Review of John Haught’s “God After Darwin”

Review of John Haught’s “God After Darwin”

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What follows is my critical review of John Haught’s acclaimed book, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution.  For the most part, I believe Haught’s theological vision is exciting and a much-needed voice in the science and religion dialogue. However, I raise concerns about his vision of 1) a loving God and 2) a metaphysics of the future, because I believe these concerns point out weaknesses in his otherwise sound and beneficial proposal.

The book’s basic thesis is that contemporary theologians must adequately account for evolutionary theory, broadly conceived, because evolution offers theologians helpful possibilities for conceiving of God in religiously adequate ways. “Theology has generally failed to think about God in a manner proportionate to the opulence of evolution,” says Haught at the outset (ix). “To a great extent, theologians still think and write almost as though Darwin had never lived” (2). Yet, Haught believes that “Darwin has gifted us with an account of life whose depth, beauty, and pathos—when seen in the context of the larger cosmic epic of evolution—expose us afresh to the raw reality of the sacred and to a resoundingly meaningful universe” (2).

Haught sets forth three basic ways in which religious thinkers have responded to Darwin’s evolutionary hypothesis. He labels these ways “opposition,” “separatism,” and “engagement.” Oppositionists claim that theology and evolution are mutually antagonistic. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Stephen Jay Gould, among others, represent one oppositionist camp; Haught designates this camp the “scientific materialists.” The other oppositionist camp is comprised of intelligent design creationists, and Haught identifies Phillip Johnson with it. Johnson is praised for rejecting atheistic materialism, but Haught scolds him for not accepting any form of evolution, including evolutionary theory requiring divine activity. In sum, “neither the proponents of ‘intelligent design’ nor their materialist opponents actually deal with life,” argues the author. “Both seek to purchase intellectual clarity only at the price of leaving out the novelty characteristic of living processes” (4).

The way in which evolutionary science and theology ought to be treated, designated the “engagement” approach by Haught, “takes evolution into the very center of its reflections on the meaning of life, of God, and of the universe” (33). Haught notes that John Polkinghorne has offered an appropriate post-Darwinian engagement response in recent years.

A second and, according to Haught, more important form of theological engagement with evolution is evolutionary theology. This theology “claims that the story of life, even in its neo-Darwinian presentation, provides essential concepts for thinking about God and God’s relation to nature and humanity. … Evolutionary theology seeks to show how our new awareness of cosmic and biological evolution can enhance and enrich traditional teachings about God and God’s way of acting in the world” (36).

In the remainder of the book, Haught lays out what his form of evolutionary theology entails. In this vision, “the notion of an originally and instantaneously completed creation is theologically unthinkable” (37). Emphasis should be placed, instead, upon the completion of an evolving universe at the eschaton. But we should not think of this eschatological completion in anthropocentric ways: “our own human hope for final fulfillment must be situated within the wider context of the ongoing creation of the cosmos” (38). The eschatological fulfillment will be secured by a God who is “up ahead” and coming “out of the realm of the future.”

Haught’s evolutionary theology suggests that revelation be understood as the incremental and gradual communication to the world of God’s own selfhood. This theology is a grace-full one, says Haught, because the God envisioned by it grants independence to the world by “letting the world be itself.” God’s love “might even take the form of a self-withdrawal precisely as the condition for allowing the world to emerge on its own so as to attain the possible status of being capable of a deep relationship with God,” Haught argues. “Theologically interpreted … the epic of evolution is the story of the world’s struggle—not always successfully or linearly progressive—toward an expansive freedom in the presence of self-giving grace” (40).

Divine power in Haught’s evolutionary theology is voluntarily persuasive rather than coercive. Haught defends his adoption of a form of process theology by arguing that, “to those who object that process theology is hereby illegitimately redefining the idea of God’s power in order to contrive a fit with neo-Darwinian theory, the reply is simply that no other conceptions of power is more consistent with the quite orthodox religious belief that God is infinite love” (42).

God is the origin of novelty in the universe. But, “as the ultimate source of novelty in evolution,” says Haught, “God must also be the cause of instability and disorder, conditions essential to life” (42). The novelty aspect corresponds with the aesthetic impulse of Haught’s theological vision: God is more interested in novelty and aesthetic adventure than in maintaining status quo.  Deity ultimately redeems the world through sensitive responsiveness, as the events of the universe are saved by God’s feeling of them.

