“Each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.”William James
The world is too big for us to see and know entirely, so we narrow it down. We make frames for reality; we choose to attend to some things and not to others, just to get by. A few years ago, I forced myself to attend to some things I’d never noticed before, including a few things that I’d been trying very hard not to notice. I studied biological evolution and found it to be revealing: the world made more sense with that framework than without it. I’ve come to see that the universe I inhabit is a very different place from the sort I had assumed for years. The way C.S. Lewis described Aslan, the hero of his Narnia Chronicles, is the way that I now describe the world: “Safe?… Who said anything about safe? ‘Course [it] isn’t safe. But [it’s] good.” My Christian faith has been changed and thickened by the shock that evolution was to my system—much like bones and muscles are strengthened by exercise. I may be stronger now, and I hope a little braver, but to be honest, I’m still sore.
The days of my initial deep-dive into evolutionary science had a soundtrack: When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay by Father John Misty. With grief and jaded humor, he offers up the disturbing mystery of recognizing oneself as “earth’s most soulful predator,” having crawled out of the darkness of an evolutionary past, and still, sadly, a contributor to the pain of others. The singer is having a sit-down with God about how His world is savage and unjust. “If this isn’t hell already,” he asks, “Then tell me what the hell is?” It’s a song that only a person who knows Christianity from the inside out, and is now convinced of evolution’s truth, could write, for it aches with theological disappointment. The singer doesn’t solve the mystery or alleviate the pain; he just holds them both and challenges God in a Job-like kind of way. The song is a lament. My heart has been fermenting in that lament, in those questions, and in the possible Christian responses to them, for quite some time now. What follows isn’t an explanation or defense of evolution. It’s the story of how I personally came to terms with it, a glimpse of what this evolving universe looks like, and how I’m theologically coping with it.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning (A Very Good Place to Start)
In the past I assumed evolution was a faith-wrecker, so I never actually investigated it deeply; the potential loss wasn’t worth it. Just the thought of it made me feel unsafe. If evolution was a dangerous pit in the road of this little pilgrim’s progress, then I was going to make sure that I wouldn’t fall in. Then the ground opened up beneath me anyway, and I fell into a different pit: the premature death of a dear friend. Now I knew in my bones that the world wasn’t safe. I had tried so hard to not end up down here, I’d been so careful to curate my theology to avoid this experience of despair and confusion. It wasn’t evolution that dragged me down, but the sight of a loved one cut down suddenly, inexplicably. Once disoriented loss became a daily reality (instead of a possible future state to be avoided), I realized I had an opportunity in front of me. Things can’t get worse than they already are, I mused. I really don’t know much about the world, why it is the way it is, how it works, why awful things happen, and why humans in particular have such a complex relationship with pain. Maybe my white-knuckled grip on safety is actually getting in the way of my seeing something true. I therefore embraced two unavoidable facts down there in the dark: 1) I’m ignorant, but curious; and 2) I’ve been avoidant and afraid, but I’m willing now to venture into unknown territory.
I explored the different ways Christians have interpreted the early chapters of Genesis—the creation of the world and the story of Adam and Eve. Cosmic Symbolism in Genesis (by Matthieu Pageau), The Symbolic World (by Jonathan Pageau) and The Lost World of Adam and Eve (by John Walton) opened my eyes to the way ancient people perceived the world and wrote about it, including the biblical authors. This enabled me to attend to the early chapters of Genesis on their own terms, instead of forcing them into my modern assumptions and scientific categories. Science asks, “How does it work? What is it made of? What chain of events led up to it?” Those are important questions when directed towards a suitable object, but the ancient symbolic perspective asks, “What does it mean? What truth does it embody?” These are the questions ancient stories are answering, questions about meaning, not about matter. “Ancient” doesn’t equal “false”—but neither does “ancient” equal “literal.” Theodosius Dobzhansky, an evolutionary biologist and Eastern Orthodox Christian, asked:
“Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts.”
