About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Essay Review: John F. Haught, 'Darwin, Divine Providence and the Suffering of Sentient Life'

Essay Review: John F. Haught, ‘Darwin, Divine Providence and the Suffering of Sentient Life’, in Louis Caruana (ed.), Darwin and Catholicism: The Past and Present Dynamics of a Cultural Encounter (London: T&T Clark, 2009), pp. 207–222

I’m increasingly interested in how people define providence – or perhaps in how many people, including myself, perceive the need to define providence afresh. John Haught is one of these, arguing that providence is best conceived as promise: God is not merely governing or restoring the created order to a state of original perfection, but is ‘providing’ the world with countless opportunities to grow into something new. Thus for Haught, promise is a more central category for providence than guidance or governance.

The path that leads Haught to this conclusion is his analysis of the Catholic response to evolutionary theory. Catholics, he observes, tend to shy away from the need to consider the impact of Darwin’s thought on a number of theological issues, including the doctrine of providence. How is evolutionary theory, with its depiction of life developing through extraordinarily long periods of time and no little suffering, to be squared with a loving, caring God? Are evolutionary theory and divine providence truly compatible?

Haught is convinced that the absence of any satisfactory response to these questions stems from Catholic theology’s preoccupation with the idea of initial creation, the world’s original perfection, a historical fall reversed by expiation, and so on. Instead, he continues, the emphasis ought to be on the new creation, which God is faithful to complete even as its inauguration has already been founded in Christ. Accordingly, Catholics need not pine for the original perfect creation; rather, they should be encouraged to hope for a new, unprecedented future that seeks not to explain suffering in the evolutionary process, but to expect – with a proper place for lament, I suggest – eventual future deliverance from suffering.

Haught’s paper is interesting, and I think its main insight is that which I outlined in the previous paragraph: that the way to approach matters concerning theology and evolutionary theory is to prioritise the dynamic new creation over some vague prelapsarian static paradise. I do think that Haught lingers too long on the fact that Catholics are slow to accept the implications of evolutionary theory, and perhaps this section could have been condensed so that more of his own response to the issue could have been outlined (he draws attention instead to his books God After Darwin and Christianity and Science). This is, of course, a minor criticism. Overall, I commend this paper as a complement to the Protestant David Fergusson’s essay on providence in Theology After Darwin.

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