Thursday, March 28, 2013

Natural (s)Election, Part Two: Anthropocentrism, Myopia, and the Uniqueness of Humanity

Read Part One.

The acceptance of evolution by theologians is inevitable. Why say this? Because it must be. The Christian faith cannot hope to speak meaningfully to the world if those responsible for the articulation of that faith cannot see clearly to accept what has been established by science beyond all reasonable doubt, and to adapt accordingly. This assertion, however, should not be misconstrued as a plea to theology to accommodate a foreign idea or a conflicting set of values or principles in some vain attempt to keep Christianity relevant. Rather if Christianity is true then it will be found to be consistent with all other truth, and prove sufficient in its ability to adapt its articulation to our expanding understanding of the world around us. Nevertheless, the theologian should be prepared for the radical shift that must take place in his or her perspective; for, upon acceptance, the theologian will have to account for the drama of evolution, not only as natural occurrence, but for what it truly is: the history of redemption itself.

Part One presented Anthropocentrism as a necessary presupposition in theology, albeit an illusory one. It is necessary because any coherent account of divine disclosure to human experience must be interpreted from within human experience. It is illusory when it fails to account for the vast array of possibilities that the "freedom-to-become" (creatio continua) implies, inevitably leading to an anthropological exceptionalism that will ring less and less "true" with each new discovery. This is both a danger and an opportunity for the theologian.

So it was, not too long ago, that theologians regarded humankind as the primary or even the exclusive object of redemption. This was quite understandable within an ancient framework that saw the rest of the cosmos as a secondary consideration at best -- "mankind's" habitation. After the Fall, the cosmos became the arena of judgment for humanity, a place hardship, perils, floods, famines, disease and eventually physical death. The state of death and decay being irreversible, it was easy for theologians to regard the physical universe as consigned to a hopeless destiny, at least on this side of the resurrection.

Certainly, human beings shared this habitation with other living things -- plants and animals -- but "mankind" alone was seen as the "image-bearer" of God. All other creatures existed (at least originally) for the benefit and enjoyment of human beings, and later for their judgment. Like a parent who cares that a child takes proper care of his toys, cleans his room, and feeds the dog (not for the sake of these things as much as for the betterment of the child) so traditional theology saw God as the divine parent providing in creation all things needed to sustain human beings, to teach them obedience, and to bring their lives to fulfillment. Thus the value of the cosmos was seen as relative to humankind's use, discipline, and pleasure. That God would show anything more than a concern for the proper stewardship of creation was hardly a consideration ever taken up by theology.

However, Copernicus shattered this perspective long ago. While many theologians have certainly failed to appreciate fully the vastness of the universe that Copernicus bequeathed to us, Darwin's breakthrough insight of natural selection, once embraced by the theologian, will certainly prove to be the undoing of anthropological exceptionalism. Simply put, the scientific investigation of our universe, from the sub-atomic to the astrophysical to the realm of biological processes, has wrought nothing less than the relativization of humanity's place in the cosmos.

No longer can the theologian afford to regard anthropos as the sole object of God's redemptive love, the exclusive image-bearer, or the center of the created order. If natural selection means anything in theology it means that the phenomenological emergence of anthropos in our small corner of the universe is the creative response of a cosmos imbued by the loving call of its Creator towards greater and greater complexity in the exercise of its freedom-to-become. Thus, the entirety of the cosmos, not just one minuscule part of it, must be considered in terms of the imago Dei (or rather as potentia imaginem Dei).

Indeed, we have emerged as imaginem Dei intellexit -- as the image of God realized. Yet anthropos considered in terms of an a priori goal or telos of the cosmos can no longer be taken as a theological presupposition. From a natural standpoint, we emerged from stochastic processes. From a theological standpoint, we are the ends for which God created the cosmos, but one possibility of myriad outcomes.

Is it any wonder then that many Christian religionists object so strongly to the notion of evolution by natural selection? The shift in perspective that is required by Darwin's breakthrough theory is regarded as too radical, too seismic in scope and extent for the "old time religion" to survive. It simply leaves no room for anthropological exceptionalism. Even the anthropocentrism that is readily admitted as a necessary theological presupposition is revealed as myopic. Perhaps such myopia can be excused when corrective lenses are not available. But once placed over our eyes the spectacles reveal a world in sudden relief that we are compelled either to accept or, in madness, to deny. Yet, rarely, do religionists take on the full view at once. In matters of religion, first reactions are typically irrational. New perspectives are initially denied, suppressed, and all-too-readily explained away or selectively accommodated when no other recourse remains.

