January 19, 2020

Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander, Chapter 6- Death, Pain, Suffering, and the God of Love

Is There Purpose in Biology?: The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander,

Chapter 6- Death, Pain, Suffering, and the God of Love

We are reviewing the book: Is There Purpose in Biology?  The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander.  Today is:  Chapter 6- Death, Pain, Suffering, and the God of Love.  Alexander is going to try and tackle the theodicy question raised by evolution, to wit:

If we believe in a God of love who is immanent in upholding and sustaining the created order, then how come evolution works the way it does, entailing competition, food-chains, and lives which can end abruptly in the animal’s first few days of life in the mouth of some hungry predator?

Clearly, these are not “evils” in the way we normally use the word since no moral decision-making is entailed.  We don’t seek punishment for animals that eat each other, and when a dangerous dog kills a child it is the owner who is held responsible.  But I think theologically we are justified in calling certain aspects of the biological world “evil” in the rather specialized sense that they do not belong to the ultimate fulfilled kingdom of God in which God’s reign will be finally vindicated.  When Jesus came teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, he clearly saw sickness as an evil to be confronted on the grounds that it had no place in God’s fulfilled kingdom, as we will consider further below.  So “natural evil” is ultimately “unnatural evil” because it does not belong in the age which is to come, even though it is very much part of our experience now in the present evil age.  And even if we do not wish to attach the word “evil” to such characteristics of the created order at all, we can at least all agree they represent facets of creation that we would rather do without.

Denis points out that if, you read the voluminous literature on the topic, you soon find there is a spectrum of opinion from the “hands-off” God who basically lets the world run itself to the “total control” God who determines everything  that happens at the other extreme. 

On the left end we find philosophers like Hans Jonas who suggests, in Mortality and Morality (Jonas 1996), that God self-empties himself of mind and power in giving creation its existence and then allows the interplay of chance and natural law to take its course.  A little further to the right are the process theologians, like James Keller (Keller, J.A., 2013, Process Theism and Theodicies for Problems of Evil) who basically think denying God’s omnipotence a better response to the problems of evil than traditional theism.  More toward the middle of the spectrum are the “kenosis”-types like Jack Haught, Keith Ward, and John Polkinghorne (who we reviewed here).  Elizabeth Johnson, in her book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, says that just as God bestows free will upon humans, so he also bestows “free-process” upon the natural world.  Evolutionary biology is therefore an “unscripted adventure” in which the “natural world” freely participates in its own creation.

Alexander notes three particular problem with the so-called middle ground. 

  1.          The material world is not “free” to do anything.  Matter does what matter does, it’s not even free in the metaphorical sense intended by these commentators.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle might make the behavior of matter indeterminate from a human perspective, but it does not thereby become free.
  2.          The second problem comes with the word kenosis.  It has a defined theological meaning based on its use in Philippians Chapter 2, but it is not the way God’s actions in creation are described. There is no “self-emptying” on God’s part, rather the opposite, there is no “effort” at all as far as Scripture is concerned.  God speaks, it’s done, end of story.
  3.          The third problem is that a hands-off God is just as responsible for the unintended consequences of his creation as the totally hands-on God is who determined the created order down to the smallest detail.  As Denis says, “If I take my hands off the steering-wheel as my car goes down a hill and it then proceeds to crash into the pavement killing a child, I am just as culpable as if I had killed the child  with my hands still firmly on the steering-wheel.”

Denis’s sympathies lie more on the right end of the spectrum.  He says:

In the views on the right of the spectrum, there is no room for kenosis in the context of God’s created work, because God is in no sense denying his own nature or emptying himself in the creative process.  At the same time, God is not the puppet-master, micromanaging the created order, but the God who operates via secondary causes that have their own causal efficacy.  This is a robust Trinitarian theism which takes the problem of natural evil right on the chin, fair and square.  There is no ducking the issue.  God really is responsible for God’s created order.  How could it be otherwise? 

