Confusion worse confounded

Milton: Paradise Lost, ii. line 996 (though I confess I got it from Martin Magnus on Mars by William F Temple, 1956).

The incoherence of the “creation free to create itself” theology of much modern theistic evolution, and especially “the angel of the church at BioLogos“, has been a major theme here on the Hump. So much so that it’s hard to think of the most informative link, but this one is relevant.

From time to time in discussions here the non-interference of God in nature has been contrasted with the apparent openness of BioLogos folk to the miraculous in salvation history and possibly even in personal matters. For example, in a major exchange I had with the then Director, Darrel Falk, he strongly affirmed the physical resurrection of Christ, and seemed to endorse God’s answering of prayer. But the conversation was too sketchy to draw out of him a connected theology of all this (getting blood out of a stone comes to mind), and most other people there have steered clear of any real discussion of it – and for a long time, too.

It fell to regular poster beaglelady recently at least to open up some points for discussion, as she did almost uniquely in relation to the first-linked post on the “free creation” issue. Though as ever she was keener to do witty one liners than discuss things in depth, a few points of her personal faith came out which give matter for discussion. It is of course foolish – and unfair to her – to put any weight on one individual’s understanding, especially when expressed in an informal blog exchange. But beaglelady has not only been long active on BioLogos but has attended some of their events and has even met John Polkinghorne, so she may exemplify a wider constituency. Besides, nobody else has even opened themselves up for criticism. So thanks are due to her.

Let me remind you that the idea of “free creation” is not just that nature’s laws can do what is necessary to produce all the organisms in the world we have from the raw, divinely created matter of the Big Bang without divine help, but that it would be a Bad Thing if they didn’t.

The two main reasons for this are (a) theodicy – we see so much evil, error and waste in the natural world that the Christian God couldn’t possibly be responsible for it or he would be evil too; and (b) that such evil is the price necessary for “God’s greatest priority”, which is freedom. I’ve listed before some of the lurid rhetoric from TEs associated with the necessity for nature to be autonomous, and not coerced by – and this is perhaps the best summary term to use – the Puppetmaster God. This is all tied to a crude Cartesian division of the world into “natural” and “supernatural”, so that what nature does, God doesn’t and what God does must cut across nature – his role in nature is limited to “sustaining” it in its free actions rather  than governing it as the historical doctrine of Providence has always maintained.

At its most sophisticated (as far as I’ve been able to discover from examining the blood of various stones) the theology says that the autonomy of nature is necessary for the greatest good of all – the autonomy of man, so that he can participate in the various types of soul-making process envisaged by the Self-emptying God of this novel philosophy. So bear all that in mind as we turn to the content of more personal faith. You’ll find the conversation from which I draw here.

Where beaglelady stands in relation to the above is shown by these quotes:

It’s possible for God to tinker with evolution. It’s possible for God to drop whole new species in the woods, or maybe drop new species of whales into the ocean.   If you pray for a car, God could even manufacture one.   You’d know because it wouldn’t have a VIN.  (Good luck trying to register it.)  Or if a couple is praying for a baby,  he could make one just appear out of nothing.

…I believe that God’s natural world can handle the job very well.  And there are plenty of clues that things evolved naturally.  (Or that a trickster wanted us to believe that’s the way it happened.)

Elsewhere she often plays the theodicy card, adamantly denying that God would create wisdom teeth or guinea worms. Indeed, God would have been content to interact with any intelligent species evolution might fortuitously turn up, and so man as Homo sapiens was not specifically intended. That lack of providence extends well down the scale of creation. For example:

Mankind is currently involved in causing extinctions/environmental degradation. If there is some highly detailed plan, we have thrown it off.

And:

I believe that we have free will, live authentic lives, and our actions have real consequences.  We need to be very careful of what we do.   I don’t believe there is some highly detailed plan that pre-determines EVERYTHING, right down to the variety of potato that McDonalds uses for its fries… If I thought that God raised up Ronald McDonald I’d probably  change my religion!  I don’t think that God is out to clog our arteries.

Yet in dialoguing with atheist Lou Jost and others she affirms that God answers prayers, including :

God answers all prayers, but his answers are not our answers… Yes [he does sometimes answer the prayers of the sick]. And people regularly pray for the sick.

Asked what kind of answers he might provide in such cases, she responds:

…sometimes God makes subtle changes to make us healthier.  And sometimes he answers prayers for healing not by making us better, but by giving us strength to face it, or by making funds available for treatment.  Or even by making an expected painful death to be instead relatively peaceful.

I don’t have empirical evidence for God making changes to immune systems or changing cancer cells.   Believers just get a strong feeling that God has answered prayers. No proof or anything like that.

