The Layer Cake of Knowledge: John Haught on Evolution and Theology

In a recent post, apropos of Schleiermacher, I defended a notion of creation theology as standing in a noncompetitive relationship with modern scientific cosmology: In this view, Christian theologians who speak of creation are speaking in a different register from the empirical descriptions and theories of natural processes offered by cosmologists, physicists and biologists.

John F. Haught, a renowned "evolutionary theologian" and expert in science-and-religion dialogue, makes a similar point, specifically in terms of the encounter between theology and Darwinian evolutionary theory. The broader agenda of this lucid book is to bring scientific and theological perspectives on human origins and destiny into a closer, more fruitful, and non-reductionist dialogue that respects the prerogatives and concerns of both modes of inquiry; since Haught writes as a theologian and not as a scientist, his special concern is to expand and enrich contemporary Christian thought through this encounter with evolutionary science.

John F. Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life (WJK, 2010)

He does have a bit of a polemical word, though, for the scientific reductionists who cloak their atheist metaphysical presuppositions within the respectable framework of objective empirical research and theory. Haught is pointed here, but not shrill; while eschewing Christian defensiveness, he nonetheless takes to task the "new atheists" who use evolutionary theory to discredit religious faith as such (their names will be familiar to most of you; I won't engage them here, thus they remain unnamed). Far from working from mere scientific objectivity, Haught contends, such critics are in fact crypto-theologians -- or better, anti-theologians -- who operate from an a priori materialist metaphysics that exceeds the limits of what science as such can teach us. In other words, in their attacks on religious belief, they aren't playing fair -- or at least they are operating from assumptions just as rigidly unchallenged as those of the stalwart religious fundamentalist.

Keeping Theology and Science Distinct

In essence, Haught argues that both scientists and theologians need to exercise "methodological modesty" when faced with perspectives outside their sphere of specialization. He writes: "By any acceptable definition, scientific method is not cut out to answer ultimate theological questions" (p. 35). Early modern scientists, such as Newton and Boyle, may have woven a bit of theology into their theories, but this move makes no sense in the contemporary setting. Natural sciences must operate within strict methodological limits. Science "is no longer concerned with ultimate explanations, purposes, or intentions. It is not permitted to appeal to the idea of divine creation or infinite goodness at any point in its inquiry" (ibid.).

Does theology operate within analogous constraints? In a sense, yes. But in another sense, not quite. To be sure, theologians cannot supervene the frameworks and findings of the natural sciences. Still, it seems, from Haught's vantage point, that theology is able to listen, to take in the results of the natural sciences and theologize about them. (Indeed, that's the point of the book). The relationship of theology to science is not reciprocal; science as such cannot take in theological claims into its researches in any fashion.

Take, for example, the question of the biodiversity spawned by millions of years of natural selection. Haught writes:

Theology, on the other hand, by definition wants to know the ultimate reason why things are the way they are. Consequently, theology must never cease looking for deeper reasons than science can provide about why life on earth diversifies into so many groups, phyla, species, subspecies, and individuals (ibid.).

He goes on to suggest that a rich biodiversity that emerges over millions of years in a painstakingly slow process somehow may serve to broaden our notion of God, in contrast to the deity of earlier cosmologies, wherein the universe is just thousands, not billions, of years old and God creates each species through a discrete, special action.

Two main things about Haught's position here strike me as significant. The first, for me, is not particularly controversial, but the second raises some questions. On the one hand, like myriad theologians before him -- and many pre-modern ones, I would emphasize, such as Thomas Aquinas -- Haught accepts the principle the notion of causality is not unequivocal when we discuss the God-world relationship. I don't know if the classic dual causality schema quite fits what he's trying to do in this book (still trying to figure that one out). But he clearly has no problem claiming that divine causality operates at a different register from world occurrence at the finite, empirical level, and he advocates a non-competitive epistemology as concomitant with this position. Haught affirms that divine creation and providence unfolds indirectly, through creaturely media -- that God "makes things make themselves." Consequently, the fortuitous character of natural selection is not a problem for the theologian. "Natural selection of random variations is a good scientific answer to this question [of how life ramifies across the ages], but isn't it possible that both science and theology can jointly render intelligible the 'mysterious mysteries' without being rivals?" (ibid.). On the face of it, this position suggests that scientific and theological discourses have no basis for competition, as they are incommensurable with each other.

