I’ve often claimed that theology is the art of turning empirical necessities into religious virtues. Nobody exemplifies that better than John Haught, a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University. Haught is notorious for his wooly apologetics, his attacks on “new atheists,” and his unintentionally hilarious attempts to show that evolution is really part of God’s plan. His latest effort, displaying all these tendencies at full bore, is his “On Faith” column in yesterday’s Washington Post, “Darwin, God, and the drama of life”. It’s worth reproducing in its entirety so that we can, as postmodernists say, “unpack” its message.
Evolution makes very good sense scientifically speaking. But does it make good sense theologically as well? Not everyone thinks it does. Religious believers who find evolution contrary to faith usually do so because they are focusing on the complex “design” that scientists have discovered in cells and organisms. They insist that life’s chemically and physically improbable architecture points to a divine intelligence that current biology cannot explain. Evolution-inspired atheists, however, usually respond that the architecture of cells and organisms is imperfect, even though awe-inspiring. “This imperfection–the manifold design flaws of life–,” writes David Barash of the University of Washington, “points incontrovertibly to a natural, rather than a divine process, one in which living things were not created de novo, but evolved.”
I propose, however, that religious thought can make significant contact with Darwin’s science if instead of focusing on design it turns its attention to the drama of life. The typically design-obsessed frame of mind through which so many devout theists, as well as staunch atheists, are looking at the question of God and evolution is a dead end both scientifically and theologically.
You can see where he’s going. He accepts that evolution occurs, which of course makes it anathema to anyone who takes the Bible literally, but Haught’s job is to sell the science to his more “sophisticated” audience. To do that, he must focus on the “drama.” And of course he, Haught, will show that this drama resolves all the seeming conflict between God and Darwin.
Religious conservatives have desperately tried to introduce the idea of “intelligent design” into their pre-Darwinian idealization of scientific understanding. But in doing so they have overlooked the grandeur that Darwin saw in the larger story of life. Ironically, contemporary evolutionary materialists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jerry Coyne, for example), are as preoccupied with design as their anti-Darwinian religious opponents. They too have seized Darwin’s rich story of life and bled the drama right out of it.
Umm. . . . how is that, exactly? Are Dawkins’s paeans to the beauty and wonder of selection any less “dramatic” than, say,the last paragraph of The Origin? Which of us has not recognized and extolled how amazing evolution and natural selection reallly are? Oh, I forgot — we’ve left out God.
Claiming that Darwin has disposed of divine design, atheistic evolutionists assume that science has thereby wiped away the last traces of deity from the record of life. Yet they have failed to notice that the very features of evolution–unpredictable accidents, predictable natural selection, and the long reach of time–that seem to rule out the existence of God, are essential ingredients in a monumental story of life that turns out to be much more interesting theologically than design could ever be.
Yep, here it is. All those things that once made evolution seem non-theistic — the random mutations, the extinctions, the pain, the waste — they’re all part of the drama! Virtue from necessity! God is just a big playwright, directing a big script that none of us will ever be able to see to its end (or even comprehend), but whose working out surely amuses Him. And isn’t all that pain, waste, accident, and extinction so much more interesting than the conventional view of creation?
The most important issue in the current debate about evolution and faith is not whether design points to deity but whether the drama of life is the carrier of a meaning. According to rigid design standards, evolution appears to have staggered drunkenly down multiple pathways, leading nowhere. But viewed dramatically, the apparent absence of perfect order at any present moment is an opening to the future, a signal that the story of life is not yet over.
To make sense of the drama of life, therefore, we shall have to wait–a disposition essential to any mature religious faith. For if evolution has an eternally sanctioned “point,” we should expect that it would presently be hidden in the narrative depths of life rather than manifested in the always imperfect instances of design that float along on life’s surface. Dramatic stories, unlike complex living systems or elaborately structured molecular states, have the potential to carry a truly deep significance. But it is the nature of stories that they have comic twists and tragic turns, and that they take time to unfold.
As the Church Lady said, “Isn’t that convenient?” None of us will be around to see the point, and even Haught doesn’t know what it is. But I do! In ten billion years or so, the Sun is going to swallow up the earth, and whatever life is left is going to die a horrible heat death. Maybe God sees evolution as a sort of Hamlet, in which life’s great tragedy culiminates in a heap of bodies.
This rationale truly shows the intellectual vacuity of Haught and his minions. What observations, I ask, could convince Haught that there is no god behind evolution? What conceivable turn of evolution could convince him that the process doesn’t carry any divine “meaning”? He’s already managed to rationalize all the horrible stuff that convinced Darwin and others that if there was a god tweaking the process, it wasn’t a beneficent one. The extinction of more than 99% of the species that ever lived? It’s all part of the drama, like the extinction of Willy Loman. Difficult-to-understand situations, like the Holocaust or the horrible pain of children dying of disease? No problem: those are just the “tragic turns” inevitable in God’s script. Don’t try to understand it; just admire it — nay, worship it!
I defy Haught to describe any possible evolutionary scenario that he couldn’t rationalize as part of God’s plan. A theology like this is not worthy of anyone’s respect. Again the words of Orwell are relevant: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.”
Haught goes on:
So whatever meaning the drama of life may be carrying cannot become transparent to our present intellectual efforts or scientific observations. Again, we have to wait.
A theological reading of evolution, I am suggesting, looks for an alternative to the rigor mortis of perfect design, and this is why Darwin’s ragged portrait of life is not so distressing after all. Theologically understood, biological evolution is part of an immense cosmic journey into the incomprehensible mystery of God. Any possible meaning it has will reside at a level of narrative depth unfathomable by the mathematical nets of physical science, by armchair observation, or by minds fixated on design.
Ah, the obligatory New Theological slur on science. There is “narrative depth” that we armchair scientists simply can’t fathom (and in that we’re like intelligent-design Christian), but that theologians can. When Haught says “theologically understood” above, what he really means is “theologically rationalized.”
According to a biblically inspired theology of nature, beneath life’s diversity, descent, and flawed design, stirs an evolutionary drama that has been aroused, though not coercively driven, by a God of infinite love. The cosmos is called continually into being by a Creator who wills, but does not force, truly interesting outcomes to emerge in surprising new ways. God, as scripture suggests, is the one who “makes all things new.” The drama of life and its evolution is a response to this invitation.
– John F. Haught, Ph. D., is Senior Fellow, Science & Religion, at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
This is the part that really gets me. In the paragraph right above this one, Haught sees God as an “incomprehensible mystery.” How, then, does he know that God is a “God of infinite love”? Why couldn’t He be a “God of infinite jest”? The main failure of all of this “sophisticated” theology is its characterization of God as incomprehensible on the one hand, combined with an eagerness on the other to tell us what God is really like, and what his plans are. Do people really fall for this stuff? Apparently they do, so eager are they to find sophisticated ways to see God’s working in the world.
I swear, I don’t understand how somebody can get paid to churn out pieces like this, much less how the stuff garners any respect. This, my friends, is what people call sophisticated theology.
We all know that Dawkins & Co. have been criticized for presenting and destroying theological claims that are not very sophisticated, and failing to deal with the subtle arguments of intellectual theologians. One example is Allen Orr’s attack on The God Delusion in The New York Review of Books:
The most disappointing feature of The God Delusion is Dawkins’s failure to engage religious thought in any serious way. This is, obviously, an odd thing to say about a book-length investigation into God. But the problem reflects Dawkins’s cavalier attitude about the quality of religious thinking. Dawkins tends to dismiss simple expressions of belief as base superstition. Having no patience with the faith of fundamentalists, he also tends to dismiss more sophisticated expressions of belief as sophistry (he cannot, for instance, tolerate the meticulous reasoning of theologians). But if simple religion is barbaric (and thus unworthy of serious thought) and sophisticated religion is logic-chopping (and thus equally unworthy of serious thought), the ineluctable conclusion is that all religion is unworthy of serious thought.
Well, if Haught exemplifies “meticulous reasoning” and “sophisticated expressions of belief,” give me snake-handling any day (now there’s real drama!). In reality, there is no sophisticated theology — there is just sophistry, evasion, and rationalization. When this is performed by intellectuals, it’s called “sophisticated”. But Haught’s arguments are not sophisticated — much less coherent. They’re just a bunch of post facto rationalizations, born of a desperate faith that must see every possible observation as confirming God. And that is pathetic.
UPDATE: See Jason Rosenhouse on Bertrand Russell on accommodating theology with evolution.