Unfinished Universe

God After Darwinby John F. HaughtWestview Press. 221p $25

In a series of very readable books over the last two decades, John F. Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., has established himself as one of the most intelligent voices in the whole science-religion debate. Unfortunately for him and the rest of us, Haught’s tone of voice is entirely respectful and civil, and this has meant that the big publishing houses and the press, which go for the jugular, have passed him by.

Haught has dared to talk back to the scientific "cosmic pessimists," for whom the universe is "pointless," an inherently meaningless process. I have in mind people like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, the physicists Stephen W. Hawking and Steven Weinberg, the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the biologists Richard Dawkins and Francis Crick. Haught has argued that the scientific materialism to which these celebrity scientists subscribe offers a poor and ethically nihilistic setting for the scientific enterprise. When it comes to basic philosophic assumptions, he thinks scientists would do a lot better to locate themselves within the philosophic tradition of Alfred North Whitehead’s process thought, or theologically, within the tradition of theologies of hope advanced by thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Karl Rahner, Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg. In short, the biblical vision of eschatological hope provides the proper assumptions for an evolutionary cosmos.

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God After Darwin continues this argument, but focuses mainly on remedying a major theological deficiency. "To a great extent," writes Haught, "theologians still think and write as though Darwin had never lived. Their attention remains fixed on the human world and its unique concerns. The nuances of biology or, for that matter, of cosmology have not yet deeply affected current thinking about God and God’s relation to the world." In contrast, Haught takes Darwin and his "dangerous idea" seriously, contending that the whole notion of God as "source of order" or "designer" of the cosmos has to be rethought. Why? Because if we fail to rethink our notion of God-as-designer, we run flat-footed into the problem of evil. It will seem that God must oversee a process of incredible waste, death, pain and horror. In short, God runs the horror show of the "survival of the fittest," and if that is the case God must be careless, indifferent and close to diabolical (with a preferential option for the strong). For this very reason, for many scientists, atheism is the logical correlate of evolutionary science.

One has the sense that Haught has finally written the book the universe wanted him to write. (Well, at least I have wanted him to write it.) Haught’s basic strategy is twofold: Against classical theism (but not against the biblical outlook), he proposes a God who is the wellspring of novelty in a still unfinished universe; and against the determinism of scientific materialists he proposes that nature’s essential theme is the same as the Bible’s, namely, promise.

Ever since 1859 when Darwin published The Origin of Species, we have needed to qualify (if not retire) two reigning concepts of deity: 1) the Platonic God of perfection above time, in comparison to which temporality can be denigrated or dismissed; and 2) the Aristotelian "prime mover" who pushes things along from the past and leaves no room for genuine novelty. Ironically, both these forms of supernatural theism join hands with scientific materialism in robbing time of any real significance. Against the backdrop of supernatural theism, evolutionary becoming can only provide reminiscences of a lost eternal and perfect world; whereas within the view of mechanistic materialism, evolution will be the impersonal unfolding of a mathematical simplicity that occurred in the first three seconds after the Big Bang. In both cases, being is "already virtually given in full, whether eternally from above or implicitly in the indefinite cosmic past. There is no room in either standpoint for the emergence of real novelty, and so both standpoints imply that the future will be inherently barren."

At the very least this means that both classical theism and scientific materialism conflict with the implicit metaphysics of the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians. We have needed to find, as Teilhard de Chardin insisted, a God of evolutionnot the great Planner-Designer-God but something much better: a God of promise who jubilantly plays dice, opening the universe to infinite possibility.

Steven Weinberg has demanded that theologians enter the dialogue with evolutionary science with an "interested God"something more than a fuzzily abstract theism. Haught does precisely this, locating himself firmly within the Catholic community and offering nothing less than the God of the prophets and the vulnerable God of the New Testament, of the Crucified One. Surprisingly, this turns out to be a distinct advantage. For instead of giving us the Control-Freak Designer of the evolutionary crap shoot, whom most scientists reject as the Supreme Sadist, Haught gives us a God of the "new creation," who hides his power and empties himself. (In this respect, Haught suggests, the Abrahamic God resembles Chinese notions of the Tao, who acts by non-action.) This is a God who refuses to be a control freak, who acts persuasively and lets creation be genuinely "other"promising, unpredictable and self-organizing.

But this lets Haught find a perfect match between the evolutionary outlook and the biblical vision:

Theologically speaking, we are summoned to read all of nature in terms of the future horizon whose enticement we experience most ardently whenever we ourselves indwell the great sacred narratives of hope for the unexpected. Our biblical ancestors’ sensitivity to the futurity of being was the product of a way of seeing the world that centuries of world-fleeing mystical spirituality and, more recently, mechanistic pessimism have unfortunately blunted. Evolutionary knowledge, however, now provides us with fresh opportunities to recover the ancient hopes afreshthis time perhaps in a grander, and more cosmic, version than ever before....

A biblically inspired vision of the future provides suitable framework for both evolutionary science and the religious quest for meaning. The original source of all values does not reside primarily in the past, nor in the vertical timelessness of an eternal present, but in the richer realm of new possibilities that we refer to faintly as future.

Coming toward us from the future, the God Haught addresses is humble of heart and at home with patiently juggling chance, regularity and immense stretches of time. I can only say that it is a great relief to be rid of any justification for the tiresome rhetoric of "the divine plan," which for years I have found a great pain in the neck. God After Darwin is an utterly splendid book.

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