Evolution and Faith: What Is the Problem?

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By John F. Haught


John F. Haught is Distinguished Research Professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He has dedicated his academic life to teaching, lecturing, and writing on issues pertaining to science, cosmology, evolution, ecology, and religion. He is best known for his works on evolution and Christian faith. He is the author of twenty books, including God After Darwin and (most recently) The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe. The following is adapted from an address given at the Portsmouth Institute’s 2012 Summer Conference on “Modern Science and Ancient Faith,” and is presented by the Center for Science and the Liberal Arts, an initiative of the Portsmouth Institute and the Department of Science at Portsmouth Abbey School.


Evolutionary biology claims that organisms and species are the product of three main factors: accidental variations or mutations, blind natural selection, and an enormous amount of time. This Darwinian recipe for the unfolding of life on Earth seems at first to raise difficulties about the idea of God. However, as I have argued in God after Darwin, Deeper than Darwin, and more recently Making Sense of Evolution, evolutionary science and Christian faith are completely compatible with each other. Indeed, they are natural companions. Here I can offer only a sketch of why I believe this to be the case. 

No doubt, evolutionary biology upsets some entrenched assumptions about how God should have “designed” the world. For if “God” means simply an “Intelligent Designer” even an elementary perusal of the fossil record and the inelegant ways of evolution raises theological difficulties. However, what if “God” is not simply a designer? And what if life is not just a set of “designs,” but instead a still unfinished drama? If so, the interesting question is not whether design points to deity, but whether the drama of life carries a religiously identifiable meaning. 

The reasons why the ideas of God and evolution do not seem to match up well are by now familiar. Darwin observed that all living species produce more offspring than ever reach maturity but the number of individuals in any given species remains relatively stable. This means that most living organisms die out before reproducing. The relatively few that do survive do so because by sheer accident they happen to be better “adapted” to their environment than others and thus have a better chance of reproductive success. Most organisms lose out in the struggle for existence, leaving no offspring. Still, during the extended journey of evolution an amazing diversity of life has come about, and occasionally entirely new species have arisen, including eventually modern humans. 

What is so theologically challenging about this account of life? It can be summarized in three propositions: First, the variations that lead to differential survival of organisms are purely random—in the sense of “undirected.” The causes of life’s variations now identified as genetic mutations (though accidents in nature’s history are also involved) seem to come about without any overall intelligence, intention or design. Second, individuals have to struggle for existence and survival, and most of them lose out in this contest. This suggests an indifferent and mindless universe. The impersonal mechanism of life’s evolution is known as natural selection. The fact that natural selection allows only better adapted organisms to survive makes nature seem, if not cruel, at least “pitilessly indifferent,” to use the words of Richard Dawkins. Third, life’s evolutionary experiments have required an almost unimaginable amount of time for the wide diversity of species to come about. Since life and mind have appeared billions of years after the Big Bang it appears to many scientific thinkers that nature follows no divine plan. 

The three ingredients—randomness (sometimes called contingency), blind natural selection, and the enormity of cosmic time—seem to be enough to account in a purely natural way for all the phenomena we associate with life. The apparent completeness of the evolutionary recipe makes many scientists and philosophers wonder whether life requires the creativity of a truly “interested” God. They doubt too that the ragged Darwinian picture of life can be reconciled with the biblical image of a benign divine providence. Darwin himself, reflecting on the accidents, struggle, pain, impersonality and the immensity of time required by evolution, gradually abandoned the idea that nature could have been ordered in its particulars by an intelligent designer. Darwin never completely renounced the idea of a distant divine lawmaker, but today many of his followers virtually equate evolution with atheism. At the same time, numerous Christian thinkers have drawn the conclusion that Darwinian biology is simply incapable of being reconciled with theistic belief and so must be rejected in whole or in part. 

In view of the obvious challenges that so many sincere skeptics and religiously devout people consider inherent to Darwinian science, is the idea of an infinitely wise and providential God still plausible in the age of science?  

