Metaphysics drives science drives theology

I came across this 1992 symposium when following up a conversation at BioLogos in which I mentioned David L Wilcox. I’ve written about Wilcox before as a like mind in having a high (Reformed) view of God’s providence in nature, linked to at least general support for evolutionary theory (he is, after all, a population geneticist). But apart from his paper here, the whole symposium has interesting things to read.

Not least in interest, it comes from  a time when atheist evolutionists, theistic evolutionists and Intelligent Design proponents could appear on the same academic platform without accusing each other of ignorance or dishonesty. The trickle of “cheap tuxedo” stuff now endemic to the discussion inevitably clouds ones judgement, and in particular with reference to ID pioneer Phillip E Johnson. I heard him speak early in this century and considered him then very well-informed and astute. But I confess that, as he’s dropped from public life owing to health issues, the combination of propaganda like “right wing subversive”, “closet Creationist” and “just a lawyer” have diminished in my mind the importance of anything he might have to say.

But actually, as his presentation shows, he’s well-informed and astute. My, how I hate the poisoned atmosphere that’s been quite deliberately introduced to the issues about creation and evolution. I don’t intend to review his paper, though it’s an excellent appraisal of the materialist ideology prevalent in biological science now as much as twenty years ago. I just want to draw attention to a parallel between something he mentions in passing and current theistic evolution.

Johnson quotes a passage from Stephen J Gould’s 1989 book on the Cambrian Explosion, Wonderful Life:

We are the offspring of history, and must establish our own paths in this most diverse and interesting of conceivable universes-one indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our own chosen way.

Johnson’s point is how Gould has smuggled in metaphysics and ideology under the pretence of science:

Of course absolutely nothing in the Burgess Shale fossils supports Gould’s speculation that the universe is indifferent to our sufferings, or discredits the belief that we are responsible to a divine Creator who actively intervened in nature to bring about our existence. On the contrary, the genuine scientific portion of Wonderful Life provides ample grounds for doubting the expansive notions of metaphysical naturalists like Theodosius Dobzhansky and George Gaylord Simpson. But because of Darwinism’s rules of reasoning, even anti-Darwinian evidence supports Darwinism.

But that truth aside, notice the “autonomous freedom” ideas Gould (a Marxist) introduces in this short passage: “establish our own paths”, “indifferent to our suffering, and therefore offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail”, “in our chosen way”.

Maybe I’m being fanciful, but see if you don’t think there are similar ideals underlying these theological statements:

God’s design, however, is intelligent and God, through that intelligence wills freedom for his creation, including the constrained freedom of allowing creation to “make itself.” (Darrel Falk, BioLogos)

But in its ability to make eschatology intelligible to Christians and nonbelievers alike in an age which takes it for granted that our world is a tiny planet lost in the immensity of an unfeeling universe and that biological life is the unintended product of blind, evolutionary chance, we as theologians in the service of the church have failed. (Robert J Russell)

Contingency, it is true, can lead down circuitous pathways, but that is precisely the risk that love takes when it allows genuine otherness to emerge as the object of that love …  Can we expect less than this respect for the otherness and eventual freedom of created reality on the part of what religious faith confesses to be an infinite love? (John Haught)

The universe is not a divine puppet theatre in which everything dances to God’s tune alone. The Creator is not the Cosmic Tyrant whose unrelenting grip holds on tightly to all. Such an enslaved world could not be the creation of a loving God. Rather creation is allowed to be itselfand make itself, realising the inbuilt potentiality with which the Creator has endowed it, but in its own time and in its own way. Creatures live at some epistemic and ontological distance from their Creator, as they enter into the liberty that God has given them. (John Polkinghorne)

… a universe containing both creative and destructive possibilities, as a condition of its dialectically emergent character. One can see the cosmos as orientated towards goodness, but only through struggle and the exercise of finite freedoms. (Keith Ward)

Some of those quotes I’ve used before, and the whole tenor of the remarks will be familiar to those who read this blog regularly. In the past I’ve traced some of the developments in “free creation” theology through the kenoticism and suffering-God theology of those like Moltmann, applied to science and evolution by those like Peacocke, and brought into the mainstream of theistic evolution by those like Howard Van Till.

But the Gould quote shows that such ideas have been around, in the unbelieving community, for a long time as well. The main change that the quotes seem to suggest is that the “universe indifferent to our suffering” has become the “letting go God,” with exactly the same resulting virtue of freedom to make our own future. I’m quite sure TE theology didn’t come direct from Stephen Gould. And as Johnson says, Gould didn’t get them from science, either. And as I’ve said, TEs didn’t get them from traditional theology.

Where then, I wonder, did they come from? I still blame Prometheus.

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply