Q: As we close our discussion of this book, do you have any thoughts on Southgate’s overall argument? Is it well argued? Do you agree or disagree overall? Are there portions of his book that you liked or didn’t like, were helpful or useful to have read about, talked through? Any changes that you’d suggest to his argument? Any parts of his argument that you wish he’d have elaborated on, or omitted?
Southgate takes the point that evolution is true and that it’s very brutal and indifferent to compassion. How can a loving God use such a cruel method? The answer seems to be that this may have been the only way to ultimately create his ultimate creation, us or Man. The other question is, was all the pain and suffering of Man and Nature worth it? He argues that the crucifixion is not only an atonement for man’s sin, but also an apology to the world and even the universe for all the suffering He caused by creation. I admit that this is a very attractive reconcile, God acknowledging and empathizing the suffering in his “perfect” created world.
The book also helped to define the nature of suffering. I don’t think it was intended to have a world without suffering. Suffering, uncomfortableness is what forces us to change, usually for the better. Also, in many ways, suffering is a state of mind. For a pampered individual, a smack on the shoulder is unbearable, but someone who has faced true hardship wouldn’t even notice. Without suffering there can be no such thing as pleasure, the conjoined twins agony and ecstasy. They define each other and are meaningless without each other.
I don’t buy into the argument that there is no God because there is too much suffering in the world. It is shear arrogance to assume that if I am not smart enough to reconcile suffering and God, either there is no God or He is not a worthy God. It is like the Brothers Karamazov’s “Grand Inquisitor” poem where a miracle-preforming voice for the poor is arrested for rabble-rousing by the Church who turns out to be the returned Jesus. Ironically, Jesus is sentenced to burn for the good of the Church who can’t have someone inciting the masses.
Another point was how we deal with each other, especially for a, lack of better description, “lesser life”. I don’t believe animals should be considered equal to man, and it’s even okay for us to use them as work and to even eat them. What I don’t believe in is cruelty. Rule of thumb in life is don’t be an asshole. Cows are killed for their meat, but it doesn’t mean we give them crappy lives and are indifferent to their pain. They can be killed humanely and still be honored for their sacrifice to enable us to be grown strong and healthy. The Bible and even Old Testament witness to this: “You shall not muzzle an ox as it is treading out the grain” – Deuteronomy 25:4.
Overall, I feel like his argument doesn’t successfully appeal to my emotional satisfaction “the challenge to the goodness of God posed by specific cases of innocent suffering” (chapter 1.7). It requires faith in a whole string of “pie-in-the-sky” things to hold water, and it seems to be as stretch to me.
The one topic that affected me the most is the concept of heaven (chapter 5.3). It just no longer seems tenable to me. How will all the resurrected organisms fit and all get along? Are only representative individuals of a species that gets resurrected or that entire species? What about the numerous species of bacteria? Now having to try to think it through, heaven seems to make more problems than it solves.
I have some criticisms on a few other individual parts of his argument as well.
For one thing, it’s hard for me to care that God co-suffers (chapter 3.5) – easy for God to say, and I’d rather him eliminate suffering than be useless and stand by.
I also have a hard time envisioning the goal of creation as selving (chapter 4). Can there even be a “platonic form” of a perfectly selved individual of that species to selve to? Or a perfectly selved individual in it of itself (e.g. the best me I can be)? I’m skeptical.
I have a hard time accepting “deep intratrinitarian kenosis” (chapter 4). It seems more and more to me that it’s a zero-sum world out there, so why be giving? And why would we be given desires for ourselves, if the ultimate goal of life is to negate those desires by giving?
Finally, I would’ve appreciated a more detailed argument to “why didn’t you just create heaven in the first place” (chapter 5.6).
Nevertheless, I really appreciate being forced to think through all the concepts that Southgate brings up through the book. And I see the intelligence of Southgate as I see him grapple with these difficult topics.
