What you won’t say says most

There’s a rather revealing recent thread over on BioLogos. The article heading it up is part of Dennis Venema’s technical series on “junk DNA”, but a new poster named Crude opens the discussion thus:

In your view, is evolution an entirely unguided process? Or was it guided by God, even if not in a way science is capable of detecting?
Atheists (well, let’s say most atheists) believe that evolution is a process which accomplishes what it does without guidance or input from any divine mind – the outcomes being neither foreseen or preordained. Do you disagree with that view, and if so, how?
I think it would add to your critiques if your views on as much were made clear – though perhaps you’ve stated them elsewhere.

Apart from raising the very same key questions JamesR and I pursued with little success on another recent thread  of, currently, 149 posts the question was quite relevant to Dennis’s post for two reasons: firstly his use of terms like “junk” in itself implies an ontological position, and secondly although Dennis, one of the seven BioLogos team members, has dealt quite extensively with human origins he has never made his own theological position very clear.

The direction the thread takes involves Dennis asking for increasing clarification of terms before, for a few days, not answering Crude’s question. His place is taken by Darrel Falk, whose replies, to any outsider, would appear to be “diplomatic”. One needs to read the thread to get the flavour of this. His “most developed” final answer to the question is this:

I think God began creation with humans in mind.  However, I also want to be clear that God delights in all of creation, You push for an answer that takes it further than that, by asking a significant  philosophical and theological question I am not qualified to address.  Your question needs to be answered by a philosopher not by me, a biologist.

The other, maybe significant, ingredient to his replies was his statement that BioLogos aims primarily at “conservative Protestants”. Crude, as a Catholic, found this surprising, as also Darrel’s apparent assumption that his questions presupposed a Calvinist perspective:

Regarding your question about whether God knew of and intended for the existence of each individual species in advance I’ll leave that question for you to think about.  I am a Wesleyan. We Wesleyans think about matters like that a little differently than Calvinists — but we lock arms in love anyway!!

Now as Crude goes on to say, it’s surprising that Darrel, as the President of BioLogos, should be so coy about expressing a personal opinion on the matter that is the most crucial tension-point between Darwinism and serious theology – that is, the question of teleology. Dennis, incidentally, took a further two days to make his own, equally carefully-phrased, reply:

Well, If that’s what you’re truly asking, then it’s an easy answer. I believe God created and continues to sustain the entirety of the cosmos, moment by moment. We observe that sustaining both in what we would call natural mechanisms and supernatural events – both have their source in God, and both are means of His providence.

You’ll notice that this reply doesn’t actually answer Crude’s questions either. The best conclusion I can draw from the answers of both Darrel and Dennis is that they believe God is “the ground of being” of the Universe, that he “intended us” (“mankind”? “Any kind of spiritually or cognitively aware being”?) but that he doesn’t direct evolution, merely delighting in its products, though possibly not in parasitic transposons and junk DNA. If this is not their position, neither has been very careful to clarify it despite Crude’s careful requests. You’ll notice that, in practice, it’s identical to naturalistic evolution, for the progress of life is effectively unplanned and undirected.

This may explain why most BioLogos articles are either scientific or thelogical, but seldom both. Regarding the natural world, there is simply nothing to add to the science, unless the author were to add, “God is delighted with the way this has turned out.” But actually, they’re more likely to talk about junk in our DNA or our undeniable similarity to the apes.

Roger Sawtelle, a BioLogos regular with no dog in this particular fight, seems to echo my conclusion succinctly (if probably not entirely accurately) on a quite separate thread:

BioLogos takes the hands-off T.E. position.
I.D. (Intelligent Design) is generally considered the hands-on position, which is opposed by BioLogos.

Now Dennis may not represent an “official” BioLogos position, and Darrel would be entitled to hold any one personal position within its general range (though his intervention in the thread does read like an official bail-out). But for the position I deduce to be mainstream BioLogos thinking would hardly be earth-shattering in the light of the hyper-Arminian Open Theism sympathies of many of its writers.

