God and Evolution: A New Solution

Sarah Coakley

I want to examine what I see as the three most profound problems for Christian theism since the advent of Darwinism, so profound as to cause many to see Darwinism as a "defeater" of Christian belief. These problems were certainly not absent before the discovery of evolution; indeed, they are classic inheritances from Christian philosophical theology and apologetics which have exercised Christian thinkers at least since the third century. But evolutionary theory has certainly sharpened them in particular ways that, I would insist, responsible contemporary Christians cannot now avoid confronting.

After discussing the problems, I will explain why I see most (popularly known) current options in response to the problem of evolution and divine providence as unsatisfactory. Then, I will highlight the particular insights and nuances that a research project of which I'm a part (Evolution and the Theology of Cooperation) can bring to the solution of these questions. I want to suggest not only that we can effect a convincing response to the problems for Christian theism, but also that we can provide a distinctive and novel approach resulting from our new understandings of the significance of "cooperation" as an evolutionary phenomenon.

Let me note up front that I am assuming a "classical" understanding of the Christian God—that is, a God who is Being itself, creator and sustainer of all that is, eternal (i.e., atemporal, omnipresent), omniscient, omnipotent, all loving, indeed the source of all perfection. One solution to the problems we confront since Darwin is to give up on one, or more, of these classical attributes for God; but for the meantime I will not entertain that systematic option—I suspect it results from a failure to think through the full logical implications of divine atemporality—even though it cannot, a priori, be ruled out. One of the deficiencies in many previous accounts of these problems, however, has been artificially to extrapolate the debates from the trinitarian and incarnational dimensions of this classical Christian theism, i.e., covertly to assume that it is deism, rather than Christian theism, that is at stake in the attempt to construe the relation between "God" and the created process. I will attempt to avoid this mistake, anticipating some of the themes that the consideration of "cooperation"1 will also bring to bear.

Natural cooperation suggests a 'bridging' model between evolutionary biology and philosophical theology.

What then are the three problems that confront us when we try to see a coherent relation between a good, providential deity and the unfolding created process? First, there is the issue of how we should understand the relation of God's providence to prehuman dimensions of creation and their development. Second, there is the issue of how God's providence can relate to the specific arena of human freedom and creativity. Then third, there is the problem of evil, the question of why what happens in the first two realms manifests so much destructiveness, suffering, and outright evil, if God is indeed omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent.

Why does modern evolutionary theory intensify these problems? They were, after all, already confronted and tackled with some sophistication in classical Greek philosophy and in early Christian thought, and refined further in the much-ramified discussions of high scholastic medieval theology. But modern Darwinian evolutionary theory appears: (a) to underscore the contingency or randomness of evolutionary "mutation" and "selection," and thus to render newly problematic the possibility of a coherent divine guidance of precultural revolution; (b) to bring further into question the compatibility of divine providence with the human "freedom" of the "cultural evolution" stage, given the deterministic and reductive assumptions of much evolutionary theory, bolstered more recently by genetic accompaniments to the original Darwinian vision ("freedom" now looks little more than an "elbow room" within a predetermined nexus—so Daniel Dennett; yet, paradoxically, one represented in much modern thought as straining toward an autonomous "will to power" that would precisely compete with, and cancel, an undergirding divine impetus); and thus (c) modern evolutionary theory appears to intensify the problem of evil intolerably. If God is, after all, the author and "sustainer" of the destructive mess and detritus of both precultural and cultural evolutionary processes, why is she so incompetent and/or sadistic as not to prevent such tragic accompaniments to her master plan? If intervention is an option for God, why has he not exercised it?

A complete and detailed answer to these conundrums cannot be essayed here, but some broad strokes and intuitions will help lead the way through to a preliminary solution. In the case of each problem, there is a common contemporary misapprehension to be avoided, on the one hand, and some important enrichment and coloring from the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation, on the other hand, to add crucially to our reflection.