A herd of elephants in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (via Wikimedia Commons)
On the other hand, the theologian, it would seem, has a sort of upper hand, for the theologian aims at a God's-eye view of natural world, which is broader, deeper, and more encompassing than the natural scientist's perspective. Thus, the theologian may wish to claim that the vast processes of natural selection through random genetic mutations, including all the false starts and wastage within the grind of evolution, represent a divine extravagance. This claim functions as a sort of theological explanation -- an apologetic, if you will -- for why the Creator would allow such suffering, waste and death as are inherent in blind, random natural processes. Such a stance, it seems to me, is basically an aesthetic defense of a deeper providential design within the patent chaos of competition forms of life across time.

To draw out the broader conclusions of this move: "Reality" is multifaceted, and causality is not univocal. Haught offers an analogy. What explains the existence of a book? One can point to the fact that a book is the result of a run through a printing press. But at a deeper level, and without doing violence to the narrower explanation, one can point out that a book emerges because a publisher anticipates a certain manuscript will resonate with a readership and thus decides to support the project. Neither explanation can be reduced to the other and neither contradicts the other. Indeed, both answers are equally valid. Such an anecdote might well serve as a textbook example illustrating an Aristotelian-Thomist account of multiple types of causality (though that's certainly not quite where Haught wishes to take it).

Still, the analogy raises a couple worries for me, when we move into the question of theological and scientific "explanations" for natural processes. As for the analogy itself, the naturalist (or materialist) can turn it on its head pretty easily: All these supposedly different kinds of causes for the book's existence can be mapped out in a chain of strictly efficient causes: 1) author has idea and presents project to publisher; 2) publisher has a sense of the potential marketability of the work and chooses to support it, thereby appropriating the resources necessary; 3) the various phases of editing, proofing and typesetting culminate in the physical artifact (etc., etc.).

Into the Depths

There is another piece to this presentation that gives me pause. Haught invokes Tillich's notion that theology, in distinction from the empirical and technical sciences, explores the "depth dimension" grounding and suffusing all of created reality. But this suggests to me that theological accounts of creation are a kind of metaphysical description. Can theology function as a sort of causal explanation for why things are the way they are -- indeed, for why anything exists at all -- but simply at a register that transcends empirical data and analysis? To be sure, as becomes when one reads into later chapters in his book, Haught has anticipated the limitations of the language of causality to describe the relationship between God and creation. Drawing upon Tillich's descriptions of God as the "ground of being" and the "abyss" undergirding and suffusing all creation, Haught affirms that, ultimately, the relationship of Creator to creature is a mystery, perhaps best approached in the register of poetry and metaphor. This affirmation is of a piece with a major constructive goal of Haught's book -- deconstructing the fixation on "design" that afflicts both the evolutionary naturalists and the Intelligent Design advocates.

Be that as it may, I still question whether Haught has engineered a metaphysical end-around designed to trump the materialist critique of Christian theism. That move may be in order; still, I wonder how effectively it represents the radical, counter-intuitive and Christian faith in God as Creator. The appeal to depth notwithstanding, doesn't Haught's God still function as a sort of explanatory hypothesis?(Alas, it seems impossible to hold my polemical Barthian urges at bay for too long!). What's more, if that is the case, is it really fair to say the scientific naturalist and the Christian theist have nothing to fear from each other? Having made peace on the main floor of the house, each agreeing to occupy a delineated space, won't the theologian and the scientist potentially take up arms again in the attic -- or, to keep with the Tillichian framework, the basement? If the theologian is staking out grounds from a metaphysical perspective, it seems the scientist (in this case, a rational skeptic or empiricist) has every right to challenge the theological system at the metaphysical level. Are we okay with that? But what if scientific and theological accounts of reality -- even if they are talking about the same cosmic reality -- are incommensurable in a more radical sort of way?



Matthew Frost said…
As a dedicated Barthian and a religion-and-science player, I find something rather shallow about Haught's position as you raise it. Put in the theological register, the missing thing is a thorough doctrine of sin in creaturely agency. Put in the dialogical register, what's missing is an ability to theologize about the results of science without simply wondering "Why did God do things this way?" Separating the divine and creaturely agency into non-competitive registers is a problem, because honest Christian theology insists at some point that they are competitive agencies. We only set that aside when we're trying to assert the divine will as the cause of things of which we approve!

The indirection of God "mak[ing] things make themselves" only puts proximate and not ultimate causality in our hands. Such a joint rendering of the mystery of the world remains classical in its fundamentally Thomistic assertion that God is in control of the arc of the creature from origin to telos. And it results in a basically classic theodicy, in which we only think of "natural evil" by that name because we can't see the greater good. Theology as queen of the sciences is uniquely positioned to explain how all of this actually works, how what only appears to be cacophonous causality is in reality harmonious. The world is really ordered; even its real disorder is only degradation of order caused by the resistance of agents that should be in harmony, and are being guided to harmony by the divine hand. The degree to which we are allowed real disharmonious expression is always limited in such a view, because our sour notes cannot be allowed to truly drown out the song.

