Book Review: Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love


askthebeastsMy Summer reading list fell victim to the demands of daily life with a busier than expected work schedule, supporting a wife who is finishing writing a book and being the father of two boys who are active in baseball and other summer activities.  However, I did manage to read Elizabeth Johnson’s outstanding book Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.

Dr. Johnson was the keynote speaker at the 2014 American Teilhard Association annual meeting. It was the first time I heard her speak in person and she was wonderful. She accurately pointed that, despite his reputation as an eco-theologian (which is more aptly attributable to Teilhard’s younger devotee, Thomas Barry), Teilhard never actually did “Ask the Beasts” in any meaningful respect. However, in her book, Johnson did an outstanding job of synthesizing Christian evolutionary theology (in the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin) with Darwin’s biology.

I was going to do my own review but I came across an incredibly detailed and thorough review by David Corder, retired clergyman and author of the outstanding blog The Outward Quest, who is much more knowledgable in theology than I am. As I have never been afraid to defer to those smarter than me, I am going to do so in this case by reference to Mr. Corder’s 11-part review referenced below.  I encourage you to read all 11 parts but set forth below is an excerpt from the review titled “The Bible, Death and Deep Time

A more pivotal use of scripture comes when she tries to deal with the problem that death is integral to the theory of evolution. Evolution depends on the death of some and the survival of others. This is a problem because the love of God is at the foundation of evolution in her argument. How is the love of God related to the bloody and violent reality of evolution? This is one of the questions I have been holding in reserve.

She cites this passage:

For the creation eagerly waits for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly but because of God who subjected it – in hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:19-26 NET Bible).

The “whole creation groans and suffers”. This is the reality of life. However, this passage clearly puts the groaning and suffering in the story of what God is doing in history. Something is emerging. God is bringing about something new. The image of groaning and suffering comes from childbirth. In the natural world pain and blood precede the coming of new life. Yet, even in the midst of the pain, the creation “eagerly waits” for new life.

In its context in Romans, this passage is about the hope that arises because the Spirit of God has acted in the death and resurrection of Christ.

She talks about how pain is the shadow side of pleasure. It has its purpose in life and evolution. So also with death. Evolution requires generations to arise and pass away. So massive death is essential to the working of evolution. There was never, she says, a paradise where pain and death did not exist. Genesis 2 and 3 are mythic or poetic. They do not mark an era in natural history. [Editor’s Note: This is the de facto view of the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI also]

This runs counter to theological positions that see death as the result of human sin or as a providential means of accomplishing personal growth. Rather, death operates in the natural world of predator and prey in an entirely impersonal way.

Since Johnson relates evolution to the love of God, there is obviously need for further reflection. Her placing of Romans 8 at the early stage of this discussion, though, shows that she wants to ultimately see pain, suffering and death as part of God’s working out of a loving design. But the eras are long. God works in what she calls “deep time”.

Links to the Full Review of the Book:
The Loving Eye
The Spirit Involved in Biology

The Way the Ball Bounces

The Bible, Death and Deep Time

Pelican Chick and Theodicy

Deep Incarnation

Deep Resurrection and How We Know

Cosmic Redemption

Orthodoxy and Environmental Activism

The Community Paradigm

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog ( explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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2 Responses to Book Review: Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

  1. readingmater says:

    I followed your link to David Corder’s blog. Thanks.It’s good.

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