Designer theology for an undesigned universe

A good bit of my reading of late has, intentionally or unintentionally, heightened my awareness of just how much whole patterns of thought we take for granted have changed over the years and centuries. For example at a fairly high resolution, a book I read on protective colouration by Stanislav Komárek showed just what changes have come and gone, and sometimes come again, in evolutionary theory since Darwin.

Lovejoy’s book on The Great Chain of Being explored how an ancient philosophical theme governed scientific thought in a myriad of evolving ways over the centuries before suddenly being ditched almost totally. Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearances  discusses a change in the very pattern of thought over many millennia.

And latterly, as I wade through Michel Foucault and The Order of Things I find that his “archaeological approach” to the deepest levels of thought reveals several almost equally radical shifts in “what is possible to think” since the sixteenth century. For example, a major change he documents is the shift to the now obvious scientific approach of carefully enumerating the precise differences between similar things, from the predominant aim of the Renaissance thinkers of seeking for the hidden signs of similarity between apparently disparate things. The difference is so great that it’s almost impossible to imagine why anyone would consider thinking that way – and I’m talking about a Renaissance alchemist trying to understand a modern chemist’s obsession with minute differences between organic molecules, say.

It’s somewhat amazing, once one has been introduced to these things, that one can make any sense of the writings of earlier ages at all. Maybe that’s why most people don’t bother to try. But amongst those who do, it’s very tempting to read modern patterns of thought back into them, especially when we’re judging whether writers are to be congratulated as “prophetic” or dismissed as ignorant and “backward looking”. Quite often they’re just aliens misidentified as one of us.

A couple of instances. Quite often early supporters of the “transformism” of species, like Buffon and Bonnet, are seen, through the retrospectoscope, as forerunners of evolutionary theory, farsightedly realising the overall pattern of species change but lacking Darwin’s insight into mechanism. But as Foucault points out, their whole conception was completely different, and had roots in different philosophical soil. To them, each organism was inexorably working up the Chain of Being towards union with God: today’s amoeba would be a man in the future. It was a ladder of life rather than a tree. The Chain of Being was also behind the work of the great taxonomists like Linnaeus, and in detail his methodology reveals very little connection with the evolutionary views that his classifications are now seen virtually to prove. If we saw through Linnaeus’ eyes no such link would be likely.

Such misunderstandings of past thought are what makes it so hard for followers of science now to credit the interest in magic and astrology – and especially of religion – that drove the work of early scientific heroes. It’s far easier to imagine Galilieo or Bruno as embryonic New Atheists espousing reason against tradition than to acknowledge that they were as far from our thought patterns as are Islamist jihadists – possible further, in some ways, since the sixteenth century is a lot further away than Paris.

The situation is comparable in the history of theology. I always warn people embarking on any study of Church History that they may end up wondering in what sense many of these guys were Christians at all. It’s hard to see why 16th century Anglicans would be willing to go to prison because of the shape of the hat they were asked to wear in the pulpit, and harder still to see why anyone would send them there. It’s even more difficult to understand in what sense the formation of Cistercian monasteries, say, was a genuine reform. There are plenty who resonate with a rosy view of “Celtic Christianity” because of its modern-seeming respect for nature, but rather fewer who would share St Cuthbert’s desire to mortify the flesh by wading in the North Sea in January, or to defeat demons by praying alone on an island where they abounded.

Theologically, an entire theory of the Atonement like Anselm’s, which majored on the loss of the honour due to God, has very little support now because our mindset has little concept of the fealty on which Norman society was based.

And yet I find that despite the long time-course over which Christian history runs – far longer, for example, than the history of modern science and encompassing, therefore, the same fashions and patterns of thought and many more – there is an accessible stream of Christian identity running through it all. I can feel fellowship with Augustine despite his sympathy for Platonism and his emergence from the long-gone and incomprehensible Manichean sect. I can learn spiritually from an Athanasius, or a Gregory of Nyssa, or even from Thomas à Kempis cloistered away with the Christian Brothers, warding off Renaissance novelties.

I think this must be because there is a genuine catholicity and orthodoxy at the heart of the faith, stemming from the consistency of Scripture and the Holy Spirit, which somehow shines through whatever cultural dress and intellectual ornaments it wears down the centuries. Nevertheless that dress and those ornaments can only be ignored at ones peril.

Conversely (and here’s where the post begins…) it seems to be a pattern that those radical changes that are attempted in order to rescue Christianity from itself and bring it into line with “what we now know” are doomed to become embarrassingly obsolete in short order. Most readers here would not be that interested in the long-lost cultural circumstances that made long-lost heresies seem a good idea at the time, so I’ll restrict myself to one recent example of the re-structuring of Christianity that, supposedly, was made necessary by evolutionary theory.

Negatively, after Darwin there were many to say that “No intelligent person can now believe in [list core doctrines].” Positively, enthusiasts embraced Darwinism as a greater revelation than the Sinai Theophany or the Resurrection. As N P Williams said in his 1924 Bampton Lectures, former believers, including the Bible’s writers, were sadly born

…before the light of that Darwinian revolution in thought and knowledge [burst forth upon our world, revealing] that vast evolutionary panorama in which the history of this planet and our race has been depicted by the genius of modern science.”

I’m reminded of a musical sketch by the humourist Gerard Hoffnung in which a Germanic musicologist pronounces, “Music has begun when Arnold Schoenberg has invented the tone row. Before Schoenberg was Chaos absolute!” The academic is willfully blind to the fact there was, of course, music before serialism arose and after it faded. And there was truth before natural selection, too.

i-be9edfaa5a666c875eed2bee31e9aa79-rexdarwin2-thumb-500x308-25013The most celebrated “evolutionary theologian” is probably Tielhard de Chardin, but I want to cite a more typical example I’ve mentioned before, Frederick Robert Tennant. I mentioned him then in respect of the perpetuation of his ideas amongst some modern theistic evolutionists: here I want to view him in the light of evolutionary theory itself.

