A Design History of Theistic Evolution (#2 of 6)

Charles Kingsley

The usual pull-quote from the English Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley is from his somewhat effusive reply to the pre-publication review copy of Origin of Species Darwin sent him:

…I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore and pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He Himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.

The quote is used to support the concept of “a creation free to create itself” so common in modern theistic evolution. But that is a misleading application. Kingsley is best known as a Christian socialist and social activist. But he was also an amateur naturalist, which is why Darwin sent him his book. A context for his “self development” remark can found in a lecture given to Sion College on Natural Theology in 1871(vi) , some four years before his death:

We believed that His care was over all His works; that His Providence watched perpetually over the whole universe. We were taught … by Holy Scripture, to believe that the whole history of the universe was made up of special Providences. If, then, that should be true which Mr. Darwin writes: “It may be metaphorically said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up that which is good, silently and incessantly working whenever and wherever opportunity offers at the improvement of every organic being” – if that, I say, were proven to be true, ought God’s care and God’s providence to seem less or more magnificent in our eyes? … We knew of old that God was so wise that He could make all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than even that, that He can make all things make themselves.

This close connection with special providence is shared with Gray, who wrote:

…we cannot wonder that such interventions should at length be considered, not as interpositions or interferences, but rather as exertions so frequent and beneficent that we come to regard them as the ordinary action of Him who laid the foundations of the earth, and without whom not a sparrow falleth to the ground.

This is not God allowing nature to “make itself” but causing it to do so: a profound difference, the outcomes of the second being entirely his outcomes. In his lecture, Kingsley distinguishes the implications of Darwin’s theory sharply from the “shallow mechanical notion” of the Deism and Semi-deism of his time – a notion (as “statistical deism”) that Robert J Russell has said predominates in the theistic evolution of our time. Evolution is to him a hands-on, not a hands-off, process.

What Kingsley has to say on theodicy interests me a lot, since he, like me, finds the concept of a radically fallen natural realm to be completely unscriptural(vii):

We have only, if we need proof, to look at the hymns – many of them very pure, pious, and beautiful – which are used at this day in churches and chapels by persons of every shade of opinion. How often is the tone in which they speak of the natural world one of dissatisfaction, distrust, almost contempt. “Disease, decay, and death around I see,” is their key-note, rather than “O all ye works of the Lord, bless Him, praise Him, and magnify Him together.”

…But when, longing to reconcile my conscience and my reason on a question so awful to a young student of natural science, I went to my Bible, what did I find? No word of all this. Much – thank God, I may say one continuous undercurrent – of the very opposite of all this…

If [natural theology] is to be scientific, it must begin by approaching Nature at once with a cheerful and reverent spirit, as a noble, healthy, and trustworthy thing: and what is that, save the spirit of those who wrote the 104th, 147th, and 148th Psalms?

The fallen-creation myth actually began only in the sixteenth century, under Greek pagan influence, yet now not only helps justify Creationism, but led directly to the “red in tooth and claw” Malthusian view of nature of Darwin, and by both routes formed the imperative for theodicy in today’s theistic evolution. Kingsley denies the whole concept of natural evil, but intriguely does so by insisting that the God of natural theology matches that found in true Christian teaching. Rather than seeking to extricate God from “death, pestilence and famine” to turn aside the barbs of the Victorian equivalents of Richard Dawkins:

[w]e can answer: Whether or not it suits our conception of a God of love, it suits Scripture’s conception of Him. For nothing is more clear – nay, is it not urged again and again, as a blot on Scripture? – that it reveals a God not merely of love, but of sternness – a God in whose eyes physical pain is not the worst of evils, nor animal life (too often miscalled human life) the most precious of objects – a God who destroys, when it seems fit to Him, and that wholesale, and seemingly without either pity or discrimination, man, woman and child, visiting the sins of the fathers on the children, making the land empty and bare, and destroying from off it man and beast!

Kingsley demonstrates the truth of this as much from Jesus’s teaching and the New Testament as the Old. Whether he has interpreted nature correctly is one thing – but he has been more faithful to Scripture than many are nowadays. He is equally unfashionable in replying to those who denied any sign of design in nature:

“What used to be considered as marks of design can be better explained by considering them as the results of evolution according to necessary laws; and you and Scripture make a mere assumption when you ascribe them to the operation of a mind like the human mind.” Now, on this point I believe we may answer fearlessly: If you cannot see it we cannot help you. If the heavens do not declare to you the glory of God, nor the firmament show you His handy-work, then our poor arguments about them will not show it. “The eye can only see that which it brings with it the power of seeing.” We can only reassert that we see design everywhere, and that the vast majority of the human race in every age and clime has seen it.

He does, it is true, assert science’s inability to prove the matter, no doubt to the chagrin of Intelligent Design proponents: “The existence of a designing God is no more demonstrable from Nature than the existence of other human beings independent of ourselves, or, indeed, the existence of our own bodies.” Yet they would rightly consider him an ally for affirming design, and considering it, as he does, to be as axiomatic as our own existence. By these words Kingsley also refutes those who claim that science can provide evidence, such as apparent immorality or imperfection, against God’s design. Yet again we see the impermanence of ideological categories.

One could say much more of Kingsley even from this one lecture, but perhaps the theological conviction behind his endorsement of Darwin’s theory can be summed up in one last quotation:

So we will assert our own old-fashioned notion boldly; and more: we will say, in spite of ridicule, that if such a God exists, final causes must exist also. That the whole universe must be one chain of final causes. That if there be a Supreme Reason, He must have a reason, and that a good reason, for every physical phenomenon.

[vi] http://www.online-literature.com/charles-kingsley/scientific/7/ (Accessed 30/04/2013).

[vii] Garvey, J C, The World Fell in 1500 – The Theological History of a Fallen Creation (2013, unpublished).

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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