Evolution and Prayer

January 2017

3,300 words

In a recent piece in the NCR, Thomas Reese reported on the efforts of fellow Jesuit Robert Daly to bring the discoveries of science into the religious life of Catholics by reformulating the Eucharistic prayer — the liturgical center of the Church’s life.  Reese gives examples of Daly’s work, and while I agree, from what I read, that the results are poetically beautiful and scientifically updated, it hardly qualifies as the achievement that Reese claims for it.

Reese associates Daly’s efforts with contemporary Catholic theologians who are attempting a dialog between Christianity and science, and says

These theologians are imitating the great theologians of the past — Augustine and Thomas Aquinas — who used the intellectual thought of their times to explain Christianity to their contemporaries. Augustine used Neo-Platonism and Aquinas used Aristotelianism because these represented the intellectual worldviews of their times. Today’s theologians who use science and contemporary thought are very traditional; they are simply following in the footsteps of Augustine and Aquinas.

Augustine and Aquinas formulated theology.  The systems they worked out represented an objective effort, using the logical procedures current in their times, to understand the beliefs of their faith and express them in scientific terms and thus, as a by product, they effectuated a convergence of science and religion.  The prayer that flowed from that achievement was an integral component of a living synthesis.

Robert Daly is not doing that.  And I question whether any of the theologians Reese cites as Daly’s mentors are doing that either.  Claiming to follow their lead, Daly is taking theology built on ancient and obsolete science and without changing much more than the descriptive details of the natural order, is rewriting some of the prayers of the Church.  He is not really trying to correlate Jesus’ life and message with the science and thought processes of our times; he avoids incorporating any of the really significant changes demanded by the discoveries of modern science into this prayer.  I suspect he knows  such changes would result in something the ordinary Christian would not recognize as prayer.

Daly recognizes this challenge and says his “goal has been to formulate prayer/praying in which both people comfortable in a pre-modern, pre-critical, pre-scientific worldview and people comfortable in a quantum-cosmological, developmental, evolutionary worldview can happily pray together.”

Science deals with reality.  By insisting on including “a pre-modern, pre-critical, pre-scientific worldview” Daly is repeating the theology which assumes attitudes and interpersonal relationships that people now believe to be unreal.  To the modern mind the achievement of such relationships is impossible, therefore, its continued pursuit is unreasonable.

Inversion — the “God” that is not

These impossibilities turn on a major inversion in our understanding of the universe, what we traditionally call “creation.”  That inversion occurred in the last century when it became generally accepted that evolution was the exclusive agent of the origin of species.

“That organisms have evolved rather than having been created is the single most unifying principle of modern biology.”  (Brooks & Wiley, 1988)  It is also the single most important event for traditional western religion — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — theologically and liturgically in its entire multi-millennial history.  Prior to evolution creation was understood in the West to have been the product of a rational Mind — “God” — a person who both designed and brought into existence all “creatures” according to their kind.  Evolution established beyond the shadow of a doubt that that view of creation was not only not true, but had actually inverted the natural order.  For instead of design and its implied rationality coming first and being the “cause” of the existence of things, evolution showed that it was the existence of things and their insistence on remaining in existence in whatever way that worked that was responsible for the evolution of all things at every point in time over the course of the 13.7 billion years of the history of our universe.

That fundamental inversion affected all established priorities.  “Purpose,” believed to have been embedded in creation’s design and the principle motivation driving it, suddenly disappeared altogether.  There was no “purpose” that explained what something was and why it occupied the place it did in its environment.  The only “purpose” involved was the desire to survive which dominated all living organisms equally.

In scholastic terms, the hallowed primacy of essence over existence was inverted; evolution revealed that existence had priority over essence.  The famous scholastic dictum that “existence comes through the form” and that it was “form” that gave shape to “matter,” was similarly reversed; “form” came through existence and it was matter’s energy to survive that determined the form it would assume.