The depth dimension, the transcendence angle that keeps the causal deity from actually being bound to the caused world, isn't enough to escape this problem. It's a declaration of vaseline on the lens, accounting for the fuzzy parts of the image so rendered. At bottom, the problem is with creation as a doctrine of the world-cause. And it's the same problem with eschatology as a doctrine of the world's fate. And you twig to this! Don't hold back your Barthian urges; let the hate flow through you! If the world is our theological epistemology, the natural and social scientists have every right to call theological propositions into question, because we're working from the same basis—we just claim to have access to the Teacher's Copy of the textbook, while they have to figure out the answers by working through them.
"let the hate flow through you!" ~ Goodness! If I can't at least pretend to be fair and objective for a mere 1,000 words, I've already turned to the Dark Side and will be in Barth Vader's clutches soon enough. :)

Seriously, though, I appreciate your feedback, drawing from your work in these areas. I share some of your worries -- some of my persistent worries about Tillich's ontotheology, on the one hand, and process panentheism, on the other, are coming to mind in my reading of this piece.

I'm sure I haven't done full justice to Haught's position here, which is very elegantly and beautifully presented. I probably still think the dual-causality schema is more useful than you find it to be (whether in its Thomistic form or some other). But a lot of questions do come up for me -- about the otherness of the Creator; about sin and judgment, crisis and the cross. And of course the apocalyptic sword of Damocles hangs precipitously over a (basically) aesthetic eschatology: I have some sympathy with the skeptic who is met in this fashion.

Some part of me, I guess, has always been...(ahem)...lured by a proposal like this. But alas, something about it just doesn't quite convince me either. I suppose I have still have to dig into CD III a little deeper to better engage the position you're drawing out of it.

And yes, your comment about theology as queen of the sciences does get at the critique I'm suggesting. Is it any better to go this route when one is a liberal than one is coming from a more radical orthodox or Pannenbergian standpoint? Aren't the same problems still there? Isn't this still theology trying to colonize other spheres of inquiry?

You write (characterizing Haught's position): "The world is really ordered; even its real disorder is only degradation of order caused by the resistance of agents that should be in harmony, and are being guided to harmony by the divine hand. The degree to which we are allowed real disharmonious expression is always limited in such a view, because our sour notes cannot be allowed to truly drown out the song." Indeed.

And yet...I'm not so ready to give up all the traditional claims about providence either -- and the idea that somehow it all works out in the end.
I didn't see anything about the layer cake in the post! I assume you are referring to John Walton's analogy from his Lost World book? Just curious.
Good point! The post really doesn't actually discuss that metaphor as such, but it does seem apropos and transferable to the present discussion, yes? Apologies to John Walton for any inadvertent plagiarism. Maybe we should blog about his book here too.
Yes, it's definitely relevant. I kept thinking you were going to mention it, since it's Walton's way of securing noncompetition between theology and science. It's another way of describing "depth dimension." I use it frequently in my own work. In my forthcoming book I use it as a metaphor for describing the relation of Christ's deity and humanity -- Christ's deity as the transcendent layer cake in relation to the Jesus of history.

The book is a bit old now, but maybe a constructive engagement with the metaphor would be worth a post at some point.
Sounds like the matter definitely deserves a second look, then. I look forward to reading your new book. Maybe by the time it's published, I will have gotten caught up with the recent monographs on my shelf and Kindle. ~ Do you think maybe you could slow it down just a tad? :)
Why does everyone keep asking me to slow down? Does history slow down? Do injustices take a break? No! I must go on -- onward and upward! :)
Matthew Frost said…
David, don't slow down. Burn at your own pace, while you have the fuel! I don't suspect you'll run out, and it's a glorious thing. You will have quite the youth to regret as an elder scholar, God willing!

Scott, dual causality is far better than single, to the extent that we have no good choice but to acknowledge that the Creator and the creature are separate agents. But that's not what "dual causality" means; it's a disingenuously-named assertion of agentic harmony, abstracted directly from scriptural worldviews and asserted as a functional approach to reality today. Yes, many of the scriptural authors believe something vaguely like it about a very select set of events within those they describe—but never about all of reality. Applied that way instead, it is not in any way a faithful reproduction of a scriptural worldview!