But fear not! The faith as revealed has demonstrated time and time again to be more than sufficient for the task, even during seismic shifts of perspective. If, as we believe, the Christian faith is a divinely revealed faith, then it is true. If true, then it will agree with all else that is true no matter where such truth is found (e.g. in the "book of nature"). It stands to reason then that the relativization of humanity foisted upon us by the acceptance of natural selection (not to mention the vastness of the universe) serves the ends of theological truth by opening up a greater world to the theologian -- a greater realm of redemption to consider. All at once the entire cosmos becomes the object of God's elective grace, the receiver of the gift of incarnation, the subject of theosis.

Yet this is not to say that humanity's place, while no longer exclusive in principle, is no longer special or unique. Certainly it is both special and unique in our small corner of the cosmos. Even if life with consciousness very much like our own existed elsewhere in the universe, the distances (for us) are far too great to be meaningful; and while nothing precludes God "becoming flesh" in other contexts, and in ways appropriate to those contexts, this would be of no immediate concern to us. In the final analysis, and for the time being, we perhaps can still afford a vestige of our exceptionalism, if only for the impracticability of ever discovering such as ourselves in other corners of the "world of the universe that is."

Part One

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rehabilitating Pelagius: The Making of the West's Most Notorious "Heretic"

Perhaps no greater acrimony can be meted out in Christian debate than to accuse someone of "Pelagianism." Pelagius (354-418) was a popular ascetic whom most scholars accept was born somewhere in the British isles. Around 380 he moved to Rome where he took up writing and teaching about his ascetic practices. Around 405 he was exposed to some passages from Augustine's Confessions which provoked his first publicly-made objections to Augustine's views on predestination and grace, suggesting that such views were to blame for the moral laxity that he observed among Augustine's admirers in Rome. After the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410, Pelagius relocated for a short time to the city of Carthage where he had a brief, but memorable encounter with Augustine. Shortly thereafter the two adversaries began their famous literary debate.

Nowadays, it is generally conceded by scholars that Pelagius's notoriety in the Western Church owes at least as much to a misunderstanding and/or the misrepresentation of his views as it does to the ascendancy of Augustinianism in the West. The anti-Pelagian propositions of the Council Carthage (418) appear more to have been addressing Augustine's caricature of Pelagius's views and/or what the Council may have been led to believe were the logical implications of his views than they do an accurate account of what he actually taught. Among the propositions affirmed at Carthage (contra Pelagius) were:

1. That death came from sin and not from our physical nature;
2. That infants must be baptized to be cleansed from the guilt of Adam's original sin;
3. That justifying grace (infused not imputed) remits past sins and helps to avoid future ones;
4. That grace imparts both the strength and the will to act out God's commandments;
5. That no good works are possible without divine grace;
6. That saints confess to be sinners because they truly are;
7. That children dying without baptism are excluded from eternal life.

Amazingly, a contemporary assessment of at least some of these propositions is enough to make many Christians cringe with discomfort, even in contexts where the spirit of Augustinianism runs deep. Indeed, it is a testimony to Augustine's polemical skills and prolific output during this period that he is remembered as the premier patristic voice in the West, despite that fact that some of his views have either been largely qualified or quietly discarded, which makes it even more ironic that Pelagius is reckoned to be one of the church's most despicable heretics.

Naturally, Pelagius's literary output was suppressed after his condemnation and is thus no longer extant. Yet what does remain of his work demonstrates that many of the views attributed to him he in fact did not hold. For instance, it turns out that Pelagius actually did believe that baptism was necessary for the salvation of children, though he did not believe they were held accountable for Adam's sin; he did in fact believe that saints were sinners, though he also held that some saints had successfully stopped sinning (a common enough belief in his day, especially among ascetics); and he did hold that grace was necessary for good works and to please God, though he did not hold that such grace cancelled out the freedom of the will. Indeed, it appears that Pelagius even held to a form of prevenient grace that was necessary to draw a person to salvation, though obviously such grace was resistible.

