*Note: This review was originally published in Cultural Encounters: A Journal For the Theology of Culture Vol.8 No.1 2012: 144-148. I have been given permission to reproduce it here. For full disclosure, I also received a free review copy of the book.*
Contemporary theology has many “afters” for which it must account: theology “after Auschwitz,” or “after Wittgenstein,” or “after the Death-of-God.” Yet none of these “Afters” ever are so unhappy as that theology which must speak of “God after Darwin,” (to steal John Haught’s recent book title). Despite the very widespread and public antagonism between evolution and Christianity, “In these pages,” writes Conor Cunningham, “we present Darwin’s theory in such a way that—far from opposing religion generally and Christianity specifically—it is of great service to Christian religion” (xvi). To misappropriate another book title (this one from Wentzel van Huyssteen), Cunningham is insistent there is a much better story to be told of Christianity and evolutionary theory, one where they are in a “Duet,” rather than a “Duel.” Evolution does not disenchant the world, but can show its intrinsic meaning: This is Darwin’s pious idea. And Cunningham tells the tale with clarity and a sense of humor, showing himself to be a master of interdisciplinary sources unequalled by any similar offering currently available. On the back cover amongst the encomium of blurbs, the atheist philosopher Slavoj Zizek stands out by noting Cunningham’s work is like “simple bread in our confused times.” As Cunningham attributes the genesis of what came to be his recent opus magnum to a friendly debate over a few frosty mugs of Guinness, perhaps the book could equally be said to invite conversation like a fine brew.
And such an inviting and expansive palette wets the appetite. The general flavor of the social imagination at large still tastes of the blood drawn from fisticuffs between what appear to be two well-defined sets of pugilists: Creationists in one corner, naturalist-materialist Evolutionists in the other. As much as it may pain the preacher who wishes to proclaim Christ from the pulpit, we all must admit the gospel is now often rent and burdened by this alien divide. Christ is a stumbling block, but for all the wrong reasons. Darwin is thus the enemy of faith; and faith, as seen by the academies, is the enemy of scientific progress. So goes the common story. What we need is a change of residence from these now comfortable suburbs where our thought has settled. Thus a major portion of Cunningham’s overall project is meticulous scientific, historical, and philosophical deconstruction of the playing field covertly shared by both sides (indeed, the subtitle to his book is Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong). With devastating precision, Cunningham uses what can be described as a “re-narration,” of Darwinism through the lens of orthodox Trinitarian theology and recent cutting edge advances in scientific theory (reminiscent, actually, of the method recently utilized by Alister McGrath in The Open Secret and A Fine-Tuned Universe) often liberating evolution from critic and defender alike.
Nonetheless, the relation of theology and science is fundamentally a theological question—that is, the question of the relation of God to the world, and world to God—however much it might also be historical, sociological, scientific, and philosophical in turn, and Cunningham’s roots as a theologian do not fail him as he tackles this issue in numerous sections, including a lengthy final chapter. Some evangelicals may worry that Cunningham will travel the route(s) taken by other notable voices in the theology and science debate—such as Philip Clayton, John Polkinghorn, Sally McFague, and Arthur Peacock—and elaborate a fundamentally panentheistic (or even Process) conception of God and world, which supposedly accommodates the modern scientific and philosophical picture of dynamically inter-related systems. Yet this is not the case. Refreshing, given its general absence from books of this genre, is Cunningham’s insistence that only the Trinitarian God will do.
Expanding on theological conclusions he drew previously in his enormously complex book The Genealogy of Nihilism, with several of his contemporaries like Lewis Ayres and David Bentley Hart, Cunningham enacts a retrieval (not merely a repetition) of an orthodox Trinitarian theology, arguing that the views of those like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas have remarkable abilities to find resonance with modern theory. Yet in hearing this, those expecting Cunningham to be on board with the Intelligent Design movement will be sorely disappointed. In fact Cunningham argues that ID theorists, Creationists, and ultra-Darwinists have the same (distorted) picture of God: “the I-D (Intelligent Design) camp echoes the approach of the ultra-Darwinists. They think religious notions of deity should be [empirically] demonstrable, at least to some degree” (276); or “Both ultra-Darwinians and creationists believe that any existent deity is a designer ‘God,’ the only difference being that the former think it does not exist . . .By contrast orthodox Christianity has for over two millennia believed in a Creator God, who is anything but a designer [so conceived].” (151). Though comments like this will no doubt agitate, Cunningham’s historical and theological knowledge is vast and demands to be taken seriously: “a proper understanding of creation does not suffer any anxiety about a physical origin of the universe, just as it does not worry about common ancestry…For example [for] Aquinas…creation was a metaphysical relation, not a relation articulated by physics” (286).
