Unforeseen consequences of “natural freedom” theology

Before, God willing, I go on to look at John Polkinghorne’s rather more nuanced, though to me still problematic, approach to theistic evolution, I want to dwell for a moment on what is implicit in the case John Haught makes for an autonomous universe. As you’ll remember from the previous post the strongest suit in his pack is the absolute necessity, if the Creation is to be separate and more than a mere extension of God, that it be fully autonomous. At a number of points Haught points to the “deepest religious intuitions” to justify this, and particularly to the idea that infinite love must be humble and self-giving to the point where it lets the beloved go its own way, even if that way should prove misguided or plain evil.

My biggest objection to all this is the anthropomorphising of nature, as if some nebulous entity “the universe”, or its unidentified components, have consciousness to appreciate freedom and free will to do interesting things with it, whether magnificent or reprehensible. Such characteristics, outside of a Process Theology matrix, belong only to men and angels.

Yet in the “freedom scheme”, if God’s non-intervention policy can be argued for nature, how much more must it apply to the world of men, where freedom of choice, in Christian theological terms, is not in doubt. In this context it is a much stronger version of the so-called “free will defence” theodicy (a term I hate because it turns what might be legitimately asked of God in faith and humilty into an accusation requiring a “defence”). So there is, under any traditional system of Christian theology I can think of, an element that human evils must be permitted by God if our moral freedom is to mean anything.

But in Haught (and other TEs) the imperative is much stronger. The infinity of God’s love is on the same axis as the infinity of his giving of autonomy, despite himself. And that to the extent that for him to influence the course even of non-sentient evolution in any way at all would be the “control or compulsion” of a “conjuror or a distant architect”, a “directive dictator,” leading to a “monotonously perfect design devoid of an open future” (all Haught’s terminology). Were God tempted to get involved at all, it would diminish him as God to the same extent – and that’s the very reason for the stern criticism of “intervention” theologies like those seen in ID.

Like van Till, Polkinghorne and many others in the science-faith field, one of the key theological influences on Haught is Jurgen Moltmann, whose ideas on kenosis and divine suffering resonate with much of all this. Moltmann’s departure point was the Nazi Holocaust, and his thinking has prompted the often-seen idea in modern theology (and not least in science-faith) that the Holocaust changes everything we think about God. I’ve never quite bought that – over a million Jews died (1/4 of the world population) at the time of the first century Jewish revolt, most of them religious. World Christianity was born of a Jewish holocaust. Quite apart from the existence of other mass-murders through history, that seems directly comparable to what happened in the last century.

But one of the genuinely troubling things that strikes us about the Holocaust is the unanswered prayers of millions of suffering people. Former inmates are often quoted to express the thought, “How can there be a God of love if he allowed this despite the pleas of his people?” It is, of course, an entirely legitimate question, and it is one that has been answered, in our time, in terms of suffering God theology. Yet part of that very theology is about the pain of God in being unable to intervene in such events, on the basis of much the same kind of consideration as in Haught, of God’s infinite love in letting go of his creation, even  its Hitlers and its Himmlers.

But here’s a problem … though there were many Holocaust victims whose prayers, in this life at least, were not answered, there were some whose prayers were. Just a week or two ago I heard an interview with an elderly camp survivor who spoke of her mother’s prayer that she would not be separated from the survivor, her daughter. Because it transpired that way, the daughter survived. It was clear that she attributes that to answered prayer – and unless I have mentally confused this with another interview, she also said that it was not God who caused her sufferings, but evil men.

Haught talks about basic religious intuitions, but the most basic of all, without a doubt, is the prayer that cries, “God, help me.” Just before Christmas I chanced on a radio interview with an atheist scientist who got himself lost in the rain forest. At one crisis point he said that although he doesn’t pray, he prayed then, and not long afterwards things began to improve… not that it led him to faith. They say that there are no atheists in foxholes, which may be an exaggeration but is not an untruth.

The second commonest religious intuition is the prayer that follows deliverance. This is a frequent form in the Bible, and it’s fun to spot them in the Old Testament narratives: “Blessed be Yahweh, for he has delivered me.”

Now the point is that the new theology implies that unanswered prayer in the camps led to disillusion, because people expected intervention from a God who acts (a core meaning of the name “Yahweh”). But because of his non-directive love he does not act, but only does something more deep and complex in the way of suffering with them and, in the Cross, for them.

But if that is the truth, who are the biggest fools? It can only be those who, from misguided religious instinct, cried out to God to save them in their hour of greatest need, and worshipped him when they wrongly thought he had done so. Needless to say this does not apply only to Holocaust victims, but to any of us who thank God for the way our lives have turned out, or who pray to him for deliverance. My mother was only born at all, and brought up in her own family, because a Christian couple founded a charity to give single mothers hope. So I can be grateful, I suppose, to those people for embodying Christ’s self-giving love, but I ought not, if Dr Haught is right, to praise God for the Providence of my mother’s existence – or by implication, my own. In fact, my gratitude to the charity should be tempered with pity for their misguided dependence on prayer, even to the extent (long after my mother’s time) of relying on God alone for their finances, making their existence a century later an accident of chance and necessity.

It’s considerations like this, in the real world of people and religious faith, that persuade me that a Christianity without a God who acts is just academic self-gratification. I don’t see room in Haught’s theology for such a God (though I do to some extent in Polkinghorne, to whom I’ll turn next). Yet the theological basis of Haught’s doctrine of nature, as I have suggested, is actually invalid for insentient nature itself – it can only be coherently argued for the world of rational, spiritual humanity. And in that sphere, I would suggest, it is of use to neither man nor beast.

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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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2 Responses to Unforeseen consequences of “natural freedom” theology

  1. Cal says:

    Next time I am asked to do yardwork, I’m going to take the line: “Well, I don’t want to coerce nature and exert my tyrannical rule over her. How dare you!”

    In all seriousness, I think the application of the Suffering God into a near deistic/”moral influence(?)” TE is bizarre. Now I’ve never read Moltmann, only about, but I am one who would echo Stott when he says that if it wasn’t for Christ on the Cross (and Resurrection) he would not believe in any god.

    I think the problem is that the recent emphasis leaves off the other half. God empties Himself of all glory and authority, the King removing His robes and sceptor if you will, and enters into suffering, sin and death. This is how He conquers sin and death. It seems that a lot of the Kenoticism leaves off the actual conquest, but a mild wish for some sort of victory.

    This leaves room for the genius of man and seems to be the otherside of the coin for any sort of theologia gloriae. Man, whether or not God is strong or not, is the arbiter. Man can act and move and intercede, but God is forbidden and confined within metaphysical categories. Like you said, academic self-gratification. I think Pascal had words for the “god-of-the-philosophers”.


  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Cal

    Thanks for your input: I like to be able to put flesh on the bones of what seems wrong with where TE has (largely) put itself. It’s not just yardwork that’s verboten – don’t even think of training your Rotweiler!

    Before I read any Moltmann, I heard praise of his work from an excellent guy called Graham Cray now Bishop of Maidstone), who warned: “He’s wonderful on many things … but dodgy on others.” Cray at the time was building firmly on the Bible picture of God’s anguish over sin in Hosea: that was the controlling authority.

    Pascal’s phrase has its detractors, but in this context I think it’s appropriate. Pascal was, of course, a philosopher, and not averse to philosophising about God in the Pensées. But the night he met with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that all became small change compared to God’s Fire.

    Yet Haught talks much about “religious intuition” as the basis for talking of God very differently from Pascal. So where does that leave us? In my view, the touchstone remains Jesus as revealed in Scripture: that both authenticates and interprets any direct experience of the divine I might have.

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