Over on BioLogos, Jon was kind enough to comment on a discussion I was having with GJDS and several others about Deism, God’s involvement in evolution, etc. He wrote:
Eddie’s caution about the limitations of speaking of God’s “sustaining” everything in being is that we have all seen that word drained of its historical theological content (I suppose in a quasi-scientific way), so that it simply means God keeping objects in existence as they go about their business autonomously and he is passive.
Jon has correctly inferred the basis of my discomfort. It has often seemed to me that some EC writers (often at BioLogos and sometimes elsewhere) speak of God’s “sustaining” in this way. Possibly they mean something more, but whenever (except in one case) I’ve asked particular individuals to explain their remarks along this line, there has never been any further elaboration. It’s almost as if they think that by adding “sustained” to “created” they’ve performed the mandatory requirement to cover themselves against the charge of Deism, and that beyond the endorsement of the mere word “sustained” no further account of God’s involvement is needed. But this is puzzling, because if adding “God sustains” to “God created” is supposed to make a huge difference in the way we conceptualize God’s relationship with natural events – and the EC/TE writers seem to think it does – then one might think that biological accounts of origins would sound a bit different (however subtle the difference might be) under an EC/TE model than under a Deistic model, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
If “sustained” implies the actual personal involvement of God in every molecular and genetic and environmental activity, one would think that a claim that God “sustains” natural events could affect the way the biologist thinks about origins. But in many cases it seems to add nothing but a theological gloss, an optional supplement to be attached after all the science (science understood in NOMA terms) is done. This is perhaps best shown by comparing the apparent positions of various types of scientist (atheistic, deistic, and BioLogos-style EC/TE):
A- science shows that blind chemical and Darwinian searches can create life, species and man, and there is therefore no need to suppose the existence of God, and I’m an atheist;
B- science shows that blind chemical and Darwinian searches can create life, species and man, but I believe someone needed to create the initial laws of nature and ignite the Big Bang (after which the universe ran by itself), and I’m a Deist;
C- science shows that blind chemical and Darwinian searches can create life, species and man, but I believe that someone needed to create the initial laws of nature and ignite the Big Bang (and keep the natural laws going after that, so the universe could keep running itself), and I’m a Christian Theist.
It seems to me that under case C, God’s “sustaining” is the equivalent of plugging the automated machine “universe” into the power source “God” so that the machine “universe” can keep doing what it’s doing; but that doesn’t strike me as a personal involvement of God in the workings of nature (or more specifically in the process of evolution). The only difference between case B and case C is that in case B the universe comes with its own batteries, whereas in case C the universe doesn’t come with batteries and so needs to be near a wall outlet. But a machine works in exactly the same way whether you power it with batteries or by plugging it into the wall. And there’s nothing any more “personal” in current that comes from the wall than in current coming from dry cells (or wet cells, take your pick). Current is just current, having no moral intention, no aims or ends, etc.
In other words, a formally “theistic” acknowledgment that God “sustains” the universe doesn’t stop the overall picture from seeming pretty “deistic.”
I can agree that God “sustains” things, but surely there’s more to be said than that. The question is why so few of the EC/TE writers seem interested in showing the connection between a sustaining God and a personal God who wills, plans, intends, etc. In their personal lives the EC/TE writers engage in prayer, the singing of hymns, weekend retreats for Christian scientists and so on. They surely sincerely believe that God is personal and not just a power source underlying the universe. But when asked about how that God relates to natural events in general or evolutionary outcomes in particular, they strangely seem to have not even any tentative ideas. God is personally involved in evolution, they say; Jeff Schloss even says that God is “mightily hands-on” in evolution. But what a “hands-on and personal” relationship to evolution means, beyond a vague “sustaining”, they don’t seem interested in talking about. Could that be because any “involvement” of God with nature beyond a vague “sustaining” might get in the way of the purely naturalistic account of origins they are determined to provide? Or is there another reason? It’s hard to say, when one can’t induce them to discuss such matters in any detail, for love or money.