Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts is our subject once again. She is a philosophically aware theologian or, perhaps, a theologically aware philosopher. My field is more biblical studies and history.
So I look out for places where the Bible impinges on her arguments. She brings up biblical passages from time to time as she moves along. She acknowledges that the biblical writers could not have been aware of evolutionary science. However, some biblical passages open a way to see the kind of God who might be behind evolution.
When she argues against a radical dualism between matter and spirit, she puts forth theologian Karl Rahner’s idea that matter transcends itself. That is, matter tends toward life and spirit. Matter is not inert, but contains within itself the capacity to emerge into life and spirit. God built this capacity into matter.
Then she brings up Genesis 1: 20: “let the waters bring forth” and Genesis 1:24: “let the earth bring forth” These passages suggest, as Augustine already noticed, the notion that secondary causes have a role in creation and that the material world contains the potential to bring forth life. Darwin’s theory just “rachets up” (p. 178) what the sea and the earth can produce.
I appreciate that she does not use this as a proof text or anything. It just shows that the seed of Rahner’s idea is compatible with the dramatic and poetic account in Genesis . Radical matter-spirit dualism is not found in Genesis 1.
A more pivotal use of scripture comes when she tries to deal with the problem that death is integral to the theory of evolution. Evolution depends on the death of some and the survival of others. This is a problem because the love of God is at the foundation of evolution in her argument. How is the love of God related to the bloody and violent reality of evolution? This is one of the questions I have been holding in reserve.
She cites this passage:
For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:19-26 NET Bible).
The “whole creation groans and suffers”. This is the reality of life. However, this passage clearly puts the groaning and suffering in the story of what God is doing in history. Something is emerging. God is bringing about something new. The image of groaning and suffering comes from childbirth. In the natural world pain and blood precede the coming of new life. Yet, even in the midst of the pain, the creation “eagerly waits” for new life.
In its context in Romans, this passage is about the hope that arises because the Spirit of God has acted in the death and resurrection of Christ.
She talks about how pain is the shadow side of pleasure. It has its purpose in life and evolution. So also with death. Evolution requires generations to arise and pass away. So massive death is essential to the working of evolution. There was never, she says, a paradise where pain and death did not exist. Genesis 2 and 3 are mythic or poetic. They do not mark an era in natural history.
This runs counter to theological positions that see death as the result of human sin or as a providential means of accomplishing personal growth. Rather, death operates in the natural world of predator and prey in an entirely impersonal way.
Since Johnson relates evolution to the love of God, there is obviously need for further reflection. Her placing of Romans 8 at the early stage of this discussion, though, shows that she wants to ultimately see pain, suffering and death as part of God’s working out of a loving design. But the eras are long. God works in what she calls “deep time”.