Where Pelagius fell afoul of his great adversary Augustine was in his criticism of the latter's strict predestinarianism which, to Pelagius, seemed to suggest that human beings were mere automatons. Pelagius attributed this position to a residual "Manichaeism" in Augustine (recall that Augustine had been a Manichee), in which the flesh was considered utterly corrupt and evil and thus powerless to perform any works that could please God. In fact, all acts of the flesh were inherently sinful and worthy only of divine condemnation. Pelagius was appalled by what seemed to be the implication that human beings could be condemned for something they could not avoid (sin).

That Augustine did indeed retain something of his former Manichee views of human nature seems a fair assessment on Pelagius's part. But rather than base his pessimistic views of human nature in the Manichee mythos that the physical universe was not created by God at all, but rather by evil forces, Augustine found in his new Christian faith an explanation that seemed to uphold the doctrine of God as Creator of all things while at the same time exonerating God from being the author of sin. This was, of course, the story of the Fall of Adam in the Book of Genesis, especially as interpreted by Paul in his Letter to the Romans (chapter 5). Augustine reckoned that Adam's first sin was both the root of all evil and corruption in the world as well as the cause of mortality. As nothing remained of meritorious value in human nature after the Fall, salvation would necessarily be regarded as being of pure grace, in which the human will or volition could play only a passive role and only after it had first been regenerated by grace. Since it was obvious to Augustine that not all are redeemed, it must be the case that those who are redeemed are also predestined by God to salvation.

This would explain why Pelagius's positive views of the human will would be characterized by Augustine as amounting to the outright denial of such things as the necessity of grace in salvation, the universality of human sin, and even the need of baptism for the salvation of children. For Augustine, to deny the utter depravity of human beings (the foundation of his absolute view of predestination) was to deny the entirety of the catholic faith. Thus condemning Pelagius on these lesser matters (whether or not he had actually denied them) made him out to be the foe of long-cherished Christian doctrine and practice and thus someone who was eminently more condemnable by councils; whereas to challenge Pelagius's orthodoxy on the greater matter of the nature of predestination would have been to wage a war in an area that was not yet (nor ever would be) settled doctrine.

The background and issues raised in this ancient debate have never been more important than they are today, if only because of the near total monopoly that Augustinianism has had over western theology over the last sixteen centuries. This has not been without its consequences in the development of western theology, particularly in our own day when theologians are compelled to deal with the challenges presented by the discoveries of modern science, especially human origins. Indeed, rehabilitating Pelagius, at least in part, may go a long way to dismantle assumptions that have kept theologians from adequately facing these challenges.

For instance, given what we now know to be the origin of the human species through the process of evolution via natural selection, contemporary theologians can hardly take for granted the Augustinian notion that "death came from sin" and not from our physical nature; nor can it be seriously entertained that the "flesh," that is our "sin nature," derives from some supposed "first" or "original" sinful act that took place in an Edenic paradise. Simply put, the theological-narrative that Augustine had constructed from the Book of Genesis no longer suffices as an explanation for the origin of sin, the onset of mortality, or the need for grace, at least not in any reified or historical sense. Once this is admitted, even Augustine's doctrine of predestination loses much of its raison d'etre and begins to look suspiciously more and more like the fatalism that Pelagius contended that it was.

For further discussion see: Adam and the Undoing of Augustine.
See also: The "Two Minds" of Augustine: Original Sin Considered from an Evolutionary Perspective.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Theistic Evolution: A Theological Narrative

What follows is offered up as a provisional theological narrative for a Christian account of theistic evolution:

1. Creatio ex nihilo (creation "from or, out of, nothing"). In contrast to pantheism (and even panentheism), creatio ex nihilo asserts that the cosmos, i.e. "the world of the universe that is," has its origin in God as its ground of being, not out of divine necessity but rather of divine will. Hence, as a fundamental assertion of theism, the cosmos cannot in any way be identified with the Divine or be said to possess an essentially divine nature. The Creator, the one whom we call "God," is wholly other, i.e. utterly transcendent from the cosmos.

2. Divine Kenosis. Creation is nonetheless an act of divine kenosis, or "self-emptying," wherein the Creator freely and gratuitously "makes room" for something other than the Divine-Self: the "gift of being." This "gift of being" (creatio ex nihilo) includes the "gift of becoming" (creatio continua), i.e. the unfolding of divine purpose in the cosmos as it evolves from essentially random fluctuations in the continuum of time and space, to the formation of the basic elements, the coalescence of matter, the formation of stars, galaxies, solar systems, planets, the emergence of organic chemical processes, self-replicating molecules, biological life, and finally consciousness itself with its attending consequence of "existential estrangement."

