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Tracy, Thomas F. “Evolution, Divine Action, and the Problem of Evil."

Thomas Tracy addresses two of the central challenges that evolutionary theory poses for theology. First, how might we understand God as creatively at work in evolutionary history? Given the prominent role played by chance in evolution, Jacques Monod and others have contended that the meandering pathways of life cannot enact the purposes of God. Second, how can the affirmation of God’s perfect goodness and creative power be reconciled with the ubiquitous struggle, suffering, and death that characterizes evolution? This, of course, is a form of the problem of evil.

The first question demands a theological interpretation of evolution. Tracy distinguishes his project both from natural theology, which attempts to argue from nature to God, and from any theological competition with biology, which attempts to show the inadequacy of naturalistic explanations in order to substitute theological ones. Instead, given the best current evolutionary theory, Tracy asks how might a theologian concerned with divine action and providence conceive of God’s relation to the history of life?

In response, Tracy argues that there are several ways in which God might be understood to act in and through evolutionary processes. God acts universally to create and sustain all finite things. In so doing, God may choose to fix the course of events in the world by establishing deterministic natural laws. In this case every event in cosmic history could be regarded as an act of God. There are good reasons, both theological and scientific, to reject this universal determinism. From science it appears that indeterministic chance is built into the structures of nature, and that chance events at the quantum level can both constitute the stable properties of macroscopic entities and effect the course of macroscopic processes. Chaotic dynamics and evolutionary biology provide two key examples here. This in turn creates several fascinating possibilities for conceiving of divine action in the world. Perhaps a “hands-off” God leaves some features of the world’s history up to chance. Or perhaps God chooses to act at some or all of these points of indeterminism. Then God could in this way initiate particular causal chains without intervening in the regular processes of nature. Tracy notes that there are conceptual puzzles raised by each of these ideas, such as whether God determines all or just some of these events - and thus the relative theological merits of each would need to be debated. But this variety of options for conceiving of divine action makes it clear that the first challenge can be met.

If we succeed in constructing a theological interpretation of evolution, we are immediately confronted by a compelling form of the problem of evil. How can belief in God’s loving care for creation be reconciled not just with moral evil in the human sphere but also with the hardship, pain, suffering, and death that characterizes evolutionary processes, or what is called “natural evil”? According to Tracy, any morally sufficient response must identify the good for the sake of which evil is permitted, and it must explain the relation of evil to this good. One standard approach is to argue that God must permit some evils as a necessary condition for achieving various goods in creation. John Hick, for example, holds that the good of “soul making” requires that persons be free to develop their intellectual, moral, and spiritual capacities by acting in an environment that is lawful, impersonal, and at an “epistemic distance” from God. This entails both that we can do moral evil and that we (and other sentient beings) will suffer from natural evil. Clearly evolution can be accommodated within such a theodicy, though Tracy admits it is probably not required.

If we grant that the good cannot be achieved without permitting these evils, we may nonetheless object that the world contains far more of them than would be necessary to serve God’s purposes. It is not difficult to think of evils that, as far as we can see, do not lead to any greater good and could readily have been prevented. Tracy’s response is that God must permit evil that does not serve as the means to a greater good if it occurs as a necessary by-product of preserving moral freedom and the integrity of the natural order. Precisely because these “pointless” evils do not generate particular goods, they will appear to us to be unnecessary. However, evils of this type must be permitted by God, and it will be up to us to prevent or ameliorate them. From the fact that we cannot see a point to an evil, therefore, it does not follow that God should have prevented it. A world that includes the good of personal relationship with God must apparently include pointless evil.

But just how much pointless evil is really required? Does the world instead contain gratuitous evils? The problem here is, first of all, in assuming that we can calculate what could be considered the minimum amount of acceptable pointless evil, and thus that we could quantify and balance goods and evils. The deeper problem is in the assumption that the world really does include gratuitous evils. In fact we cannot even conclude that some evil is gratuitous merely because we cannot think of a reason for God’s permitting it. Moreover we must recognize that we are in no position to see how each evil fits into the overall course of cosmic history, to comprehend all of the goods to which it may be relevant, or to recognize all of the consequences of eliminating it. In grappling with the reality of evil, we confront the limits of human comprehension and are forced to accept epistemic humility, as the Book of Job makes plain in God’s speech from the whirlwind. We cannot expect to solve the problem of evil. Instead the central task for Christian faith in the face of evil is to proclaim and understand what God is doing to suffer with and to redeem creation.

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