We will begin a new semester this year as we focus on topics in theology and science. This time, we will cover Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.
We will cover the topic of theodicy this semester and focus on trying to understand the what it means to say that God is a loving God in the midst of suffering, and animal suffering in particular. (Theodicy and questions about suffering almost always center around human suffering, but we often neglect the suffering of non-humans as well.) As everyone knows, as shown in the clip above, nature and the struggle for survival are often very brutal affairs.
Where is God in all of this? Did He design it this way? Was it because of ‘the Fall’ and Sin? How does evolution explain such things in light of a theology of creation where God declares what He has made to be ‘good’ (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) when all around creation there is much suffering, starvation, disease, and death? How can God be called ‘good’ for that matter?
It’s a vast topic and one that has bearing for all of us in some shape or form I believe.
For our first session, we will read the Preface and the first 5 sections of Chapter 1 of Southgate’s book.
Please answer one of the following questions:
- In the Preface, he writes: “This study confines itself rigorously to the suffering of nonhuman creatures…to counteract in a small way what I see as the overwhelming preoccupation of theodicists with human suffering…” Do you agree with Southgate’s assessment – are such studies too preoccupied with the human species? Do you see the suffering of animals within God’s creation to be a relevant topic? Why or why not? Should theodicy focus solely upon human suffering? Do you feel animals feel the same type of pain and suffering as humans do? State your reasons as to why or why you don’t think animals experience pain and suffering.
- In Section 1.1 “The ‘Good’ and the ‘Groaning’” he writes that “pain was ‘involved in the very structure of the animal organism,’ or at least of the evolutionary process.” Furthermore, “So in the light of this vast narrative of nature as struggle, ‘clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel.’ It becomes far harder to assert the creation’s goodness.” In light of these statements, do you believe that pain was intrinsic to God’s plan of creation from the beginning? Was struggling and suffering embedded in the evolutionary process in God’s mind as well? If so, then what does this imply about the Creator? Is it a reflection of God’s glory? Can we see any goodness coming from the “clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel” facets of creation?
- In Section 1.2 “Evolutionary Theory”, Southgate summarizes Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He stated that within the cycles of death and suffering throughout the animal world, he still saw a “Grandeur” that “[accompanied] the groaning, and the groaning may be the only way by which ‘exalted objects’ may arise.” Furthermore, Southgate quotes philosopher and theologian Holmes Rolston III’s view that evolving creation is “random, contingent, blind, disastrous, wasteful, indifferent, selfish, cruel, clumsy, ugly, full of suffering, and, ultimately, death” but also “orderly, prolific, efficient, selecting for adaptive fit, exuberant, complex, diverse, regenerating life generation after generation.” Is there a “grandeur” you see in the grand scope of evolution? Do you see God’s providence, guidance, and love within this this grand plan that also seemingly involves massive amounts of cruelty, wastefulness, indifference, and death? To put it another way, is God directly guiding a pack of wolves to hunt and disembowel a deer and devour it while it is still alive? Or is God not involved in this process at all? Is it “sinful” for a pack of wolves to do this to the deer? Or is this all necessary for the “good” of creation – that without all this suffering, a greater good would never have come about?
- In Section 1.3 “Objections: Perhaps There Isn’t a Problem After All”, he writes, “[I]t is sometimes said that nonhuman creatures do not really feel pain, or that they do feel pain but not in the way that humans do… These are responses that depend on those advanced systems of temporally aware memory, consciousness, and culture that seem to be completely unique to humans.” Is the experience of the pain of suffering different in humans relative to animals? Do we feel “more” pain than animals do? Or are they the same? Why or why not? If you say that it is because of our complex and advanced brains that makes us experience pain more than animals, then what about cognitively impaired humans? Do they suffer less? Is their experience of pain similar to that of “lesser” animals? Or do they get special treatment because they are human?