Yet the hesitancy about stating this position upfront is something else, given the mission of Biologos to “conservative Protestants”. Now a majority of such Christians is probably Arminian (or that unschooled “gut” Arminianism that doesn’t bother to work things through too deeply). But whatever else they believe, they affirm the first of the Remonstrants’ articles that God foresees the fall of mankind and the saving faith of some from before the creation of the world and, by implication, every other future event. They also believe that God is sufficiently active in his world to answer prayer, for example, and they take at face value the Bible’s statements that God takes direct (and joyful) responsibility for the properties of his creatures. Many others of these Christians are Calvinist, who of course hold a strong view both of God’s omnisience and omnipotence, to the extent that he ordains every event. But it’s a vanishingly small minority who go the way of Open Theism, and there were none at all before about 25 years ago when it was invented.

For the majority, then (and we should include the Catholic and Orthodox mainstreams as well), apart from concerns about the historicity of Genesis (which BioLogos does address, though seldom from a conservative Protestant perspective), their main locus of possible conflict with science is when it denies that evolution is planned or purposeful, and therefore that God is truly its Creator. The question is, then, “How can I accept evolution in the light of my commitment to the God of Jesus, who alone rules the world?”

The Open Theism answer, voiced often in the past at BioLogos, is that God could rule but chooses not to, giving nature “freedom” (or, in other words, not imposing planning or purpose). But this can never persuade the majority, for it is simply a statement that the atheist scientists are right, and their conservative Protestant commitments wrong.

But the equivocation seen on the Venema thread, which as Crude rightly says seems so unnecessary, almost suggests this: that the main aim of Biologos is to present the evidence that evolution, in its purest Neo-Darwinian form, is true, whilst the devotional type of articles provide a reassuringly anodyne devotional content together with hints that Christians really should expand their mental horizons and think outside their conservative box.

Theistic evolution (as Crude rightly says on the thread) can be a coherent theological and philosophical position. But although BioLogos, perhaps from its association with Francis Collins and high-level Evangelical endorsements, is the biggest TE website on the net, I regret to conclude that its apologetic is more restricted than the development of that broad explanatory model.

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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9 Responses to What you won’t say says most

  1. Gregory says:

    Yes, I too found the message by Crude quite direct and clear, with the responses by Darrel and Dennis meeting him with lack of directness and clarity. But isn’t this precisely one of the attractions people have to ‘theistic evolution’ – it speaks generally and soothingly, without worrying too much about specifics? Just imagine that ‘everything evolves’ and that the Creator ‘directs/guides’ that ‘universal evolution,’ though one can be purposefully vague about ‘how’ the ‘directing/guiding’ happens. That is a satisfactory framework for most TEs/ECs.

    Must admit I’m a bit confused, Jon, if you are defending evangelicals from BioLogos or BioLogos from evangelicals or if you are simply noting that Darrel and Dennis are walking a fine line in how they speak about A&E, human origins, & divine action in the (natural) world. They are admittedly both TEs/ECs, but it seems that sometimes, Jon, so are you, while also showing tendencies to accept ID approaches to ‘neo-Darwinian’ evolutionary biology, which they do not.

    The lack of clarity in Dennis’ position for me is his (non-physical, read: cultural or linguistic) anthropology, not his theology – this seems abundantly clear. This is a geneticist who on a public forum has claimed that he speaks in tongues! What aspect of his theology seems unclear to you in regard to human origins?

    “You’ll notice that, in practice, it’s identical to naturalistic evolution, for the progress of life is effectively unplanned and undirected.” – Jon Garvey

    Yes, this is a significant point. I agree that the ‘naturalistic’ aspect of Darrel & Dennis’ approach to evolution is problematic. But their ‘naturalism’ is surely limited, depending on the context involved. In their local church settings, they’d never admit to being a ‘naturalist,’ while in their biological laboratories (past tense for Falk) they’d never admit to being a ‘non-naturalist.’ So, how can a natural scientist distinguish the ideology of ‘naturalism’ from the ‘science’ that studies ‘nature’ but does not over-elevate it?

