Part III: Finding Ourselves on Holy Ground
Among important Christian theologians throughout history, Augustine’s views on creation are especially interesting. Unfortunately, there was no English translation of his most relevant work, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, until 1982, so it has remained obscure and relatively unknown until recently. In essence, Augustine proposed that God created the world complete with a series of “dormant multiple potencies.” These potencies, Augustine said, eventually came into material reality through divine providence. In other words, based on his interpretation of the Genesis account, Augustine believed that there were ordering principles embedded into creation at the time of the initial event. In a manner somewhat analogous to the sprouting of planted seeds, he believed that with time, creation would gradually continue to unfold at later stages. This remarkably precocious idea, McGrath points out, is not completely original to Augustine. Even earlier Christian writers had noted how the first Genesis creation narrative spoke of the earth and the waters “bringing forth” living creatures and had drawn the conclusion that God endowed the natural order with a capacity to generate living things (p.223). Augustine further argued that the organizing principles were to be conceived as seed-like principles present from the cosmic beginning. Each “seed” contained the potential for the later development of a specific living kind.
“God,” Augustine said, “created what was to be in times to come in the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the ’roots of time.’”1 He cited Genesis 1:12, which tells of plants bringing forth seeds of various kinds in this context. Indeed, McGrath states:
“Augustine’s approach allowed him to interpret the first Genesis creation narrative as describing the instantaneous bringing into existence of primal matter, which already contained with it the causal resource for further development. The second Genesis creation narrative can be interpreted as setting out the subsequent history of the chronological actualization of these causal possibilities from the earth.” (p. 225)
In another of his works, De Trinitate, Augustine wrote:
It is one thing to create and govern the creation internally, from the zenith of the causal nexus; only God, the creator, can do this. It is another thing to apply some operation externally, in proportion to the strength and capacities assigned to each creature by God, so that what is created may come forth at this or at that time, in this or that way. For in terms of their origins and beginning, all these things have already been created in some form of texture of the elements (quadam textura elementorum) and are awaiting the opportunity to come forth.2
Augustine even discusses (but does not further develop) the idea that God operates within creation by means that are “not natural yet operate according to nature.”3 McGrath points out the high fertility of this theological notion and emphasizes the opportunity for further elaboration. In other words, how does looking at nature when seen (as Augustine described it) through the eyes of a heart that have been opened through grace affect one’s view of the natural world?
Augustine interprets God’s work of creation as including both an act and a process. Even though he predated Darwin by 1500 years, Augustine helped lay a solid theological and biblical foundation for evolutionary creation. But we should be careful not to take Augustine’s ideas too far...Although the germ of evolutionary biology is present in his thinking, this is not the point. He was thinking theologically, not scientifically. The issue at hand is whether modern evolutionary biology—when presented along with its teleological underpinnings—is consistent with the thinking of leading Christian thinkers of the past. The answer, McGrath believes, is clearly ‘yes.’
So, as I look back on the half century since the genetic code was deciphered and I began my student career as a Christian engaged in the study of life’s processes, I return to the question I posed in Part I: What have I come to discern about divine action in creation, and how specifically has McGrath’s book helped me articulate an answer?
Understanding divine action begins with entering into relationship with Christ through faith. As Newman suggested, we believe in design because we believe in God and not the other way round. Studying the basis of life’s design cannot meaningfully be separated from the character of the One responsible for it. By living in relationship with him through whom all things were created and in whom all things have their being, we experience the purpose and meaning with which this universe is infused. It is out of that relationship that one sees that nature is wonderfully consonant with that which we see through Scripture, and the relationship with God that we experience through faith in Jesus Christ.
Creation is fine-tuned for life. If a set of key physical parameters had differed ever so slightly, the universe could not have supported life. We marvel at the majesty of this thought, but we don’t suggest it is proof for the Creator’s existence. Like David, listening to the voice of the heavens as they tell of the glory of God (Ps. 19:1), or Elijah at the entrance to the cave as he hears the voice of God in a whisper (I Kings 9:13), or even Paul who acknowledges in I Corinthians 5:7 that we walk by faith and not by sight, we bow in worship at the majesty of God’s creation.