We are told to pray for the sick.  Healing was a big part of Christ’s ministry, and believers carry it on. Why do you think so many hospitals were founded by religious groups, especially Roman Catholic ones?

All of which is excellent and orthodox. Indeed, her belief in God’s effectual action extends to her answer to the suggestion that belief in God is a result of God’s call and our response:

True. Faith is a gift, as shown by Peter’s [and here she cites Peter’s confession of Christ at Caesarea Philippi].

Let’s assume now that these opinions are typical of the evangelical TEs like Francis Collins, founder of BioLogos, and mainstream science-faith people like John Polkinghorne, and thank beaglelady for her time. The specifics attributed to God here are:

(a) Subtle physical changes to bring health – maybe changing immune systems or changing cancer cells, albeit not usually empirically detectable.
(b)Giving us strength to face illness.
(c) Making funds available to engage health care.
(d) Giving saving faith as a gift.

Now the Puppetmaster God was condemned as a tyrant (for example by Polkinghorne) for coercing nature’s laws rather than letting them “be themselves”. This was such a high priority that God’s determining of each species was outlawed, and the evils of nature, from the human spine to the whole bloody process of evolution, absolutely necessary. Why then would his interference with immune systems’ or cancer cells’ “right” to create themselves as they see fit be legitimate?

Taken as a platitude “giving us strength to face illness” could mean anything. But courage, fortitude and so on are, at bottom, choices that we make to exercise capacities that we have. God’s “adjustment” of either is no more or less coercive, no more or less tinkering, than his control of nature would be – the difference being that he is acting directly on the human mind and will, the very altar of autonomous freedom in creation.

Even more so is this true when we talk, absolutely scripturally, of faith as a gift. What we are saying, actually, is that we did not choose to believe until God endued us with his “gift”, after which we did believe and were saved – God being the agent of change turning disbelieving (unbelief) to believing (faith). All this is nothing else than the exercise of effectual divine grace, bringing life and salvation where there was, before, autonomous sin leading to destruction. Such grace is quite compatible with traditional faith (barring the semi-pelagian nature of so many Christian streams nowadays). But it is quite incompatible, it seems to me, with a theology whose core tenet is God’s letting-go of his creation to its freedom whatever the cost.

The whole question of special providence is opened up again by that simple statement about God making funds available. However one envisages that coming about, it clearly implies God’s control over every element in life. If a neighbour is moved by God to donate funds, then once more (in the rhetoric of the TEs) it’s “messing with their free will.” So why is it wrong  for him similarly to mess with selfish genes? If a rich passer-by accidentally drops the money in the road, then God is sovereign over chance, so why begrudge him the same sovereignty over genetic mutations? If Obamacare kicks in just at the right time, God is sovereign over human government, so why not over ecology too? And if the money just materialises miraculously, then God is no more or less a tinkerer than if he delivers the bacterial flagellum ready-assembled.

But perhaps he just acts in these two different ways in two different settings? God has one character in the realm of creation, and a different one in the realm of personal faith. Nobody seems to have presented any legitimate theological reasons why he should. Scripture presents him as equally involved in nature and salvation – he is no more a schizophrenic than he is a megalomaniac or a micromanager.

He is just the Sovereign, triune Lord. “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him.” To his name be the glory.

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 Confusion worse confounded

  1. seenoevo says:

    Jon,

    “The incoherence of the “creation free to create itself” theology of much modern theistic evolution, and especially “the angel of the church at BioLogos“, has been a major theme here on the Hump.”

    It’s nice to see we can agree sometimes.

    I have to admit, though, that I didn’t get much farther in this essay. Once I saw the name beaglelady, and saw that you intended to go into some depth on the “wisdom” of the canine-human chimera, I gave up.

    Maybe you were scraping the bottom to find something to write about. You’re better than having to spend time on her one-line rants, Jon.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Seenoevo

    When Dennis Venema of one of the other official voices explain their theology I’ll be in a better position to critique it. Meanwhile I have to do the best I can – but in fact, getting past b.l.’s persona, I think we have reason to believe the way she balances “personal faith” and “natural theology” is quite typical.

    I have historical links to BioLogos, and many of my readers came here from there, so it’s a useful source for “on the ground” theistic evolution, just as Uncommon Descent is for ID. At best, my piece might force people to question whether in fact they have isolated their faith into two watertight compartments with quite different Gods overseeing each.

  3. seenoevo says:

    BioLogos is booming. Of its latest six articles, three don’t allow comments. For the other three, over a third of the posts are due to der beagle, sawtellianism, or melanoma.

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