How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 2

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July 26, 2010 Tags: Problem of Evil

Today's entry was written by Bethany Sollereder. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

How Could God Create Through Evolution? Part 2

This blog is the second piece in a series by Bethany Sollereder. The first entry is found here.

Last week we looked at how our very good evolutionary world necessarily includes unpleasant realities like earthquakes and pain. This week, we are going to look at why God might have created a world through evolutionary processes. What is the advantage of a world where pain and death are necessities? What is gained by an evolutionary process that would not be present in an unchanging, static, ‘perfect’ world? Why did God not simply create heaven in the first place? These are questions of huge theological significance and are not going to be satisfactorily answered here. I do, however, hope to offer some starting points for discussion.

I began to look at these questions by researching Irenaeus’s theology of creation. Irenaeus of Lyons was a second-century Church Father, and one of the Church’s greatest theologians. One of the most intriguing parts about his theology is that he understood the creation as being made in immaturity. Most of us imagine the world of Genesis 1-2, or the original creation, as a perfect world, where everything is already completed, and where Adam and Eve were meant to live out their lives in a perfect existence. Apart from multiplying and filling the earth, there is not a lot of room for growth, either physically or spiritually, for humans or for creation because everything has already “arrived.” In a radical re-imagining of this story, Irenaeus pictures Adam and Eve in the garden as children––not perfect, but on a journey toward maturity and perfection. This is because perfection is not something you can give to an infant; it must be grown into. Irenaeus argues, “For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection] being as yet an infant.”1 So, God does not force something on to humanity that it is not ready for. Perfection was not something that could be implanted; it had to be journeyed toward. And so Irenaeus gives us our first value of an evolving world: room for the growth and development of humans.

Now, let’s extend this argument to the wider cosmos. Just as humanity is not created in static perfection, the world around is not fully completed either. Colin Gunton, reflecting on Irenaeus, writes, “Creation is a project... It has somewhere to go.”2 There is value in saying that creation has the freedom to grow, that it is an ongoing project. A world with freedom must have choice, and this is present in a world with a long evolutionary history. The cosmos, like humanity, is created very good, but it is not created in its final state. This giving of freedom (and perhaps even limited autonomy) to the creation is, I would argue, more consistent with the nature of divine love than a creation where everything is determined. God gives true freedom to humanity, leading to moral choice, and true freedom to creation, leading to evolutionary development. This is God’s act of love, and this is why God did not just make heaven in the first place.3 Freedom and growth are valuable, and God delights in them.

A third value given through evolution is the ability to move toward a goal. And that begs the question: “Where is evolution going?” I would argue that evolution was moving toward developing a community of beings which carries God’s image and amongst which God would be made incarnate. The Incarnation was not a contingency plan brought in when humanity sinned, but rather was one of the original purposes of creation. This concept is one of the great contributions of Irenaeus––creation was always headed for the Incarnation! Also, this creation was always part of the journey toward new life. God’s promise of a new creation is not a contingency plan either!4 The new (or, rather, renewed) creation, as described at the end of Revelation, was always part of the plan. I don’t think that any theodicy can say “this world is good” without also pointing forward to the time when there will be no pain, no death, and no tears, under some new and unimaginable reconstruction of the universe. Keep in mind that we do tend to imagine the new future as static in some ways. Many of the values that are achieved here (such as having children or freedom of moral choice) are not imagined to exist there in the same way. In no way does saying “this is a good world” undermine the Christian hope in the world to come. Actually, recognition that this life was always meant to be renewed can help our Christian walk. The spiritual growth coming from this world is seen most easily, perhaps, with the example of death.

In the present world, physical death is the most poignant reminder of our mortality. While we grasp at immortality through various means, we find it is always beyond our reach. The suffocating horror and fear that accompanies many of our encounters with death reminds us finally that we are not God. Yet it is in those moments of deepest agony that our need for the hope of resurrection is the strongest.

