Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Diversity Debate: Evolutionary Theology?

Last week I took part in one of the Oxford Faith Debates: 'What kind of unity is appropriate, nationally and internationally? How can diversity become a strength?'

You can listen to a podcast of the debate here:

Oxford Faith Debate on Diversity

My main points were:

1. 'Diversity' is a value-laden term. We use the word diversity to refer to differences that are morally neutral or good, differences we are prepared to tolerate or want to celebrate (and it often has a mildly patronising undertone). We don't use the term 'diversity' for differences that we consider unacceptable. We can conjugate this:

I am different, I stand out from the crowd. 
You are diverse; you bring interesting colour and variation to the scene. 
He is deviant. 

2. The Biblical images of diversity-in-unity - a vineyard, a body, a building - are all about unity of PURPOSE, or FUNCTION, rather than any more abstract idea of unity. The best example of this in the churches in recent times is perhaps the Jubilee 200) campaign. We may best find unity in action rather than belief?

3. The second part of the question provides us with the direction for answering the first. Diversity becomes a strength when it produces resilience, adaptation, flexibility. So the kind of unity that is appropriate is one that facilitates resilience etc. 

4. In agricultural terms (following on from all those biblical vineyard and field metaphors), diversity is opposed to monoculture. Using the insights of evolutionary biology (if God has chosen to create the world using the medium of evolution, God is presumably in favour of it as a method), Bio-diversity is generally seen as a strength because it is more resilient to changing conditions. I wonder if we can understand theology (and indeed culture), as well as biology, as evolving? If so, this would involve random mutations and a certain amount of adaptation to niches. The current clashes between theologies that have adapted to different niches around the world and within cultures might be analagous to the threat to biodiversity that human expansion is causing. 

I only had 5 minutes so I didn't say this: The future is uncertain - do we artificially preserve strands of theology that would otherwise die out in a 'survival of the fittest' battle, rather like the captive breeding of pandas or the preservation of steam trains? On the other hand, are we happy to simply allow theology red in tooth and claw to fight it out and let the collateral damage take care of itself? 

Can we learn from biological models? And can we step back enough from our own interests and beliefs to think about what might make for a resilient church?

The concept of 'mutual flourishing' draws on this bio-diversity model. It is in danger of being hijacked and turned into 'my right to demand what I say I need for my own flourishing': but it is still, I think, a concept that has some promise here. Ideally, it would result in something like 'three sisters' agriculture, in which all three crops flourish better and crop better as a result of being grown together. This doesn't work, of course, if the other crops are poisonous, or if their growth stunts our own: not any three crops can be grown together!

One person, in conversation after the debate, pointed out that what we all skated around was fear: fear of being threatened, fear of being the one to be stunted, fear of competition, and fear, I think, of the soteriological implications of all this.

Because the big question if we use an evolutionary model for theological diversity is: does it matter if we are right? Evolution inevitably produces dead ends as well as adaptation, since it is driven by random mutation. If we take the idea that God works through evolution seriously, what does that mean for salvation? Either we need to go for a Calvinist double-predestination, or we need to accept that being on the right end of evolution (biological or theological) isn't necessary for salvation. Food for thought?


  1. I'm not sure how far we should be worried about evolutionary dead-ends. Presumably, there was for a time a sufficient degree of fit for something to survive for a time, but then not. interesting, and probably relevant, to note that some 'strategies' evolve separately again and again (eg a mammalian-style eye). Since the environment and the ecosystem constantly changes, adaptation and die-off are not terms we should apply some sort of covert valuing to. Only if we have particular teleioi in mind is it relevant.
    But it seems to me that if theology is only ever contextual (htt Stephen Bevans, I think), then we are surely likely to find constant die back and recrudescence of various themes in trying to think rightly about God (which is what we should probably recall theology is) within the ever changing 'ecosystem' of culture and thought.
    Salvation is a different matter: we are saved by grace, not doctrine. Trying the think rightly about God (= Christina Baxter's informal definition of theology, btw) can help us or hinder us in embodying, enacting and living out our salvation. But salvation itself is sort of a primary datum, isn't it? Or am I missing something?

  2. yes, evolution produces dead ends, but does that really matter I the long run? Evolution includes evolution of the human brain (not necessarily conscious) and can we seriously deny that scrutiny over the past several million years has not resulted in this. So why do some intelligent people like Pope Francis continue to rely on Aristotelian biology as their basis for gender theology today?