One of life’s monumental enigmas is the problem of evil, and Haught offers some answers to this enigma. “The Darwinian picture of life’s long struggle and travail,” he notes, “gives unprecedented breadth to the so-called problem of theodicy” (45). The restrictiveness of the “intelligent design” hypothesis becomes especially apparent when considering the tragic aspects of life. An adequate response to evil comes not only from taking the contingency and randomness of evolution seriously, it also comes from envisioning “a God who participates fully in the world’s struggle and pain” (46).

Haught draws upon Christianity to support his contention that God suffers, saying that “the image of a vulnerable, defenseless, and humble deity may seem shocking to some, but it is crucial to the primordial Christian sense of the nature of ultimate reality” (47). An adequate theory of evolution “must bring to the fore faith’s sense of the self-outpouring God who lovingly renounces any claim to domineering omnipotence” (50). Haught explains this more fully:

“If ultimate reality is conceived of neither as mindless and impersonal ‘matter,’ as materialism sees it, nor simply as an “intelligent designer,” but fundamentally as self-emptying, suffering love, we should already anticipate that nature will give every appearance of being in some sense autonomously creative (autopoietic). Since it is the nature of love, even at the human level, to refrain from coercive manipulation of others, we should not expect the world that a generous God calls into being to be instantaneously ordered to perfection.  Instead, in the presence of the self-restraint befitting an absolutely self-giving love, the world would unfold by responding to the divine allurement at its own pace and in its own particular way” (53).

In short, Haught envisions a loving God who voluntarily withdraws from creation to allow room for evolutionary creativity.

In his chapter, “Religion, Evolution, and Information,” Haught argues that evolution does not logically rule out a hierarchical metaphysics. Working with notions inherent in the work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Taoism, Haught concludes that “science’s own growing awareness of the explanatory role of information in nature’s constitution allows us to embrace consistently both a religious vision—including a sense of cosmic meaning—and the carefully established results of evolutionary biology” (80).

Many details of Haught’s doctrine of God emerge in the book’s middle chapters entitled, “A God for Evolution” and “Evolution, Tragedy, and Cosmic Purpose.” Inextricably linked to this doctrine of God is a metaphysical scheme the author calls a “Metaphysics of the Future.” “By a ‘metaphysics of the future,'” explains Haught, “I mean quite simply the philosophical expression of the intuition—admittedly religious in origin—that all things receive their being from out of an inexhaustibly resourceful ‘future’ that we may call ‘God'”(90). “Evolution … seems to require a divine source of being that resides not in a timeless present located somewhere ‘up above,’ but in the future, essentially ‘up ahead,’ as the goal of a world still in the making. … The term ‘God’,” says Haught, means “the transcendent future horizon that draws an unfathomable fulfillment yet to be realized” (84).

Evolution has essentially undermined Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics, argues Haught, because, in these metaphysical schemes, God resides outside time and genuine novelty is nonexistent. Evolutionary theory, says Haught, “has shattered every pious illusion that life and human existence were planned from all eternity” (11). Also inadequate is a materialist metaphysics, which implies that the past entirely determines the present. In contrast to classical Greek metaphysics and materialism, argues Haught, a metaphysics of the future accounts for the novelty in evolution. The power of the future is evolution’s ultimate metaphysical explanation (90).

The metaphysics of the future that Haught proposes “cannot be translated without remainder into scientifically specifiable concepts, precisely because science typically attributes efficacy only to what lies in the causal past” (90). In opposition to current scientific orthodoxy, the author speculates that the “cosmic past and present are in some sense given their own status by the always arriving but also always unavailable future (90-91). God comes “toward the present” and “continually creates the world” from “the sphere of the future ‘not-yet'”(91).

Describing this power of the future is, admittedly, difficult (89, 91). “Many of us think intuitively of the future as quite ‘unreal,’ since it has not yet arrived fully. … So the idea of a metaphysics of the future will probably seem confusing” (91). “Perhaps the confusion,” suggests Haught, “is the result of our having been bewitched by a metaphysics either of the past or of the eternal present” (91).

Central to appropriating a “metaphysics of the future,” claims Haught, is participation in a specific religious narrative of history. In such a narrative, one must be grasped in faith by “that which is to come” (89). But not just any religious narrative can mesh with this metaphysical hypothesis. “My suggestion that the coming of the future into the present might be the ultimate ground of evolutionary novelty,” admits Haught, “will hardly sit comfortably in the world of conventional religious and scientific thought” (96).

In a chapter dealing with ecological concerns, Haught sets out to clarify how the “belief that all of creation is oriented toward the future fulfillment of God” can also “be the basis of an ecologically responsible theology” (148). Haught’s ecological theology understands “nature’s inherent worth to be grounded not only in its being a sacramental disclosure of God but also … in its character as promise of the future perfection of creation” (150).

