Many Worlds: Evolution to Theology

Many Worlds: Evolution to Theology

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A Theology of and for Evolution

I urge that far from the epic of evolution being a threat to Christian theology, it is a stimulus to and a basis for a more encompassing and enriched understanding of the interrelations of God, humanity, and nature. An argument for the existence of God in Anglo-Saxon “physico-theology” (an eighteenth and early nineteenth century form of natural theology) was based on attributing to the direct action of God the Designer the intricacy of particular biological mechanisms. This argument collapsed when Darwin and his successors showed that this apparent design could evolve by a purely natural process based on scientifically intelligible processes. The beginning of the impact of Darwinism on theology is usually dated from the legend of the debate of the then Bishop of Oxford with T.H. Huxley at the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on Saturday, 30 June, 1860. I say legend because historical studies show that the story is mainly a later construct of Huxley and his biographers, for the impact of this now much-quoted event was not great at the time. No mention of it has been found in any publication between 1860 and 1880. After this, triumphalist accounts, on behalf of Huxley’s science and for the independence of the profession of scientists, began to appear in various “Lives” and “Letters.” So it is indeed a legend, and today often an icon, of the so-called conflict of religion and science, biology in particular, which we have all inherited. But even in the nineteenth century, many Anglican theologians, both evangelical and catholic, embraced positively the proposal of evolution. Of the former, one can think of Charles Kingsley, who in his Water Babies affirmed that God makes “things make themselves”; of the latter, we may instance Aubrey Moore, who in Lux Mundi in 1889 (a publication of a group of Oxford High Anglicans) wrote: “Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend. It has conferred upon philosophy and religion an inestimable benefit, by showing us that we must choose between two alternatives. Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere.” (23)

God and the World

Immanence. Such an emphasis on the immanence of God as Creator in, with, and under the natural processes of the world unveiled by the sciences is certainly in accord with all that the sciences have revealed since those debates of the nineteenth century. For a notable aspect of the scientific account on the natural world in general is the seamless character of the web that has been spun on the loom of time: the process appears as continuous from its cosmic beginning, in the hot Big Bang, to the present and at no point do modern natural scientists have to invoke any nonnatural causes to explain their observations and inferences about the past. The processes that have occurred can, as we saw, be characterized as one of emergence, for new forms of matter, and a hierarchy of organization of these forms themselves, appear in the course of time. New kinds of reality may be said to emerge in time.

The scientific perspective of the world, especially the living world, inexorably impresses on us a dynamic picture of the world of entities and structures involved in continuous and incessant change and in process without ceasing. This impels us to re-introduce into our understanding of God’s creative relation to the world a dynamic element that was always implicit in the Hebrew conception of a living God, dynamic in action-even if obscured by the tendency to think of creation as an event in the past. God has again to be conceived of continuously creating, continuously giving existence to what is new; that God is semper Creator; that the world is a creatio continua. The traditional notion of God sustaining the world in its general order and structure now has to be enriched by a dynamic and creative dimension-the model of God sustaining and giving continuous existence to a process that has an inbuilt creativity, built into it by God. God is creating at every moment of the world’s existence in and through the perpetually endowed creativity of the very stuff of the world.

All of which reinforces this need to re-affirm more strongly than at any other time in the Christian (and Jewish and Islamic) traditions that in a very strong sense God is the immanent Creator creating in and through the processes of the natural order. The processes themselves, as unveiled by the biological sciences are God-acting-as-Creator, God qua Creator. The processes are not themselves God, but the action of God-as-Creator. God gives existence in divinely created time to a process that itself brings forth the new: thereby God is creating. This means we do not have to look for any extra supposed gaps in which, or mechanisms whereby, God might be supposed to be acting as Creator in the living world.

Panentheism.(24) Classical philosophical theism maintained the ontological distinction between God and creative world that is necessary for any genuine theism by conceiving them to be of different substances, with particular attributes predicated of each. There was a space outside God in which the realm of created substances existed. This substantival way of speaking has become inadequate for it has become increasingly difficult to express the way in which God is present to the world in terms of substances, which by definition cannot be internally present to each other. God can only intervene in the world in such a model. This inadequacy of classical theism is aggravated by the evolutionary perspective which, as we have just seen, requires that natural processes in the world need to be regarded as God’s creative action. In other words, the world is to God, rather as our bodies are to us as personal agents, with the necessary caveat that the ultimate ontology of God as Creator is distinct from that of the world (panentheism, not pantheism). Moreover, this personal model of embodied subjectivity (with that essential caveat) represents better how we are now impelled to understand God’s perennial action in the world as coming from the inside, both in its natural regularities and in any special patterns of events. These three factors-the stronger emphasis on God’s immanence in the world, the stressing (as in the biblical tradition) of God as at least personal, and the need to avoid the use of substance in this context-lead to a panentheistic relation of God and the world. Panentheism is, accordingly, “The belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part of it exists in Him but (as against pantheism) that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe”.(25)

