I have nearly finished reading Christopher Southgate's wonderful new book The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (WJK, 2008). My thanks to the kind people at Alban Books who gave me a review copy.
The fundamental problem that the book seeks to address is the problem of the suffering and death of countless animals over the vast history of evolution. How could the God of Christian theism use such a brutal process to create? The book wisely takes contemporary scientific accounts of the history of earth and of life on earth as a given and seeks to do creative theology in the light of them (rather than taking a creation science route of challenging the science in order to defend a literal reading of Genesis).
Historically Christians might have said that all the bad things in the natural world - earthquakes, diseases, predation, suffering, animal death, etc. - are the result of the fall. Southgate argues that this 'solution' simply will not work. All these evils were around long before humans came on the scene. Blaming them on a postulated angelic fall is also a non-starter (the world, says Southgate, is the way it is as a result of divine fiat and demons cannot unleash chaos on creation that God cannot hold back).
Creation is clearly groaning (Rom 8) - and seems to have been doing so since before we came around - but can it be good (Gen 1) at the same time? That is Southgate's question.
I appreciated the fact that Southgate faces the problem of evolutionary suffering (no burying of the head in the sand here). I also appreciated the fact that he faces the issue of animal suffering as a theological problem (98% of the species that have existed on earth are now extinct!). Too often the issue of theology is handled only in terms of human life.
In a nutshell Southgate's approach is as follows
He maintains that the Darwinian system is indeed good and generates all of the values that we hold dear in living things.
He acknowledges that the Darwinian system also - and necessarily - generates a lot of pain, suffering and death.
He proposes that an evolving creation was the only way that God could generate the wonderful biospehere with all the values it contains. Consequently if God wanted to create a universe with all the goods that ours has he has to create one that has the costs.
But all this is a fat lot of consolation to the individual animal that is a 'victim' of this Darwinian world. Such an animal has value to God (Southgate develops an interesting, speculative, Trinitarian account of the value of individual animals) but is thwarted from living up to its potential.
Following, amongst others, John Wesley (!) Southgate holds that an adequate theodicy of animal suffering requires that God, in his goodness, grants some kind of eschatological redemption/recompense to the individual creatures that have been victims of evolution. I must confess that I found this the most interesting part of the book because, to my amazement, I found myself pretty convinced. I think that I have become an advocate of Pelican heaven! Not simply that there will be animals of certain types in the new creation (e.g., sheep) but that some of the specific animals that have existed in this creation (including dinosaurs, etc) will there there!!! I never thought I'd be persuaded of that!
Creation has a teleological goal and so the goodness of creation will be fully realized in new creation.
Southgate also explores the 'suffering' of God with his suffering creation (not simply humans) and see the cross as essential for the redemption of all creation and the resurrection as the inauguration of new creation (with implications for animals). Lots could be said here but you can read it for yourselves.
Southgate defends a high anthropology. God has a special concern for humans and humans have a special role in working with God for the redemption of creation. He suggests that part of God's calling upon humanity is to use our intelligence and technology for the good of creation (and this can include genetic manipulations). Fascinating stuff.
I have yet to read the final chapter but I see a call to eschatological vegetarianism. That'll be fun!
I have found this book to be exceptionally clear, refreshingly honest, biblical (in a non fundamentalist sense), theologically orthodox (honest!), thought provoking and very helpful.
Of course, I have questions and I am not persuaded by all of it. For instance, I have always been wary of the argument that says that the only way that God could achieve goal X is by route Y. I just don't know how we could know whether such claims are true or not. That said, I am open to the possibility that Southgate is right here but I am not prepared to accept it just yet. I also have always had a soft spot for classical theism and I tend to shy away from discussions of divine suffering and kenoticism unless they are qualified in careful ways (and I confess that I do often shudder at some of the kenotic discussions that those at the interface of theology and science sometimes engage in). Southgate handled both issues well but I need to ponder things some more. I think that my version would be a tad more classical.
But I can honestly say that this is the best book I have yet read on the issue of the suffering of the Darwinian system. I highly recommend it.