What do we do with death? In light of the new creation, death is a transition from this life to the new life. It is a leap of faith that God always intended, and one which God himself did not avoid. In the lives of saints and martyrs, we see a taste of what physical death was intended to be (I am speaking here of physical death without sin; our present experience of death is horridly marred by sin and the reality of spiritual death). We see how many of the martyrs approached death with peace, acceptance, and even joy––to lay down their lives and be called into the presence of God. I believe that this was the original intention of death. Death was to be a transition, a final giving up of oneself into the enfolding arms of God. Our bodies go to decompose and support new life, while our trust is placed in the promise of the resurrected life.

I want to be careful here. This does not mean that we should not grieve death. Even Jesus, when he was at the tomb of Lazarus, wept openly, even though he knew that he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. There can be a strange disconnect, where if we Christians say something is good or natural, we sometimes feel we should then be able to avoid a real emotional response to the situation, or that faith means not being broken by certain situations. This is not what I am advocating. Encountering death should make us weep, because the loss we experience is real. Christian hope makes us more human, not less––we should feel more deeply, not less. But we should also feel differently. We grieve, knowing that there is hope and life and renewal ahead. We know that physical death does not have the last word, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We hear Paul’s triumphal cry “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?…The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”5 Our path is not to avoid pain and death, but to walk through them, following our Lord and Savior in life, in death, and in resurrection life.

Speaking of Paul, I feel that I should acknowledge the big white elephant in the room. Someone will ask, “Doesn’t Paul say that death came through the Fall? How do you deal with the biblical texts where death is called the enemy of God?” This will be the topic of next week’s entry.

Notes

1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: 1975), IV. xxxviii. 1.
2. Colin Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 56.
3. Here, I mean “heaven” in the sense of the new heavens and the new earth of the eschatological future, not the current dwelling place of God.
4. Read, for example, N. T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
5. 1 Corinthians 15:55-56.


Bethany Sollereder has a Master's Degree in Christian Studies from Regent College in Vancouver, Canada. Her focus was on science and religion, and her thesis was entitled "Evolutionary Theodicy: Toward an Evangelical Perspective." She has been accepted into PhD studies at the University of Exeter and hopes to start in 2011. Bethany's first degree was in intercultural studies. Bethany's other great love is 19th century British history, so when she is not reading about science and religion, she can usually be found reading Victorian literature.

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NTD - #23465

July 26th 2010

Wow. Thank you so much for these articles. I’m about to dive into Genesis once again, exploring what we’ve been told about creation from a new perspective.

God bless you for sharing your gift.


eddy - #23473

July 26th 2010

A real evolutionary biologist is reading this and I guess at this moment is screaming, “what? evolution moving towards a goal”? this theologian lady wants to screw all and reinvent the wheel to something else that is literally an heresy to our beloved field”.

The rest of the article reads good and nice work Betty. Hope those real evolutionary biologists get it: I would argue that evolution was moving toward developing a community of beings which carries God’s image and amongst which God would be made incarnate.


Bethany Sollereder - #23484

July 26th 2010

Eddy,
I do not claim to be an evolutionary biologist (not even a fake one!), or even a scientist.  I dwell in the discipline of theology, through and through.
That being said, there are many real scientists who would not blink an eye at the idea of teleological evolution.
Right from the beginning of evolutionary theory, we have men like Asa Gray, the Harvard botanist, who thanked Darwin for “having brought back teleology to natural history.” (Darwiniana, 294).  In contemporary times I would point to Simon Conway Morris, who argues in “Life’s Solution” that a creature very much like humans was inevitable.  I don’t believe my claim goes anything beyond this. 
Perhaps invoking teleology is a heresy in the realm of the new-atheists, but I don’t believe the pure science of biology can speak of (or prove) either the presence of teleology or its absence.


Argon - #23487

July 26th 2010

eddy - #23473: A real evolutionary biologist is reading this and I guess at this moment is screaming, “what? evolution moving towards a goal”?

It kinda depends on what one means by ‘goal’ and whether it’s accessible to scientific inquiry or has additional context. For example: An apple fell off a tree and landed on Newton’s head. Why did it fall?