One objection to this idea that the created order is contingent upon God’s continuous creative activity is based on the assumption that the creation is there to tell us something about God’s character.  But Denis doesn’t agree with that assumption.  Based on his reading of the Bible, the passages of scripture only provide a minimalist list; the fact that God exists, and that he’s powerful and full of glory – not other aspects of God’s character.  It is the William Paley – Watchmaker God – Natural Theology reading of scripture that leads to, for example, to Darwin’s revulsion to parasites:

The Ichneumonidae are a parasitoid wasp family within the order Hymenoptera. They use their ovipositors to lay eggs on or in the body of their prey, and the eggs hatch into carnivorous larvae that eat and kill the host.

But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as other do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us.  There seems to me too much misery in the world.  I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. (From Darwin’s letter to Asa Gray, September 5, 1857)

Denis points out that:

  1.     .  There is nothing in the biblical view of creation that suggests God “designs” particular organisms to do nasty things to other organisms.
  2.      .  The Bible does not portray God as a “heavenly designer engineer” who goes about designing things.
  3.      .   There is no evidence we are to infer God’s character from the behavior of parasites.
  4.          The created order is not there to teach about God’s character; we learn that through revelation.

So what is the overriding good that is generated by a world with these particular properties in which death, pain, and predation are part and parcel?  Denis suggests that it is coherent existence itself which is the overriding good, including the existence of living things, and especially the existence of creatures like ourselves with the capacity to respond freely to God’s love.  He says the physics and chemistry of carbon-based life are dependent on the physics and chemistry of carbon-based death – it is a package deal.  Carbon-based life and carbon-based death are written into the anthropic script of God’s created order right from the beginning.  The cost of existence is huge, and we all bear that cost.  And by “we”, Denis means every living creature that has ever lived.

If the created order that we observe and investigate all around us is precisely the one God intended to bring into existence, how come Jesus in his incarnation made a central part of his ministry the healing of diseases for which he, within the Trinitarian Godhead, was ultimately responsible?  It’s a cop-out to say it’s all a result of human sin, and besides that is not what Jesus taught –

“…who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:2-3)

With the healing ministry of Jesus, the future fulfilled kingdom begins to break in to the present evil age.  The door to the future is pushed open and a beautiful healing breeze blows through, giving us a taste of what is still to come.

Carbon-based existence is also wrapped up in the cost of the incarnation.  Denis quotes Ernan McMullin from Notre Dame Universtiy:

When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas.  And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.

Without the physical properties of the universe there would be no life, no evolution, so no free will, no moral responsibility, therefore no sin, no incarnation, and no redemptive work of Christ upon the cross.  The path God has chosen for us is a tough one, a boot camp, if you will.  But the obvious question is; was it really necessary?  Do we have to go through Phase 1 to get to Phase 2? 

Denis ends this chapter with a personal story.  He gave the Herrmann lecture on which this chapter is based on November 7, 2014, just 11 days after being diagnosed with colorectal cancer.  Later in December he underwent surgery followed up with chemotherapy.  All that to say his speculation about life and death, healing and disease, biology and purpose, was no mere academic discussion.  He lived it.  As he says:

What’s the point of telling you all that?  Only, that for the Christian who sees God’s Purposes being worked out in all the nitty-gritty of a long history of biological evolution, it is all part and parcel of the same theology to know that God is working out his purposes in the history of our own individual lives.

I think it is appropriate to end this discussion with my favorite Dorothy Sayers quote:

“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

Comments

  1. It seems to me you either accept the goodness of God as an act of non-rational faith, or you reject it all as senseless and absurd. What you can’t do is rationalize it. All such rationalizations ring hollow no matter how well thought out.

