Sarah Coakley

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.


‘Piping songs of peasant glee’: Around the aether