Tackling Darwin

Richard Dawkins: Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998
Christiaan Mostert: God and The Future, T & T Clark, 2002


Robert Tulip

Richard Dawkins is justly famous for the remarkably lucid and coherent evolutionary philosophy he has developed in his books The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker and Climbing Mount Improbable. Dawkins presents Darwin with power, logic and clarity, effectively rebutting the old fundamentalist idea of God as an interventionist designer. For Dawkins, evolution is the real context of thought, and the Darwinian logic of cumulative adaptation is entirely sufficient to explain all apparent miracles of evolution, from Cambrian phylla to bat’s ears to eagle’s eyes to human brains. He considers that any thinking which fails to engage with scientific understanding sets itself outside the boundaries of intelligent conversation.

Unweaving the Rainbow further develops these evolutionary themes, with different approaches to the rainbow providing a motif for the cultural battles faced by scientific understanding. For Dawkins, Sir Isaac Newton’s use of the prism to explain the structure of light has a beauty which can only add to our subjective vision of the beauty of rainbows in nature. By contrast, John Keats’ comment that Newton ‘destroyed the poetry of the rainbow’ by reducing it with ‘cold philosophy’ actually diminishes the scope of our imagination. Science is the foundation of creativity, so when poets like Keats deride knowledge out of some romantic nostalgia, they push our culture away from the engagement with reality that has to be the source of any improvement.

I believe that Christian theology should engage with ideas such as those of Richard Dawkins in order to retain credibility and contestability in the broader intellectual community. Dawkins is an avowed atheist, with good reason considering the lame ideas about God he has encountered, symbolised by the religious demand that the rainbow can only be appreciated as a whole rather than as the sum of its parts. Theology needs to unweave such 'rainbows' as its approach to the trinity, to creation and to the meaning of heaven and salvation. For example, a key error of many Christians is the belief that God is like a heavenly watchmaker, designing each creature to fit its place. Charles Darwin showed that this theory about God is incorrect, because the only mechanism of design is natural selection. Dawkins provides a brilliant modern explanation of why the theory of evolution is so compelling, and why it is simply wrong to reject Darwin. However, he does not properly engage with the theological conversation around these topics, appearing to say the refutation of incoherent ideas also serves to refute coherent theology.

Theology should have the capacity to engage with Dawkins’ critique, developing its own coherence by systematic logic grounded in both an understanding of natural processes and of the meaning of divinity. To this end, the way of thinking I would like to explore sees God as the ultimate adaptive possibility towards which humanity must evolve if we are to fulfill our purpose in life. A way of putting this in terms of evolutionary biology is to say God is 'the niche of the world'. This approach sees the infinite and eternal God as revealed in that structure of reality (our ecological niche) that will maximise human flourishing. By definition, if humanity lives according to the will of this God we will prosper and grow, but if we live contrary to the will of this God we will suffer, decline and perhaps eventually become extinct. Connection with the divine reality promotes salvation, understood in entirely evolutionary Darwinian terms, while disconnection from this reality promotes destruction. There is one truth, with the big picture equated to God and revealed in science. The divine human niche is the global, even cosmic, ecological sum of factors that enable human life.

I like to think of this divine niche as our telos - the Greek word for purpose. On this basis, teleology becomes the study of how we can adapt to our real niche, rather than the pre-Darwinian teleology which claimed that God is somehow actively shaping us to fit nature. Operating as a whole, our niche is largely passive, consisting of natural structures that are set in place and mostly continue for eons. The activity is on the part of organisms, which must find their way of living in harmony with these natural structures if they are to prosper. Like a hermit crab that must find a suitable shell to protect it, humanity must find our ecological niche if we are to prosper. God has created us as complex free beings, with power to choose if we will live by faith or not.

Can this approach reconcile with Christianity? My own belief is that Jesus Christ provides the model of human evolution through his claim that we can connect to God through grace. Further, I believe that trinitarian theism is absolutely necessary in a cosmic sense if we are to develop a vision of salvation that builds on our scientific understanding. If the niche of human potential may properly be identified with the Christian God, we are called to live in the image of this gracious and glorious God, representing truth through language and establishing the Kingdom of God in the world by promoting the Christian teachings of meaning, purpose and love.

If God is revealed in the cosmic force of nature, the question arises how this force can be represented in human life. This is where the Christian trinitarian conception is so powerful. When Jesus said ‘Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me’ (John 14:11) he claimed to incarnate the cosmic spirit of truth. His ethic of love, courage and sacrifice led him to the cross and the resurrection, whatever that may really mean, and this ethic continues to reverberate in our world through the holy spirit. It is not necessary to postulate an anti-scientific personal God as Heavenly Father to see that God became personal in Jesus Christ.

In grappling with these ideas I have found the work of Christiaan Mostert immensely helpful, in his God and the Future, a study of the great German thinker Wolfhardt Pannenberg. Mostert provides a masterly presentation of an entirely coherent and compelling vision of God, with potential to help Christian theology engage more broadly with the best of contemporary thought. Recognising that ‘the reality, power and goodness of God are radically debatable’ (155), he supports Pannenberg’s contention that the doctrine of the Trinity provides the framework for understanding creation and history. The Trinity is often misunderstood, so Mostert’s complex orthodox 'unweaving' of this topic is refreshing - especially his focus on the relations between the Father, Son and Spirit, and his argument that for God to be a God for humanity, the Father needs the Son just as the Son needs the Father. Mostert quotes Pannenberg’s statement that ‘the resurrection of Jesus is just as constitutive for the divinity of the Father as for the Sonship of Jesus’ (p196), a confronting idea which really helps to understand what it can mean to say the infinite God of the universe cares passionately about humanity. Although Mostert is critical of process theology, I would claim my own idea of God as revealed in the niche of the world finds support in his statement that ‘if Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom of God is taken seriously, our view of God must include God’s power over all finite reality, which can only be awaited from the future. This is the key point for any theology which intends to do justice to eschatology’ (p.151). The implication is that the power of God will provide the meeting point for theology and ecology within human history.

Biblical prophecy claims to anticipate the future rule of God and to explain what people must do to participate in that future. I would suggest we can get a better understanding of the parameters of that future by combining the scientific framework of evolution with the Biblical framework of trinitarian eschatology. This points to three areas where I would be interested to see Mostert expand; firstly, his understanding of divine purpose or telos, secondly, the role of the Son in the consummation of reality (a role Mostert assigns to the Spirit), and finally, his reading of the Book of Revelation, and whether any of that mysterious book can be rehabilitated as we seek to understand God and the future.

Author's Response

As part of a response to the above review by Robert Tulip, the author of God and the Future, Christiaan Mostert wrote:

Your final three points, briefly alluded to, are interesting. Let me say briefly:

1.                  I understand the divine purpose in term of the benevolent, kindly, loving rule of God in and over all that is other than God - the entire cosmos - yet in such a way that human freedom is respected. It is a 'rule' in which human and other creaturely flourishing have a very high value. The acknowledgement of God must come freely, or else it is worth nothing.

2.                  There is certainly a role for the Son in the consummation of all things. In traditional language, the Son is associated with the judgement of all things and the handing of the kingdom back to the Father.

3.                  I think there is a great deal about the book of Revelation - and apocalyptic thought generally - that is compatible with a theology of history (all the way from beginning to end) that might challenge our narrow views of history today. We must learn, however, that the wood matters more than the individual trees.