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Paul G. CrowleyMay 13, 2014
Ask the Beastsby Elizabeth A. Johnson

Bloomsbury. 352p $32.95

The Evolving Godby J. David Pleins

Bloomsbury. 192p $29.95

In his rather obscure “Hymn to Matter,” Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., wrote:

I bless you, matter, and you I acclaim: not as the pontiffs of science or the moralizing preachers depict you—debased, disfigured—a mass of brute forces and base appetites—but as you reveal yourself to me today, in your totality and your true nature. I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.

Teilhard could scarcely have imagined writing these words had Charles Darwin not taken that fateful voyage on the Beagle and then published in 1859 an “abstract” of his theory, The Origin of Species.

This is the embarkation point for two new books, published by the same press within months of each other. Together, they pay renewed tribute to Darwin as a forward thinker who, by his very thought and writing, spurs us to deeper thought about the relationship between God and matter.

For both David Pleins and Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., Darwin’s sense of awe in the face of nature, as recorded in the Diary of his investigation of the landscape near Rio de Janeiro, is palpable, where his fulsome prose was reduced to simple eloquence: “Silence, hosannah.” This sense of the transcendent found within nature, indeed in matter itself, so frequently recorded in Darwin’s writings, tells part of the story of Darwin’s religious inspiration. This was Teilhard’s root inspiration, and it is one that speaks to modern sensibilities. It is this inspiration on which these two projects pivot in distinctive ways. One book, Pleins’s The Evolving God, delves more deeply into Darwin’s investigations into religion and the religious nature of humankind, while the other, Johnson’s Ask the Beasts, builds upon a reading of Origin and limns a contemporary theology that strives to enfold within it the most ancient of Christian teachings.

In the unfolding style of a master storyteller, Pleins takes up the heavily-trafficked idea that Darwin’s “loss of faith” led to a hostility toward religion or a loss of interest in the religious altogether. In Pleins’s analysis, the picture is far more complex. If there was a loss of faith on Darwin’s part, it “ran in tandem with the exciting realization that religion had evolved.” Pleins is staking out an important position and takes us into places rarely trod in the usual treatments of Darwin in the tired “science versus religion” debates. Relying not only on Origin and his later Descent of Man, but also on Darwin’s Journal of Researches, his trip Diary, Notebooks, correspondence and “secret notebooks” of personal jottings that were not intended for publication in his lifetime, Pleins argues that Darwin had given much thought to the idea that religion itself has undergone an evolutionary process. Far from eschewing interest in religion, he was taken up with it, at least in a scientific sense, if not at deeper personal levels.

Just as earthly creatures have a natural history, so, too, does religion. Religiosity as a trait of human nature begins in the “sense of wonder at Nature’s grandeur.” Like a field anthropologist, Darwin had many an occasion to observe close up indigenous tribal people in the Americas in the many dimensions of their cultural life, including religious practices that seemed “savage” to 19th-century British sensibilities. These encounters with the “tribal mind” suggested for Darwin that a cultural and religious evolution of the human species had indeed taken place and that religion itself had a sort of natural history.

These musings about religion forced Darwin out of the narrower confines of the evangelical Anglicanism of his day and of the thinner soup of freethinking, but also out of the main arguments of natural theology. The emergence of religiosity as a product of evolution did not secure a God who vouchsafed the natural order of things, nor an ethics inscribed in nature.

The problem of evil and suffering loomed large for Darwin, who wondered why so much anguish was required for life to unfold. His continuing research into a theory of natural selection that would eventually be called evolution opened his eyes to the role of chance, undercutting the notion of a divinely predetermined order tending toward a predictable end. His feelings about religion per se were darkened when he witnessed the stark cruelty wielded against natives by British missionaries, and later on when he lost his beloved daughter, Annie, at 10 years of age.

These observations were all precursors of modern objections to faith. But Darwin did not declare himself an atheist. There was for him always the lingering wonder, the “creed of silence” sounded in that “Hosannah” in the Brazilian rain forest, a nodal point in Darwin’s journey that Johnson also notes. “From the general, holistic tenor of his early reflections, it can be surmised that this voyager encountered God in nature rather than primarily deducing God’s existence from it, as did natural theology.” And so at this point these two remarkable books dovetail on a central insight.

Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., then picks up the theological trail, focusing not so much on what Darwin believed or how he might weigh in on contemporary questions, as on what kind of theology we can imagine emerging from what Darwin left us.

This beautifully written book is circumscribed on the one hand primarily by Origin, and on the other by the Trinitarian substance of the Nicene Creed. Bringing these two monumental sources together into a theological construction is a somewhat audacious task and stirs a depth of thought about many important theological issues, some raised by Darwin himself, others by the context within which theology functions today—in this case the ecological crisis of our age.

