In the comments on a previous post I suggested that:
…this whole edifice of “freedom of nature” is, at root, intended to preserve the “freedom of human individuals“, understood in the post-Renaissance Promethean manner as “Libertarian Autonomy.”
The “edifice” concept is a key one, since as I’ve pointed out frequently, the current approach to theistic evolution depends upon the rather contingent preferences of quite a small “science-faith” community of academics like John Polkinghorne, Robert J Russell, John Haught, Howard van Till etc, which has guided the opinions of the “foot soldiers” of TE at BioLogos and so on. Their diversity has been reduced by the fact they are small and a community, so that certain quite unusual ideas have become central. One could, I suppose, draw an analogy with a very small breeding population on an island, which is quite likely to differ from the species as a whole, the species in this case being Christ’s worldwide Church.
I’ll return to that after venturing briefly into that wider field. Seeking to get a better handle on “human freedom” I looked at Thomas Aquinas’ writing on the matter, and was again surprised to see how similar his arguments are to those in the Reformed tradition I know best, not only under the heading of “free will”, but on related subjects like predestination and grace. The main reason for that appears obvious to me. It’s not just that he follows Augustine and other ancient theologians – though continuity with the apostolic tradition is one factor. It’s that the core of his theological thinking comes from taking the Bible as God’s word.
For example, he starts his section on “free will” by a number of possible objections to the idea presented, in the main, from Scripture. And he answers them by proposing better understandings of those Scriptures. One might not always totally agree with him on these, and such differing emphases explain partly where Thomistic teaching differs from, say, Calvin’s (though some of the disagreements seem, like those between the Greek and Latin Churches of old, to be largely linguistic). No doubt in some cases these difference are substantial, but in the end the fact that even on this blog, contributors from Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Anabaptist, Reformed and other streams tend to see the same problems with current TE reflects, I feel, that underlying attitude to Scripture as final arbiter.
Now to return to the “science-faith community” of today. My attention was drawn to an MSc course on Science and Religion at Edinburgh – perhaps unique on this side of the Atlantic. The idea seems admirable. Their blog, though, makes it apparent that it’s an extension of the same approach I’ve already found to be problematic. This recent piece by an American academic, Graham Kervin, discusses science-faith writer Arthur Peacocke’s work. I should, I suppose, go back to Peacocke himself, but since my focus is on the ideas-of-the-movement, I’ll draw on that review.
There is no question, [Peacocke] says, that providence is a central feature of scripture-based faiths (Judaism and Christianity), which have been shaped by narratival patterns of a God that continually appears and acts within the lives of faith communities. What is more questionable, however, is how reliably we are to take the testimonies of such providential workings, since it is that faith community itself—hardly an unbiased jury—that attests to God’s working. The criteria for ‘unbiasing’ instances of divine interaction must be available to even those without faith for certifying—or at least opening the possibility for—such activity.
Peacocke is actually saying “the Bible writers would say that, wouldn’t they?” Whether the goal of finding a doctrine of divine providence acceptable to unbelievers is realistic is questionable, but one is clearly going to end up in a very different place to Aquinas if ones response to “There is no free-will, because Paul says, ‘it is not of he who wills or he who runs…'” is to shrug and say Paul (or Jesus, come to that) is from the “faith community.”
Like Aquinas, Peacocke has a place for what nature teaches us of God. Thomas perhaps gives the highest place to natural theology of any serious theologian. Regarding Peacocke:
So before moving on to determining what science allows for a view of providence, Peacocke reviews what nature testifies to in our knowledge of God, namely that he is intelligible, rational, creative of and through regular processes, and continuously immanent. In addition, his kenotic gesture through Christ attests to a self-vulnerability that enables nature (namely us) to act in relative freedom.
Does nature actually teach us all this? A (partly) intelligible nature certainly encourages not only science but the religious search for God (Acts 17.27). But it does not outlaw the classical incomprehensibility of God, any more than creation’s rationality excludes his ineffability. The reference to “regular processes” is at best partial, neglecting God’s equally clear creation of or through the irregular processes that also exist, but also bypasses all but efficient causality. That may be necessary for acceptance by unbelievers, but is theologically and philosphically incomplete.
I’m not sure how nature teaches us that God is “continuously imminent” (perhaps Peacocke’s work explains that), but I am certain that nature does not teach us about kenosis. Let’s assume that’s a supplementary point. Even so, notice how divine kenosis, a badly conceived theological doctrine (see here) is smuggled in as an axiom. Also note from this quotation that the freedom of nature seems to be a loose way of referring to “the freedom of human beings”, which is why we have to spend some effort on unpicking that idea to understand the whole of science-faith’s priorities.
The article goes on to talk of efforts, like Polkinghorne’s, to “make a place” for divine action in, say, quantum events. But it continues:
And in contrast to the further issues of omniscience/prescience that this idea raises, P[olkinghorne] maintains that God possesses self-limiting omniscience, which precludes him from knowing fully every detail or outcome of cosmic activity, such that human freedom is safeguarded.
