It is one of America’s enduring paradoxes to be simultaneously the most religious of the postindustrialized nations and the most enthralled with science and technology. For theology, these seemingly contradictory attitudes create challenges.

Despite the religiosity of many Americans, overwhelming evidence suggests that much of the cultural and moral authority once reserved for the pulpit now resides with experts in the natural and social sciences. How often do we pick up our daily paper to find an article announcing that science has now explained yet another enduring human characteristic-from homosexuality, to altruism, to our preferences for certain foods-in purely naturalistic terms? A typical example was last February’s National Geographic cover story, “Love: The Chemical Reaction.” A similar infatuation with reductionist thinking can be seen in rational-choice theory in economics and debates surrounding genetic engineering.

For some in the scientific community, human life itself is seen as a meaningless accident-the product of random variation and natural selection, to use the language of today’s Darwinians-in a purposeless universe. Metaphysical naturalists like Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell) use evolution’s undisputed explanatory powers to debunk all talk of anything like a nonmaterialist or spiritual reality that transcends our physiological existence. Even the infinitely complex phenomena of human intelligence and consciousness, we are told, are mere evolutionary tools for adapting to our environment in order to perpetuate our species, nothing more than a series of chemical reactions dedicated to the task of passing on the human genotype to another generation. At the same time, thinkers who can articulate humankind’s unique moral nature and destiny seem scarcer and scarcer. Prospect magazine’s October 2005 issue featured a list of the top hundred public intellectuals. It included only six religious figures.

If theology is to maintain its claim to public relevance, it must contest science’s current cultural prestige and authority-especially regarding the increasingly aggressive polemics of those who think Darwinism can explain the nature of human life. This is a bigger challenge than many religious thinkers imagine. For the widely perceived antagonism between evolution and Christianity is not simply the creation of Dawkins and his fellow metaphysical naturalists. There exists a genuine tension between Darwinian science, especially evolution’s picture of the ruthless competition for survival at the heart of nature, and Christian faith. Is “nature red in tooth and claw” really how God’s loving care for the world and his creatures is manifested? If an omnipotent, good, and immutable God “designed” the world, why does the evolution of his creation require such waste and violence?

One unsatisfactory response to Darwinism is to ignore or reject both the evidence for evolution and the scientific methodology used to demonstrate its validity. Intelligent Design theory (ID) is perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to do just that. In brief, ID proposes that there are features of the natural world so complex-bacterial flagella, for example-that no random or accidental natural process could have produced them. Consequently, the “irreducible complexity” of these naturally occurring features of metabolic life must be the product of an architectonic intelligence, the intended aim of a designer. ID’s critics argue that it fails the first test of any science: its central hypothesis cannot be tested. No scientific experiment can prove that a nonmaterial power created the bacterial flagella. Despite the ingenious and detailed responses offered by ID’s philosophically informed advocates, this critique remains unshaken.

But evolution poses another, more fundamental problem. In the historically dominant Christian view, pain and evil entered the world though the rebellion of God’s prize creation-humanity. Adam and Eve’s rebellion in paradise shattered the perfectly ordered world God had created, establishing the earthly dominion of death and suffering. In the venerable Augustinian reading, the honor of God is vouchsafed: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our Creator, but in ourselves. Yet if the modern scientific account of the natural world is to be believed, and we have no reason to doubt it, death and pain preceded the appearance of humankind by hundreds of millions of years. In fact, seemingly endless, crushing cycles of famine, disease, and predation are the immediate cause of the evolution of the human species. The theological problem posed by Darwinian creation is not so much the prevalence of suffering and pain; Christianity has never shied away from acknowledging the reality of suffering while at the same time proclaiming the basic goodness of creation. Yet believing in the basic goodness of God’s creation becomes immeasurably more difficult when pain and suffering are no longer understood to be incidental to how the natural world works, but rather nature’s fundamental principle.

Evolution seems to tell us that the manifold beauty of creation is produced not by the Creator’s benevolent design, but by the very agony that Christians have traditionally attributed to human sinfulness. Darwinism therefore sharpens and makes more poignant the question of theodicy, the traditional theological problem of reconciling God’s perfection, goodness, and justice with the existence of suffering and evil. Is the cruel reality described and explained by Darwinism-that the world is not only shot through with horrendous pain, but that this very pain, in a way, is how all living creatures were created-truly compatible with a belief in the loving God of Christian theism? This is the real challenge evolutionary science poses to Christian belief.

