Christian Conviction in Light of Extinction, Suffering, and Cruelty in the Animal World
Christopher Southgate is a biochemist, poet, and Christian theologian. He is currently a research fellow at the University of Exeter in England. Dr. Southgate has written broadly on the intersection of science and faith. Janel Kragt Bakker spoke recently to Dr. Southgate about the character of God in light of the processes of evolution and the problem of suffering, particularly in the nonhuman world. Dr. Southgate addresses this challenge directly in his book, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, which was published in 2008 by Westminster John Knox Press.
What led you to take up the challenge of how to understand God in light of evolution and the problem of nonhuman suffering?
For a large part of my career I have been concerned with helping students and churchgoers take the evolutionary narrative seriously. Science gives us an amazing picture of the natural world, but it also highlights problems with generalizations Christians often make about that world. In terms of my focus on nonhuman suffering, I think it is the great, under-addressed problem in Christian theology. So much attention, very understandably, has been given to the problem of human suffering, but the fact that the natural world that the good and loving God has created is nevertheless “red in tooth and claw,” has received very little attention, and it needs some hard thinking through.
You aim to see creation “like it is,” and you describe creation revealing “ambiguous patterns.” What do you mean by these phrases?
In creation we see amazing values—such as beauty, intricacy, complexity, diversity, and symbiosis—but we also see creatures tearing each other apart and suffering from chronic disease. We also see that perhaps 99 percent of all the species that have ever existed have gone extinct. The evolutionary process has generated incredible value, but what might be termed “disvalue” is bound up with the value. This makes creation ambiguous.
How do you affirm God’s goodness in light of the suffering of creation? How is the creator of this ambiguous world of grandeur and groaning worthy of worship?
I don’t believe that God is good and loving because of what I see in the natural world, but rather because of my own experience as a Christian and my convictions about the person of Jesus. My challenge is to reconcile the ambiguous picture of the natural world with the character of the good and loving God I know from scripture and experience. I need to be prepared for my view of God to be changed by my reflections. That’s the price of theology.
What is unique about your approach to theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness and justice in light of the existence of suffering and evil)?
I’ve been quite clear in my contention that some of the traditional approaches to theodicy, especially with regard to animal suffering, simply don’t work. It doesn’t work to sentimentalize animal suffering through what I call “Bambi theology”, to pretend that animals don’t suffer, or to suppose that the suffering of animals doesn’t matter. Nor does it work to suppose that suffering is, in some way, the result of some sort of foreign event such as the human fall into sin.
To ascribe the suffering of non-human creatures to human sin isn’t coherent principally because animal suffering was going on for millions of years before humans existed. It is very difficult to see how one could be the cause of the other when the “effect” happened 65 million years before the “cause.” To ascribe non-human suffering to some other form of fall—for instance, the fall of the angels—doesn’t work either. This line of argument gives angels much too much power in relation to God by implying that God intended a certain sort of world that angels were able to ruin. I don’t think this notion is part of a Christian confession about God.
Secondly, evolutionary science tells us is that “values” are completely bound up with “disvalues” in a single package deal. We have fast cheetahs because slow cheetahs starve. We have fast antelope because cheetahs have run after them for millions of years. The things we admire about nature are products of the same processes that generate suffering. Dissecting the values from the disvalues, claiming that all the bits we like are God’s bits and all the bits we don’t like are caused by some other fall, is both theologically and scientifically incoherent.
You describe your view as an “only way” argument for creation. In your view, suffering is instrumental to God’s purposes and thus necessary. The world is a package deal; it includes both values and disvalues, and the price is “worth it.” Is this simply a cost-benefit analysis?
If you use the “only way” argument by itself, then it would sound like a cost-benefit analysis. There would be a danger of ending up with a model of God who is just a consequentialist calculator, weighing costs and benefits. That’s why I’m not content to use the “only way” argument by itself, but rather combine this argument with the conviction that God suffers with individual suffering creature. Suffering is always individual. It’s not a property of the system.
Why do you maintain that the ambiguous patterns of creation are the only way God could have created, and that scientific processes could not be otherwise?
