A Theologian of Renewal
With Easter and Passover on the minds of so many millions of Christians and Jews this weekend, so are the deeper themes of renewal, promise, and liberation that these religious holidays represent. In light of this, I wanted to share a beautiful profile that my friend and colleague Carter Phipps wrote for EnlightenNextmagazine on Georgetown University Catholic theologian John Haught, who has put an interesting evolutionary twist on the concept of renewal.
Haught, who’s life and work have been influenced significantly by the great Jesuit priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, has found his own path through Christian theology and come to some very interesting conclusions about the relationship between science, evolution, spirituality, and theology. The article (which won a Gold Folio award for editorial excellence several years ago) offers a refreshing glimpse inside the prodigious mind and heart of a man who has looked into the future and seen a new face of God.
A Theologian of Renewal
By Carter Phipps
“Turn right in five hundred yards.” The words rang out in my car, like the booming, disembodied voice of some divine authority, this one filled with infallible knowledge of all possible future roads that I might ever travel. For a moment I felt like Moses, except that in this case the burning bush was simply my new navigation system, sounding out voice commands, directing my every move through the heavy July traffic on Long Island. I was headed to Sag Harbor, a beautiful old fishing village turned artist colony on the eastern edge of Long Island, to meet with John Haught, a Catholic theologian from Georgetown University. Haught was temporarily staying in a Catholic retreat center on the coast, leading a weeklong course on “The New Cosmic Story.”
Last spring, I had contacted Haught requesting an interview on the subject of his latest book,God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. He agreed, and soon I rang him up and asked my first question. Fifteen minutes later, I stopped him mid-sentence. Now generally, a fifteen-minute answer from an interviewee is not a particularly good sign and precedes a desperate attempt to get the interview back on track.
But Haught was different.
His words were clear and precise; his command of the subject, profound; and his train of thinking, sensible and deeply rational. And this wasn’t just in regard to atheism, faith, and unbelief. His rich and multilayered responses hinted at a much deeper and broader theological agenda—to define and articulate a new vision for the religious impulse in the twenty-first century. I had come across Haught’s work before, looked through his books Deeper Than DarwinandGod After Darwin, heard fellow editors refer to his work in positive terms, even watched brief videos of him on science-and-spirit websites. But this was the first time I had actually spoken to the man himself. By the time the interview was finished an hour later, I had come to a resolution—I needed to find out more about what made this unusual theologian tick and why his thoughts about God were so compelling.
On the surface, Haught might appear quite conventional, even traditional—a simple bespectacled academic with a strong interest in the relationship between science and spirit. But appearances can be deceiving. The more I learned, the more I began to understand that Haught’s mainstream credentials were in fact concealing a much more interesting subtext—a more subversive subplot, if you will. Indeed, those of us who have come of age in a Western spiritual climate largely influenced by the influx of Eastern enlightenment traditions sometimes have a harder time recognizing spiritual and religious innovation when it comes clothed in the conventions of our own culture’s faiths.
Haught is certainly a Christian, and he easily speaks the language of faith, God, and belief. But he is also emerging as a significant player in a larger spiritual project, one that transcends and includes any specific tradition. We live in a time when teachers, thinkers, and philosophers are attempting to articulate, understand, and ultimately define a truly post-traditional spiritual worldview that could survive and thrive in a scientific age. In the pages of this magazine, we have called the early fruits of that project “evolutionary spirituality.” Haught calls his offering to that emerging tradition “evolutionary theology.” By whatever name, these new approaches are shaking the pillars of tradition and recontextualizing the way we understand both science and religion.
Seven hundred fifty years ago, Thomas Aquinas penned his masterpiece Summa Theologica, combining the philosophy of Aristotle, Augustine, and many of the best Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and even pagan ideas of the time into a grand reinvention of Christian thought. Today we are tasked with a similar need to reinvent our own traditions for a world vastly changed. How was Haught’s evolutionary theology, I wondered, helping to serve that project? Curious to meet the voice on the other end of the phone, I headed east toward Long Island, that summer mecca of sun and sand, searching for answers with only my trusty navigator to guide my way.
