Sacred Heart University students and faculty gathered with community members in University Commons recently for a spirited conversation on “Evolution and Creation Theology,” led by Roger Haight, American Jesuit theologian and scholar-in-residence at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
The talk was part of the “Contemporary Catholic Conversations” series, hosted by the Office of Mission and Catholic Identity. Anthony Ciorra, vice president for Mission & Catholic Identity, introduced Haight, giving a brief history of his spiritual life. Sometime in the 1970s, under Pope John Paul II and followed by Pope Benedict the 16th, Haight was silenced for his writings, Ciorra said.
“When he was silenced, he first went to Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he taught, and after that he was told he couldn’t even do that for a while,” Ciorra said. “This man has really borne the heat of the day. Under the pontificate of Pope Francis, a lot of this has eased up.”
Ciorra said SHU—a place that invites conversation and dialogue—welcomed Haight onto its campus. “That’s who we are as a University. Roger is not silenced. He’s given a voice, as each of you are given a voice in our theological and other discussions. This does not mean we have to agree, but it does mean that as a University, we create a culture where we can engage in conversation.”
Haight told his audience the purpose of his talk “is to show that faith and science do not compete with each other and can be friends. I do not approach science as a rival of theology, but as a description of reality, of what we mean by our doctrines. Science and theology can illuminate each other.”
He began with some basic ideas surrounding evolution, saying that the universe began about 13.8 billion years ago with what is called the Big Bang. Since then, it has been expanding like a big balloon in all directions at around the speed of light, Haight said. The universe enjoys a material consistency through the galaxies, on down to the human species. Everything comes from the same materials and elements, he noted.
Speaking as a theologian, he said creation entails “the transcendence of God” and is ongoing; it exists in a story out of the past and continually moves forward into the future. The problem, Haight said, is that simplistic language about religion and God hinders understanding. Language about God is enormously complicated by the human imagination, which tries to picture God, he explained.
“God is not a big person in the sky…When we imagine God as a father or a mother, we are creating God in our own image. We need more sophisticated notions,” said Haight. The basic problem is anthropomorphism, he said. Rather than an image of man, he described God as “a pure act of being,” an unlimited force that keeps creating.
“What do I really mean when I say God is creator of the world?” he probed. “Creation declares absolute dependence of reality on God, the finite world in which we live. The primary testimony to creation comes from within ourselves.”
Rather than thinking of what God creates, he suggested thinking of everything as dependent on God. “God isn’t running things,” he said. “God creates the things, and the creatures run the things.
God is present in every worldly activity. God doesn’t intervene because God is directly present in everything that exists. God does not do what God has given us the power to do.”
“Why pray?” an audience member asked Haight.
“Why not?” Haight said. “We pray out of gratitude for creation, for our being. We pray out of helplessness if tragedy happens. If we meet an impasse and want to get out of it, we express our impotence or courage, not praying for God to intervene, but God hears our prayer and is present. What one should pray for is to be inspired to do what we can and to stand up in a situation that requires our attention.”
Uwem Akpanikat, a Sacred Heart senior, asked about the connection between religious art and iconography to God. “You mentioned God is not picturable,” Akpanikat said. “What role does religious art play?”
Haight acknowledged that humans can hardly mention the word “God” without forming pictures in their imagination. Those pictures do not represent God, because if they did, God would be finite, which he is not. But representations play a role, calling God to mind, he said, suggesting that artists may reach a state of consciousness that allows them to give other people insight into “the absolute, incomprehensible mystery” of God.