As someone with a scientific background, when I ask myself to imagine any other sort of way in which the world could work scientifically, I find myself struggling for an answer. From the second law of thermodynamics to natural selection and other processes of evolution, the universe works in certain intractable ways. My other reason for subscribing to the “only way” argument is that I believe that if a good and loving God, the sort of God I see illustrated in the life of Jesus, could have contrived an amazing array of stunning creatures without the process of evolution involving millions of years of suffering, then God would have chosen such a world. Because we do not have a different world, the world we do have must be the only sort of world that could give rise to such creatures.
In your book, you reference a scene from Fyodor Dostoevky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which the character Ivan argues that the price of harmony is too high. A God who creates a world in which such profound suffering is present is not worthy of our respect, and certainly not our worship. Thus, Ivan says, he is “returning his ticket” of belief in God. How do you respond to Ivan’s argument?
I think that there could be people who look at the natural world and find it so hard to reconcile with the purposes of a good and loving God that indeed they would want to return their ticket. But again, I come to this question out of convictions formed by Christian life and experience of the goodness and loving nature of God. God has healed and mended my life in various ways. Therefore, I feel committed to God, and I clutch my ticket in my grubby hand, however difficult that is at times.
Even so, you maintain that we cannot get God “off the hook” for violence. Is God’s connection to violence disturbing to you?
One of the criticisms of my work is that my model of God is a god that authors and licenses violence. I reject that charge on the grounds that violence is the only way to give rise to the range of creatures that we see. My view does not, in any way, license violence in human life or society. It seems to me that humans have a particular call to transcend the evolutionary selfish nature and to give their lives away in love, which is the very opposite of violence.
If suffering is a necessary instrument for worthy purposes, as you maintain, how can we acknowledge the horror and despicability of suffering? Does an instrumental view of suffering run the risk of trivializing it?
I think there is a huge difference between the suffering of animals in the wild and the suffering that is inflicted by human beings. I often use the illustration of a group of cheetahs pulling down a big antelope. There is much suffering there, but there is also much beauty. Unlike the killing of an antelope by cheetahs, humans’ torture and oppression of each other is unnecessary. Such behavior isn’t a mark of human nature as it should be.
What about human suffering that isn’t inflicted by other humans? For instance, how do you understand cancer and other diseases which rack human and animal bodies alike?
It seems to me that diseases such as cancer are part of the whole way in which living organisms work. It is never a surprise that something as complex as the human body can develop the sort of dysfunction that is cancer. Such occasions of suffering are part of the way natural systems work. While efforts to cure or counter cancer and other diseases are important and worthy endeavors, we should not be outraged that cancer appears any more than we should be outraged that volcanoes erupt.
So in your view, the victims of disease and their loved ones who experience a sense of outrage at their plight are unjustified in their anger?
It may be natural to suppose that we should all live long and healthy lives, but I think that is a mistake. I would rather think that life from day to day is a gift from God, and that we should receive that gift in humility rather than supposing that some quota of health and flourishing is our entitlement.
You write about a suffering, self-emptying God. What does it mean to say that God suffers with the world?
I believe that God is very close to every living creature and every living creature’s experience. We get just a hint of the character of God’s suffering with the world when we look at the passion of Jesus, in which he suffered for the sake of others. This gives us a visual aid to help us understand what we can never fully grasp, God’s intimate relationship with creatures.
This redemptive work is also a part of the way you describe God’s interaction with the world. How do you envision God working redemptively?
One of the challenges for Christian theology is that the New Testament tells us that with the cross and resurrection of Christ we enter a new and final age, in which all things are reconciled to Christ. Yet we don’t see evidence of the transformation of the natural world, and the transformation of the human world is still, at best, in a very early stage.
What’s going on, I can only suppose, since I take very seriously Paul’s teaching in Romans 8, is that the liberation of creation awaits the liberation of human beings. Only as human beings come into relationship with God in which they claim their freedom and live interdependently with one another and with animals, will it be possible for the rest of creation to know its freedom. It’s all down to us accepting and receiving what God offers to us through the work of Christ. We’re in the early days of the whole project because so little progress has been made up to this point.
What are the ethical implications of this human role of accompanying God in salvation history?
I think there are two sorts of moves that all humans are called to make. One is to back off from our greedy and exploitative ways and to adopt a much humbler approach to life, following the example and call of Christ. Secondly, as extraordinarily ingenious and scientifically informed creatures, we can use our scientific understanding to assist all sorts of other creatures. Very particularly, we can work to reduce the rates of extinction, which are currently so high.
