Biologists and theodicy

I finally had time to catch up on the detail of a long thread on Uncommon Descent  in which theistic evolution and theistic evolutionists were vivisected at length. At over 180 posts the subject of the original article is probably irrelevant.

At one point a discussion about the prevalence of physicists over biologists in theistic evolutionary theory developed, and Ted Davis suggested the following reason as one possibility:

…the biologists are the ones who deal all the time with the “nastiness” of creation, the “dark side” of creation, such as parasitism and virulent micro-organisms. They are the ones who usually face questions of theodicy.  IMO, there is simply no hope of answering questions of theodicy without appealing to very specific notions of God, such as Multmann’s [sic] “Crucified God” (which Polkinghorne says is crucial to his own Christian belief), or Murphy’s “theology of the cross,” or “divine kenosis.” Evolution does not drive those notions, which are driven more by the Holocaust or the Bible or Luther or Bonhoeffer than by biology. But, they are pretty useful for placing evolution in a larger theological framework. Since it is (as I say) the biologists who are confronted with this all the time, it is they (I believe) who are more likely to reject any God entirely. And, as they realize, ID and God can’t really be separated, despite loud claims to the contrary.

Now Ted is a science historian, so I can see the reasoning behind his putting the biologists on the dirty front line of life, compared to the genteel life of academia. Actually a friend of mine in the Cambridge theology faculty gave me to believe that academia is anything but genteel, but at least it doesn’t contain laboratories, parasitism and virulent micro-organisms.

But I for one don’t really accept the image of the sensitive biologist faced with the harsh realities of life, because I was in the one area of biology where the rubber really hits the road in that regard – medicine. Speaking for myself, I can’t say that every day in general practice was spent coping with the mystery of unspeakable suffering. But every day was spent in dealing with human suffering, and in a proportion of cases it involved things every bit as nasty as those examples thrown out by Richard Dawkins or Franciso Ayala. And in the estimated quarter of a million consultations I had in my career that’s numerically a significant confrontation with “natural evil”.

I doubt somehow that the dilemmas are anything like as acute for biologists in the evolutionary field. For a start, many of the victims of suffering are either bacteria or have been dead for millions of years. And for those not actually involved in medicine, there isn’t the need to make actual, difficult decisions about actual, difficult patients. As I’ve pointed out before, apart from clinical genetics, the relevance of evolution to medicine is so limited that I had to relearn all I ever knew about it when I retired.

I have to say that the things I saw in medicine, including a few years as a police surgeon and a job in a cancer ward, never had a major effect on my trust in God’s goodness. Other things challenged my faith, but theodicy was not one of them. My own experience, or my spiritual reaction to it, may merely show that I’m insensitive or callous. But I was also a member of the Christian Medical Fellowship for most of that time, as well as working full-time with a group of Christian doctors and nurses. That meant plenty of discussions, conferences, reading of journals and so on, and the opportunity to see what bothered most of my Christian colleagues.

Theodicy, naturally, was discussed. Equally naturally, hard cases led occasional colleagues to tough questioning of beliefs – but it was occasional colleagues, and the issues usually had more to do with the psychology of stress, personal involvement and powerlessness than anything else. I know of no cases in which theodicy became formative of theology, and certainly no discipline-wide drift towards Open Theism and similar manifestations of speculative theodicy. Most of my colleagues were boringly mainstream Evangelicals – I myself read Jürgen Moltmann only because a theologian I had known at University had written a book on him. Loss of faith amongst doctors isn’t, in my experience, unusually common. On the contrary I knew several doctors who became Christians through their work.

If we’re speculating, then I think the reason for this is that Christian doctors don’t actually deal with parasitic organisms and egregiously defective genes – they deal with human beings in the image of God. When you’re doing your job well, the thing that strikes you most is the dignity and courage of those coping with illness, and finally death. In not a few cases, their faith and trust in God, and their concern for others is a lesson to the person treating them. Suffering isn’t something you discover on the job – it’s why you went into it.

Biologists, on the other hand, have the luxury of dealing with natural evils as some kind of abstraction. To a geneticist, a harmful mutation is a group of letters on a page. A mass extinction, to a palaeontologist, is a line in the rock. Maybe that distance makes them question God more. But maybe there are other reasons that a majority of biologists are unbelievers – not unconnected with biology’s Darwinian foundation, perhaps. And it could be that it’s cynical unbelief that leads them to curse the God of their Christian collagues, and sets them to feeling that they need to justify God to the world.

When theodicy governs theology, it nearly always seems to divert it from its historical course. Ted Davis himself says that the “very specific” views of God like those of Moltmann or Murphy are the “only hope” of answering theodical questions. Now for myself, I’m unwilling to accept that the millions of believers in the Judaeo-Christian tradition since Old Testament times have all been helpless to deal with suffering. I even venture to suggest that the Holocaust doesn’t change everything – the Jewish people had to deal with the death of millions and the loss of all their hopes with the fall of the second Temple in 70AD, and they managed it without Moltmann. And Christian Europe dealt with the Black Death without George Murphy’s help.

What seems different now is the modern need to find a rational explanation for suffering by speculative theology, and then to tie God and the whole of his creation into that speculation. George Murphy arrived at his kenotic theodicy, it seems, through Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. And yet Luther’s own theodicy, at its best, placed the justification of God where the Bible invariably puts it – in the transcendent wisdom of God himself, and in faith in – not speculation about – the suffering of Christ for us. Let me end this by quoting from Luther’s Bondage of the Will on this:

Reason will insist that these are not acts of a good and merciful God. They are too far beyond her grasp; and she cannot bring herself to believe that the God Who acts and judges thus is good; she wants to shut out faith, and to see, and feel, and understand, how it is that He is good and not cruel… It is along this line that reason storms and contends, in order to clear God of blame, and to vindicate His justice and goodness! But faith and the Spirit judge otherwise, believing the God is good even though he should destroy all men…

This must be said: if you want the words ‘they were very good’ to be understood of God’s works after the fall, you will notice that the words were spoken with reference, not to us, but to God. It does not say: ‘Man saw what God had made, and it was very good.’ Many things seem, and are, very good to God which seem, and are, very bad to us. Thus, afflictions, sorrows, errors, hell, and all God’s best works are in the world’s eyes very bad, and damnable. What is better than Christ and the gospel? But what is there that the world abominates more? How things that are bad for us are good in the sight of God is known only to God and to those who see with God’s eyes, that is, who have the Spirit.

I think I’ll go with Luther on that.

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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3 Responses to Biologists and theodicy

  1. Cal says:

    On all issues of philosophy and theology, for a Christian, must begin in the Christ Jesus.

    For Theodicy, we must start with the cross.

    For issues of time and eternity, we must start with the incarnation.

    For issues of life-after-death, we must start with the resurrection.

    Jesus, both God and Man, is the beginning to all questions and quandaries. The moment we step away from that, we’re awash in the same ruts of pagan and atheist thinkers.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    I totally agree! But it reminds me of a joke I heard once (and have used frequently in sermons since).

    Sunday School teacher asks her kids, “What’s got long ears, a fluffy tale and lives in a burrow?”

    Jimmy replies, “Well, it sound like a rabbit but I suppose the answer’s Jesus. It always is.”

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