This concept has strong philosophical foundations and is scriptural, as has been carefully argued by P. Clayton (26) -recall Paul’s address at Athens when he says of God that “In him we live and move and have our being.”(27) It is in fact also deeply embedded in the Eastern Christian tradition.

The Wisdom (Sophia) and the Word (Logos) of God. Biblical scholars have in recent decades come to emphasize the significance of the central themes of the so-called Wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, and Wisdom). In this broad corpus of writings, the feminine figure of Wisdom (Sophia), according to J.G. Dunn, is a convenient way of speaking about God acting in creation, revelation, and salvation; Wisdom never becomes more than a personification of God’s activity.(28) This Wisdom endows some human beings, at least, with a personal wisdom that is rooted in their concrete experiences and in their systematic and ordinary observations of the natural world-what we would call science. But it is not confined to this and represents the distillation of wider human, ethical, and social experiences and even cosmological ones, since knowledge of the heavens figured in the capabilities of the sage. The natural order is valued as a gift and source of wonder, something to be celebrated. All such wisdom, imprinted as a pattern on the natural world and in the mind of the sage, is but a pale image of the divine wisdom-that activity distinctive of God’s relation to the world.

In the New Testament, Jesus came to be regarded as “the one who so embodied God’s creative power and saving wisdom (particularly in his death and resurrection) that he can be identified as ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ [1 Cor. 1.24].”(29)

That wisdom is an attribute of God, personified as female, has been of especial significance to feminist theologians30 one of whom has argued, on the basis of a wider range of biblical sources, that the feminine in God refers to all persons of the Christian Triune God. Thus, Wisdom (Sophia) becomes “the feminine face of God expressed in all persons of the Trinity.”(31) In the present context, it is pertinent that this important concept of Wisdom (Sophia) unites intimately the divine activity of creation, human experience, and the processes of the natural world. It therefore constitutes a biblical resource for imaging the panentheism we have been urging.

So also does the closely related concept of the Word (Logos) of God, which is regarded(32) as existing eternally as a mode of God’s own being, as active in creation, and as a self-expression of God’s own being and becoming imprinted in the very warp and woof of the created order. It seems to be a conflation of the largely Hebraic concept of the “Word of the Lord,” as the will of God in creative activity, with the divine logos of Stoic thought. This latter is the principle of rationality as both manifest in the cosmos and in the human reason (also named by the Stoics as logos). Again we have a panentheistic notion that unites, intimately, as three facets of one integrated and interlocked activity: the divine, the human, and (nonhuman) natural. It is, needless to say, significant that for Christians this logos was regarded as “made flesh”(33) in the person of Jesus the Christ.

A Sacramental Universe. The evolutionary epic, as I have called it for brevity, recounts in its sweep and continuity how over eons of time the mental and spiritual potentialities of matter have been actualized above all in the evolved complex of the human-brain-in-the-human-body. The original fluctuating quantum field, quark soup or whatever, has in some twelve or so billion years become a Mozart, a Shakespeare, a Buddha, a Jesus of Nazareth-and you and me!

Every advance of the biological, cognitive, and psychological sciences shows human beings as psychosomatic unities-that is, as persons. Matter has manifest personal qualities, that unique combination of physical, mental, and spiritual capacities. (I use “spiritual” as indicating relatable to God in a personal way.) For the panentheist, who sees God working in, with, and under natural processes, this unique result (to date) of the evolutionary process corroborates that God is using that process as an instrument of God’s purposes and as a symbol of the divine nature, that is, as the means of conveying insight into these purposes.

But in the Christian tradition, this is precisely what its sacraments do. They are valued for what God is effecting instrumentally and for what God is conveying symbolically through them. Thus, William Temple came to speak of the “sacramental universe” (34) and we can come to see nature as sacrament, or at least, as sacramental. Hence, my continued need to apply the phrase of in, with, and under, which Luther used to refer to the mode of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, to the presence of God in the processes of the world.

