Darwin, God, and the drama of life

By John F. HaughtWoodstock Theological Center Evolution makes very good sense scientifically speaking. But does it make good sense theologically … Continued

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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Georgetown/On Faith


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  • rdpch

    We claimed that perfection supports our fairy tale, but the scientists demonstrated imperfection, so now we will claim instead that imperfection supports our fairy tale. Imperfection doesn’t need an explanation.

  • janwhite30

    I agree with Mr. Haught in general. I’m fortunate enough to “know” there is a hereafter; I have been in the presence of one member of the Holy Trinity; and my mother in her lifetime died twice and came back both times and told her children about what it was like. There is a great feeling of peace in this knowledge and I feel sorry for anyone who believes there is nothing in the world after they die.

  • rentianxiang

    First, believers don’t reject science because of some focus on the complexity of life. They reject science/evolution because it contradicts their holy book which tells them the universe was created in six days about six thousand years ago, give or take a century. There is no reason to buy into that myth any more than the myths of ancient Greece. You keep having faith in whatever you wish, scientists will actually continue to work and think and research and discover. As the drama of life continues, science will reveal more, the mythologies of your faith will be disproven, and you will have to keep holding on to an ever decreasing relevance. What you don’t seem to get, and Dawkins does, is that religion does not give any answers based on objective truth, and at least science tries. The story of evolution is plenty dramatic and would not be any more so, and actually maybe even less so, if some tooth-fairy were directing it. Fear not, though, since science will continue to unravel life’s mysteries whether you like it or not.

  • richardemmanueljones

    A comedy of errors from the scary master clown conjured up in Haught’s own image – there is drama indeed in this tragic cognitive collapse, as Haught drowns in his own fluid subthoughts in a mind flown free from reality.

  • Carstonio

    “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.”We have no basis for assuming the existence of inherent meaning in the first place. “Inherent meaning” would be any meaning not created by humans, or meaning that would exist if humans never existed. Haught errs in treating assertions of meaning created by gods as different from assertions of design created by gods. Both amount to assertions of fact. It’s intellectually irresponsible to assert as an objective fact that inherent meaning exists while claiming that the assertion cannot be challenged in any way, which is what Haught is condoning.

  • fliprim

    This smacks of desperation. There will be good Intelligent Design one day, just not for you my friend. The diseases afflicting my family members and friends are therefore to be appreciated and admired in this unfolding narrative of meaning. It would be nice if some of their/my descendants are around to see the punchline.Fortunately, Intelligent Designers have indeed entered the scene and dispatched many diseases and found remedies for a little of the dire bodily infrastructure we’ve been bequeathed. Life the universe and everything are endlessly marvelous and fascinating, but they are also painful, miserable and hellish for all of us at some point and most of the time for far too many. Only we have the power to fix this.

  • BenHammond1

    test

  • BenHammond1

    “To make sense of the drama of life, therefore, we shall have to wait”For what? More theological nonsense? Ah…here it comes.”Evolution makes very good sense scientifically speaking. But does it make good sense theologically as well?”No. Theology makes no sense whatever as it is based on nothing.”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. “Translation: I prefer fairy stories.”….evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere”WTF. Someone is certainly staggering drunkenly. All this fantastic diversity is ‘nowhere’. Listen to yourself.”Dramatic stories, unlike complex living systems or elaborately structured molecular states, have the potential to carry a truly deep significance.”FFS. Alice is still in wonderland.”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.”Bare assertion. Meaningless conjecture.Altogether a piece so full of inane gibberish it is difficult to comprehend the decision to publish it.

  • khote14

    This is your typical god of the gaps nonsense. Anyplace science doesn’t yet know, why that’s where god is.Unfortunately for you folks the gaps are getting smaller all the time. What are you going to do when you reach the last gap?oh, was that a pun?

  • efavorite

    Janwhite – could you tell us which member of the Holy Trinity you’ve been in the presence of?And what did your mother learn about the afterlife?

  • dlkimura

    Mr. Haught, please tell us where you buy your pot, so we can all get high with you.Asking existential questions and wondering over whether there’s “something beyond” are one thing. Defining the universe and reality by some little black book of fairy tales is more akin to mental illness.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, “Carstonio” appears yet again. Keep in mind that this is an anonymous blog and imposters abound even though it is a significant violoation of blog rules to have use multiple IDs.