What I liked about Christopher Southgate’s The Groaning of Creation was that he tackled a subject that few theologians, to my knowledge going into this book, let alone Christians, seriously talk about – the suffering of animals and Nature overall in light of evolution and God’s character. (In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon in church relating to animal suffering at all.) As most know, a vast majority of things written and discussed in regard to theodicy almost always exclusively deal with human suffering. This is somewhat surprising in that there are so many people who have pets and who shower them with care, love and affection, as much as one would toward a human baby or child. In fact, I have a friend who swears that her dog is spiritual and prays along with her. We are aware that in the animal world there is much suffering, yet God’s goodness does not get questioned in relation to questions about theodicy is almost entirely anthroprocentric (a term Southgate uses extensively in Chapter 6 and subsequent chapters later). Southgate covers an enormously vast and impressive range of theologians and thinkers and he was able to articulate their viewpoints very well, as well as giving his opinions as to why he agreed or disagreed with their views. So, it was great to get snippets of how other theologians dealt with this specific area of theodicy.
I believe that the main thesis he presents for his own response to theodicy was laid out in Chapter 4 “An Adventure in the Theology of Creation” as he described the concept of “selving” where a creature goes through a process of flourishing (or evolving) as it “conform[s] to the pattern offered by the divine Logos” (p. 63) and his concept of “deep intratrinitarian kenosis” where through “the love of the Father”, “the glory [and self-sacrificial love] of the Son”, and “the power of the Spirit” that “each creature receives its particularity [i.e “selving”].” (p. 63) He goes on with the rest of the book integrating this model at certain moments to state his case. I found this concept of “selving” quite unique and intriguing in showing the certain individuality and interconnectedness each living creature and organism has upon the greater ecosystem as a whole. Each creature plays its role in affecting other creatures around it for the better or worse. In this model, God seems to be intimately connected with his creation, but not in an overbearing or controlling manner.
Some areas of weakness I found reading this book were the times when he played somewhat fast and loose with some biblical verses to promote his specific argument. This was glaringly apparent in Chapter 5 “Heaven for Pelicans? Eschatological Considerations”. In the beginning, being reintroduced to eschatology enlivened my faith in some ways; I wrote:
I am reminded of how Christian eschatology, when properly understood, is one of the most hopeful, loving, and redeeming notions ever conceived. It is true that other religions have similar eschatologies of the resurrection of the dead (like the ancient Egyptians did) and beliefs about the destruction and rebirth of the universe (such as Hinduism and Buddhism have), but none give such hope as the Christian message has I believe. Perhaps it is this hope that keeps me believing in God and the person of Jesus Christ. If all what the Bible says is true about the new cosmos, how wonderful must it be!
But these euphoric feelings were significantly tempered as I began to see flaws in Southgate’s and other theologians’ biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. I wrote:
One wonders if these verses in the Bible, such as Isaiah 11:6 which states that “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together,” are not necessarily to be taken literally but more symbolically in that the author yearned for a coming day where the Israelites wouldn’t have to deal with any more warfare and political strife through Yahweh’s deliverance from Babylonian or foreign captivity. It’s hard to see how predator and prey relationships will be realized in a realistic manner even in a new cosmos unless all animals are radically transformed into a completely new state, form, or entity that has neither predator or prey characteristics.
As I reflected more upon this chapter, I was struck with the utter speculative nature of not only eschatology but of theology as a whole. Questions about the afterlife for humans are very speculative (despite strong circumstantial and colloquial testimonies), but once you throw in all the animals into the mix of what happens to them after death, it becomes exponentially complex. What happens to prey and predator relationships in the new creation – do lions and tigers lose all their claws and fangs? Do all their physiologies change with new resurrected bodies? Do animals have souls? Is there enough room for all humans, let alone, all the creatures that have ever lived to be contained in the new creation? So on and so forth. There are no solid answers at all, just pure speculation and a lot of creative biblical gymnastics and high-flying acrobatics. That was an eye-opener and the biggest takeaway for me personally as I read this book. Though I will hesitate to say that all theology is purely speculation (and therefore possibly useless for everyday life), its luster has faded in many respects and I am more cautious (or more highly skeptical?) of those who cling to or swear by a certain theology, theological tradition, or viewpoint with the upmost conviction. There are things just epistemologically we can never know, and Christians should be honest and upfront to admit, no matter how psychologically or spiritually uncomfortable it seems, that they just don’t know.
Overall, I don’t think my overall theology, theodicy and views about evolution have changed drastically after having read this book, but I was able to pick up numerous theological and philosophical concepts and vocabulary to think about and bring up when the topic of suffering and evolution does arrive in discussion. Southgate’s book, though conceptually dense and deep to grasp, was definitely worth the read and I think it should be revisited multiple times to absorb and appreciate the full depth and range of the ideas and arguments Southgate presented in this book.