Ilia DELIO, The Emergent Christ: Exploring the Meaning of Catholic in an Evolutionary Universe. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011. 197pp. $22.00 pbk. ISBN 978-1-57075-908-6. and Mary Katherine BIRGE, Brian G. HENNING, Rodica M. M. STOICOIU, and Ryan TAYLOR, Genesis, Evolution, and the Search for a Reasoned Faith. Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2011. 133 pp. pbk. ISBN 978-0-88489-755-2. Reviewed by Jane E. LINAHAN, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY 14778 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Emergent Christ is a timely contribution to discussion on the relation between scientific explanations of the evolving cosmos and the convictions of Christian faith about God’s relation to the created order. The author draws particularly on the thought of Teilhard de Chardin in advancing the thesis that God is in evolution, drawing all of creation toward both greater complexity and deeper union, and that the fundamental meaning of catholic refers precisely to this work of whole-making – the building up and bringing together of all things in the God who is radical love.
Delio begins by exploring the new perspectives that science offers on the nature of the universe, noting that quantum physics and systems thinking underscore the inherent relatedness of every aspect of cosmic existence. Physical reality consists in, not so much isolated substances grouped together, but interacting and interconnected fields of energy, each organization of energy a whole in itself but also part of a greater integrated whole. This reviewer wishes that some facets of the “new science” had been more clearly explained for the non-scientist unfamiliar with some of its more cutting edge theories. However, the proposal that the universe is moving toward ever greater complexity in unity is intriguing and compelling in light of Christian faith that the triune God loves creation into being and unceasingly draws it into the infinite relational richness of this God’s diversity-in-unity. Delio moves on to examine the implications of evolutionary and interrelated being for our concept of God: if “the nature of being is interrelated wholeness and evolution is wholeness in movement toward greater wholeness” (34), then there is a sense in which God is evolving as well. That God is love means that God is in dynamic relationship, open to “being affected as well as affecting” (35); God’s own relational life eternally evolves in an ever richer wholeness and union of love among the divine persons as well as with the creation that unfolds through the interactions of their loving. Delio draws on Bonaventure’s view of God’s triune being as constituted by dynamic loving: the Son, the divine “other” produced by the Father’s total self-giving, grounds the existence of all “other” reality “beyond God.” The Son is thus intrinsically related to creation as both its source and its goal and the incarnation is not extrinsic to creation; rather, the latter is constitutively oriented to the former. Linking this to the thought of Teilhard, Christ is the Evolver, working within creation to draw it toward ever greater complexity and unity, richness and integration – toward Christ the Omega. Christ, then, is more than the historical individual, but names the evolutionary goal of creation’s union with God. At the same time, Jesus himself is the “whole-maker,” who enacts from within creation’s history God’s healing, forgiving, reconciling, communion-creating love in order to make all things whole and bring them together as one in God. Discipleship means participating intentionally in this work of making whole, building relationships of compassionate love and mutuality, including with all of God’s creation. Death and suffering are not so much tragic anomalies in a good creation as the enactment of the radical self-giving that makes possible new, transformed life – resurrection – and releases the energies of the individual’s existence into the cosmos for the building up of its greater wholeness in its progress toward God. The author raises a challenging question regarding the call to participate in evolution by pondering whether the church itself is capable of evolving toward fuller participation and more comprehensive wholeness, for the Christian life is a call to build new relationships, new ways of being, new life – new wholes. This call applies not only in the corporate ecclesial sphere, but also in “the inner universe” of the individual where one discovers absolute dependence on God, intrinsic relatedness with others, and the call to “help transform this universe in Christ” (136). Even so-called “secular” movements toward communion may be impelled by Christ, the “strange attractor,” causing new “Christ fields” that are “pulling local currents of human energy into new patterns of community, oneness of heart, and relationship with the earth” (145). Christians have a particular responsibility for whole-making by building up the life of the cosmos and allowing Christ to shine through it. Being catholic “in the broad sense of this word . . . is to heal and make whole and thus help unify creation in love” (154), giving oneself totally to the wonderful fullness of love that God is evolving.
There is much food for thought in Delio’s work. Today there is an urgent need for theology to be in dialogue with the “new science” and to integrate its insights into reflection upon God’s relation with creation. We who teach realize that if this is not done – and done in a way that respects the integrity of both science and faith – Christianity risks becoming incredible and irrelevant to our students. Those sympathetic to Teilhard’s thought and to process theology, and to a vision of a “dynamic” God integrally related to creation, will be enthusiastic about this book. Those who have reservations about these will be less so. Delio’s leanings toward process theology raise concerns about collapsing the distinction between God and creation, though she herself tries to maintain this distinction. Her treatment of suffering and death is also troubling. Holding that death “is what makes life possible; it is necessary to the evolution of life because it is the letting go of isolated existence for the sake of greater union” (78) skips too lightly over the dark side of death and does not do justice to the irreplaceable value of the individual life and the radical suffering of victims.
