Charles Sherlock

Stephen Ames: “A Strange Goodness?: God and Natural Evil”

Book reviewed by Charles Sherlock, May 2024

A Strange Goodness?: God and Natural Evil
by Stephen Ames
South Australia: ATF, 2024; 188 pages
ISBN 9781923006621, 1st edition, paperback

“As a theologically orthodox Christian, I live from the ‘good news’ of the vulnerable, yet invincible Triune God revealed through Christ” (p. x). So Stephen Ames states in the preface to this book. I have known him for some forty years—in theological education, as a parishioner, on the Cathedral Chapter, and as a fellow traveller in various causes.

Ames lives as he states, not least in the contested air of The University of Melbourne, where for two decades he shared with atheist scholars in teaching the unit “God and the Natural Sciences.” That is the fountain from which this book springs. So, what is it about?

“For many people, the problem of natural evil is a very significant obstacle to identifying with the God Christians worship,“ Ames writes. Debate about how we cope with suffering—the evidential problem of experienced evil—has moved to the metaphysical level: the logical problem of natural evil. Could a loving, all-powerful deity create a universe such as evolution discloses, with the enormous waste and suffering involved?

The book has three parts. The first clarifies the problem (Chapter I); the second offers a “solution;” (Chapters II–IV) and the third, “Reality Checks,” responds to objections raised (Chapter V). A long appendix “clarifies the idea of God in the problem of natural evil.”

A question often put is: “How could an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God create such a world as this?” Ames notes that, though this question begins from creation as we know it, a better approach is to start from the “omni-God” assumed in the question. A “theological moment” is needed on all sides: “The proper basis required is to argue from the idea of the omni-God to the kind of world we should expect that God to create. Without such an argument, there is no basis for speaking about natural processes as ‘natural evils.’” This is the key point of Part 1 (p. 10).

This book’s distinctive contribution is spelled out in Part 2. This attempts “to offer an account of God as creator based on the idea of the omni-God, without using the scientific understanding of the universe and without concocting a theology to suit it.” What stands out is the exploration of how core aspects of mainstream Christian faith impinge upon the “natural evils.”

Drawing on Aquinas, Ames contends that what the living God creates is a living world, where “created things have the dignity of also being causes” to be fruitful and multiply. Since this world is finite, there will be conflict, waste, and suffering, as well as cooperation. Even so, “we should expect the life-producing processes should in some sense exceed the death-dealing processes.” In sum, God “creates a life-producing universe, which is better than only producing an inert universe, or a merely mechanically interactive universe or a chaotic universe.”

This undermines logical “natural evil.” But what of God’s purpose in creation? This “leads to at least three new developments: the creation of ‘persons,’ the revelation of God, and the ultimate ordering of the created universe.” Chapter III proceeds with a nuanced and careful exposition of this trio. First, God’s loving purpose includes coming into relationship with “persons” (on this planet, human beings). Secondly, divine self-revelation enables finite creatures to respond in love, and play our part in God’s ordering all things towards new creation (the third development). The discussion respects the important distinction between special and general revelation, as well as the (so often missed) equally important distinction between being finite and being sinful.

But the best is yet to come! Chapter IV “locates” this theology of creation in the complementary spaces of the natural sciences and of theology. Ames contests the claim that the former can explain everything by neatly asking how the existence of inquirers on planet earth can fit into such a materialist worldview. “Natural evil” is seen as a way to understand, in evolutionary terms, the penultimate order of the universe. “A theologically grounded view of creation … for theological reasons waits upon the natural sciences to tell us in detail what the penultimate order of the life-producing universe is.” Those natural sciences also involve poets and artists.

The insight of Christian theology (“special revelation”) is to see human persons as made in the image of God, revealed fully in Christ. In Christ, God “opens” into creation and its suffering, raising Jesus as the first fruits of the ultimate order of creation. The cross shows that the “opening of the divine life to the whole creation is the costly, unbounded, love of the Triune God.”

An acute analysis of the Niceaen and Chalcedonian dogmas follows; the fathers involved would have been amazed at how their work would help open ways of understanding God’s purposes in our age! Several “Reality Checks” follow through on this in Part 3 (Chapter V): how are matters such as changing entropy, asteroid collisions, or apparent divine recklessness, taken into account? Wisely, Ames does not seek to cover every issue in detail but shows enough to deflect the problem and allow his “solution” to stand.

The Appendix outlines the development of classical theism from Plotinus, through Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas to modern debates, engaging with questions raised by Ames’ students and more. Modern theologians considered range from Farrer to Mascall to Williams among Anglicans, from Barth to Gunton, to Moltmann to Zizioulas on the Trinity, and many more on the philosophy of science. Illuminating anecdotes tell of Galileo’s “two books” concept, how Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies explored evolution, John Walton’s insights into Genesis 1, and more.

But do aspects of classical orthodoxy resist his conclusions? For example, how does the traditional emphasis on the incarnation as the remedy for human sin (O felix culpa) fit in? Again, the concept of God taking suffering onboard in costly love was opened up in the wake of World War 1 by Studdert Kennedy in particular. It is central to Ames’ thesis, but some will see it as distorting orthodox belief. And how might insights into gender—human and divine—shape the discussion, which does not touch on these?

And what of the title? Ames explains: “This is the strange goodness of God who has created a world worth dying for. Is it too strange to be called good, or too good to be true? What if it is true?” (p. 154)

This is a most significant book, inviting sustained engagement. The demanding nature of the subject, and Ames’ fairness, mean that it is a close read. Whatever their stance on the issues, academics in theology and the natural sciences will benefit greatly from working through it, as will thoughtful Christians and others. You can take a shortcut by reading the three “Preliminary Conclusions” Ames provides to Chapters II, III, and IV, but you will miss the richness of the argument. Furthermore, you will miss a model of Christian engagement with questions both perennial and contemporary.