John Haught and the shape of theistic evolution (1)

John Haught’s chapter in Debating Design is hardly new (2004), but as one of the original “big hitter” theologians in the science-faith discussion, his ideas have greatly influenced the current mainstream of theistic evolution. They’re therefore worth examining, adding as they do another (if similar) strand to the yarn spun by others like Howard van Till. It should be noted from the start that Haught is a Process Theologian, though of a different cast to other PTs: apart from raising the question of how his theology can be legitimately transferred to Evangelical convictions such as those of BioLogos, it makes one wonder how one should decide which type of Process Theology is the “orthodox” one. As in Van Till’s case the big, though unstated, issue, is that much of this kind of theology is done by the process of “it seems obvious to me (and similar deep thinkers…).” That’s why the ground shifts not only over time, but between authors. In philosophy there are never conclusions – only ongoing discussions. Should the same really be true of Christian faith?

Haught begins by invoking a plague on the houses both of Intelligent Design and scientific naturalism, which even-handedness appeared in his testimony at the Dover trial the following year. There he said that ID should not be taught because it has an underlying religious agenda, but added that scientific materialism shouldn’t either, for the same reason. Subsequent events suggest that the judge, and the education system, listened to at least one of his hands. Perhaps it would be better if all positions were permitted, but metaphysical interests declared, but that Haught did not suggest. Both positions, he says, also fall into the trap (a) of seeing God in limited “engineering” terms, which is a common enough accusation with at least some merit and (b) falling into the trap of considering only shallow single causes – either God, or material causes.

For what it’s worth I believe the second is untrue of the best ID thinkers, but why he says it becomes clearer when one sees his own alternative, since it is related to his claim that ID is motivated by the desire to guard God’s Providence against unguided natural selection. This indeed in the nub of the matter theologically (without getting into the fruitless business of whether in the case of ID it’s a secret agenda, an open agenda or merely what happens to motivate a scientific endeavour). It is what Haught makes of “Providence” himself that is a key to understanding his kind of TE.

Like so many, theodicy is the starting point for his theological endeavour here:

For many others among the scientific elite today, the ways of evolution are so coarse that even if the universe appears on the surface to be an expression of design, beneath this deceptive veneer there lurks a long and tortuous process in which an Intelligent Deity could not conceivably have played any role.
It is not only the waste, struggle, suffering and indifference of the evolutionary process that place in question the idea of a benevolent providential Deity. The three main evolutionary ingredients – randomness, the impersonal law of selection, and the immensity of cosmic time – seem to be enough to account… for life.

To this Haught offers two possible theological responses (in other words, of course, two models of theistic evolution). The first is, essentially, Gould’s NOMA: science and theology are kept apart. The second (his own) grounds the theology of Providence in the new knowledge given by evolution. Two things are of note at this stage: having discussed science’s inability and unwillingness to address either theological or teleological, but only efficient, causes, it is logically quite invalid for Haught then to deduce any conclusions about God’s purpose in Providence from scientific observations. Self-evidently any discussion of God’s motives and actions should privilege revelation over empirical science – or even over philosophy, come to that.

Additionally, Haught omits a third possible theological response altogether, one which ought to be the principal one for an Evangelical organisation like BioLogos: to see how far the teaching of inspired Scripture and orthodox theology about nature already applies adequately to what we know about evolution. This omission perhaps should not surprise us, given much modern academic theology’s tendency to subordinate Scriptural teaching to the theologian’s philosophical system, be that Process Philosophy, Marxism, Feminism or Existentialism (or nowadays Postmodernism). Scripture may be a source of inspiration – it rarely seems to be a limiting control.

I’ll look a little bit at his first possible response, and leave his second to a separate post. He states:

Darwin’s science … has removed easy religious access to an ultimate exploration of design that formerly seemed to lurk just below the surface of living complexity.

So, he suggests, theology must go deeper to why there is an order at all, why there is existence, why things are intelligible. But to me this seems to follow the same fault he has identified in ID and naturalism: to avoid the God of the gaps fallacy, theology must retreat beyond anything science can legitimately ask: because science explains evolution, God’s activity is somewhere else. Of the material world, he says we must look into nature’s “own self-organising emergent spontaneity.” That’s a lot of prior assumptions in one phrase, for self-organisation and emergence remain to be demonstrated conclusively, and science doesn’t measure spontaneity. Nothing in evolution excludes God’s positive involvement any more than anything seen in nature before evolution was ever proposed: if God provides prey for the lion as Scripture affirms, then he can equally provide mutations for the DNA. Metaphysical assumptions are being smuggled in as much as any of Haught’s villains of ID might.

Finally (in this section) Haught points out that the theodical problems of Darwinism need not exclude Providence:

For example, what appears to the scientist to be contingent, random or accidental in natural history or genetic processes may have these apparent attributes because of our general human ignorance… As for the complianst about the struggle, cruelty, waste, and pain inherent in evolution … these are already familiar issues to religion and theology. Darwin has contributed nothing qualitatively new to the prerennial problem of suffering and evil…

This is absolutely true, and one is entitled to ask why he would dissent from it, because doing so means, actually, “I am providing new answers to old problems, not actually addressing a new problem at all.” That he does dissent from it is, sadly, confirmed by the the words he puts in the mouth of those who hold it:

Faith, after all, means unflagging trust in spite of the cruelties of life. Too much certitude actually renders faith impossible…

That smacks rather too much, for me, of atheist Robert Pennock’s crass statement in an earlier chapter (much cited by Richard Dawkins) that:

The very definition of faith and its religious significance lies in believing without evidence, or even in spite of evidence to the contrary.

What strong reasons, then, does Haught present to bring a new answer to the old problem of theodicy? I’ll look at them in the next post.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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