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A few months ago I was reading Elizabeth Johnson’s book, Ask the Beasts. Her work is an attempt to understand the great Christian mysteries in light of Darwin’s magisterial work, The Origin of Species. In other words, Johnson implicitly asks the question: How are we to understand our Christian faith in light of evolution by natural selection? Now, I should note that her work goes well beyond a simple attempt at synthesis of these two understandings of reality: she is also trying to respond to Lynn White’s famous essay in Science Magazine which decried Christianity and its theology as contributing to the ecological crisis as we know it today. But here, I want to put that latter concern (and others she raises) aside in order to focus on one point in Johnson’s work that left me underwhelmed: her attempt to make sense of the violence (I know, a charged word) of the evolutionary process in light of a theological understanding of creation as “good.”

But before I get there, a little bit of background is necessary to grasp the conundrum I hope to highlight. Johnson claims that in the early years of Christian theology, theologians were concerned with three things: God, man, and the cosmos/creation. Each of these reflection points served analogously as a leg to a stool, and we all know that a three legged stool is well balanced and is well suited for sitting on. But Johnson notes that as history progressed and humanity became more self-reflective, theology began to neglect one of these legs in favor of emphasizing the others: theology became increasingly more anthropocentric, and creation took a back seat. Thus, ecology and the drama of the created world was ignored. The stool became imbalanced and Christians lost sight of the importance of caring for creation. Thus, one of her main tasks is to ensure that the third leg of the stool is recovered.

All good up to this point. However, the water gets murkier when Johnson tries to elevate the dignity of creation when faced with the question of evolution by natural selection. After all, natural selection is a violent process. Organisms not well adapted to their environment will suffer (and Johnson claims that many animals are conscious and do indeed suffer) and die before they are able to reproduce, while the strong ones live to pass on their genes. This process ensures that only those genes that are best suited to a given environment are passed on to the next generation.  Johnson uses the famous example of the pelican and her two chicks to showcase just how violent this process can be.

Now, this is fine from an evolutionary point of view. But how do we understand this in light of Christian faith, which makes the bold claim that God created the world and called it “good.” Of course, if creation has no inherent dignity and serves only instrumentally (as the anthropocentric theology of, say, Thomas Aquinas, might maintain), the suffering of a pelican chick or that of a deer being eaten alive by wolves raises no problem. But if all of creation does have such dignity, and if God decided to bring new life into the world by such a violent mechanism, how can we call this God, let alone his creation, good?

As Johnson notes, this question is not new to theology. The greats of the Christian tradition have been wrestling with this question since the beginning. It’s what theologians call “theodicy.” How do we make sense of an all good, all powerful, all knowing God in the midst of suffering? Well two solutions have come to us from antiquity, one from Augustine and the other from Irenaeus.

Augustine, and much of the Western theological tradition after him, blamed suffering on the original sin (Adam, Eve, the apple…you know the story). This at least explains the suffering of the human being. We suffer because we live in a fallen world. And if creation has no dignity, we don’t really need to try to explain the suffering of a pelican or a deer. All that really matters is the suffering of the human being. Irenaeus, on the other hand, believed that God created an imperfect world to provide room for growth in virtue. Either way, both theologians were essentially concerned with human suffering. Now, both thinkers’ solution to this problem still has limps: Augustine relies on a belief in an original justice, a garden of Eden where death and suffering were not part of the created order. This doesn’t jive with our evolutionary world view. Irenaeus’s theory, on the other hand, meshes well with an evolutionary world view, but we are still left with the problem of a “good” creation.

So how does Johnson address this issue? For the most part, she dismisses it. She says that attempting to answer such a question often does injustice to those who are actually in the midst of suffering, among other things. There is truth to this: it doesn’t help to hear that a child who died from Leukemia did so due to sin. Nor does it help to believe that God let the child suffer and die to help us–and the child–grow in virtue by means of such suffering. Yet, to not address the problem at all still leaves us with a gaping hole in our understanding of God as creator.

Now, I said that Johnson dismisses the question “for the most part” because she does, in one paragraph, state that God could have created a world in which creation had a radical freedom which naturally “evolved” by chance to bring about new life forms.  This answer raises a whole bunch of questions about the role of chance in creation and the nature of creation’s freedom and God’s providence, questions that we won’t address here. But regardless: if this is her answer, it does not assuage the concern. At least with Augustine and Irenaeus the goodness of creation was still somewhat protected (through an original justice in Augustine and by a preordained path to virtue by Irenaeus). With Johnson’s solution, there is no possibility in understanding the goodness of creation since there is no original justice, and nor is there a preordained path to virtue: just chance which ends in terrible suffering for the conscious created world.

So, up this point:

  1. Evolution by natural selection is a violent process
  2. Johnson’s elevation of creation to a greater dignity raises series questions about the suffering of non-human creatures.
  3. Any attempt to answer these questions is considered an act of violence toward victims.

Therefore, we are left with the remaining questions: How do we consider creation “good?” What does this understanding of goodness say about God?

Now, I don’t want to sell Johnson short (who am I to do so, anyway?).  Johnson’s project has helped me realize the theological troubles surrounding the Roman Catholic doctrine of original sin. As I’ve already stated, if one were to follow the Thomist strain of Catholic theology–if one were to leave out that third leg of Johnson’s theological stool–one would not need to explain the suffering of animals, since for Thomas animals do not have an inherent dignity. However, when attempting to address the theodicy question regarding human beings, the Western Church historically (and according to Church teaching, definitively) sided with Augustine. It said that God did indeed originally create a world in a state of original justice, and that through a single act of disobedience we experienced a fall from grace.

At first glance, this looks great. It helps protect the goodness of creation (and therefore God), and at the same time it explains why there is so much unjust suffering in the world today (in the beginning, there was no pain or death or suffering: that all came after the fall). But when looked at from an evolutionary worldview, how can we with intellectual honesty hold onto this theory? We know that evolution began far before humans came on the scene. Was all peaceful until the arrival of the first human being, who then sinned and caused all of the violence and suffering of evolution to all of a sudden emerge? Or maybe, if we stick with the anthropocentric worldview and assume that the only suffering that matters is human suffering, we can say that the fist human being on earth was free of suffering and all concupiscence and decided to sin, causing all humans after him or her to suffer the consequences of that action. I don’t know. Sounds like mental gymnastics to me.

So what are we left with regarding a Catholic response to this question? I think we are left with a crisis concerning the doctrine of original sin, a crisis that Johnson’s work doesn’t really help solve.

Let me just conclude my rambling by saying this: I think one of the great tasks facing theology today is the question of the Catholic Church’s doctrine of original sin. Sure, you might be thinking that by making such a stink about this, I am beholden to a premodern world view given this insistence on preserving a several hundred year old doctrine. Maybe that’s true. My concern is how we are to understand God and the mechanism of creation given what we know of evolution. If we raise creation to a greater dignity in order to provide a more convincing Christian ecological ethic, this question becomes intensified. But even if we don’t, we are still left with a big question mark.

Anyway, as I (and hopefully we!) continue to look into this question, I think the question we have to keep raising is: What does this synthesis of evolution and Christian cosmology say about God?