More gleanings from “The Nature of Nature”

There’s a chapter in the Gordon/Dembski magnum opus by Howard J Van Till, called Cosmic Evolution, Naturalism, and Divine Creativity. Of Van Till, the book says: “His books in the 1980s… played a powerful role in moving evangelical higher education to accept theistic evolution over against creationism.” So it’s clear that he is the source to which we need look for much of the theology of the BioLogos school of thought.

Van Till’s chapter begins with a statement of how cosmology, stellar and planetary astronomy and biology have all provided an evolutionary account of creation, and discusses the implications:

If Nature has all the resources, potentialities, and capabilities to make possible its evolutionary history, without the need for any episodes of form-conferring supernatural intervention, is God superfluous?…

…But what if the role of divine creativity is something quite different from form-imposing intervention?

To define the issue he formulates a Robust Formational Economy Principle on the nature of Nature, which states:

The formational economy of the Universe is sufficiently robust to make possible – without need for occasional episodes of form-imposing intervention by any extra-natural agent – the actualization of both (a) all the types of physical structures (nucleons, nuclei, atoms, molecules, galaxies, stars, plants etc.) and (b) all of the life forms that have appeared in time.

He then divides the world into (only!) two camps with reference to this:

Episodic Creationism: the world has “gaps” in its ability to explain all that is which require intervention. He also puts most ID proponents into this category. This, of course, neatly sets up a “God of the gaps” shibboleth. But (a) true creationists start from Biblical claims of what God did, not from scientific claims of what nature cannot do. Biblical creationism creates the gaps quite deliberately, using evolution’s supposed shortcomings as merely supportive evidence. As for (b) ID, of course, it does not require intervention – just intelligence, which is arguably found as a formational principle in cosmological and astronomical fine-tuning, so can just as “naturalistically” be ascribed to life in the form of front-loading, etc. This category would appear to be something of a straw man, then.

Proponents of the RFEP, the other camp, not surprisingly (in view of the fact that it was formulated to describe them) believe the Universe has no such gaps. He goes on:

What if contemporary cosmology and biology are correct in this assessment?

He notes the conflict that has arisen over this claim, which he resolves, in effect, by siding with forms of theism that are not supernaturalist, by which he means those who do not believe God acts “coercively” to “exercise unilateral power over nature,” that “supercedes natural action”. I’ll leave aside the fact that such distinctions completely bypass the Reformed concept that God exercises unilateral power over nature through natural action. I’ll also leave aside the fact that, unqualified, this dichotomy completely excludes miracle, for the stilling of a storm, the creation of wine from water or the raising of a dead man for the sake of man’s salvation are every bit as “coercive” as they would be in the operation of creation, despite his later assertion that they are admissible.

He goes on, as a theological model that preserves God’s power and deity without letting them impose themselves on creation, to adopt from Process Theology the concept of a kenotic (self-emptying) God who deliberately keeps his hands off nature in the name of “giving,” “generosity” and by implication the “freedom” with which readers of theistic evolution literature will be very familiar. That familiarity is to be expected if Van Till’s work has had such a seminal influence on American theological thinking in this area.

Theologically it seems to me that this kenotic concept, apart from generalising the principle of “kenosis” quite illegitimately to matters outside the incarnation of Christ, suffers the nebulosity of that whole “Creation with Freedom” concept. He says:

…the more robust the Creation’s formational economy is, the more the Creation owes to the Creator for the richness of its being.

The logic of this statement escapes me – why should I be more or less grateful for being born naturally than if I were formed, Adam like, from the dust of the ground? But quite apart from that, the word “owes” is related to “ought”. And “ought” is inextricably bound to volition and mind. A rock, or a dog, has no obligation to its maker other than to be what it is. The distinction is important: to let people manage their affirs is to grant liberty. To let your affairs manage themselves is abdication of responsibility. Does the naturalistic paradigm give us evidence for the consciousness and volition of nature, or not?

Since this way of doing theology arose from a Process theologian, maybe it’s worth reviewing the process by which it arose. Science began by searching out the areas in which God acts predictably in nature. Science is, by its nature, incapable of studying areas in which he does not act predictably. By degrees, that became the methodological naturalism that says that such unpredictable areas are not worth studying (because outside science) and, further, cannot exist. That in turn became the metaphysical commitment of Naturalism that, although most of the big questions about the Universe (existence, fine-tuning, life, consciousness, morality etc, etc) remain unexplained, science will undoubtedly provide the explanations in time, or decree that there aren’t any explanations. Thus Naturalism arose by a process of progressive secularisation.

Only at this point does Van Till’s theological process begin. The Naturalistic metaphysic is adopted uncritically as an axiom, together with the consequent unproven assumptions about its ability to account for the whole of Nature. His question then becomes, “What kind of theology can I construct that will comply with the Naturalistic metaphysic I have assumed?” The actual theology appears to me to be no more strongly reasoned than “a powerful and good God might have done it this way”, and the justification for it no more than the feel-good factor of buzz words like “generosity”, “creativity”, “gift” or “freedom.”

One could, of course, construct an equally woolly theology to justify rejecting the RFEP. Here goes.

God is a Father. Yet the naturalistic God of the RFEP resembles one of those Victorian parents whose idea of child care is to appoint a suitable nurse and governess and provide a wing of the house for the children’s exclusive use, together with all the material and intellectual resources they need. Each evening, of course, the children are marched down to say “Goodnight, Sir,” before they say their prayers and turn out the nursery light. Their “independence” is later increased when they are packed off to Eton.

What kind of loving Father fails to participate in his beloved children’s lives in such a way? 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?

Does this sound convincing? Whether or not it does matters not, because it’s a bad way to do theology. The way I prefer is not to reason from my own presuppositions what God ought to do, but to seek to understand from Scripture (augmented, of course, by God’s work in the created realm) what he has, in fact, done. This does, of course, entail assuming (through faith) a metaphysic that allows God to speak through Scripture, but I don’t see that’s in any way inferior to – or less theological than – assuming the naturalistic metaphysic developed originally by those whose conscious purpose was to remove God not only from Nature, but from very existence.

No doubt there were stronger arguments which persuaded evangelical higher education towards TE. If not, it’s worrying.

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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 More gleanings from “The Nature of Nature”

  1. Gregory says:

    While I’m not sure it is suitable to elevate ‘BioLogos’ into being credited as a ‘school of thought’ (since the philosophy of science at BioLogos is so weak as to be unable to assess its own conceptual foundations), please receive thanks for your ‘process of a process’ review and counter-process theology scenario.

    One question is: what is Howard van Til’s position wrt religion today? He seems to have disappeared into a kind of ‘won’t discuss religion in public’ position, as did Charles Darwin in his old age. Suggesting ‘naturalism’ means ‘anti-supernaturalism’ as van Till does in TNoN is an extremely weak argument, when there are many non-natural categories that carry explanatory power (and to which can also be attached ‘-isms’).

    Indeed, the processes of process-oriented thought are better understood when considering their origins and purpose (often, to avoid origins). Van Till’s relevance in science, philosophy and religion discourse seems to have hit a wall, which the ID people were happy to exploit in their 2011 book.

    “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” – Archilochus

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for the comment, Gregory. One question I ask myself is why theologians like Van Till et al believe that naturalism explains all. Do they just swallow the authority of secular scientists even when they speak hyped up metaphysics? Or do they too want God safely out of the way? Perhaps once theologians break free of inspired authority they begin to accept everything on patchy evidence.

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