3. Cosmic Stochasis. The extent of divine "self-emptying" can be detected in the stochastic or non-deterministic (so-called "random") natural processes of the cosmos. Orthogenesis, or so-called "progressive evolution," i.e. the hypothesis that evolution follows a straight or unilateral course towards a determined end or goal, must be excluded on both scientific and theological grounds. Scientifically speaking, the process known as Natural Selection simply precludes the notion. Theologically, the "gift of becoming" must contain within itself a true, rather than apparent, freedom, i.e. the "freedom-to-become." In other words, the physical universe contains no necessary internal, directional or teleological ("end-driven") goals.

4. Teleonomic Contingency. The admission, both scientifically and theologically, that precludes the existence in creation of necessary teleological or "end-driven" goals does not preclude the existence of inherent teleonomic or "end-seeking" goals grounded in teleomatic processes, i.e. natural laws that the physical universe follows. These processes are inherent in the universe as created. Consequently, the universe does not unfold in a chaotic or "directionless" manner, but rather in accordance with the purpose and will of its Creator towards greater and greater complexity. Be that as it may, this inherent direction towards greater and greater complexity follows a permissive course rather than a determined one. Hence, the universe is free within the confines of its own natural laws to evolve in an infinite number of ways, but always in the direction of greater and greater complexity -- termed "self-transcendence" by K. Rahner.

5. Theosis. Neither does contingency in nature in any way preclude an overall divine teleology or purpose for the cosmos. Theologically, this purpose is called "theosis" -- the participation of the created order in the Divine life, divinization, union with God. From the very moment of existence, the Creator has been drawing and calling the cosmos into closer and closer proximity to the Divine-self. The cosmos in turn responds through continuous evolution, more and more organization, emerging properties that yield, self-transcendentally, even more wondrous properties. Consciousness and self-awareness just happen to be among the wondrous properties that have emerged in our small corner of "the world of the universe that is," and just happen to be unique (as far as we know) to our species. In humankind, the cosmos possesses the ability to look back on itself in wonder, mystery and awe. Implicit in such emergence is the realization of the imago Dei, the faculty of volition, and the actualized moral realm wherein natural contingency self-transcends into human "choice."

6. Existential Estrangement. Estrangement is the angst of the self-aware cosmos -- the human species -- in coming to terms, at least implicitly, with its inability to attain the goal and purpose for which it has been created -- union with the Divine (theosis). In traditional terms, this is called Original Sin. The struggles to adapt and survive, to survive and compete, to compete and overcome -- struggles common to all biological life -- are but the birth pangs of theosis. Yet these struggles lie at the root of human estrangement and are indirectly the cause of sin, wherein biological competition is superseded by social competition, which in turn is superseded by economic and political competition, and ultimately by spiritual competition. The divine self-giving Logos challenges estrangement, undermines it, and threatens to overthrow it; yet while still "other" and speaking from a distance, the Logos cannot conquer it apart from the annihilation of the cosmos itself. In moral beings estrangement is inevitable; yet it is also necessary in the realization that theosis cannot be attained apart from grace, as a divine gift, and thus is the necessary condition of a true receptivity.

7. Incarnation. Far from being a divine afterthought, incarnation is the ultimate goal of creation. Indeed, creation and incarnation are but two acts of the same divine drama. Together they constitute theosis -- the perfect, inseparable union of God and creation -- which is not possible without the initiative of divine visitation: "The Word made flesh."  On evolutionary terms we may speak appropriately of incarnation as "ascendant Christology," but only in respect of the receptivity of the cosmos to unite with the divine Logos. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo entirely precludes our ever speaking of incarnation in terms of a cosmos evolving into the divine in and of itself. As gift it must be received. Evolution, whether biological or spiritual, can only produce the conditions conducive to its reception.

Yet given the unfathomable gulf of being, divine grace from a distance can only hope to persuade through imperfect witness, hoping to woo a self-aware cosmos into receiving the divine "in the fullness of time." The biblical record is filled with stories of divine call and human receptivity. Even paganism has its myths of divine union with humankind. Yet each account fails by degrees to be that perfect moment of receptivity until the incarnation of Christ -- a holy mother's fiat -- the mythos of Annunciation -- the cosmos ready to receive the divine seed of its own theosis.