Evolution, God and Job's ostrich
WHEN BIBLICAL interpreters reflect on the God of evolution, it is understandably to texts of the bible dealing with creation that they turn. These texts need to be acknowledged as representative of the ancient biblical writer’s worldview and they cannot simply be used as commentary on contemporary understandings of the world. At the same time the texts offer a fruitful meeting-place for a dialogue between our own perceptions of the created world and the theologies of creation emerging from the ancient texts. One concept that impinges upon both the world of the ancient texts and our own is chaos, connected as it is with its oppositional pair, order. Order is generally seen as desirable both in society and in the natural world, yet chaos intrudes into both. In science this is not necessarily a bad thing, as I will argue.
It is to the wisdom literature and, more specifically, to God’s Speech from the Whirlwind in the Book of Job 38-41 that I turn to engage in a dialogue between order and chaos. In the speech God reminds Job that the ostrich does not behave in a seemingly rational manner:
ostrich’s wings flap wildly,
The implication from the above lines is that this behaviour is not the expected pattern of an ordered world. The ostrich behaves as it does because it has forgotten wisdom, the principle of order. But the text says more than this. It claims that God has deliberately made the ostrich forget wisdom and has made it a senseless bird.
When people of faith seek to articulate a theology of creation relevant for the contemporary world, inevitably they must come to terms with the God who creates through Darwinian evolution. Side-by-side with the biblical God of beauteous creation stands the God who seemingly allows, if not actively wills, suffering as a natural part of creation. As Mary Catherine Hilkert has pointed out, it is a ‘romantic reading of the story of the universe that fails to deal with the ambiguity and violence within nature ‘red in tooth and claw’’.1
The faults of humankind in the destruction of the things of Earth are easily acknowledged. As creatures, we are not all-seeing or all-wise. We cannot predict the outcomes or ripples of every action we take. We acknowledge guilt in the face of the disastrous outcomes our actions have caused, and seek to avert total disaster through a more ethical environmental consciousness.
A more difficult issue to resolve is the challenge which contemporary scientific understanding proffers to the God who creates in the way unfolding through evolution. Scientists quite properly say that science does not seek God in the day-to-day workings of evolution, but the theologian who deals in theologies of creation must ask pertinent questions about God and the created world. One of these questions concerns creation, order and chaos. The establishment of order from chaos is seen in the Old Testament as the quintessential creative act of God. What can a contemporary theology of creation say about a God whose creation comprises chaos? Behind this question are two understandings of God. One is the God to whom the bible gives witness. The other is the God upon whom the person of faith reflects in relation to contemporary scientific understandings of the world.
I approach this question of theodicy from the point of view of my work as a biblical interpreter rather than from the point of view of science, but as a biblical interpreter engaged with the world of science. The bible is not a compendium of answers to life’s deepest questions. The bible knows the problems, it offers some answers but it leaves many matters unresolved. This is as it should be. As our understanding of the world changes, the dialogue between science and the bible remains dynamic, challenging and stimulating.
The world of the bible and the scientific world have subtly different views of chaos. In contemporary scientific thought, the concept of chaos does not imply a value judgement, but refers to unpredictability within a system. It is an objective concept. In the bible chaos is associated with disorder, with the abyss, with death. God creates by bringing order out of disorder. In Genesis 1:1-3 before God’s creative act the earth is ‘formless’. In Genesis 1:2 the priestly source refers to tohu wabohu, the ‘formless void’ from which God brings forth the created order, and the darkness which covers the face of the deep wehoshek al-pene tihom. In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the words are abussos and aoratos, translated as ‘the bottomless pit’ and ‘the invisible’. That is, God makes visible the invisible, and brings order from the abyss or the bottomless pit. Walther Zimmerli’s 1971 work describes the creative process in Genesis as analogous to the work of an architect:
[T]he priestly account of the beginning of creation is by no means lacking in elements of order. Like the work of an architect, the whole is built from the foundations up. This world structure, so carefully constructed from its ground plan up, is ever more richly furnished in what follows. It proceeds through the beasts and the plants to man [sic ET]. This notion of development, according to which the world is gradually built up from its beginnings to a richly articulated whole, is to be strictly respected. The carefully constructed edifice, the abundant fullness, remains subordinate to God’s command and call.2
In Genesis 6-9, the P (priestly) account of the flood is seen as God’s ‘uncreation’, or the act of returning the cosmos to disorder. God observes the world, judges it to be absolutely evil, and regrets creating it:
Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and
that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.
Of course, we know that God goes on to save the world through Noah, but the point remains. Chaos in the biblical world is the pre-creation state.
