The natural world and God's benevolence


Here is a quote from James McGrath's blog:

If one had to believe that God directly created parasites to feast on other organisms and devour them alive, it would lead to a far more problematic view of God than evolution does. One simply cannot avoid rethinking one's views about God in light of scientific knowledge, but without evolution, the things we know about biological organisms might necessitate the abandonment of any notion of a benevolent deity.
I think this is an interesting point. It seems to me that the simplest way to reconcile the existence of God with the existence of, for example, parasites that feast on other organisms--not to mention all the other messy aspects of the natural world, like death and tornadoes and kidney stones--is to accept that the natural order in all its details was not the outcome of a predetermined divine blueprint that God conceived and implemented from top to bottom.

In order to reconcile the imperfections of our natural world with a perfect God, I could imagine a few possible explanations, many of which I don't consider tenable. I am sure there are others, but here are some possible proposals that come to mind:
* An omnipotent God really did create this world as it is in full detail, down to the lowest parasite, but despite the seemingly imperfect nature of things this is actually the best of all possible worlds (a la Leibnitz), and is the result of a perfect Divine plan that we just cannot understand. Every complex system has unintended consequences if you tweak just one little thing; take away one bad thing, and you instead get something else that is worse. So God made all sorts of compromises, and this is the best he could come up with. (Somehow, the idea that this is the "best God could come up with" doesn't really sound like a ringing endorsement of God's abilities, but maybe that's just me.)
* An omnipotent God created a slightly different sort of world that really was perfect, but then human sin altered the creation somehow and made it "depraved". Presumably the "depraved" world we know is not too radically different from the perfect world that God created; so, for example, in a perfect world, creatures that resemble us humans would walk on a world that would resemble our earth, perhaps even bound to that earth (so they walked instead of flew off into space) by physical laws that would resemble our gravity. But these humans in this perfect world wouldn't die or feel pain. And if the lamb would lie down with the lion, that means that creatures resembling our current lions and lambs would exist in this perfect world, with the difference being that the former would not eat the latter. It is as if God created a perfect oil painting, but then someone spilled a few drops of turpentine on it before the paint fully dried. (This point of view seems derived from a time when the Genesis story of Adam's Fall was taken to be literal history, but even today some Christians, even some who believe in evolution, take this position. It seems to me more feasible to take this view if you are a hardcore creationist. Otherwise, how or why the first human sinners managed to retroactively change the very physical laws of the universe, which were formed billions of years at the time of the Big Bang, long before any sinners were even born, isn't exactly explained.)
* An omnipotent God created the universe, using evolution as the mechanism through which we got the world we have today, and the world today thus reflects God's exact plan. God planned out the details, but the execution was slow and deliberate rather than immediate. This is essentially just a refinement of the first explanation above, except that it tries to reconcile this with the fact that we know that the universe evolved into its present state after billions of years since the Big Bang. (As to why God chose such a tedious, not to mention messy, process, complete with evolutionary dead ends, suffering, parasites, and all the rest-- since this God is omnipotent and could just wish the world into existence--isn't clear. )
Last, but not least, here is the position that I favor:
* A non-omnipotent God evoked the universe into being. Evolution is the natural result of the creative processes of cosmic development in place since the time of the Big Bang. God did not plan out the exact and full course of evolutionary development from the beginning. Instead, at each moment in time God offered the best creative outcome for that moment, which may or may not have actually taken place in response to God's lure. Because God could not control the outcome of each individual event, God then had to take stock of the new situation after each moment and respond accordingly with new divine lures to try to take the universe forward a little further. God is thus not directly responsible for the existence of, to name an example, parasites. When God created the universe, God did recognize the full possibility that the natural order would eventually lead to things like parasites, but God was willing to take that chance 14 billions years ago because he/she believed that the benefits of a universe that could eventually produce conscious creatures outweighed the potential problems. Because God is not omnipotent, every last detail of the natural order is not the direct product of a divine blueprint. Instead, God lure the universe forward despite its own imperfections, working in response to the state of the universe at each moment.
Ultimately, I think that if one is going to believe in God, the last of those possibilities makes the most sense. As James McGrath points out, evolution provides us with the way out of the theodicy conundrum--but I would argue that this is true only if we don't try to produce some sort of hybrid theology that hopes to merge a supernatural theism with an evolutionary understanding of the universe.


David Stoker said...

