Considering God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering

Bethany Sollereder

Bethany Sollereder visited Regent College on August 1, 2019 to deliver a lunchtime lecture entitled “God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall.” Dr. Sollereder is a Regent College graduate, and currently serves as Postdoctoral Fellow in Science and Religion on the Faculty of Theology and Religion at University of Oxford.

The following interview was conducted by Jennifer Wotochek, a current student in Regent College’s Master of Arts in Theological Studies program.

Jennifer Wotochek: The first question I’d like to ask is: how did your studies at Regent College further your interest in the science-theology dialogue? Where have you been since leaving Regent?

Bethany Sollereder: Regent had a huge impact on me. I had decided to switch from history to doing science and religion the summer before I came, because I met a Regent alumnus named Denis Lamoureux, who’s the chair of science and religion in Edmonton, where I was living. I came into Regent and knew nothing about science and religion—I’d literally read one book in the area—but decided to shape all my time at Regent pursuing these questions about evolution, death, suffering, and the goodness of God. It was also a big academic step up from the Bible college I had been at where the focus is very much on practical training. People like Iain Provan and Loren Wilkinson were huge influences on these questions of integrating scripture and science. So, I really think of Regent as my launching point for the path that followed. After Regent, I went to the University of Exeter where I did my PhD with Christopher Southgate and then have been here at Oxford for five years.

Jennifer Wotochek: Your book is called “God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy Without a Fall.” That’s an interesting subtitle. Given that amongst some theologians there’s been a move away from theodicy, what are you seeking to accomplish with the book?

Bethany Sollereder: That’s a great question. What I was seeking to accomplish was to build a theological foundation for people who started realizing that evolution really had a lot of credibility. For people who thought: “You know what? I can’t deny the sort of overwhelming science that points towards evolution. But this undoes everything I’ve been taught about the way that God made the world: that God made it totally peaceable, and that all suffering and death and extinction are a result of the Fall. So what do I do with a God who creates through using death? What do I do with death not as an enemy but actually part of the toolbox of creation?” I wanted to explore those questions so that people encountering evolution and starting to take it seriously would have a theological place to land—so that they wouldn’t have to figure this all out. Not that I figured it all out, but at least I’ve beaten a track through the wilderness with the help of other pioneers, including Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Christopher Southgate, Michael Murray, and others.

Jennifer Wotochek: You have said that non-human creation, including the “steady gaze at evolution’s suffering past,” is declared “very good.” If this is so, why does it need to be redeemed? How do we understand the very goodness of creation and its simultaneous need for redemption, especially in light of traditional teaching about creation which views it as perfect before the Fall?

Bethany Sollereder: I’m going to draw on Jay McDaniel’s work in “Of God and Pelicans” for this. He talks about how there’s more than just one type of redemption or more than just one facet of redemption. We tend to think of redemption as alleviating, or restoring, what is lost due to sin. But you could also think of redemption as bringing an end to suffering, you could think of it as being released from a certain imprisonment into a new freedom.

You can think of it as life that is not constrained by the way that our bodies constrain life on earth. There’s a lot of scope for redemption even without sin in the picture, because the majority of animals that are born don’t live flourishing lives. The majority of animals die early, die sick, die young. If you look at sockeye salmon, they can produce up to a hundred thousand eggs in a single spawning session of which maybe only three or four will become adult salmon to return to spawn again. The scale of production versus the scale of animals that actually live a long flourishing life is very small. There’s redemption for that sort of lost potential, even before humans enter the picture. But of course, once humans enter the picture, and you have the entrance of sin into the world, then you have another kind of redemption. Then you need redemption from the deleterious, harmful effects that human sin brings into the world, which we’re seeing in unparalleled ways with today’s climate crisis.