And as to providence, frankly Barth's version was vastly more optimistic than what I came to him with as a student of Modern science. He believes, as I couldn't then, that the world would cease to be, that the entire creature would fall out of existence back into the abyss of chaotic nonbeing from which we were conjured by the pure will of God, if God did not continue to remember and attend to us. That as the creature we remain indebted, not merely to a finished past act of our creation (and it is a finished act for Barth), but in every moment to God for our preservation in being. But the profundity of that belief is, for Barth, combined with a thorough recognition of grace, not order, as the norm of our relationship with God as beings in the world. And the basic form of grace in history is therefore forbearance, not cooperation.
Matt, some possible examples of "dual causality" explanation in scripture (though certainly not under the umbrella of such an abstract conceptuality) might be: 1) the climax of the Joseph cycle, where Joseph reassures his brothers "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives" (Gen. 50:20). 2) the passages (that got Luther and Calvin so worked up) about the hardening of Pharoah's heart, 3) some of the cases of two-sidedness in the way the behavior of Saul and David are described, alternately, as blameworthy yet also (somehow) divinely driven, and then 4) the whole thing about the necessity of the crucifixion along with Judas' culpability (Judas more than Pilate, oddly enough, but I'm not going there right now). Such narratives suggest to me the old philosophical theologians may not have been completely off base.

As for Barth's eschatology, as you describe it: if it gets any more cheerful than that, I may be inclined to jump ship and join the Moltmannians! The notion that I have a mere mortal lifetime to read all of David's books is stressing me out. Better get busy!
Matthew Frost said…
I haven't described Barth's eschatology! Wyatt's the one who obsesses over the limits of the being of the historical world as eschatology, instead of the eternal holding pattern as we await the new act of the redemption and consummation of all things, which Barth calls the fulfillment of the creature and not its termination. End of the world, yes, but the creature? Don't be so sure.

Still and all, on Barth's account none of us should believe we get more than this life to care about what we have conditioned ourselves to care about in the historical world. It will be very different in the life of the world to come! David's books are only really good for this one, and that is hard enough.
Matthew Frost said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Frost said…
As to dual causality, I clearly agreed that it comes out of a scriptural worldview, and applies to certain very select events. That's not proof that the world is doubly caused at all or even most points; it says that God wills certain climactic events in which we participate in still-morally-relevant ways for reasons of our own, without being necessarily aware of what is going on in the event. Participants in the crucifixion aren't off the hook because God brought good out of it; that way lies divine child abuse.
Matthew Frost said…
It's one thing to say that God has a will expressed in God's actions in the world, actions that meaningfully interact with our agency and even triumph over our opposition. It's quite another to look at the outcome of a history and tell it as though God wanted things to happen as they did for reasons grander than we can imagine. When what God wants is identified with what happened, we become the hand of God without ever really having to change toward God's actual will. That's no good. Very cheap discipleship!
Well, certainly I don't think that there's any way of proving the dual causality theory. I'm merely suggesting that it's a framework that can be seen to cohere broadly with biblical testimony. Obviously, there are other -- equally unproveable -- ways of construing the Creator-creature relationship. I happen to think this model coheres better with biblical testimony than other models on offer -- say the dipolar theism of process thought. But that's a case that has to be argued out, and I'm not proposing to do so here.

Look, this model has no end-around strategy to avoid theodicy worries. But it seems to me (if I've understood it correctly), your model doesn't have that either. Ultimately, how divine agency relates to natural occurrence and history remains ineffable. The positive intention behind the dual causality theory, as far as faith is concerned, it seems to me, is to articulate a rather robust affirmation of divine providence. This commitment has been a mainstay of Christian tradition for centuries -- especially before it began to be unraveled in some intellectual corners by deism and the Enlightenment. This faith has inspired countless acts of selflessness and courage in the face of atrocities. Have all those believers been deceived throughout the centuries, those who decided to trust God's hand was present even in the most terrible of events? Perhaps. I have no way of proving anything. But to say this option promotes "cheap discipleship" seems to me unfair. As you rightly point out, though, there certainly are dangers and the propriety of such a framework is not unassailable or beyond question. And if everything is "somehow" caused by God, what about human responsibility for evil? So that's when the theologians come in and do what theologians do -- make distinctions. I so far have not been persuaded by any modern countercurrents to abandon this traditional understanding of providence. Perhaps when I read your thesis or book someday, you will persuade me. So far, though, that hasn't happened.

And I'll withdraw my comment about eschatology and gladly agree to take that off the table for now. We've bitten off plenty of mysteries as it is.

Popular Posts

Abortion, Authoritarian Self-Deception, Evangelicals, and Trump: a collected Twitter essay from Christopher Stroop

What’s the Deal with Wolfhart Pannenberg? A guest post by Andrew Hollingsworth

So, You Want to Read Wolfhart Pannenberg? A guest post by Andrew Hollingsworth

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

“We must become the prayer”: an anonymous missive on the pastoral task after the death of God