes into the physical realm (Polkinghorne 1995, 154-55). Use of current chaos theory to explain divine action has been criticized on the grounds that it is still basically deterministic, but it is hoped that development of more complex “holistic chaos” and “quantum chaology” theories may be productive (Russell 2000).
Quantum Indeterminacy: Bottom-Up Causality According to the most favored interpretation of quantum mechanics, events at the subatomic level are truly open and their future is unpredictable. This indeterminism affords an opening in which God could act in the universe within the bounds of natural law to affect outcomes in a way that would be neither interventionist nor perceivable. God would become the “hidden variable,” as it were, which determines the actual path of an electron or other subatomic particle. The course of evolution could be affected by God’s action at the quantum level on genetic mutations. As philosophical theologian Nancey Murphy expressed it, “The apparently random events at the quantum level all involve (but are not exhausted by) specific, intentional acts of God” (Murphy 1995, 339). This approach has also been explored recently by Thomas Tracy, physicist-theologian Robert Russell, and cosmologist George Ellis, all of whom find the approach promising but acknowledge a number of unsolved problems. There is still dispute about whether quantum uncertainty really represents true indeterminism, and numerous philosophical issues still remain with quantum mechanics itself. Both Peacocke and Polkinghorne are critical of quantum indeterminacy as a locus of divine action, as they both seem to favor a more whole/part kind of influence.
Process Theology The metaphysical system of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, developed as it was in the twentieth century in the light of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and evolutionary theory, has an inherent consonance with modern science. Process philosophy posits that series of events and “interpenetrating fields” (as in quantum theory) and processes of change (as in evolutionary theory) are more real and fundamental than separate material objects. No hard and fast line exists between nonhuman and human life, now or in the past. Every organism is a coordinated network of mutually dependent events, and every occurrence happens in an environment that affects it. Thus the overall view of process philosophy is ecological, seeing the world as comprised of a whole integrated network of relationships (Barbour 2000, 115-17; Russell 2000).
Every event has a triune set of causes: past causes or occasions, divine purposes or the “divine subjective lure,” and the entity’s own response which might bring spontaneous, intrinsic novelty. All events also have two aspects—the view from within and the view from outside—and the “interiority” develops in evolution along with physical form. God is present in the interiority of every event, offering new possibilities in an inviting and persuasive way rather than coercing an outcome. He orders and structures the potentialities and new possibilities, thus acting as both the “primordial ground of order” and the “ground of novelty.” Just as God is present in every event, he is also affected by events. God’s nature as creator or ground of order and novelty never change, but his interactive nature and knowledge of the world do change. In John Cobb and David Griffin’s reformulation of Christian belief in the light of process thought, this “dipolar character” of process theism becomes God’s “creative-responsive love,” where the “ground of order” is identified with the biblical eternal divine Word and the responsive God with the aspect that changes and is affected by the world (Barbour 2000, 174-76; Cobb and Griffin 1976).
Process thought clearly allows for both general divine action—in the primordial creation of order—and special divine action—in particular events. Since God supplies new potentialities at every juncture, “no event is wholly an act of God, but every event is an act of God to some extent” (Barbour 2000, 176). God acts in essentially the same mode for all entities, although what results from his action varies greatly according to the level of sentience of the recipient.
A number of scholars have applied process concepts to a theological understanding of cosmic evolution and the role of chance, among them Barbour, Cobb and Birch, Hartshorne, and Haught. Barbour incorporates a panentheistic view within process thought. Nature is a “dynamic process of becoming … an incomplete cosmos still coming into being,” where God is constantly active and affecting events through his persuasive but not coercive love. The long, slow process is understandable when one considers that what drives it is a luring rather controlling force. God is “pre-eminent but not all powerful” (Russell 2000), a creative, responsive player in the ever evolving community of living beings. With compassion and gentleness, God encourages all of creation toward his goals, never forcing the outcome. An ecological perspective is central and no soul/body or human/animal separations are emphasized. Humanity’s commonality and community with other creatures are stressed. The panentheistic synthesis of God’s transcendent and immanent natures fosters dignity and respect for all of nature. Charles Birch and John Cobb likewise de-emphasize the life/non-life split without disregarding clear-cut levels of complexity and capacity for conscious experience. God’s immanence expresses itself as the “life-giving principle” and “the supreme and perfect exemplification of the ecological model of life.” Thus, life is in no way purposeless and governed by blind chance; it is “suffused with ‘the cosmic aim for value’” (Russell 2000). Roman Catholic theologian John Haught focuses on God as the originator of order, novelty and creativity and suggests that it is“God’s will…to maximize evolutionary novelty and diversity” (Haught 1995, 68-69).