First, then, it is vital to avoid, in the case of precultural evolution, the presumption that "God" competes with the evolutionary process as a (very big) bit player in the temporal unfolding of "natural selection." Once we are released from that false presumption, "God" is no longer—and idolatrously—construed as problematically interventionist (or feebly failing in such) along the same temporal plane as the process itself. Rather, God is that-without-which-there-would-be-no-evolution-at-all; God is the atemporal undergirder and sustainer of the whole process of apparent contingency or "randomness," yet—we can say in the spirit of Augustine—simultaneously closer to its inner workings than it is to itself.

As such, God is both "within" the process and "without" it. To put this in richly trinitarian terms: God, the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual invitation and lure of the creation to return to its source in the Father, yet never without the full—and suffering—implications of incarnate Sonship. Once we see the possibility of understanding the contingency of precultural evolution in this way, we need not—as so much science and religion "dialogue" has done in recent years—declare the evolutionary process as necessarily "deistically" distanced in some sense from God.2 Rather, I propose in contrast that God is "kenotically" infused (not by divine loss or withdrawal, but by effusive pouring out) into every causal joint of the creative process, yet precisely without overt derangement of apparent "randomness."

How can this be? First, it can be so because God's providential impinging on the evolutionary process, in this view, is not a miraculous or external additum, but the undergirding secret of the maintenance of the created order in being. And second, it can be so because we now know with ever greater precision, given the aid of the mathematical calculus of game theory, that evolutionary processes do occur within certain particular patterns of development. Even epistemically, then, we can chart processes of remarkable evolutionary regularity; and ontologically, there seems no irrationality in positing the existence of a transcendent (and immanent) divine providence, albeit one that kenotically "self-hides" in the spirit of Incarnation.

But how, the skeptic might object, is evolutionary contingency—and genuine human freedom—to be seen as logically compatible with secret divine guidance? The intuition pump I want to propose here is what Peter Geach once called the "chess master model." The basic idea is this: God is like a chess master playing an 8-year-old chess novice. There is a game with regularities and rules; and although there are a huge number of different moves that the child can make, each of these can be successfully responded to by the chess master—they are all already familiar to him. And we have no overall doubt that he is going to win. The analogy with God and the evolutionary process, or with human freedom, admittedly involves some stretching. For a start, God has created the whole game. Also, God timelessly knows what will happen in any different scenario depending on what moves occur. But there is a crucial difference here between God knowing what will occur and God directly causing what occurs; for in this model the contingent variables and choices occur at the level of secondary causation (albeit undergirdingly sustained and thus primarily caused by God).

We can apply this same model to the problem of divine providence and human cultural evolution, including the evolution of genuine ("indeterministic") freedom. The modernistic danger here is a slightly different, but closely related, one from the danger that we saw in the first problem (that is, the danger of assuming that God is a mere item, albeit "big," in the temporal universe itself). The problem here is to think falsely of God as making human autonomy competitively constrained by divine action, rather than thinking of true human freedom as precisely right submission to the graced will and action of God. In other words, once again we can think not deistically but trinitarianly and incarnationally of God. We can make Christ's agony in the garden, or his submission to divine will on the cross, as the hallmark and pattern of achieved human freedom rather than its supersession. Once we see human freedom, in its truest and best sense, as freedom-for-God, rather than freedom-against-God, then much of the force of this second problem falls away. Not that suffering and sin do not remain, which brings me to the third problem.

Here, once more, there is an equally seductive modern misapprehension to avert: the presumption that dying, or indeed evolutionary "extinction," is the worst thing that can happen to anyone (or thing). Again, I would contest the misapprehension. This point is not to be misread as a seeming justification for avoidable suffering, victimization, and abuse; but it is to be heard christologically as an insistence that the deepest agony, loss, and apparent wastefulness in God's creation may, from the perspective of atemporal divinity (and yet also in the Son's agony and "wasted" death), be spanned by the Spirit's announcement of resurrection hope. Evil, from this perspective, is mere absence of good; death is the prelude to resurrection. To be sure, the risk God takes in human "freedom" is the terrible risk that humans announce their false "autonomy" in cruelty and destructiveness. Yet the risk is the only risk out of which the worthiest—and, again, most incarnational—forms of participation in God can arise.