“Destination ahead,” the navigator’s voice sounded off as I slowly made my way up the driveway of a beautiful oceanside property that looked as if it had truly been blessed by some divine touch. Haught had invited me to the retreat center for the day, both to watch him teach and in the hope that a relaxed schedule would allow ample time for interview and dialogue. I found him in the main dining room, one man amid a large roomful of nuns—or so I was told. There was not a habit among them, or any obvious signs of their faith. But over the course of the afternoon, I came to understand that these were likely some of the most progressive sisters in the Church—smart, sophisticated, many a professor among them, and all interested in hearing how our changing understanding of the cosmos was reinventing the religion they had dedicated their lives to.
Haught introduced himself and shook my hand—a tall, somewhat gangly man who seemed to combine a professorial seriousness with a grandfatherly sweetness. I liked him immediately, and he ushered me over to a table, where we fell deep into conversation.
“We have plenty of time to talk,” he began. “The next session doesn’t start until mid-afternoon.” Chuckling softly, he added, “That’s a sure sign it’s a Catholic retreat and not a Protestant one. Protestants have that work ethic—they start early and end late. Catholics, well… it’s different.”
Haught should definitely know something about Catholics. He was raised in a strong Catholic family in rural Virginia, and at the age of thirteen he headed off to seminary where he spent ten years, dropping out in his early twenties. The year was 1966, Haught was twenty-three, and the priesthood was not for him. But he had undergone an important transformation during his formative time inside the inner sanctums of Christianity. His young religious soul had grown to distrust the strong “otherworldly” emphasis of his tradition as it was then taught and practiced—the notion that our spiritual priorities should be focused not on this world of sin and suffering but on preparing for life in the next world.
And simultaneously, he had heard the call of a new religious spirit, a sense of renewal and optimism expressed most strongly in two events. First, the Church itself was undergoing a major transformation as a result of the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of theologians that took place in Rome from 1962 to 1965 to overhaul the tenets and practices of Catholicism in light of the changing realities of modern life. Second, and perhaps most important, Haught was exposed to the words of a deceased religious thinker whose recently published works were stirring up the Catholic hierarchy—Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
“I was in the seminary during the procedures of the Second Vatican Council, and all along we had hints of renewal,” Haught recalled a little later as we sat under the generous shade of a local tree. “But it was still a very otherworldly type of spirituality that was emphasized. I left because I was beginning to become discontented with that, and by that time, I had read the writings of Teilhard de Chardin. Now the teachers themselves couldn’t teach his work in class, but my more forward-looking professors would encourage us to read his ideas. And especially after reading Teilhard, I saw a possibility of another way of looking at things.”
For Haught and other theologians caught up in the spirit of the times, Teilhard’s work represented a break with an older form of Christianity, one in which the context of theology was classical philosophy, largely influenced by Plato. For Plato and much of neo-Platonic thought, the material world was seen as imperfect because it exists in a state of unpredictable flux and change. It is highly contingent, subject to chance, and essentially unruly, the shadow side of the transcendent order of the “Kosmos.”
The idea of becoming, of process, of development, was disparaged in this Platonic outlook as being antithetical to the unchanging order and perfection of God. We should not look to the untrustworthy fickleness of the world as our model for divine contemplation but upward toward the “fixity of the heavens.” While the ongoing march of knowledge has certainly required a few major upgrades to this ancient model, it was Teilhard, according to Haught, who saw the need for a complete theological overhaul.
“Teilhard was one of the first scientists in the twentieth century to become aware that the universe is a story,” Haught explained to me, his voice rising a little. “It’s not just a place of imperfection, what Galileo called ‘the sink of all dull refuse,’ caricaturing the Platonic view. No, the universe is a place of creativity and becoming, a place of becoming more. Teilhard knew astronomy and he knew some physics and he knew the history of science and he knew what the Galilean revolution implied. It meant that we could no longer look spatially somewhere else to find the perfection that we’re looking for. We have to look toward the future. The future became for Teilhard the place where we lift up our eyes and our hearts to have something to aspire to.”