Trinitarian Theology A number of Christian scholars have worked to understand how a trinitarian God acts in relation to the evolutionary process and especially what the incarnation and death of Christ on the cross signify in relation to evolution. Australian Roman Catholic theologian Denis Edwards believes that the process of natural evolution is the means by which God works out his goals in nature. In The God of Evolution, he grounds this view in a “trinitarian vision of God as a God of mutual relations, a God who is communion in love, a God who is friendship beyond all comprehension” (Peters and Hewlett 2003, 141). To make creation possible, he has freely limited himself. “The divine act of creation can be understood as an act of love, by which the trinitarian Persons freely make space for creation and freely accept the limits of the process …the limits of physical processes and of human freedom” (Peters and Hewlett 2003, 142). Nonetheless, God acts through processes, such as natural selection, to achieve his goals.
Jurgen Moltmann is another theologian who advocates the theology of God’s “self-emptying” or “kenotic” love as the basis for creation and evolution. In this conception God self-limits his own being to allow space for creation to be and for freedom to exist within it. He situates all of past and future cosmic evolution within a trinitarian framework. The entire process of creation and evolution is a long series of self-limitations by God starting with the first creative act of the Trinity—“a community of love”—to withdraw into itself to allow the space for manifestation. The idea of divine withdrawal and “letting be” accords well with the scientific picture of the interwoven dynamic of chance and law that drives evolution. The long sequence of self-limitations took its ultimate form in Christ’s crucifixion, and his resurrection marked the turning point after which evolution began to be redeemed (Southgate et al. 1999, 219-20).
Rahner also addresses the question of the significance of Christ’s life, death and resurrection in relation to evolution. He notes that the self-transcendence that God bestows on all matter and that drives its forward progress takes a different form in the human being, who has the unique capacity to receive and give God’s gift consciously. In Jesus the receiving and self-transcendence was total; he was the “unsurpassable climax of God’s creative immanence in the world” (Mooney 1996, 165). Having a physical form like all humans, Jesus showed us God’s eventual aim for the material world and for all incarnate beings; hence he is seen by Christians as the goal of all of creation. Rahner writes, “The Incarnation [is] … the unambiguous goal of the movement of creation as a whole, in relation to which everything prior is merely a preparation of the scene … [one can] conceive the evolution of the world as an orientation towards Christ, and to represent the various stages of this ascending movement as culminating in him as their apex” (Mooney 1996, 166-67). These words have striking consonance with ones written around the same time by Meher Baba: “The Avatar[Christ]awakens…humanity to a realization of its true spiritual nature…For posterity is left the stimulating power of his divinely human example, the nobility of a life supremely lived …He has demonstrated the possibility of a divine life for all humanity, of a heavenly life on Earth” (Baba 1967, vol. III, 16).
The Theistic Evolutionary System of Teilhard de Chardin An evolutionary process culminating in the cosmic Christ also characterized the visionary thought of French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His grand and sweeping synthesis of evolution and Christian belief stretched from the earliest beginnings of inanimate matter to a final culmination in Christ. He occupies a unique place in the thought of the twentieth century, finding no ready niche in academic disciplines. His “theology” was too unorthodox for the Catholic hierarchy, and his works were banned by the Church during his lifetime. He considered his major work, The Phenomenon of Man (more recently retranslated in The Human Phenomenon), a scientific study, but few scientists agreed. Neither was it a philosophical treatise—a coherent metaphysical system with well-defined categories—although not all scholars might agree with this assessment. Despite all the critiques and probably because of its deeply inspired and visionary quality, Teilhard’s work became a source of inspiration to many, led to the formation of the American Teilhard Association in the 1960s, and has had an enduring influence among scholars ever since. A fine collection of essays inspired by Teilhardian thought over the last few decades can be found in Teilhard in the 21st Century (Fabel and St. John 2003), whose introduction has guided the description below.
In Teilhard’s vision, consciousness is central to the developing universe. In one grand trajectory, a spirit-infused matter develops more complex outward form and greater inner capacity for experience and consciousness through the stages of prelife, life, and thought. The human is doubly the center as both the final object and the perceiving subject—the aspect of the cosmos reflecting upon itself and able to perceive its unity. He writes, “The human is not the static center of the world, as was thought for so long; but the axis and the arrow of evolution—which is much more beautiful” (Teilhard 1999, 7).
