Creatio Continua, a.k.a Evolution

How can evolution be both scientific theory and enricher of theology? John Haught explains:

The notion that God creates the world is, of course, central to the faith of millions. Traditionally, Christian theology spoke of three dimensions of God’s creative activity: original creation (creatio originalis), ongoing or continuous creation (creatio continua), and new creation or the fulfillment of creation (creatio nova). Prior to the scientific discoveries of cosmic and biological evolution, however, the latter two notions were usually eclipsed by the first. “Creation” meant primarily something that God did in the beginning. But even in the late nineteenth century a few theologians had already recognized that evolution implicitly liberates the notion of creation from confinement to cosmic origins. And although today discussions between scientists and theologians about God and the big bang often assume that “creation” is only about cosmic beginnings, the idea of evolution forbids such narrowing of so powerful a notion.

Indeed, the fact of evolution now allows theology to apprehend more palpably than ever that creation is not just an “original” but also an ongoing and constantly new reality. In an evolving cosmos, creation is still happening, no less in the present than “in the beginning.” The big bang universe continues to unfold, and so every day is still the “dawn of creation.” As Teilhard de Chardin put it, in an evolving universe “incessantly even if imperceptibly, the world is constantly emerging a little farther above nothingness.”

Moreover, evolution has allowed theology to acknowledge at last that the notion of an originally and instantaneously completed creation is theologically unthinkable in any case. If we could imagine it at all, we would have to conclude that an initial creation, one already finished and perfected from the beginning, could not be a creation truly distinct from its creator. Such a “world” would simply be an appendage of God, and not a world unto itself; nor could God conceivably transcend such a world. It would be a world without internal self-coherence, a world without a future, and, above all, a world devoid of life. By definition, living beings must continually transcend, or go beyond, themselves. As Henri Bergson said long ago, life is really a tendency rather than something rounded off and complete. An unfinished, or evolving, universe is essential to this tendency’s actualization.

(John F. Haught, God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution (Westview Press, 2000), p. 37 from chapter 3, “Theology Since Darwin”)

The weight of evidence pointing towards evolution is often a crushing weight for someone, like me, brought up with a literalistic reading of the Bible. Usually one of two choices is made, both involving denial – deny the mountain of evidence for evolution, or deny the soul’s insistent dream of God.

My readings this morning seem to have converged around this point. Before I read the quoted passage above, Nathan and I read this at breakfast together:

In the depths of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.

(from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran)

And later, I came across a blog post discussing this type of contrast as seen in a medieval painting:

Pisanello’s animals, tucked in their self-containing spaces, recall to me my scrappy outsider knowledge of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime, when all the manifest forms of creation lie sleeping inside the earth, waiting for songs to awaken them, to call them continuously into being. But here the Dream is fading, the song on the cusp of being mocked and forgotten, replaced by the angular, linear, technocratic visions that lie in wait beyond the cross and the promise of Renaissance that the future saint locks his eyes upon.

(from Cat’s blog The Place Between Stories)

I sense a growing polarity between thinking and dreaming in our culture these days. So I am grateful for the insistent thinker-dreamers among us. Open eyes, open minds, and open hearts keep us growing, unfinished, evolving, deeply alive in the continuing dawn of creation.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this interesting post. Isn’t it something to encounter theology and theologians that integrate evolution into their world view…Teilhard de Chardin is mentioned: I ran into him by way of Flannery O’Connor, who read and admired him. I found him difficult but rewarding reading. Not only did Teilhard de Chardin understand the world as “constantly emerging a little farther above nothingness,” he believed evolution was “incessantly” moving all matter toward “convergence.” The idea of convergence is central to him; everything is moving toward God (O’Connor’s last short story collection is titled “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” which is lifted directly from TdC). But what fascinated me was that while he accepted and taught and thought as a Darwinian, he differed from the determinism of mainstream scientists, indeed he was a Catholic priest! “The impetus of the world,” he wrote, “can only have its ultimate source in some inner principle….” Evolution, while properly understood as “random,” likewise has “direction.”

    By the way, the book I quote from is “The Phenomenon of Man,” in case anyone is interested. Good stuff!

    Nnox

    • So nice to hear from you Nnox! You mention two of my favorite thinker-dreamers. I love them both, love the idea of convergence, and had no idea that O’Connor’s title came from Teilhard de Chardin. But of course. Convergence again.

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