Faith and Evolution

A Grace-Filled Naturalism

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Roger Haight
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis
    , October
     2019.
     248 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626983410.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

On December 13, 2004, the Catholic Church issued a Notification on the Book "Jesus Symbol of God" by Father Roger Haight S.J. The book was said to cause “great harm to the faithful.” The notification gave a list of Haight’s “grave doctrinal errors,” having mostly to do with Christology and the Trinity, and forbade Haight from teaching Catholic theology. Subsequently Haight was forbidden to even write on Catholic theology. The present book, Faith and Evolution: A Grace-Filled Naturalism, is the second since then and represents a theology that reconstructs Catholic dogma, now “archaic and irrelevant” (110), for an age when evolution is a reigning scientific fact. The result is a thorough reworking of the doctrines of creation, God’s relationship to the world, grace, sin, the Holy Spirit, and Christology.

The book is extremely rich in content and surely gives a sophisticated voice to a quite-large present current of thought. Haight offers a systematic reconstruction that would be appealing to Catholic progressives. The thesis of the book is that since evolution is a proven fact, there can be no divine intervention from outside the natural order into nature. Catholic dogma has long ago been formulated precisely in terms of God entering the world from above. This includes God entering the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Hence, Haight sets out in this book to recast Catholic dogma about God, creation, sin, the Holy Spirit, and Christology, to harmonize them with evolution.

For Haight, God does not intervene into nature at any point. This, Haight repeats often, is forbidden by evolutionary science. He tells us with confidence that “the conviction that God created all reality collides with evolution at several points” (59). Hence, God exists only as the “ground of being” (64–66), the ground of empirical reality. This line of thought motivates Haight to deemphasize the traditional God as creator, and to raise up God as sustainer of the world, from within, as a constant feature of reality. Haight writes: “God suffuses all reality as the pure energy of its being” (149).

Christians experience God as the benevolent sustainer, within their very experience of the empirical world. This is what Haight calls a sense of “a presence” an experiential addition to the sensing of the empirical. Haight writes: “God is experienced as loving presence” (108). The immanence of God in our lives “bestows a seriousness to the world” (80). Divine grace is this loving presence to humanity. No intervening in the world here, either, but God a permanent, built-in feature of the world.

The Holy Spirit, too, is not to be thought of as a transcendent power insinuating itself into our lives from the outside. Instead, the Holy Spirit is the power of God to be present as the ubiquitous sustainer of all, the ground of our being.

And finally, and most importantly, Jesus is not something parachuted into history by God from another realm. Haight explicitly rejects the Chalcedon formulation of Jesus having two natures, one human, one divine (195–197). Haight rejects this because it is incoherent in his eyes, and, again, because of its implications for evolution of a divine intrusion into the natural order. “It is common to think of Jesus as an incarnation of God . . . but evolution challenges this established Christology” (190). Jesus is a human being, just as we are, and the significance of Jesus as Christ is not in his ontological status but in his teachings and behavior: “One should look upon Jesus as a parable of God” (132), a representative of God. Jesus illuminates the consciousness of God’s presence. He exemplifies and expresses for humanity “the rule of God” (165), which is a world conforming to God’s will. Neither is the resurrection to be taken literally as a body come back to life. The resurrection conveys the sense of Jesus’s continued influence after his death.

At several places in the book, Haight emphasizes to the reader that Jesus was a Jew and basically taught Jewish ideas. For examples, Haight assimilates the Holy Spirit with the Jewish Shekinah (98–99), tells us that “Jesus’s faith was Jewish; his teachings were Jewish; and he addressed Jews” (153) and “His teaching was Jewish teaching” (157). My feeling is that Haight emphasized this continuum with Judaism better to fit the Jesus story into an evolutionary setting. So, Jesus was not a huge jump from Judaism to something entirely different but essentially a stage in the evolution of Judaism in history. Christianity was a change from a severe particularism to a universalism, yet otherwise based on ideas that went before. (Based on this argument, should we conclude that Jesus was a mutation that survived because his ideology was the fittest?)

This reader (a non-Christian and believer in divine intervention) well appreciated the novelty and complexity in the theological picture this book presents once we accept that evolution is inconsistent with divine intervention. Along the way, the author gives several reasons why we should think so. But while this kind of thinking is rather stylish in many religious circles, the author did not give sufficient reason why a devout Catholic, or any other devout religious interventionist, should give up belief in intervention.

Haight writes these sorts of rejections of divine intervention: “evolution is a blind process” with no purpose (20, 61). The randomness of evolution is inconsistent with God’s intervening with a plan (21, 70). “The randomness of natural selection challenges purposeful direction” (203). Science has no role for an agency outside of the universe (14).

There is no space to enter adequately into rebuttals of these views so I will do here with just one counter-consideration. And that is that randomness at a lower level of a process is consistent with intervention and purpose at a higher level. So, if I pour a bag of sugar into a bowl, I allow the granules to fall freely as they may without my determining the precise order in which the granules fall out of the bag or where each one ends up in the bag. The randomness at this lower level of occurs together with a higher-level fact of my having acted purposefully to take the bag off the shelf and determine that the contents be entirely emptied into the bowl. Just so, that there is randomness at the lower level of a natural process (which there always is in any case at the lowest quantum level) is entirely consistent with God intervening at a higher level to guide the process. Just think of the empirical randomness as the lower level in the evolutionary process and God’s purposeful intervention as a higher level. An interventionist need not concede the point so easily.

This book is undoubtedly a masterful example of the rehabilitation of Catholic dogma for people who have accepted a certain way of thinking about science. Whether a devout Catholic or any other interventionist should be convinced of that way of thinking is yet another matter.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jerome Gellman is an emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Roger Haight, a Jesuit priest and theologian, is Scholar in Residence at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. A former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, he is the author of numerous books, including Jesus Symbol of GodDynamics of TheologyChristian Spirituality for SeekersSpirituality Seeking Theology, and Spiritual and Religious: Explorations for Seekers.

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