In The Human Phenomenon he traces this great arc of evolution from its primordial beginnings to its final spiritual culmination, always emphasizing the unity of spirit and matter. Matter derives from some unitary state, as described by cosmologists, and has three properties—plurality, unity, and energy—revealing itself to us as “radically particulate, yet basically connected, and finally, prodigiously active” (Teilhard 1999, 12-14). He sees it as being drawn forward, the forward movement balanced by the dissipating activity of the second law of thermodynamics.
More radically, he asserts that matter has an interior dimension:
Indisputably, deep within ourselves, through a rent or tear, an “interior” appears at the heart of beings. This is enough to establish the existence of this interior in some degree or other everywhere forever in nature. Since the stuff of the universe has an internal face at one point in itself, its structure is necessarily bifacial; that is, in every region of time and space, as well, for example, as being granular oextensive with its outside, everything has an inside. (Teilhard 1999, 24)
Evolution is the on-going development of both of these dimensions, the physical and the psychic, through the activity of two different kinds of energy, which are but two aspects of a unitary process. The two kinds of energy involved are: “tangential” energy, which operates between elements “of the same order in the universe as itself (that is of the same complexity),” and “radial” energy, which draws the “element in the direction of an ever more complex and centered state, toward what is ahead” (Teilhard 1999, 30). In this interwoven process complexity of form and ever deepening consciousness (or “centricity”) grow.
The evolutionary process crosses significant thresholds as it moves first from the development of inanimate matter in cosmogenesis to the rise of living forms in biogenesis and then to the emergence of the apparatus for thought in anthropogenesis. With the birth of thought the sense of self intensifies—there is greater personalization or “hominization.” With man the cosmos becomes fully conscious of itself, reflecting back on but also now affecting the course of evolution. Humans can consciously join the process that inwardly draws all creation forward, helping to spiritualize and transform it through love. For Teilhard, becoming more spiritual meant joining the evolutionary flow and directing human energy towards all activity that fostered unity, increased consciousness, and enlivened the spirit of upward growth. As this process intensifies, noogenesis occurs and a collective global human consciousness emerges, eventually attaining its highest spiritual state in the Cosmic Christ of the universe or “Omega point.” God is drawing the whole cosmos toward this state from the beginning and throughout the entire span of creation and evolution. Teilhard saw the world “as a mysterious product of completion and fulfillment for the Absolute Being himself.” Divinity becomes immersed in matter at the very instant of creation and is its immanent driving force throughout the evolutionary process; there is “no creation without incarnational immersion” and one can achieve “communion with God through the Earth” (Grim and Tucker 2003).
Just how deeply his own spirituality was grounded in matter and belief in the forceful directedness of the natural world can be seen in a remarkable statement he made about his faith. He wrote:
If, as the result of some interior evolution, I were to lose in succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world. The world (its value, its infallibility and its goodness)—that, when all is said and done, is the first, the last, and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live. And it is to this faith, I feel, that at the moment of death, rising above all doubts, I shall surrender myself. (Teilhard 1971, 99)
Divine Action in Theistic Evolution: A Summary and Evaluation The various approaches to divine action outlined above differ widely in approach, some using science as a springboard, some employing models of human agency and mind/body analogies, and others working from an existing metaphysical and theological system. All appear to accommodate the workings of chance, albeit in different ways. God works through quantum events, or God designed chance as part of his own creativity immanent in nature, or God works persuasively with law and chance in every event, or chance operates because God has self-limited his own power to allow humans and the laws of nature to operate freely. Reflection on divine action has also produced rich new conceptions of God and nature that go beyond the traditional monarch or craftsman to more organic and relational models: God as mind to the world’s body, God as Mother giving birth to the cosmos, God as communicator of information, God as artist choosing among possibilities (determiner of indeterminacies), God as a parent limiting his power to participate creatively in a child’s growth.
Various scholars have evaluated the efforts to understand divine action in relation to the natural world and noted that a coherent theory is far from achieved. The approaches through science seem too stretched or full of guesswork or bold assertions. Process philosophy and neo-Thomism, which both suggest a kind of double agency (part from God, part from nature) both have the problem that they lack grounding in what can be described by science or observed in everyday experience—they do not provide a mechanism (Southgate et al. 1999, 266-67). Boston University theologian Wesley Wildman puts it bluntly: “After all this time…the theological problem of divine action retains much the same shape and sharpness as it has had for 2,500 years, except that the most audacious account of all—the traditional Jewish-Christian-Muslim insistence that God acts in history and nature—has become quite obscure.” He asserts that this failure of modern theology is a compelling reason for the new “discipline of science and religion” to exist (Wildman 1996, 57). Such collaboration is indeed proving to be promising, as scholars are researching how the different possible accounts of divine action may not be mutually exclusive but might be working in some combinatory fashion (Murphy 1995; Clayton 1997).
