John Schneider’s Animal Suffering and the Darwinian Problem of Evil is a wonderfully rich and interactive book which advances the arguments of previous authors in interesting ways. In this short review, I welcome this chance to respond, while nevertheless acknowledging that the depths of the book would require a much longer essay. I will be affirming some aspects of Schneider’s aesthetic theodicy while casting doubt on his God-as-artist, and author of evil thesis.
In a faithscape in which there have been so many boundary arguments over Genesis and literalism, the deeper repercussions of an evolutionary paradigm slipped by, and have gone largely unnoted until recently. Schneider’s insistence that in light of evolution we must embrace a non-lapsarian explanation for evil is something I deeply appreciate and agree with. I argue in Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil that the idea of evolution itself, regardless of its particular philosophical outline, undermines a lapsarian theodicy, and at the same time enormously complicates and deepens the problem of evil because we now have the full visage of animal extinction, animal predation and animal disease to add to our litany of complaints and terrors.Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Thus, our only previous fool-proof default answer to evil—the Adamic fall—which had previously lain at the kernel of systematic theology has to be revised. On this point, I think Schneider and I would agree.
In my book, Animal Suffering, I argue that we can extend backwards and forwards the parable of the wheat and tares in Matthew 13. I suggest that in this parable Jesus is saying something about the persistence of evil entwined in the good, and even that the good is sometimes dependent on the evil—I discuss this further below.Darwin’s view of evolution, but more particularly the hardened mid-century evolutionary view is terribly reductive, excluding all vibrancy, agency, and purpose, and leaving behind a vision of life as essentially random and mechanical. Jesus is also stating strongly that there will be resolution, but that complete resolution will come at the end. This picture has obvious overlaps and resonances with an aesthetic theology, especially Schneider’s with his emphasis on eschatology, and his peace with the persistence of the dark colors on the palette of life. Like Schneider I argue that it is the wheat that matters, because in it we can see God in life and nature, and perhaps thereby restore our “theistic sight,” or sensus divinitatis.
But I also argue that the gospel in a traditional Darwinian world became very attenuated. As nature was portrayed in a more and more “nature red in tooth and claw” direction it became very hard theologically to affirm the wheat of the natural world. Darwin’s view of evolution, but more particularly the hardened mid-century evolutionary view is terribly reductive, excluding all vibrancy, agency, and purpose, and leaving behind a vision of life as essentially random and mechanical, with the possible exception of human consciousness, which in the darkest corners of this paradigm may simply be reckoned as a spandrel. And that was indeed a picture of fairly deep seated disharmony. But while Schneider suggests that this is still the case (p. 145), I would argue otherwise, that the natural world as we see it really isn’t dominated by disharmony any longer. Schneider interacts with this idea but rejects its importance (p. 40).
Everything we now know about evolution changes it in subtle ways, as I outline in chapter 8 of my book—by the hidden constraints in physics and chemistry (Philip Ball), by the newly emerging sense of telos based on those and other constraints (Simon Conway Morris), and by the cooperation and symbiosis at every level of life (Sarah Coakley).See Philip Ball, Shapes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 20040; Sarah Coakley & Tim Nowak, eds., Evolution, Games and God: The Principle of Cooperation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). Indeed, this deep interdependence is the discovery of the ecological age. All of this cascading cooperation and symbiosis at deeper and deeper levels is suggestive of mind, and as wondrous as anything we know about life and this planet and beyond. Science has uncovered all of this, and in the end, I would judge that the “weight” of it is stronger even than the disharmonies and predation Darwinism has documented so well. And the goodness has not been devoured or eradicated by the darkness. This weight of harmony nourishes our “theistic sight” especially if we look at it holistically and in its totality.
Schneider claims that having established the goodness of nature I demand that we turn away from the sight of the evil, or that I do not care to speculate on the origin of the tares (p. 32). I do not ask that we turn away. But like Celia Deane-Drummond, I am prepared to be less insistent on an ultimate explanation of that evil than Schneider is. Where I would part company with Schneider is in his insistence that God is the direct author of this evil. I can accept that God can be seen to allow it and that God works all things together for good; with Schneider I agree that God is working to overcome and defeat evil. I accept even that there are ways in which the light is lighter for the existence of the darkness, but not that God is the author of evil, even as justified within an aesthetic paradigm.
So what is the explanation of evil? First, I don’t think we have begun to plumb the depths of what it means to be finite. Finite creatures of all kinds cannot be perfectly in sync. And all life we now know lives at the edges of equilibrium; chaos far from being inimical to life is its precursor. In an out of sync world, fault lines can be magnified by chance, by constraints, by agency, by deprivation, chaos and so on.
In an out of sync world, fault lines can be magnified by chance, by constraints, by agency, by deprivation, chaos and so on.
