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Click HERE for an introductory YouTube video for Theology & Science (Part 9)
This blog series will cover my final exam for my recent Theology & Science class. Here is the third question and part two of my answer.
Exam Question: Describe the various ways in which the field of ethics intersects with the problem of evolutionary suffering and explain how practical ethics informs and/or is informed by answers to that problem (such as you may have given in #4).
Finally, let’s now take a look at the pragmatic aspect of all of this. What are we to do about the suffering in nature? We will examine whether or not we should respond to animal suffering in the same way that we respond to human suffering since this is one of the greatest ways that the reality of evolution intersects with ethics. Additionally, we have to consider the part hermeneutics plays in this, even though it isn’t called out in the question. The reason for that is because of the change in the meaning of suffering when we go from a worldview that denies evolution to a world where we admit it.
If we deny evolution, we may think the meaning is wrapped up in the perfect plan of God, for example. Or, maybe creation suffers because of the Fall. However, when we realize that suffering is the very thing that brings about the advancement of life, maybe the meaning of suffering is linked more to God working with broken things through His own love infused guidelines, like my view claims.
So, some ethic systems seek to leave nature alone at all costs. This is the view of Tom Regan. Starting now, we should all do everything we can possibly do to leave nature alone. In some ways, this makes a lot of sense. We can all think of examples when we’ve meddled too much in nature and we’ve done a lot of harm to it. The problem with this view is that we have already meddled. So, if we carry out this ethic to its extreme, we should release the pets. The trouble is, I don’t think our little Toda (puppy) would last long in the wild.
Furthermore, this view is criticized by Sideris based on where we should draw the line in our practical efforts to carry this ethic out to its fullest conclusion. Here is my example based on her thoughts. Should we advocate for no more digging? Digging in the ground to locate fresh water for humans constitutes an interruption by humans of nature. Regan gets around this, or tries to anyway, by distinguishing between creatures that are subjects of a life and those that are not. So, Sideris criticizes Regan by asking once again, where we should draw the line. Essentially, one of the other major problems with this ethic is that while it likely started out as an attempt to draw no lines, actually, as an attempt to never need to ask where to draw the line (no interference in nature), it ends up consistently in a position of being unable to tell exactly where the line should be drawn.
Like me, Southgate proposes a different ethic. His seems to me to be acknowledging that humans are a part of this creation, and as a part of it, we will sometimes be responsible for the suffering of non-humans. Also, like me, he sees in the world a need for a certain kind of healing. Finally, like me, he sees no reason to attempt to have any game-changing influences on the relationships between predators and their prey. Believe it or not, there are ethicists that call for humans to attempt to do just that.
The issue that many of these ethicists seem to have is that they don’t seem to worry much about the implications of carrying their ethic out in full. It sounds great to say Christians should be advocates for the dolphins, but we have to ask ourselves why we should stop there and why we started there in the first place. This is where I veer from Southgate and his ethic on extinction. He wants to work against extinction even if it is wholly from nature, if that is even a possible scenario anymore. However, as Sideris has pointed out, what usually happens in actual practice is that non-humans that are most like humans are the ones that really do get saved. No one cares about the valuable ugly beetle. We’d rather save the pandas. An ethic is not a good ethic unless it can be applied with consistency.
This is not to say that we don’t take in the different contingencies of various situations into account. What it is saying is this. Natural selection cares nothing about whether a being is like or unlike human beings. If you can’t cut it in this world, this world may just cut you down. That is the ethic of the land and the appeal of the land ethic of Sideris.
But, it is not without its holes. For example, the land ethic seems to be lacking in its account for the way that humans are a normal part of nature, one that operates on cause and effect just like the rest of the natural world. So, a land ethic has little ability to distinguish between normal and non-normal ways that humans negatively affect the world. As Sideris teaches us in her most salient point of her book, our ethics have to take seriously the reality of evolution by natural selection. For her, if we follow a land ethic, we will accomplish that.
However, I think Southgate’s ethic is more in line with mine in some ways, though I agree with a lot of what Sideris has done. First of all, my meta-theology absolutely is centered on the resurrection. It is the resurrection that is the center of my apologetic, the center of my worship, and the center of my ethic. It is the resurrection that shows me that at the darkest hour, when things can’t seem to look worse for the ultimate fate of humankind, God pulls out the “deep magic” that C.S. Lewis faithfully tells us about. So, when I’m trying to solve the mystery of theodicy, I can at least have some hope that God will somehow, some way pull out some unexpected thing when it seems like nothing could be done to make things right for all the creatures that were ever torn apart by the lion.
To me, this is an improvement on all those theologians, including Moltmann, that are doing their ethic with the cloudy details of the eschaton in mind. It still allows for the element of hope that Moltmann and Wright want to display but it does so on something that I feel is more tangible and real in its details.
If we have then the idea that someday things will be better, what should we do now? Should we do nothing and let God sort it all out? Even worse should we act recklessly in the world so that we do it great harm while we count on the return of Christ? No, God forbid. God may grant us His grace but we should not abuse it. So, my ethic may tend to have lots of grey area lines. Maybe even as many as Regan. The difference is that I’m not trying to eliminate those lines from the start. I’m trying to embrace those lines. There is no great panacea to get rid of all the grey. As Sideris has said, there are a lot of tough choices to be made in ethical decisions.
To the dismay of my fundamentalist friends, it’s not all right there in black and white. In this way my ethics is informed by my theology, and even my theology with evolution in mind. I’ve attempted to be intentional about including evolution in the mix of the conversation but I’ve admitted that there are still some grey areas, such as how exactly God “works” in the process of natural selection. I’m no clearer here than I am about how He actually “works” in my tough circumstances without affecting free will and all that. So, my theology makes space for grey areas, and correspondingly my ethic ends up with grey areas.
Russell talks extensively about ethics and the idea of “best possible world.” Like my theology, my ethic doesn’t assume that this is the best of all possible worlds. Theologically speaking, I would say that the best possible world is one where God creates creation with limited freedom and limited possibilities and in turn that creation continuously “chooses” to get its life from God. So if God did create the best possible world it no longer exists. Additionally, even if He did create the best possible world it would still be finite so it would still fall short. So, even if that happened then the best possible world is gone and God is now working within something less than the best of all possible worlds. The great news is that God is always working with something less than the best when working with creation.
My proclivity is to think that my ethic shouldn’t inform my theology in any arena, much less in regard to evolution. It seems closely related to saying my culture should influence my theology. We know it does do that but it doesn’t feel like we should allow it to do so uncritically. It seems like my theology should always influence my ethic. If it is done the other way around, it seems like my ethic would have had to come from somewhere other than my theology and I would deem that to be something less trustworthy. For example, say I believed that animals had no souls and so, therefore we could torture them and cause them to suffer. If I allowed that to influence my theology I’d miss all mention of justice in scripture and I would never correct my ethic. However, even a theology like McFague’s, if it is informing her ethic doesn’t wind up in such a distasteful crude place as this. I’ve previously made a case to jump back and forth between hermeneutics and epistemology but I can’t make that same case to jump back and forth between theology and ethics. It seems perspicuous to me to allow that flow only from theology to ethics. Selah.