Early in my studying I noticed two attitudes in evolutionary thought: one was of the classic Richard Dawkins sort—reductionistic, mechanistic, deterministic, materialist, contemptuous of religion, and frankly self-satisfied. The other approach was holistic, emergent, and organic rather than mechanistic; it recognized the purposeful agency of organisms, and thought in terms of complex adaptive systems and the interplay of order and chaos (without collapsing into “pure determinism” or “pure chance”). These scientists wanted to further research in the field, not defend materialism or attack religion. Some were Christians, many weren’t. Regardless, I was struck by their profound respect for religion instead of the contempt and dismissal I’d assumed was a universal trait in the sciences. It’s in this curious corner of evolutionary biology where I’ve spent my time.
What sort of universe do I inhabit? What sort of creature am I? The Scriptures address these questions with profound spiritual meanings. Science sheds light on the raw materials. Only together do they make a world. Leave either piece out, and you’ve got only half the story.
A Machine Breaking Down or a Child Growing Up?
Today’s science and faith debates constitute an old family feud: evangelicals believe that the world they call a “watch” has a watchmaker; most scientists just want the watch, no strings attached. The Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution were historical siblings that had a profound mutual influence on each other. Today, while these siblings argue over intelligent design, they both miss the point: the universe isn’t a machine, and God isn’t an engineer. The mechanistic metaphor is helpful at small scales, a practical rough draft of the cosmos for which we can be thankful. The clockwork universe is inadequate and harmful, however, when taken literally and applied universally to biological organisms, especially to human beings. It is not a biblical metaphor, and it can have devastating theological consequences.
If the world is God’s designed machine, then the metaphor continues into the realm of legal liability for injuries, much as car manufacturers are on the hook for defective brakes. With this mechanistic metaphor, all experiences of harm are linked to moral accountability. In a top-down designed world, there are no morally neutral disvalues stemming from accidents, immaturity, or chance—things that harm us apart from someone’s intention or neglect. A theologically mechanistic universe can’t grow, improve, or adapt; it can, however, get broken.
Genesis depicts the beginning of the world and of people. We sometimes mistake “new,” “good,” and “very good” for “perfect,” and I suspect this comes from our unexamined mechanistic metaphors. Designed things, say a manufactured product (like a dress) or a machine (like an iPhone), are perfect before they are used. Products are static and fragile: they don’t improve with time and trouble; they fall apart. Once created, it’s all downhill from there.
It’s different for living, self-making, evolving creatures with agency, engaging continuously with a changing environment. Living organisms (both as individuals and as populations) are dynamic, not static. Time can lead to opportunity and maturity, not just to deterioration; change can mean adaptation and transformation into something more, something potentially better-suited to its purpose. Life is antifragile, which means it has the potential to thrive when exposed to volatility, stress, randomness, uncertainty, and disorder. Life can respond to trouble creatively, improving not only through hardship but precisely because of hardship. Unlike a machine, life explores, strives, fails, learns, adapts, relates, and matures. What life doesn’t do is break.
If we start with the wrong symbol for the problem, we end up with the wrong symbol for the solution. We misunderstand Adam and Eve when we see them as God’s perfect products, fresh off the divine rack and then spoiled. We misunderstand the fall if we view their sin as a wrench in the gears triggering cosmic malfunction and universal mortality. The common evangelical references to the world’s “brokenness,” while well-meaning and compassionate, come from a mechanistic paradigm, not an organic one, and can cultivate an expectation that what we need is for God to either fix us, or to fix things for us. The world doesn’t need a quick-fix by an Engineer; it needs the presence of a Father, the tending of a Gardener, the assistance of a Midwife, and ultimately the death-defeating power of a King who fills all in all.
If we view the first pair as humanity’s infancy, green in their immaturity, then we can recognize in this story the fumbling and naïveté, the blame-shifting and evasion, and the overestimation of the self that all children exhibit. Anyone with a toddler both clever and naughty enough to climb on top of the counter to reach the cookie jar, knows what the early chapters of Genesis are all about. According to theologian David Bentley Hart, “The Eastern church fathers, when interpreting the story of Eden, generally tended to ascribe the cause of the fall to the childlike ignorance of unformed souls, not yet mature enough to resist false notions.”
The universe God is creating is not a machine which humanity broke, but an organic drama, marked by both predictability and surprise interacting over time. The cosmos is not a machine breaking down, but a child growing up, with all of the adventures, risks, opportunities, failures, and successes of a life. The groanings of the cosmos aren’t the crunch of ruined gears—they’re gestational. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” and it longs to be “set free from its bondage to corruption” and obtain “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-25). As Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical Laudato Si, “Creating a world in need of development, God in some way sought to limit himself in such a way that many of the things we think of as evils, dangers or sources of suffering, are in reality part of the pains of childbirth which he uses to draw us into the act of cooperation with the Creator.”