The Anthropic Principle: Design Arguments for God
An important issue for theistic evolutionists is how to interpret features in the universe suggestive of design. As discussed in Chapter 4, findings in physics and astrophysics have shown that natural laws and other conditions appear remarkably attuned to allow for a long preparatory growth of the cosmos and its eventual flowering into life and intelligence. The plethora of such “coincidences” are happily received by creationists as obvious evidence for a God who has perfectly designed natural laws and other conditions to accomplish his aim of producing conscious humans beings capable of communication with their Creator. Theistic evolutionists, however, are much more cautious for several reasons. For one thing, reasoning directly toward divine design by observing nature—natural theology—has generally no longer been considered wise or viable. The practice of ascribing features unexplained by science to the action of God—“God of the gaps” thinking—failed so consistently as science advanced that theologians now are eager to avoid it. Anthropic coincidences may in the future be explained naturally or shown to be necessary by a unified theory and not at all improbable. Even now, one side of the scientific anthropic debate argues that fine-tuning is inevitable and not surprising, if multiple universes exist—ours is just the expected one among an infinitude where the laws were just right for life. In addition, reasoning to the existence of a metaphysical entity such as God from empirical evidence in nature has been criticized by philosophers since Hume and Kant. Furthermore, the design argument would not uniquely specify the biblical Creator God, a problem for Christian theists. For theologians who explore new ecologically oriented creation theologies that avoid anthropocentrism, anthropic design arguments are also problematic in assuming “the existence of rational carbon-based life forms (i.e. humankind)” as the “ultimate goal of creation” (Southgate et al. 1999, 130).
Roman Catholic theologian Ernan McMullin admits that the design argument based on anthropic features is an “obvious” and “attractive” possibility to many, especially when it avoids direct intervention by God by focusing only his initial fixing of the laws. This is a broader type of natural theology in which the laws of nature themselves, rather than specific features, are evidence of divine design. McMullin nevertheless warns of the above weaknesses in this approach—its reliance on current knowledge gaps and its fragility in the face of the scientific controversy and possible changes in theory (1981, 45). It also has the philosophical weakness of arguing for a metaphysical reality from empirical evidence. This concern is shared by Stoeger, who writes, “The more profound grounds of explanation, necessity and possibility remain forever veiled” (Stoeger 1993, 222). McMullin concludes that “it ought to be clear that ‘anthropic’ features…cannot properly be used as argument for the Christian doctrine of a Creator” (1981, 45).
Several scholars emphasize that anthropic design arguments more logically lead to a designer operating within the universe itself and not the transcendent, biblical creator God. Possibilities identified by theologian Mark Worthing include a cosmic architect or demiurge or even the universe itself, as atheistic biologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out (Worthing 1996, 46-47). Philosopher John Leslie conceives of the God who might design anthropic features in neo-Platonic terms—one not beyond reason but a “creatively effective ethical requirement for the existence of a (good)universe or universes” (Leslie 1989, 186). This possibility of “designers” different from the biblical Creator God clearly limits the implications that anthropic design arguments have for Christian theology, according to Barbour (1997) and Russell (1989).
Despite the drawbacks and limitations, many scholars nonetheless think that there is a significant relationship to be explored between the anthropic principle and Christian theology. They would agree with McMullin that “a Being who ‘fine-tunes’ the universe … is consonant with the Creator God of the Christian tradition … consonance [being] … more than logical consistency, but much less than proof” (McMullin 1988, 70-71). Several lines of thought are followed in exploring this consonance. One is to reexamine theologically the current status of the scientific debate as a choice between design and multiple universes. Another is to work from what science says about cosmic evolution and life-tuned features and note that a metaphysical being like God is a plausible or probable hypothesis. Yet another is to work from the Christian belief in a creator God and identify what consequences might follow and what qualities a divine being would have who fine-tuned cosmic evolution to lead to life and intelligence.
