Square circles

The more I think about it, the more the good folk at BioLogos appear to me to be between a rock and a hard place in formulating a theoretical framework appropriate to their mission. From the start one should acknowledge that, like any such organisation, BioLogos is a broad church. That in itself can cause problems, but it goes with the territory and, in any case, leads to fruitful debate. Rather, I’m restricting myself to the predominant theology of its main supporters, which as I have discussed at length in the last few posts is Open Theism, and to that part of its aim that has to do with reconciling an Evangelical view of God with mainstream science.

BioLogos was set up by scientists who professed Christianity, so I’m sure the main reconciliation they had in mind was between their own mainstream scientific thought and their Christian thought, rather than trying to make Christianity acceptable to the scientific world at large. The latter aspect, however, is not entirely absent both from a broad apologetic viewpoint and in the fact that BioLogos has sometimes enlisted the support of unbelieving scientists, for example in attempting to refute Intelligent Design. Neither is it humanly unlikely, or particularly reprehensible, that Christian scientists should also wish to maintain the respect of their peers whilst acknowledging their faith.

Nevertheless all those subsidiary aims are less important than resolving ones own faith and science in a satisfactory way, lest any attempt to bring others on board be doomed to failure.

But the problem starts with the very definition of mainstream science, which as it now stands has methodological naturalism built into it. A religious explanation for anything is by definition not scientific, whether or not one is prepared to concede the possibility of its having any meaning at all. ID, whose raison d’etre is a scientific program, has sought to contest this limitation by saying that it is an obstruction to knowledge. If aspects of the Universe, like information, truly do have a supernatural explanation, then science is shooting itself in the foot as a quest for understanding by excluding the possibility a priori.

Biologians, on the other hand, are broadly happy with this view of science and, indeed, of the Universe, and prefer to tailor their theology so that God’s role in the Universe is not detectable by science. Hence the appeal of Open Theology. To many unbelieving scientists this is still unacceptable – even a silent God is one god too many. To others, it is acceptable only because, in essence, such a God does not exist at all. One snip with another scientific tool, Occam’s perennially sharp razor, and such a deity ceases to be relevant, except insofar as his followers are seen as poor scientists for multiplying entities unnecessarily.

The apologetic task is therefore hampered from the start, but as I have said, this was always less important than the resolution of the science and faith of scientists themselves. This leaves Biologians with the task of producing a coherent system for themselves. How does one understand God as being one who is both intimately involved with the physical Universe and undetectable within it?

One solution might be the classical liberal one of limiting God to the subjective and personal life, and excluding him from science and the physical world altogether. In no way is such a God our Creator – which raises the question of what right he has to be involved in our lives at all. It also denies a fundamental truth of Christianity, as well as a BioLogos core belief that we believe that God created the universe and continues to providentially sustain the natural world.

One attraction of Open Theism is that superficially it appears to free God from the “need” to interfere with the running of the Universe. The theory goes that he has created the Universe with both deterministic natural law and its own creative autonomy: the random events that seed evolution and change its course are random with respect to God as well as to fitness. That’s why creation is full of poor outcomes and bad design as well as innovation and wonder. Yet in his wisdom God uses what this free creation produces to fulfil his purposes. But do you see the Catch 22 here? In order to “use”, then God must “act”. If natural law continues according to its rules, and random chance is part of nature’s “freedom”, then what tools can God use to act? And if he does use them, it will be interference and a denial of the principles of undetectability and methodological naturalism. God can watch – but not touch, at least in the non-human sphere with which evolution primarily deals.

Even in the human sphere, science claims the right to apply evolutionary principles to everything. Judging from the negative responses on BioLogos to my friend Gregory’s plaintive protests that not everything evolves, many in the organisation would agree with science. If human psychology, history, sociology – even sin – are the outworkings of an evolutionary process in which God does not intervene, what does he actually do, and how can it be compatible with science?

A concept that seems to provide a way out is the thoroughly truthful Christian doctrine that God sustains all existence from moment to moment, which as I have already pointed out is a core belief of BioLogos. However, in the classical formulations of this idea, such providence is thoroughly sovereign and causal. “A man casts the lot into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Chance, to our eyes, may comply with statistical or chaos theory and yet be truly random – but it is God who decides which individual wins the lottery and which low-probability mutation arises. But such providence is unnacceptable to science, and unattractive to many Biologians, committed as they are to a view of random events that makes them independent of God. Apart, then, from the mere sustaining of existence, what tools does such a God possess to affect the world’s events?

I too sustain the existence of billions of micro-organisms and, potentially, larger parasites within my body, but I can hardly be said to influence how they lead their lives. If I did, say by swallowing a healthy dose of antibiotic, they’d soon enough be able to detect my existence.

All this is not to say that I think it’s impossible for BioLogos to square the circle. I fully believe that theistic evolution is a coherent position, though it will never be acceptable to a secular academy as long as “God” is in there, which is just tough. But some things, in my view, just have to go. The first is methodological naturalism, because God cannot both act in the Universe and be undetectable, unless he is the Deist God who works only be the laws he set up long ago. The second is the bizarre idea of a free and independent creation, which is both internally incoherent and also, at a stroke, destroys the rather more important freedom of the Creator himself – or at least, our ability to understand and worship him aright for it.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Square circles

  1. Cal says:

    I think it gets all rather fuzzy when speaking abstractly of this and that, even solid Tanakh proverbs or sayings. I think one thing would settle the matter in the eyes of Believer, unbeliever, Christian, Naturalist: “God rose Jesus from the dead” and perhaps clarified, “Yes bodily. In His own body, yet new and not mundane”.