Jennifer Wotochek: Staying with that theme a little longer, if death is a part of evolution and a tool that God has chosen to use in order to bring about the fullness of creation and his purposes for the whole cosmos, why do creatures, including humans, fight against it so vigorously? What would you say to Christians who point to Jesus’ own reactions to death, say, his weeping at Lazarus’ tomb or his anguished pleading with God in Gethsemane about his own impending death, as evidence that death is actually not a tool that God would use?

Bethany Sollereder: Well, I think if we’re going to have evolutionary survival, you simply have to avoid death because you need to live long enough to reproduce to keep going. As soon as you have a natural, physical world, you need to have an avoidance of death, just like you need an avoidance of pain. It is a good thing that touching a hot stove hurts because then I pull away and know not to do it again. Where you have people who are unable to feel pain as in the case of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, where people lose the ability to feel pain, they simply destroy their own bodies. Not feeling pain is actually a curse, not a blessing. If what people had in the Bible was true leprosy, was in fact modern day Hansen’s disease, then Jesus by healing them restored their ability to feel pain, he didn’t take pain away.

In a similar way, when we see Jesus raising the dead, typically, it’s the young. In the case of Lazarus, that has economic and social implications for his sisters, Mary and Martha, who would have been utterly destitute without a supportive man in their life. So this isn’t death in general; Jesus doesn’t go by the funeral of the old man who died full of years and raise him from the dead, but responds to the needs of the destitute and those who have failed to find flourishing. There is not a problem with death in general, but death as it exists in specific places and times when it is affected by sin and particular social conditions.

The other thing to consider is that there are lots of times in nature where death isn’t avoided. There are lots of creatures who will actually realize that it’s their time and place to die and so will separate themselves from their pack, go off food and water, and head out into the wilderness alone in order to die. We sometimes see that with domesticated dogs and other animals.  What we see is not an unreflective instinct that says always avoid death; there is a sense of a time and a place where even nonhuman animals will actively engage in dying.

In regard to Jesus’ reaction to his own death and his experience in the garden, I do want to hedge my response here by saying I’ve largely dealt with animal death in my research, and not with human deaths. Your question steps beyond what I’ve worked through very carefully. Yet, there is still a sense in which we can say that death, while being natural, is still something that we grieve over. Insofar as Jesus was truly human, the loss of his friends, and particularly, the effect of seeing Mary’s grief and Martha’s grief, seems to trigger Jesus’s grief too. He’s seeing this loss and immersed in that community of grief. With his own death, I think you’ve got the addition of the weight of sin hanging upon him. We are told that the sting of death is sin, and Jesus would have been experiencing the full measure of that. Whereas Paul, on the other side, says we actually grieve differently from people who have no hope of redemption. So you don’t just have one voice about death in Scripture, there are varied, multiple voices that have to be held together somehow.

Jennifer Wotochek: I’d like to ask about the definition of flourishing you use in your book, namely that a creature has offspring, is not riddled with disease or parasites, and lives a long life. You write about the white pelican, for example, which normally has two chicks, one of which stays with and is cared for by its parents, and one of which is abandoned and left to starve. It’s clear this second chick does not flourish. But might it also be said that the surviving family members, while on the face of it may look to be flourishing, may in reality experience a diminished flourishing because they are forced to abandon their offspring to starvation and death?

Bethany Sollereder: As far as we can tell, the pelicans are not forced to leave their second chick. They don’t do this only when there is, for example, a starvation ration. Even if there is enough food, the older sibling will usually kill the younger sibling. You might see an alternative in cats or other animals like foxes where only one will be raised in hard times because it can fight for food better, but in good times all of them will be raised. The white pelicans’ behavior seems to be an intentional strategy, where even in the good times they won’t raise both.

Jennifer Wotochek: How then do you relate flourishing to compensatory redemption, and avoiding the trap of compensatory redemption?