Answer 1) Apple stems weaken in prelude to dropping ripened fruit. The apple descends to Earth because of the mutual attractive force called gravity.

Answer 2) Because God wanted to inspire Newton toward understanding gravity.

Both could be correct but the former is a scientific explanation (proximate) while the latter adds additional metaphysical context (distal - and perhaps more subjective).


Mike Gene - #23504

July 26th 2010

Hi Bethany,

I too am enjoying your series.  But eddy is correct in noting that such a teleological interpretation of evolution is not allowed in science.  As Douglas J. Futuyma’s college textbook Evolution teaches:

Thus the concepts of goals or purposes have no place in biology (or in any other of the natural sciences), except in studies of human behavior.

In fact, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne recently wrote:

And, as I recall, it was the folks at the NCSE who agreed with the faithful in removing the word “unguided” from school standards on evolution. But, as all biologists know, evolution really is unguided. That’s one of its most important aspects!

If evolution was guided, science would say otherwise.  That’s because science, by definition, must begin with the working assumption that teleology is not in play.


Mike Gene - #23505

July 26th 2010

As one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists explained:

The cornerstone of the scientific method is the postulate that nature is objective. In other words, the systematic denial that “true” knowledge can be got at by interpreting phenomena in terms of final causes – that is to say, of “purpose.”……the postulate of objectivity is consubstantial with science; it has guided the whole of its prodigious development for three centuries. There is no way to be rid of it, even tentatively or in a limited area, without departing from the domain of science.

It would help if people stopped thinking of science as some Super-Duper Detector of All Truth and realize it is another form of human inquiry that, like all inquires, is a function of its agreed upon context and rules.  In other words, if someone claims that Bethany’s interpretation of evolution is unscientific, the proper response is - so what?


David B - #23507

July 26th 2010

You quote from 1 Corinthians 15, but how would you synthesize your theory and verse 26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”?


Bethany Sollereder - #23513

July 26th 2010

Mike,
You said “the teleological interpretation of evolution is not allowed in science.”  This is precisely why these are theological, and not scientific, posts.  I am not doing science, I am doing theology.  I am not questioning any of the evolutionary data, I am simply invoking a teleology, which is in the realm of metaphysics, not of science.
David, that comes next week!


Tulse - #23523

July 26th 2010

Bethany, you write: “perfection is not something you can give to an infant [...] Perfection was not something that could be implanted”.  But surely that is yet again implying a lack of omnipotence, no?  These are not even the standard problems of logic with omnipotence, as there seems to be absolutely no logical reason why a perfect and omnipotent creator could not create perfection.  Arguing that humanity was not ready for perfection is simply question-begging—why couldn’t humanity have been created ready?


Andrew Vogel - #23527

July 26th 2010

Thank you for writing these articles Bethany.  They’re very interesting.  I was also wondering if your thesis is published somewhere I could get my hands on it?  Or if you have rights to email me a copy?  I would love to read it in full if possible.


MyGoatyBeard - #23528

July 26th 2010

Tulse - ‘why couldn’t humanity have been created ready?’. How about choice, freedom and growth?  When I was a child I thought like a child, talked like a child, reasoned like a child. Now I’m a man I put childish ways behind me. I choose. I’m free.  I’ll grow towards perfection.


Rich - #23534

July 26th 2010

Mike Gene:

I’d agree with what you wrote, so far as it goes, but there is another point to be considered.  Most of the famous scientists and interpreters of science, whether atheist or TE, who have written about the “methodological” limitations of science have implied that science can (in principle) give a description of nature that is complete, without reference to telic structures or processes *within* nature.  What if this is not true?  What if, for example, the neo-Darwinian account of nature (unadjusted by Genean front-loading), simply cannot account for macroevolutioanry phenomena?  What if the only way to account for the phenomena should prove to be the introduction of some notion of self-organization of biological form, based on laws which appear to all the world to be anthropogenic in their orientation?  Then surely even the science of nature would have to consider notions of purpose, not in the sense of the meaning of life, but in the sense of *telos* or end-directedness.  If the job of science is to interpret “how nature works”, and if nature does in fact work telically, science should not shrink from affirming that, even if that offends Cartesians, Baconians, Darwinians, and the NCSE.  Don’t cede too much.


