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13 Things I Learned at the BioLogos Conference

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June 16, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Rachel Held Evans. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

13 Things I Learned at the BioLogos Conference

On her blog this past Monday, Evans kicked off a short, three-post series about science and faith with a little summary of what she learned at the BioLogos Foundation conference last week. What follows is a re-post of that blog, originally written for folks who don’t know as much about BioLogos as the average reader here probably does.

The BioLogos Foundation was founded by Francis Collins to address the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life. This particular conference was held at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, where it can apparently be 50 degrees in the middle of June. Here are some things I learned:

1. Always bring a sweater to Massachusetts.

2. It is possible to talk about the origins debate with an attitude of respect and humility.Peter Enns, Darrel Falk, and Karl Giberson exemplified this beautifully in their lectures by critiquing the ideas of those with whom they disagree without challenging their opponents’ commitment to their faith. This is the first time I’ve been a part of this conversation in which the “other side” was not reduced to a caricature. It was refreshing and convincing.

3. When a group of scientists laugh about a joke involving protein biosynthesis, it is polite to laugh along…but not too hard, or they’ll know you didn’t actually get it.

4. Young earth creationists and “the new atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.) actually have more in common than one might think, for both groups have arrived at the conclusion that accepting an old earth and evolutionary theory inevitably rules out the existence of God. As a result, one group has essentially made a religion out of naturalism, while the other group has avoided serious consideration of scientific data. The folks at BioLogos are attempting to forge a third way that leaves room for both faith in God and a commitment to intellectual integrity. I’m beginning to think that they are doing some of the most important work in the Christian community.

5. Science professors (particularly at Christian colleges) are desperate to find good ways to counsel students whose faith is challenged by the scientific data they encounter in the classroom. I was really moved by conversations I had with tenderhearted biology teachers struggling to double as theologians and counselors when their students realize there is conflict between what they were taught about creation/evolution growing up in the Church and what the evidence suggests.

6. While it may be impossible to gather scientific data that conclusively shows God’s intervention in the universe, such intervention is evidenced by the fact that Lobsta Land—the suspiciously named seafood restaurant a group of us just happened upon when we were lost in Gloucester, Massachusetts—serves the best food in town. (Special thanks to Justin Topp and Linda Vick from North Park University for letting me tag along.)

7. At the heart of the tension between science and Scripture is what Pete Enns calls “genre misidentification.” Modern Christians tend to impose today’s questions upon an ancient text, demanding that the Old Testament address current scientific paradigms when instead it simply uses the language, terminology, and cosmology of the culture in which it was written. Enns noted that once again fundamentalists and liberals seem to agree when they suggest the Bible cannot be both inspired by God and reflective of typical ancient near Eastern literature. His response is, Why not? Why wouldn’t God choose to communicate in a way that would be accessible and relatable to the people at the time?

8. The question “where do you draw the line?” is not one that only evolutionary creationists have to answer. I am often asked, “If you don’t believe the seven-day creation account is historical and scientific, why should you believe that the resurrection account is historical? Where do you draw the line?” And yet, most of these same people would distance themselves from an interpretation of Scripture that required belief in a solid firmament that holds back the waters (Genesis 1:6-8) or a stationary earth (I Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1). We all face the challenge of drawing a line when we are interpreting an ancient text.

9. “Evolutionary creationists” is a preferred term to “theistic evolutionists.”

10. Both evolutionary creationists and proponents of intelligent design believe that God is the creator of the universe. But proponents of intelligent design seek to show that God’s ongoing presence is scientifically detectable. There seems to be a consensus among the evolutionary creationists that the intelligent design folks have not provided sufficient data to support their claims and are therefore not taken seriously by the scientific community. I probably need to do some more research in this area before I reach any conclusions.

11. There are some great resources out there for helping people harmonize faith and science: The Language of God by Francis Collins (one of my favorite books on the topic), Coming to Peace With Science by Darrel Falk (which several professors told me has been especially helpful for students), Saving Darwin by Karl Giberson (which I am currently loving), and The Lost World of Genesis One (which we will discuss next week on my blog). Also check out the BioLogos FAQ section).

