Scientists claim the universe is 13.8 billion years old (and the modern Catholic Church sees no reason to disagree). To put this “deep time” into perspective, imagine a bookshelf with 30 hardbound volumes on it. Each volume is made up of 450 pages, and each page represents a million years. If this is our history, single-cell life doesn’t arrive on the scene until volume 27. Humanity as we know it occurs on the last half of the last page of the last book.
What was God doing for the first 26 volumes? What role does chance play in this framework? And how can such a vision not impact the way we think theologically about ourselves and our surroundings?
Such were some of the thoughts offered by Professor John Haught of Georgetown University, one of the leading theorists in the crucial dialogue between religious faith and evolutionary science, in a recent presentation called Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life as part of the “God and Modern Biology Program” funded by the John Templeton Foundation and hosted by bio-chemist Dr. Glenn Sauer. The lecture audience included scientists, academics, and diocesan and religious clergy at Fairfield University’s campus.
Haught’s extensive reading of evolutionary biology posits three aspects of Darwin’s contribution to modern intellectual discourse: (1) a greater appreciation for “deep time” as mentioned above, (2) the existence of accidents in cosmological and human development, and (3) natural selection.
Haught in no way discounts such realities. Nonetheless, he does call into question the philosophical presuppositions that have defined much of the terms of contemporary debate on the topic in academic circles — atheistic materialist naturalism and Intelligent Design. To Haught’s mind, neither do justice to the narrative and dramatic qualities of human existence. Both exhibit a narrow-minded “explanatory monism” and tend to conflate ideological presuppositions with their ultimate claims.
An example. “My name is Mike.” Why were you able to make sense of that short statement? Because the printing office arranged for pixilated black dots in the shape of those letters to appear on the page. Because you studied syntax and grammar in high school and can make sense of that arrangement of words. Because I wanted you to know my name, which is the English version of my great-grandfather’s from Italy.
Explanatory monism, from the word for singular, would say one of these is true. However, a thoughtful person realizes that none are untrue and that their multi-leveled assertions do not discount one another. Haught says the framing of the questions about planetary and human origins needs to take into account a “plurality” of explanations. Multiple levels of study can offer insights without contradicting one another. Science and theology are poised to answer different questions, but need to remain in dialogue.
The biblical tradition is replete with notions of promise, covenant, divine self-communication, and joyful anticipation of an unseen future. Haught says that these themes can inform our appreciation for the cosmological drama in which we play a part, without rejecting the exponential growth in scientific data and understanding.
If God creates in order to love, there must be an other upon which he bestows such love. Creation is that other. If we have learned anything from the recent annual celebration of the Passion, it is that God teaches us how we are to love by emptying Godself in unmerited gift, in the process theologians call “kenosis.” The universe the naturalists demand be explained without rationality or transcendence ends in cul-de-sacs of absurdity and moral relativism. Materialists cannot prove that matter is all there is.
Catholics also argue for more than an Intelligent Designer. If the cosmological system were perfect, with no evolutionary space for accidents or indeterminacy, with suffering and death perfectly explicable in the short term, it would not be able to receive God’s communication of self in freedom, for it would be frozen in perfection and thus really only an adjunct to or appendage of the divine.
There is, rather, an analogical or sacramental relationship between creation and the divine, which is both eminently rational and yet steeped in mystery and unpredictability. More than a Designer. We proclaim a Father and a relationship with Him, and so a “story,” which is the quintessential medium of meaning, and one that demands unfolding.
If a human observer somehow floated into the primordial soup in the period immediately following the big bang when the atoms of the universe had not yet formed themselves into planets and stars, could he or she imagine the incredible diversity that would eventually come to be on earth and throughout the galaxies? Or have any premonition of the self-conscious beings which would arise to sing its praises and unlock at least some of its mysteries? If not, how can we throw tantrums now when we do not know where we are headed as a universe, or what “a new Heavens and a new earth” could possibly look lke in the future?
More than “Design” tinged with Deism ever could, drama involves waiting, suspense, adventure and hope — all the markings of a truly good narrative. And from the prophets to the Parousia, we know that transformative, communal anticipation and deep-seated longing for the Ultimate Future defines our existence at every turn. We just need to ask the right questions of the right disciplines if we hope to find the right answers.
Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.