A God-Shaped Hole at the Heart of Our Being

An Interview with Dr. John F. Haught – By Amy Edelstein

Standing in front of the annual Metanexus conference on science and religion at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, Dr. John F. Haught cut a quiet and impressive figure. One of the more passionate proponents of an evolved and evolving spirituality, Haught is personally committed to dissecting what he feels are the gross oversimplifications and confusions in Intelligent Design and to postulating instead a vision of our evolutionary trajectory that runs (as one of his books is so aptly titled) “deeper than Darwin.”

A prolific writer, engaged Catholic, and Landegger Distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, Haught is no ordinary Christian theologian. Profoundly influenced by the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which he discovered when he was just twenty-three, he has spent the last thirty-five years breaking new ground in systematic theology, melding a deep understanding of religion with the wisdom gleaned from cosmology, biology, and ecology.

With unusual originality, Haught has focused his attention on the deeper questions, relating natural science to the emerging capacities of consciousness. In his careful efforts to find new ways to define the upward groping of sentience and conscience, Haught deftly teases out a perspective that merges a profound understanding of the principles of biological evolution with a religious sensitivity for the mystery of life.

A God-Shaped Hole at the Heart of Our Being

Haught’s precise mind and inquisitive heart are doing much to encourage a higher level of discussion in the world of evolutionary theology, invigorating the debate between science and religion. After speaking with him for just twenty minutes, my own grasp of where the march of evolution is taking us deepened in ways I never would have anticipated.

Among John Haught’s many accomplishments are the authorship of ten books, the 2002 Owen Garrigan Award in Science and Religion, and the 2004 Sophia Award for Theological Excellence.

WIE: In a recent talk at the 2006 Metanexus Conference, you spoke about the Darwinian recipe for evolution as “random events plus natural selection plus deep time equals evolution.” You said that this was an inadequate explanation. Can you say why?

John Haught: From a scientific point of view, the Darwinian recipe might be considered to be sufficient because when you are a scientist, you don’t ask questions about the meaning of the universe or the value of things. You don’t ask about purpose; you don’t bring in the idea of subjectivity or the idea of God. From the beginning of the modern age, science decided that it would leave these things out of its consideration and focus only on the physical or material causes of things. That’s perfectly all right. That’s the scientific method.

The question is whether through this focus we have left something out, and in fact, most people believe that something has been left out—even scientists. Most of them agree that science does not give the final or ultimate explanation of anything, so that’s the main reason I would say that the Darwinian recipe, since it’s part of science, is inadequate. Any scientific explanation is inadequate to give the deepest understanding of phenomena.

Now you might say that’s a belief on my part. In a sense it is, but so is the belief that science is the only route to truth. So what we have here are two belief systems. The first one is that science is the only route to truth, which is known as scientism. Scientism leads to a worldview that I refer to as scientific naturalism, which is the view that since science can talk only about nature, nature is all there is. If you believe that science is the only way to get to the truth, then the only thing you will find through science is nature.

The other belief is that nature is inexhaustibly deep. This means that there’s a depth dimension to nature: Nature is not all there is; there is infinitely more; there is a great mystery in which nature is embedded; and we get an inkling of that mystery from time to time, especially in religious experience. But even when we’re doing ordinary things, we come up against what might be called limit experiences and limit questions. It’s those questions that open us up to mystery and those questions to which religion is the appropriate response.

WIE: What you are saying reminds me that St. Augustine said that humanity has an innate desire for the infinite. Could you describe what your sense of that infinite is and how it may differ from a sense of material infinity?

Haught: Sometimes people ask, “What is the evidence that the infinite exists?” For Augustine and for many religious people throughout the ages, the best evidence is the utter restlessness of the human heart. You could extend that also to the restlessness of the intellect itself. We all realize that no matter how much we know, there is yet more to be known; we all realize that no matter how much we get in life, how much we have, how much we possess, we are never fully filled up by it. So there is, in a sense, a God-shaped hole at the heart of our being. That’s what Augustine was saying—our hearts are restless until we rest in the infinite.

Now the way we become aware of the infinite is not so much by knowing it as by allowing ourselves to be grasped by it. This often happens without people realizing it. For example, even a scientist is grasped by the value of the truth and surrenders his or her life to the pursuit of that truth. Whether they say so explicitly or not, I think many scientists, if not most, have made a commitment to something much larger than themselves that is inexhaustible.

They realize that no matter how much they probe, the horizons will keep on receding. I associate that very closely with what theology refers to as religious experience. So we come in contact with this infinite horizon—which Augustine referred to as God—in very subtle ways that oftentimes we are not aware of. Religion simply tries to make us more explicitly aware of, and especially grateful to, that horizon of depth, that horizon of an infinite future, a horizon of infinite beauty and truth that keeps calling us, that keeps addressing us, that keeps summoning us. And in doing so, it gives us vitality, life, and meaning.

So something religious is going on even in scientific work, not in the scientific information itself but in the commitment to the idea that the universe is intelligible and truth is worth seeking. Those are religious convictions. You can’t prove scientifically that truth is worth seeking, but it’s the conviction that it is worth seeking that underlies all good science. Religion lifts this up and makes it more explicit.