- In Section 1.3 “Objections: Perhaps There Isn’t a Problem After All”, he quotes Kenneth Miller, “We cannot call evolution cruel if all we are really doing is assigning to evolution the raw savagery of nature itself. The reality of life is that the world often lacks mercy, pity, and even common decency.” Southgate adds, “Suffering, pain, waste, and extinction in the nonhuman world, for Miller, are just facts of nature. They have no moral content, and we should not project on them moral categories, which properly belong only to the sphere of human beings.” Do you agree with Miller here? Is suffering in nature amoral – that it is a mistake to attribute human categories of morality unto a system that is really neutral to such ideas? If Miller is right, then where is God in all of this? Does it pose a serious threat to the Christian belief or doctrine of divine creation and God having called it good? What of God’s divine love and identification in suffering with us and all of creation? Is God’s position one of non-intervention to his creation? Or is it one of indifference?
- In Section 1.3 “Objections: Perhaps There Isn’t a Problem After All”, he objects to the “postulate of a ‘cosmic fall’ to account for suffering 1) Because there is no scientific evidence that the biological world was ever free of predation and violence. Evidence of predation, and of the extinction of species, goes back as far as the fossil record can take it.” Do you agree with his postulate that there was no such thing as “a fall” in Genesis 3, where before Adam and Eve ate the fruit and disobeyed God, there was no such thing as sin, suffering, and death, but after their disobedience to God, sin, suffering, and death entered creation? If you don’t, can you cite solid Scriptural evidence of a “Fall” happening and that there was no suffering and death in God’s original plan? What about the lack of scientific evidence that the world was ever free of predation and violence? But if you agree with his postulate, what about his second postulate where he states: “2) As I indicated above, the suffering of creatures is instrumental. It serves God’s purposes, if those purposes are to realize more and more sophisticated and better adapted ways of being in the world”? Do you agree with his statement here? Why or why not? Is it God’s plan to use predation, suffering, starvation, extinction, etc. in order to generate more complex beings? Couldn’t he have used a more “compassionate” way of generating more complex beings that didn’t involve death and suffering? Is God cruel for not doing this? Why or why not?
- In Section 1.5 “Redefining the Problem” he writes in his first point about happenstance and contingency. Does God allow an element of chance in evolution whereby he would not know the outcome that evolution might produce? Or perhaps he does know all possible outcomes and combinations, but he doesn’t know which one will arise? Is such a God – a God that does not precisely know the future – worthy of worship as Southgate states? Or are happenstance and contingency all illusions, and everything is determined or predetermined by God? Is chance, randomness, happenstance and contingency necessary for the existence of free will? Can love exist without free will? Or is free will and thereby all love (both divine and human) illusions themselves?
- In Section 1.5 “Redefining the Problem” he writes, “Pain is a necessary concomitant of a richer experience of the world of higher animals. There has to be pain if there are to be higher organisms with sophisticated processing of their environment.” Furthermore, “Pain and suffering can, moreover, be seen as part of the way the evolutionary process optimizes the fitness of organisms, and the fitness of ecosystems.” But he notes that, “[J]ust as some human beings never seem to have any opportunity for fullness of life, so the experience of many individual animals, such as the newborn impala torn apart alive by hyena, seems to be all pain and no richness.” What do you make of this statement? Does what he says here change your belief that many Christians hold to that God places pain and suffering in life for a purpose, namely to produce more spiritual fruit within you, or a more Christ-like character, more maturity, etc.? Was God doing that with a still-born baby or a baby born with a congenital heart defect and has only several days to live? Is there a higher purpose to pain and suffering in a moral sense, or is it just an arbitrary meaning people associate to it to make meaning and sense to their lives (i.e. psychological/therepeutic comfort)? Can one experience a richer life without pain as opposed to life with pain? State your reasons as to why or why not.
- In the final part of Section 1.5 “Redefining the Problem” he refines “the problem of evolutionary theodicy” in that “it consists of the suffering of creatures and the extinction of species.” Which of the three theological aspects that he presents – that of 1) ontology, 2) teleology, or 3) soteriology – most intrigues or challenges you the most? Why? How does this aspect help you to understand your relationship with God as creator and redeemer of the world?
Please submit your answer by this Saturday for our meeting on Sunday.