The biblical wisdom literature is rife with references to order in creation. In Job 28 wisdom is either the divine order implanted by God in creation or the agent discovered and employed by God in the ordering of the universe.3 Either way, wisdom is again associated with bringing order to the created world. In Job 38:32 God asks Job if he knows ‘the ordinances of the heavens to establish their rule on the earth’, implying, of course, that God alone can regulate and order matters on earth. In Proverbs 8:22-31 wisdom refers to herself as being present with God at creation as God was assigning borders to the sea and marking out earth’s foundations, in the manner of an architect following the blueprint. God separates the waters above and below, giving each its proper place and not allowing the abyss to encroach on the established order. The notion of the interrelation between creation and order is again present in the claim of Sophia in the Wisdom of Solomon 8:1 that she ‘orders all things well’.
In the ancient world chaos was symbolic of evil because it spoke to the human fear of lack of control over natural forces. The God of Job 38-41 appears to act arbitrarily, but the overall thrust of the speech is the power of God to control nature, at times a nature that threatens humankind. God reduces Behemoth and Leviathan to manageable creatures (40:15ff) and keeps nature’s elements within bounds (38:10-11). The speech is full of paradox. The power of death is balanced by the annual cycle of birth and life (38:16-17; 39:1-4). God has established a universe with laws governing location and movement of natural phenomena, yet has freedom to direct the dawn and the hail and lightning as God wills. God is free to act and is not bound by the limits of a perceived created order. Job connects the apparent arbitrariness of God with the power to send suffering upon human beings, yet the speech in the long run presents a God who has everything under control. This is a God who sends food for the wild creatures in the remotest corners of the earth:
has let the wild ass go free?
The implication here is that God assigns to the wild ass a barren place, yet not so barren that it cannot find food. At the same time, Job’s God is not a sentimental one, but the creator of birds of prey:
it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?
In any credible theology of creation we must ask questions of the God involved in natural processes. Carl Zimmer observes what he calls biological warfare in nature:
The constant menace of a predator may drive animals to evolve faster legs or harder shells or better camouflage. In response, their predators are free to evolve faster legs of their own, or stronger jaws or stronger eyes. Predator and prey can thus get locked in a biological version of an arms race, each opponent developing some new adaptation, only to be outstripped by its enemy’s evolution.4
Here lie the wonder and the horror of creation. We cannot help but be fascinated at the ability of creatures to transcend danger, but this ability is developed because of the workings of the food chain and the need for creatures to be the fittest or the fastest or the smartest if they are to survive being eaten. The God of evolution is not one for the squeamish. How then can we create a credible dialogue between the biblical God and the God of Darwinian evolution?
The Mysteries of Creation
The concept of the ‘mysteries of God’ offers possibilities for integrating the theological concept of the goodness of God and the seeming unpredictability of the cosmos. The term ‘mysteries’ is used in several places in the bible to indicate the workings of creation. In the Wisdom of Solomon 6:22 the sage refers to the mysteries of creation as he traces Wisdom’s course from the beginning of creation. Celia Deutsch writes on the concept of mystery at Qumran and points out that the term ‘mystery’ referred to the principle of order behind the phenomena of weather and heavenly bodies, to the creation of humankind and to principles of poetry and music. 5 According to Deutsch’s study of the Qumran texts, these mysteries are the work of God’s wisdom (1QH1:7, 14, 19) and are understood through insight.
Because the wisdom tradition is specifically interested in the created world, it is in the mysteries of the created world that the wise person encounters God. The term ‘mysteries’ does not indicate a willingness to abandon the search for scientific understanding. It is rather an acknowledgement that science is unable to explain everything but that the search is an ongoing one and new knowledge adds to our understanding of the creator. The biblical wisdom tradition expects human beings to go out into the world and establish the facts of reality. If we transfer the biblical concept of insight to contemporary understanding of the world, insight is available to us through scientific knowledge. Scientific understanding is not inimical to the wisdom strand of biblical thought, but indeed demanded by it.
In scientific understanding, the term ‘chaos’ is used to indicate apparently random events in a deterministic system, that is, events whose movement and outcome are not able to be predicted. The questions posed about God in a contingent world need to be addressed, but the interface between science and theology reminds us that in our search we will encounter a God who is not easily labelled. We can expect an ordered world, but we cannot count on it, because it is a constantly changing complex system. Contemporary science reminds us that particular species come into being through apparent random chance and successful adaptation to the environment. God’s creation is to some extent random, but always dynamic in its generative forces.
