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Peacocke, Arthur. “Biological Evolution - A Positive Theological Appraisal."

As Arthur Peacocke observes, the nineteenth-century theological reaction to Darwin was much more positive, and the scientific reaction much more negative, than many today care to admit. Current theology, however, is far less open - a “churlishness” which Peacocke is committed to rectifying for the sake of the believability and intellectual integrity of Christianity. To do so he turns directly to five broad features of biological evolution and the theological reflections they suggest.

The first is continuity and emergence. Although the seamless web of nature is explained by scientists using strictly natural causes, biological evolution is characterized by genuine emergence and a hierarchy of organization, including new properties, behaviors, and relations. Such emergence entails both epistemic irreducibility and a putative ontology. Emergence, in turn, is God’s action as the continuous, ongoing, and immanent Creator in and through the processes of nature.

The second feature is the mechanism of evolution. Although biologists agree on the central role of natural selection, some believe selection alone cannot account for the whole story. Peacocke describes eight approaches to the question which operate entirely within a naturalistic framework, assume a Darwinian perspective, and take chance to mean either: 1) epistemic unpredictability, arising either a) because we cannot accurately determine the initial conditions, or b) because the observed events are the outcome of the crossing of two independent causal chains, or 2) inherent unpredictability as found at the subatomic level. Chance characterizes both mutations in DNA (types 1a and/or 2), and the relation between genetic mutation and the adaptation of progeny (type 1b). Chance in turn was elevated to a metaphysical principle by Jacques Monod, who rejected God’s involvement in evolution, but Peacocke disagrees. Instead, chance connotes the many ways in which potential forms of organization are thoroughly explored in nature. Rather than being a sign of irrationality, the interplay of chance and law are creative over time. This fact, for the theist, is one of the God-endowed features of the world reflecting the Creator’s intentions.

Next Peacocke raises the question about trends, properties and functions which arise through, and are advantageous in, natural selection. Drawing on G. G. Simpson and Karl Popper, Peacocke claims that there are “propensities” for such properties. Examples include complexity, information-processing and -storage ability, and language. They characterize the gradual evolution of complex organisms and contribute to the eventual existence of persons capable of relating to God. Thus the propensities for these properties can be regarded as the intention of God who continuously creates through the evolutionary processes, though without any special action by God at, say, the level of quantum mechanics or genetic mutations.

The fourth feature is the ubiquity of pain, suffering and death in nature. Pain and suffering are the inevitable consequence of possessing systems capable of information processing and storage. Death of the individual and the extinction of species are prerequisites for the creation of biological order. Complex living structures can only evolve in a finite time if they accumulate changes achieved in simpler forms, and are not assembled de novo. This includes both the predator-prey cycle, which involves eating pre-formed complex chemical structures, and the modification of existing structures via biological evolution. This, in turn, raises the problem of theodicy. Peacocke stresses that God suffers in and with the suffering of creatures, and cites support from current theologians who reject divine impassibility. God’s purpose is to bring about the realm of persons in communion with God and with each other. Moreover, God’s suffering with Christ on the cross extends to the whole of nature. Death as the “wages of sin” cannot possibly mean biological death; this requires us to reformulate the classical theology of redemption. The reality of sin must consist in our alienation from God, a falling short of what God intends us to be. It arises because, through evolution, we gain self-consciousness and freedom, and with them, egotism and the possibility of their misuse.

In his final section Peacocke turns to the theological significance of Jesus Christ in an evolutionary perspective. Christ’s resurrection shows that such union with God cannot be broken even by death. His invitation to follow him calls us to be transformed by God’s act of new creation within human history. But how is this possible for us now? This leads Peacocke to the problem of atonement. Since he rejects objective theories that link biological death to sin and the Fall, the suffering of God and the action of the Holy Spirit in us together must effect our “at-one- ment” with God and enable God to take us into the divine life.

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