Several authors disagree with some scientists’ argument that we must choose between design and multiple universes. In Universes (1989), Leslie declares that both the many worlds and God hypotheses are strong, but they are not mutually exclusive. He questions why it is assumed that God made only one universe. Russell insightfully analyzes how different levels of multiple universes each have their own form of contingency, which could lead to design, so that “science will never eliminate the meaningfulness of contingency in the creation tradition” (Russell 1989, 198-201). For Peacocke, the possible existence of multiple universes has little impact on the remarkable fact that life has evolved to complexity and consciousness here. It just multiplies the range over which many possibilities were explored. He concludes, “Hence any argument for theism based on ‘anthropic’ considerations may be conducted independently of the question of whether or not this is the only universe” (Peacocke 1993, 106-8). John Haught agrees that for a theist a “plurality of ‘worlds’ is quite compatible with the idea of God.” The infinitude of other universes is a metaphor for God’s awe-inspiring “divine infinitude” (Haught 1995, 139-40).
Some scholars work from science towards God in a manner that steers away from strict logical proof and toward a hypothesis of probability.
Philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne follows this approach in The Existence of God and the shorter Is There a God?, where he used principles of confirmation theory in philosophy of science to argue for the probability of God’s existence. A beginning plausibility of God’s existence, grounded in simplicity and personal agency, grows in probability with additional evidence, such as order in nature, the need for external cause for the appearance of consciousness, and individual religious experience (Barbour 1997, 99). Peacocke makes a similar argument about the rise of consciousness, noting that the strong anthropic principle strongly ties the human being to the cosmos. Cosmic evolution, which began as a random jumbling of insentient atoms, has now produced a part of itself which science cannot explain—persons who experience subjectivity, have consciousness, are purposiveness, and hold values. Whatever produced all these disparate material and nonmaterial things must include both “personhood” and “matter” but as their source, must transcend and differ from both. The best explanation of such an entity is a personal transcendent God who acts with purpose and has dynamic qualities as an immanent, continuously creating Creator (Peacocke 1993, 106-12). For Polkinghorne, also, “the fine-tuning of a potent universe” is a meaningful finding that calls for a metaphysical explanation, since it must account for the natural laws themselves. Admitting that there is no sure argument for religious belief, he feels that the special life-tuned quality of our “potent universe finds deeply satisfying understanding within the intellectual setting of theism” (Polkinghorne 1994, 114-15).
In a new version of the design argument applied to the dynamic universe, Jesuit theologian W. Norris Clarke argues the intricate workings of the basic, active elements in the “cosmic-wide order” can only be explained by the existence of a “World-Ordering Mind,” without whose “primal ordering…nothing could happen at all, not even by chance” (Clarke 1988, 119). Like Peacocke, he speculates imaginatively about the qualities of the Creator of our amazing universe:
Must not the “personality” of such a Creator be one charged, not only with unfathomable power and energy, but also with dazzling imaginative creativity? Such a creator must be a kind of daring Cosmic Gambler who loves to work with both law and chance, a synthesis of apparent opposites—of power and gentleness, a lover of both law and order and of challenge and spontaneity. (Clarke 1988, 121)
The design hypothesis is clearly very appealing for those already committed to theistic belief, and some scholars begin with this belief and ask what observable consequences flow from it, thus interpreting science in the light of theology. Ellis follows this approach in developing his “Christian Anthropic Principle”—a synthesis of science’s anthropic principle and the theology of religious leader William Temple and his own Quaker perspective (Ellis 1993b). He begins with the “essential core” of Christian teaching, that God is the transcendent creator and immanent sustainer, the embodiment of justice and holiness, and a personal, active God who loves each being and whose divinity is perfectly revealed in Jesus. Forgiveness and self-sacrificing love characterize both the aim of the Christian follower and the nature of God’s action. His goal of loving action “shapes the nature of creation,” which he designed with just the characteristics necessary “to attain the goal of eliciting a free response of love and sacrifice from free individuals.” Thus orderly laws, provision of physical needs, hidden action by God all allow for free action, while direct revelation provides encouraging glimpses of ultimate reality to those who are open. In this context, anthropic features receive a more profound explanation than science alone can give—they are part of the original design that allowed the spiritual goal of the universe to unfold. Christian theology thus gives the anthropic principle a more profound explanation than science alone can give.
Theological consideration of the anthropic principle and design arguments is an illustrative example of the rich new ways scholars are advancing understanding and methodology at the interface of science and religion. It has led some to formulate a new natural theology based on the dynamic cosmos or plausibility arguments, as with Clarke and Swinburne, and others to advance and use new methodology for studying science and theology together, as with theologian and philosopher Nancey Murphy. For her, Ellis’ Christian Anthropic Principle helped to frame and elaborate her broader “science-like” theological research method, based on Imre Lakatos’ theory of knowledge. Cosmological fine-tuning in this light argues for Christian theism only as one of a whole network of “auxiliary hypotheses” which surround the core theistic belief and which must predict new facts and seek confirmation.
