Review of John Haught's Lecture at Creighton University
C.F. Austerberry


On Charles Darwin's 192nd birthday (February 12, 2001), an overflow audience in the Skutt Student Center finally heard John F. Haught, Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, discuss "God After Darwin: Evolution and the Question of Divine Providence." Bad weather had grounded Haught in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 2000, the day he was originally scheduled to visit Creighton.

Haught began by comparing our current scientific view of the universe with the traditional view of a purposeful cosmos endowed with a hierarchically-ordered "Great Chain of Being." If living organisms are produced by a continuous process of blind chance and impersonal law operating over immense spans of time, how is divine care manifested?

Some, Haught acknowledged, have concluded that that the material universe is all that exists, and that it is without direction or purpose. Others have suggested that God's providential care for creation can still be seen, if in different ways than before Darwin. Haught reviewed several ways that have been proposed.

Under the heading "intelligent design" Haught included various arguments of natural theology in which the origin of the universe's particular physical characteristics and its subsequent particular evolutionary history are regarded as highly implausible in the absence of divine providence. According to the "anthropic principle" design is "front-loaded" in the "finely-tuned" fundamental forces, physical constants, and other initial conditions of the universe, without which carbon-based life would be impossible. Another modern version of the design argument claims that biologists have discovered "irreducibly complex" molecular and cellular systems with too many essential, interacting components to have possibly arisen through Darwinian evolution.

Haught advised caution in accepting intelligent design arguments. One reason, Haught noted, is that design arguments cannot compel acceptance through reason alone. Alternative hypothetical natural explanations always exist whether or not they can be tested, now or in the future. Maybe some of the universe's initial conditions that seem contingent were actually determined by natural laws currently unknown to us. Or perhaps our universe is only one of many (we can only hope to detect the one we inhabit). If so, a kind of Darwinian selection could operate on innumerable universes. Ours turning out "just right" could be as unremarkable as someone winning a lottery.

Intelligent design arguments based on specific features of organisms are no more appealing to Haught than those based on the fundamental make-up of the entire universe. Reductive evolutionary origins will likely be discovered in the future for several biochemical pathways and subcellular structures termed "irreducibly complex" by current intelligent design theorists. More importantly, the idea that God would micromanage such details of evolution conflicts with Haught's theological vision.

Theological issues were most prominent in Haught's lecture. Rather than using apparent design in nature as evidence for the existence and attributes of an otherwise undefined God, Haught begins within the circle of faith, within a confessional theology (Christian, in his case) and then looks for consonance between that theology and the evolving cosmos. His "theology of nature" (as opposed to "natural theology") is not obsessed with design. Rather, Haught asked: "what kind of world should we expect if providence is essentially humble, self-giving, promising love" ?

Review of John Haught's Lecture at Creighton University - p.2




The humility of God, demonstrated especially in Christ's kenosis (self-emptying), is key to Haught's evolutionary theology. Haught credited Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg for emphasizing that God wills an independent creation, and that God must "withdraw" in order to make "space" for it. Creation is then viewed as a consequence of divine self-withdrawal. The long duration and experimental meandering of evolutionary history is consonant with God letting the world be, and become, itself. Haught explicitly borrowed from the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, as well as the evolutionary theology of Teilhard de Chardin, in proposing that providence is manifested in evolution's broad trend. Toward what? Teilhard would say that evolution is oriented towards increasing complexity, consciousness, and centeredness, with the ultimate Center being the Divine Ground, or God. Haught, however, wants to go beyond Teilhard's somewhat anthropocentric emphasis on Homo sapiens and our relationship to God. Haught favored the process theology view of God as willing the maximization of beauty, where beauty is defined as the "synthesis of order and novelty, harmony with contrast, unity with diversity." Rather than an anthropic cosmological principle in which the "Big Bang" is seen as designed to produce humans, Haught favors what he has called the "aesthetic cosmological principle" which considers the universe to be structured so as to produce more and more beauty over time.

Divine humility and process theology also inform Haught's approach to the problem of theodicy. In Haught's view, the question isn't how or why evil and suffering were allowed to enter a previously perfect world. Indeed, instantaneous creation of a perfect world is theologically inconceivable to Haught, for in Haught's view a perfect world could not be independent of God. To Haught, evil and suffering are inevitable imperfections in an unfinished world, a world in which novelty and order become imbalanced, tending towards either chaos on the one hand or trivial monotony on the other. As seen most clearly in the cross of Christ, a humble God is also a vulnerable, self-giving God, a God into whom the world's suffering is in some sense absorbed and redeemed.

Haught avoided reducing divine action to passive inaction by concluding his talk with his most difficult and distinctive concept, a "metaphysics of the future." In Haught's view, both materialism and classical theism are inadequate to evolution. In Haught's metaphysics of the future the "coming of God" is the ultimate "explanation" of evolution, not in the physical sense of a scientifically detectable interaction of God with the world but in a metaphysical sense. Haught stressed that the Bible ties providence to promise. He views the universe as seeded with promise (rather than design). God gifts the universe with a beautiful future, and persuades (not coerces) the world to enter it. Providence (pro-video) is, simply yet profoundly, God’s vision for the universe.