Invigorated by the implications of this new theological mindset, Haught’s own future took a new direction. He headed back to the classroom, back to the religious and philosophical texts that had informed his youth, only this time as a layperson, receiving a doctorate in religious studies and eventually landing at Georgetown. As the influence of the Second Vatican Council began to wane, and the wave of reformation that characterized the Church for many years began to give way to a wave of retrenchment, Haught worked to develop and expand the theological foundation of a new kind of evolutionary religious orientation. But it was another subject that would come to occupy his attention—science.
As a theologian interested in the spiritual implications of evolutionary science, Haught’s work naturally bridged these two often-contentious domains, and he began to worry about the growing influence in the academic world (and by extension the entire society) not of science but of scientific materialism or scientific naturalism—the idea, as he puts it, that deadness is the ultimate origin and destiny of all being. “It’s self-sabotaging for science,” he explains, “especially in a culture like ours where ninety percent of people say that they believe in God.”
Haught’s work eventually connected him to a small but growing network of scholars who are exploring the relationship between science and religion, a network largely nurtured by the funding largess of the late Sir John Templeton. More recently, it has also earned him some fame. In 2005, he stood side by side with scientists and testified at the infamous Dover, Pennsylvania, evolution trial in arguing against teaching intelligent design in schools—claiming that ID was a religious belief system and thus had no place in the classroom. Yet, true to his own convictions, he cautioned against the false hegemony of science as well, telling the jury that materialism is “a belief system, no less a belief system than is intelligent design. And as such, it has absolutely no place in the classroom, and teachers of evolution should not lead their students craftily or explicitly to… feel that they have to embrace a materialistic worldview in order to make sense of evolution.”
This balanced perspective, along with his careful scholarship, has also earned Haught the respect of those who draw quite different conclusions about the metaphysics of evolution. The renowned Darwinian scholar and secular philosopher Michael Ruse, for example, recently referred to Haught as “our most distinguished writer today on the science-religion relationship.” In this respect, Haught is part of a rich tradition, and it is no accident that he cites as his influences not only Teilhard but also individuals such as Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Tillich, and Karl Rahner, all spiritually inspired thinkers who embraced the revelations of science.
As evidenced by this list, Haught’s religious influences are mostly Western. During our conversations, he expressed familiarity with and respect for Eastern spirituality, in particular Buddhism, but even in the heyday of Eastern spiritual experiments in the 1970s, he was never tempted away from the traditions of his youth. “I didn’t think that I needed to go East to find liberation,” he notes. And yet his own theology is so different from that of his upbringing that he can no longer speak about his work with most members of his family. “We get along very well,” he explains, “but I don’t share this with them. Religiously, we’re in two different worlds.”
As we sat and talked under the trees in the hot summer sun at this quiet retreat center, I became more aware of the unusual sense of old and new that Haught seems to embody. In part, it has to do with his upbringing. He was raised, as he describes it, in “several ages of history.” First there was the seminary and what he describes as essentially a “medieval culture,” albeit one that held some interest and excitement for a young boy on the verge of adolescence. Later as a young man, the modern world “got its teeth in me,” and he emerged into adulthood along with an entire generation riding a wave of hope, change, and renewal.
While Haught did not participate in the more radical social experiments of the sixties—no drugs, free love, or experimental communes—he considers himself a child of that time and still speaks fondly of that historic moment when culture tried to take hold of its own evolution and “imagine something new.” For him, the revolutions of the sixties have echoes in the New Testament. “In those biblical days, a wave of hope just swept over the ancient world,” he explained to me, “and if we are going to take the New Testament seriously, why shouldn’t we transplant that renewal mentality into our own age? So I’ve tried to remain a man of the late 1960s throughout my life, and that’s the spirit that I bring to my theology as well.”