Bethany Sollereder: I spoke of Jay McDaniel earlier, and he says if there’s a pelican heaven, it’s going to be a pelican heaven, not a human heaven transferred onto pelicans. And that might mean that immortal, eternal life is not necessarily part of the deal, that they’ll simply live till they’ve had the sort of flourishing life they missed, then after that they can pass away. Chris Southgate would fall along that line as well, where he would say the place where we most need this kind of an approach is where you have intense suffering without much flourishing to counterbalance.

I think the problem with that is that it does make redemption compensatory. It’s sort of God saying, “Oh, gosh, I couldn’t quite make it right, so let me make it right now. We’ll get you up to where the score is even and then I can let you go.” I think that makes the focus of redemption entirely wrong. Redemption is something more than just a happy end to the story. It’s actually the beginning of the new story, as C.S. Lewis would say. So it doesn’t seem fair to say, you get the introduction to the new story but then you get cut off because you probably won’t enjoy the rest anyways. It’s too based on the idea that redemption is to make up a bad time on earth for the creature rather than redemption being God’s idea. Just as creation was God’s idea, redemption is God’s idea. As far as I am concerned, the only question that matters, when it comes to what will be redeemed or who will be redeemed, is: Who does God love? What does God love? And anything that can be a proper object of God’s love, which I think is more or less everything, will be included.

This leaves open the question of whether there is a human exceptionalism. I don’t know. But I don’t think that there’s a beetle exceptionalism, I don’t think there’s a dinosaur exceptionalism.

Jennifer Wotochek: Jumping off of what you’ve described as Christopher Southgate’s idea of predator/prey relationships and the retention of those behaviors in their redeemed form, and connecting it with the Romans 8 passage regarding creation being subjected to frustration: what are your thoughts on the idea that the frustration of creation is manifest within predator/prey relationships, such that the predator feels on some level that frustration within its compulsion to mete out suffering and death to its prey?

Bethany Sollereder: When it comes to the lion going after the gazelle, I’m going to say that I don’t think the lion feels frustrated by having to mete out suffering and death. And this is where I make a stand within the field because lots of people would disagree with me on that. So someone like Paul Fiddes or Nicola Hoggard Creegan or Celia Deane-Drummond or Neil Messer would say, yes, that compulsion is a sign of fallenness. You mentioned my interesting subtitle: theodicy without a fall. What that’s getting at is the idea that I don’t think predation is wrong. I don’t think that there’s anything off kilter with the lion’s instincts. Does it include harms? Yes. Does it include disvalues? Yes. Does it include suffering? Yes. But I don’t think that those realities without the influence of sin are evidence of fallenness. I think that the frustration of the rest of the creation comes with human involvement only. And I think that’s actually consistent with Romans 8.

The analogy I sometimes use is, imagine a symphony orchestra playing and they’re all playing beautifully. But when the trumpets come in, they go rogue and just start playing other things. Now, in the music before that you may have had discord, you may have had places where there was tenseness or music that you don’t enjoy. But it’s all part of the correct symphony. But when the trumpets come in and just do their own thing entirely, there is a breaking of the performance in a different way. You know, one plays “Happy Birthday,” another “God Save the Queen,” another “Oh, Canada;” they’re just doing their own thing. They’re no longer participating in the music as it was written. So then what you have is a frustration of the whole performance that needs to be put back together. I think that if humans were living according to the image of God, if we were fully exercising our human vocation, the animals would not only be flourishing, but would actually be able to transcend their own abilities; they would be enabled by human stewardship to be more than what they are. And that is part of what is lost.

Jennifer Wotochek: Pressing into that a little further, there’s a debate amongst theologians about what eschatology and redemption will look like for animals and you offer a very unique and compelling vision. Would you talk about that a little bit?