I appreciate that this work is termed an exploration: it does not claim to be the final word, but is an effort to work toward deeper understanding, inviting examination and discussion. I think I shall be returning to reflect on Delio’s insights for some time to come.
Genesis, Evolution, and the Search for a Reasoned Faith offers a helpful response to the urgent need, noted above, to assist our students in understanding how it is possible to integrate science and faith in a way responsible to the legitimate claims that both have on contemporary believers. Christian faith at its best honors the God-given gift of human reason and the call to understand this world both on its own terms and as the marvelous creation of a loving God. Unfortunately, faith and science have too often been assumed to be mutually exclusive alternatives. The authors of this book believe this assumption is not only mistaken, but also truncates the possibilities for a reasoned faith, a faith responsive and responsible to the integrity of human understanding and experience of the world around us. They demonstrate that positive dialogue among disciplines can ground a more comprehensive synthesis that actually yields a deeper appreciation of the world and of what God is doing in it.
The book consists of four chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion), each written by one of the authors from the perspective of each one’s academic discipline. In the first chapter, Birge draws on critical biblical scholarship to analyze the Genesis creation accounts and explain the historical contexts in which these texts were formed, in order to appreciate their authors’ concerns and intentions. She argues that these texts were intended, not to present historical or scientific accounts, but to shape a people’s faith in the God of Israel and to call them to faithfulness to that God in times of national and religious crisis. The “truth” that the Genesis material deals with is the truth about who God is, what God’s intentions are for creation, and who human beings are in relation to this God and this creation.
The second chapter, by Taylor, a biology professor, provides a clear explanation of what evolution is and how it “works.” Contrary to popular misconceptions, scientific “theories” are explanations of the natural world that are supported by a substantial amount of evidence. Evolutionary theory is backed by over 150 years of research and solid empirical evidence, and provides a “conceptual framework that explains the diversity of life on earth” (64). Taylor examines some of the main creationist and intelligent design arguments against evolution, and shows that such arguments are not based on sound science and ultimately fail to discredit evolutionary theory. He makes the very salient point that scientific knowledge requires empirical evidence and thus is limited to the physical world: questions about God and about other aspects of human experience that are not physical in nature cannot be answered by science. Thus it is mistaken to force science into a mold that accords with the claims of faith or to set it in “competition” with such claims.
From the discipline of philosophy, Henning examines the broad history of Western thought as it has shaped our understanding of the natural world and of the human place in that world. From hierarchical scales of being to various forms of the dualism of “mind over matter,” much of our philosophical history has emphasized the superiority of the human, the “grand exception” to the “brute nature” of the physical world. Evolutionary science challenges this anthropocentric bias by demonstrating that human life represents but one sector of the vastness of the cosmos and of its evolutionary history, and that we have much more in common with – are much more deeply related to – the rest of the natural world than we have previously realized or been willing to admit. We humans are a wonderful exemplification of – rather than exception to – the marvelous processes that have brought about the richness of life in the cosmos.
Stoicoiu reflects upon the relation between science and faith from the perspective of systematic theology. She first examines and rejects unsatisfactory alternatives: creationism and intelligent design are not only scientifically unsound, but reduce God to being continuous with natural processes rather than transcendent to them; scientific materialism, accepting nothing beyond matter, rejects a God evolution has made seemingly unnecessary in a deterministic and purposeless universe; in the “God of the gaps” approach, God is an explanatory link in the natural world rather than the mysterious ground of all being; “separatism” evades necessary dialogue between science and faith by keeping them in separate compartments of human concern. As faith seeking understanding, theology has a responsibility to assist believers in exploring the questions that science is unable to answer, but in light of the insights into the world that science does offer. Evolutionary theology attempts to articulate an understanding of God that takes account of the evolving nature of the world. Stoicoiu briefly discusses the thought of Rahner and Teilhard, who each in his own way explored the idea that God is the ground and goal of the evolutionary process. Unfortunately, only about three paragraphs are devoted to this discussion of a positive theology of evolution, and other significant contributions, such as those of Denis Edwards, are not mentioned. This brevity is disappointing in view of the thrust of the entire book toward integrating evolutionary thought with faith-seeking-understanding. On the plus side, Stoicoiu engages the thorny question of suffering, suggesting that the incarnation and paschal mystery reveal a God who enters into the suffering of an evolving creation. Her article could also provide a helpful jumping-off point for a more in-depth theological exploration.
This is a valuable book for college theology courses: as the introduction states, it is a “joint attempt to model the sort of discussion [our] students deserve to hear” (x). It is written specifically forcussion questions, a glossary, and resources for further study at the end of each chapter.