A few Christian thinkers have taken up that challenge. What John Haught, John Polkinghorne, and Denis Edwards all have in common is the conception of a “kenotic” or self-limiting God. The Greek word kenosis means emptiness, and the idea embraced by kenotic theological thinking is that the God who creates a world such as ours must necessarily let his creation be, if what he has created is to be truly separate from him. “An overwhelming and suffocating display of divine ‘presence’ or ‘omnipotence’ would leave no room for anything other than God,” Haught writes in God after Darwin. “The world can have its own being and realize its own evolutionary potential only if God’s creative power and love consist of a kind of self-concealment.”

Polkinghorne, a particle physicist as well as a theologian, sees the suffering entailed by evolution as part of the same divine imperative. “We tend to believe that if we had been in charge of creation we would have done it better,” he writes in Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity. “With a little more care about the detail, we would have kept the beauty of sunsets, but eliminated germs like staphylococci.” But our growing understanding of how the world works mocks this belief, Polkinghorne observes. The same biochemical processes that allow cells to mutate, making evolution possible, are those that allow them to become cancerous. “You can’t have one without the other. In other words, the possibility of disease is not gratuitous, it’s the necessary cost of life.” Polkinghorne draws out the implication. “The created order,” he muses, “looks like a package deal.”

Kenotic theology, in other words, boldly proposes that the Christian story regarding the nature of God and the created world confirms the evolutionary story. The biblical root of kenosis as a theological concept comes from the description of Christ’s Incarnation in Philippians 2: 6-8, “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Contemporary kenotic thinkers expand the traditional Christological concerns of German liberal theology, turning them toward a controversial doctrine of creation, one that on the surface appears to contradict traditional Christian ideas about God’s omnipotence and omnipresence. God creates not only by power, but also by renouncing that power, withdrawing from the world to allow creation its own self-determining integrity. According to kenotic theology, while removing himself as pure act and power from creation, God remains with us as persuasive love. It is through that persuasive love, manifest in the history of Israel and culminating in the Incarnation, that God draws all creation back to the Godhead. This vision of creation brings to mind the Kabbalist sense of Tzimtzum-the idea that God steps back, as it were, in order to make space for creation, for otherwise the universe would be swallowed back up into the majesty of God. If this is right, the material world must be left by a loving God to create itself.

The implications of this theology for theodicy are clear. The pain and suffering that are an ineluctable part of the evolutionary process reveal God’s humility-his willingness to let creation go on its own self-making way. In the view of kenotic theologians, evolution informs our understanding of the self-emptying and self-limiting nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross; in this sense, Christ’s obedience to the Father can be seen as the paradigm of suffering that brings forth new life and a new creation. Similarly, the suffering manifest in evolution advances the epic of “creation continua” where God and his “created co-creator”-that is the world itself-still bring forth novel forms of life through the evolutionary process. As Haught eloquently argues, “the self-organization of nature-including its evolutionary meandering-seems contradictory only so long as we forget that God’s power is most mightily expressed in humility. Once we learn to think of God in the light of the crucified Christ, the spontaneity evident in nature and the freedom we feel within ourselves are compatible with belief in a powerful creator.”

Kenotic theology goes some way toward reconciling Darwinian evolution with the Christian belief in a loving God. In fact, kenotic thinkers speculate that a world created through evolution is exactly what we should expect if we take our faith in the Christian God seriously, a God who in Christ showed himself to suffer with all creation. Haught again: “If God is thought of not simply as the ultimate source of order (or design), but also as the source of novelty (as the biblical God ‘who makes all things new’), then evolution is consonant with biblical religion’s faith in the God of new creation.”