Bethany Sollereder - #23547

July 26th 2010

Andrew,
Send me an e-mail, and I’ll make sure you get a copy.  Eventually, the thesis is supposed to be up on the Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN) but, until then, just contact me.


Tulse - #23548

July 26th 2010

MyGoatyBeard writes: “How about choice, freedom and growth?  When I was a child I thought like a child, talked like a child, reasoned like a child. Now I’m a man I put childish ways behind me. I choose. I’m free.  I’ll grow towards perfection.”

By why grow toward perfection if perfection limits choice, freedom and growth.  And if the creator is perfect, does that mean that the creator has no choice, freedom, or the ability to grow?


Argon - #23556

July 26th 2010

Rich - #23534 “Most of the famous scientists and interpreters of science, whether atheist or TE, who have written about the “methodological” limitations of science have implied that science can (in principle) give a description of nature that is complete, without reference to telic structures or processes *within* nature.”

I don’t think that necessarily characterizes the TE position. First, the general agreement among TE’ers is that there is no description of nature that is complete ‘within’ nature. They would disagree with the implication of self-referential completeness, particularly since God is responsible for setting up and the moment-by-moment continuation of the universe. The methodological limitations of science do not imply that science can in principle explain everything; it’s a goal but not a certainty and TE’ers would propose that in the end, no natural explanation can be complete without God.


Kirk Jordan - #23557

July 26th 2010

You wrote:  A third value given through evolution is the ability to move toward a goal. And that begs the question: “Where is evolution going?” I would argue that evolution was moving toward developing a community of beings which carries God’s image and amongst which God would be made incarnate. The Incarnation was not a contingency plan brought in when humanity sinned, but rather was one of the original purposes of creation.

I would be interested in finding out if you hold to some other mechanism for evolution other than natural selection acting upon random variation.  This standard reading of evolution seems (in the eyes of both Darwin and Dawkins) to preclude the possibility of a directed process.  Do you propose some other mechanism?


RBH - #23558

July 26th 2010

Tulse asked

And if the creator is perfect, does that mean that the creator has no choice, freedom, or the ability to grow?

As far as I can see that’s the case.  In a system in which only one state can be perfect, perfection implies that there are no alternatives, and with no alternatives there are no choices to be made.  With no freedom to choose between alternatives, no growth is possible.  It is an inescapable point attractor, a state which once reached must be static.

So the answer to Einstein’s question (‘Did God have a choice in creating the universe?’) must be “no.”  God has no choices.


merv - #23562

July 26th 2010

RBH, imagine, if you will, your perfect meal (just one meal with its perfect apetizer, perfect side dishes, perfect main course, perfect desert—- shoot, even throw in a variety of things for each of these so as to qualify it as a “feast”.  It is to be *perfect*, after all.

Now:  imagine that you are served that meal.  Then you are served it again.  And again.  And again.  And again.  And as perfect as it is, you begin to think maybe a bit of variety would be nice.  But no—-only perfection allowed—- no choices—- an inescapable point attractor to which you are now locked in for perpetuity. 

I propose that what started out seeming like heaven may begin to seem to you like the other place instead.

—Merv


Argon - #23566

July 26th 2010

Merv, I think that would be a perfect meal in an imperfect place…
Thus it wouldn’t be the perfect condition.

I think the problem with discussions of this type is that descriptions and logic actually fail at the boundaries. What does it really mean to be ‘perfect’ or exist in ‘perfection’? I’d say that we don’t have a complete definition with which to cogently evaluate statements about ‘perfection’. Analogies seem to fail.

Hi Dr. Hoppe!


conrad - #23573

July 26th 2010

Have you looked at astrobiology?
Possibly genes do not develop on this earth but arrive here on meteorites as did most of the earth’s water.

NASA has a lot of interest in it.


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