In the approaches described above, the understanding of God can be aided by science, and intractable scientific problems such as the anthropic principle can be explained more profoundly. Scientific and religious knowledge can be studied together, in what theologian Mooney calls “a completely different kind of epistemological project, one with hitherto unexpected illuminative power.” The two lines of knowledge run side by side, like “two meridians on the sphere of the Christian mind” (as Teilhard de Chardin suggested). At the equator, or “present time,” they run parallel and each separately gives “signs of both their present consonance and their possible future convergence at some pole of common vision” (Mooney 1996, 62-63). On the religious line, Christian “data” reveals the supreme importance of human persons as the ultimate product of God’s creative activity over all of cosmic history culminating in Christ’s incarnation into material form. Scientific data about cosmic evolution and fine-tuning gives the Christian specific information about how God has undertaken the design activity, or, as Russell expressed it, “concrete language for our deepest insights about God’s relation to creation” (1989, 201). Thus the two combined “sets of data” nourish deeper, more expansive understanding of humanity in relation to the Christian God and to the cosmos.
The merging of scientific and some theistic perspectives can also correct what many regard as the overly anthropocentric character of the Christian view. Cosmos-wide fine tuning reveals both the immense canvas on which God’s creative activity works and also his concern with “the potential riches of all matter, all energy, all forms of life” (Mooney 1996, 650). Thus, certain theistic perspectives urge enlargement of the anthropic principle in recognition that another scientifically verifiable process has been at work—to experiment with as many different forms as possible—what Freeman Dyson called the “principle of maximum diversity.” Haught characterizes this adventurous drive toward ever greater diversity and beauty as the “aesthetic cosmological principle” with God as the “One who wills the maximization of cosmic beauty.” The emergence of living forms and intelligence, important as it is, is thus just part of a “more encompassing cosmic adventure toward an ever greater breadth of beauty” (Haught 1995, 140).
Directionality, Divine Purpose, and the Problem of Pain, Suffering, and Evil
An all-important question lying at the heart of all theistic evolution discussion is whether the universe can be inferred to have directionality, and if so, a divine cosmic purpose. Such a purpose is assumed in virtually all traditional religions, even if knowledge of it might remain inaccessible as part of God’s mystery. If there is such a purpose, and if God is acting in the cosmos to fulfill his goals, two problems must be addressed. First, how does it accord with the seemingly purposeless activity of randomness and natural selection in cosmic evolution, and second, how can one explain the existence of evil, pain, and suffering? This latter problem, theodicy, is an on-going problem for theology, which has addressed the issue of moral evil and suffering at the hand of nature for centuries. What cosmic evolution adds to the picture is the idea of evolutionary “evil”—that progressive development in the created world involves so much struggle, suffering, and death on the part of individuals and species. These are each vast topics within theology, and what follows is but a sample of representative thinking on the subject.
Most, but not all, evolutionary biologists firmly deny the existence of any directionality in evolution, because of the random, unpredictable nature of change, but Jesuit astronomer-theologian Stoeger (1998) makes a strong argument for it. He surveys every phase of cosmic evolution, beginning with the Big Bang, and examines how the natural laws move material reality in the direction of developing more structure. Beyond the Planck Era and the Inflationary Epoch within the first microsecond, the expanding, cooling universe determines a global cosmic directionality. Gradually original quantum fluctuations grow into the macroscopic seeds of later galaxy groups, where stars form and begin to manufacture and distribute heavy elements. The same directionality gets more focused as planets form and provide environments for development of chemical and biological complexity. Just the simple laws, chance, and changing conditions functioning together at each step produce order and “directedness” and “orientation towards complexity” (Stoeger 1998, 169). Science cannot say what causes this inherent directionality, for it is not perceivable at the level of individual interactions, but only in the progression of the system as a whole.
A kind of teleology is definitely at work here—not a fixed, dictated plan for a specific end form but a movement toward realizing possibilities in a systematic manner. Stoeger describes it as a “very rich notion of directionality and teleology, which gives freedom and autonomy to the laws and processes of nature and encourages them to explore and realize the full range of…potentialities of the universe” (Stoeger 1998, 185). Whether such a process is intentionally directed for a purpose by divinity can neither be known nor disproved by science but is knowable through revelation for the Christian, for whom divine purposiveness is an inevitable conclusion.
