Sarah Coakley on science and belief in God

Sarah Coakley shares two related articles on the relationship between science and belief in God. In the first, God and Evolution: A New Proposal, she argues that:

[I]t is vital to avoid, in the case of pre-cultural evolution, the presumption that “God” competes with the evolutionary process as a (very big) player in the temporal unfolding of “natural selection.”

Once we are released from that false presumption, “God” is no longer – and idolatrously – construed as problematically interventionist (or feebly failing in such) along the same temporal plane as the evolutionary process itself.

Rather, God is that-without-which-there-would-be-no-evolution-at-all. God is the atemporal undergirder and sustainer of the whole process of apparent contingency or “randomness,” yet – we can say in the spirit of Augustine – simultaneously closer to its inner workings than it is to itself.

As such, God is both “within” the process and “without” it. To put this in richly trinitarian terms: God, the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual invitation and lure of the creation to return to its source in the Father, yet never without the full – and suffering – implications of incarnate Sonship.

Once we see the possibility of understanding the contingency of pre-cultural evolution in this way, we need not – as so much science and religion “dialogue” has done in recent years – declare the evolutionary process as necessarily “deistically” distanced in some sense from God.

Rather, I propose in contrast that God is “kenotically” or self-sacrificially infused (not by divine loss or withdrawal, but by an over-generous pouring out) into every causal joint of the creative process, yet precisely without overt disruption of apparent “randomness.”

In response to the objection that evolutionary contingency – and genuine human freedom – appear to be logically compatible with secret divine guidance, Coakley suggests that ‘God is like a chess master playing an 8-year-old chess novice’.

Coakley then turns to the problem of suffering and sin, noting again that here ‘there is an equally seductive modern misapprehension to avert: the presumption that dying, or indeed evolutionary “extinction,” is the worst thing that can happen to anyone or thing’. Distancing herself from the heresy of Meliorism (of which PT Forsyth was also keen to combat), here Coakley avers that avoidable suffering, victimisation, and abuse are not to justified but are ‘to be heard christologically as an insistence that the deepest agony, loss, and apparent wastefulness in God’s creation may, from the perspective of atemporal divinity (and yet also in the Son’s agony and “wasted” death), be spanned by the Spirit’s announcement of resurrection hope’:

Thus, it is not that God has not intervened in the history of the evolutionary process to put right the ills of randomness and freedom.

For in one sense God is “intervening” constantly – if by that we mean that God is perpetually sustaining us, loving us into existence, pouring God’s self into every secret crack and joint of the created process, and inviting the human will, in the lure of the Spirit, into an ever-deepening engagement with the implications of the Incarnation, its “groanings” (as St Paul puts it in Romans 8), for the sake of redemption.

God, in short, is always intervening; but only rarely do we see this when the veil becomes “thin,” and the alignment between divine, providential will and evolutionary or human “cooperation” momentarily becomes complete.

Such, we might hypothesise, was Christ’s resurrection, which we call a miracle because it seems, from a “natural” and scientific perspective, both unaccountable and random.

Yet, from a robustly theological perspective, it might be entirely natural, the summation indeed of the entire trinitarian evolutionary process and thus its secret key.

In the second article, Bridging the Divide Between Theology and Science, Coakley builds on the aforementioned article and builds a case for ‘a model of science and theology as disciplines that mutually inspire, but chasten, each other’. Again, well worth reading.


‘Evolution and God’: a report

charles-darwinThis report just in from Theos:

‘The findings of the biggest research project ever carried out into UK public opinion on evolution and human origins were published by Theos on Monday, ahead of a major conference in Rome on religion and science.

The independent research for Theos, undertaken by ComRes, was released in a new Theos report, Faith and Darwin. The publication is the second of four reports being launched as part of the Rescuing Darwinproject.
The report reveals that 54% of people know that Charles Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (3% believe he wrote The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and 1% think he wrote The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver). Only 15% of people know that Darwin was a self-described agnostic towards the end of his life (20% think he was an atheist). 42% of people believe that evolution presents some challenges to Christianity but that it is possible to believe in both.  

ComRes also interviewed people across the UK about the origins of human life and found that the East of England has the largest proportion of people in the UK who believe that the theory of evolution removes any need for God (44%). Wales has the largest proportion of theistic evolutionists (the belief that evolution is part of God’s plan – 38%). Northern Ireland has the highest proportion of people who believe in Intelligent Design (16%) and Creationism (25%).

To read the report in full, click here.’

And while we’re on the topic, be sure to check out Kim Fabricius’  Ten propositions on Darwin and the deity. I hope that this latest ’10’ will contribute to the birth of Volume Two of what is a brilliant book.

William James on evolution

william-james‘The idea of a universal evolution lends itself to a doctrine of general meliorism and progress which fits the religious needs of the healthy-minded so well that it seems almost as if it might have been created for their use’. – William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, being The Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902 (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1920 [1902]), 91.

2008 Gifford Lectures: ‘Religion and Its Recent Critics’

Professor David Fergusson (Professor of Divinity, The University of Edinburgh) will deliver the 2008 Gifford Lectures on the topic ‘Religion and Its Recent Critics’. The program for the 2008 Gifford Lectures is available here, and it looks impressive.

Tuesday 8 April
The new atheism: historical roots and contemporary context.

Thursday 10 April
The implausibility of religious belief: claims and counter-claims.

Tuesday 15 April
The genesis of religion: can Darwinism explain it away?

Wednesday 16 April
Religion, morality and art: invention or discovery?

Tuesday 22 April
Is religion bad for our health? Saints, martyrs and terrorists.

Thursday 24 April
Sacred texts: how should we treat them?

Sounds like something in there for everyone. The lectures will be held at the Sir Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre, University Avenue/Gibson Street, Glasgow @ 18.00. They are free and open to the public. Registration to Clare Laidlaw (0141 330 4978)

The Era of Darwinian Evolution is Over

Freeman Dyson, Professor emeritus of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, who has focused his research on the internal physics of stars, subatomic-particle beams and the origin of life, has written a thoughtful wee piece here. Here’s a snippet:

Now, after some 3 billion years, the Darwinian era is over. The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10,000 years ago when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence that we call globalization. And now, in the last 30 years, Homo sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal.

In the post-Darwinian era, biotechnology will be domesticated. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners, who will use gene transfer to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also, biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and diversity to our fauna and flora.

How’s this for a vision of the future? Will we still be able to get the old varieties of roses and orchids … ?