In the 2012 Gifford Lectures, Sarah Coakley seeks to listen to contemporary mathematical and empirical reconsiderations of ‘cooperation’ and ‘sacrifice’ in evolutionary biology; yet the lectures also aim at critically investigating evolutionary theory’s own narratives of meaning so as to raise once more the question of God. ‘Natural theology’ is therefore ‘reconceived’, argues Coakley, in light of global economic and ecological challenges precipitated by false notions of ‘sacrifice’.
The initial lecture (‘Stories of Evolution, Stories of Sacrifice’) sees Coakley discussing the evolutionary phenomenon of ‘cooperation’. She argues that several important cultural antipathies in the 20th and 21st centuries have left Christian theology ‘in a notable retreat’ from the prevalent secular ‘stories’ of evolutionary ‘selfishness’. Coakley proposes that current theoretic ‘implosions’ and metaphysical ‘re-examinations’ might offer a fundamental shift in evolutionary understanding, one which is capable of harkening Christian theology back to ‘its deepest responsibilities in our generation’.
In the second lecture (‘Cooperation, alias Altruism’), Coakley provides an account of ‘five particular conditions under which cooperation can attain an evolutionary stable state’. The upshot of this five-fold division is that cooperation neutralizes the purported ‘selfishness’ of evolutionary election. Further, the capacity to give a mathematical account of these mechanisms of cooperation from evolutionary biologists allows the principle of sacrifice to be placed alongside ‘selection’ in the continuum of evolution.
The third lecture (‘Ethics, Cooperation and Human Motivation’) finds Coakley considering the topic of ‘evolutionary ethics’ under the aspect of the behavioral features of cooperation or creaturely altruism. Coakley, in asking what ethical theory would best explain evolutionary data, shows how both neo-Aristotelian and Kantian accounts could have advantages with regards to the question of God. Coakley also notes the problem of explaining ‘excess’ in evolutionary cooperation and altruism – that is, for those events of a deeply sacrificial, saintly undertaking for others.
In the fourth lecture (‘Ethics, Cooperation and the Gender Wars’), Coakley places modern evolutionary debates about gender and cooperation in context by analyzing several prominent evolutionary biologists, whose ideas are instructive for the neo-Aristotelian theory of biological ‘flourishing’. Coakley then suggests an ‘ascetic’ lesson for the creaturely realm. Drawing inspiration from the Christian past, particularly 4th-century monasticism, Coakley investigates this period with an ‘evolutionary eye’ in order to pursue a renewed engagement with the life of ‘flourishing’.
Lecture five (‘Teleology Reviewed’) begins with a re-drawing of the earlier lectures on evolutionary cooperation in order to present a new rendition of natural theology. Coakley then offers a dénouement on the ‘ethico-teleological’ argument for God’s existence, set squarely in Thomist and Kantian meta-ethics. The argument turns on the notion that there exists a ‘people whose excessive altruism make it difficult to say in any obvious sense that they are gaining any fitness advantage’. Such expressions of ‘supernormality’, Coakley concludes, become the means of a teleological indicator of the category of grace – even in the evolutionary world as a whole.
Building on this theme, the final lecture (‘Reconceiving “Natural Theology”’) has Coakley urging a ‘new natural theology’ founded on six ‘hallmarks’, which include having the ‘spiritual senses’ and ‘ascetic capacity’ to see God in the world. This particular hallmark allows Coakley to propose that theology ought to engage positively with the current ‘implosions’ within evolutionary biology. Finally, natural theology allows for fresh Christological expressions of sacrifice which, in turn, calls for ‘positive and affective commitment and hope of religious people’ in mobilizing cooperation in light of present creaturely crises.
Coakley neatly traverses the varied conceptual landscapes of natural theology and contemporary evolutionary biology. And while the listener may not accept the ‘old’ or ‘new’ commitments of natural theology, one cannot come away from these lectures without the renewed sense that Christian theology must continually engage such questions in the ‘form of practiced dispossession, in the Spirit, to the emergence of truth which may surprise, inform, or disturb’.