Tennant, in his Hulsean Lectures of 1902, suggested that we now have to believe that man as an animal evolved into an intellectual and spiritual being. This implies that:

…the impulses of our nature are in full sway before the moral consciousness begins to dawn.

Our animal nature, containing “instincts, appetites, and impulses, with self-assertive tendencies” therefore “contains abundance of raw material for the production of sin, as soon as these negative propensities are brought into relation with any restraining or condemning influence.” You may recognise here the not uncommon idea that mankind “fell upwards” – Tennant denied there was any bias due to voluntary disobedience, nor a corrupted nature, but that the tendency to sin belongs “to man as God made him.”

Fear and anger, envy and jealousy, self-centredness and self-pleasing are qualities which form part of the birthright of the human being in virtue of his animal ancestry.

The ape and the tiger in our ancestry (did you know man is descended from big cats?) are “natural and normal and necessary”.

So much for sin – but what of salvation? The task bestowed on man by the evolution of his moral nature, it seems, is that of “moralizing his organic nature.” The evolutionary path is now, despite the stumbling with sin, “the rising of moral culture.”

Now in fact, the progress Tennant sees happening (having not witnessed a couple of World Wars, “progressive evolutionary” Communist states and Isis) is in detail nothing more than a Pelagian self-help by moral effort (he specifically mentioned his debt to Pelagius), so that there is really nothing at all Christian in his scheme apart from scraps of biblical concepts like “sin” and “redemption”, and precious little actual relationship to organic evolution, either. But don’t be fooled – he was in line with the zeitgeist of evolution as it was conceived in those days, which I shall illustrate with two points.

The first is the easy identification of animal behaviours with sin, when inherited by morally-awakened humans. We’ve discussed in the past the inappropriateness of attributing moral qualities to different species. One cannot be self-centred or self-pleasing, or envious or jealous, without a self. The sexual ethics of a bonobo or a spider are no more relevant to human nature than those of species that remain monogamous for life.

And in any case the latter are just as much a part of nature as the tigers from which, contra Tennant, we are not descended. Even were one to admit that animal behaviour was the raw material of human ethics, there are animals whose behaviour would, I suspect, be sinless on any objective assessment – even my dog, never knowingly other than loyal, gentle and considerate to adults, children and other dogs.

The “animal nature” origin for sin depends, in the end, on inbibing the then prevalent Malthusian Struggle view of evolution, “red in tooth and claw”, that was assumed, rather than demonstrated, by Darwin. In pretty well every scientific and non-scientific mind, “survival of the fittest” in evolution, when it didn’t mean the triumph of civilization over Aboriginal primitives, conjured pictures of life and death struggles in primaeval swamps. Compare the dinosaurs in Walt Disney’s Fantasia to the animals in other scenes when he’s forgotten evolution.

fantasia_pdvd_775-450x302Nowadays we all know now that the “struggle” is purely passive. If a tree survives by being taller than its neighbours, it wasn’t showing an ounce of fighting spirit. We’re more likely now to talk about differential reproduction, and to mean larger surviving litters rather than Ug dragging Mug’s wife home by the hair. Selfishness is restricted to genes, and even that survival from Malthus is fading now in the light of the epigenetic revolution and a more nuanced view of selection that allows for altruism and kin selection.

In short, the entire biological basis for Tennent’s vital re-formulation of the fall lasted less than a century before it proved to have no good scientific support. And likewise his view of redemption and eschatology, which depends less on Darwin than on Spencer, and that Victorian socio-political vibe that was smuggled into evolutionary thory of the inevitability of progress.

france_in_xxi_century-_air_huntersBefore we realised how complex early life was, and how the world was every bit as sophisticated in the Cretaceous as it is now, barring our unique race, the evolutionary philosophical meta-narrative was of steady progress from the first microbes towards perfection. Man was, it was agreed on all sides, the current pinnacle of creation, and the question was where evolution would take us next. Not for those days was the idea that rats might inherit the earth, nor that bacteria ought to.

Tennant, whatever the actual content of his religion, simply took for granted that the evolutionary rise to moral accountability would be followed by further evolutionary progress towards (I suppose) God, like Teilhard’s Omega Point.

Now I don’t think it’s controversial to say that little of that sense of progress remains either in biology or in evolution-believing society. There may be some sense that technology might replace evolution through genetic transhumanism, but the goals envisaged are pretty paltry – freedom from disease, longevity – compared to the “unimaginable futures” of the Victorians. Another intelligent species might evolve if (and when, in most scenarios) we destroy ourselves. Population genetics confirms that evolution never ceases, but universal lactose tolerance is scarcely the Omega Point. In other words, evolution is seen as an adaptive process, or even a primarily meandering one for devotees of neutral theory. It is not an agent of constant progress, which would in cany case involve the now-outlawed global teleology that was nearly universal a century ago but has drifted out of fashion.

In short, the theological revolution that, according to Tennant and those like him, was absolutely necessary to stop Christianity sinking into intellectual oblivion depended on a version of science that is declining faster than late Neanderthals. Tennant married the spirit of the age and now finds himself a widower.

Yet oddly enough, there are still a lot of Christians around. Most of those (except for some TEs who don’t seem to want to learn from history) are either embarrassed or amused at the progressive and “scientific” theologies of a century, or less, ago. They would tend, I think, even those trained in science, to relate to the general theology of a Justin Martyr or a Martin Luther more positively, despite their being the products of modernity.

But then, convergent evolution’s come into fashion, hasn’t it?


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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