Suppose, in response to this question, that we look carefully at the undeniable scientific evidence indicating that the universe is still coming into being. Suppose, moreover, that God is less concerned with imposing a plan or design than with providing a “meaning” for the universe, one that allows all beings, and especially human beings, to participate in the creative process. If we make this conceptual adjustment, as I believe we must, the idea of God becomes not only compatible with evolution, but it also anticipates the kind of life-world that Darwin’s science has set before us. 

Debates about God and evolution are usually so obsessed with the idea that God is a “designer” that the biblical sense of God as an infinite self-giving love that opens up an ever new future for the world goes unnoticed. Biblical literalists and atheistic evolutionists alike seldom think of God as faithful, promise-keeping, humble, self-giving love. Yet a God, whose essence is love, it is reasonable to believe, would not overwhelm the world with dictatorial power. A truly loving God would not force the world into prefabricated molds or fixed forms but would give it ample space and time to become something much more interesting than an ensemble of elegantly arranged objects. Evolution’s creator would allow for indeterminacy, giving the world ample scope for at least some degree of self-creativity, including eventually human freedom.  

A creator who makes a world that can somehow make itself, as Teilhard de Chardin and others have suggested, is much more deserving of our esteem than one who suspends the world on puppet strings. An unrestrained imposition of divine “design” would in effect leave no room for anything other than God. In other words, it would allow no room for a world at all. A hypothetical world perfectly “designed” from the outset would be incompatible with the biblical notion of creation. After all, the whole thrust of Biblical literature is to have us look for perfection not in the world’s past or present but in its not yet fully fashioned future. God’s creation is not so much a presently intelligible set of designs as it is a promise of the emergence of “fuller-being” and deeper intelligibility up ahead.  

Yet doesn’t the book of Genesis imply that the world was perfect in the beginning? No doubt, literalists will interpret biblical reference to an original paradise as scientifically accurate. But the Roman Catholic and other mainline Christian traditions have instructed us not to look for scientific information in the Scriptures. We trivialize the Bible, as both St. Augustine and Galileo understood, whenever we expect it to be a source of mundane scientific truths that we can discover on our own. So the symbolic biblical picture of an initially paradisal cosmic origin has nothing to contribute to scientific cosmology. Genesis is not a response to curiosity about cosmic and biological origins. It is a response to such questions as “why is there anything at all rather than nothing” or “is there a good reason to trust in life?”  

Within the biblical world, moreover, Christianity proclaims that God’s love manifests itself in a humility that respects the otherness and freedom of the creature. Since Christians are not supposed to think about God without thinking first about the man Jesus, our image of God has to be one that features an infinitely generous self-abandoning love. This means that creation and its evolutionary unfolding would be less the consequence of divine engineering than of God’s loving “letting the world be.” In other words, God is not a manipulator of matter but the ever faithful ground of new possibilities for the creation. God acts by opening up a new future for the world. Divine care means granting the world space and time to become itself, allowing for something truly new to be taking shape up ahead. God, then, does not withdraw deistically from the creation. By granting new possibilities of fuller-being up ahead God manifests the deepest conceivable form of providential world-involvement. God cares enough to give freedom to the world by constantly opening up the prospect of an unprecedented future to nature and human history. 

Unfortunately, the experience of God that occurs in connection with the life and death of Jesus, an experience that entails a radical revolution in the whole human story of God-consciousness, is usually left out of most discussions of theology and evolution. Anti-evolutionary Christians and their atheist adversaries alike often engage in distracting discussions about whether God is a competent engineer or not. One side says no, the other side yes. Both sides avoid focusing on Christianity’s more troubling image of the compassionate divine mystery that pours itself out into the world in unrestrained and selfless love. 

In this connection, the atheist evolutionist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago has accused me and others of being “accommodationists” for proposing that God can be anything other than a perfect designer or engineer. For Coyne evolution and faith, therefore, are irreconcilable, a point of view that he ironically shares with the biblical literalists and Intelligent Design advocates whom he loathes for their scientific ignorance. To Coyne “God,” to live up to his reputation, can mean nothing other than an impeccable architect who has to make everything perfect and complete in an initial act of creative magic.  But since science has shown that there are no perfectly adaptive designs in the living world, God cannot possibly exist. Coyne is by no means alone. Today many scientific thinkers, including the so-called New Atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, have fashioned their ideas of God by visiting the works and websites of biblical literalists and “Intelligent Design” devotees. Hence they consider any suggestion that there can be a theology of evolution preposterous.  

