Matthew Nelson Hill. Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to buy the book.
Matthew Nelson Hill is an elder in the Free Methodist Church, and he teaches philosophy at Spring Arbor University. In Evolution and Holiness, Hill explores possible connections between evolutionary views on human morality and John Wesley’s views on how Christians can become holy. Essentially, Hill argues that, even if humans have a selfish gene that drags them down morally, they can still overcome this selfishness through God’s grace, a personal and conscious pursuit of holiness, and an environment that challenges and encourages them to be altruistic. An example of such an environment would be John Wesley’s small groups.
Here are some of my thoughts about this book:
A. A struggle that I had in reading this book was identifying where Hill believes that supernatural grace fits into the Christian’s growth towards holiness. To his credit, Hill does try to address this question: he says that God works through nature and our efforts. But Hill seems to present a picture of God trying to bring the best out of who we naturally are, since we are a mixture of selfishness and altruism. That sounds different from God giving people the Holy Spirit, which enables them to desire and to do good. Where, for Hill, does the natural end and the supernatural begin, in the area of Christians’ growth towards holiness? And how would Hill distinguish his view from Pelagianism? Hill mentions Wesley’s belief in prevenient grace, but is not prevenient grace supernatural, or apart from nature? How can that be reconciled with Hill’s scenario of the Christian life, which stresses nature (and environment, which can influence nature)?
B. As Hill narrates, John Wesley was controversial in his time because he believed that a Christian could become perfect in this life. For Wesley, perfection meant being like Christ in one’s love for God and neighbor. Other Christians, such as Lutherans and Calvinists, denied that such perfection was a possibility in this life. My understanding is that they tended to portray the Christian life as a continuous uphill battle with sin until one’s dying day. What puzzles me is that, according to Hill, Wesley may have held to a combination of these two views. Wesley acknowledged that temptation would always be present in the life of the believer, even after the believer arrives at a state of perfection. Wesley also said that a believer needed to continue actively in the spiritual disciplines to stay on the straight and narrow, and that a Christian could even fall from a state of perfection. That is more in line with the second view, and also with Hill’s presentation of the Christian life as a continual, perhaps lifelong, attempt to rise above one’s selfish gene. Hill does not believe that God overthrows how we naturally are.
But how does a continual struggle with selfishness co-exist with being perfect? Does not the existence of the weight of selfishness in a person imply imperfection? One could perhaps retort that Wesley thought that perfection meant having the right intent, even if one made mistakes. That could be. It just seems to me that being weighed down by sin and being perfect are contrary notions, and identifying how Hill and Wesley hold them together is difficult.
C. Can the Fall be reconciled with evolution, according to Hill? Hill did not answer this question explicitly, but he did raise issues that are relevant to this issue. Hill discusses the influence of Eastern Orthodoxy on John Wesley’s thought, as well as the differences between Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy. According to Hill, Eastern Orthodoxy tends to hold that Adam and Eve were incomplete at creation (prior to the Fall) and were on a path of becoming more and more like God. Within Western Christianity, by contrast, there is more of a view that God made Adam and Eve perfect, the Fall disrupted that, and God wants to return creation to pre-Fall perfection. According to Hill, Wesley leaned more towards the Western idea, even though Wesley’s belief that Christians could become perfect in this life was influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox view that God created Adam and Eve incomplete, however, may be one way a Christian can reconcile evolution with the Fall.
D. Hill extensively discusses scientific questions of whether there is a biological or evolutionary basis for selfishness, altruism, and free will. As far as I remember, Hill did not address an argument that atheist physicist Victor Stenger made in his 2012 book, God and the Folly of Faith: that free will may be an illusion because our brains act in a certain way before we consciously make a decision. Hill should not necessarily have responded to Stenger, per se, since Stenger was a physicist, not a biologist. But Stenger is basing his argument on other sources, and Hill would have done well to have engaged them. Hill does say that, from our perspective, we do have the ability to make choices. There is something to that, but, considering John Wesley’s aversion to Calvinism, perhaps Hill should have been more rigorous in addressing the case some have made for biological determinism. (Hill does address determinism, but I do not recall him addressing Stenger’s argument. I apologize if Hill did address it, and I fail to remember it.)
E. In reading Hill’s book, I wondered if I would want to be in one of Wesley’s band societies. From Hill’s description, they came across to me to be nosy, pushy, controlling, and legalistic. (Hill may have a positive stance towards them, but I am talking about my reactions.) I could identify with the many Christians who chose to be in Methodist classes, but not Methodist band societies! At the same time, Hill did say things about Wesley’s approach that I found intriguing and appealing. First of all, Wesley started accountability groups because he himself struggled to be consistent in performing spiritual disciplines. As Hill says, Wesley did not ask people to do anything that he was unwilling to do himself! Second, Wesley’s groups allowed converts to continue on the Christian path. By contrast, George Whitefield’s approach of preaching to people and failing to do any follow-up resulted in less substantial fruit, as even Whitefield admitted. Third, Wesley consciously pursued people who were not particularly altruistic, in an attempt to move them towards altruism. Wesley looked for lost sheep, in short! Fourth, the donations that people in Wesley’s groups regularly made really did help the poor: orphans, widows, the unemployed, etc. I may recoil from being in a group like Wesley’s band societies, but I can understand the importance of accountability in encouraging me to do good, and in providing me with opportunities to do so.
F. Hill’s discussion of altruism was appealing to me, since I tend to recoil from Christian statements that we should put others ahead of ourselves. Hill explores whether taking self-interest completely out of the equation is even possible, from the standpoint of how we biologically are, and what has served us in the past. At the same time, Hill questioned whether our beneficent, outwardly-focused actions are purely a matter of quid-pro-quo: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Hill’s insights on these issues were especially helpful to me.
Although I still have questions and areas of confusion after reading this book, I still give it four stars. Hill did wrestle with questions, and he did so judiciously.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.