12. Evolutionary creationism does not necessarily add apologetic value to the Christian faith. Just as science doesn’t disprove Christianity, it doesn’t prove Christianity either. As one participant noted, the Apostle Paul faced a somewhat similar conundrum when he wrote, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:22-23). Our best apologetic always has been and always will be a life transformed by the scandalous and subversive work of Jesus Christ.

13. The smartest people are the ones who are humbled by how little they know.

So I’m guessing that one or two of these points might raise additional questions in your mind. Which ones would you like to discuss in future posts? And in which “camp” do you tend to fall—the young earth creationism camp, the intelligent design camp, the evolutionary creationism camp, or the where-are-the-smores-because-this-is-over-my-head camp?


Rachel Held Evans is a self-described "writer, skeptic, and Christ-follower" from Dayton, Tennessee—home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Her first book is a spiritual memoir entitled Evolving in Monkey Town. She enjoys speaking, blogging, traveling, playing poker, and talking theology over coffee.

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Kathryn Applegate - #17753

June 17th 2010

I’m glad there’s still so much interest in randomness!  It’s a pretty central issue, IMHO, which is why I’ve been blogging ad nauseam (sorry!) about it.  Just wanted to point out too that we do have a new FAQ up on this topic: http://biologos.org/questions/chance-and-god/


Kathryn Applegate - #17755

June 17th 2010

Hi Bilbo:

I have a theological objection to ID arguments (not to be confused with id, which I embrace readily).  The Bible is clear that all people have access to the knowledge of God through the created order (what we call “general” revelation; see Rom 1:20; Ps 19).  ID theorists want to say, “Aha!  Now that we know about molecular machines and DNA information content, we can prove (or infer) a Designer.”  I think that’s misleading: the knowledge of God is available everywhere, in all ages, not just to a select few PhDs in the 21st century. 

Another problem, as I see it, is that general revelation isn’t a great apologetic to people whose minds are darkened by idolatry - they need to see Jesus first before God’s action in nature can be appreciated.  We can’t argue people into faith, even though we rightly seek to articulate the reasonable-ness of faith.  Just my 2 cents.


Rich - #17770

June 17th 2010

Bilbo:

I grant you that free will is an important issue, but I don’t want to get into it.  Free will does not become important until the creation of man.  So even if free will does introduce a radical openness into the universe ever afterward, it does not follow that there was such openness beforehand. 

Let’s not overcomplicate things.  God determines create living cells, all species, and man.  That’s the task.  He can bring each species into existence individually by special creative acts, or he can bring them into being gradually, through a process of evolution.  If he does the latter, he can either set up evolution so that it *must* produce man, or he can set up evolution so that it *might* produce man.  Neo-Darwinism, interpreted according to its original intention (and not the TE revision), can allow only the latter.  Orthodox Christianity requires the former.  So a choice must be made.  You can fudge a bit on the neo-Darwinism and suggest that God did some sneaky twigging, or you can fudge a great deal on the orthodoxy and entertain “open” theologies of creation.  Some TEs do one, some do the other.  But most pretend that there is no conflict.  And there I adamantly disagree.


Mike Gene - #17773

June 17th 2010

Hi Bilbo,

I think your point is excellent.  I’d even take it further by noting that it is a simple fact that each one of us here exists because of the random fusion of a particular sperm and egg. 

I also think you can make a very powerful case that of all the virtues humans value, God clearly values our freedom above all.  In thus stands to reason that Creation would reflect this priority given to freedom.


Rich - #17774

June 17th 2010

John:

I would guess that many neo-Darwinians, especially the TEs (the atheists can be more reckless) would “play it safe” and speak of “randomness” in a technical scientific sense, as pertaining to certain scientific tools of measurement, and would avoid making any statement on whether the mutations are “really random” or “pure chance” or anything like that.  They would argue that for their theoretical purposes, they don’t have to settle such metaphysical questions.  But this caution is newfound, and is largely connected with legal proceedings in the USA.  Ken Miller’s textbook originally spoke of “unguided” changes until he altered it, and some of the official statements of scientific organizations in the USA spoke of “unguided” mutations and the like; those too were recently changed.  But this was to avoid the countercharge by YEC and ID people that Darwinism was being religious or metaphysical and violating the Constitution.  Long before any of this, when I was a kid, popular science books on evolution written by Ph.D.s did not hesitate to speak of randomness, chance, etc. as if they were talking about the reality of nature, not merely some methodological convenience of scientists.