    I’ve repeatedly said, based on the work of Steve Fuller, among others, that the dichotomy of ‘methodological’ from ‘metaphysical’ is not enlightening wrt ‘naturalism,’ and instead represents weak USAmerican philosophy (of science).

    Likewise, I don’t agree that ‘theistic evolution’ is or can be “a coherent theological and philosophical position.” TE (and EC as well) represents Christians with an imbalanced triad between ‘science, philosophy and theology.’ TE minimises its theology for natural science, generally leaving philosophy out of the equation. It is the ideological aspect of TE that is most damaging (if usually unaddressed).

    In a previous thread I wrote (http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2012/01/09/evolutionary-theology-does-it-actually-exist/), and the conversation ended there:
    “Theistic evolutionism is pacifistic – it seeks ‘concord’ or ‘accommodation’ between the ’science’ of ‘evolutionary biology’ and the Biblical Genesis (Torah or Quran) account. In this ideology, TE compromises its own integrity by rejecting the actual (real) opposition between ‘evolution’ and ‘creation.’”

    Indeed, there was a void for showing conservative, Protestant Christians (predominantly YECs) in the USA a ‘positive’ view of ‘evolution’ and ‘old earth’ ideas. BioLogos has filled it (which JTF recognized/awarded). Just how far they go in embracing ‘universal evolutionism’ (read: ‘theistic evolution’), to the exclusion of ‘things that don’t evolve,’ will define whether they can maintain their ‘conservative’ label or not. This is a lingering challenge for them!

    There is no ‘authority’ in the sectarian Protestant tradition comparable to Crude’s Roman Catholic tradition or in Orthodoxy, so BioLogos need feel in no danger of losing their ‘Protestant’ label. They can continue to write against ‘real, historical’ Adam and Eve, without fear of being deemed ‘heterodox’ by a central authority. Protestant Theistic Evolutionists (PTEs) / Protestant Evolutionary Creationists (PECs) – yet more appropriate labels for the BioLogos team. Where is Francis Collins when you need him?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory. It seems to me that your points are right when one judges entities like “evolution” and “theistic evolution” by their sociological manifestions. As you well know, getting an authoritative definition of evolution to agree or disagree with is near-impossible. “Undirected and unpurposeful” has a completely different loading from, say, “variation and selection by the environment.”

    Theistic evolution also is currently principally represented publically be the BioLogos School of doublethink – as ably described by Steve Fuller. But Crude is a Catholic and self-describes as a TE – one would have to ask how his T and his E interact to say if they’re coherent. I think he’d give a clearer account than the boys at BL.

    So I wouldn’t disagree with your “pacifist” line (maybe why I didn’t comment before), if one is using terms in their culturally-loaded form.

    For myself, to use the shorthand label TE is slightly preferable to something like Universal Heretic. ID is, or can be, a particular form of theistic evolution often more religiously orthodox than much of “Evangelical” BioLogos. I’m actually at base a Reformed Evangelical seeking out the scientific and philosophical ideas that fit that best, which are quite scattered across the world of ideas.

    Protestantism, however, once more using the word in its original rather than sociological form, is notdefined by lack of authority. Scripture is not actually contentless, which is why few deviations get by without denying bits of it. 2000 years of “catholick” doctrine also show up innovations for what they are, and though the whole world may seem to have gone astray, on many things there is still a consensus. Why, even Calvinists and Catholics can agree!

  3. Gregory says:

    Thanks for that, Jon! Let me assume no expertise on the issue of what ‘authority’ means in the Protestant branch of Christianity. The spoken question was raised today. It may be that the original form of Protestantism involved a sociological dimension, along with a theological and/or religious one. But that is perhaps splitting hairs, diverting from the thread’s main focus.

    Of note, Venema has finally responded again to Crude’s question, though the response is again indirect.

