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The Boston Phoenix Darwin and the Deity

In search of an evolutionary God

By Jeffrey Gantz

MARCH 28, 2000: 

Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search For Common Ground Between God And Evolution by Kenneth R. Miller (Cliff Street/Harper Collins), 352 pages, $25.

God After Darwin: A Theology Of Evolution by John F. Haught (Westview Press), 237 pages, $25.

In 1859, On the Origin of Species appeared, in which Charles Darwin presented compelling evidence that "all species, including man, are descended from other species" and that from the variety of species nature selects only the fittest to survive and bear offspring. This revelation -- what American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett calls "Darwin's dangerous idea" -- struck conventional religion like a thunderbolt from the Almighty. Gone in a twinkling was the simple, kindly father figure who created the Garden of Eden and fashioned humankind from scratch.

Western theology might have welcomed The Origin of Species as an invitation to develop a more complex, adult, "evolutionary" view of the Divine. Instead, it mostly decided that Darwin's idea was indeed too dangerous to confront. Over the past 25 years the seeds of ignorance that religion has sown have reaped a whirlwind of funeral orations as scientists like biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker), geneticist Richard Lewontin, entomologist Edward O. Wilson (On Human Nature), and physicist Steven Weinberg (The First Three Minutes) have delivered high-profile pronouncements on the death of religion and the meaninglessness of the universe. Religion's high-profile response has been from the likes of biochemist Michael Behe (Darwin's Black Box), Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial), Institute for Creation Research founder Henry Morris (Scientific Creationism), and the Kansas Board of Education (which last year voted to let local school boards offer creationist alternatives to evolution). If this exchange were a debate, any rational audience would score it a landslide for the scientists. But has religion put forth its best case for a God who can live with Darwin?

Kenneth R. Miller and John F. Haught say no. In their new and similarly titled books, they scold the likes of Dennett and Dawkins for packaging Darwinian science in a materialist philosophy, at the same time tongue-lashing the creation religionists for denying the obvious truths of evolution and giving us a kindergarten God. Miller, who lives in Rehoboth, is a professor of biology at Brown; Haught is a professor of theology at Georgetown University and the director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion. Both suggest new ways of understanding God that leave materialist science and fundamentalist Christianity back in the cosmic dust.

Cell biologist Miller opens Finding Darwin's God with a lighthearted account of how he first encountered Darwin as part of a teenager's summer-reading campaign designed to impress a young lady (it didn't). This first chapter, "Darwin's Apple," posits evolution as the apple from the Tree of Knowledge; the following one, "Eden's Children," suggests it's "high time that we grew up and left the Garden" -- that we're now old enough to appreciate "the dazzling richness" of God's "genuine biological world."

"God the Charlatan" exposes the deity of creation science as a God "who has filled the universe with so much bogus evidence that the tools of science can give us nothing more than a phony version of reality. In other words, their God has negated science by rigging the universe with fiction and deception. To embrace that God, we must reject science and worship deception itself." "God the Magician" undermines the "intelligent design" arguments of Phillip Johnson, noting that "Intelligent design does a terrible disservice to God by casting him as a magician who periodically creates and creates and then creates again throughout the geologic ages. . . . God is not a magician who works cheap tricks. Rather, His magic lies in the fabric of the universe itself." (In the process there's a telling discussion of "punctuated equilibrium" wherein Miller pretty much punctures the 1972 "discovery" by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge -- it's all in how you draw the time scale.) "God the Mechanic" rejects Michael Behe's argument that "an irreducibly complex system" cannot evolve step by step by showing that function can indeed evolve along with form (just check out the section on lobster fibrinogen).

Given the overwhelming evidence that Darwin got it right, why does religion continue to oppose evolution? Miller thinks it's because evolution as represented by the likes of Dawkins and Wilson seems so implacably opposed to religion. And he hints that materialist ideology's grasp of religion is as blinkered as the Christian right's grasp of evolution when he quotes Dawkins as saying, "I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world." (One can't entirely blame Dawkins for that statement, or Wilson for rebelling against his fundamentalist Southern Baptist upbringing, since religion -- and Christianity in particular -- has done such a poor job of manifesting itself.)

