Review of God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy without a Fall by Bethany N. Sollereder

October 14, 2021

Sollereder, Bethany N. God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy without a Fall. New York, NY: Routledge, 2019, pp. 202, $48.95, paperback.


Bethany Sollereder (PhD, Exeter) is a systematic theologian and postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Oxford.  She writes on theodicy, animals, interpretations of Genesis, and science and religion.

Sollereder’s outstanding book asks how “a good and loving God [can] create through an evolutionary process involving such suffering, death, extinction, and violence” (p. 4).   It is not a defense of Christian theism in light of the violence of evolutionary history, but an exploration of ways to understand the God-world relation in light of what is so baffling about evolution. Taking a line from Christopher Southgate, she explains her project “arise[s] out of protest and end[s] in mystery” (p. 4).

Blending an account of love borrowed from Aquinas and an Open Theist take on divine action, Sollereder tells a creative, complex, and at turns, mystifying story. She argues the disvalue of evolutionary suffering is a necessary byproduct of God’s generous gift of being to creatures and refusal to ‘micromanage’ (p. 183) the trajectory of any individual or species’ growth and development.  Furthermore, no disvalue is beyond the possibility of redemption because of God’s infinite, creative love.  She critiques approaches to the problem where the supposed benefit brought about through suffering neither affirms the value of animals’ lives nor benefits the actual individuals that suffer (p. 50).  She likewise rejects theological models that propose too revisionary an account of divine attributes (p.67).

In chapter 2, Sollereder contests traditional interpretations of the Bible where natural evils, or as she prefers, disvalues, are explained by appeal to the fall of humans and/or angels.  Arguing that the natural world itself was never corrupted, she argues that the Genesis 3 curse on how humans relate to the earth was lifted with the advent of the Noahide covenant (p. 36).  Hebrew Bible scholars will find her arguments here of interest.

In chapter 3 she offers an overview of recent suggestions for theodicies and appropriates Southgate’s “only way” argument, which says “an evolutionary process is the only way to create life without constant intervention” (p. 52), where that life boasts the kind of diversity and freedom we see in the world.  This affirms the value of that diversity and freedom, and likewise holds that law-like causal relations free from divine intervention make the world navigable for both humans and animals—a benefit both can enjoy.  As Sollereder notes, the goodness of nomic regularity for each individual is not always proportionate to how much any individual suffers, so there has to be more to the story (p. 55). Sollereder takes line that a compound of multiple approaches is required for addressing evolutionary suffering (p. 79-80).

In chapter 4, Sollereder begins with Eleonore Stump’s version of Thomas Aquinas’ definition of love: a conjunction of desires for union with the beloved and for the good of the beloved (p. 94).  She argues this definition requires that divine love is particular to each individual and essentially noncoercive.  From there she examines how a world made in love would contain creatures given significant freedom, and how the freedom afforded creation might help us understand the coexistence of an infinitely loving God and evolutionary suffering.

In chapter 5 she turns to a version of Open Theism where God limits God’s own knowledge in order to make room for significant creaturely freedom. According to Sollereder, God is temporal, watching evolution unfold as time elapses. God does not know the path evolution will take or the choices any individuals will make.  God does not even know what God will do in the future (p. 112).  But since the limits on God’s knowledge are self-imposed, it is not beyond the scope of God’s power to find creative ways to bring about redemption in the end, even if that ending will be a surprise to God.  Furthermore, in stepping out of Classical Theism, she is able to claim that God is able to co-suffer with creation (p. 112).

Her emphasis on non-intervention as entailment of divine love and her embrace of Open Theism position Sollereder to argue that God is not on the dock for all the natural tragedies in evolutionary history. There is value in what she calls ‘selving,’ a process of self-realization through the exercise of one’s powers and particular characteristics.  The powers an animal exercises in selving are ones that can create goods for it and for its kind but can also create disvalues. She summarizes the significance of selving,

a creation made in love would necessarily involve allowing creatures to “selve” with significant freedom. Creatures would selve without micromanagement into lions and lettuce, dinosaurs and diphtheria. Life was not drawn inexorably along fortuitous lines of descent but was allowed to develop according to each creature’s own needs and agency, sustained by the unflinching generosity of God to all life” (p. 183).

To deny creatures the opportunity to selve would be a failure of love.

Lastly, Sollereder speculates about redemptive possibilities for creatures, both in this life and the next. The clearest form of immanent redemption Sollereder considers is ecological (p. 158). The death of an individual creature can restore energy to the soil, which can nourish plants, which can sustain an ecosystem, and so forth. Possibilities for immanent redemption, whatever they amount to, stress the value of each life that is lived so that the goodness of those lives does not just materialize in the eschaton.

Since Sollereder seeks a narrative where the value of each life is affirmed and where the outweighing goods connected with suffering are ones that benefit the animals themselves, she must appeal to the afterlife. She argues for the possibility that every living thing will be resurrected and enjoy life with God in heaven. There the suffering contained within each creature’s life will be a source of glory for that creature (p. 168). The role that creatures played in the bigger narrative of God’s work—culminating in the Christ event—will be part of a whole that brings good out of their past suffering. Here she makes good on her promissory note that the project ends in mystery.