"(As to why God chose such a tedious, not to mention messy, process, complete with evolutionary dead ends, suffering, parasites, and all the rest-- since this God is omnipotent and could just wish the world into existence--isn't clear. )"

Perhaps God cannot just wish things into existence, instead he is the master of laws that he did not create nor could be created, laws that simply exist, that are. God then becomes the great organizer and guider of the creation of life. A painter doesn't create a painting from nothing.

Rev. Ricky said...

I agree with your conclusion. God works as a partner and inspiration for co-creation.

Your second option is a common theology but is actually not logical. You write, "An omnipotent God created a slightly different sort of world that really was perfect, but then human sin altered the creation somehow and made it 'depraved'." It's inconsistent to hold that God is omnipotent and that human beings have the power to alter creation. Either God's power is responsible for our sin (the problem of evil) or God is not all powerful.

David Stoker's comment raises the interesting question of whether God is metaphysically ultimate or if the laws of nature are ultimate (or some of them anyway). Here again though classic theology illogically holds that God's power is completely unlimited. Because God created "Ex nihilo" (so they say) God really did create His painting "from nothing" and thus is again responsible for everything including parasites.

Mystical Seeker said...

Interesting comments, David and Rev. Ricky.

Maybe there is a middle ground behind the two extremes of (on the one hand) the laws of nature being outside of God's power and (on the other hand) these laws themselves being God's creation. If you view the universe as the result of a co-creative effort between God and creation, then even the laws themselves could also be a co-creative effort. I believe that process theologians would describe the laws of nature as "habits" of behavior. If God can lure the world to proceed in certain ways, then can God also lure the natural world towards acting in certain habitual patterns of action? Was this what happened at the Big Bang?

The thing about the analogy of God and a painting is even if God is working with pre-created materials, it presumes that a very powerful God still picked up the brushes and exactly worked out the detaiils of the painting. But I am suggesting that even that analogy goes too far. In essence, I think that the painting was a co-collaboration between the paint, the brushes, and God--that God inspired the painting to paint itself, as it were.

I think that if God co-created the universe, that does seem to reject the idea of creation ex nihilo. One could argue that Genesis, which started with the world as a formless void, also rejects creation ex nihilo.

Rob said...

It seems to me there are far more nuanced views than the choices listed, ones that take into account such questions as primary vs. secondary causes, omnipotence vs. compossibility, omnipotence vs. omnificence, and such concepts as mechanism, mind, and personality that enter into the equation.

Oh so much vexation in philosophy ;-)

Mystical Seeker said...

I'm sure you're right, Rob. I'm obviously no philosopher. :)

Rob said...

Ah, but Mystical, I beg to differ, you are a pretty darn good philosopher ;-) Your reasoning is sound, your value-insights often profound.

It is easy to simplify our models, compare them, and then toss out one option for another, and then confuse the model with concrete reality. Hey, scientists do it all the time! Why can't philosophers and theologians! After all, they are human too ;-)

It seems to be a case from my experience as Shin Buddhist Jesusonian that we need to evolve a religious philosophy that makes room for both a personal and impersonal God/Amida concept; one that allows for both a transcendent and Infinite First Source and Center that is the divine pattern of perfection that ever works within an imperfect contingent/evolving creation in a co-creative process of creation, laying both the material foundation of the evovling physical, biological, mindal, and spiritual universe.

Godhead may indeed be suprapersonal; but to deny Godhead personality, albeit infinite personality, is to fail to recognize the cosmic value of personal relationships, the center and circumfrance of the Amida/God qua evolving finite beings realationship. Why is not possible for an infinite Creator to choose to give finite evolving creatures the opportunity to join in the co-creative process of co-evolving experiential Deity?

Perhaps as Huston Smith statement about Buddhism, that the universe is one large Buddha making organism, is true? Or, in Jesusonian terms, the evolving time-space universe is the womb of a vast co-creative process of evolving God-conscious sons and daughters?

I think we really need to redefine the terms evil and sin in light of our current evolutionary knowledge. That goes a long way in alleviating some of these apparent mutually exclusive propostions that in my view are creations of mortal mind rather than reflections on reality.

Mystical Seeker said...

Rob, you are too kind. If I am a philosopher, then so are you. :)

Rob said...

We are both heretics on a quest, a journey, and along that journey we are attempting evolve creatively a new philosophy of living that is commensurate with the facts of science and the insights of spiritual value-realizations.