Do you think that God includes animals in the work of redemption?
Absolutely. I’d be very surprised and puzzled if that weren’t the case, both because of God’s love for creatures and because heaven would seem like a strange and impoverished place if it did not include other animals.
You’ve postulated the existence of a heaven or a paradise for the “victims of evolution.” Describe what you mean.
The example of the second chick hatched by white pelicans comes to mind, to use an illustration by theologian Jay McDaniel. Many birds of prey, like pelicans, will hatch two chicks. Typically, the elder pushes the younger out of the nest, so the younger pelican starves. The younger pelican is only there as insurance in case something happens to the elder one. The life of the younger chick is nothing but trouble, struggle, and starvation. Maintaining that that redemption extends to all of created reality and not just humans, I suggest that there must be some kind of pelican heaven in which the second chick gets to have the experience of being a pelican and flourishing as a pelican.
If this paradisiacal world is possible, why is it not the world we live in now?
I have to conclude that if a good and loving God could simply have created heaven without creating this world first, then God would have made such a place. Thus, heaven for creatures can only be a transformation of earthly existence. It can’t be something that is directly created without the intermediary of an evolved life. If biological selves must come into being through evolutionary processes, then they may be transformed and know a life of flourishing, free from suffering, in heaven.
Are people in the church sufficiently informed on what evolutionary science brings to bear on Christian theology?
To much too great of an extent in our society, scientific literacy is taken to be a sort of optional extra, rather than part of what it is to be an educated and thoughtful person. Christians have a responsibility to engage more intensively in what science is telling us about the world. We also need to be more theologically literate and better educated about how to appropriate our scriptures. For instance, reading the story in Genesis 3 as a historic fall is a crude reading of one of the most important stories about human life and human identity.
Do you think that churchgoers have an adequate understanding of how the goodness of God can be reconciled with the existence of suffering and evil, especially in light of scientific understanding?
I do think that most congregations are well acquainted with suffering and the puzzle of how God sometimes seems to intervene and sometimes doesn’t. There is plenty of understanding about the difficulty of these issues. But we don’t talk about them enough, especially in our preaching, and there is too much of a tendency to give God all the credit and none of the blame. When we stand six feet above contradiction and tell people how it is rather than sitting down together to puzzle these things out, it is easy to default to a simplistic picture of God. But if we honestly wrestle with our struggles, we are formed into stronger Christians.
You’ve said that an openness to evolutionary science deepens Christians’ understanding of nature, God, and humanity? How so?
There are enormous riches in the natural world that too many people miss by only noticing the picture on the postcard. They notice the lovely sunset or the beautiful bird, but they don’t think about the very intricate and beautiful processes which lie behind the phenomena they observe. They don’t think about the earth as part of an enormously old and enormously large universe. They don’t think about the properties of creatures that have evolved over millions and millions of years, and the interdependence of creation. Scientific understanding can enormously enrich and transform our sense of being in the world, as human beings and as Christians.
Images: Christopher Southgate. Available from: http://www.christophersouthgate.org.uk/ gigi_h. DSC_0148. Available from: Flickr Commons.
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Bob Mitchell says
Just read your interview Chris. A lot of good questions raised. I do thinks it is significant to the issue of suffering that even God himself became flesh and suffered ‘indivdually’ one of the most horrible deaths imaginable. So we know that he Himself knows unimaginable pain. As much pain and suffering as any other animal (even though inflicted by man). So that even the creator was willing to expose himself to the risks the world he created presents. Interestingly, and this may sound callus, if we did’nt have the abilty to reason and feel, animal pain would never have presented itself as a problem. This of course raises more issues…
John N. Viands says
What if there was no suffering before the Fall? What if animals didn’t eat each other before the Fall but were vegetarian, as the scripture says? What if “millions of years” is a false narrative? What if Jesus Christ, who is the creator and whose Spirit spoke through the authors of scripture actually simply told the truth when he inspired scripture? What if the Bible is actually the Word of God? What if God is NOT a liar, as you infer?
To attempt to merge atheistic philosophies (Molecules to Man evolution) with Christianity – in particular, Genesis 1 – is just about the most absurd thing a highly educated, so-called “Christian” can do. Either believe God or throw your Bible away and call yourself an atheist. What you are today is a monstrosity of the ugliest kind.
July 4, 2020, USA