There is little doubt he has succeeded, and then some. He has earned a reputation as an impeccable scholar, and his work has garnered him the attention of integral philosophers, evolutionary theorists, and independent spiritual thinkers well beyond the boundaries of Christian thought. And yet he has stayed true to his Catholic roots; he lives and works comfortably in the context of that hoary tradition, and he finds his inspiration for a new integration of science and spirit in that most traditional of Christian texts—the Bible.
“The first thing you should think about when you hear the word ‘God’ in the English scriptures is liberation,” Haught declared. “This is how the Israelites came to conceptualize God.” I must have looked surprised or doubtful, because Haught sort of paused, acknowledging my skepticism, and continued: “Not everyone agrees with me, but basically, biblical religion is all about renewal, promise, and liberation, and that seemed to me to be enough of a theological framework on which to plant my interest in evolution as well. I view evolution not just in terms of biology but in terms of the development of the whole universe from the monotony of radiation to the complexity of the human brain and the emergence of civilization and culture. And when you look at it in that sweeping way, you see that the universe is a pretty interesting place, and it’s been interested in bringing about new being, more being, more intense being, from the very beginning.”
Renewal, promise, liberation. Not exactly the primary emphasis of my childhood Sunday school classes. But in Haught’s theological reading of scripture, these words are essential. Indeed, if one rejects the scientific metaphysics that tells us that evolution is empty of meaning, a blind and random affair, one begins, according to Haught, to see hints of a telos or direction in the universe and, in that direction, a promise. It is a promise that what happens in this world has the potential to make a difference not just in the affairs of society today but in the larger development of consciousness and spirit in the universe itself. For Haught the Christian story is ultimately a story of the future, a subtle spiritual whisper that calls out to us from both the depth of biblical revelation and the heart of the cosmos itself, suggesting that what goes on in this world may be connected in some small way to the evolutionary destiny of the universe.
It didn’t take me very long in the conversation to realize that Haught takes the theos part of his theology very seriously. God is important to him, and he uses the term freely, forthrightly even. He expressed his disappointment with other evolutionary philosophers who are willing to talk about the immanent divinity in nature but shy away from talk of God and the transcendence that such a word implies. But he also made it clear several times that there is nothing old-fashioned about what he means when he uses this ancient term.
“In the modern world, we feel the tension between two religious vectors or two poles,” he explained to me. “One is the traditional withdrawal from the world—the desire to find peace in some Platonic heaven up there or in some sort of mystical present or some eternal now. Then there’s another pole that comes from being part of a modern world in which political and scientific revolutions have taken place. There is beginning to emerge a feeling that this world—I mean the whole universe, both cosmos and culture—is going somewhere. There is a drama that is unfolding before our eyes, and we wonder if we shouldn’t be part of that. Teilhard set out to try to find some resolution between these two poles. He saw that there is communion with God and then there’s communion with the earth. But there’s also communion with God through the earth. He resolved the tension by rediscovering the biblical idea that God is not up above but rather up ahead. In other words, everything that happens in the universe is anticipatory. The world rests on the future. And one could say that God is the one who has future in His very essence.”
At this point, we were nearing the end of our conversation, and I had one last question, potentially the most delicate and controversial of the day. I knew from Haught’s writings that his understanding of God was nuanced and complex, but I also knew that he had strong feelings about the need to maintain the idea of a personal God. Now when you move in progressive spiritual circles heavily influenced by Buddhism, you get used to a certain reticence around that notion, if not downright hostility. Sometimes it’s the patriarchal associations, as in God, the Father; sometimes it’s the anthropomorphism, as in God, the old man in the sky. And sometimes it’s simply confusion about how to relate to a phrase so loaded with cultural overlays and subject to misunderstanding. In a sense, God is the ultimate Rorschach test, and how we interpret him, her, or it says everything about how we ultimately understand our experience of life and reality. Of course, a personal God is an essential part of Catholic doctrine, but I still found it difficult to understand what could be gained by holding firm to what seemed like an outdated notion.