    • For the longest time, I couldn’t grasp God’s love precisely because it was not rational. Love, at least in the *agape* sense, is totally irrational. It makes no rational sense for the holy Creator God to incarnate and die for sinful “ugly bags of mostly water” like us. By all rights, God ought to have hit the “Reset” button and started fresh. Instead, He keeps offering salvation to us. I finally had to give up trying to get it to make sense – and wound up giving up a nice chunk of Neo-Reformed theology and mindset in the process.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Love in almost every sense seems irrational.

        Thank goodness.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I finally had to give up trying to get it to make sense – and wound up giving up a nice chunk of Neo-Reformed theology and mindset in the process.

        “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
        Isaiah 55:9 seems to have an application other than justifying abuse in the Name of God.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      Very true, Stephen. It is as much an emotional decision as anything else.

  2. Robert F says

    The Dorothy Sayers quote begs the question. It is adduced as evidence of the goodness and existence of God, but it actually assumes those things as a foregone conclusion. In the context of this subject, the issue is whether, given the pain and death we observe, it is likely that there is a God, and that he is good. Using special revelation as grounds for the beliefs that he exists and is good, which the article claims is our only way of knowing the character of God, is presuming that special revelation actually happens, and then using that to adjudicate the goodness of the world and God. There is no question of proof or evidence from nature here; we are completely in the realm of faith. It’s a circular argument. Surely the plausibility of the New Testament depiction of God in the life and death of Jesus Christ is one of the things that is in question, and a circular argument does not get us out of that tight spot.

    • It is interesting that, just taking the NT on it’s own terms, that it’s authors make only limited use of arguments from nature, and ultimately stake their claims on Jesus. While discussions like the one in this series are interesting and important, ultimately for Christianity the question cones down to Christ and the Resurrection. If THAT happened, the question of evolution can, IMHO, go hang.

    • Mike the Geologist says

      But Robert, we humans are part of this natural world, we ourselves are the argument from nature. Evolution produced us; and Denis has made a good case in this book that evolution as a process is not necessarily purposeless. We infer the purpose and we are nature. Therefore a purpose is inferred from nature, ipso facto. Yes, Sayers assumes Jesus is real and did what they say he did. But every argument starts by assembling the “facts” and then interpreting them through some interpretive grid. You know very well there is no purely objective observer above it all dispassionately distilling TRUTH from ERROR. As Denis says, it is an assumption that God’s character can be inferred from the seeming cold, vast, heartless universe of red-in-tooth-and-claw. The conclusion that given the pain and death we observe there is no God is as much an “assumption of the conclusion” as what Dorothy Sayers says. Except, if the Jesus story actually happened in nature, then there is hope that the circular argument can be broken. The incarnation really changes everything. But as Stephen noted in the first comment of the day, reason can only get you part of the way there – it’s hope, faith, and ultimately love that brings us home.

      • john barry says

        Mike the G Man good summary, ties it together for me. I am as the we young people say “down with it”.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        You know very well there is no purely objective observer above it all dispassionately distilling TRUTH from ERROR.

        Especially in an age where TRUTH is whatever showed up on Twitter or Snapchat 30 seconds ago.

  3. Christiane says

    I LOVE THIS:

    “When Christ took on human nature, the DNA that made him the son of Mary may have linked him to a more ancient heritage stretching far beyond Adam to the shallows of unimaginably ancient seas. And so, in the Incarnation, it would not have been just human nature that was joined to the Divine, but in a less direct but no less real sense all those myriad organisms that had unknowingly over the eons shaped the way for the coming of the human.”

    ( Denis Alexander quotes Ernan McMullin from Notre Dame University)

    I have a friend who just bought a house in the village where her ancestors lived generations ago, and she has come to find out that some of her ancestors also lived on that same farmland . . . she feels a ‘connection’ to the place and in the light of our human history, I suspect that feeling of belonging is perhaps some kind of ‘genetic memory’, not haunting or overwhelming, but gentle and kindly, giving strength for the days to come.

