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Faith, the Environment, and Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Faith, the Environment, and Evolution: An Interview with John F Haught
Phina Borgeson
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
John F "Jack" Haught is Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington DC and director of the Georgetown Center for the Study of Science and Religion. His area of specialization is systematic theology, with a particular interest in issues pertaining to science, cosmology, ecology, and religion. He is the author of several books, including Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, and Responses to 101 Questions on God and Evolution (reviewed by Phina Borgeson on p 52); his newest book, Deeper Than Darwin: Evolution and the Question of God, was published in 2003 by Westview Press.

Haught visited the University of California, Davis, on March 18 and 19, 2002, to deliver the annual St Augustine Chair Lecture of The Belfry campus ministry, which was concomitantly was the keynote address of a conference on Care for God’s Creation: Spirituality and Environmental Stewardship. NCSE Faith Network Project Director Phina Borgeson attended and interviewed Haught afterward.

RNCSE: The organizers of the Care for God’s Creation event wisely, in my opinion, asked you to speak on evolution as an important foundation for any faith-based environmental activism. It has seemed to me that there are similarities between people who deny evolution because of their beliefs and those who disparage environmentalism out of faith. What would you say is the theological common ground between those two groups?

Haught: Well, first, they are both dualistic in their thinking; it is their view of reality that we humans are essentially spiritual beings only accidentally imprisoned in a material universe. Second, and perhaps most important, it is their view of ultimate destiny that militates against their taking the environment seriously. I grew up in the country, on a family farm in rural Virginia. There is a radio program I listen to on Sunday afternoons that plays the kind of music common in that area, "Stained Glass Bluegrass". I still have an affection for the music, but not for the theology, which says that our ultimate home is elsewhere: earth is like a school for souls, and when it is all over, we will be harvested away from earth to heaven. To such a mindset, taking care of this planet seems pointless. And even if those who espouse these beliefs accept evolution, they are not interested in doing anything with it theologically. The environment is not important when the destiny of the individual is deemed significant and the destiny of all of creation is not. Those of us doing theology after Darwin, though, can speak with even more certainty about the inseparability of cosmic and human destiny.

RNCSE: What about parallels between the two in activism and methods?

Haught: The detractors project onto both evolution and environmentalism their own sense of what they have been taught is evil. Basically, evolution is seen as evil and the avenue by which modernity has allowed in all kinds of ills. For many who would deny it, the word "evolution" is so symbolically charged that of itself, it arouses a moral impulse toward activism.

Evolution, of course, is change over time. Evolution’s detractors have a concept of God and a concept of order according to which change is considered demonic or even satanic. And they have a lot of conservative money to fight change.

They do not want perfection in Whitehead’s sense, which includes both novelty and order. they want it in a trivial form devoid of novelty. For Whitehead, perfection is not attainable, but a goal, the highest possible integration of novelty and order (which he also called beauty). Too much novelty is chaos; too much order is banality.

Creationists and those who reject environmentalism also cannot distinguish between a sacramental outlook, in which nature is symbolic or revelatory of God, and pantheism, in which nature is equated with God. There does seem to be less creationism in sacramental churches, but there is a growing "intelligent design" movement in Catholicism.

RNCSE: Of course — Michael Behe is a Roman Catholic, and the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, hosted the 2002 IDEA conference.

In your lecture, you talked about how any Christian theology must be related to the revelation of God in the person of Jesus. You identified three key attributes of Jesus: humility, self-gift, and opening up of the future, or promise. It seemed to me that each of these runs counter to the theology implicit in "intelligent design".

For example, when talking about God’s self-gift, you said, "Revelation is not the passing of information from heaven to earth, but the infinite entering the finite world." This seemed to allude to the theological uses, or misuses, of information in the work of Phillip Johnson and William A Dembski. Would you care to comment?

Haught: Well, that view is based on Karl Rahner’s theology, especially his thinking that revelation is at root the mystery of God pouring itself without reservation into the creation. I have an intuition that if you look upon nature simply as design, it tends to freeze out the novelty that brings life. Dawkins said that design is "brittle". But there are always new forms of order pouring in from the infinite. Because the fullness of divine infinity cannot be received all at once by the finite cosmos, something new is always coming into the universe. The rigidity of design is a barrier to the self-gift of the divine. Good evidence for this is that we see no perfect adaptations.

RNCSE: Of opening up the future, you said, "The universe is seeded with promise rather than design." Your comments?

Haught: Theologically, promise is a field of endless possibilities. Jürgen Moltmann (a contemporary German theologian, influential, among other things, in the renewal of interest in eschatology among liberal Protestants and in propounding a theology of hope) has developed some interesting ideas here. He reminded us that in the biblical view of things, the word "God" means "Future". Possibilities are more powerful than actualities. Possibilities can become actual, but the actual can no longer become possible. The conception of God as the Designer is just too hard and dead to capture the rich way God relates to nature, drawing us into the future in a Teilhardian way.

RNCSE: What about humility? Is there a way you would contrast your understanding of that with the theology of the "intelligent design" crowd?

Haught: It seems to me that fear drives people toward design: fear of change, of novelty, of the infinite. "Intelligent design" puts a sacred canopy over their lives. But design does not truly conquer fear. Design is about a God of power and might rather than a God who shares in our sufferings. Like most natural theology, "intelligent design" fails to make room for the cross. Yet it is a trust in the self-emptying Jesus in passion and crucifixion that drives out fear.

RNCSE: I know that you are aware of the efforts to insert "intelligent design" into the science education standards in Ohio. What would you say to clergy and other religious leaders there who want to oppose "intelligent design" from a theological perspective?

Haught: Well, before I say anything about theology, let me say that from the point of view of science, it is just plain inappropriate. Appeals to "intelligent design", for example Michael Behe’s "irreducible complexity", are theological diversions, not scientifically fruitful suppositions.

Theologically, "intelligent design" trivializes both science and the scriptures by bringing in God at the level of science. It has religion moonlit in an explanatory slot that belongs to science.

Proponents of "intelligent design" and of evolutionary materialism agree that there is one explanatory slot — so we need to fit God into the slot or he will not be present at all. If there is only one slot, there is going to be conflict. In contrast, in my new book Deeper than Darwin, I argue for explanatory pluralism, on which such a conflict need not arise.

The proponents of "intelligent design" seem unable to separate evolution from evolutionary materialism. They throw the baby out with bath water, discarding good science, and at the same time turning God into a tinkerer rather than a creator.

RNCSE: How did you get into this anyway?

Haught: Well, when I was in Catholic seminary, I got into reading Teilhard de Chardin, whose work struck a chord with my cosmic romantic sense. I have also delighted in Whitehead and his romantic reaction to the dominant philosophy of his place and time. I find that Science and the Modern World is still the most influential book I have read, and the best critique of scientism. I think Whitehead was the first postmodernist.

When I left the seminary, I worked in systematic theology, with no idea of going into science and religion as a field. But when I arrived at Georgetown more than thirty years ago, I realized that there was no course to help students to integrate what they were learning in science with what they were learning in the humanities. I like to think that my present work on evolution and theology is helping people — not just my students — undertake a religious voyage of discovery that respects both classical spirituality and the evolutionary discoveries of modern science.