While students of evolution today would point out that the theory itself has developed hugely since Darwin’s time, and that “evolution” elicits multiple theories today (a point Johnson acknowledges), limiting the discussion to Origin is a prudent decision as it helps contain what could become a multi-volume project. In addition, many readers of Ask the Beasts will not have read Origin, and Johnson lucidly explicates its contents in the first four chapters of the book in order to “get straight” the story.

Another important decision was to limit the selection of data to “the second big bang,” the evolution of the natural world of plants and animals that precedes the emergence of the human in the evolutionary processes. Although the human is considered in relation to the natural world in the final two chapters of the book, this strategy keeps the reader’s focus on the part of God’s creation that traditional anthropocentric theologies have tended to bracket if not dismiss. Yet, she argues, an ecological theology requires that this natural world be considered, theologically, in its own right. And so we must ask, what “is the theological meaning of the natural world of life?” In answering this question, the entire book is strung together by an image Darwin himself provides, of the entangled vines and life forms of a riverbank, suggesting that the theology being proposed here involves organic and complex relationships between the Creator and the natural world.

Johnson’s theological argument is developed in four stages: an understanding of creation as a continuous process on the part of the Creator Spirit, establishing nature as the site of divine immanence; as autonomous and free yet working in concert with the Creator God through secondary causality; as emerging through an evolutionary process of which pain, suffering and death are natural parts; and as included in the salvific work of God so that the entire cosmos is redeemed. This slim outline only names the topics and hardly does justice to the finely developed arguments these chapters contain. Particularly valuable is the author’s treatment of three classic theological issues.

First, the argument for divine immanence raises questions about the relationship between nature and grace. Classical theology has generally insisted on a state of “pure nature” on which grace builds; that pure nature is thereby brought to its intended finality. But to speak of the Creator Spirit as dwelling within creation in a real way because creation is the self-giving “gift” of the Creator (with some indebtedness to Kathryn Tanner), can suggest that nature is already graced, and that there is no “pure nature” except in a formal sense. We are brought back to an updated version of DeLubac here. This, of course, is the very position that Rahner was at pains to qualify. But we might ask today, as Johnson is doing, whether our understanding of nature does not justify such a return. We need to have this discussion again, and Johnson opens it up for us.

Second, the problem of suffering in nature is always a difficult one. On the one hand, pain, suffering and death are, in and of themselves, natural events with no moral freight. On the other hand, “all of creation is groaning, awaiting its redemption”—a decidedly theological claim that pain, suffering and death do carry some moral freight (Rom 8:22). As we know, Paul associated death with the sin of Adam. Johnson’s solution is found in the currently influential tropes of “deep Incarnation” and “deep Resurrection.” The Word became flesh (i.e., matter), and the reach of the Incarnation extends beyond the enfleshment of the Word in Jesus to the whole of creation. The Cross is the event where God’s solidarity with the suffering of all of creation is disclosed. And the Resurrection is, through Christ, the emergence of the whole of creation from the tomb of death, to be reunited with the Creator.

This is a compelling vision, buttressed in part by Scripture and beautifully crafted here. And it implicitly raises Anselm’s question, cur Deus homo? Is there something about human beings, apart from the world of nature, that required the Incarnation—namely, sin? Or is the humanity of Jesus the incarnate medium of a divine project that includes but extends beyond the human and where the human might not hold center stage after all?

The answer to this last question may be indicated in relation to the next classical problem, cosmic redemption. Here we are talking about the claim, rooted in a long-standing reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, among other sources, that in Christ the entire cosmos is saved. This would include even those non-human forms of life that populated Darwin’s rain forests. But the question needs to be asked: If the world of nature is already the dwelling place of God, and if there is a sense in which nature is already graced, and if pain, suffering and death are non-moral natural events within God’s created order, then are not these nonhuman parts of God’s creation already saved? What need have they to be included in the work of redemption, which, according to the dominant Pauline-Anselmian narrative, traces the redemptive arc from the sin of Adam to the final consummation in Christ?

Johnson gives us a partial way out of the dilemma, proposing the increasingly appealing Scotist solution: that the Incarnation would have occurred even without the original sin and its consequences in the natural and human world. So this is why God became human: that God, who is love, might unite with creation, with or without sin. Again, the reader is led into another classic discussion that we need to have today.

At this point Johnson takes us back to our contemporary context and challenges us to construct a new theological paradigm of the relationship among God, nature and human beings—an ecological theology. This section seals the book as a work that will surely be read by a very wide audience. The theology contained in the preceding pages will require appreciative and careful reading at critical junctures. Like Pleins’ book, Ask the Beasts is an offering from a scholar’s heart with a love for the God Darwin sensed in creation but did not name. Johnson is clearly inspired by the sheer majesty of God’s creation, a fact impressed upon the reader by the book’s title, which is drawn from the Book of Job. In that book we find God speaking from the whirlwind, challenging Job to “ask the beasts” about the wonders of creation. Looking to the natural world, through Darwin’s eyes, we might learn something of the God who will always lie beyond human grasp. Both of these books move us forward on that odyssey.

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