Modern theistic evolution
I want to major on three distinctives of modern theistic evolution, or evolutionary creation, that are in marked contrast to what was believed by the first generation of TEs.
[T]he Creator voluntarily chose to refrain from overpowering [nature] with coercive form-imposing interventions.[xi]
If God were a directive dictator rather than persuasive love, the universe could never arrive at the point of being able to emerge into freedom. If God were the engineering agency that ID and evolutionary materialism generally project on to the divine, evolution could not have occurred. The narrative grandeur that Darwin observed in life’s evolution would have given way to a monotonously perfect design devoid of an open future.[xii]
The world of Intelligent Design is not the bright and innovative world of life that we have come to know through science. Rather it is a brittle and unchanging landscape, frozen in form and unable to adapt except at the whims of its designer.[xiii]
The universe is not a divine puppet theatre in which everything dances to God’s tune alone. The Creator is not the Cosmic Tyrant whose unrelenting grip holds on tightly to all. Such an enslaved world could not be the creation of a loving God. Rather creation is allowed to be itself and make itself, realising the inbuilt potentiality with which the Creator has endowed it, but in its own time and in its own way. Creatures live at some epistemic and ontological distance from their Creator, as they enter into the liberty that God has given them.[xiv]
These quotations (my emphases throughout), forming a representative sample of currently influential theistic evolutionists, have one thing in common – the heavy use of rhetoric in their abhorrence for the very idea of God’s actually making, through direct or indirect means, the living forms we see today. It would be, they shout, a dictatorial abrogation of the universe’s freedom. This freedom, central to much TE thinking now, is actually rather difficult to pin down.
Before we go into detail, consider that the historical Christian and biblical teaching, embodied in the Nicene Creed, is that God (in Christ) is “maker of all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible”[xv] “by his will”[xvi], whether that creation is pictured as occurring by his word of command or by his handiwork. You will remember that all three of the examples I have given of early TEs made divine design and teleology the touchstone of the “theism” in their evolution. It’s odd that these intelligent believers (like their predecessors for more than two millennia) should have failed to spot what a despot they were worshipping. Or maybe instead it’s that something major has shifted in theology, in a surrealistic direction: it’s hard to take seriously, in this world of i-Phones and space travel (any more than in the Victorian age of mechanical and scientific ingenuity) the claim that “design” must really imply “brittle” or “unchanging.”
We should always be suspicious of rhetoric, because it blinds our critical faculties. One can paint a picture of the God who “lets go” as the epitome of self-giving fatherly love. Or one can make him, in the stroke of a pen, appear a monster:
“What kind of loving Father fails to participate in his beloved children’s lives by letting them bring themselves up without clear guidelines before packing them off to boarding school? Do not good parents give their sons piggy-backs, help them with their homework, write them illustrated stories in their own hand, make toys for them to play with and, in every way, get their hands dirty to express their love?”
Well, don’t they? Behind the polemics is a guiding – one might almost say coercive – insistence on liberating love as the sole root of all creation, a conception of divine character as simplistic as that Kingsley found alien to the Bible and nature. John Haught, for example says:
An infinite love, if we think about it seriously, would manifest itself in the creation of a universe free of any rigid determinism (either natural or divine) that would keep it from arriving at its own independence, autonomy and self-coherence.
Are we sure of that? There is not space to discuss this fully here, but “love-as-letting-go” is as foreign to the biblical concept of love as “autonomy” is to its concept of freedom. We worship a Trinity in which the Son and Father are of one will, in which Yahweh freed Israel to serve him in covenant relationship, in which God’s love to David’s line was to discipline them, and in which Christ suffered not to give us independence, but to bring us to God. Love for a child may involve forceful restraint. Love for art or science may require obsessional attention to detail. Love for farm livestock might even encompass slaughtering them to eat. The nature of love depends on its object and the circumstances.
And this leads to the internal incoherence of “the freedom of nature in evolution” idea. Those scholars who first proposed it were largely process theologians or panentheists, in which schemes even subatomic events exhibit mind and will. Evangelicals do not usually follow that panpsychic route, so in what way is “the universe” understood either to desire, or to enjoy, freedom? In evolution, who or what is acting freely? Not the living organisms, which have no choice about evolving, but only a struggle to survive the “tyranny” of random mutations and an indifferent malevolent selection. It rather sounds like those Soviet states in which “the proletariat” have freedom, but the actual workers are slaves… if you’ll pardon my own rhetoric.
Viewing things philosophically, freedom, to mean anything in the moral sense employed, must mean the enabling of some purpose (not merely contingency); and purpose implies entities sufficient to form purposes. Some kind of teleology in organisms is apparent, at very least, in their internal drive to survive and reproduce, without which evolution could not even begin and with which it interacts. Yet organisms do not will their own evolution (theistic evolutionists unaccountably ignore those versions of evolution which posit internal teleology). So the “free” agents of that purpose must lie somewhere “behind” the sentience of the organisms themselves, even though organisms alone could be imagined to appreciate it: a free battery hen is intelligible – a free peptide chain is not.
Going a few steps further, if any wisdom or beauty – even function – is attributed to living things singly or corporately, then what kind of teleology produced them? Perhaps blind efficient causes might stumble on such things – but how could they then be coherently attributed to any kind of “freedom”? The “freedom” of Scrabble letters to spell out “GODISLOVE” when scattered is trivial – even vaguely pathetic. The freedom of DNA to vary at random and sometimes survive is no more significant. The freedom of God to express his goodness creatively in endless forms is cause for worship. Why is this obvious and timeless truth then so denigrated by theistic evolutionists?
One more thing about God’s non-intervention as a theological priority. It renders problematic any proposals for mechanisms of “non-interventive objective divine action” such as those postulated by TEs like Polkinghorne and Russell. For if perfect love casts out holding on to creation, any such divine action must constitute some imperfection in God’s love. How much “NIODA” is permissible? Science and religion academic Graham Kerwin, commenting on Arthur Peacocke’s highly limited and indirect suggestion for divine influence, says:
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.
If teleology is intrinsically bad, then it must be fully rejected, surely? And this must apply to any active involvement of God in human history, or in answering prayer, as well. For if it is “coercive” for God to play a direct creative part in humble Rotifer’s wheel, how much more for him to demonstrate to autonomous Nebuchadnezzar that he appoints whoever he wishes over nations? Or to induce a secret policeman not to notice the praying pastor escaping over the border?
The influential Howard Van Till reassures Christians that his Robust Informational Economy Principle, (nature contains all needful things for the formation of the earth without divine “tinkering”), does not preclude “the possibility that God is able and, on occasion, willing to perform supernatural miracles”. This, of course, seems to endorse the BioLogos position that “[i]n both natural and supernatural ways, God continues to be directly involved in creation and in human history.” Yet his own conclusion is this:
If supernatural action was unnecessary for something as astounding as the formational history of the entire Universe, then why hold to the need, or even to the possibility, for occasional episodes of coercive supernatural action in any other arena? (my italics).
This, I agree, is the only logical conclusion from a free-creation position. How can the latter then accord with any typical evangelical experience of faith?
[xi] Howard Van Till.
[xii] John Haught.
[xiii] Ken Miller.
[xiv] John Polkinghorne.
[xv] Colossians 1.16.
[xvi] Revelation 4.11