How might the ecological and eschatological levels of redemption fit together? She says that “the meaning of a good life is a gift given by God in an act of eschatological creativity” (p. 169) Sollereder’s explanation bottoms out in metaphor, hinting at how that the different levels of redemption are connected. She utilizes an image employed by Stump: a fractal where the organizing principle of each part recurs at each ascending level of complexity of a structural whole. The story of an individual’s redemption is nested within a larger story of the ecological whole, which is in turn nested within and even bigger story—each bearing similarities in narrative structure.

Sollereder is sympathetic to Trent Dougherty’s defense for animal suffering, where resurrected animals level up in heaven and acquire the cognitive capacities necessary to see their suffering as defeated (p. 168). Dougherty’s suggestion is promising, but I fear Sollereder’s emphasis on the essentially non-coercive nature of divine love and the value of selving might undercut any such move. If it is inconsistent with divine love for God to nudge the mechanisms of evolution to soften its violent tendencies, surely any means of causing animals to level up in heaven would be even more inconsistent. If selving is not just a necessary consequence of permitting nomic regularity, but an entailment of divine love, it’s not clear how radical transformations of any sort would be possible.

I see further worries about the role that selving plays in her account. Despite saying that God’s love is particular to each individual, in claiming the permission for selving is universally required by divine love, Sollereder seems to apply the same conditions for love between persons to love between persons and non-persons. In Stump’s explanation of Aquinas’ view, God would be failing to love an individual if God were to coercively influence that individual’s free will.  That is because the union desired in love requires the union of two wills—God’s and the beloved’s—not a unilateral imposition. But would it be unloving to use coercion against a creature who does not have free will? The question is actually pretty thorny and turns on our understanding of animals’ agential capacities.

On the one hand, Sollereder is right that [many] animals have significant agency—they are not mere creatures of instinct.  On the other hand, I would argue that whatever kind of agency animals have is different not just in degree from human agency, but different in kind—at least for the vast majority of non-human species. Animals cannot take higher-order evaluative stances toward their own desires and motivations. While they can choose to act or refrain from acting in particular ways, it is far from obvious that these choices are the product of any kind of deliberation.

These differences matter for two reasons. First, I suspect that the value of having the ability to satisfy one’s own desires and exercise agency depends on the strength of one’s agency.   If a creature lacks self-awareness, cannot conceive of its own good as such, or appreciate its own exercise of freedom, just how valuable can selving be, at least for that animal? While it might be aesthetically valuable or conducive to nomic regularity for creatures to develop by the exercise of their own powers, how is that kind of freedom a good that animals can experience subjectively? And if it’s not a subjective good for animals, what kind of good for them can it be?

Furthermore, when it comes to human relations, we tend to think that paternalism can be appropriate, and maybe obligatory, toward individuals with limited agency. Arguably, the level of independence one ought to give someone they love depends on the degree to which they are able to exercise freedom. The freedom I extend my teenager in love would be terribly unloving if extended toward his much younger sibling.

Something similar strikes me as the right way to think about paternalism towards animals, too. The good shepherd builds a fence around his sheep and guides them with his staff.  The loving dog-owner forces his animal to go veterinarian, even against the dog’s protest.  Maybe these examples are slanted toward domesticated animals, but a similar point stands when it comes to wild animals, too.  If an endangered animal’s habitat were irreparably encroached by human occupation, it would be best to relocate the animal, against its wishes, if such relocation would give it a better chance at flourishing and its species a better chance at survival. I hesitate to use the term because it’s so heavily freighted, but this might be part of what it means for humans to have dominion over creation. And if humans can exercise such providence over animals, directing them toward their own particular ends, surely a loving creator could so too.

Sollereder does not place all her bets on the value of selving, so the foregoing is not a deal breaker for her approach. But there is something very clever in her claim that selving is a consequence of divine love. Many theodicies and defenses for evolutionary suffering appeal to the value of non-interventional mechanisms for bringing about diversity in creation.  But where in most other accounts that is a global good unconnected to the good of individuals who suffer, Sollereder is able to point to how God’s non-intervention is actually evidence of God’s love for those that suffer. While I think she might be on to something here, I think the details will turn on empirical facts about the strength of animal’s agency and normative facts about how great a good that agency is for them as individuals.

A further tension comes from Sollereder’s use of a Thomistic account of love and Open Theism. She argues in short order that the Thomistic account of love necessitates an Open Theist conception of the God-world relation because of the centrality of freedom in willing the good for the other. Aquinas, of course, didn’t see things that way. He and Stump both hold that God loves all things God has made, that God does not contravene the will of free creatures, and at the same time, God is impassible, a se, and outside of time. There are plenty of puzzles for Classical theism about how God can then be responsive to the world, for sure, and interesting ways in which Aquinas, Stump, and many others respond. Classical Theism does not get any airtime in the book, and it would be interesting to see what elements of her model might be available for use by the more classically inclined, especially given the pride of place the author gives to Aquinas/Stump, and Sollereder’s concern to avoid too great a revision of divine attributes.

In the end, I find many of the moving parts in Sollereder’s model attractive and the breadth of issues she brings together impressive. She engages with the sciences with care and creativity, and her guiding intuitions about the value of animals’ lives are refreshingly humane. This is the most comprehensive treatment of the problem of evolutionary suffering on offer, and her presentation of the state of play in theological literature is tremendously helpful. In short, anyone interested in the problem of evolutionary suffering would do well to pay careful attention to this exciting book.

Faith Glavey Pawl

University of St. Thomas, Minnesota





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