In his provocative book Christianity and Evolution, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., raised the question, “Who will at last give evolution its own God?” Teilhard grappled with this question throughout his life, as he sought a new understanding of God at work in an evolutionary universe. Similarly, the theologian John Haught confronts the question of God and evolution, and one might see in Haught’s work an answer to Teilhard’s question. Unlike Teilhard, who pursued a new synthesis of God in the world, Haught assumes a conversation “between Charles Darwin and Christian theology on the question of what evolution means for our understanding of God and what we take to be God’s creation.”
His latest book continues a series of books based on Darwin’s “dangerous idea,” evolution’s unsuspected liberation of a truly biblical God. Haught states that “Darwin dropped a religiously explosive bomb into the Victorian culture of his contemporaries, and Christians ever since, including some but not all theologians, have been scrambling to defuse it or toss it out of harm’s way.” We can no more get rid of evolution, however, than we can rid ourselves of the universe. Darwin’s major work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, “launched an intellectual and cultural revolution more sensational than any since Galileo.” The problem, however, is that many religious people refuse to accept this new understanding of life in the universe, and many scientists see evolution as a self-sufficient explanation of life. Thus religious fundamentalists remain entrenched in a literal reading of the Bible and an outmoded cosmos, and scientific materialists dismiss religion as puerile.
In 11 chapters marked by an alliteration of D’s (Darwin, Design, Diversity, Descent, Drama, Direction, Depth, Death, Duty, Devotion, Deity), Haught takes on the challenge of scientism, the debunking of religion and new theological interpretation in light of evolution. His slim volume is densely packed. On one hand he confronts the cryptotheology of scientific materialists, and on the other hand he elaborates a new understanding of God in an evolutionary world. He challenges the “either-or” criticism of popular atheists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett by pointing out their superficial reading of Scripture and their primitive understanding of God.
He indicates that bad theology, like bad science, simply leads to bad results. Religious reductionism, like scientific reductionism, fails, according to Haught, to see the big picture. By reducing God to a literal designer colored by a stroke of dualism (good God/bad God), scientific atheists wind up making dogmatic claims on the incompatibility of religion and science. He suggests that there is a religious yearning even in the best of atheists who cannot admit of God because they refuse to move beyond a primitive knowledge of God.
As Haught moves his discussion from the misplaced concreteness of scientific materialism to theology, he articulates a new understanding of God, brought about by evolution. In his view, Darwin’s gift of evolution liberates the God of promise and hope, the God of the future, who is the God of Jesus Christ. Evolution does not dismiss God but opens up a new window to the divine mystery. “The God of evolution is a humble, self-donating liberality that avoids any unmediated manipulation of things.” God is at home in this unfinished creation, allowing the created world to be at play, to mess up and to go forward into a new future. Haught emphasizes that drama is inherent in this evolutionary creation; it is an unfolding story of beauty, goodness and love. Only within the context of drama and story, he indicates, can we make sense of tragedy and suffering. “If God had not opened up the universe to novelty and drama from the start, there would have been no suffering, but there would have been no increase in value or beauty either.” The reality of tragedy and sacrifice in nature is an essential part of evolution’s forward movement in the drama of life toward greater unity and beauty.
In the last chapter Haught discusses the God of evolution in light of Teilhard de Chardin, and rightly so. No other modern thinker has done more to unite evolution and the Christian God than Teilhard. To this day Teilhard’s theology is not well understood and even less accepted within the mainstream of academic theology. He remains a marginal thinker in the same way that evolution remains a marginal theory for Christian theology. And this is Haught’s persistent plea: that theology wake up to the reality of evolution. “What is needed theologically,” he writes, “is a thoroughgoing reinterpretation of Christian teaching about God, Christ, creation, incarnation, redemption, and eschatology in keeping with Darwin’s unveiling of life’s long evolution and contemporary cosmology’s disclosure of the ongoing expansion of the heavens.” This is not, in Haught’s view, just a reality check; this is revelation. He invites us to encounter anew the God of incomprehensible love, the God of the future who lures us to new levels of life, to new possibilities and to a new way of being in the world. John Haught is not simply one of the best theologians of our time; he, like Teilhard, is a prophet.
Any serious thinker will find in his book a rich banquet of thought, a depth of insight and a God who belongs to evolution.