But the divine promise of a future perfection of creation, critics might argue, could undermine present ecological endeavors. After all, action to secure ecological well-being in the present would be superfluous in the face of a promised future perfection brought about by the Future God possessing inexhaustible resources. Haught’s reply to this concern is the claim that “the central biblical thrust of biblical hope in that we may look toward a future for the world, not a future completely apart from it” (152). The present order needs to be viewed fundamentally as promise rather than perfection, says the author, which means that we should be “especially intolerant of those destructive practices that expect the Earth itself to be limitless in it resourcefulness” (158).

Haught realizes the importance of carving out a suitable ethical dimension in his evolutionary theology. “Without a core conviction that the cosmos is at heart an expression of divine purpose,” he argues, “our ethical aspirations will wither and die” (123). Haught confesses that, when pondering the questions of ethics and purpose, he has “found considerable help … in the cosmology and metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. … Whitehead’s thought captures and expresses what many religions and theologies have intuited about the creative and compassionate depths of reality, while remaining consistently faithful to scientific discovery” (126). Following Whitehead, Haught contends that “an appropriate way of thinking about cosmic purpose in an evolutionary world, and hence of providing a firm basis in evolution for human ethical endeavor, consists in the view that the cosmos is a restless aim toward ever more intense configurations of beauty” (128). One should conclude that “the purpose of our own lives, when seen in this setting, must have something to do with the preserving and enlarging of the dominion of beauty in the universe” (133).

As I indicated at the outset of this review, I believe that many of Haught’s proposals are exciting and beneficial. Along with many other proposals, I find the following especially fruitful: Haught’s adoption of aesthetics as the driving force for ethics, his opposition to deterministic materialism and “God outside of time” neo-platonic metaphysical schemes, his recognition that metaphysical hypotheses are vital to the religion and science dialogue, his stress upon genuine novelty in creation, his interest in ecological theories that account for non-human concerns, and, overall, his general emphasis upon theology’s need to engage evolutionary theories.  In the interest of interest, however, I will limit my appreciative remarks to this brief list.

My negative criticism of Haught’s work centers upon how he understands (1) the relation between divine love and divine power and (2) God’s metaphysical relation to the future. Haught acknowledges that, “as a Christian theologian … when I reflect on the relationship of evolutionary science to religion, I am obliged to think of God as both kenotic love and power of the future” (110). Although I agree that adequate conceptions of kenotic love and God’s relation to the future are valuable to an evolutionary theology, I believe that Haught’s particular formulation of these conceptions is both religiously and scientifically inadequate.

With regard to love, the central point in question is theodicy: Why doesn’t a loving God prevent genuine evil if this God is able?  If God voluntarily permits creatures—both human and nonhuman—to suffer the painful consequences of genuine evil, I cannot imagine how such divine kenosis could be equated with perfect love.

The God that Haught’s envisions is susceptible to being labeled “Not Perfectly Loving” because of theodical implications. Although Haught goes so far as to say that, “after the Holocaust, any notion of a God who has the power to prevent suffering in history and nature but who refuses to exercise this power is indeed religiously and philosophically unacceptable” (184), his God apparently refuses to prevent the occurrences of genuine evil despite being able to do so. The God that Haught envisions apparently does have power to prevent genuine evil, but this God voluntarily “lets be” the world. The God of Haught’s evolutionary theory voluntarily “renounces any claim to domineering omnipotence” (50) and freely allows “life’s long struggle and travail.” “An infinite love must in some sense ‘absent’ or ‘restrain itself,'” says Haught (112).

The God that Haught envisions is one who voluntarily chooses to allow creaturely freedom. I contend, by contrast, that, if God is able NOT to allow some genuine evils to occur, a loving deity would prevent such evil. If Haught’s God essentially has the capacity to determine others unilaterally—as his language of divine self-withdrawal, self-restraint, and self-limitation indicates—how can this God be love? A loving God would occasionally choose to become un-self-withdrawn, un-self-restrained, and un-self-limited to prevent genuine evil. But the God Haught envisions apparently did not choose to un-renounce omnipotence to prevent the Holocaust. Nor does this God choose to un-renounce omnipotence to prevent nonhuman suffering caused by genuinely evil evolutionary occurrences. Haught claims that humans are aware that coercing others cannot be a loving act. In fact, we can all think of instances in which the coercion of a perpetrator of genuine evil for the sake of potential innocent victims IS an act of love. Our common belief that coercing one is sometimes necessary if we want genuinely to love others is one justification for our incarceration of rapists. Coercion and love are not always antithetical.