    We overlook so much. We take too much for granted.
    The writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings has said, this:

    ““We were bred of the earth before we were bred of our mothers. Once born, we can live without mother or father, or any other kin, or any friend, or any human love. We cannot live without the earth or apart from it, and something is shrivelled in a man’s heart when he turns away from it and concerns himself only with the affairs of men.”

    One argument for inclusiveness is that we are formed ‘of the same elements of the Earth’ and we all have life breathed into us by God. Our common origin is connected to our final destination in, with, and through the Incarnate Lord.

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says

    > The created order is not there to teach about God’s character;
    > we learn that through revelation.

    If I was at a book signing I would hug Mr. Alexander. The vast majority of the Universe makes the concept of “hellscape” appear as a forest-in-spring by comparison. This concept always grinds me, especially from “literalist” types; like what? A Union Pacific Big Boy at full steam couldn’t drag that concept out of Scripture – – – they are 104% inserting it (mostly so that can sing Hillsong stuff?).

    > which takes the problem of natural evil right on the chin, fair
    > and square. There is no ducking the issue. God really is responsible
    > for God’s created order.

    Respect.

    > The cost of existence is huge, and we all bear that cost. And by “we”,
    > Denis means every living creature that has ever lived.

    This.

    Not certain I am 100% down the the finale “””He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine.””” – distinction: He is a god, and I am a meat suit. It is difficult to not see that difference; and I do believe it is near some truth. Yet I deeply respect the lack of hand-wavery.

  5. Burro (Mule) says

    ‘All the same,’ said Ransom, unconsciously nettled on behalf of his own
    world, ‘Maleldil has let in the hnahra.’

    ‘Oh, but that is so different. I long to kill this hnakra as he also longs to kill
    me. I hope that my ship will be the first and I first in my ship with my
    straight spear when the black jaws snap. And if he kills me, my people will
    mourn and my brothers will desire still more to kill him. But they will not
    wish that there were no hneraki; nor do I. How can I make you understand,
    when you do not understand the poets?
    The hnakra is our enemy, but he is
    also our beloved. We feel in our hearts his joy as he looks down from the
    mountain of water in the north where he was born; we leap with him when
    he jumps the falls; and when winter comes, and the lake smokes higher
    than our heads, it is with his eyes that we see it and know that his roaming
    time is come. We hang images of him in our houses, and the sign of all the
    hrossa is a hnakra. In him the spirit of the valley lives; and our young play
    at being hneraki as soon as they can splash in the shallows.’

    I have no intention of rolling over and showing my belly to the Universe because God created a Universe with predators in it.

  6. Iain Lovejoy says

    It seems to me that there is often a muddling of four different questions in looking at suffering in the created order, particularly in the context of the deep time of ongoing evolution, and I think they need to be kept distinct.
    These are:
    1. Is creation as we see it now wholly and completely perfect?
    2. Is creation as we see it now nevertheless good?
    3. Could creation have been better?
    4. Can creation be made better / made perfect?
    That question 4 can be answered “yes” is the central premise of the good news and the Christian faith.
    The important thing to me is that questions 1, 2 & 3 can have different answers.
    Attempts to answer question 1 “yes” produce all sorts of implausible apologetics. Even a cursory glance must give the answer “no”.
    The key thing to me is how we answer question 2. To answer “no” would be to say that it would be better if nothing had ever existed, that the whole of creation, and we ourselves and our lives should be written off as a net loss. I can’t see how this can be true – for all its sufferings and terrors, for all that we are subject to death in the end, creation is wonderful and glorious in its beauty and diversity and I can’t call it ultimately bad.
    Dorothy L Sayer’s point really deals with question 3. Question 3 is really asking the question as to whether God could just wave away all the suffering and evil and still leave no loss to the good. We think this ought to be possible and don’t understand why not. The cross says otherwise – if it were possible, why the cross? We can’t say God is indifferent to our suffering if he suffers it himself for our sake, and if he is not indifferent then it must be that the suffering is necessary if we are to have the good.

