The Christian Century has this interesting article about the relationship between evolution and Christianity, written by Amy Frykholm. Interesting not because it actually resolves the question in any satisfactory way, but rather because it states the problem in a more forthright manner than is typical for writing in this genre:
But I suspect that the compatibility of evolutionary science with Christian theology is more often asserted than explored. I, for one, do most of my thinking about science out of one mental box and my thinking about religion out of another. On questions about evolution, the origin of life and the future of the planet, I look into the science box. On questions about God, salvation, theology and ethics, I turn to the religion box. While I think that the contents of the two boxes are compatible, I rarely try to work out the terms of their relationship.
Perhaps that’s because the contents of the two boxes are, when mixed, still combustible. When theology faces off against the account of the world set forth by evolutionary biology, God’s goodness and power and God’s plans for the future seem to be called into question with new force.
For instance, knowledge of evolutionary history raises questions of theodicy in an especially disconcerting way. Evolution reveals a vast history of unfathomable waste, loss, extinction, suffering and death in the natural world. What has God been up to all these millennia? And what is God up to now? If we believe that God oversees creation, then God’s way of doing it through evolution seems strange and even appalling.
Over the 4.5 billion years of our planet’s existence, 98 percent of species have become extinct. Extinction is written into the pattern of life. What does it mean, then, to talk about a God who cares for “each sparrow that falls”? How can we think of God’s care for the world in light of the millions of years of suffering and death that have been a feature of evolution in the natural world?
Well said! I especially like that third paragraph.
The article goes on to consider some possible answers to this objection:
But Robert Jenson, Lutheran theologian at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton Seminary, suggests that such arguments are off target in that they operate with a view of God as external to the cosmos, acting on it from outside. This idea of God derives more from the Enlightenment than from Christianity. Christians, Jenson says, have traditionally conceived of the cosmos as contained in God. Holding to this conception of God, one can view natural selection not as a process separate from God but as a process that takes place in God.
Can someone tell me, please, what that means? Because right now I am picturing God as a jelly doughnut, with natural selection as the sticky, fruit-flavored filling.
The article continues in this vain, as Frykholm records the opinions of various theologians. Frykholm is impressively skeptical of all of the explanations offered, pointing out objections to each one. What becomes clear throughout the article is that reconciling evolution and Christianity requires at the very least abandoning the simple conception of God as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent designer. Here’s Frykholm:
Theologies that emphasize God as deeply involved in natural, open-ended processes seem better able to make sense of evolution than do the classical accounts of an omnipotent God. On the other hand, if Jenson is right, perhaps what is needed is a richer notion of the God in whom these processes occur. At the very least, substantial interaction between Christian theology and evolutionary biology is prompting new metaphors and new ways of thinking about God.
Personally, I fail to see how the high-minded theologies described in the article even come close to addressing the real problems (and that’s before moving on to the question of whether there is any reason to believe they are true.) But the article is worth reading for its forthright admission that the problem is thornier than many would like to admit.