Ultimately the belief that a rational Mind — the Mind of “God” — was behind it all lost all evidentiary support.   But also it lost its rationale; it was no longer needed to make sense of the way things were.  It is beyond dispute that matter’s energy self-elaborated all the forms and features of our universe.  “God” as an independent cosmic agent had no scientific basis and was relegated to a matter of “faith.”

That wasn’t true in Aquinas’ day.  For Aquinas “God” was a cosmological factor as scientific as any other.  Prayer directed to the “God” who personally created and providentially managed all of creation was completely consistent with the most up-to-date science of the times.  There were three things that made “prayer” an integral part of the worldview that no one disputed;   (1) “God” was a rational “person” who thought, understood, and willed as we humans do though at an infinitely greater level of breadth, depth and knowledge.  (2) As a “person” “God” was intimately present to each human person, heard what was said to “him” and was capable of making “him”self understood in return if “he” wanted.  If “he” did not do so, it was because “he” chose to remain silent.  (3) “God” was also all powerful, capable of changing reality by his thought and will alone.  “God” controlled the events that occurred in time.  Whatever happened was either “God’s” direct will or “his” indirect permission.  “God” can change the course of history and natural events at any point, and if he does not, it is because he has chosen not to.

All this served as a premise for prayer.  “God” could be asked for things, even changes in the natural order, because he was an all powerful person, who heard our prayers and knew our inmost thoughts and loved us.  Given what we thought “God” was like, it was most “reasonable” to pray to that “God” and ask “him” for favors.  But unfortunately, we have since learned that that “God” does not exist.

The “God” that is

Evolution threw everything into question; it contradicted all the assumptions of the traditional view.  Once the evidence for “God’s” work and character evaporated, people realized that there was no such “God.”  It was simply not debatable: the “God” imagined by Genesis, the intelligent designer and creator of the material universe, even nuanced to include the discoveries of modern science, does not exist. 

People reacted to that realization in different ways.  Some concluded simply that the entire religious phenomenon was an imagined substitute for modern science, explaining the unexplainable.  Once science clarified the evolutionary mechanisms involved in “creation,” the need for religion disappeared.  We have to face reality: we are material organisms in a purely material universe.  There is no “God,” and we are alone.

Others, trusting in their faith experience, insisted that it was premature to draw that conclusion.  They said that the only thing you could validly conclude from evolution was that whatever “God” there was, is clearly not like the “God” described by Genesis.  The issue, they said, is not the existence of “God” but “his” character — what “he” is like.  Evolution taught us more about “God” than Genesis  ever could.  Where both groups agreed was that the data were clear: as far as was observable and provable there was no other agent functioning in the elaboration of every form and feature of our universe besides the material particles released at the time of the “big bang.”  Evolution, in other words, has determined that the only way to continue to say that “God” created the universe, is to assert that “God’s” activity is completely commensurate with and indistinguishable from the activity of matter evolving itself.  That means that, effectively, whatever other source of formal distinction there might be, there is no observable material distinction between “God” and matter.  “God,” in other words, is totally imperceptible (you may have noticed).

Once you begin moving in this direction, you leave the realm that imagines “God” as a transcendent entity separate and apart from all other entities.  That theological view is called “theism,” and it is the traditional view of “God” provided by Genesis.  It is untenable.  With evolution we enter a new realm which conceives of “God” as immanent in the material world, identified with it and indistinguishable from it.  This view is called pan-entheism: everything (pan) exists within (en) God (theos).  Each of those views has a different take on “God’s” distinctness from matter.  Theism said that “God” is distinct because “he” is an entity apart from the world.  Pan-entheism says “God” is distinct only by reason of his ontological relationship to matter as its cause and energizer, but not in any other way.

“God” and matter, therefore, as far as the ordinary observer is concerned, are one and the same thing. How­ever, strange as it seems to say that, it turns out that we moderns were not the first to consider such a scenario.  Someone of no less prestige and antiquity than Thomas Aquinas held a similar belief in the middle of the 13th century.

