By John F. Haught
Woodstock Theological Center
Evolution makes very good sense scientifically speaking. But does it make good sense theologically as well? Not everyone thinks it does. Religious believers who find evolution contrary to faith usually do so because they are focusing on the complex “design” that scientists have discovered in cells and organisms. They insist that life’s chemically and physically improbable architecture points to a divine intelligence that current biology cannot explain. Evolution-inspired atheists, however, usually respond that the architecture of cells and organisms is imperfect, even though awe-inspiring. “This imperfection–the manifold design flaws of life–,” writes David Barash of the University of Washington, “points incontrovertibly to a natural, rather than a divine process, one in which living things were not created de novo, but evolved.”
I propose, however, that religious thought can make significant contact with Darwin’s science if instead of focusing on design it turns its attention to the drama of life. The typically design-obsessed frame of mind through which so many devout theists, as well as staunch atheists, are looking at the question of God and evolution is a dead end both scientifically and theologically.
Religious conservatives have desperately tried to introduce the idea of “intelligent design” into their pre-Darwinian idealization of scientific understanding. But in doing so they have overlooked the grandeur that Darwin saw in the larger story of life. Ironically, contemporary evolutionary materialists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jerry Coyne, for example), are as preoccupied with design as their anti-Darwinian religious opponents. They too have seized Darwin’s rich story of life and bled the drama right out of it.
Claiming that Darwin has disposed of divine design, atheistic evolutionists assume that science has thereby wiped away the last traces of deity from the record of life. Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution–unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time–that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.
The most important issue in the current debate about evolution and faith is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning. According to rigid design standards, evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere. But viewed dramatically, the apparent absence of perfect order at any present moment is an opening to the future, a signal that the story of life is not yet over.
To make sense of the drama of life, therefore, we shall have to wait–a disposition essential to any mature religious faith. For if evolution has an eternally sanctioned “point,” we should expect that it would presently be hidden in the narrative depths of life rather than manifested in the always imperfect instances of design that float along on life’s surface. Dramatic stories, unlike complex living systems or elaborately structured molecular states, have the potential to carry a truly deep significance. But it is the nature of stories that they have comic twists and tragic turns, and that they take time to unfold.
So whatever meaning the drama of life may be carrying cannot become transparent to our present intellectual efforts or scientific observations. Again, we have to wait.
A theological reading of evolution, I am suggesting, looks for an alternative to the rigor mortis of perfect design, and this is why Darwin’s ragged portrait of life is not so distressing after all. Theologically understood, biological evolution is part of an immense cosmic journey into the incomprehensible mystery of God. Any possible meaning it has will reside at a level of narrative depth unfathomable by the mathematical nets of physical science, by armchair observation, or by minds fixated on design.
According to a biblically inspired theology of nature, beneath life’s diversity, descent, and flawed design, stirs an evolutionary drama that has been aroused, though not coercively driven, by a God of infinite love. The cosmos is called continually into being by a Creator who wills, but does not force, truly interesting outcomes to emerge in surprising new ways. God, as scripture suggests, is the one who “makes all things new.” The drama of life and its evolution is a response to this invitation.
John F. Haught, Ph. D., is Senior Fellow, Science & Religion, at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
By John F. Haught |
November 30, 2009; 3:51 PM ET
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