The Package Deal
There are some things I came across in my reading that still trouble me, that stick in my memory like pebbles in my shoe. For one, there are dinosaur fossils with evidence of bone cancer. Not only were some dinosaurs violent predators with jaws full of daggers for ripping flesh, but some were also cancer victims: both their teeth and their tumors predate human existence—and therefore human culpability—by tens of million of years. I remember what it felt like to realize that the rise of mammals (including humans, including me) was possible because a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. My life is inextricably bound up with the death en masse of other creatures. I recapitulate this problem on a tiny scale every time I eat meat (an ambivalence I have yet to solve). Do I feel guilty? Or… thankful?
It’s also a package deal when it comes to genetic mutations. Without the shuffling of the genetic deck of cards—without copying mistakes, the accidental switching on and off of genes in the genetic instruction manual, without genetic responsiveness to environmental pressures (epigenetics)—life could never have produced enough variety for natural and sexual selection to “work with” over time to achieve the level of complex, conscious life that we humans are. The capacity for genetic surprise ensures that some form of life will make it through the world’s ever-changing circumstances into the future: perfect genetic copying and perpetual sameness would equal extinction. Now that humans are on the scene, these same exact processes that introduced us to the world can have painful consequences for us: cancerous tumors, microcephaly, Downs Syndrome, spina bifida, the list goes on. Yet there is no such thing as human life without the potential for birth defects and cancer—side effects of the incredible potential for novelty and diversity in the genetic code. Not all surprises and mistakes are good ones (in fact, most aren’t), but life can’t exist without surprises and mistakes.
“The world was only free from death and competition when it was also free from life. The complexity, interrelatedness, and beauty of life are directly related to the ever-present violence, death, and extinction of numberless creatures” (Bethany Sollereder). This was a bitter pill for me to swallow. It still catches in my throat sometimes.
Cosmic Improv and Loaded Dice
The universe as described by evolutionary biology is fundamentally relational: everything exists in an interpenetrating way with everything else because they’ve “grown up together” to form complex, dynamic, adaptive systems that ultimately defy prediction, generate surprises, and produce emergent phenomena greater than the sum of their parts. This accounts for the package deal—no organisms live in isolation, but rather in an “agent-arena relationship” (John Vervaeke). Life is a series of negotiated trade-offs, of balancing between competing goods, of solving problems and fighting back entropy, of continuous recalibration. Nothing is static or simple. Part of the danger of adopting a mechanistic world metaphor is that it primes us with inappropriate expectations of life: “If I do A, then B will happen”—simple input/output programming that makes no sense in a world of complex living systems composed of purposeful agents.
Einstein, a determinist, once remarked that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, but this isn’t quite true: He plays with loaded dice. The world we see is neither random nor determined. The cosmos unfolds like a fractal: endless creative variety and surprise within a regular and repeated pattern that is intelligible across massive scales of space and time—simple rules leading to perpetual innovation. In the past I had associated God solely with order (because I wanted to feel safe), forgetting that He is also the fountain of novelty, creativity, and surprise. Life requires both. I needed to accept what physicist Lee Smolin calls:
“the uncertainty of life as the necessary price of being alive. To rebel against the precariousness of life, to reject uncertainty, to adopt a zero tolerance to risk, to imagine that life can be organized to completely eliminate danger, is to think outside time. To be human is to live suspended between danger and opportunity.”
I learned from evolutionary biology that although life is fundamentally dramatic, it’s not a pre-scripted drama where organisms (including us) speak our lines and follow the stage directions dictated to us by our genes, our environments, or by a controlling God. For in making the world, God didn’t enslave it, but rather set it free. According to G.K. Chesterton, it’s a play that God “had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.” The drama of life is more like improv: we show up with a rough sketch of who we think we are and what we’d like to see happen, but then we’ve got to work with our fellow dramatists and the available props. We must make do; we must relate; we must make trade-offs. What happens is unpredictable, creative, unique—hopefully a comedy and not a tragedy. We are genuine participants, and the only guarantees we have are that things won’t turn out how we expect, the process will change us, and that we have as much potential to do something beautiful and virtuous with our lives as we have to make a mess of it. “Life and hope are both modes of striving,” theologian John Haught says, “they are risky ventures. They have the quality of a wager. For wherever there is striving, there is the possibility of failure as well as success… Since living beings can fail, they are susceptible to tragedy as well as triumph.”
