Peacocke, Arthur. Biological Evolution - A Positive Theological Appraisal."
As Arthur Peacocke observes, the nineteenth-century theological
reaction to Darwin was much more positive, and the scientific reaction much
more negative, than many today care to admit. Current theology, however, is far
less open - a churlishness which Peacocke is committed to rectifying for the
sake of the believability and intellectual integrity of Christianity. To do so
he turns directly to five broad features of biological evolution and the
theological reflections they suggest.
The first is continuity and emergence. Although the seamless web of
nature is explained by scientists using strictly natural causes, biological
evolution is characterized by genuine emergence and a hierarchy of
organization, including new properties, behaviors, and relations. Such
emergence entails both epistemic irreducibility and a putative ontology.
Emergence, in turn, is Gods action as the continuous, ongoing, and immanent
Creator in and through the processes of nature.
The second feature is the mechanism of evolution. Although biologists
agree on the central role of natural selection, some believe selection alone
cannot account for the whole story. Peacocke describes eight approaches to the
question which operate entirely within a naturalistic framework, assume a
Darwinian perspective, and take chance to mean either: 1) epistemic
unpredictability, arising either a) because we cannot accurately determine the
initial conditions, or b) because the observed events are the outcome of the
crossing of two independent causal chains, or 2) inherent unpredictability as
found at the subatomic level. Chance characterizes both mutations in DNA (types
1a and/or 2), and the relation between genetic mutation and the adaptation of
progeny (type 1b). Chance in turn was elevated to a metaphysical principle by
Jacques Monod, who rejected Gods involvement in evolution, but Peacocke
disagrees. Instead, chance connotes the many ways in which potential forms of
organization are thoroughly explored in nature. Rather than being a sign of
irrationality, the interplay of chance and law are creative over time. This
fact, for the theist, is one of the God-endowed features of the world
reflecting the Creators intentions.
Next Peacocke raises the question about trends, properties and
functions which arise through, and are advantageous in, natural selection.
Drawing on G. G. Simpson and Karl Popper, Peacocke claims that there are
propensities for such properties. Examples include complexity,
information-processing and -storage ability, and language. They characterize
the gradual evolution of complex organisms and contribute to the eventual
existence of persons capable of relating to God. Thus the propensities for
these properties can be regarded as the intention of God who continuously
creates through the evolutionary processes, though without any special action by God at, say, the level
of quantum mechanics or genetic mutations.
The fourth feature is the ubiquity of pain, suffering and death in
nature. Pain and suffering are the inevitable consequence of possessing systems
capable of information processing and storage. Death of the individual and the
extinction of species are prerequisites for the creation of biological order.
Complex living structures can only evolve in a finite time if they accumulate
changes achieved in simpler forms, and are not assembled de novo. This includes both the
predator-prey cycle, which involves eating pre-formed complex chemical
structures, and the modification of existing structures via biological
evolution. This, in turn, raises the problem of theodicy. Peacocke stresses
that God suffers in and with the suffering of creatures, and cites support from
current theologians who reject divine impassibility. Gods purpose is to bring
about the realm of persons in communion with God and with each other. Moreover,
Gods suffering with Christ on the cross extends to the whole of nature. Death
as the wages of sin cannot possibly mean biological death; this requires us
to reformulate the classical theology of redemption. The reality of sin must
consist in our alienation from God, a falling short of what God intends us to
be. It arises because, through evolution, we gain self-consciousness and
freedom, and with them, egotism and the possibility of their misuse.
In his final section Peacocke turns to the theological significance of
Jesus Christ in an evolutionary perspective. Christs resurrection shows that
such union with God cannot be broken even by death. His invitation to follow
him calls us to be transformed by Gods act of new creation within human
history. But how is this possible for us now? This leads Peacocke to the
problem of atonement. Since he rejects objective theories that link biological
death to sin and the Fall, the suffering of God and the action of the Holy
Spirit in us together must effect our at-one- ment with God and enable God to
take us into the divine life.
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