If we return to Job’s ostrich, evolutionary biology teaches us that if we trace the evolution of this particular ostrich we might understand that its behaviour, though irrational by human standards of nurture, is in fact the best means it has to survive as a species. But that knowledge was outside the ken of a pre-Darwinian world. Job, therefore, explains it as the deliberate act of a God who can confer or withhold wisdom from a particular species. In our twenty-first century context, we do not see the apparently senseless act of the ostrich as being deliberately willed by God. We rather see it as inbuilt into, or an outcome of, the natural processes of evolutionary biology.
When chaos is seen as an integral part of natural processes it need not have negative overtones. Contemporary science tells us that chaos can lead to new life in surprising ways. Indeed, chaos theory has long played a part in non-Western understandings of the cosmos:
Chaos theory and complexity are tools for understanding. But these new sciences contain understanding that has been indigenous to non-Western societies…the insights of chaos and complexity can be found in most non-Western cultures. Humility before nature, richness and diversity of life, generation of complexity from simplicity, the need to understand the whole to understand a part—these are the things that the non-West has not only believed but acted upon. They are intrinsic in most non-Western worldviews. 6
The biblical world was aware of chaos and associated it with disorder and death, but believed it was under the control of God. Indeed, the respect the biblical writers showed in the face of chaos in creation is evident in the celebration of the awesome power of Leviathan in Job 41.7 When we use the bible in dialogue with contemporary science rather than as a manual for reading the mind of God, we can celebrate the God of chaos as well as the God of order. This claim does not mean that the person of faith sees the direct action of God in every event of creation, but it does mean that an acceptance of the findings of science is not incompatible with a belief in God. In fact, I have claimed that the wisdom tradition demands that the person who seeks to encounter God in the world must use insight gained from the best of the intellectual, scientific and biblical traditions.
Earlier in this article I suggested that the dialogue between science and the bible remains dynamic, challenging and stimulating. Long before Darwin saw the Galapagos tortoise, Job sat on his dung-heap and pondered the ostrich’s apparently senseless ways. It is the task of the scientist to observe the tortoise and the ostrich. It is the task and the privilege of the theologian to reflect on the question, ‘Who has given understanding to the mind to work out the ways of creation’? (Job 38:36). Darwin and Job, the scientist and the theologian, are impoverished without each other. In an echo of the biblical God’s words, to acknowledge that truth is the beginning of wisdom (Job 28:28).
Marie Turner is a lecturer in Old Testament at Catholic Theological College and Flinders University of South Australia. Her research interests include theologies of creation and the wisdom literature.
1. Mary Catherine Hilkert, ‘Nature’s Parables and the Preaching of the Gospel,’ in The Wisdom of Creation, edited by Edward Foley and Robert Schreiter, (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004), 111.
2. Walther Zimmerli, The Old Testament and the World, Translated by John J. Scullion, (London: SPCK, 1976), 27.
3. Norman C. Habel, The Book of Job. A Commentary, (London: SCM Press, 1985), 401. Scholars such as Murphy and O’Connor see in Sophia the divine self-revelation and as such, do not equate Sophia with order, but that does not negate the idea of creation as God’s ordering activity. Kathleen M. O’Connor, ‘The Invitation of Wisdom Woman,’ The Bible Today (1991): 86-93 and Roland Murphy, The Tree of Life. An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. (New York: Doubleday, 1990), esp 135-9.
4. Carl Zimmer, Evolution. The Triumph of an Idea, New York: HarperCollins, 2001, 195.
5. Celia Deutsch, Hidden Wisdom and the Easy Yoke: Wisdom, Torah and Discipleship in Matthew 11:25-30, JSNT Supplement Series 18, (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 76.
6. Ziauddin Sardar and Iwona Abrams, Introducing Chaos, (Cambridge: Icon Books, 1999), 6.
7. Carol A. Newsom, ‘The Book of Job’, in Leander Keck, et al, eds), The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol.IV, Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
Deutsch, Celia. Hidden Wisdom and the Easy Yoke: Wisdom, Torah and Discipleship in Matthew 11:25-30. JSNT Supplement Series 18. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987.
Habel, Norman C. The Book of Job. A Commentary. London: SCM Press, 1985
Hilkert, Mary Catherine. ‘Nature’s Parables and the Preaching of the Gospel.’ In The Wisdom of Creation. Edited by Edward Foley and Robert Schreiter, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004.
Murphy, Roland. The Tree of Life. An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature.NewYork: Doubleday, 1990, esp 135-9.
O’Connor, Kathleen M. ‘The Invitation of Wisdom Woman.’ The Bible Today (1991): 86-93
Sardar, Ziauddin and Iwona Abrams. Introducing Chaos. Cambridge: Icon Books,1999.
Zimmer, Carl. Evolution. The Triumph of an Idea. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.8 Zimmerli, Walther. The Old Testament and the World. Translated by John J. Scullion, London: SPCK, 1976.