Redundant God? Christian Faith in the Light of Evolution

Reflection
Jesus
Questioning Church
Deepening Spirituality
Image of a mosaic apse
Author
David de Pomerai

David de Pomerai is  an ordained Anglican priest and visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

 

Title and Topic

I chose this arresting image to illustrate the cover of my book, “Redundant God?”, published late last year by Cambridge Scholars. The title needs little explanation: atheist evolutionary scientists contend that evolution abolishes any need to invoke God as Creator of all that is, rendering God superfluous. Part 1 of my book explains how evolutionary ideas form a network that links together all aspects of biology, accounting for the astonishing diversity of life at every level—from genes and proteins (Lewis Held, 2017, ‘Deep Homology’) to ecosystems or human culture (Kevin Laland, 2017, ‘Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony’). Part 2 explores what kind of God might nonetheless be consistent with such an evolutionary world-view, and the outline sketch that emerges from this is remarkably consonant with the gospel portraits of the life and ministry of Jesus. Faith and evolution remain compatible, a conclusion reflecting my 40 years as an academic biologist and 25 as an ordained Anglican priest.

 

The Cover Illustration

This shows the apsidal conch mosaic that dominates the 6th C CE basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe —a few kilometres south of Ravenna. It takes the form of a gigantic eye, holding your gaze from the moment you enter the church, since its view is unobstructed. The mosaic itself is probably slightly later than the basilica, and parts of it have been modified since, but it remains a stunning and wholly original ensemble. It offers a depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ, symbolising the meeting of Earth and Heaven. But there is no rugged mountaintop, and no Christ in brilliant white raiment—as in Orthodox icons of this scene. What we have is an un-earthly pastoral meadow, a vision of Heaven indeed, complete with rocks, plants and animals. Twelve sheep process towards the central figure—perhaps the tribes of Israel, the apostles or disciples. Three more are to be found in the upper part of the field—presumably Peter on one side and James with John on the other—as witnesses present at the Transfiguration, along with Moses and Elijah in the golden sky. Yet the lower central figure is not Jesus at all, but the church’s dedicatee, Archbishop Apollinaris of Ravenna (not his namesake of Laodicea, promulgator of the Apollinarian heresy). The iris of the eye in this grand design is formed by a star-spangled orb framing the (resurrection) cross of Christ—with a tiny image of the face of Christ as the pupil at its very centre. Compared with the overwhelming images of Christ Pantokrator in the apses of Sicilian cathedrals such as Cefalù or Monreale, this is almost a Christ anti-Pantokrator. Similarly, the hand of God that reaches down from the upper arch is so small as to be easily missed (a workman’s hand, notes André Frossard in ‘The Gospel According to Ravenna’, 2018, p. 138).

 

Why is this mosaic so apt for today?

(i)  The natural history of Heaven

My first reason for choosing this image is the profusion of life within its portrait of Heaven. There are flowers, grasses, trees, birds and animals; the keynote—familiar to every evolutionary biologist—is repetition with variation. As Frossard notes (ibid., p. 136), this ensemble is ‘imbued with the dignity of silent diversification’—quietly challenging today’s reality of biodiversity loss and threats of mass extinction. Christian tradition holds fast to a Last Judgment, where the faithful elect will be admitted into the kingdom of heaven and sinners consigned to eternal torment in hell—or, in more moderate versions, to oblivion. Without arguing over the many difficulties this raises, I merely note that there is also a minority universalist strand within the Christian tradition, dating back at least to Gregory of Nyssa—one of the 4th C CE Cappadocian Fathers. He argued that when God is all in all, hell and evil cannot continue to exist, since they have no place in the holiness of God; they must be purged away like dross from gold, since “nothing made by God is excluded from his kingdom”. Others have made this case more forcefully—notably David Bentley Hart (2019; ‘That All Shall Be Saved’). For myself, I would argue beyond human universalism to include all living things in God’s redeemed kingdom, following Jürgen Moltmann’s lead (‘The Way of Jesus Christ’; 1990).

Human-only salvation would require a radical break in the hominin lineage that separates humanity from our great ape cousins. Some might argue, following R.J. Berry, that this break is marked by God breathing a soul or spirit into Adam and Eve—presumably at the cusp of the Neolithic revolution some 13,000 years ago, when humans first turned from a hunter/gatherer lifestyle to agriculture (Genesis 3:17-19). Yet ‘soul’ remains a nebulous concept, with no clear neurobiological correlates. Nor is there much to distinguish Homo sapiens genetically from sister species such as Neanderthals (and several others) that co-existed alongside us until 30-50,000 years ago. Indeed, it goes much wider than that, since human-only salvation would separate us for all eternity from our biological roots. The DNA sequences which mould us are also shared in large measure with myriad other creatures, some totally unlike ourselves. The insights of ‘evo-devo’ and deep homology reveal far closer kinship between disparate animals than we ever suspected. Human heart development is directed by the Nkx-2.5 gene, a more prosaic name than its fruit-fly equivalent—known as tinman because null mutants develop with no heart! Likewise, the Pax-6 gene (whose malfunction causes aniridia in humans) initiates eye development in all bilaterally symmetrical animals—to the extent that either squid or mouse Pax-6 genes can direct the formation of supernumerary eyes in fruit flies! Evolution teaches us that we are part of a vast biological continuum, not a separate entity. Holmes Rolston III asks what we think we mean by a ‘redeemed ostrich’, and caustically remarks that the notion of animal salvation seems ‘vaguely reasonable so long as it is kept reasonably vague’. But one might counter that the concept of being resurrected as a ‘spiritual body’ is equally ill-defined…. Peter Manley Scott (2010, ‘Anti-Human Theology’, p.72) has noted that Jesus, through his ascension, ‘is constitutive of the history of all creatures, human and non-human’; salvation, perhaps, comes to all.

