I generally enjoy the comments of moderator Christy Hemphill on BioLogos. Aside from the fact that she has the greatest sense of humor of anyone at BioLogos, and aside from the fact that she is not a biologist and therefore isn’t constantly ruffled with professional indignation merely because someone criticizes neo-Darwinian mechanisms of evolution, and aside from the fact that she is a philologist and therefore dear to my heart, she usually talks good common sense.
It’s with reluctance, therefore, that I offer a public disagreement with one of her comments. I think it is necessary to do it, though, because the disagreement is over something important. I trust that she will take it in the most constructive spirit.
Under the heading What is the point of ID apologetics for Christians? she writes:
What exactly does proving to atheists that God designed viruses accomplish in a Christian apologetic sense? What is the path between “God designed viruses” and “Jesus is Lord and his kingdom is coming”? It’s something about the whole ID apologetics endeavor I have never understood. If seeing design in nature is edifying and reassuring and strengthens the faith and resolve of a Christian to go out and excel in love and good deeds, then that’s great. But “proving” the existence of some generic Designer isn’t the gospel. At all. So what is the point of being so evangelistic about it, when we have an actual evangel we were specifically told to go out and share with the world? (Mark 16:15)
Her gently sarcastic jab here about “proving to atheists that God designed viruses” is registered. But now let’s see if the jab can be turned in the other direction.
A number of leading TE/EC folks, both at BioLogos and elsewhere, have told the world time and again that ID misrepresents living nature. Living things, they often tell us, don’t resemble the products of an intelligent designer. Would an intelligent designer, they ask, create the badly flawed, easily injured human back? Would an intelligent designer, they ask, inefficiently wire the retina of the human eye backward? Would an intelligent designer, they say, create a mouth too small for the number of teeth it has to hold, with wisdom teeth crowding and misaligning human dentition? No, they say; these and other flaws in human and animal design indicate that we and other beings are created not by a rational process akin to engineering, but by a largely irrational process of trial and error, building on whatever previous genotypical and phenotypical material happens to be lying around. Hence, neo-Darwinian evolution, rather than ID, is the best explanation for how organisms came to be.
To add insult to injury, the TE/EC argument presses further. Not only does living nature show inefficiency and incompetence from a design point of view; it shows malice. What kind of designer, they ask (Ken Miller, Francisco Ayala, and “beaglelady” for example), would deliberately engineer something as horrible as the malarial parasite? What kind of designer, they demand to know, would create the parasites that worm their way into the stomachs of African children and destroy them from the inside? Only a fiendish designer, they say or imply. If God intelligently designed such things, he would be an evil God, one not worthy of worship. So why do these things exist? Again, the answer is “evolution.” In the neo-Darwinian scheme of evolution, things happen without foresight, by trial and error, as life does a blind search for new possibilities. Sometimes evil, painful things emerge from the blind search. So again, neo-Darwinism, rather than ID, is the best explanation for how organisms came to be.
Now, I’m going to ask Christy to think for a moment about this line of argument, and about how it fits in with other rhetoric coming from TE/EC writers.
Regularly on BioLogos, we see “faith” columns where TE/EC scientists wax poetic about the biological wonders God has created through evolution, and tell us how grateful we should all be to God for evolution’s results. We are asked to admire the creative brilliance of God as he employs evolution to create ruby-throated hummingbirds and leaping gazelles and so on. Columnists like Kathryn Applegate can be found writing things like, “When I see the amazing world God has created through evolution, I’m so much more impressed by God’s brilliance than I would be by a God who merely created things instantaneously like a magician.” But these same columnists never seem to notice a rather large inconsistency between their joy over God’s creation in columns like these, with their criticism of the arrangements of creation in columns where they are bashing ID proponents over the head.
If it’s true that evolution works by a clumsy, ad hoc process, trying out various experiments without foresight, making use of whatever biological material is lying around (no matter how unsuitable it is for good design), then what exactly are these columnists praising God for? For using an inefficient trial-and-error process that is not as intelligent or as quick as proper engineering? For using a process which God (by his foresight) knows in advance will generate career-ending back injuries, bloody surgery in dentists’ offices, and horrible parasites causing untold suffering to little African children?
