Is the God of Evolution Radical Enough?

Added about 2 years ago by David O. Brown

GUEST BLOG: As part of our February focus on Science & Faith David O. Brown, author of Incarnation and Neo-Darwinism: Evolution, Ontology and Divine Activity, asks us to reconsder how we conceptualise the relationship between God and evolution.

Today, very few people question the validity of evolution on religious grounds. It is rightly recognised that accepting evolution does not necessitate dismissing the divine inspiration of the Biblical texts. And accepting the divine inspiration of the Bible does not oblige the believer to hold that the Bible gives an accurate and irrefutable historical record.Author Photo

However, acceptance of the fact of evolution does not guarantee agreement on the mechanism by which it occurs. For example, a significant proportion of religious believers (probably affirming something akin to Teilhard de Chardin’s explanation of evolution) would accept evolution but wholly reject the sort of neo-Darwinism that supporters of a Richard Dawkins-esque atheism might proclaim. If evolution is true, so these religious believers would argue, then it must be part of the unfolding of God’s plan for God’s creation; if evolution does occur, then it must have some sort of divine purpose; if evolution happens, then it’s outcome must be determined (or at the very least influenced) by God.

I am sceptical of this approach. I am sceptical only because of the sort of God that this approach asks us to affirm: a God who seems more like a super-human than the utterly mysterious, utterly transcendent, ineffable God theology has come to affirm. Of course, this does not mean that I am dismissing the obviously crucial Christian message of a God who so loved the world that God sent God’s Son to die for it, nor am I dismissing the providential God who ‘wills the good’ (Summa Theologiae I, 19), but I am concerned that a God who manipulates the course of history (however that is achieved) might become a sort of caricature that does not reflect the God of Augustine, the Cappadocians, Anselm, Aquinas and the other theological heavyweights whose important insights have shaped the way that Christians think about God and God’s relationship with creation.

In his book God and Contemporary Science, Philip Clayton explains the important intellectual journey that the Biblical authors underwent: moving away from the polytheism of the ancient world to an acceptance of many gods but only one to whom worship was owed (i.e., henotheism), and from this to the affirmation that there is simply one God. However, Clayton laments that this intellectual journey about the nature of God is often unaccompanied by a comparable journey about divine activity. Theologians are quick to affirm monotheism, but continue to conceive divine activity as a polytheist (or henotheist) might do. These theologians, Clayton laments, have just not been ‘radical enough’ to leave behind the polythesitic picture of.

Richard Swinburne is one theologian whom Clayton might consider has failed to be radical enough. Swinburne begins his classic The Coherence of Theism by defining God as a ‘person without a body (i.e. a spirit) who is eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything, is perfectly good, is the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe,’ a definition, Swinburne explains, that ‘seems the most elementary claim of theism.’ Alvin Plantinga apparently agrees with Swinburne. In Does God Have a Nature? he rejects Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of divine simplicity on the basis that it cannot be reconciled with a God who is a ‘person,’ that is, ‘a living, conscious being who knows, wills and acts.’ Commentators who criticise Swinburne and Plantinga’s approach call it theistic personalism: the approach to theology that places greatest value in God being a ‘person.’

Swinburne and Plantinga are no naive amateur theologians and are rightly celebrated, but both are theologians who seem to be describing God as nothing radically different than Hart’s ‘monopolytheist.’ Furthermore, there is an increasing realisation among some theologians that Swinburne’s claim that his definition of God ‘seems the most elementary claim of theism,’ is just not the case; and may never have been the case. A God who is ‘a living, conscious being who knows, wills and acts’ and is described as a ‘person’ still sounds very much like a creature like humanity. Of course, one might counter that such a God who is a person is ‘infinitely greater’ or ‘maximally perfect,’ but it is an infinitely greater version of the same ‘thing’ as humans - a person - not a different kind of ‘thing,’ or not even a ‘thing’ at all. That is, God seems to be different only in degree, not in kind.

Paul Tillich does not explicitly expound his theology in opposition to Swinburne, but it is clear that Tillich does theology very differently. Tillich could not be clearer when he writes in Systematic Theology Vol. 1  that, for him, talk of a personal God is a ‘confusing symbol.’ For Tillich, any talk of God as a person does nothing but bring God into the universe and makes ‘God…a being alongside others.’ Crucially, this leads Tillich to argue that God cannot even be ‘brought into the subject-object structure of being’ because, if God is an individual subject then God ‘ceases to be the ground of being and becomes one being among others.’ If God cannot be brought into a subject-object relation with the universe, then God cannot be the subject of an activity, the object of which is the universe or anything within it. As Frank Kirkpatrick writes, ‘God cannot be the kind of reality who can literally do anything at all because “doing” (acting) is not possible for the kind of reality that God, in God’s deepest and most cognitively inaccessible being, essentially is.’

The implication of Tillich’s thinking (although Tillich himself does not reach this conclusion) is that evolution cannot be something that God controls or uses to create without the outcome of evolution being the object of an activity of which God is the subject. To put that differently, evolution cannot be something that God utilises, without God thereby becoming a person and so becoming nothing more than the god of the monopolythist.

Of course, there will be plenty of readers who find Swinburne’s God quite attractive, and there will be plenty of reasons why that should be so. Appeal to Biblical language is one such reason that should not be dismissed lightly. Likewise, perhaps Tillich’s God might be too radical. Critics of Tillich see his God as ‘running counter to that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which conceives of God as a living, personal being’ (‘Tillich and Thomas: The Analogy of Being’, in The Journal of Religion Vol. 46 No. 2). It is all very well acknowledging that theologians need to be radical in their thinking about God, but radicality should not trump other theological considerations. Perhaps one needs to tread a path between Swinburne and Tillich.

There are also plenty of other elements to this debate that have been glossed over here, such as divine temporality, divine simplicity, and Biblical theology. Likewise, there are other ways of interpreting evolution theologically (such as Jürgen Moltmann’s). The debate is clearly more complex than such a small space can do justice. However, it seems to me that interpreting evolution as a process to which God subjects the world in order to realise God’s desires suffers from the charge of failing to be as radical as theologians should be. As Frederich Bauerschmidt writes, ‘“God” is the answer not to the question of why this or that thing occurs, but the question of why anything occurs.’ God answers a much deeper and fundamental question than simply why humans emerged from evolutionary history.

If nothing else, religious believers must be prepared to face Clayton’s challenge; we cannot reassure our atheist interlocutors that our religion is not infantile ‘wish fulfillment’ that postulates a great father in the sky and then conceive of divine activity in ways that betray that claim. If that is the case, then God cannot be the great manipulator of history, and evolution cannot be the unfolding of a divine plan.



David O. Brown studied theology at Canterbury Christ Church University. Since completing his PhD, David has continued to research Christology and neo-Darwinism, albeit in a personal capacity. His book Incarnation and Neo-Darwinism is being featured as part of our February #ThemeOfTheMonth: Science & Faith. You can get your copy here!

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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