It is hard to deny the poetic force of this vision of creation, and certainly no one can say that these thoughtful and audacious theologians have ducked the challenge Darwinism presents. Yet there are problems. Fundamentally, the kenotic doctrine of creation is a form of theodicy, an attempt to vindicate God’s justice. In doing so, it comes dangerously close to arguing that God directly wills worldly suffering. We must ask exactly what kind of evolutionary “novelty” this humble, infinitely compassionate God of kenotic theology encompasses. The novelty that makes the falcon’s talon sharper so that it can tear into the flesh of its prey more effectively? The novelty that produces parasites capable of devouring their hosts from within? Even if God suffers with the rabbit as the hawk destroys it, what consolation is that to the rabbit? What comfort is it to the mother whose child dies of cancer, or is killed in a drive-by shooting, to know that suffering and death and God’s very act of creation are indivisible? And in what sense can Christ’s suffering on the Cross be a consolation for the Nazi murders of a million children?

The Gospels assure us that love is the only answer to the mystery of suffering and evil; they tell us to renounce the ultimate reality of death, pain, and suffering. Might a response to the gospel also entail a renunciation of the violence of evolution? To act with love is to seek to restore God’s good creation, not simply to make sense of it. Yet kenotic theology would seem to suggest that creation in all its self-making novelty and wonder must be shot through with incredible suffering. A spiritual danger lurks in this seeming acceptance of the indeflectability of suffering. If evil is an evolutionary necessity, what can we really do about it? Creation will go on its painful self-creating way despite even our most strenuous resistance. Does this leave open too wide a door to the fatalism that characterizes the philosophy of so many secular evolutionists?

A related difficulty comes from kenotic theology’s expansion of the traditional free-will defense for the necessity of suffering. That standard defense argues that God allows people to do evil because to prevent it would deny humanity the gift of freedom. In a sense, kenotic theodicy extends this idea to creation as a whole. Since the created world must be free to be itself, God-like an attentive midwife-allows nature the labor pains of its own self-creation. But does it make sense to talk about the self-creation of the natural world? Human beings are self-conscious moral agents, after all; to deny them their freedom is to deny them their nature. Can the same be true of bacterium and trilobites, not to mention inanimate matter? Kenotic theologians seem to flirt with a kind of vitalism, a belief in the self-determining nature of biological life and physical reality that is nearly impossible to reconcile with traditional theism.

Finally, we should be careful about transposing the meaning of the Cross to our limited understanding of how the natural world works. Christ cannot be seen as a paradigmatic or representative example of the physical dynamics embodied in creation. Rather than paying the debt for Adam’s singular sin, was Christ’s Passion just another case of unavoidable suffering in God’s kenotically created world? If that were the case, how could it be a unique and efficacious sacrifice?

Despite the powerful arguments of these kenotic theologians, it remains intuitively difficult to reconcile their loving, power-renouncing, creative God with the picture of Darwinism dominant in popular and scientific literature. Natural selection seems more capricious than the Greek Fates. Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene seems like some brute, dumb materialized version of Nietzsche’s will to power. Stephen Jay Gould’s epic of evolution is all contingency and catastrophe. The twin gods of evolution, as it is currently understood, go by the names of chance and necessity. Considering all this, is nature really where we want to go to find reliable evidence of the Divine? It is unlikely we will find it there unless our hearts and minds have already been illumined by a grace we don’t find in nature itself, but rather in nature’s author.

Kenotic theology is rich and provocative. But theological speculation of this type is useful only if it does not stray too far from the fundamental datum of Christian theology, which is God’s revelation of himself in Christ. Indeed, kenotic theologians often make the very same point, arguing that their depiction of the God who creates is drawn most deeply from the self-limiting Christ of the Gospels. Still, in its confident assertions about how God does and does not create, kenotic theology cannot avoid a certain air of presumption. Might it not also be presumptive in its wholesale embrace of Darwinism?

This criticism is offered not in any attempt to reject the scientific validity of contemporary evolutionary theory; theology has no competence to reject any science as science, and it should not try to do so. It is, however, an appeal for humility-in this instance, ours, not God’s. For a humility that helps us grapple with the enormity and mystery of suffering. A humility that allows for our instinctive solidarity with those who suffer wrongs. A humility that makes room not only for the awe God’s creation inspires, but for the love the Gospels command.

Published in the 2006-10-06 issue: View Contents

Peter James Causton lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. This article is the first-place winner in Commonweal’s 2006 Theological Essay Contest. Funding has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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