Why Not Skip to the End?
Right now we live in what I call “Creation 1.0,” a world that God called “good” even though it has been marked by risk and mortality from the time the first basic organisms came into existence. God promises throughout the Scriptures that one day we will dwell with Him in “Creation 2.0,” a new heavens and new earth in which He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and where there will be no mourning or crying or pain, “for the old order of things has passed away,” and there will no longer be any sea (i.e. source of chaos) (Revelation 21). Why do we have to endure existence in Creation 1.0, when God promises us Creation 2.0? If an embodied, relational existence without suffering is possible, couldn’t God have just skipped to the end and started us there? Why create a world that contains suffering and sin if the ideal world was possible all along? According to Christopher Southgate, the evolutionary process is the only way to “give rise to creaturely selves” in this world, selves which could then become the redeemed populace of heaven. “Our guess must be that though heaven can eternally preserve those selves, subsisting in suffering-free relationship, it could not give rise to them in the first place.”
Theologian Bethany Sollereder explains: “It is often assumed that the efficiency and perfection of the final outcome are primary considerations in God’s work. Yet, approached from the motivations of love, it is the participation of the other that makes the work worthwhile.” Anyone who has spent time in the kitchen baking with a young child, or has let a little one “help out” with a project, knows that efficiency and perfection can be sacrificed for the sake of working together and letting your child contribute: this trade-off involves additional mess and time. Sollereder continues, “A focus on creative love would lead to the conclusion that while there may have been another less painful way to produce embodied creaturely selves, there was no way apart from evolution to produce them in partnership with the creatures themselves,” and in this we see the high value God places on creaturely cooperation. He desires friends, not puppets; people, not robots. God makes creatures make themselves. He seeded the world with a trajectory for self-making, agentic, increasingly complex, relational beings whose individual participation in life matters to him, whether they’re sentient or not, be they microbes, manta rays, or mammals. God doesn’t produce a finished product at the get-go, but chooses to create through an inefficient, freedom-affording process over time, much as we might choose to plant a garden or start a family.
In the words of theologian John Haught:
“A properly biblical theology of nature will view divine wisdom, providence, and compassion less as a guarantee of the world’s safety—as the idea of design encourages—than as an unbounded self-emptying graciousness that grants the world an open space and generous amount of time to become more, and in doing so gives it ample opportunity to participate in its own creative self-transformation. A God of freedom and promise invites, and does not compel, the creation to experiment with many possible ways of being, allowing it to make “mistakes” in the process. This is the God of evolution—one who honors and respects the indeterminacy and narrative openness of creation, and in this way ennobles it.”
Any parent can hear in these words the loving challenge of “letting be.” Just like God, we teach, correct, guide, love, accompany, and equip our children, but we don’t control them. Their “selving” and growth happen on the border between danger and opportunity. We value their genuine participation in life, their agency, and their antifragility. We value their becoming as much as we value their being. We never abandon our children, but we also don’t steal their adventures from them. As J.R.R. Tolkien intuits in The Two Towers, real life is indeed like what we see “in the great stories… the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”
All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
While the history of evolution shows instances of cooperation, symbiosis, and even altruism, the habits of predation, competition, parasitism, and deception run even deeper. When God became man in Christ, He entered into the violent, competitive, deceptive arena that we humans evolved within, but He didn’t play the game. Evolution says, “I take and eat your body: it will be broken for me.” Christ inverts this cosmic rut of selfishness and says, “Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.” He plants within His church the seed of competitive evolution’s undoing: self-sacrificial love. His people are no longer bound by the dog-eat-dog ways of the world, but are called to mutual service. This new way isn’t safer in the short term; in fact it’s likely to make its practitioners more vulnerable to harm. We follow Christ through vulnerability into resurrection, however, for He de-fangs death and removes its sting, as the Orthodox Paschal troparion proclaims:
“Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
I believe that the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ are the basis for nature to not be merely exploited for its usefulness or repudiated for its savagery, but actually companioned by Him in suffering, redeemed from death, and transfigured by love. Nature isn’t just a springboard, a backdrop, or the “expendable crewman” sacrificed for the center-stage humans, but is rather beloved in all of her variety, brilliance, and waywardness. Nature is our sister, for we have the same Father. Christ’s redemptive work isn’t only for humans, “but for all the suffering of the cosmos. Jesus shared not only in humanity but in the molecules of the world. The carbon molecules in Jesus’ body were forged in the heart of a long-dead star, just like every molecule of carbon in your body… there’s this deep continuity of Christ with all of creation, animate and inanimate” (Bethany Sollereder).