The divine persuasive activity Haught envisions is not the divine persuasive activity described by most prominent process theologians. The theodicy envisioned by these process thinkers involves God’s necessary, not voluntary, persuasive activity. Persuasion is a metaphysical necessity for the process God; divine persuasion is not a volitional contingency. According to mainline process thought, God is unable unilaterally to determine creatures, because creatures are necessarily partially free. Because God cannot prevent free creaturely actions, God is not culpable for failing to prevent genuinely evil occurrences. I believe Haught should modify his evolutionary theology in such a way as to make God’s persuasive love of the world cohere with a metaphysical hypothesis based upon the idea that God is metaphysically unable to withdraw or override genuinely evil creaturely choices. Haught admits that his kenotic image of God is “inaccessible to philosophical and scientific rationality as such” (112). In making this modification, many may find plausible the kenotic divine love hypothesis that results.

The second aspect of my criticism has to do with Haught’s adoption of a “metaphysics of the future.” Haught apparently has difficulty communicating what this scheme realistically entails, because he often places scare quotes around words associated with it. Among the phrases obtaining marks are the following: “future,” “power of the future,” “coming order,” “up ahead,” “Absolute Future,” and, sometimes, “God.” Haught speaks of God’s relation to the future, saying that “all things receive their being out of the … ‘future’ we may call ‘God.'”  Although his adoption and wide-scale use of this metaphysical hypothesis leads one to believe that Haught considers the scheme to correspond to the way things really are, he nevertheless occasionally calls his metaphysics of the future metaphorical.

Although Haught rightfully rejects metaphysical schemes that consider God’s experience to reside outside time, and he rightfully rejects a materialistic metaphysics implying the past entirely determines the present, the alternative metaphysics he offers is fraught with difficulty. The metaphysics of the future scheme is, in my opinion, relatively incoherent and inapplicable to both religious and scientific endeavor.

The religious incoherence of Haught’s metaphysics of the future can be illustrated by asking a series of questions. How can God truly suffer with us as one who experiences our present pain and agony, if God’s being is in the future? How can God participate in genuine give-and-take love with the world, if God’s existence is already actualized in the future? How can God come to the world from out of the realm of the future and this not imply reverse causation—an apparently impossible mode of influence?

Haught says, furthermore, that “we must concede to the future some modality of being” (118, emphasis his). The present “is itself the ‘residue’ of the openness of nature to a futurity that had formerly come to pass” (103). This implies that future events are actually past events—at least for God. I wonder, however: If the future is actual and not merely possible, and if God resides in the future, how can we consider ourselves in any sense free? In such a scheme, we are determined. And, if the future is only possible and not actual, and if God resides in the future, how can God be said to exist at all?  In such a scheme, God’s existence would merely be possible.

Haught admits that science, at least in its present form, cannot be squared with a metaphysics of the future. Science is concerned with the causal efficacy of the past, and Haught bases his scheme on the causal efficacy of the future. In fact, Haught seems to undermine the basis of science itself when he says that “in our future metaphysics, the world is in a sense not yet real, and therefore it is not yet intelligible, at least in a complex way.” If the explanation of the evolution is found in the future because the present world is not yet real, the evolutionary explanation currently espoused is necessarily insufficient. This implication of a metaphysics of the future undermines Haught’s basic thesis that theologians ought to take evolutionary theory seriously.

In short, the metaphysics of the future out of which God comes is, as Haught admits, counterintuitive, not scientifically specifiable, only able to be appropriated by some religious traditions, and, I suggest, inherently confusing.  As presented, I do not see how such a metaphysics can be fruitful for the science and religion dialogue. Theologians should reject it for the incoherent notions of divinity it proposes, and scientists should to reject it because this metaphysics of the future undermines the scientist’s fundamental conviction that explanations based upon present experimentation are valid.

In closing, I want briefly to suggest an alternative metaphysical scheme. Instead of the metaphysics of the future, a metaphysics similar to the one prominent process philosophers offer should be adopted. In what might be called “a metaphysics of the ever-evolving present,” this scheme says that past actions exert efficacy upon present actualities without entirely determining them. God necessarily graces the present by offering novel possibilities to evolving individuals. And, in this scheme, the future is chock-full of real possibilities, all of which are envisioned by God. In this metaphysics, God knows all that can be known from the past, because God existed then. God also influences all things toward novelty in the present, because deity actually exists now.  And God knows what is possible for the future without actually residing in the future, because God envisions all possibilities.

Were this metaphysics adopted, I believe the many excellent proposals found in God After Darwin could be retained. In the process, the overall scheme would possess the coherency and applicability necessary for fruitful science and theology dialogue.