John F. Haught, Purpose, Evolution and the Mystery of Life: Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Goshen Conference on Religion and Science. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2005. Pp. 130. ($15.50 paperback) ISBN 1-894710-55-X.
Few issues have so plagued religious academicians as the apparent conflict between faith and reason. As is typical of polarizing issues, persons tend to gravitate toward one or the other extreme in their responses. On the one hand, many scholars of science opt to abandon God and religion entirely, instead embracing atheistic or agnostic explanations for the nature of reality. On the other hand, faculty at some Christian colleges and universities hold to a literal interpretation of the Genesis story, largely ignoring 150 years' worth of evidence in fields of astronomy, geology, natural history, and molecular biology that point to an ancient universe and the appearance and development of life on Earth over eons. Many persons of faith who practice in the discipline of science find themselves constantly being drawn into this discussion, and may be asked to choose between one extreme or the other. Fortunately, there are theologians and philosophers of religion who have grappled with this issue.
The addition of this small book to the Anabaptist bibliography is timely. It is a transcript of John Haught's remarks from a series of presentations that took place during the 2004 annual Goshen College Conference on Religion and Science. Professor Haught is Thomas Healy Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University. He has spoken and written extensively on the relationship between science and religion. His previous ten books include such compelling titles as God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, The Promise of Nature: Ecology and Cosmic Purpose, and Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation. Many of the ideas developed in his earlier works are summarized and encapsulated in this most recent book, Purpose, Evolution and the Mystery of Life, edited by Carl S. Helrich.
The annual Goshen Conference serves as a forum for exploring a dialog between science and religion. Professor Haught presented three lectures, which were supplemented by discussion sessions with participants and Sunday worship. The first lecture, entitled 'Science and Cosmic Purpose,' addresses the question, "Can we reconcile the ageless belief that the universe is here for a reason with what the natural sciences are saying?" Here, Haught quotes physicist Richard Feynman: "The great accumulation of understanding as to how the physical world behaves, only convinces one that this behavior has a kind of meaninglessness about it." (11) Similarly, the studies of Darwinian evolutionary biology, for many scientific thinkers, seem only to confirm the notion that we live in a purposeless universe. In this first session, Haught tries to make the case for cosmic purpose that is consistent with the findings of science.
There are many important and interesting points made. For example, Haught points out that the conditions that made both life and consciousness possible were "front-loaded" into the universe, from the first microsecond of the Big Bang. So, from its very beginning, the universe was oriented toward the emergence of life and mind. However, God has given the creation freedom to grow, develop, and emerge as it will. Thus, God allows both order and novelty, harmony and chaos, the possibility of evil and the possibility of redemption. The beauty of the evolutionary process, according to Haught, is that God is allowing the universe to be "a great adventure rather than a stagnant monotony." (27) He cites process theologian Alfred North Whitehead's notion that God acts persuasively not coercively. In so much that God is not a dictator but a persuader, there is room for disorder, accidents, and also freedom. But with freedom comes risk.
The second lecture, "Darwin and Divine Providence," addresses the great difficulty the religious world has had coming to grips with the Darwinian picture of the natural world since the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859. In an evolutionary world, where is divine providence, God's purpose and design, the appearance of human sin and the need for its eventual redemption? Haught outlines seven possible responses to the apparent conflict, examines each one in detail, and dismisses most as theologically or scientifically untenable. His final proposal is to view the universe seeded not so much with strict "design" but rather to see the world as seeded with "promise" from the beginning. The advantage, he claims, "of thinking in terms of promise rather than design is that promise is consistent with present ambiguity and the unfinished character of the universe." (51) It is also consistent with the notion of "divine patience," God's willingness "to wait, to allow the world ample time to become itself." (52)
The final session focuses on the origin of life. Haught begins with a critique of philosophical naturalism, the belief that the world available to scientific inquiry is all there is. Reality, in other words, is just what we can detect with our senses and our instruments. Life and mind are simply derivatives of lifeless and mindless material stuff. Belief in a "lifeless" universe arose during the Enlightenmentall reality is subject to measurement, and is understandable through reason. In this lecture, Haught develops one of his most valuable illustrations, that of "layered explanation." We can approach any phenomenon from one of any number of levels. For example, we observe a pot of water boiling on the stove, and ask, What is the cause? Layers of explanation include 1) the behavior of water molecules at their boiling point, 2) because the gas was turned on and lit, and 3) one's desire for a cup of tea. The higher purpose (desire for a cup of tea) does not negate the operative chemical mechanisms (movement of water molecules), but the molecular explanation alone provides no insight into the ultimate purpose for the phenomenon. Each one of these explanations is true in and of itself, but to explain the event fully, we have to take into account a plurality of factors. Haught says, "Likewise, you don't have to say that life came about on earth because of chemical events rather than because God willed life to appear" (62). "Divine influence stands in relation to the natural world, including such events as the origin of life, analogously to the way 'I want tea' stands in relation to the molecular movement in the boiling pot of water." (63) In other words, divine creativity is not in competition with natural laws. It's a higher layer of explanation. Naturalism, however, requires us to choose between such accounts rather than embracing several layered explanations simultaneously.
Finally, "divine action may be operative in nature without ever being noticed at purely scientific levels of explanation. …For that reason there should be no competition between scientific and theological explanations of the origin of life." (68)
This is one of the two most important books I read this year. (The other is Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which will forever change the way the reader thinks about food.) I strongly recommend Purpose, Evolution and the Mystery of Life to students and practitioners of science who struggle intellectually with the conceptual "fit" of an evolutionary world view with the belief in a designed, purposeful universe.
Jon K. Piper
Professor of Biology