by Paul Wallace
I was raised in a family of scientifically literate Baptists. Dad was a professor at Georgia Tech, and we had science books all over the house. I remember Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, with its discussion of the deep past and the remote future. For a curious ten-year-old, Cosmos was a mind-blowing journey through time and space. The book’s illustrations left me in silence, gazing in wonder. It spoke to me on the deepest of levels.
I remember reading another book in our house that offered a highly-organized and detailed timeline of evolution. Life, I learned, started billions of years ago in single-cell mode. After innumerable eons, multicellular organisms appeared. Later came more complex forms of life: trilobites, flowering plants, and jellyfish. Fish grew jaws and insects took to the air. Strange kingdoms rose and fell.
Eventually we humans showed up in evolutionary history. To say human beings are latecomers to the cosmic scene is an understatement. After all, if cosmic time were compressed into a single year, recorded human history would span about 10 seconds!
Dad’s influence didn’t stop with science. He also took us to church every time the doors were open, which was pretty often in those days.
Evolution and Evil
At church I was handed a different book. It talked about the cosmos too. But the story it told did not match what I had learned from science books. When I read about six days of creation, I wondered, on what day did God make the dinosaurs?
Sagan’s Cosmos featured a picture of a tyrannosaur looking over its shoulder at an exploding asteroid. This asteroid was the last thing it and countless other creatures saw before their deaths. That image was haunting.
The thought of a hundred million years of animal suffering overwhelmed my young soul. Why did God let that happen, I wondered? But the Bible offered me no answer. And the science books I read offered no descriptions of Adam and Eve. These books were as different as could be.
I learned later in my life that creatures were related to each other and descended from a single ancestor. In fact, we human creatures are related to all life, past and present. In addition, evolution seemed to operate automatically, randomly, and sometimes brutally. Evolution seemed directionless.
Random, directionless, and brutal evolution was nowhere mentioned in the Bible. By contrast, biblical authors suggested that God created us in love and for love.
As appealing as the biblical writers sounded, I found it hard to believe. In high school, I began to question my Christian faith. I kept going to church with my family, but the whole Christian scheme as I understood it seemed insufficient and irrational in the light of the cosmos I was learning about. My decision to study physics in college only deepened this impression.
Models of Providence
I did not know it at the time, but my religion-and-science problem derived from a faulty view of God’s activity in the world. Such activity is called in theological circles “providence.” In his book, the Uncontrolling Love of God, Thomas Jay Oord distinguishes between several concepts of providence.
During the years I struggled with the apparent incompatibility of religion and science, my view of God’s providence was similar to what Oord calls “God empowers and overpowers.” In this model, an omnipotent God sustains (empowers) creation and reaches in and adjusts (overpowers) it when necessary. This view says God resides outside the cosmos and intervenes when the divine mind sees fit, to achieve certain ends. These interventions are unilateral moves made by an omnipotent God.
The “God empowers and overpowers” view of providence makes it hard to see why a perfectly free, all-powerful, and loving God would create through evolution. After all, evolution seems a painful, indirect, and inefficient way to fill a planet with life. Why wouldn’t a God capable of overpowering creation just create everything all at once, with no suffering at all?
On this point, Oord’s own view of providence is helpful. It solves the problem cleanly and without cutting theological or scientific corners. Oord casts evolution not as a blind series of mechanical events but as a three-billion-year drama of divine love. He sees God not as essentially omni-powerful but as essentially loving and creative. This God “necessarily gives the gifts of agency and self-organization to [all] entities capable of them” (p 171, italics mine). From the lowest single-celled organism to Homo sapiens, God honors creatures by granting them freedoms and possibilities to match their capacities. And God draws creatures gradually forward and upward in love. There is no whiff of divine coercion, manipulation, or micromanaging. The view of God Oord proposes is a view that says God is incapable of such controlling acts.
By the same token, Oord’s God is incapable of stopping death and suffering in this life unilaterally. These things simply cannot be avoided. This view of providence will not satisfy some, I suspect. But a serious study of natural history reveals the problem of matching a fully in-control, omnipotent, and allegedly loving God with the often-brutal and often-inefficient nature of evolution.
We learn a lot about an artist from his or her work. We may learn something true about J.K. Rowling from reading Harry Potter, for instance. We may learn something true about Johnny Cash from listening to “Folsom Prison Blues.” We may learn something true about Picasso by viewing Guernica.
As a young man, I wanted to learn something true about God by studying the cosmos. I wanted to know the Creator by knowing creation. The model of providence I embraced when younger prevented me from learning much about the Creator from studying creation. The mismatch between a controlling God and the suffering and inefficiency of evolution was too great.
By bathing the evolving cosmos in the love of an ever-creating God, Oord’s view of providence makes it possible for me to understand much more about God when I study creation. Evolution makes sense in light of God’s love.