Peacocke believes that directionality can be seen in nature’s inherent propensities to develop complexity, ability to process and store information, and language. Divine purposiveness can be inferred, since God is working in and through all processes in creation. In this light, the enormous time humans took to evolve and the enormous number of forms that developed and died out must have been part of God’s intention. Hints exist that God must have taken great delight and joy in this rich proliferation, as in the Genesis I statement that God “saw …that it was very good” and in the Hindu concept of God’s divine play (lila) in creation.
The increase in information-processing ability brings expanded consciousness but also inevitably an increase in pain and suffering. As a warning of danger and disease, pain is necessary to survival and thus to the ongoing forward movement of evolution; such sensitivity is selected by nature to prevail. Death is necessary to make room for the new and more complex forms, and the assimilation of old forms in evolution and feeding on other species is necessary and efficient for timely progress. Peacocke suggests that all of these workings of nature “are … the very action of God” and that “God suffers in, with and under the creative processes of the world with their costly unfolding in time” (Peacocke 2001, 86). Birthing the new—a child or work of art—always involves painful and costly struggle. In an act of loving self-sacrifice, all-powerful God limits his power—emptying himself—to participate as a fellow sufferer in the natural evils of the world for an important divine purpose:
to bring about a greater good thereby, that is, the kaleidoscope of living creatures, delighting their Creator, and eventually free-willing, loving persons who also have the possibility of communion with God and with each other. (Peacocke 2001, 88)
God’s suffering is active and, as part of his divine love, has creative power to bring about the new. It is a risky process for God to create free beings who can rebel against his process, but one totally necessary. His goal of instilling values of “truth, beauty and goodness” in the world can only be achieved by persons freely choosing to work toward them and hold them here in creation.
In Peacocke’s view God’s immanent role within cosmic evolution necessitates a revision of certain older Christian doctrines, especially about original sin, redemption and the meaning of Christ’s incarnation and suffering on the cross. First, biological death can no longer be viewed as the“wages of sin” but is a necessary part of God’s ongoing process of creating new forms. Second, there could not have been a first man and first woman who enjoyed a state of perfect union with God and whose rebellious acts introduced pain and suffering into creation. Third, Jesus’ suffering and death were not meant to save humanity from an original sin but to reveal God’s suffering with us. He writes: “The suffering of God, which we could glimpse only tentatively in the processes of creation, is in Jesus the Christ concentrated into a point of intensity and transparency which reveals it to all who focus on him” (Peacocke 1998, 372). Finally, his incarnation and resurrection revealed to humanity what is possible for each one of us, “the paradigm of what God intends for all human beings, now revealed as having the potentiality of responding to, of being open to, of becoming united with, God” (Peacocke 1998, 375).
A theologian who has given much thought to the issue of cosmic purpose and theodicy is Haught. In 1997 he brought together an international group of scientists and religious scholars for a conference on “Cosmology and Teleology” cosponsored by the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Program on Dialogue between Science and Religion. The presentations are summarized in the collection of essays, Science and Religion in Search of Cosmic Purpose, which Haught edited. In his own paper, he notes how cosmic meaning in the physical, temporal world was always understood in traditional religions as flowing down from higher nonmaterial realms in a hierarchy or “Great Chain of Being.” Modern science’s attempt to explain all reality in terms of material energy and particles and the linear story of cosmic evolution has collapsed this hierarchy, and theology must now seek to recover it or find a way to synthesize it with science’s new horizontal evolutionary picture. Additional levels of value and meaning, whether they be conceived in a vertical hierarchy or in nested circles or somehow infused into linear progression, are indispensable to understanding any cosmic purpose in the material world.
Haught believes that a promising path lies in studying science’s own hierarchical structures and the elusive concept of information. Science has seen that new properties emerge at higher levels of complexity that are unexplainable in terms of elements of lower levels. An example from Chapter 5 was the “information-rich” sequence of base pairs in the first molecules of life, whose origin cannot be determined by physical processes alone. Haught believes that information can flow from higher to lower levels of existence without disrupting the normal causal flow of matter and energy, an idea he illustrates with an example drawn from Polanyi’s writing. Imagine one draws random markings with a pen but then without lifting the pen begins to form letters and meaningful words. Information was “injected” into the system without interrupting the material flow. He likens the elusive “information” to the mysterious “Tao” of Taoism—“the unnamable Way or Truth” behind all life, self-concealed and yet powerful, and knowable only to the spiritually aware. Perhaps one becomes conscious of the “noninterfering effectiveness of information” and the nature of cosmic meaning “only after we have ourselves undergone a personal transformation in which the Taoist humility and sensitivity to the power of non-being has begun to reshape the center of our own lives” (Haught 2000b, 116). Such a source of meaning and purpose lies beyond the limited knowing of material proof but is knowable for those with inner vision. As in the pen and writing example, there is no material discontinuity between the random scribbles and the meaningful words, but for one who knows the words there is an abrupt injection of something new (Haught 2000b, 112-19).