“We do tend to be anthropomorphic, and therefore there’s always a danger of emphasizing the personality of God to the point of idolatry, if you will, of diminishing the infinity, the transcendence, so as to make it somehow manageable,” he acknowledged, pausing for a moment of contemplation before continuing. “Now in our own ordinary experience of the world, the experiences that are most impressive, most challenging, most exciting are of another person, a ‘thou,’ a subject. So to me, the problem with denying the personality of ultimate reality is that if God is somehow impersonal, nonpersonal, if ultimate reality lacks ‘thou-ness,’ then it is somehow less intense in being than I am. And I wonder if I can surrender the completeness of my being to what I take to be impersonal or nonpersonal.
I do believe in the importance of neuter language about God, and this is why I follow theologians who refer to God as mystery. God is depth, the inexhaustible depth dimension. God is infinite beauty. God is infinite goodness. So when I use the term ‘personal,’ I’m not using it in the anthropomorphic sense of the one-planet deity that our scientific consciousness has outgrown. But if I subtract the mystery of subjectivity from being altogether, I’m left surrendering myself to something that lacks what I consider to be the most impressive type of experience that we can have in our worldly existence, and that’s the experience of another person. So God is at least personal. God is also more than personal. God is this infinite, inexhaustible depth dimension. And even if this depth expands to the multiverse, and even if I have a vision of reality that includes trillions and trillions of worlds, if at the core of that reality I don’t sense the pulse of personality, then in some sense that whole of totality is less intense in being than I am. And I don’t believe that.”
Later in the day, as I inched my way forward in traffic amid the busy hustle and bustle of summer beachgoers and vacationers on Long island, I had time to reflect upon my conversations with Haught. It was hard not to be struck by the contemplative atmosphere of the retreat center and the way we spoke so frankly together about matters of spirit, God, and faith. Haught was everything I thought he would be—a deeply Christian man with an inspired vision of the religious life, and someone who has much to offer the conversation about evolution and spirituality that is taking place largely outside the context of Christianity. He has found a sweet spot in his theology, one that bridges old and new, and he has managed to become both a defender of his own tradition and an advocate of ideas that are far ahead of even its more progressive factions. In Haught one can almost feel the Christian canon undergoing a deep evolution, one that might not become visible in the everyday life of the Church for decades but which will inevitably have a huge impact on its future.
“The world must have a God; but our concept of God must be extended as the dimensions of our world are extended,” wrote Teilhard almost a century ago. In the early twentieth century, evolution had changed everything, he noted. And he predicted that only those religions would survive that were willing to develop forms of their traditions that organically embrace the reality of an evolutionary worldview.
After my time with Haught, I think I began to better understand the clarity of Teilhard’s foresight. Indeed, just as a God that lives in and through nature might have been the most relevant form of divinity to a hunter-gatherer tribe embedded in the cycles of the natural world thousands of years ago, and just as a transcendent God who offers infinite peace, rest, and restoration beyond time and the world might have made perfect sense for the “nasty, brutish, and short” lives of our early Christian forefathers, so, too, does this new conception of God fit hand in glove with the fast-changing, globalizing, rapidly complexifying world of our own time.
The consciousness of our age calls out for a God principle that lives not just in the wondrous beauty of nature, or the eternal stillness of the present moment, but in the unknown creative potential that exists in the mysterious space of the future. It is in contemplating such a God that one can begin to intimate Haught’s “spirit of renewal.” And it is there that we can begin to find the intellectual, moral, and ultimately religious inspiration to embrace the great challenge of an evolutionary worldview—taking the burden of the future on our own shoulders. Perhaps along the way, we might just detect a hint of the same impulse that took a young boy in rural Virginia all the way from the corridors of the medieval world to the edges of the far distant future, sustained by both a radical spirit of renewal and the revealed words of an ancient God.
Download a free chapter of Andrew Cohen’s book Evolutionary Enlightenment here.
Image: © Igor Yaruta – Fotolia.com