THE sociologist Linda Woodhead said recently that very few people in the UK sign up to Richard Dawkins’s style of atheism. Many more, however, accept the evolutionary account of the universe on which he would claim that his atheism is based. This makes them uneasy about Christianity.
Christmas is a good time for thinking about the way the universe is. Evolution is the almost universally accepted theory that the universe we live in has unfolded through time, as a result of chance interactions at the atomic and molecular levels.
There was no blueprint. Although this is initially shocking to biblical literalists, thoughtful Christians have accepted this, and reflected on it for well over a century. But their reflections, which were once part of the cultural mainstream, are not around much today in preaching or Christian apologetic. The result is that Professor Dawkins’s atheist interpretation of evolution is the only one available to most people.
I think evolution reveals some important truths about God and the way God interacts with creation. The first point was put in various ways by Charles Kingsley. God is not a control freak who tinkers with nature for his own inscrutable reasons. Creation is the bestowal of potential, not an expression of omnipotence. God’s purpose is to make the universe make itself.
The second point is that the universe is not a vanity project. God’s desire is for a creation that is a home for loving and loved beings. But love cannot be imposed. We have learnt in our own time that forced love is not love at all, but abuse. The love that is God’s nature has to be desired, discovered, and learnt; and only free creatures can do that. God’s omnipotence is God’s infinite resource for love, healing, and renewal.
The third point is that God’s universe is one that is genuinely capable of producing novelty. It is not a machine, as Newton thought, but a place of wonder. We have to imagine that at every point of divergence in the evolutionary process, there is a divine fiat that enables new creations to experiment with finding a place.
The apparent dead ends, the waste and futility involved in evolution, are not losses from God’s point of view. They are part of the price, the sacrifice, that enables life, and that God shares eternally with his creatures. Losses are ultimately redeemed.
At Christmas, evolution might help us to see the coming of the Lord as a genuine novelty; God and humanity united; eternal reason born into time; the tilt of the universe towards love made manifest. Above all, Christ comes to show us that we have a home in God’s heart.