Doesn’t it strike Christy as a little odd that so many leaders and followers of TE/EC stress how badly designed much of organic nature is, but also say that the right religious attitude of Christians toward this badly designed organic nature is to gush with over-the-top praise for God’s choice of creative method?
This incongruity justifies turning Christy’s jab in the other direction, against TE/EC:
What exactly does proving to Bible-believing Protestant evangelical Christians that God adopted a “hands-off” policy — letting evolution grope blindly toward bad backs, wisdom teeth, faulty retinal wiring, malaria, African parasites, etc. — accomplish in a Christian apologetic sense?
It thus seems to me that TE/EC, when it comes to the doctrine of Creation, has no rhetorical advantage over ID on the apologetics front.
In fact, if push came to shove, I think that most Bible-believing Christians would rather believe that God actively willed the existence of some evils in the natural world, for reasons known only to an all-wise being but surely for the world’s overall good, than that God in Creation was an absentee landlord who left all the decisions to an incompetent and heartless property manager, i.e., the Demiurge known as neo-Darwinian evolution. I think most Christians would rather believe that God’s deliberate choices are sometimes stern but ultimately for the good of man and of all Creation, than that God irresponsibly abdicated deliberate choices and accepted whatever blind evolutionary processes turned up. They’d rather believe that God directly made malaria than that God washed his hands of any moral blame for it, on the grounds that “It wuz evolution what dun it, not me.”
In a passage rarely discussed by TE/EC leaders on BioLogos or anywhere else, in Isaiah 45:7, God indicates that he sometimes creates evil. Note “create evil” — suggesting deliberate action by God, not merely standing aside while natural process produce evil by accident. The idea that God might will (not merely tolerate) some things that we call evil is clearly anathema to the modern TE/EC sensibility (a sensibility that it ironically shares with its arch-foe YEC), and to the Enlightenment theological rationalism which lies behind it.
I have not yet touched on the ending of Christy’s remarks, because they aren’t germane to the main point I’ve tried to make here, but I will offer one point of agreement: Yes, it’s true that proving nature is designed is not the point of the Gospel. But ID writers have never offered ID as a substitute for the Gospel; they have offered it only as a rebuttal to the atheist arguments that “science proves” that nature is filled with incompetent and evil structures (and therefore that no intelligent design lies behind the world, only blind chance and pitiless natural laws). They have offered design arguments as useful for Christian apologetics only in the sense that Origen, Clement, etc. saw Greek philosophy as useful for apologetics, as a sort of protevangelium, a prelude to arriving at an understanding of the Gospel.
Yet many TE/EC writers have been determined to smash the possibility of any such protevangelium; they (especially the biologists among them) have made it their task to show evangelical Christians that the atheist scientists are essentially right in their description of nature and of the evolutionary process, and right to say that the study of the order and structures of nature can’t get us even one inch toward belief in the existence of God. So, if the charge against ID is that design arguments are insufficient theologically, for not taking us all the way to the Gospels, the charge against TE/EC is much more serious: it attempts to destroy the pathway to God through the study of nature, a pathway long-honored in Christian tradition, and this destruction leaves a huge conceptual gulf between the Christian and the non-Christian, and hence a massive apologetic problem. With the ancient bridge (first forged by the Greek philosophers, and later strengthened by the natural theology tradition) destroyed, one of the main apologetic tools for reaching out to rational pagans and rational agnostics — who at first are often repelled by or at least suspicious of Jesus-talk, but not repelled by God-talk based on the common human experience of nature — is lost.
ID isn’t Christianity, and establishing intelligent design certainly can’t establish the Christian God. But ID at least doesn’t get in the way of people who are open to the possibility of the Christian God, and its picture of God as a wise designer is in line with 2,000 years of tradition of Biblical interpretation. TE/EC, on the other hand, sometimes imperils attempts to bring people to the Christian God, because it presents a Creator-God who doesn’t care enough about what the evolutionary process does to intervene and mitigate its harshness, and hence a God not much like the God of Love preached by evangelical Christians. TE/EC proponents may sound all the right evangelical notes when they speak of God as Redeemer, but when they speak of God as Creator, their commitment to understanding Creation as a heartless, stupid, inefficient, and gratuitously cruel process of trial-by-error evolution, they sound all the wrong notes.