Tracy, Thomas F. Evolution, Divine Action, and the Problem of Evil."
Thomas Tracy addresses two of the central challenges that evolutionary
theory poses for theology. First, how might we understand God as creatively at
work in evolutionary history? Given the prominent role played by chance in
evolution, Jacques Monod and others have contended that the meandering pathways
of life cannot enact the purposes of God. Second, how can the affirmation of
Gods perfect goodness and creative power be reconciled with the ubiquitous
struggle, suffering, and death that characterizes evolution? This, of course,
is a form of the problem of evil.
The first question demands a theological interpretation of evolution.
Tracy distinguishes his project both from natural theology, which attempts to
argue from nature to God, and from any theological competition with biology,
which attempts to show the inadequacy of naturalistic explanations in order to
substitute theological ones. Instead, given the best current evolutionary
theory, Tracy asks how might a theologian concerned with divine action and
providence conceive of Gods relation to the history of life?
In response, Tracy argues that there are several ways in which God
might be understood to act in and through evolutionary processes. God acts
universally to create and sustain all finite things. In so doing, God may
choose to fix the course of events in the world by establishing deterministic
natural laws. In this case every event in cosmic history could be regarded as an
act of God. There are good reasons, both theological and scientific, to reject
this universal determinism. From science it appears that indeterministic chance
is built into the structures of nature, and that chance events at the quantum
level can both constitute the stable properties of macroscopic entities and
effect the course of macroscopic processes. Chaotic dynamics and evolutionary
biology provide two key examples here. This in turn creates several fascinating
possibilities for conceiving of divine action in the world. Perhaps a
hands-off God leaves some features of the worlds history up to chance. Or
perhaps God chooses to act at some or all of these points of indeterminism.
Then God could in this way initiate particular causal chains without intervening
in the regular processes of nature. Tracy notes that there are conceptual
puzzles raised by each of these ideas, such as whether God determines all or
just some of these events - and thus the relative theological merits of each
would need to be debated. But this variety of options for conceiving of divine
action makes it clear that the first challenge can be met.
If we succeed in constructing a theological interpretation of
evolution, we are immediately confronted by a compelling form of the problem of
evil. How can belief in Gods loving care for creation be reconciled not just
with moral evil in the human sphere but also with the hardship, pain,
suffering, and death that characterizes evolutionary processes, or what is
called natural evil? According to Tracy, any morally sufficient response must
identify the good for the sake of which evil is permitted, and it must explain
the relation of evil to this good. One standard approach is to argue that God
must permit some evils as a necessary condition for achieving various goods in
creation. John Hick, for example, holds that the good of soul making requires
that persons be free to develop their intellectual, moral, and spiritual
capacities by acting in an environment that is lawful, impersonal, and at an
epistemic distance from God. This entails both that we can do moral evil and
that we (and other sentient beings) will suffer from natural evil. Clearly
evolution can be accommodated within such a theodicy, though Tracy admits it is
probably not required.
If we grant that the good cannot be achieved without permitting these
evils, we may nonetheless object that the world contains far more of them than would be necessary to
serve Gods purposes. It is not difficult to think of evils that, as far as we
can see, do not lead to any greater good and could readily have been prevented.
Tracys response is that God must permit evil that does not serve as the means
to a greater good if it occurs as a necessary by-product of preserving moral
freedom and the integrity of the natural order. Precisely because these
pointless evils do not generate particular goods, they will appear to us to
be unnecessary. However, evils of this type must be permitted by God, and it
will be up to us to prevent or
ameliorate them. From the fact that we cannot see a point to an evil,
therefore, it does not follow that God should have prevented it. A world that
includes the good of personal relationship with God must apparently include
But just how much pointless evil is really required? Does the world
instead contain gratuitous evils? The problem here is, first of all, in
assuming that we can calculate what could be considered the minimum amount of
acceptable pointless evil, and thus that we could quantify and balance goods
and evils. The deeper problem is in the assumption that the world really does
include gratuitous evils. In fact we cannot even conclude that some evil is
gratuitous merely because we cannot think of a reason for Gods permitting it.
Moreover we must recognize that we are in no position to see how each evil fits
into the overall course of cosmic history, to comprehend all of the goods to
which it may be relevant, or to recognize all of the consequences of
eliminating it. In grappling with the reality of evil, we confront the limits
of human comprehension and are forced to accept epistemic humility, as the Book
of Job makes plain in Gods speech from the whirlwind. We cannot expect to
solve the problem of evil. Instead the central task for Christian faith in the
face of evil is to proclaim and understand what God is doing to suffer with and
to redeem creation.
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