Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Augustinian Response to Christopher Southgate’s Evolutionary Theodicy

The following is an abstract and description of a paper that I will deliver in Denver at the 2018 American Academy of Religion convention in response to the thought of Christopher Southgate.


Drawing on the biblical theology, ecological ethics and the poetry of Christopher Southgate, this paper will make a tentative case for an Augustinian dimension to his thought. It claims that Southgate’s basically Irenaean approach to theodicy requires an Augustinian component in order to make sense of the role of scripture in a theodicy, the centrality of Christ, the relationship between ecological ethics and virtue, the validity of anti-theodicy and the way that narrative helps understand sin and desire. A number of comparisons are made between Southgate's proposals and those of other contemporary scholars, Augustinian and non-Augustinian.


This paper analyzes the work of Christopher Southgate with a view toward interpreting his insights into the integrity of creation, redemption and theodicy in terms that are plausible in light of Augustine’s theology. Drawing on various contributions that Southgate has made, this paper seeks to establish parallels, connections and some agreement between his work and the great African bishop without papering over the obvious disagreements over the Fall, Original Sin, the premises of salvation and biblical hermeneutics.

The crux of my analysis is that Southgate's category of groaning in a cosmic theodicy associates the human struggle with evil with the persistence of non-human creatures evolutionary endurance. His depiction of suffering is framed christologically so that God is the great companion of suffering creatures. 

Southgate’s work is largely premised on the claim that value and disvalue are necessarily intertwined in an evolutionary creation. This claim parallels Irenaeus' claim that evil’s presence is designed to foster moral character in human creatures, a form of 'soul-making'. But in this emphasis upon experience and divine participation in this struggle within creation's limits, Southgate meanders into Augustinian territory. With Augustine, the only adequate response to evil is the redemptive love of God made through the embodiment of virtue in history and community. In my view, Southgate relies on a semi-Manichaean interpretation of nature. So, implicitly, while he does not endorse the view that nature is straightforwardly wicked or that there is a Fall of some kind to account for evil, there is a fascinating parallel with Augustine's own semi-Manichaean affirmation of nature's disorder that thwarts God's orderly love for creation.

This paper will deal with a number of specific points of convergence and divergence between Southgate’s corpus and the Augustinian tradition. These include:

a) a biblical hermeneutic that extends a certain primacy to the Incarnation of God in Jesus, though the difference between Southgate and the Augustinian tradition on the question of atonement and salvation from sin is still stark. Nevertheless, I will highlight a certain resemblance between Southgate's treatment of Romans and that of Augustine's interpretation.

b) a resemblance between Southgate’s characterization of ecological ethics and the Augustinian stress on virtue and the pervasiveness of sin that is in need of God's healing grace. As Pope Francis has stressed, ecological ethics cannot gain traction without the category of sin. Augustine's hamartiological legacy is impossible to avoid.

c) an Augustinian note of Southgate’s scepticism around non-human “sin and responsibility” and his appraisal of 'anti-theodicy'.

d) some references to Southgate's poetry, in which desire and experience complement Augustinian autobiography, which, among other things, re-frames theological scholarship understood in terms of the triad of scripture, tradition and reason.

I conclude that Southgate's evolutionary theodicy helps update an Augustinian approach to theology. Equally, Augustinian themes can aid Southgate's Christian theological aims. The paper incorporates some comparisons and contrasts with other contemporary scholars, some of whom endorse a roughly Augustinian approach (eg: Plantinga, McMullin, Deane-Drummond, Stump and Coakley). 

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