When we reflect on the mystery of life’s origin and the seemingly rapid commencement of life’s earliest dance in life’s earliest cells, we are filled with awe at the thought that the trajectory so pregnant with purpose began so quickly in earth’s “cauldron”. But we don’t need to look inside the cauldron for proof for God’s existence. Indeed, does it even matter whether it was God’s primary or God’s secondary causation (a la Aquinas) that led to the early dances? Is the former somehow more the activity of God than the latter? Were those first cells already “implanted” with the “organizing principles” described by Augustine—charged with divine directionality? Since it isGod’s cauldron, and what takes place occurs entirely because of God’s presence, perhaps it makes no difference. No matter what, we are filled with wonder as the eyes of our hearts, transformed by grace and filled with hope, peer into the majesty of life’s beginnings.
We examine the history of life’s diversity and we are in awe at the adaptive themes that emerge. From an exploration of a whirling bacterial flagellum thrusting its host forward in its quest for more nutrients, to the study of our own white blood cells as they squeeze through the crevices of our body to hone in on a foreign invader—no matter what we study—we stand in awe of him. Our Maker may well have used chance to bring these processes into being, but these “chance events” lead to a prescribed end. Those processes are not divorced from Providence.
The Psalmist writes of being woven together by his Maker in his mother’s womb (Ps. 139:13). We now know how the “weaving” process works in considerable detail. Protein molecules energized by heat randomly collide with cellular components until by chance they hit specific DNA targets, activating or repressing genes. This sets up further processes which continue through chance molecular collisions to lead in a highly predictable fashion to new cells, developing tissues, and functional organs. Given time, space, and the appropriate uterine conditions, God’s purposes are accomplished and beauty beyond description emerges to begin life in its fullness. It is God’s creative process, and it uses chance events to accomplish a particular divine objective: A human being, loved by the Creator in whose image he or she is created.
We look at processes like natural selection and even genetic drift with its random component and marvel at the plethora of interdependent living species which God (through these processes) has created. Through the lens of faith, with many questions still unanswered, we, like the Psalmist, ask the biggest question of all: What are human beings that you are mindful of them and that you care for them? Amazingly, you have made them a little lower than yourself and you have crowned them with glory and honor.4 We humbly bow in recognition that we have been created to image God on earth and prayerfully seek to do it better.
Thus, the processes that lead to life and life’s diversity are all God’s. They began at God’s command and were initiated with God’s end in mind. Every process, indeed every atom, would cease to exist were it not for God’s ongoing presence. The teleology woven into the fabric of creation can only begin to be understood by examining the whole fabric, not just its individual strands. The scientific process can only examine the strands. When examined without the pattern in view, what lies beyond the strands may appear, as Richard Dawkins suggests, blind, pitiless, and indifferent. But that only happens because he’s focused on the strands, having chosen to dismiss the pattern.
The Christian church, as a whole, has been far too slow to embrace the notion that God created life, in all its diverse forms, through natural processes. Natural theology, as McGrath expresses it, “has, if anything, been given a new lease of life through the rise of evolutionary thought partly by being liberated from the intellectual and spiritual straightjacket with which Paley’s approach had unhelpfully confined it….natural theology needs to emerge from the lengthening shadows of Paley, and rediscover, retrieve, and renew alternative approaches.” (p. 280). He goes on to say:
The church is thus called to be an active interrogator, not a passive endorser of secular and secularizing visions of the world. It is called upon to proclaim, exhibit, and embody its own ‘social imaginary,’ deeply rooted in the gospel on the one hand, and with the capacity to transform reflection and practice on the other. (p. 286)
So our work in thinking about and faithfully communicating the nature of divine action in creation is, in a very real sense, just beginning. But because it is grounded in the mystery of the eternal Triune God who is love, it is also never-ending. We are left with the joy-filled task of exploring together, and communicating to all, the boundless riches of the risen Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the One who is above all, through all and in all.