Which is not to say Cunningham adopts Stephen Gould’s (or on the theological side, Karl Barth’s) view that science and religion have nothing to say to one another, quite the opposite. Rather in the vein of T.F. Torrance and Wolfhart Pannenberg (and more recently McGrath, and going further back we might say also Aquinas and Augustine) Cunningham argues that the different sciences all analyze different levels of a stratified reality; through the use of such ideas as “emergent properties” the different sciences, and ultimately theology, offer different levels of explanation, and theology is at the pinnacle of this hierarchy. Whereas the sciences are often guilty of what Cunningham entitles the “supernaturalistic fallacy” (e.g. 236) which is “a pathological desire to reduce or to deflate,” via the absolutizing of reductive explanations (i.e. the reduction of the person to organs, organs to cells, cells to chemicals, etc. . .), a theological framework of humankind’s ecstatic ascent toward God’s call (while yet remaining eminently natural) preserves the sanctity and inter-relation of all levels. The problem is not in methodological reductionism per se, rather the problem is that reductionism for many does not just remain heuristically useful, but becomes in those like Dawkins ontologically true: we “are” not: “it is not from dust we came and or to dust we shall return, for this wholly anti-evolutionary gnosticism sees only dust.” (237). But dust has no ethic, no aesthetics, no drama. Biology does not study life merely the “Esperanto of the molecule.” I am not myself, merely chemicals moving about (what Cunningham, taking a jab at Richard Dawkins, calls “selfish carbon.” (245)) Only belief in the Triune Creator, and in the incarnate Christ who recapitulates all things and brings them up into Himself (Eph. 1:10), can truly “save the appearance” of new levels of phenomena like personhood.
With this theology in the background (though it develops as the book progresses) Cunningham sets out to analyze basic questions of Darwinism such as: what are the units of selection—selfish genes? Whole creatures? Whole groups? Is selfishness basic to evolution? Is every trait and characteristic the result of natural selection? Can selection account for novelty? Is evolution blind chance, or is it in some sense teleological and making progress? Has (and does) Christianity oppose science? Has it produced it? Whence metaphysics? What are other evolutionists aside from the ultra-Darwinists saying about this? What about the book of Genesis? And there are some fascinating conclusions along the way.
Along with recent efforts by Michael Rea and J.P. Moreland, Cunningham of course covers the standard—though complex—fair of distinguishing evolution as a scientific theory, from the materialism and naturalism it is often embedded in: “science must not abuse the very generosity of its own possibility by mistaking itself for ontology” (303). But more than this (and quite humorously), Cunningham analyzes the presentations of evolution by figureheads such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others labeled “ultra-Darwinists” (a term not original to Cunningham), and comes to the conclusion that their representation of evolution is actually anti-evolutionary (I will not spoil the analysis here).
What this book affords us, through its generous tone and pristine scholarship, is a new cultural space for dialogue. Cunningham’s demonstration, if nothing else, pushes the fringes back to where they belong, allowing cooler heads and better research the room it needs to breathe. The ultra-Darwinists are not only smuggling in an unstable form of naturalism, but “Dennet and his ilk appear to completely ignore current science. They remain beholden to bygone days of old, perhaps to avoid the apparently philosophical and theological implications of current science” (329). And on the other side, Christian fundamentalism itself has yielded to obsolete forms of science, thinking that it is validated by them. Cunningham’s is a remarkably refreshing take on the whole issue. While not being deluded into thinking that Christianity can at any juncture be “proven,” Cunningham neither takes a fideist retreat into what Wolfhart Pannenberg once pejoratively called “the ghetto of redemptive history.” Cunningham’s remarkable project amounts to the claim that a well-elaborated orthodox account of Christian theology displays an explanatory resonance with much of the frontiers of current science. And in some instances theology even allows for a more robust, non-reductive narrative account of the phenomena under question. Indeed the astounding inter-disciplinary nature of Cunningham’s work itself suggests that the best avenue for future work is an expansive, generous taking-account of a colloquy of fields of expertise.
Yet, despite incalculable upside, the book is not without flaw. Those who claim allegiance to either Creationism or ID theory will no doubt balk at Cunningham’s lack of extended engagement with thinkers of the respective camps. Indeed even those with no such allegiances may find occasional discomfort at some of Cunningham’s theology, especially in the whirlwind that is the last chapter. Moreover, despite his overall clarity of style, there are lapses in perspicuity. At times I think Cunningham’s broadness of appeal may work against him: with chic dialogue and earthy, concrete examples it appears the book would do well as a companion guide to the mainstream, yet at other stretches there are immense surges of technicality. In other regards Cunningham’s vast knowledge of the relevant literature occasionally works against him when, in a few instances, the work feels more like series of strung together (albeit very germane) quotations, than the sound of Cunningham’s own voice. These shifts are sometimes so radical it makes one question the intended audience of the book. But these are small ripples in an otherwise vast, elegant stream. Unquestionably, Cunningham’s book is the necessary prolegomena for an evangel in our times. In a society that often lags in the morass of the science/faith divide, Cunningham exposes the great horizons behind what many mistook as hills and mountains blocking the sky. Like many works attempting a resolution by telling previously antagonistic parties they are both wrong, Cunningham’s book will undoubtedly be met with both skepticism and outrage. Yet his many arguments, rich and exhaustive research, often witty prose, and quite frankly, the sheer scope of the book itself, will intoxicate those who drink from it deeply, much like the ambrosia that inspired it.