The book Debating Design, though now nearly a decade old, is useful for understanding some of the main inputs to the current science-faith situation. Paradoxically I’m learning more about Theistic Evolutionists than Intelligent Design proponents from it, although it predates the foundation of BioLogos by several years. One of the most widely respected of the “serious” TE theorists is John Polkinghorne, probably because of his combination of mainstream scientific and theological credentials and his ability to write to a popular audience. His chapter supplements what I have learned from his Belief in God in an Age of Science and elsewhere, but leaves unresolved the problems I have with his ideas.
For unlike those I have mentioned such as John Haught, who seem to me to present a consistent but finally incoherent view, Polkinghorne is only incoherent where he draws on their ideas, but appears to try and join them to contradictory themes in an inconsistent way. Either that, or he has some integrative principle I haven’t been able to fathom – you must judge.
His chapter starts with a good overview of the cosmic fine-tuning principle, as you’d expect from a Christian physicist. This he demarcates from the “design inference” of ID because the latter deals with occurrences in the scientific world of natural laws, whereas fine-tuning, preceding the creation, cannot be investigated by science, so is “fair game” for design. My first problem with this is that, on his own account, some of the physical constants appeared after the big bang, so are potentially explicable scientifically. So how is that any less “God of the gaps” than, say, divine intervention at the origin of life? This is brought into sharper relief if one considers the non-cosmological fine tuning he omits, such as that Michael Denton (whose book he cites) describes in the earth’s environment. In that light, the distinction between “put-up jobs” before and after the Big Bang seems artificial.
I’m more troubled, though, by his detailed biblical justification for this distinction, since it is plain wrong. He equates it with that between the Hebrew ‘asah (ordinary “Paley’s watch” making) and bara (“the word reserved in the Hebrew scriptures uniquely for divine creative activity, which can be understood as the sustaining of created reality”). For start, as word studies show, the divine activity of bara is essentially the designation of function, not just de novo creation. And moreover, his sharp distinction between the words is false as they are interchanged almost synonymously in Bible accounts of God’s work. Bara is applied, amongst other things, to “heavens and earth”, “sea”, to people, creatures, celestial inhabitants (seldom discussed in science-faith literature!) and named stars. ‘Asah is applied to the firmament, lights, beasts, people, and “everything God made” in Genesis alone, and to “heavens and earth” in Exodus. This is just exegetical laziness on Polkinghorne’s part, and is important because it completely undermines a biblical case for the fIne-tuning distinctions he makes, that were already doubtful from the scientific side, and so for the sharp division so often made between God’s and man’s making activity.
He goes on to distinguish the ex nihilo creation of God and man’s manipulation of existing materials. This is valid – I’ve argued on BioLogos against the easy use of ideas like “co-creation” on these grounds. But to be fair, it’s not a distinction the Bible makes absolutely: bara is certainly used only of God, but ex nihilo is not taught until later in the Bible than the Pentateuch, and even then God’s creativity includes more than that, or even that plus sustaining things in existence. God makes things, too.
Polkinghorne moves next on to more interesting and useful ground, discussing well the idea that complex novelty depends on the mixture of stability and flexibility we in fact see in Creation: “the edge of chaos”, as he describes it. Rightly or wrongly I saw parallels with such ideas in one of my recent posts. But as I say there, it is suited to a universe where God is closely involved in Providence as much as, or more than, a godless one of chance and necessity, or (closer to Polkinghorne’s position) a self-organising one.
Yet here he lapses into the “received science-faith wisdom” on creation’s autonomy, showing that he is just as capable of emotive rhetoric as van Till or Haught. In just one paragraph he contrasts “puppet theatre,” “everything dances to God’s tune,” “Cosmic Tyrant,” “unrelenting grip,” “holds on tightly,” “enslaved world” and “not the creation of a loving God” with “allowed to be itself,” “make itself,” “in its own time and in its own way” and “liberty.” If you ever get to read any seventeenth century controversial theology you’ll notice a stylistic resemblance, but there the object of opprobium is the heretical opponent rather than the Deity.
He adds a surprisingly contradictory example from Arthur Peacocke, given the “dancing to God’s tune” image above, in which creation:
… is not the performance of a fixed score, determined from all eternity, but rather an improvisatory performance, led by the Creator who is, in Arthur Peacocke’s striking phrase, “an Improviser of unsurpassed ingenuity.”
The “striking phrase” comes, one should remember, from a panentheist and Process Theologian: in the scheme Polkinghorne has hitherto presented, it is Creation that is the improviser on an 8-bar riff of divine law. It’s a pretty analogy, but really just shows that Peacocke prefers jazz to Bach. An equally striking verbal case could be made for the Beethoven score that enables the orchestra of nature to soar the heights of God’s creative passion, as compared to a bunch of avant-garde free-jazzers passing off random squawks as art. You pays yer money, and yer chooses yer rhetorician. But it’s not good theology.
To end this section he makesa brief allusion to our old theme of creation as divine kenosis, “an extremely important aspect of twentieth century theology.” One may hope that twenty-first century theology will eventually twig that the case for it has been made only by distorting or ignoring Scripture.
The next section is entitled “Open process”, though without direct reference to Open theism or Process Philosophy. The theme, though, is the genuine indeterminacy of nature, in both quantum and chaos theory, which at least he sees as his own metaphysical choice rather than as Haught’s theological necessity. Furthermore, and very significantly for TE, he sees the necessity of making sense of openness beyond randomness, and to do that by including:
…the possibility of divine intervention within an unfolding evolutionary process.
This, he says, “is the proposal contained in the concept of ‘theistic evolution.'” What he presents is, essentially, a universe open to “making itself” but also open to being altered by human free will, and by divine action. Whether this is the same theistic evolution offered by Haught, van Till and Ayala (together with many others) is open to doubt. Certainly it is that presented by Robert J Russell or David Wilcox, only involving what seems to be a degree of conceptual confusion.
For if, as Haught says, and Polkinghorne has expressed in some of the most flowery rhetoric of any TE author, it is the essence of God’s love in creation not to interfere, then what does finding room for his activity in quantum or chaotic process achieve, apart from a reprehensible diminution of that freedom and love? And if God’s purposeful action is seen through chance events, then they’re not genuinely indeterminate. Incoherence hammers at the door yet again.
Furthermore there’s a dubious kind of univocity about such an openness of the universe: the inanimate cosmos, free creatures like mankind (angels are not mentioned) and God himself all close off its limitless possibilities in the same way, through exploiting indeterminacy (though how nature or humans do so is a little sketchy, to say the least).
What actually results, then, depends entirely on how the balance of power is allocated, or seized: who has more power, or more wisdom, or more votes … or what, exactly? How much divine intervention is acceptable, once non-intervention is no longer insisted upon as an absolute of divine love? How is Polkinghorne’s cosmology different from a kind of polytheism, in which God is not sole Creator of a unified world, but just one creative force amongst many? How can God be exonerated from natural evil (very much the concern of TEs) if he can act, and sometimes does, but not sufficiently to offset suffering?
In short, I ask which theological or scientific problems are being solved by what, to me, seems a rather inconsistent scheme, that are not better solved by Triple-A Theism?