But apart from finitude, I do proffer a faintest outline. I believe there are responses somewhere between an outright satanology and Schneider’s referring of all things to God. Deane-Drummond, following Balthasar, is in this space with her insistence on the shadow Sophia.Celia Deane-Drummond, Christ and Evolution (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2009), 185–87. In this I refer to the tenor of the New Testament. Jesus understands himself as being in a fight to the death, standing up to Satan in the seemingly benign voice of Peter (Matt 16:23), and in the wilderness encounter with the Devil (Matt 4:3–9) who made if not a benign suggestion, then certainly one which would have found favor in our efficiency-based cultures today. And then there are the biblical “powers and principalities,” described and revived in our attention by Walter Wink.Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992). Is Jesus also the author of these powers and then enacting a drama against them as Schneider suggests? As Wink argues, the powers are inherent in every human enterprise—and perhaps that of other creatures—sometimes building on the good, much as the wheat is upheld by the tares. If some such scenario is true then powers would be seen to enhance and magnify human frailties and malice, but all physical reality might be subtly altered by their existence. It is not necessary to have a full blown medieval type satanology to assert that we might not be the only sentient presence in the universe, nor the only level at which consciousness exists.
I would argue, however, that it is hubristic to expect that we will understand it all. That we have understood some shadow of the truth about our biological and cosmic origins is marvelous and was not to be taken for granted. Even so some physicists wonder where the edges of our comprehension will be. Paul warned that we see “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12). We are all aware, perhaps that in crossing a line in this argumentation we can move quickly from making a point as “plausible as otherwise,” to use Schneider’s frequent phrase, to being frankly implausible in the detail.
I do say that in the end, for different reasons from Schneider—although we both draw on Job—we have to be content with the sense of God we can revive within nature/life, confident that the drama of the resurrection is a drama that will encompass the whole of the natural order at the fulfillment of time. We must be content that the persistent horrors are in the end not defining of life even while they appear at times to overwhelm all things.
However, I do find other points of resonance with Schneider. He argues that the aesthetic view is made plausible if we can begin to see some of this resolution into a greater whole even this side of the fulfilment of history. I would agree that the wheat and the tares We must be content that the persistent horrors are in the end not defining of life even while they appear at times to overwhelm all things. is also made more plausible this way. I think this plausibility has by no means been accessible to every suffering creature, but recent advances in evolutionary science itself have ironically opened up this possibility. Schneider talks about the world of micro-monsters and in this year of plague we are acutely aware of the existence of these, and the wide array of viruses and bacteria seemingly always willing to invade.
It is astounding then, that evolutionary science is now opening up a vision of evolution by viral (micro-monster) implantation (mentioned by Schneider on p. 250). This is a rapidly changing field but we now know that at least fifty percent of our genome—perhaps more—is viral in origin. We know that viral inserts are co-opted for future use. Retroviruses not only insert themselves, but affect the regulation of genes. My colleague Graeme Finlay has described how the evolution of the mammalian placenta occurred because of the insertion of a cascade of retroviruses producing the sticky syncytin-1 needed to make the cells of the placenta stick together.Graeme Finlay, “The Amazing Placenta: Evolution and Lifeline to Humanness,” Zygon, 55/2, 2020, 306–26. And yet the placenta is so central to mammalian reproduction and perhaps to the close bonds which exist between parent and child. The world of benign micro-monsters is also responsible for the biome in our guts and skin, all of which are necessary for health, and work for good unless destabilized by toxins, stresses or antibiotics. Evolution itself then shows some of this resolution; not all micro-monsters are so monstrous, if we dig to deeper levels of functionality.
But how would we distinguish between the wheat and tares paradigm and Schneider’s aesthetic theodicy? In the end it is a theological judgment call. The idea that God creates the evil seems to be a reformed theological play on sovereignty taken to its ultimate extent. In the human sphere, I would ask can we pray with confidence to a God who may merely be painting us into the dark shades; it may evoke the same terrors that the doctrine of election has done in the past, regardless of final resolution. The image of God as artist would be a disturbing one for any theodicy, and might make us less willing to fight for justice in this world, more willing if we are privileged to accept that the darkness and light are all pre-ordained, and all God’s intention, much as the elect in the past have accepted the existence of those elect to damnation. If the tares have been planted by the “enemy” of God, in contrast, although we might accept the tragedy of the present age, we will more readily also accept our part in resisting and defeating them.
Thus, I find myself often agreeing with the language of God who brings all life and order out of chaos, and who is fighting to defeat the darkness and the suffering. I could use much of the same language but I want to affirm the deep harmonies of nature are increasingly visible and staggering; they have never disappeared even while they were eclipsed to our view, and that God is not the author of evil, even if God is the author of chaos.