I love the vision of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, in which she saw the entire cosmos as a seed, “all that is made,” nestled in her hand, the size of a hazelnut, and concluded that, “It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” The wholeness, the “one-thing-ness” of the entire interconnected phenomenon of the cosmos, its innumerable creatures, and its unspeakable sufferings, is gathered up tenderly in the words she heard Jesus speak to her: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
If Julian sensed God’s redemptive love toward creation long before anyone knew of humanity’s genetic connection to the rest of life, how much more should we, who can rightly claim them as far-flung relatives, consider it an impossibility to be redeemed apart from them, without whose lives, ecological participation, and sufferings we would not be here? How bizarre to think of ourselves as extractable from this “immensely complex and mysterious tissue” (Vaclav Havel), as if nature was not family but detritus we could leave behind! Do we bear the image of God as priests of creation, intended to draw all things into worship of their Creator, for nothing? Will we not join with the angels and “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them,” to sing together:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:11-13)
I no longer fear admitting I’m a part of nature, that some of my ancestors lived in trees, and even further back, some looked like shrews or fish. Those ancestors and I, and all the creatures and places and times in between, are like that little hazelnut in God’s hand, beloved as a whole. This doesn’t diminish me or threaten my identity as God’s child and image-bearer, for the Imago Dei is a gift and a calling bestowed, not an intellectual capacity that humans evolved.
“Human beings… possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems. Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself… The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a ‘Thou’ who addresses himself to another ‘thou.'”Pope Francis, Laudato Si
Both Christian and Creature
As my relationship to evolution changed from fear to curiosity, new habits emerged. I began running a few times a week through my neighborhood, inwardly naming and greeting the trees as I went—tulip poplar, maple, beech, sweet gum, dogwood, holly, oak—while my lungs burned, my heart pounded, and my feet beat a rhythm to match. I started a nature notebook to sketch and describe local flora and fauna. I learned the colors and calls of the birds that sing in the trees circling my cul-de-sac. I tried to garden, though the zinnias and tomatoes always ran riot and took over. I couldn’t even squish the spiders, slugs, and ladybugs that found their way into my house; I gave them all a lift back outside. I still do all these things as expressions of my kinship to this place, and of my own creaturely status. I admit I have a streak of Anne of Green Gables inside me: “If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”
This world-in-process is riskier, scarier, and vastly more painful than I originally thought. I admit it—I wish the package deal of life had come with warning labels: Some Assembly Required. Safety Not Guaranteed. Death or Serious Injury Can Occur. I suppose that’s because I haven’t fully reconciled myself to the universe’s habit of surprise, and the fact that we only become ourselves when there’s something at stake (and it’s our selves that God wants after all). But it’s about time that I did reconcile myself to this, for my future will be one of infinite surprise. God’s love is a horizon that cannot be reached, an abyss that cannot be sounded. I think heaven will be one continuous “Oh!” of wonder. “And He that sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:4-5). I am only just barely getting introduced to the nature of what this universe is like, and He’s going to go and transfigure the whole show. How like Him.
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,1 Corinthians 2:9
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
One Reply to “Safety Not Guaranteed: A Christian’s Coming to Terms with Evolution”
Hi Alisa! My daughter, Rebecca, mentioned you and your blog so here I am! It has been a few years since you were at MPC so I’m excited to find your blog. Anyhow, I have read a couple of John H Walton’s books and have been thrilled to learn some of how the ancients thought. It has been very disappointing to watch Christians battle big time over passages that really need to be studied better. Loving God and my neighbor with humility, I think is the bigger battle.