As recently discussed on BioLogos, to Polkinghorne God is omniscient but “chooses not to know” – other science-faith thinkers, including many Open Theists, simply deny the possibility of omniscence. Both ideas are completely anti-biblical (but if one believes one is redressing the “faith community’s” bias, that’s presumably no problem). But they are also unnecessary, seeing that Aquinas, representing classical Christianity, specifically deals with the compatibility of omniscience with human freedom. Science-faith has actually made a choice for a Renaissance view of human freedom that has no reference to a merely personal God. Needless to say, all the related deep questions of faith, like God’s control of history, oversight of human outcomes, election, predestination, grace, bondage to sin and so on, are simply swept aside in this. The controlling concept for everything – even God’s nature – is human autonomy. God even empties himself of divine attributes to make way for it.
So Peacocke’s aim is not to see how God determines events – because it’s axiomatic that he doesn’t – but rather how he creates propensities. What Peacocke proposes is this:
In distinction from panentheism, which seems to repress the personal dimension of an ongoing creation, recent findings that cohere humans as psycho-somatic unities greatly assist the top-down idea. From ‘total brain states’—the correlative web of agency that links mental intention to physical causation—Peacocke extrapolates that in the same way and to the same degree that we act cognitively in our own subjective causality, so too does God operate upon the state of the whole world, at least in those aspects that are cognitively knowable. Just as we exert effects on our own bodies in a top-down manner, God exerts effects analogously on the world-as-a-whole in top-down manner.
Note that the objection to panentheism is not that it’s foreign to Christian faith, but that it threatens the autonomy of creation. But the main idea is this “top down” causality modeled on recent neuroscience. This, contrary to first impression, is not the analogy of the mind as the governor of the whole individual, but of conscious intention as just one factor within a totality. Think of those experiments purporting to show that human actions begin before the activation of those parts of the brain associated with volition. The picture of is of the conscious mind as just one player in an autonomous totality – of God as only one, though important, part of a self-regulating creation. That, indeed, is very different from the final causation of God in Thomism, or historic Christianity.
The point is made more clearly, but less coherently, in the words that follow:
God’s bearing on the world thus works as a transfer of info [sic] that communicates and expresses his intentions much in the way that software informs but doesn’t hijack the inbuilt freedoms and flexibilities of operating hardware in computers.
Now is that nonsense, or is that nonsense, as supposed support for this democratised kenotic view of God who suggests, and some of it might be done? A Turing computer will execute any program put into it, and otherwise do absolutely nothing. Software doesn’t merely inform – it dictates the outcome as a teleological certainty. It doesn’t even matter what computer is used – a Mac, a Babbage machine or even a large enough abacus. Peacocke clearly doesn’t intend the illustration of absolute omnipotence he’s drawn. Which is a shame, for it’s pretty close to the biblical picture apart from not accounting adequately for human freedom!
Therefore, as the “supra-personal, unifying, and unitive influence on all-that-is”, God works top-down to enact changes that trickle down to effect general as well as particular circumstances, leaving us to discern the patterns in the whole (the task of science) while participating in God’s intentionality for the world. This view protects God’s freedom as the originator of top-down effects and our own, as free agents within the system. In this way Peacocke believes he avoids all talk of intervention.
Call me irreligious, but isn’t a trickle-down providence apt to be compared to trickle-down economics? Doesn’t the banking crisis hint that a good CEO might not be the best guarantee of the little-man’s prosperity? I’ll only briefly mention Peacocke’s critique of Sayers “authorial model”, which he finds too stiff because (spot the keyword) He “wants to grant humans more autonomy than as mere literary figures.” But I hope I’ve presented enough of his ideas to show a rather hands-off kind of God. But our reviewer, Graham Kervin, adds a paragraph of his own – presumably not considered too far off-beam within the science and faith community:
I feel like his model still suffers under the image of a kind of puppet master, who insists on pulling the strings just out of sight, coordinating the course of events toward certain teleological ends. Christianity does track with such ends in certain regards, but unless God truly limits himself to allow true (contingent) human freedom, then there will always persist in his model a bit of ‘steering’ toward those teleological ends, which compromises his intervention-free software/hardware solution to the perennial mind-body problem.
Peacocke’s fault, then, is that he retains too much divine teleology. Now methodological naturalism is defended by TEs on the basis that science properly does not address either divine efficient causation, nor teleology. That distinguishes it from metaphysical naturalism, in which they are both excluded in principle. Yet the discussion above shows that a primary aim of the current science-faith discourse is to exclude divine efficient causation (aka “interference”, “tyranny” “puppetry” and a small dictionary of other such pejorative terms). But by excluding even “‘steering’ toward those teleological ends” on the grounds that this threatens nature’s autonomy, what is marketed as a sophisticated theological program gives a result, I would suggest, indistinguishable from metaphysical naturalism.
But human autonomy does OK out of it.