Saturday, May 19, 2012

Imago Dei, Divine Risk & the Freedom to Become

Any attempt to present a coherent theistic-evolutionary understanding of creation must begin with the idea of divine kenosis, or "self-emptying," as the central assumption behind the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Kenosis not only includes the idea that the Creator has "made room" for the existence of something else -- something other -- it must also include the gift of freedom, i.e., the "freedom-to-become," which is the central assumption behind what Christian theology refers to as creatio continua.

From a physicalist standpoint, this freedom-to-become involves random processes, albeit governed by the innate physical laws instilled by the Creator at the initial point of creation. The initial conditions and innate laws indeed seem to suggest, even from a scientific point of view, that the direction or course of the created order is generally determined -- e.g., from the moment of the "Big Bang" to the formation of the elements, the birth of stars, the coalescence of galaxies and planetary systems, the emergence of life itself and eventually of consciousness.  However, there is no compelling reason, either scientifically or theologically, to suggest that any particular outcome is specifically determined. Theologically speaking, the freedom-to-become is a true freedom; hence, a divine risk, which is the essence of love.

It is here that the honest exegete must acknowledge the anthropocentric perspective of the sacred scriptures and the pre-scientific theologies that have been based upon them. A coherent theistic-evolutionary account can hardly afford to reify the Edenic myth of the earth as a place in the universe specially prepared to await the arrival of our species. Even the doctrine of the imago Dei calls for reappraisal. From the standpoint of physicalism, the earth is such, and we are such, only by natural happenstance. In principle, nothing precludes the emergence of life in other places in the cosmos, even of sentient life with consciousness, intelligence, and an awareness of the imago Dei.

Indeed, that the Creator prompts and directs his creation as a whole towards this general end and goal must be seen as lying at the heart of the Christian message. The goal of theosis is thus no less than the participation of the entire cosmos in the divine life. It stands to reason then that our species' role as a unique instantiation of the imago Dei can no longer be viewed in isolation from the rest of the cosmos of which we are a part. To remain coherent, a theistic-evolutionary account must view the gift of the divine-image not as one imprinted upon a particular species, be it human or another, but rather as a gift instilled upon the cosmos as a whole, in the beginning, as imago Dei in potentia.


  1. How is man, as a conscious being, truly free since he is still a biological creature governed by "random" biological processes which determine his thoughts, feelings, intuition, intelligence, even his notion of God? Is not sentience an illusion since it ultimately rests on randomness? Or is there some aspect of sentience, as yet undiscussed, that allows self transcendence and thus the freedom to choose and determine ones own destiny, at least insofar as he is able with regard to external forces?

  2. I'm reminded (perhaps irrelevantly) of Boethius's distinction in the Consolation of Philosophy between Fate and Providence. God controls the big picture by means of Providence--history moves to the consummation of the reconciliation of all with God and we know that things will work out this way. The various twists and turns of Fate that affect/afflict us on a daily level are a mix of natural processes, consequences of our actions, and the consequences of other people's actions--God is not necessarily the chief mover of these but may, according to his own gracious will, choose to work in and through them.

  3. "Truly free" needs clarification. What I mean by this is that there exists a true contingency in the principle of the will, as opposed to the idea of absolute determinism. That we are limited in the scope of this contingency with respect to the will is akin to how the universe is limited in its contingency with respect to the laws that are innate to the universe. In either case, there are only certain options (or outcomes, in the case of nature) that may be possible, but the actual choice made (or outcome produced) is not determined ahead of time.

  4. Ok, perhaps I should clarify my question. What then is "will"? Is it a function of biological chemistry? If so, how then is it really, in any sense, free?

    Traditionally, has not this freedom to will been explained by appealing to the bi-partite notion of an immaterial soul as it's seat? Yet if evolution is true it seems incredibly unlikely that there really is such a thing as a soul as traditionally defined. How then do we explain the existence (which I do not dispute) of genuine, albeit limited, freedom of will if man is strictly a biological/material creature?

    1. It does seem that even lesser animals have will of some sort too. One could argue and probably MUST argue, if one believes that man is 'endowed' with a soul, that animals are pure brute creatures: unable to think rationally about anything or make deliberate choices; rather animals are said to be driven by impulse alone. Yet when i consider my cat there certainly *appears* to be more going on there than impulse. Certainly natural drives exist but they exist in humans too. Their presence does not negate the viability of will.

  5. Ah, yes, the age-old mind/body problem. I have pretty much disabused myself of dualistic notions of a material body and an immaterial soul. The human person is a unity, and "mind" and/or soul emerge as irreducible properties from the complexity of our physical beings, particularly our brains. So the difference between the way your cat thinks and the why you think may not be as radical as once thought, a difference of degree rather than of kind.

    Emergence theory is the idea that new qualities, properties, or even complex systems can "emerge" from combinations of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. In cases of so-called "strong emergence" the new qualities or properties cannot be reduced to the sum of its constituent parts. In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Consciousness, sentience, intelligence, intentionality, volition, and even the soul, I would consider to be irreducibly emergent properties.

  6. Thank you, Fr. Thomas. I really was not looking for an answer so much as for confirmation of my own thoughts.

    The principle you refer to has a parallel in aesthetics, I think. If i create a very fine piece of jewelry of exceptional materials and design, the value, both aesthetic and monetary, exceeds greatly the sum of all the parts. This is also true in such things as great paintings where far more is conveyed to the observer than mere paint on a medium.

  7. That's a great analogy. I think emergence theory is the necessary antidote to the reductionism of metaphysical materialism.

  8. Now for a REALLY difficult question though one which is pastorally important. If we agree there is no immaterial soul how do we deal with the question of life after death? I realize the resurrection is the ultimate answer, but what about the interim?

    Sorry to put you on the spot with this one, but I had to ask. :)

  9. Perhaps there is no "interim." Perhaps our next experience is resurrection. Nevertheless, if the soul is the pattern of the self (our "software" so to speak), then all that is necessary for resurrection (or the intermediate state for that matter) is that God would "remember" our pattern, i.e., that the pattern which is "us" is transferred from our "hardware" (our bodies) to the mind of God.

  10. I've considered that there might be no "interim". That doesn't sit well with me for a few reasons, but I do suppose it's possible. In that scenario, we would go from death to the final resurrection with no experience in between so it would seem instantaneous. I struggle though with the biblical witness. Perhaps a fundamentalist hangup? I'm thinking particularly about Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration.

    Your explanation about transferring our "pattern" to the mind of God is delightful. That's a rich concept that I"ll have to think on.

  11. Just a thought...

    Seems that traditional Christian piety lends itself to the idea of the immaterial soul/spirit. The language of piety is such that it calls on and employes 'spiritual' language and metaphor. Detachment from the 'world' is a major theme in Christian Piety and seen through the lenses of immaterial soul/spirit seems to play into a gnostic view of the material world.

    Eastern Orthodoxy sees the essence of sin as submission to the 'passions'. Defined in a materialist sense the passions are but natural drives and emotions. However, defined from the standpoint of the immaterial soul, they are bound to be the so called 'worldly attachments' which Orthodox rail against. It seems to me the gnostic tendencies are obvious; the soul/spirit is good and the bodily passions/drives are evil.

    The same principle is at work in classic Protestantism and even more so in some fringe groups such as Pentecostals.

    Perhaps there is a need, even a very strong need, for elaboration on this issue. The practical and pastoral ramifications are great and are much needed to answer many of the pressing issues of our time. The dualist distinction of soul and body is no longer a viable option and does not prove to be helpful at all in solving pastoral issues. Indeed, insisting on it seems to only reinforce the existing problems and make them even more inextricable.