Thomas said that “God” was esse in se subsistens (self-subsistent being) and therefore was not an entity but rather “Pure Act,” the continuous source of the existence of all entities, and as such was commensurate with and in no way separate from matter’s action in any form.  This was possible in his system because he thought of ESSE (Being) as a subsistent idea and therefore “God“ as Pure “Spirit.”  But a fortuitous by product of this obsolete dualism was that matter always retained its own integrity as autonomous agent according to the level of development it had achieved on its own, all the while energized as itself by a spirit-“God.”  This concurrence of “causes” Aquinas divided into primary and secondary.  While secondary causes — the natural order and its principle modus operandi: evolution — were entirely responsible for the effects achieved by their struggle to survive, all of it was sustained as itself by the primary cause “God,” providing esse, “his” very own “spiritual” self, as the energy that enlivened all, making “him” equal­ly the cause of what matter elaborated.

Secondary Causation is the philosophical proposition that all material and corporeal objects, having been created by God with their own intrinsic potentialities, are subsequently empowered to evolve independently in accordance with natural law. …

Secondary causation has been suggested as a necessary precursor for scientific inquiry into an established order of natural laws which are not entirely predicated on the changeable whims of a supernatural Being. Nor does this create a conflict between science and religion for, given a Creator, it is not inconsistent with the paradigm of a clockwork universe.

This is what Thomas meant by providence: “God” provides the natural order and the existential energies that it needs to sustain itself.  This “God” never acts apart from the natural order, and it is clear from the role “he” plays in the evolution of  the universe, that “his” action collaborates seamlessly with the initiative and autonomy of matter.  This kind of “God” does not perform miracles.  “God” only acts through secondary causes.

While Aquinas’ doctrine is compatible with evolution as we see it unfolding, his dualism gets in the way of the profound immanence that we must presuppose if we are going to fully match our idea of “God” to the data of scientific observation.  In a dualist system “God,” precisely as Pure Spirit, stands apart from the Universe of matter because spirit is by definition the antithesis of matter, while the observed facts suggest otherwise: “God” is in no way separate from matter.

Even to call “him” a “person,” another corollary of “spirit,” is a humanoid projection of ours which is belied by the evidence: “God” is not an entity that relates to other entities except by being their living energy.  “God,” by being my “primary cause,” is as much myself as I am.  “God” does not hear and respond to us because “he” is not separate from us.  The bond we have with “God” is far deeper and more intimate than any interpersonal relationship.  “God” is our very identity.  “God” is the very LIFE that I experience as mine, and that we humans as a mutual support community experience as ours.  Our thirst for love and for justice ineluctably stems from there.

Prayer in an evolutionary Universe

The first thing to realize out of all this is that the donation of “God” to the existence and development of the universe is greater, more intimate and more selfless than anything we imagined under the obsolete pre-modern worldview.  Evolution goes far beyond Genesis and reveals “God” to be utterly self-donating with no will to interfere in the way matter pursues secure existence.  This complete absence of self-interest establishes a new and exponentially expanded definition of “generosity” and provides the solid ground for Jesus’ metaphoric characterization of “God” as a loving father, forgiving without limit, and Mohammed’s acclamation of Allah as “the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.”  It also concurs quite literally with the statement in Acts 17 that it is “God” “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  It also elucidates Paul’s use of the word kenosis ­— “self-emptying” — to characterize Jesus’ imitation of his self-donating “father.”  The primary cause of creation by evolution is that “God” pours “him“self out completely into the material universe.  There is no remainder.  Such a view is not compatible with dualism.  “Being” is not a subsistent idea.  There are no subsistent ideas.  Being, ESSE, is a concrete measurable observable thing: it is matter’s energy.  “Pouring out” is a metaphor.

The immediate implication is that “prayer of petition” in the context of such magnanimous self-emptying is not only futile, because “God” is not in a position to answer anyone’s prayers, but it is also totally meaningless because what the newly revealed character of “God” provokes is not a groveling recitation of petty needs, but a great-hearted generosity that corresponds to the selfless donation that is, simultaneously, our very persons and “God.”