Evolutionary atheists, none of whom has any real theological training or expertise, habitually hold forth with complete confidence on what God must be like. It is not their atheism, therefore, but their theology that I find objectionable since their images and ideas of God are indistinguishable from those of biblical literalists and anti-Darwinian Intelligent Design proponents. A theology of evolution, on the other hand, takes as its point of departure not the idea of perfect engineering but that of perfect love.  

Am I an accommodationist, somehow editing Christian truth and forcing it to fit the puzzling features of Darwinian biology? Not at all. The idea of God that I follow is not my own invention. As a Catholic I can begin my reflections, just to cite one significant source, with Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. The late Pope, no theological radical, writes that “the prime commitment of theology” is to explore the meaning of God’s self-emptying love (the divine kenosis), “a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.” In such a picture of God, I believe, we have the starting point of a theology of evolution that can fully embrace both science and faith. 

Theology’s Timidity 

Unfortunately, most contemporary theology has yet to face the fact that a Darwinian universe is a lot different from the world-pictures in which humanity’s religious traditions were born and nurtured. In the Christian world perhaps a few theologians have taken a deliberate look at evolution, but the topic generally remains outside the concerns of seminary formation and most academic theology. When theologians do talk about evolution they usually do so with a detached conceptual generality that in effect edits out some of the most challenging features of the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian pictures of life. This slighting of evolution is symptomatic of a lack of courage in religious instruction and theological imagination. Ignoring evolution amounts to a lost opportunity for spiritual, theological and intellectual growth.  

Theology, I suggest, now requires fresh and unembarrassed expression in evolutionary terms. Any other option is unacceptable pastorally as well as intellectually, now that evolution has become the most important single idea in all of science. Skeptics, of course, will immediately ask how theology can reconcile the idea of a beneficent providence with the randomness or contingency in life’s evolution. This may be a challenging question, but good theology must not brush it aside with the facile conjecture that chance is simply the expression of human ignorance of a larger divine plan. Chance is no illusion. Indeterminacy or spontaneity is a fact of nature, and it is one that can teach us much about the character of the God whose essence, as the First Letter of John said long ago, is love.  

Some degree of free play, experimentation, meandering and accident, in other words, is just what we should expect in a universe grounded in a divine self-giving love. For, as we know even from our limited human interpersonal experience, genuine love never forces or compels. Love allows others sufficient scope to be and become themselves. If there is truth to the biblical conviction that God really cares for this world as something distinct from God, then the universe must always have had some degree of autonomy, even during its long pre-human period. Otherwise it would have been nothing more than an extension of God’s own being, an appendage of deity, in which case it could never have become genuinely other than God. There has to be room for contingency or accident in any universe held to be both distinct from and simultaneously loved by God. At the same time, the remorseless invariance of the laws of nature, including that of natural selection, seems to be necessary also if nature is not to dissolve into caprice or chaos at each instant of it’s becoming. 

If nature is truly differentiated from God, as it must be if theology is to avoid the slide into pantheism, creation has to have considerable leeway for wandering about experimentally ‘on its own.’ So, if theology always remembers that God’s creative and providential activity is not a manipulative controlling of the world, people of faith can hardly be surprised that the world’s creation does not take place in one magical instant, but instead takes time—perhaps billions of years. There can be no self-giving of God to the universe unless this universe is allowed in some sense to be a drama of self-actualization, though in a way that occurs within the limits of relevant new possibilities proposed to it by its creator. Theologically, then, we may locate the unfathomable epochs of evolutionary time, the apparently autonomous evolution of life by random variation and natural selection, and, for that matter, the self-organizing character of non-living physical systems as well, within the conception of a universe that is always being challenged to “become itself” and to “become more,” as Teilhard would put it. A sound theology of evolution must add that the promissory perspective of biblical faith invites us to envision the entire history of cosmic events, including all its wilder episodes, as the story of an emergent freedom called to ever deeper intimacy with God.  