I want to underscore my profound difference here from some of the forms of late-nineteenth-century optimistic "meliorism" that flourished in liberal theologies that seized incautiously on the recently discovered evolutionary phenomenon of "altruism": cooperation, as an evolutionary development, implies no facile moral optimism. Cooperation can ultimately lead, in its transformed human state, to very great good or very great evil: the members of the SS were splendid cooperators.

Thus, it is not that God has not intervened in the history of the evolutionary process to put right the ills of randomness and freedom. For in one sense God is "intervening" constantly—if by that we mean that God is perpetually sustaining us, loving us into existence, pouring God's self into every secret crack and joint of the created process, and inviting the human will, in the lure of the Spirit, into an ever-deepening engagement with the implications of the Incarnation, its "groanings" (Romans 8), for the sake of redemption. God, in short, is always intervening; but only rarely do we see this when the veil becomes "thin," and the alignment between divine, providential will and evolutionary or human "cooperation" momentarily becomes complete. Such, we might hypothesize, was Christ's resurrection, which we call a miracle because it seems, from a "natural" and scientific perspective, both unaccountable and random. Yet, from a robustly theological perspective, it might be entirely natural, the summation indeed of the entire trinitarian evolutionary process and thus its secret key.

These thoughts, now briefly enunciated, help to illuminate why the particular range of options currently popularized in the news media in response to the evolution/God debate seem curiously inept alternatives. Dogmatic "scientific" atheism, first, constantly goes well beyond the empirical evidences of evolution itself, and can give no convincing account of its own pessimistic reductionism; it thus falls on its own methodological sword.3 Intelligent Design, or ID, in inverse contrast, tends to assume a God who only occasionally bestirs himself to action; even if this were not already unacceptable theistically, its "solutions" prove deeply problematic and vulnerable scientifically as well.

The third option, which we may here call the "no-contest" position (as evidenced in much fine Catholic theology), also has its problems. Since our own view most closely approximates to this third option (of the three "popularly" discussed), it is worth clarifying what is deficient about a certain sort of "no-contest" position (I dub it the "lazy no-contest" stance) before I attempt to indicate how these problems might be rectified by particular attention to the evidence of cooperation.

Lazy no-contesters, I would suggest, threaten to undermine their own intellectual credibility in at least three, overlapping, ways. First, by hermetically sealing the boundaries between science and theology, they merely invite the (obvious) scientific response of Pierre-Simon Laplace: "I have no need of this hypothesis." God, in other words, is so effaced from possible evidential discovery as to render her invisible, and thus fully dispensable, on "scientific" grounds. Second, such a divide tends to reinforce the, admittedly often smudged, separation between church and state that, at least in North America, keeps religious commitment in a subjective realm of "preference" rather than in a public realm of rational negotiation (witness the recent impassioned attack on the "Reason and Religion" option proposed for the Harvard core curriculum by secular science professors). Third, and correlatively, the lazy non-contestation view implicitly encourages the presumption that religious belief is irrational, or personal/affective, rather than accountable and arguable (albeit within a realm that also embraces significant mystery).

In short, the no-contest position is to be affirmed for its right insistence that God and the evolutionary process are not, so to speak, on the same level, whether temporally or in substance. But we now need to consider how the discovery of "natural cooperation"—as what Martin Nowak calls the "third fundamental principle of evolution" (alongside mutation and natural selection)—might modify, or nuance, the no-contest position.

How does cooperation make a difference? I will confine myself to two basic points here. The two points form a pincer movement in that they enunciate, both from a scientific and from a theological perspective, a necessarily dialectical pattern in the relationships between evolutionary and providential understandings of the world's processes.