What kind of “prayer” is appropriate now?  The more suitable reaction is a profound awe that collapses in a surrender that is totalizing: it consumes our life because it reveals our LIFE to be “God” “him”self.  It renders us as individuals humble to the point of utter quiescence.  It’s no surprise that a stunned silence has been one of the spontaneous reactions across the traditions and throughout history.  Elijah’s “gentle breeze” was an example of silence as a reaction to the encounter with the numinous.  The various forms of Hindu / Buddhist / Zen silent meditation are authentic practices that could easily be used in community prayer by Christians.  The Quakers have made silent “sitting” the centerpiece of their community worship to great spiritual benefit, but it never happened in mainline Christianity.  Our noisy and whining liturgies have yet to acknowledge the global consensus and incorporate silence into their program.

The experience of our common possession of LIFE also explodes outward in respect for all other things and other people.  Francis of Assisi’s legendary love of the animals and Ghandi’s hunger and thirst for justice were equally valid and universal reactions.  Social action / liberation is so clearly the extenuation of love and generosity that it should have some liturgical link, minimally the remembrance and evocation of the “martyrs” of social justice regardless of their religious stance.  This would include atheists.  Many people have had and described this experience without necessarily knowing the intimacy of “God’s” presence to the living organism from evolutionary biology or from the tenets of any official religion.  But the correspondence between the experience evoked by evolution and the experience of the mystics and liberators of past ages is remarkable and corroborating.

Please notice how evolution opens a view onto the character of “God” that is contrary if not contradictory to the premises of traditional western Christianity:  … (1) that “God” is distant and inaccessible, insulted, angry and demanding.  The “God” of evolutionary creation, to the contrary, is not far from us, either by a creator’s ownership, ontological transcendence or moral alienation, requiring that we do something to overcome a fatal separation.  There is no separation between us and “God.”  Any sense of separation is purely psychological on our part — an illusion that needs to be overcome; and that is the basis for an ascetical program.  … (2) that humans and “God” are immaterial “spirit.”  The idea that our persons are really immaterial “souls” able to exist without our bodies after death, or that “God” is not the very living dynamism of matter itself, or that there is an immaterial world of subsistent spirits other than this one, becomes both unimaginable and unnecessary.  Our material bodies are natural and the primary residence of divine energy — LIFE.  Our endless LIFE has already begun with “God’s” sharing “his” material energy every bit of which has in fact been here for 13.7 billion years and will be here for as long as matter continues to evolve.  We are full equal partners with “God” in “God’s” ongoing material  project whose astonishing evolutionary accomplishments to date portend a cosmic future that is yet to be seen.  … (3) that “God” will punish us for our sins.  There is no “God” that is not identified with our very selves.  The “God” that punishes us is our own conscience, enlivened as it is by LIFE itself.

It is hard to imagine that Catholic liturgy will ever change.  The false belief in miracles and the millennial encouragement of the hierarchy for people to seek divine help mediated by the (remunerated) intercession of the clergy, will prevent any liturgical departure from the status quo.  But this should be no surprise.  It parallels the adamant refusal to revamp doctrinal and authority structures that are equally archaic and dysfunctional.  Much of this was anticipated in the case of Thomas Aquinas almost a thousand years ago.  It’s difficult to suppress the suspicion that the need to maintain absolute power over a fearful, gullible and paying constituency caused the hierarchy to suppress his ideas.  Thomas’ concept of providence-as-the-natural order and “God” as ESSE enmeshed with secondary causes, established divine immanence as the correct relationship between “God” and us.  But none of it ever reached the pulpit, and those in Thomas’ own time like Eckhart and the Beguines who attemp­ted to bring it to the people were condemned as heretics.  In its universal pastoral practice the hierarchy continued to impose a wrathful, insulted, punitive, miracle-working, humanoid “God” and wrapped its sacramental life around it.  The similarity of Aquinas’ vision to the work of evolution in the material universe predicts a similar fate for the people today.  The Church will not change.  Theologians have often sketched a Church that only exists in their imagination not in reality.  It’s important that we keep clear that it’s not just the dreams of theologians that constitute the “reform” our times call for.  Our liturgical prayer must change beyond just superficial tinkering; but for that to happen, the Church must change … and that’s the rub.