In other writings Haught views cosmic purpose from the vantage point of process thought, where it is seen as an aim toward beauty. He contrasts this with the view of Teilhard de Chardin, for whom divine cosmic purpose lay in the development of human consciousness, first in individual and then in collective manifestations. The aim toward beauty, Haught contends, provides a more encompassing and less anthropocentric notion. Beauty is the focus because it involves a balancing or synthesis of contrasting or opposite elements—“harmony and complexity, order and novelty, stability and motion.” Too much of one leads to chaos, while too much of the other leads to boring sameness. For Whitehead the cosmos is an “aesthetic reality,” much like a work of art, music or writing, whose value derives from the extent to which unity and harmony of polar opposites are found. Thus “we might value a universe in which contradictions are constantly being unified into an aesthetic whole: entropy and evolution; order and chaos; novelty and continuity; permanence and perishing.” An individual perspective may see only discordance, but such a view lacks a “wider angle of vision” necessary to see the whole (Haught 1984, chapter 8).
From a Christian perspective, Haught describes God as carrying out his purpose through “kenotic love” and the “power of the future” (2000a, 110). By his self-giving love God lets the world undergo its evolutionary unfolding, yet he remains intimately involved with the evolving world. Christian faith in the resurrection also sees God as opening up a bright new future for humanity. Bringing about novelty in evolution points the way to this grand future renewal. Theological openness to spontaneous new future outcomes resonates with the unpredictability in science’s chaos and complexity theory. Furthermore, cosmic evolution, as a still unfolding story with an open future, can become part of the religious story of promise of hope for an ultimate “cosmic fulfillment.” From its earliest moments the universe had the fine-tuned features to lead to life—it held the “promise of emerging into life.” Why should we not then “claim confidently that the present state of the cosmic story is not also pregnant with potential for blossoming into still more abundant new creation?” (Haught 2000a, 118).
As with most theologians, Haught struggles with the issue of suffering, which he calls “an open sore that theology can never pretend to heal” (Haught 2000a, 55). One perspective that evolution offers is the idea that the universe is not yet finished but is still imperfect, and part of that imperfection is the existence of pain. Haught also explores the meaning of suffering in terms of the aesthetic teleology discussed above, where suffering has meaning in relation to the goal of maximizing cosmic beauty and our intense experience of it (1984, 128). While God never causes or wills for suffering to occur, entities are drawn by God toward ever more intense “aesthetic enjoyment,” which involves risk. To advance and gain more capacity, an entity must be open to what is new, but it can fail and fall apart into disorder and “evil.” When such failure does occur, it is saved by “God’s aesthetic care … which is infinitely sensitive to particular sufferings, identifies with them, takes them into the divine life and transforms them into an aspect of the beauty of the cosmos in order that they never be forgotten or lost” (Haught 1984, 129). In this way, God’s “compassionate embrace enfolds redemptively and preserves everlastingly each moment of the cosmic evolutionary story” (Haught 2000a, 119). Even though God is in some way responsible by having created the process wherein evil and suffering occur, he is faithfully present as a fellow sufferer at every instant of pain.
Throughout this sample of representative views about cosmic purpose and the problem of evil and suffering, certain themes emerge. One is that science and religion both agree that neither cosmic directionality nor cosmic purpose can be discerned at the material level. Directionality can be seen only when human consciousness observes the whole history and notes the obvious changes from simple to complex structure and the emergence of mind and spirituality. Theistic evolutionists all agree that God’s purpose is definitely at work in the whole process of cosmic evolution, but it can only be discerned by a different kind of knowing than direct proof. God’s involvement is never in a direct manner, but is through secondary causes or in a very self-restrained, kenotic way or from the perspective of the future, in all cases nurturing the whole enterprise along and suffering with each being in it. In a loose teleological way, the cosmos is growing and developing, not so much according to a preconceived blueprint but following propensities and exploring a maximum of possibilities. Finally, with cosmic evolution pain and suffering are inevitable in a still growing, still imperfect universe, but are also the natural accompaniment of increasing sensitivity and consciousness. For humans evil and suffering naturally result from God’s gift of freedom and from our frequent failures as we struggle to develop our full potential.