Miller himself is not a theologian, so he's limited in his efforts to point Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson, et al. in the right direction, but he does remind us that the quantum revolution that destroyed Newtonian certainty prescribes an uncertainty of meaning for our universe, and that even the DNA mutations that make evolution possible are the result of quantum unpredictability. Acknowledging that this open-endedness in no way proves the existence of God, he argues that a deterministic divine universe would be a pretty dull place, and he apostrophizes evolution as the process that sooner or later "would have given the Creator exactly what He was looking for -- a creature who, like us, could know Him and love Him, could perceive the heavens and dream of the stars, a creature who would eventually discover the extraordinary process of evolution that filled His earth with so much life." "What kind of God do I believe in?" Miller concludes. "I believe in Darwin's God."

Equally, it's clear, does John F. Haught, but he approaches the problem from the theological end. Against the cult of modern scientific materialism, which he sees as locked into a deterministic past, and the timelessness-of-truth theology that posits God as a spiritual being "ensconced 'eternally' above the finite temporal world," he proposes an Omega Deity who beckons "all things toward a transcendent future," a God who is not "up above" but rather "up ahead." His is a God of kenotic love who empties Himself into a genuinely independent creation that is thus afforded the capacity for evolutionary self-transcendence:

According to [Catholic theologian Karl] Rahner, the central content of Christian faith is that the infinite mystery of God pours itself generously, fully, and without reservation into the creation. Put in simpler terms, the infinite gives itself away to the finite. But the fullness of divine infinity cannot be received instantaneously by a finite cosmos. Such a reception could take place only incrementally or gradually. A finite world could "adapt" to an infinite source of love only by a process of gradual expansion and ongoing self-transcendence, the external manifestation of which might appear to science as cosmic and biological evolution.

In other words, Haught's cosmos is not a child to its parent God but an independent entity that's been endowed with the capacity to accept or reject and thus to interact with the Divine like a friend or lover -- but in an adult relationship, not the stuff of Hollywood movies or pop music. And though he's writing from a Roman Catholic perspective, Haught hints at how this kind of theology might work outside a Christian perspective:

Evolution happens, ultimately, because of the "coming of God" toward the entire universe from out of an always elusive future. And just as the arrival of God does not enter the human sphere by crude extrinsic forcefulness but by participating in it and energizing it from within, we may assume that it does not enter coercively into the pre-human levels of cosmic and biological evolution either. The coming of God into nature, like the nonintrusiveness of the Tao, is always respectful of the world's presently realized autonomy. God's entrance into the present and invitation to a new creation may be so subtle and subdued as to go completely unnoticed by a philosophical theology that turns us toward a timeless and already completed plenitude of being.

Haught's thought is informed by process theology and the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead; God After Darwin can get philosophically abstract in its speculation, and the chapter weighing Whitehead against the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas delves deeper into their particular differences than you may feel is relevant. But Haught's rejection of both a cosmos that's blindly unspooling its deterministic legacy (à la Dawkins and Dennett) and a cosmos from which we escape to pie in the sky (à la fundamentalist Christianity) in favor of one that's expanding into the infinity of God bespeaks the kind of renewal that mainstream theology sorely needs.

Not that Miller and Haught are lone voices crying in the wilderness. Beatrice Bruteau's 1997 God's Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World (Crossroad) presents the cosmos -- from inflation theory to symbiotic chemistry to eukaryotic cells to junk DNA -- as the work of an ecstatic (that is, "standing outside oneself") God; this disciple of Teilhard de Chardin combines a poetic theology (the paradox of the Theotokos) with informed science ("More RNA is made by RNAs that make peptides that catalyze RNA-assembly than by RNAs that don't"). Diarmuid O'Murchu's 1997 Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of the New Physics (Crossroad) delivers on its title. And Brian Greene's 1999 The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (now out in paperback) reminds us that we're just beginning to discover the physical universe. There's a lot more to heaven and earth than even Darwin dreamed of.

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