To evolutionary materialists such as Coyne and Dawkins the vastly “wasteful” temporal duration of evolution’s multi-millennial journey counts against trust in providence. Surely if God were supremely intelligent and all-powerful, they argue, creation would never have taken so long. Notice here, though, that the evolutionary materialists themselves are assuming the mantle of theologians when they lay out for their readers just what a competent creator should look like—typically a kind of intelligent designer or engineer—who should have done a neater job in making the universe is in the first place. But their pallid profiles of an acceptable deity depict little more than a conjurer, or at best a distant architect, rather than an infinite love whose deepest concern is for the growth of the universe into genuine independence. It is inconceivable to them that God wants a world that can develop a mature friendship and dialogical relationship with its creator. On the other hand, a theology that takes the image of God’s suffering love seriously should already have anticipated that the cosmos would be given the opportunity for experimenting with many different ways of existing, an allowance that apparently requires vast epochs of time and perhaps even many more “universes” than our fourteen billion year old Big Bang universe can adequately represent. 

Conclusion  

Theology today, therefore, needs to steep itself in Darwin’s fascinating picture of life, rather than flee in fear or ignorance from it. Evolution helps theology realize that God is much more interested in promoting freedom and arousing adventure in the world than in preserving the status quo or freezing the world into an initially “perfect” design. Biblical faith has always been aware of God’s concern for human liberation. But now evolutionary science allows us to connect our ideas of a liberating God to the larger story of life’s arduous and prolonged emergence from triviality. Certainly nature is filled with ambiguity. Yet, as Teilhard reminds us, such ambiguity is inevitable in any world that remains unfinished. How could a process that has not yet been perfected be anything other than imperfect, or even fully intelligible, short of attaining its goal? Of course, a biblically nourished faith longs passionately for creation to reach its divinely intended fulfillment. However, as long as the universe remains unfinished, its inhabitants are able to share in the momentous work here and now of building the world. They may trust, in every present moment that they abide continuously within the glow of a new creation with an incalculably open future to occur within the infinite expanse of divinity itself. 

After Darwin, theology has to take into account the fact that the actual world no longer matches prescientific notions of perfect design. Current evolutionary portraits of nature now provide us with the opportunity to go beyond our insistence that nature should be better designed and more evenly ordered than it is. In Christian terms, the new evolutionary accounts of nature invite us to recapture the often obscured portrait of a self-humbling, suffering God who is anything but a divine controller or designer of the cosmos.  

In the words of St. Paul, of course, such a picture of God’s hiddenness and vulnerability seem to be “foolishness” in comparison with a more conventional sense of divine power and wisdom (1 Cor 1:25). Many will find Darwinian evolution too problematic a notion to let it become too close an ally of theology, but the internal structure and spirit of Christian faith should have prepared us long ago for the news about the evolution of the world and life. For if God is infinite love giving itself to the finite world, then—as theologian Karl Rahner has noted—the finite world cannot possibly receive this limitless graciousness in any single instant. In response to the outpouring of God’s boundless self-gift the universe would be invited instead to undergo a process of gradual self-transformation. In order to ‘adapt’ to the divine infinity the finite cosmos would likely have to intensify, in an ongoing and open-ended way, its own capacity to receive the divine superabundance. In other words, the world might endure what we now understand scientifically as an arduous and dramatic evolution toward increasing complexity, life, consciousness and widening beauty.  

Viewed in this light, evolution is more than just ‘compatible’ with a biblically and theologically informed notion of providence. Faith in a humble, promising God whose essence is self-giving love, continually and patiently opens up a new future for the evolution of life and the cosmos. In the final analysis, it is entirely appropriate for theology to think about providence in terms of the dramatic picture of life that Darwin and contemporary evolutionary science have given us.