Resurrection and the Costs of Evolution: A Dialogue with Rahner on Noninterventionist Theology

By Edwards, Denis | Theological Studies, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Resurrection and the Costs of Evolution: A Dialogue with Rahner on Noninterventionist Theology


Edwards, Denis, Theological Studies


SUFFERING THAT SPRINGS FROM natural causes, such as the South Asian tsunami of December 26, 2004, has always raised hard questions for Christian theology. In the current dialogue between science and theology, the issue of the suffering of human and nonhuman creatures takes on a new intensity, with science making it clear how predation, competition for survival, death, and extinction are built into the 3.8 billion-year-history of life on Earth. Without creatures drawing energy from their environment, there could be no emergence of life. Without death and the succession of generations, there could be no evolution: there would be no eyes, wings, or human brains. The evolution of life in its abundance and beauty is accompanied by terrible costs to human beings and to other species.

The costs are built into the process. They are built into the biology, geology, and the underlying physics of a dynamic, life-bearing planet. The costs of evolution are built into an emergent universe. The awareness of these costs pushes theology to a deeper reflection on the nature of God's action. Theology needs to respond, however inadequately, to the idea that so much that is beautiful and good arises by way of increasing complexity through emergent processes that involve tragic loss. We know, as no generation has known before us, that these costs are intrinsic to the processes that give rise to life on Earth in its beauty, fecundity, and diversity.

In response to the costs built into evolution, a theology of creation has to be able to offer a view of God working creatively in and through the natural world to bring it to healing and wholeness. I see at least three requirements for such a response. First, with Robert John Russell and others in the science-theology dialogue, I am convinced that a theological response to the costs of evolution must involve eschatology, even though the claims of Christian eschatology exist in some tension with the predictions of scientific cosmology. (1) What is needed is an objective and powerful theology of both resurrection and the final fulfillment of creation. God's action in creating an emergent universe needs to be understood in the light of the resurrection and its promise that all things will be transformed and redeemed in Christ (Rom 8:19-23; Col 1:20; Eph 1:10; Rev 21:5). A merely psychological or subjective theology of the resurrection cannot offer hope to creation. Only a theology of resurrection that is eschatologically transformative can begin to respond to the suffering that is built into an evolutionary universe.

A second requirement is that this divine action be understood in a noninterventionist way. Of course, it has long been recognized that science becomes impossible if God is thought of as intervening in such a way as to compete with or to overturn the regularities of nature. In addition, the theological problem of suffering is made far worse if God is thought of as arbitrarily intervening to send suffering to some creatures and not to others. Christian theology today must face up to how a particular theology of divine action that runs deep in the Christian tradition can exacerbate the pain of those who suffer because of its implicit model of an interventionist God, who chooses freely to send sufferings to some and lovingly to protect others. Such a theology can contribute to a sense of alienation from God. The culture of an interventionist God is reinforced, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, by many aspects of church life. The scientific insight that the costs of evolution built into an emergent universe challenges theology to find an alternative to the model of a God who can be thought of as freely modifying the dynamics of tectonic plates to save some from a tsunami, while causing others to suffer it.

The third requirement for a theology of divine action that might offer some response to the costs of evolution would involve an understanding of God's power as constrained by God's love and respect for creatures. …

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