It symbolically names that depth, that truth, that meaning, and refers to it in Western theology as God or Allah, or in Eastern thought as Brahman or Tao. People have always had different names in different cultures for this sense of an absolute that gives significance to their lives. The evidence for this dimension is not the same as scientific evidence, but I would not say that religion is simply a leap into the dark. Something tangibly and palpably grabs hold of religious people. We can call it “mystery” just to give it a general name.

WIE: You said very poetically that we have “a God-shaped hole” in our heart. Do you feel that the shape of that hole is changing or evolving? In other words, do you feel that our sense of God is evolving?

Haught: Oh yes. Just by virtue of the emergence of science, it gives us a different understanding of the universe and of ourselves. For example, Darwinian evolution gives us a deeper understanding of ourselves, which changes this sense of restlessness that I’ve been speaking about. The idea of a God-shaped hole is not my idea—it’s been talked about a lot. The restlessness itself is a constant. What changes are its symbolic expressions. Our theological and philosophical ideas, as well as scientific and cultural ideas, influence what fills that hole. Each generation looks at it differently.

For example, the French priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argues that there are three different ways of being religious today. One is what he calls communion with God, which is the traditional idea that our best way of living is to detach ourselves from this world and try to put ourselves in touch with another world beyond this one.

The second understanding of religion is what he calls communion with the earth. He’s referring to scientific naturalism or to religious naturalism, which is the view that nature itself is enough to fill our hearts. Many people feel that the physical universe has been made so expansive and so interesting by developments in evolutionary biology and geology and cosmology and astrophysics that nature is enough to fill that hole. This is quite different content from that of traditional religion.

Teilhard himself proposed a third way of being religious that he calls communion with God through the earth, meaning that we want to keep alive our sense of the infinite, our sense of the eternal, our sense of the divine, even as we remember that the way in which we come in contact with that divine reality is only by way of natural reality or by way of things immediate to our experience.

We can’t have a naked experience of the divine; it’s always mediated or expressed through creation, through nature, culture, history, and so forth. The advantage of this approach is that it allows us to become involved in earthly matters but in such a way as to realize that there’s always something more—that no matter how much we love nature, how much nature fills us up, there’s a horizon of infinity beyond nature, deeper than nature, that gives us a future and, in a sense, gives us a guarantee that nature, too, has a meaningful outcome.

In fact, the problem with pure naturalism, which is the second approach, is that it does not guarantee that there is any ultimate victory over meaninglessness. If nature is all there is, since we know scientifically that nature is going to someday reach an energetic death by entropy, then there’s no getting around the idea that ultimately everything goes down into a pit of nothingness.

Teilhard’s third alternative is not that we try to escape from nature but that we actually travel with nature into the infinite. You might say that nature is a fellow traveler rather than the ultimate context of our existence. The root of our restlessness is the whole evolution of the cosmos itself. Thus when we think about ourselves and our destiny, we can’t dissociate them from the destiny of the whole universe. It’s a much wider and deeper approach for religiously sensitive people than either of the first two.

WIE: This third perspective of Teilhard’s also suggests that evolution is ongoing as opposed to the idea that we have come to an endpoint in the evolution of human beings.

Haught: Because there are fourteen billion years that preceded our emergence in this universe, we are too likely to say, “Okay, finally nature has reached its goal in producing us.” But there’s no reason for us to think that we’re anywhere near the end of the cosmic journey. I believe with Teilhard that the goal is not us—the goal is “more being.”

The universe has a tendency that is almost silly for us to overlook. Ever since the beginning, it has been in the process of more being or, as Teilhard puts it, of bringing things of a higher degree of value into existence. By anybody’s standards, there’s a real difference between the human brain and human culture, on the one hand, and the primordial radiation that the universe began with. Something is working itself out in this universe. What is that? At the very least, it is this process of becoming more and more complex in its mode of organization.

But more than that, it has been in the business of producing higher degrees of awareness, of sentience, of feeling, of enjoyment, and especially of consciousness and freedom. But anybody who lives on this planet knows that we haven’t become fully conscious, that we still haven’t become fully free. We still get lost in our feelings and dull our senses; in other words, we live in an unfinished universe. And if the universe is unfinished, then that means it has a future. We don’t know exactly what that is, but it enjoins us to care for the natural world environmentally, for example, so that it does have the opportunity to have a future.

Right now what we’re doing is closing down life systems all over the planet, and that’s because we have assumed that we’re IT, that this is all, that this is the end of the journey. But if we consider that we are fellow travelers with nature and not the end of it all, then I think we would be more willing to take care of nature and to allow it to have the future that perhaps God has some vision of but we do not. We should leave ourselves open. We can’t describe or predict the evolutionary developments in the world’s future with any great accuracy, but maybe they would take the form of even deeper consciousness and deeper freedom, deeper capacity to love and feel, and so forth. At the very least, we should leave ourselves open to those possibilities.

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