    • Robert F says

      Here are my questions: If creation can be made better later, why could it not have been made better from the outset, or now? If our suffering has been necessary if we are to have the good up to now, why is it that it will not always be necessary for us to suffer if we are to have the good? If suffering is and always will be necessary to have the good, is this not now the best of all possible worlds? And finally, have these questions not led us to the same place where some of the existentialists could observe of this world and the human condition that it is absurd?

      • This is where the insights of Jung seem most appropriate to me. To consider that God Himself is evolving and that our evolution is part and parcel of that removes the Us and Them (Him). There is one thing going on in the oneverse. Our suffering is His suffering. There isn’t even a question of why or how He lets this happen. He is not ‘allowing’ anything. He is in it. If He didn’t need to suffer it, it wouldn’t be happening. He is not sitting idle. As we progress through it He progresses through it. That does not diminish His might, His majesty or His mystery. We continue to be but an atom to His light years of expanse but our experience is nonetheless critical to the coming into being of a whole. How we overcome suffering and bring light to darkness, consciousness to unconciousness, is utterly essential, no matter how small our part may seem.

        • Christiane says

          a very thought-provoking comment, Chris, thank you

          the phrase used in the Church ‘all are needed’ must have some basis in ‘the coming into being of a whole’, especially re: the Body of Christ

          • This is one of the most profound and comforting thoughts in my life. It makes sense to me.

            • Our communion with God and each other is more intimate than we generally realize.

        • Robert F says

          The idea that God is on the same road as me sounds to me like God is lost and wandering, just like me. I find no comfort in it, because it requires that I trust the process rather than the divine person; but that divine person is undergoing the same process as I am, and the end must be just as uncertain for him as for me, especially if it is contingent on my choices and the choices of every other human being (and other creatures?). I can’t bring myself to trust such a process, it leaves me feeling lost in the universe along with God.

          • Christiane says

            ‘the Way’ is one phrase that Our Lord uses to describe Himself

            • Robert F says

              He is the way, but the way is not him. He is the truth and the life. He is love, but love is not him. If you reverse the terms, you change the meaning. I don’t need a traveling buddy, I need the Lord of the road, the One in whom the road finds its meaning and goal, not One who finds his meaning and goal from the road.

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        A good and difficult to.answer question. Evolution itself perhaps provides a potential conceptual framework: we have been created as we are – free, independent, thinking beings – through a process of evolution. Perhaps this is so because to create beings with their thoughts, behaviours, understanding etc fully formed and externally imposed is impossible if they are to be free and independent thinking beings in their own right. If so, the long ages of the evolutionary process – and the suffering and dying it seems to require – might be explained.
        It would also explain why present suffering is not waved away if the full joy of the coming Kingdom is only possible if we are allowed to come to it in our own time, freely, and in our own way, with the inevitable (if temporary) suffering this entails.

        • Robert F says

          That is entirely possible. Perhaps time, and its vicissitudes, is the factor, the ingredient, necessary to produce the end goal that God wants.

  7. Christiane says

    “With the healing ministry of Jesus, the future fulfilled kingdom begins to break in to the present evil age. The door to the future is pushed open and a beautiful healing breeze blows through, giving us a taste of what is still to come.”

    when ever I felt overwhelmed by the meanness in this world, spending time with my son with Down Syndrome encouraged me

    like the time we were at a park play group, and he was so little, just four or five . . . . a kid came walking over to him and shoved him and he fell hard, but he just got up and went and tried to hug the kid . . . . small glympses . . . . of something that didn’t ‘make sense’ in this world’s reasoning . . . . I am grateful for those moments, more ‘real’ to me than all of the mean-spiritedness of our present time which I sense is a huge cry-for-help (sigh)

  8. The well has been dry for the last 6 months.

    • I hope that comment’s not about me, Stuart!

      Though an argument can be made…

    • Christiane says

      No way. People are more troubled now. Many reasons. But there is a ‘shadow over the land’ and it is hard to see beyond it, but it will pass in time.