Bethany Sollereder: Sure! The question is basically: do predatory animals need to become essentially entirely vegan in their appetites and their instincts in order to be part of the redeemed kingdom? David Clough, for example, would say: absolutely. God’s kingdom is peaceable and it has to eliminate all of that which would cause harm to other creatures. Someone like Chris Southgate would say: well, I don’t know; if you take away all of a lion’s hunting instincts, you’ve lost something that is essentially of the lion. And so he gains inspiration from a poem by James Dickey about the heaven of animals, and he imagines that hunts will still go on, but they’ll become more like a great game of chase, so that even if there is the moment where the lion captures the fleeing creature, that there will be nothing of pain or terror, none of the things that make it harmful now. But Southgate says that he thinks you still have to have lions hunting in order to be lion-ish.

My contribution is that, if we think about humans, most of us were evolved with capacities where hunting was really important for their expression, where an essential part of being human was working together in groups to hunt. We’ve taken all those skills and turned them to other uses, like sports. So I don’t hunt anymore. Most of us are not warriors anymore. We don’t fight each other either (and hopefully will do so even less in future). But we do use those same reflexes and skills and abilities in sports. Not only do we use them; we use them to a level that is unparalleled, even amongst the greatest warriors of the past. If you see gymnasts today they do things with their bodies that are greater than was imagined of Achilles, that are greater than anyone we could have imagined in world history in terms of exploring the full capacity of the human body. I think that there might be some parallel, where animals turn their hunting instincts towards some new endeavor. I joke about lion tennis in heaven, but essentially I suggest something where the instinct is not lost, but the end is no longer violent.

Jennifer Wotochek: If that’s the case, what do you think predators will eat? Might there be straw-eating lions?

Bethany Sollereder: I don’t know. Everything needs to be different. But how many continuities do we have in the new life? The only small glimpse we have is Jesus’ resurrected body, and he continues to eat fish. So apparently that’s still okay? I think we might be trying to push too far into making sense of things. The best we can do is speculate and try to build a picture of what the goodness of God might look like. If there is still meat eating, it will be somehow devoid of all the things that make meat eating problematic here and now. If there is not meat eating, then there is going to be some other way. But as soon as we’re eating even plants we’re still causing death; we get hung up on the literal bloodshed. But as Robert Farrar Capon points out, the lettuce protects itself as well as it can and in its own way and it takes a dim view of no longer getting to exist because you want to eat it. If we have any eating at all of any organism, the same problem exists.

This is something Loren Wilkinson always loved to point out, and he would use the quotation from the Bertolt Brecht play that the motto of Hell is eat or be eaten, but the motto of Heaven is eat and be eaten. And I like that. There is something in this mystery of exchange that is necessarily part of this. Something of that emphasis is found in the communion service too.

Jennifer Wotochek: Moving on from there, there is a common distinction made between God’s general divine action and his special divine action, with miracles, and other pejoratively labeled “interventions” falling under special divine action. How do you reconcile the idea of special divine action with creaturely freedom?

Bethany Sollereder: The biggest work of trying to figure out how special divine action can work in a world increasingly described by science was done by Bob Russell, and his special divine action project. They looked for 20 years, and came up with lots of good possibilities, but no overall consensus. As a result, newer work does not ask the question of what is the causal joint or whether we should consider God’s action an intervention, or overriding natural law, or something within the causal looseness of nature. We have good possibilities along all those lines and we really have no idea which one it is.

What I’ve tried to explore more is not the mechanism of divine action, so much as the character of divine action. I’m looking then at things like the gift of being, God’s giving to creatures their own life and independence. As opposed to seeing God as someone that might interrupt the freedom of creatures, God is actually the one who grants and empowers the freedom of creatures, which all sounds really good until you start thinking about the evil uses creatures put that freedom to, and you end up thinking: did God empower the horrors as well? At some point, you’ve got to say, well if God’s the empowerer and they did this, yes, then that’s part of the gift of creation, which thickens this problem of evil. But then you can also talk about God’s invitation, God’s lure towards the good. That God’s effect on the world is like the sun’s effect on the world: giving generously to all, keeping us in orbit whether or not we’re conscious of it, whether or not we can see the sun. The sun’s gravitational well is constantly drawing us toward itself. You can think of God acting in the world in various ways that are objective acts–where God is changing the outcome of history–but we’re not really worried about whether it’s special or general divine action, not worried about those categorical differences in the first place.

