Home >  News and Events >  MUToday >  December 2009 - Issue 71 >  An Unfinished Universe  

News and Events

An Unfinished Universe

by Denise Alexander

With the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, the worlds of science and religion were rocked to their foundations. Darwin asserted that all living species are descended from a common ancestor and that those species that endure do so through natural selection – meaning, in plain terms, that only the strong survive. Darwin’s belief-shattering conclusions challenged the Biblical version of the creation of the universe and indeed questioned the very existence of a divine providence.

Immediately upon the book’s publication, Darwin’s assertions fueled a firestorm of debate. Today, 150 years later, scientists, theologians, and people of all faiths continue to grapple with the issues raised by Darwin’s work, with various sides coming to different conclusions drawn from the same facts. For some, science has become the new god or has rendered the universe godless. Others reject evolution out of hand or rationalize it via belief in a divine Designer who meticulously planned all aspects of the universe – including every step in the course of human evolution.

Still others reconcile science and faith on a more cosmic level, asserting that life is always coming into existence – that all living things are part of an infinite, constantly changing, unfinished universe. Dr. John Haught is one such thinker.

Haught, a renowned Catholic theologian who serves as Senior Fellow for Science and Religion at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, recently visited Marymount as a Distinguished Visiting Professor. His lecture, “Evolution and Faith: What’s at Stake” provided an analysis of these varying perspectives and of the perceived chasm that evolution has carved between science and religion.

Undeniably, cultural warfare still rages over the veracity of evolution. Dr. Haught cited a recent Science magazine survey showing that only 40% of Americans believe in evolution. He also noted recent legal and regulatory challenges in many states that would impose limitations on the teaching of evolution as part of the science curriculum in public schools. These are puzzling data, given that the physical evidence for evolution is overwhelming.

Scientists generally accept the Big Bang theory as the plausible explanation for the start of the universe approximately 14 billion years ago. While life began 3.8 billion years ago, it was not until the Cambrian explosion – approximately 530 million years ago – that the complexity and diversity of organisms began to accelerate. After the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, mammalian life evolved at a relatively rapid pace. All of this is indisputably demonstrated in the fossil record.

Given the scientific evidence for evolution, Dr. Haught attacked the question, “What’s at stake?” His unflinching answer went right to the heart of the matter: “For many, we would have to say that what’s at issue is the existence of a Creator. If Darwin is right and natural selection is the cause of so much in the biosphere – the diversity, design, adaptation, and so forth – then what place is there for a Creator?”

Consider the beliefs that are challenged by evolution. Haught enumerated, “It’s whether there is a divine origin to the incredibly beautiful phenomenon that we refer to as living design in a biological world. For many it’s the goodness of creation – if life came about the way evolutionary biologists say it did, then can we honestly say that it is good? And, if there is not a sharp break between us and other forms of mammals, then who are we, after all? Do we have a distinctive identity? Are we created in the image and likeness of God?”

Haught continued to ponder the questions that rock Christian belief: “What is the meaning of Christ if Darwin is right? If Christ was part of the human species that evolved from other species, then what does that say about the Savior? What about the scope of redemption? Does that apply just to us, the harvesting of souls in the universe, or does it apply to all of life’s suffering? But above all, after Darwin, can we plausibly refer to the venerable ideas of a divine providence? Has Darwin spoiled all this?”

On the surface, the answer would appear to be yes. According to Darwin’s evolutionary recipe, life evolves through accidents, including random genetic mutations. Then, in order to ensure the survival of some, natural selection weeds out the weak and enables the strong to flourish. And, Haught noted, “deep time” stirs the mix by providing the eons during which all of this can happen.

Dr. Haught acknowledged the quandary this poses for those who are searching for evidence of a divine providence. He queried, “Why would a God who is interested in life, mind, and consciousness fool around – and fool around for billions of years! – before bringing about consciousness, the capacity for moral aspirations, and religious belief?”

In short, where does God fit into the evolutionary equation? For many, the answer is He doesn’t. It’s either God or Darwin, but not both. Some cannot reconcile the idea of human ancestors first emerging from swamps and eventually swinging from trees with the traditional religious concept of human origins. Beyond that, many cannot fathom a divine providence that would allow for the immensity of suffering that occurs in nature as part of evolutionary biology.

This perspective has only been reinforced as scientific advancements have provided more and more knowledge of genes. Sir Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary scientist, asserts that Darwinian biology goes best with absolute atheism. Genes make their way from one generation to the next, and everything is dictated by DNA. Dawkins and many other contemporary scientists and philosophers believe that there is no design, no purpose, no divine wisdom, no good, no evil – just blind, pitiless indifference. Pure Darwinism boils down to materialism – the notion that matter is all there is.

Given the bleakness of this picture, it is not difficult to understand a backlash from the religious community. Some believers reject evolution altogether. Others have embraced the theory of intelligent design, which posits that a guiding Designer crafted every detail of the evolutionary process – an idea that negates the role of accident and random genetic mutation over time, so central to Darwinian thought.

Indeed, intelligent design has emerged as a widely accepted explanation for evolutionary biology among many religious traditions. Its proponents argue that natural causes can explain simple natural phenomena but cannot account for the complexity and diversity of most living things. These must have some “intelligent causation.” Therefore, the theory’s proponents say, intelligent design should become part of scientific understanding.

John Haught does not question the basic premise of a divine intelligence as the ultimate explanation for life, but he does reject intelligent design.