    Crude asked:
    “Do you regard it as entirely compatible with science to regard evolution as guided and purposeful – and that God knew what the results of evolution would be, and intended those results to come about, in advance of them doing so?”

    Venema answered, after disclaiming Calvinism: “I believe God has given humans free will, and I also believe that he has given his creation freedom within the bounds he has set for it through natural law.”

    Should we assume that ‘evolution’ of the neo-Darwinian variety is deemed a ‘natural law’ according to Venema? Likewise, should we understand this to mean ‘free will’ as an example of ‘non-evolutionary’ choice, perhaps even over-riding biological explanations of physical movement of brains in bodies, at a higher level of discourse?

    In a parallel thread “Behold the Man”, Dr. David Opderbeck has challenged Venema’s unacknowledged views regarding the genetic reductionism of humanity. The refusal of a real, historical A&E seems to be the position that Venema (via Lamoureux) adopts in his genomic science (though again, hidden behind mysterious words). One might wonder why Venema allows lack of Clarity in one field, while not in another.

    Or perhaps this is just another example of “what you don’t say…”?

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “… he has given his creation freedom…”

    So, theistic evolution is actually vitalism: the chemicals and particles are free to express themselves, but God (contra the whole thrust of Scripture) constrains himself.

    Since the guys in the driving seat are actually the created beings, would it not make sense to direct praise and prayer to them rather than the hands-off CEO?

  5. Gregory says:

    Yes, indeed. Though I don’t think most TEs/ECs would consider themselves as ‘vitalists,’ since most of them aren’t well-read in philosophy of science or even just philosophy generally. Are you suggesting ‘vitalism’ is a ‘live option’ for people to consider nowadays, Jon?

    ‘Kenotic’ – the Creator is self-constraining – this is Rev. Dr. George Murphy’s grand contribution to North American TE/EC thought. When does that turn into ‘kenoticism’ – the ideology of God disguising or concealing everything and everywhere, a kind of Buddhist notion or centripetal force of ‘self-emptying’, rather than an active personal transcendent and immanent Divinity as written in Scriptures?

    EAM – endogenous adaptative mutagenesis. This was coined about a decade ago by opponents of ID who were flirting with ‘vitalism.’ What if cells could think and choose ‘their’ direction(s)?!

    “Free to express themselves” is a difficult leap when there is no ‘self’ to be expressed in the first place. ‘Biologists without spirit’ would seem to be an appropriate way to speak about those flaunting a TE/EC position on this topic. It sounds so impersonal as if to require significant propaganda and natural-scientific spin at the spiritual gates of St. Peter.

    p.s. new post up at Human Extension about ‘scientism’: http://humanextension.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/hutchinson_and_scientism_ii/

  6. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Vitalism a “live option”? Couldn’t be anything else :-)! “Live” in the sense of “held by some” – yes, Michael Denton proves that. “Live” as in “correct” – that’s another matter. Biologians wouldn’t countenance it for a second – but as you say, “freedom” implies “self”, so that’s where their theology ought by rights to lead. But it isn’t coherent enough to realise.

    Yes, “kenosis” – a prime example of how a perfectly clear Scripture is perverted inexcusably by those calling themselves “Protestants”. One passage, Philippians 2, describes Jesus as sharing his Father’s glory, but laying aside that glory for a season to become a man and die for us, yet soon to be raised to life and regain even greater glory. This is an unprecedented example, which we ought to follow.

    In Murphy’s book, it becomes the entire nature of the Godhead – Father and Son were already slumming it in rags, empty not only of action but even of foreknowledge, and the Incarnation, if anything, gave Jesus the chance to do miracles that he couldn’t in heaven because, folks, this eternal kenosis isn’t done as a gracious act of salvation, but because God “loves freedom.”

    That’s as sound an interpretation of the Bible as interpreting “Love your neighbour” to mean having an affair with the woman next door. But hermeneutics means “accepting those bits of the Bible that can be made to fit the views I hold.” And then of course, calling it “courageous”!