It causes me to think of a model of science and theology as disciplines that mutually inspire, but chasten, each other. If my intuition is correct, then the cooperative tendencies of evolution themselves suggest a "natural" praeparatio in the processes of selection for the potential later heights of saintly human self-sacrifice (only ultimately comprehensible as a response to grace); whereas the "eyes of faith," on the religious side, discern the phenomena of cooperation as already indications precisely of trinitarian and incarnational effects. What we have here, in other words, is a manifestation of the two-sided "bridging" model of the relation between evolutionary biology and philosophical theology in which science acknowledges its explicative strengths and its limitations, and theology and metaphysics together strive to complete the vision toward which evolutionary cooperation seemingly gestures.

On the scientific side, the phenomenon of cooperation, seen now to be as deeply inculcated in the propulsion of evolution—from the bacterial level upward—as Darwin's celebrated principles of mutation and selection, provides a significant modification of the "nature red in tooth and claw" image that Darwinism early accrued to itself. There is no less suffering or "wastage" on this model of evolution, to be sure; but what there is is an ever-present tendency against individualism or isolationism, which only the application of game-theory calculus has been able successfully to explicate. The fear, then, often expressed by the Vatican, that the embracing of Darwinism somehow encourages hostile competitiveness or individualism has to be severely modified. At the very least, and in advance of any ascription of religious meaning to the phenomenon, evolution at significant junctures favors cooperation, costly self-sacrifice, and even forgiveness; it favors in due course a rudimentary human ethical sensibility (so Marc Hauser), and thus delivers—already in the realm of the higher prehuman mammals—tendencies toward empathy, toward a desire to protect others close to one at the cost of personal risk. At the very least, then, this is the seedbed for higher, intentional forms of ethical virtue, though these latter (with their complex forms of human intentionality and freedom of choice) are of a distinctively different sort from the prehuman varieties of cooperation, and cannot in my view be reductively subsumed under mathematical prediction.

From the philosophical or theological side, on the other hand, these same phenomena may suggest the possibility of a new form of moral/teleological argument for God's existence (so Alexander Pruss). Not that such an argument could ever amount to a "proof " in the deductive sense, but rather be a constituent in a cumulative set of considerations that would together mount a case precisely for an incarnational God, a God of intimate involvement in empathy, risk, and suffering. In this sense, not only would the no-contest view be modified and enriched, but both sides of the evolution and science divide significantly transformed in their understanding of their relation. To be sure, the agnostic or atheistical evolutionary biologist would continue to question (if not actively resist) the necessity of any such metaphysical speculation about the existence of divine providence; but the difference from an older perception of the two disciplines' relations would be the explication of at least a theoretical capacity for bridging (not merging) the two discourses by discussion of particular evidences and their potential meanings.

On the theological side, the great advance that this development would bespeak would lie in the intrinsic and immediate attention given to the doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity, rather than to the covertly deistic God who has—to great spiritual detriment and imaginative constriction—so dominated the science/religion debates since the Enlightenment.



  1. In the terms of evolutionary biology, "cooperation" denotes a strategy that is costly for fitness, whether genetic or cultural.
  2. See, for example, John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction With the World (Shambhala Publications, 1989), 45: God gets out of the way so that evolution can happen contingently, and Polkinghorne calls this "kenosis."
  3. A suitably "apophatic" Christian doctrine of creation, as Michael Hanby has recently pointed out in an important article in Theology Today, is ironically far less "ideologial and thus—dare we say it—more scientific" than this sort of reductive neo-Darwinism.

Sarah Coakley, who has been on the Harvard faculty since 1993 and the Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity since 1995, will become the Norris-Hulse Professor at Cambridge University next fall, although she will remain at Harvard for 2007–08 on a visiting appointment to complete her Evolution and the Theology of Cooperation research project, which is funded by the Templeton Foundation.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Theology