July 4, 2012

Portsmouth Institute, Day 1, Session 3: Dr. John Haught, "Evolution and Faith: What Is the Problem?"

Justin Katz

Georgetown University theology professor John Haught firmly established the theme of the Portsmouth Institute conference on "Modern Science, Ancient Faith" with his talk on the reconciliation of religion and science — even if he arguably did so without explicitly stating it.

Dr. Haught did so by taking up several of the philosophical objections to Christian theology, where it touches on the observable world. How, one question asks, could a good God have created a world with so much suffering?

Haught's entire presentation was in some ways an answer, but one of the key concepts that he offered was that life has a "narrative character"; it's a story, which is after all the "medium of meaning." He asked, rhetorically, "Would you try to make the world nice and safe?" Beginning a world with that requirement would sure produce a different outcome, but by many human measures (and probably most divine measures) it would be inferior.

Another rhetorical question that Haught poses inspired his most memorable image: If the point of the universe was intelligent life, why did it take so long? To illustrate argument, he showed a picture of 30 books of 450 pages each. Human life would appear on the very last page of the very last volume.

His answer was that the universe is in the process of becoming "something other than God in creation." We're experiencing that process..

One might also inquire of the rhetorical asker (somewhat whimsically) how long he could play in the sandbox of the universe, with full view of the tiniest particle and the largest galaxy, before interest demanded a new features, like life. But the idea at the next intellectual step after Haught's argument is much more satisfactory: As a Being in some sense beyond creation, God may be considered outside of time, as well as material. That being the case, creation was instantaneous from His perspective; we're just within it as it unfolds.

The idea of God — of spirit — beyond the material universe also provides answer to the argument about suffering, as would come into focus as the conference proceeded the next day.


This paragraph, from a New York Times article about the official "discovery" of the Higgs boson, seems supremely relevant to the above:

Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. And it reaffirms a grand view of a universe ruled by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws, but in which everything interesting in it, such as ourselves, is due to flaws or breaks in that symmetry.