Magazine article The Christian Century

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Magazine article The Christian Century

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Article excerpt

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

By Elizabeth A. Johnson

Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $32.95


Does science really matter to faith? The religious truths that Christians cherish came to expression long before Galileo, Darwin, Einstein, and Hawking, so what could science have to teach us about God, Christ, and the meaning of life that we don't already know from meditation on the Bible and our creeds? What difference can science make to our devotional life and theological reflection?

A lot, says Elizabeth Johnson, one of the most highly regarded contemporary Christian theologians. Professor of theology at Fordham University, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Johnson has authored many books skillfully connecting her deep Christian faith with a vibrant intellectual life. For a long time now she has been uncommonly sensitive to questions at the interface of science and religion, and her latest book solidifies her standing in the front ranks of laborers in this increasingly important field of interest.

Ask the Beasts is an original, learned, and compellingly readable enlargement of Christian theology after Darwin. The book's title is taken from Job 12: "But now ask the beasts to teach you." Johnson recruits this text as a wedge for opening wide the horizon of Christian theological inquiry to the world now being laid out so lavishly by the natural sciences, especially evolutionary biology.

The book takes the general form of a nuanced conversation between the Charles Darwin of The Origin of Species on the one hand and the Christian tradition of the Nicene Creed on the other. About half of the Christians in the United States would consider such an encounter inconceivable, but Johnson shows how a biblically informed faith can come alive, and hope can be renewed, when we look at the life-world through the lens of Darwin's Origin. A more careful and sensitive reading of that masterpiece would be hard to find anywhere, and not just among theologians.

If you take seriously Job's suggestion that you should interrogate the plants and animals of land, air, and sea, do not be surprised, says Johnson, that "their response will lead your mind and heart to the living God." However, Christian theology, typically and unfortunately, has focused on human beings almost exclusively. Theology "has seldom asked the beasts anything," much to its self-impoverishment. Johnson is aware of exceptions to the excessive anthropocentrism of Christian spirituality, but she is entirely correct that the natural world has functioned in Christian theology mainly as a backdrop to the human drama rather than as the creative matrix of life, complexity, and consciousness that science has shown it to be.

What would happen to our theologies, then, if we looked at life as closely and compassionately as Darwin does in the Origin, while keeping in mind simultaneously the genetically informed developments that have taken place in evolutionary biology since Darwin's day? The most vocal evolutionists think that biology has made theology superfluous. Natural selection, not God, they insist, is the author of life. But Johnson's theologically sophisticated view of divine action allows for no real competition between natural causation and divine creativity.

Johnson's purpose is not to defend her faith against the academically sponsored materialist interpretations of evolution that have squeezed the juice right out of Darwin's own narrative of life. …

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