In the recent court case Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, where a school board sought to include the teaching of intelligent design in biology classes, Haught appeared as a witness for the plaintiff. In his testimony, he noted that science relies upon physical evidence and proof, and that no such demonstrable scientific proof exists to substantiate intelligent design. He concluded, therefore, that the theory is essentially a religious one. Thus, teaching it would be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, more commonly referred to as separation of church and state. The court agreed, ultimately ruling in the plaintiff’s favor.

But going beyond the science controversy, Haught questions the theological basis of intelligent design, which argues for a God who dictates every detail of life. In his view, this is a diminishing of the Almighty – an idea that “turns God into a tinkerer, rather than a creator.” Dr. Haught concludes that intelligent design is “bad science and bad theology.”

So, is there any bridge to cross the chasm that divides religion and science? Haught says yes – that between the extremes of materialism and creationism/intelligent design, there exists a wide spectrum of approaches that religious thinkers and theologians have considered. And many of these lead to the conclusion that evolution is a stimulus to theology, rather than its enemy.

One school of thought says that humans must simply accept things as they are with unquestioning faith. Evolution is a fact, but our human ignorance cannot comprehend God’s providential plan. We don’t see the big picture, so we just have to trust.

Another approach interprets evolution as part of a divine pedagogy, asserting that God’s providence and wisdom use the process for a specific end. In this context, the Darwinian recipe of accidents, natural selection, and deep time is really the curriculum for the school of life and the school of souls. The thinking here is that if life had never had to face any challenges, it would still be relatively undeveloped and – taking it a step further – that humans would be anemic of character without challenges. For those who espouse this approach, there couldn’t be a better curriculum for life than the unrelenting dominance of nature. Thus the concept of divine pedagogy sees evolution as God’s school for building character.

But John Haught, having spent a professional lifetime studying the work of other religious thinkers and theologians, wrestling with scientific fact versus religious faith, and developing his own beliefs, champions a more infinite and cosmic view of God’s divine wisdom.

For Haught, evolution can be reconciled with faith by belief in a God who has generously given the universe the means and the time to develop – essentially, given it the opportunity to become itself. Wrapped within God’s divine wisdom, evolution is an essential tool in the process of unfolding – a process through which the physical world and all living things are continually moving forward, changing, and becoming. Dr. Haught calls this “evolutionary theology.”

Seen in this light, Darwinian biology is not anathema to religion. Accidents are not mere chance, but openness to possibilities. Haught says that, by allowing for accidents – from the meteor strike that is believed to have ended the dinosaurs to random genetic mutations – God has created a world of infinite possibility. Haught asserts that the universe was not created as a static, perfected work, essentially an extension of God Himself. Rather, it was created as a separate entity, throbbing with life and potential, a work set in place by God and allowed by Him to develop and express itself. And the laws of nature – from the law of gravity to the law of natural selection – provide a framework of stability and reliability within which this growth and becoming can occur.

Evolutionary theology, then, embraces both accidents and the laws of nature and sees that when they intersect within deep time, wonderful things occur. This view understands Darwinian biology in the context of a universe that is still coming into being. Dr. Haught says it logically follows that, “As the universe comes into being, more highly intense types of entities arise – living beings; then beings capable of feeling; then consciousness; then in us, freedom and a capacity for hope. Hope is how we continue this adventure into the future, into the mystery of God. All of evolution is life feeling its way forward.”

But how does this view jibe with individual belief systems? For example, Haught questioned, “How can I, as a Christian theologian – specifically a Roman Catholic – approach the question of what to make of evolution?”

He concludes that any Christian theological approach must first take into account the man Jesus, someone who loved life, but opened Himself to the vulnerabilities of being hurt. In the Incarnation, Dr. Haught explains, Jesus reveals the divine kenosis – a divine emptying-out or self-humbling.

Haught extends this idea to the broader concept of a kenotic deity, a God who holds back His power so that something else can come into being – not an instantly perfect being, but one that has the opportunity to become itself over a long period of time. Given this idea, Haught speculates that “we may only be at the dawn of an incredibly rich and creative process in which the universe is always allowed to be in the process of becoming itself.” His ultimate conclusion: “Theology does not conflict with science.”

But there is still the difficult question of why the evolutionary process involves so much suffering. Certainly, in a world imbued with divine providence, there is no intelligible place for suffering and death.

Haught looks to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for spiritual guidance in resolving this dilemma. A Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Teilhard spent a lifetime trying to make spiritual sense of an evolutionary world that is so often “red in tooth and claw.”

In his philosophical reflections, Teilhard posits that anything unfinished is imperfect, and thus has a shadow side where evil, suffering, and death can gain a foothold. He saw this personally as a witness to the horrors of World War I.

Teilhard believed that evil and death can occur – in the natural world and in human experience – because of the unfinished nature of the universe. He theorized that a perfect universe that did not allow for evils would be indistinct from God. There would be no otherness, no free will, no possibility of growth. Yes, it would be a world without suffering, but it would also be a world without a future.

With this perspective in mind, John Haught can reconcile the facts of evolutionary biology with faith in a loving God. He reflects, “God doesn’t withdraw from the universe in an apathetic sense, but hides the Divine Self within the world process, becomes incarnate in the world, takes up the cross, suffers along with evolution so that the blood of evolution and the blood of Christ combine, all of it taking place within the life of God.”

In the end, Dr. Haught sees evolution and faith as intimately entwined. He observes, “Some may conclude that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. For me, nothing in theology makes sense except in light of evolution.”