This could be (and has been [35]) developed further in relation to the doctrine of the Incarnation and to the new valuation of the very stuff of the world, which ensues from those significant words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “This: my body” and “This: my blood”-referring, as it is often said in the Liturgy, to bread “which earth has given and human hands have made” and to “wine, fruit of the vine and work of human hands.” But this is best considered in the light of how Jesus the Christ is to be regarded in the light of all the forgiving. To this we must now turn.

Humanity and Jesus the Christ in an Evolutionary Perspective

We have already seen that humanity is incomplete, unfinished, falling short of that instantiation of the ultimate values of truth, beauty, and goodness that God, their ultimate source, must be seeking to achieve to bring them into harmonious relation to Godself. We have not yet become fully adapted to the ultimate, eternal “environment” of God.

It was not long after Darwin published the Origin that some theologians began to discern the significance of the central distinctive Christian affirmation of the Incarnation of God in the human person of Jesus the Christ as especially congruent with an evolutionary perspective. Thus, again in Lux Mundi in 1891, we find J.R. Illingworth boldly affirming: “. . . [I]n scientific language, the Incarnation may be said to have introduced a new species into the world-the Divine man transcending past humanity, as humanity transcended the rest of the animal creation, and communicating His vital energy by a spiritual process to subsequent generations. . . .”(36) Jesus’ resurrection convinced the disciples, including Paul, that it is the union with God of his kind of life that is not broken by death and capable of being taken into God. For Jesus manifested the kind of human life which, it was believed, can become fully life with God, not only here and now, but eternally beyond the threshold of death. Hence his imperative “Follow me” constitutes a call for the transformation of humanity into a new kind of human being and becoming. What happened to Jesus, it was thought, could happen to all.

In this perspective, Jesus the Christ (the whole Christ event) has, I would suggest, shown us what is possible for humanity. The actualization of this potentiality can properly be regarded as the consummation of the purposes of God already manifested incompletely in evolving humanity. In Jesus there was a divine act of new creation because Christians may now say the initiative was from God, within human history, within the responsive human will of Jesus inspired by that outreach of God into humanity designated as God the Holy Spirit. Jesus the Christ is thereby seen, in the context of the whole complex of events in which he participated as the paradigm of what God intends for all human beings, now revealed as having the potentiality of responding to, of being open to, of becoming united with God. In this perspective, he represents the consummation of the evolutionary creative process that God has been effecting in and through the world.

In this perspective, the ever-present, self-expression in all-that-is of God as Word or Logos attains its most explicit, personal revelation in Jesus the Christ. But because it is (albeit unique for Christians) a manifestation of this eternal and perennial mode of God’s interaction in, with, and under the created order, what was revealed in Jesus the Christ could also, in principle, be manifest both in other human beings and indeed also on other planets, in any sentient, self-conscious, nonhuman persons (whatever their physical form) inhabiting them that are capable of relating to God. This vision of a universe permeated by the ever-acting, ever-working, and potentially explicit self-expression of the divine Word/Logos was never better expressed than in a poem of Alice Meynell (1847-1922):

Christ in the Universe With this ambiguous earth His dealings have been told us. These abide: The signal to a maid, the human birth, the lesson and the young Man crucified.But not a star of all The innumerable host of stars has heard How he administered this terrestrial ball. Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word . . .No planet knows that this Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave, Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss, Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.Nor, in our little day, May his devices with the heavens he guessed, His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way, Or his bestowals there be manifest.But, in the eternities, Doubtless we shall compare together, hear A million alien Gospels, in what guise He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.(37)

For on Earth the epic of evolution is consummated in the Incarnation in a human person of the cosmic self-expression of God, God’s Word-and in the hope this gives to all self-conscious persons of being united with the Source of all Being and Becoming that is the “Love that moves the heavens and the other stars.” May I suggest that, in the second century, Irenaeus said it all, in inviting us to contemplate: “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ Who of his boundless love became what we are to make us what even he himself is.” (Adv. Haer., V praef.)