    My guess? Naturalist will sneer or scoff and say, “The dead don’t rise!” and depending on temperament maybe a roll of the eyes and a snarky comment about zombies. It seems too many have moved away from the Resurrection to some odd, platonic disembodied existence for eternity. A girl I know, in a small fellowship, mused, “I always thought in Heaven we’d be able to see, like we have eyes, I don’t know why” and my response was “We’ll be resurrected, we will have eyes” and there seemed to be a disconnect.

    Anyway, back on course, I think this question will make the divide and is a show of true colors. It spells the way forward, and backward, for a Christian understanding what he/she sees in the world.

    Cal

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “It seems too many have moved away from the Resurrection to some odd, platonic disembodied existence for eternity.” Yup – too much talk of heaven, and too little of “the new heavens and new earth, the home of righteousness.”

    Your question might not completely eradicate fudge, but should at least point out when we’re stepping in it.

  3. James says:

    Jon:

    This article, like so many on your site, is thoughtful and worthy of praise. You are almost unique among theistic evolutionists on the web, in that you are willing to give intelligent design proponents a fair hearing and to criticize other theistic evolutionists when the need arises. And you have taken the time to become informed about both the theological and the scientific aspects of evolution/creation questions, unlike many TE defenders who have some knowledge of the science but are weak on theology or vice versa. Thus, while from many blogs written by TEs one gets mainly propaganda and polemics, from your writing one can actually learn something. Keep up the good work!

    I have appreciated your constructive criticism of Biologos. You have pointed out in a gentle way what many of the columnists and commenters on Biologos need to hear, i.e., that in their determination to square evolutionary theory with Christian theology, they have often been a little bit careless in their theology and have offered versions of Christianity which are not traditional. I think this is caused by two things. First, the majority of regular Biologos columnists are scientists who do a bit of thinking about theology “on the side” rather than theologians who are steeped in the writings of the tradition. Second, there appears to be a fierce determination to “defend evolution” (generally what is called neo-Darwinian evolution, or, more accurately, the Modern Synthesis, which held sway in serious evolutionary theory from about 1930 to about 1980 and still has friends in high places, and still dominates high-school textbook and popular science and culture-war presentations of evolution), and this determination often leads the Biologos people to bend Christian theology to fit their (arguably dated) conception of evolution.

    I think that if there is to be a genuine synthesis of theological and scientific ideas on the subject of origins, both scientific and theological contributions must be accepted as genuine pieces of knowledge. Theology must be respected as highly as science, not treated an intellectually inferior country cousin who doesn’t know the score. But when I read Biologos, what I see, over and over again, is that both Biblical interpretation and systematic theology are constantly being modified in order to fit in with the perceived truths of evolutionary theory; I have seen no examples where the theologians have demanded that the scientists get back to their labs and blackboards and produce different data and different interpretations that are more consonant with Scripture and tradition. There is a very strong sense that in the science/theology dialogue, the intellectual partnership is a very unequal one.

    Of course, the Biologos scientists may well protest that theology has no business interfering in the empirical investigations or theoretical conclusions of science; but then, why do they not respect the conclusions of traditional theology regarding, say, the Fall? It seems to me that the NOMA-like approach of Biologos is inconsistently applied; theology may not poach on science’s territory, but science is allowed all kinds of raids on theology’s territory, and the theologians are supposed to look the other way at the violation of the “separate magisteria” that NOMA supposedly holds to be sacrosanct.

    Rightly or wrongly, the readership of Biologos has started to get the impression that Biologos is a place where theology is steadily being liberalized so that it will not get in the way of what evolutionary biology wishes to teach. I would suggest that if Biologos is to remain credible as a serious place for religion and science dialogue, it must enlist new writers, world-class Christian theologians from serious universities whose articulation of Christian ideas of origins is rooted in a deep knowledge of the primary texts of the theological tradition. Only such writers will enable “theology” and “science” to meet on equal terms. As it stands now, only an anemic, modernized, liberal theology is represented in most Biologos columns, and such a theology will continue to cave into the perceived demands of “science” on all occasions.

    About your specific arguments above I have not commented, because they are well-stated and don’t need my commentary. Biologos columnists meet all the standards of piety by declaring over and over again that God created and sustains the world, but when asked to articulate how God created and sustains the world, they become very general, very vague, very hazy, and sometimes downright evasive. The problem with rigorous, systematic theological thinking, of course, is that it might lead one to particular understandings of God’s relationship to creation which do not fit easily with the Modern Synthesis’s emphasis on random mutations and natural selection. That may be why Biologos avoids such rigorous presentations. Yet until we start to see some well-trained Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic theologians writing on Biologos, expounding Christian ideas of God, nature and creation in an orderly and historically informed way, we will not see any clear account of God’s creation or sustenance, and the muddiness and lack of theoretical clarity will continue to be characteristic of the Biologos effort.

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi James – thanks for your kind words. I guess my vision is that it should be possible to reach a comfortable rapprochement between “God’s two books”. From the point of view of theology, I don’t see why one should fix it if it ain’t bust, especially by making it worse. In my nature-loving mode the same is true of the science – I just happen to think the modern synthesis is bust.

    But I don’t believe that anything in orthodox Neodarwinist science need be contrary to orthodox Christian doctrine – the problems come from adopting its metaphysical presumptions (or maybe its presumptuous metaphysics).

    Thanks again for your interest.

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