  • cornbread_r2

    “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.” — John F. Haught————Which would seem to make your god indistinguishable from an incompetent god, a malevolent god, an indifferent god, or no god at all. The rule of parsimony demands that I select the last of those options.

  • itsthedax

    Mr. Haught, with all due respect, all that you’ve said in eight paragraphs is “If I don’t understand it, it must be supernatural”.

  • Navin1

    I find drama is often a metaphor for what is real to humans. Usually overly dramatic. Rarely is drama able to capture the true subtlety of a full life, character, or Truth itself. It is, a play. Go to it, enjoy it, then go on.Life is so much more. The arguments of western theists are afraid of embracing an evolving reality, fundamentally it means that god is rethinking the creation. In monoideology, that poses a problem – is god making it better implying that it was worse before? But the atheists too want their god to be simple. A creator that can be discounted.The Hindu trinity is of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (the creator, the maintainer, and the destroyer). But the creator is considered a lesser god by most. The creator is time bound and he is dishonest. (There is a whole story to describe this). But creation in Hinduism is a dance that is ongoing – a whole art, one could say a dramatic representation of the divine will. When the dance ends, the story ends. Thus the perfection is in the, and transcendent to, the diversity of movements and interplay of themes – evolution. Indeed, this maya, this creation in which we participate, is the play of God (literally the word used is Lila = play).Again, you do not have to believe in the personality of godhead. But if you worship truth, then you can still appreciate the beauty of evolution. Life is the drama. We need wait nothing, it is unfolding before and within us – the existential now.hariaum

  • Counterww

    Dawkins, like Sagan, worships the creation not the Creator.Poor soul.

  • daniel12

    Part one.What I find astonishing is that both religious people and atheists–most people in general–fail to understand that there has never been a description of reality in total rather than partial that is perfectly logically consistent and/or without other problems.What I mean by partial descriptions of reality are theories such as Darwin’s and Einstein’s. Each man did not give a theory or description of life in total but concentrated on correctly describing certain aspects of reality. Atheists and the religious on the other hand each attempt to have the last word, that their views are total and permanent and that all we have to do is fill in details, give more and more correct partial descriptions which will reside in the pet theory or view in total.Darwin neither proved nor disproved the existence of God. Some like to believe he disproved God because he demonstrated that complex organisms can come from simpler and are not created in total, fixed and from the top down from some God. But Darwin did not get at the origin of life, did not show that there is no God–he did not even know about DNA let alone whether God exists.But both atheists and the religious are circling the man, each trying to get Darwin to support their pet theories of life in total. The truth is both the religious and atheistic views are deficient as total descriptions of reality. Again, there is no total view which is perfectly logically consistent and/or free of other problems. If such a view did exist existence would essentially be solved–in fact it would be arguable why we should go ahead with philosophy and science for they can only fill in details, are really not relevant to a total view.

  • ccnl1

    The answer to god and evolution can be found in “Consciousness”According to Drs. Lanza and Berman in their new book, “Biocentrism”, the last frontier is Consciousness.An excerpt:”However, the Grand Canyon or Taj Mahal are only real when you get there.” p. 160.”Third Principle of Biocentrism:The behavior of subatomic particles- indeed all particles and objects- is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.” p. 93. “So the table has been set in the public mind for biocentrism’s jump to the reality that its all only in the mind, that the universe exists nowhere else. “p. 167

  • Carstonio

    Human-Ape, natural selection doesn’t seem to contradict some types of god-belief. There are theists who believe that their gods created the process of natural selection, a stance similar to the deist concept of the cosmic watchmaker. And other theists may accept natural selection but still believe in divine intervention in other areas of the universe. But those still represents hypotheses about the universe, and must be scrutinized like any other hypothesis.

  • ccnl1

    And the imposter “Carstonio” again makes an appearance. What arrogance this person has to continue to use multiple IDs thereby violating blog rules!!!

  • tojby_2000

    JANWHITE30 wrote: I have been in the presence of one member of the Holy Trinity…History is replete with testimonials of people who believed they were in the presence of their deity(ies). Your belief is only evidence of your faith.

  • gordoncampbell

    So many fancy words here: “…biological evolution is part of immense cosmic journey into the incomprehensible mystery of God”. I think it was E.M. Forster who said “a mystery is a fancy name for a muddle”. Mysteries and muddles are beautiful — beautiful starting points from which to try to achieve understanding. An “incomprehensible mystery”? Don’t celebrate so much your inability to comprehend. We can never get complete enlightenment, but don’t wallow in the darkness.

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