A problem in the theology of providence


A neglected element of the question we are exploring is God’s ongoing involvement with creatures across evolutionary history. Can we understand God as providentially involved in the lives of non-human creatures over evolutionary time, including those subject to predation and parasitism? What is God’s providential relation to species extinction? 

A charge that an atheist might level at a monotheist in respect of biological evolution is this: 

Given the apparently radical contingency of the process, riddled as it seems to be with chance events, and including as it has five major extinction events, and given that Darwinism, formally, does not admit of any directionality to the evolutionary process, is that process an appropriate one for an omnibenevolent deity to have used to give rise to a biosphere of creatures, evincing beauty, complexity, ingenuity of strategy, and interdependence?

The great extinction events, which each eliminated significant percentages of all species on earth, seem to argue for radical contingency and against a God-deslgned process. On the other hand, the only evolutionary history we know of has resulted in an overall rise in complexity and intricacy of interdependence, including the arising of an extraordinary species that knows (at least some of) the story of this history. Two important palaeobiologists have taken radically different views of this. Stephen Jay Gould asserts that:

The diversity of possible itineraries [of evolution] does demonstrate that eventual results cannot be predicted at the outset. Each step proceeds for a cause, but no finale can be specified at the start, and none would ever occur a second time in the same way, because any pathway proceeds through thousands of improbable stages. Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.

Gould, Wonderful Life. Penguin 1989: 51.

This leads to Gould’s memorable conclusion that were the tape of evolution to run again, it would almost certainly lead to a completely different outcome. On this radically contingent view, the theist would have to conclude either that God had created a profoundly unreliable, as well as suffering-filled, process, or that God directed the process at every stage to give rise to outcomes God desired, including the evolution of human beings. (And such directing of the evolutionary process would intensify the theodical problem posed by suffering God seems to do nothing to address.) 

On the other hand, Simon Conway Morris has insisted that certain types of outcome were extraordinarily likely to emerge in evolution, sophisticated cognition being one of them (Conway Morris Life’s Solution CUP, 2003). Conway Morris’s key evidence comes from the phenomenon of convergence in evolution, whereby certain properties have arisen many times in separate evolutionary pathways. So a form of photosynthesis known as carbon-4 has emerged sixty-five times (Conway Morris, From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds, Templeton Foundation Press, 2022: 50). This view of evolution suggests that only a small proportion of the possibilities Gould talks of are actually explored in the ‘tape’, and that that proportion clusters around certain types of property that have proved extraordinarily useful to organisms (such as the camera eye). The theist might conclude from this that evolution is a plausible process by which God might reliably have given rise to certain sorts of creatures. Such a model of theistic creation might not require any ‘special divine action’ by which God adjusted the course of evolution.

In an important article in 2018 Andrew Davison notes that:

With further study since Gould’s death, convergence has been more and more solidly confirmed. Significantly for our purposes, much of what turns out most clearly to have been converged also bears the greatest theological significance. The color of human skin or eyes and the number of digits on our fingers may well land with contingency and go to Gould. On the other hand, the story of evolution on earth shows multiple, independent evolutions of perception, intelligence, community, communication, cooperation, altruism, and construction.

Davison in Nova et Vetera. 16(4) 2018: 1096-7.

So perhaps the possibility space of evolutionary outcomes is severely constrained in a way that makes the process look more like the product of divine design. 

There remains the question of those junctures when the whole project, or key parts of it, were profoundly threatened. Would God have stood by and allowed the whole of life on earth to go extinct? Would God have prevented the extinction of the line of Homo Sapiens when it faced a population bottleneck some 70,000 years ago?

These are fascinating theological puzzles. They are related to two other key questions, likewise unanswerable. First, what was God’s role in the asteroid impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and the rise of the mammals? Interestingly, Conway Morris in his most recent work suggests that mammals would have come to predominate anyway (2022: 84-94). Second and most pressingly, would God permit Homo Sapiens to exterminate themselves, either through nuclear catastrophe, or global pandemic, or runaway climate change? 

