Evolutionary biology claims that organisms and species are the product of three main factors: accidental variations or mutations, blind natural selection, and an enormous amount of time. This Darwinian recipe for the unfolding of life on Earth seems at first to raise difficulties about the idea of God. However, as I have argued in God after Darwin, Deeper Than Darwin, and more recently Making Sense of Evolution, evolutionary science and Christian faith are completely compatible with each other. Indeed, they are natural companions.
No doubt, evolutionary biology upsets some entrenched assumptions as to how God should have "designed" the world. For if "God" means simply an "intelligent designer," even an elementary perusal of the fossil record and the inelegant ways of evolution raises theological difficulties. But what if "God" is not simply a designer, and what if life is not just a set of "designs," but instead a still unfinished drama? If so, the interesting question is not whether design points to deity, but whether the drama carries a meaning.
Suppose we look carefully at the undeniable scientific evidence that the universe is still coming into being. And suppose also that "God" is less concerned with imposing a plan or design than with providing a "vision" for the universe, one that allows all beings, and especially human beings, to participate in the creative process. If we make this conceptual adjustment, as I believe both contemporary science and a consistent theology actually require that we do, the idea of God becomes not only compatible with evolution, but it also anticipates the kind of life-world that Darwin's science has set before us.
Debates about God and evolution are usually so obsessed with the idea that God is a "designer" that the experience of God as infinite self-giving love that opens up a new future for the world, goes unnoticed. Biblical literalists and atheistic evolutionists alike seldom think of God as promising, humble, self-giving love.
A God whose essence is love would not overwhelm the world with dictatorial power. A truly loving God would not force the world into a prefabricated mold but would give it ample space and time to become something truly interesting. Such a creator would allow for evolutionary accidents and would give the world scope for self-organizing activity.
A creator who makes a world that can make itself is much more deserving of our reverence than one who holds the world on puppet strings. An unrestrained imposition of divine "design" would in effect leave no room for anything other than God, no room for a world at all. A world that is perfectly "designed" from the outset would be incompatible with the biblical notion of creation. In fact, the whole thrust of Biblical literature is to have us look for perfection not in the world's past or present but in its future. The creation is not a design, but a promise that turns the emergence of matter, life and mind into a dangerous but magnificant story.
Yet doesn't the book of Genesis tell us that the world was perfect in the beginning? No doubt, literalists will interpret biblical reference to an original paradise as scientifically accurate. But the Roman Catholic and other mainline Christian traditions have instructed their followers not to look for scientific information in the Scriptures. We trivialize the Bible if we expect it to be a source of mundane scientific truths that we can discover on our own. So the picture of an initially perfect universe has nothing to do with scientific cosmology. Genesis is not a response to curiosity about cosmic and biological origins. It is a response to such questions as "why is there anything at all rather than nothing?" or "is there a good reason to trust in life?"
Within the biblical world, moreover, Christianity proclaims that God's love manifests itself in a humility that respects the otherness and freedom of the beloved creation. Since Christians are not supposed to think about God without thinking first about the man Jesus, our image of God has to be one of self-abandoning love.
This means that creation and its evolutionary unfolding would be less the consequence of divine engineering than of God's humble and loving "letting be." In other words, God is the ground of possibility, a God who creates by opening up a new future for the world. Divine care means granting the world space and time to become itself. This is not a deistic withdrawal on the part of God, but the deepest form of providential world-involvement. God cares enough to give freedom to creation.
Unfortunately, the experience of God that occurred in connection with the life and death of Jesus, an experience that entails a revolution in the whole human story of God-consciousness, is usually left out of most discussions of theology and evolution. Anti-evolutionary Christians and their atheist adversaries engage in pointless discussions about whether God is a competent engineer or not. One side says no, the other side yes. Both sides steer clear of Christianity's more troubling image of the compassionate divine mystery that pours itself out into the world in unrestrained and selfless love.
The atheist evolutionist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for example, has accused me of being an "accommodationist" for proposing a theology of evolution. For him evolution and faith are irreconcilable, a belief he shares with biblical literalists. To Coyne the concept of "God" can mean nothing other than a "perfect designer," and since science has shown that there's no such thing as perfect design in the living world, God cannot possibly exist. Likewise, so-called new atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, who have burnished their ideas of God by visiting the websites and campsites of biblical literalists and "intelligent design" proponents, find the idea of a theology of evolution preposterous.
It is ironic that evolutionary atheists, none of whom has any real theological training or expertise, nonetheless hold forth so confidently on what God must be like. It is not their atheism, but their theology that I find objectionable. Their ideas about God are indistinguishable from those of biblical literalists and anti-Darwinian intelligent design proponents. A theology of evolution, on the other hand, takes as its point of departure not the idea of perfect engineering but that of perfect love.
Am I an accommodationist, somehow stretching Christian truth so as to make it fit the puzzling features of Darwinian biology? Not at all. The idea of God that I follow is not my own invention. As a Catholic I can begin my reflections, just to cite one source, with Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio. The late Pope, no theological radical, writes that " the prime commitment of theology" is to explore the meaning of God's self-emptying love (the divine kenosis), "a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return." In such a picture of God, I believe, we have the starting point of a theology of evolution that can take both science and faith seriously.
John F. Haught (Ph.D. Catholic University, 1970), is Senior Fellow, Science & Religion, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University. He was formerly Professor in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University (1970-2005) and Chair (1990-95). His area of specialization is systematic theology, with a particular interest in issues pertaining to science, cosmology, evolution, ecology, and religion. He and his wife Evelyn have two sons and live in Falls Church, Va.
"Haught's remarkable study faces without flinching the challenge that the evolutionary character of reality presents to a robust and intelligent [or credible] belief in God. In a most readable and perceptive manner the author dissects the character of that challenge, points out the limitations on its understanding imposed by its prejudices, and explores an excitingly open view of God's creative involvement in the processes of reality and its ecological significance. This is a book full of illuminating insights that will stimulate and inform all those who are seriously interested in the science and religion debate today."
-David A. Pailin, University of Manchester
"The relationship of science and religion has once again assumed centrality among cultural and intellectual concerns. John Haught has encouraged this development and continues to give leadership to the reflection involved. This book provides an original, insightful, and exhilarating look at how a quite radical version of neo-Darwinian theory, usually understood as excluding any belief in God, can in fact aid Christians in developing a more Biblical faith by replacing the God of static design and controlling power with the God of vulnerable, self-giving love."
-John B. Cobb Jr., School of Theology at Claremont
"A lucid, learned, and liberating book with a new insight on almost every page. A pleasure to read, God After Darwin subtly rearranges the religious furniture in your head. Haught's thought-provoking proposals, especially his view of God as the dynamic, loving power of the future with a vision rather than a plan for this evolving universe, deserves wide readership and discussion."
-Elizabeth A. Johnson, Fordham University
"Haught argues that evolutionary biology can enrich theological conviction, and vice versa. He does so with vigor and insight, reforming and deepening classical ideas of God, often regaining overlooked Biblical wisdom. Against fears of irreconcilable conflict, Haught's challenge is that theology after Darwin not only survives, but is even more of an adapted fit in the world. His analysis is seminal, fertile enough to breed a next generation of theologians."
-Holmes Rolston III, Colorado State University; author of Genes, Genesis and God
"As an evolutionary biologist, I have read Haught's book with excitement, admiration, and pleasure-though it will take me a long time to ponder all of the stimulating ideas."
-Peter Dodson, University of Pennsylvania; president, Philadelphia Center for Religion and Science