  7. James says:

    Crude’s question was excellent, and his manner was entirely polite, even when the evasiveness of the Biologos folks tested his patience.

    Both Falk and Venema were evasive. Falk (whose answers to Crude were more extensive than the small bit quoted above) was less evasive than normal; his overall response was the longest account of the relationship between evolution and divine action that I’ve ever seen given on Biologos. But it was still far from theoretically adequate, and left most of the important questions out of the picture, and thus really didn’t answer Crude’s question. (Saying, as Falk at one point in effect says, “Well, however God does it, the important thing is that we know he loves us all”, is hardly an answer.)

    Venema, on the other hand, was evasive throughout. He at first tried to escape by answering Crude’s question with another question. He then let Falk carry the ball for him, and there was some doubt whether he intended ever to answer Crude, even after Crude reformulated his inquiry in response to Venema’s request for clarification. And when Venema finally returned to answer the question, his answer about whether evolution was in any sense guided was hedged all around. It amounted to: “Yeah, God is in some vague way in charge of everything, so the answer is yes — sort of.” But even that anemic answer was qualified: God has also given nature “freedom”; so does that mean that nature was *not* guided through the evolutionary process? (Speak up, Dennis, your voice is too soft; we can’t hear you.)

    And what does “freedom within natural law” mean? Does the moon have the freedom *not* to orbit the earth? Does a nucleotide base have the freedom *not* to drop out of a DNA strand if it is smacked by a violent gob of radiation? Does “natural selection” have the freedom *not* to select the more fit, but to choose the less fit instead? The notion of a freedom within natural law appears to be vacuous. It might, just might, make sense at the level of the electron (though even there I have my doubts that “freedom” is the best way of expressing the meaning of indeterminacy), but it makes no sense at larger scales. The whole premise of scientific explanation is that natural events are *not* free, but bound by laws. If nature were truly “free” to adopts its own habits, science would be impossible.

    What was revelatory about the answers of both Falk and Venema was their acknowledgment that they have strong disagreements with the Calvinist/Reformed tradition, and that this potentially affected the way they thought about divine providence in evolution. For all the ink that some Biologos columnists have spilled about “a high view of providence”, it is interesting that so few of them embrace Calvin, who had one of the highest views of Providence of all, and that most of them prefer modernized, liberal forms of Arminianism, in which God’s providence has a much looser grip on events. (Note how many of the columnists — Giberson, Falk, Aring and others from Falk’s own college — have been Nazarenes — a group in the Wesleyan tradition.)

    The question arises whether Biologos, which claims to represent “evangelical” science as such, can speak fairly for “evangelical” science when a good number of evangelicals are decisively Calvinist. In fact, in the religious population of the USA, the Calvinists outnumber the Wesleyans by a very large margin. So is Biologos a small sect of Wesleyan scientists, claiming to represent American evangelicalism generally? Was that Templeton’s intention, to fund an institution to promote the reconciliation of evolution with Wesleyan/Arminian theology? I thought the idea was to discuss evolution and *Christian* theology.

    The main problem with Biologos, aside from its outdated neo-Darwinian biology, is its theological narrowness. On rare occasions an Anglican or Catholic or Lutheran guest columnist may appear, but there is no regular presence there of any of those traditions, nor of the Reformed tradition, nor of the Orthodox. And Baptists and Presbyterians of a Calvinist persuasion (who make up a huge part of the American evangelical landscape) are noticeably absent as well. Biologos strives to make itself look like a broad-based coalition of Christian scientists of all theological stripes, but in fact, the key players, the ones who have written the lion’s share of the columns, and the administrators, are mostly from one fairly narrow subsection of the Protestant evangelical world. Until this changes, Biologos will fail to live up to its original mandate. Its Christian personnel are simply not representative of the diversity of the American Christian landscape, even the American Protestant landscape, even the American Protestant evangelical landscape.

  8. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    That sounds an entirely judicious summary, James. Thanks. Should I ban you now?? 🙂

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