Jennifer Wotochek: Toward the end of your book you draw on Robert Russell’s work regarding the Christ event as a turning point on a number of levels. And this is maybe going a bit beyond the scope of what you’ve engaged in the book, but I’d be interested to hear if you also think that the Christ event is a turning point in evolutionary development. Christ came to redeem the whole cosmos, but he came as a human to deal with human sin, and what does that mean for our understanding of evolutionary development beyond humanity? Is Christ basically the apex or telos of evolutionary development?

Bethany Sollereder: I don’t know is the honest answer. If I were to speculate wildly, I would think Christ is certainly the apex of the expression of human-ness. But if the future of life on earth has a very rich potential, as I think it does, and will unfold whether or not humans are part of it, maybe we want to temper our anthropocentrism. I was talking to a biologist named Stephen Freeland a few weeks ago about the climate crisis, and he was saying that we need to stop the way that we’re talking about this, because we’re not destroying life. We couldn’t do that if we tried. Life manages to live on our nuclear waste; life is going to go on. All we’re doing is we’re taking away the ability for ourselves, and for a bunch of other species, to live happily here, but we’re not going to come close to destroying life.

I think that there’s actually a good deal of hope in that, that Christ came in the fullness of time for human redemption. And indeed, there’s something that changes when God joins this story of the cosmos. But I think, in the same way that we’ve spent so much time worried only about humans and not the animals of the past, I think we should have a very broad outlook when it comes to life in the future.

Jennifer Wotochek: One final question for you. This is going back a couple of years to an article that you wrote for The Christian Century. To quote you briefly, you wrote that, “God rarely has fixed specific outcomes in mind…. God always acts in perfect love and wisdom and will continually and creatively work to bring about good, even if the path to the good is circuitous due to the freedom exercised by creatures.” Does this idea leave the possibility that evolution could have developed in a direction other than humanity such that Jesus, perhaps in some other imagined version of evolutionary development, could have become incarnate not as a human, but as a different kind of creature, in order to accomplish the work that he did?

Bethany Sollereder: Absolutely. So let’s say that the meteorite that hit the Yucatán peninsula and caused the extinction of dinosaurs didn’t happen. Jesus might have come from what the Velociraptor would have developed into. I don’t think that being a mammal and having five fingers and five toes was essential to the Incarnation. Really all I’m saying is that Christ becoming flesh was always part of God’s creative intent. What form that flesh took is an open question.

Some people have also played with that; I said earlier we might destroy human lives and many mammals, but life will continue on despite what we’re doing. The question then becomes: in some unknown future tens of millions of years from now does God join the story again? Or on distant planets where perhaps life has evolved another way? Would Christ become incarnate there amongst the alien races? There’s no answer to that and I certainly don’t want to try and give one. But it’s an interesting thing to think about. What do we think that the Incarnation did? What did it accomplish? Certainly, it dealt with human sin. Certainly, there’s some sense of God joining the cosmos and all the cosmos being brought into that fullness. But could it happen again? I don’t know.

Jennifer Wotochek: One thing I love about your work and the work of some others is that it is helping us to turn away from what I think is a problematic anthropocentricism in our faith, the sense that humans are the point of everything, as opposed to God being the point of everything. I had not ever thought before about the idea of God perhaps coming again at some future point and doing work in a different way as you just describe. So I appreciate that.

Bethany Sollereder: There is a sense in which in our everyday experience Christ comes again, right? So as we’re made more Christlike by the indwelling of the Spirit – what is Hopkins’ line? “Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” It’s this sense that Christ does come again, daily, that Christ is constantly being reissued in the world through us and how far that can go, I don’t know.

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