1. T. Dobzhansky, American Biology Teacher (1973).2. Genesis 2:10.3. Genesis 3:19.4. M. Eigen, “The Self-Organisation of Matter and the Evolution of Biological Macromolecules,” Naturwissenschaffen, 58 (1971), 465-523. See also R. Winkler and M. Eigen, Das Spiel (Munich and Zurich: R. Piper and Co. Verlag, 1975). For Prigogene’s work, see I. Prigogene and I. Stengers, Order Out of Chaos (London: Heinemann, 1984).5. I long ago learned this device from Professor David Nichols of the University of Exeter (see A.R. Peacocke, Science and the Christian Experiment [London: Oxford University Press, 1971] 72, n. 1).6. Genesis 1:31 (NRSV).7. C. Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 6th ed., chap. iii (London: Thinkers Library Ed., Watts and Co.), 97-98.8. G.G. Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New York: Bantam Press; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 20.9. Romans, 6:23 (A.V.)10.See K.J. Narr, “Cultural Achievements of Early Man” in G. Altner, ed., The Human Creature (New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1974), 115-116: “. . . A marked evolutionary expansion manifests itself after around 30,000 B.C. at the beginning of the upper Palaeolithic. The new picture that emerges can be characterised by such terms as accumulation, differentiation and specialization. There is an increase and concentration of cultural goods, a more refined technology with greater variety in the forms of weapons and tools produced and corresponding specialisation of their respective functions, more pronounced economic and general cultural differentiation of individual groups.”11.See the article by A. Richardson on Adam in A. Richardson, ed., A Theological Word Book of the Bible (London: SCM Press, 1957), 14.12.D.T. Campbell “On the Conflicts Between Biological and Social Evolution and Between Psychology and Moral Tradition,” Zygon, 11 (1976), 192.13.T. Chalmers, “On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man,” The First Bridgewater Treatise, 1832, 308.14.Augustine, Confessions, Book I [1], 1.15.K.R. Popper, A World of Propensities (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1996), 12, 1716.S.J. Gould, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (London: Pengiun Books, 1989), 306, citing D.M. Kaup.17.R.C. Morris, The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).18.Ibid., 201 ff.19.Ibid., 202.20.Ibid., 14, 22.21.The judgment of C. de Duve, a participant in this symposium, Nobel laureate, cell biologist, and biochemist, is relevant. “Particularly remarkable, in animal evolution, is the unswerving vertical drive-with horizontal evolution producing side branches all along the way, of course-in the direction of polyneural complexity. . . . No doubt the environment played an important role in molding the details of this pathway . . . but the overriding element, surely, is the fact that a more complex brain is an asset in almost any circumstance. Viewed in this context, the emergence of humankind or, at least, of conscious, intelligent beings, appears as much less improbable than many maintain. Contrary to what Monod stated, the biosphere was pregnant with man (p. 7).” C. de Duve, “Constraints on the Origin and Evolution of Life,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 142 (1998), 1-8.22.P.S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 3.23.A. Moore, “The Christian Doctrine of God,” in C. Gore, ed., Luz Mundi, 12th ed. (London: John Murray, 1891), 73.24.For further exposition, see my Theology for a Scientific World (TSA), 2nd enlarged ed. (London and Minneapolis: SCM and Fortress Press [1993]) 370-372; “A Response to Polkinghorne,” Science and Christian Belief, 7 (1995), 109-110; P. Clayton, “The Case for Christian Panentheism,” Dialog, 37 (1998), 201-208 to which this account here is greatly indebted.25.F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1027. See also Augustine, Confessions, VII 7, quoted in TSA, p. 159.26.P. Clayton, God in Contemporary Science (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), chaps. 2, 4.27.Acts 17:28 (NRSV).28.J.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making (London: SCM Press, 1980), 210.29.Ibid., p. 211.30.S. Coakley, “Feminine and the Holy Spirit?”, in M. Furlong, ed., Mirror to the Church: Reflections on Sexism (London: SPCK, 1988), 124-135.31.C. Deane-Drummond, “Sophia: The Feminine Face of God as Metaphor for an Ecotheology,” Feminist Theology, 16 (1997), 11-31; “Futurenatural?: A Future of Science through the Lens of Wisdom,” Heythrop J. XL (1999), 41-59 (specifically here, p. 5).32.CF. John 1.33.John 1:14.34.W. Temple, Nature, Man and God (London: Macmillan, 1934), chap. 19.35.A.R. Peacocke, “Matter in Religion and Science,” in God and the New Biology (London: Dent, 1986; repr. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1994) chap. 9; “Nature as Sacrament” in Affirming Catholicism, Sept./Oct., 1999.36.J.R. Illingworth, “The Incarnation in relation to Development,” in C. Gore, ed., Lux Mundi, 12th ed. (London: John Murray, 1981), 151-152. But we cannot today use for this transformation his phrase “a new species” in any literal sense, for species is for us now a purely biological term.37.A. Meynell, “Christ in the Universe,” in Helen Gardner, ed., The Faber Book of Religious Verse (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 292.