(ii) The importance of Jesus

A second reason why this image is so relevant today—not only to my book, but more generally—is the absolute centrality of Jesus, yet in the most self-effacing and unassuming way possible. His face is indeed the pupil of the whole gigantic eye (but not threatening, like Sauron’s in the Tolkein mythos), yet is so small as to be easily overlooked. This is the Jesus who invites his disciples to ‘Follow me’, who washes their feet (even Judas Iscariot’s), who stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3:20)—waiting patiently for our response, with no hint of coercion or impatience. In my book I suggest this provides clues to understanding God’s interaction with the world: sending forth a word of gracious invitation, which nevertheless does not return unfulfilled (Isaiah 55:11), or calling possibility into being (Ruth Page, 1996, ‘God and the Web of Creation’), or letting be instead of imperial command. Biologists deal with largely deterministic systems where definable causes produce predictable effects (without denying the roles of contingency and chaotic behaviour); accordingly, evolution can explain the sheer diversity of life on this planet in a self-consistent and frequently testable manner. Searching for God’s fingerprints on the living world is a futile task; whenever some biological feature (e.g. the bacterial flagellum) is hailed as ‘un-evolvable’ and thus evidence for Intelligent Design, these claims are countered by plausible evolutionary scenarios which can be backed up with convincing evidence. That, incidentally, is why I like the unobtrusive hand of God reaching down in the Transfiguration mosaic; it proffers help but does not compel acceptance, rather as the transfigured Jesus himself touched his three overwhelmed disciples in Matthew’s version of this event (Matt. 17:7). If this is indeed a workman’s hand, the skin is worn so smooth that it leaves no tell-tale fingerprints on the great tableau of creation—and is thus indistinguishable from the panoply of natural causes with which science can engage.

(iii) The love of God imbuing all creation

There is a final aspect of this mosaic that emerges from its entirety—its euphonious blending of light and colour, of natural forms and Christian symbols. It speaks of God’s love and blessing, of the peace and harmony of God’s kingdom. It portrays the joy and shalom of Heaven, not just for the few, but for all creation—redeeming even the cruelties and wastefulness of evolution itself, as Moltmann (ibid.) has suggested. Christians proclaim that God is love—witness many phrases in the Johannine tradition, or Paul’s great panegyric in 1 Corinthians 13 (which surely adumbrates many qualities of the Godhead). If so, then the absence of divine intervention to avert earthly catastrophes—both personal and public—must betoken God’s voluntary refusal to interfere in the natural processes of the world, or in the disasters our wrong choices bring upon ourselves. God will not save us from the ravages of global warming—rather, we have to change our ways and curb our own greed, a path of repentance and restraint in which Christians should be leading the way. Occasional interventions by God seem even more problematic than a God who controls everything (creating both weal and woe; Isaiah 45:7); the arbitrariness and key omissions of such interventions force us into an unsatisfactory recourse to the inscrutability of God’s plans—a bit of a cop-out in my view. Does this not leave us with the bleak existentialism of many atheists, as typified by Jacques Monod’s (1975) ‘Chance and Necessity’? Not so, in my view; that would be like a black-and-white version of the Transfiguration mosaic, deprived of its warm golden light and vibrant colours—which stem from the radiance of God illumining the New Jerusalem, embracing all creation with infinite love and compassion. God’s love lights up creation from within, encouraging its own innate creativity. Of course, that is an unprovable assertion, yet it can equip Christians with hope and resilience that are sadly lacking in today’s world.

Lest all this seem too cosy or trite, there is a price. In ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’ (1977), Bill Vanstone sketched the immense costliness of creation for God, as a venture fraught with risks. This is all the more true of a ‘hands-off’, non-interventionist God, whose gracious call is so often rejected, despised, rebuffed, ignored or drowned out by the ambient cacophony of siren calls and battle cries. And yes, I am deliberately alluding here to the earthly life of Jesus as described in the four gospels, taking up key themes from the Servant Songs of Isaiah. The Trinity cannot be divided against itself, and so what goes for Jesus as Son goes also for God as Father and as Holy Spirit. The kenosis of Christ, so movingly portrayed in Philippians 2:5-11, is equally true of the other Persons of the Trinity: for God the Father in choosing to create community within the Godhead, and for the Holy Spirit in an unprecedented outpouring of grace and blessing on Jesus at his baptism, as well as on the apostles at Pentecost. God’s love and forgiveness may go unrecognised, or can be spurned; in either case there is no cost to the recipient, but immense cost to God.  In Jesus, God returns in person to his people, but not in the manner anticipated, as Tom Wright argues in ‘How God Became King’ (2012). Throughout the gospels, Jesus embodies the antithesis of worldly power and authority as exemplified in Caesar; surely we should expect no less of the Triune God? God’s power is exerted in love, compassion and forgiveness, in healing and in peace, in apparent foolishness and weakness that ultimately prove more resilient than the sum total of human wisdom and strength.

 

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