Robert J. Russell has proposed that God might have steered the course of evolution by using single, ‘point’ mutations in genomes as part of his model of non-interventionist objective divine action (Russell, ‘Special Providence and Genetic Mutation’ in Evolutionary and Molecular Biology ed. Russell et al, CTNS/Vatican Observatory, 1998). This is part of his sense that the flexibility of physical process at the quantum level allows God to influence the course of events with violating physical laws. It is not clear what extent of influence these non-interventionist interventions would be able to effect. Russell’s essay is representative of a quest for understandings of God’s action that focused on mechanism. But an arguably more important question concerns morality

Consider the classic case of Rowe’s well-known example of a fawn trapped in a lightning-caused forest fire. The fawn dies in horrible lingering agony. Rowe points out that ‘there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse.’ (Rowe ‘The Problem of Evil and Varieties of Atheism in The Problem of Evil ed. Adams and Adams, OUP 1990: 130). Do we see God altering that situation to prevent or reduce suffering? The argument of Clayton and Knapp in respect of other forms of natural evil is relevant here. They ask whether God could intervene occasionally (for example to prevent the catastrophic tsunami of December 2004, or to minimize the loss of life by providing some at least with a warning of impending catastrophe) and conclude that even one such action would place on God the moral responsibility to intervene on every occasion when creaturely well-being was threatened. This is Clayton and Knapp’s ‘Not Even Once’ precept (Clayton and Knapp, The Predicament of Belief OUP 2011: Ch. 3). Indeed we do not seem to see non-human creatures rescued from their predicaments, though there must always be a caution about our applying our own (creaturely) morality to the creator of all.

This question of God’s ongoing relationship to non-human creatures has received too little attention in the literature on evolutionary theodicy. So Sollereder’s analysis (God, Evolution and Animal Suffering Routledge 2019: Ch. 5) is particularly important. She includes divine co-presence with the creature, divine lure to the creature to act for its own selving, the incarnation of the Christ understood as God’s joining creation by taking flesh as creature, and God as shaper of the meaning of events. She also takes issue with Clayton and Knapp’s proposals. They contend that although the physical sciences offer a complete description of how events operate at the physical level, God can interact with creatures at the mental level, because mental events are not reducible to physical brain events. This view can be challenged, as after all what are brains made of but physical matter? But also, for Sollereder, the Clayton-Knapp proposal allows too little scope for God to act, especially given God’s great action in the Incarnation.

The motif of divine lure, however, attracts Clayton and Knapp, Sollereder, and also Southgate (The Groaning of Creation WJK 2008: Ch. 4). It derives in the first instance from process thought. Out of love, the process God lures creatures towards harmony and fulfilment. Sollereder however points out that creatures being truly themselves does not necessarily imply harmony – they may be predators, or parasites, and their flourishing therefore requires violence towards other creatures. Sollereder is clear that this is the character of the creation. She is also attracted to Southgate’s proposal that the divine lure includes an invitation to self-transcendence, to the exploration of novel behaviours (Sollereder 2019: 140, cf. Southgate 2008: 61-3) 

Divine co-suffering

Theologians steeped in the traditional position that God cannot suffer, may nevertheless nuance their views in helpful ways. So Denis Edwards explains that holding to divine impassibility ‘rules out fickleness, arbitrariness, and inconstancy, and all the emotions and passions unworthy of God’. But he continues, ‘It does not rule out God-befitting emotions, such as love, compassion and generosity… of Godlike kind, infinitely beyond all human emotions.’ (Edwards in Zygon 53(3) 2018: 685). While noting the point that insofar as God might suffer, God can neither experience ungodlike emotions, nor be destroyed, rendered not-God, by suffering (although the identity of humans can be so destroyed), many theologians want to insist on the meaningfulness of divine co-suffering. For Peacocke it is an outworking of his emphasis on divine indwelling. He writes: 

God suffers in and with the sufferings of created humanity and so, by a natural extension, with those of all creation, since humanity is an evolved part of it. The suffering of God, which we could glimpse only tentatively in the processes of creation, is in Jesus the Christ concentrated to a point of intensity and transparency that reveals it as expressive of the perennial relation of God to the creation’

Peacocke ‘The Cost of New Life’ in The Work of Love ed Polkinghorne. SPCK 2001: 42.

This begins to explore the vital theological question – what is the relation between the unquestionable suffering of the divine Son at the Cross, and the co-presence of God with all living creatures over evolutionary time? Is the Cross the sole locus of divine suffering, or its particular focus, or illustrative of its generality?

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