Rich - #17775

June 17th 2010

Regarding Mike Gene’s statement (17773):

He and I have been over this on this site before.  I don’t agree with his arguments or his conclusions, or with the Christian theology that underlies them, and on other threads have given very detailed reasons why—not all of which he has replied to.

Nonetheless, I would say that Mike Gene has come closer than any other human being (and far, far closer than any of the famous TEs) to convincing me that it just *might* be possible to reconcile pure neo-Darwinism with orthodox Christian theology.  Whereas all the other TEs come up with arguments that to my mind are just sophistry concealing blatant contradictions or muddy thinking, Mike has a radically different approach.  So if someone wants an argument that just might be able to justify baptizing Darwin, Mike’s your guy.

He can expound in detail if he wishes.  I’ll sit this one out, as he knows my views, and doubtless can direct others to the threads expressing mine.


Rich - #17777

June 17th 2010

Kathryn:

Yes, the general knowledge of God is available to everyone, and *shouldn’t* require complex arguments about the flagellum etc.  I agree with your reading of the Bible.  (And so, by the way, does just about every ID person known to me, and I know quite a few of them.)  But you are writing as if Descartes, Hobbes, Hume, Darwin, Huxley, Russell, Gaylord Simpson, Sagan, Gould, Dawkins, and a whole host of other people never existed, and never posed the challenge to the sort of popular design argument that St. Paul is making.  The thrust of that current of modern thought is that the impressions recorded in Romans and Psalm 19 are *unreliable*.  Just as the earth only *appears* flat, so there is only *apparent* design.  (See the opening of *The Blind Watchmaker*.)  What ID does is to take the same science used by these guys and turn it against them, by showing that the microscopic world reveals not less, but even *more* integrated complexity than St. Paul or the Psalmist ever imagined.  This is a valuable point for ID to make.

(continued)


Rich - #17781

June 17th 2010

Kathryn (continued):

Second, you mustn’t generalize from your own religious experience to that of others.  What may have brought *you* to belief might be utterly unsuccessful with someone else.  I have heard remarks very much like yours before, from other TEs.  They always ring false to my experience.  I was brought up among secular middle-class people—bright, talented, educated, popular, successful, moral, community-minded, optimistic, satisfied with their lives.  Such people generally recoil from talk of the Bible or Jesus, but they respect science, reason, mathematics, logical argument, etc.  Someone like Behe is less threatening to them than someone like Collins or Lamoureux, because the scientific arguments are not tied to a piety which as yet is alien to them.  For people like that, the pathway through natural theology to revealed theology is much more likely to be successful.  In my own case, it was ID-like arguments (albeit pre-ID) which brought me around from lazy agnosticism to theism, allowing *then* for a reconsideration of my childhood Christianity.  I would never recommend *Perspectives on an Evolving Creation* to my agnostic/atheistic friends or relatives; I *would* recommend Behe or Denton.


Kathryn Applegate - #17784

June 17th 2010

Hi Rich,

I shouldn’t have implied that ID arguments couldn’t be convincing to an unbeliever; God works through all kinds of means, and I do know at least one person who came to faith by first looking at the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.”

As to your earlier point, I’m not unaware of the challenges made by Descartes et al. (though as a biologist I’m woefully under-read in their original works).  Actually, I think they make some valuable points (as do ID theorists) that should spur us on to think more deeply about what it looks like for God to be designing.  Science, to me, is a powerful (but limited) way of characterizing God’s regular means of working within Creation, but I recognize that this posture comes from my precommitment to believe in him (via the free gift of faith) rather than an inference from my own scientific study of the world.


C Ford - #17786

June 17th 2010

Great summary. I particularly liked points 4 and 10. The battle between ID folks and theistic evolutionists saddens me immensely. Being trained as a scientist, I favor an evolutionary perspective. But the overarching goal of Christians is to point others towards Christ, and the best way to do this for the scientific community is to show them respect by addressing how evolution and faith are compatible.  I don’t know much about ID, maybe they are serving a purpose, but it saddens me that they have equated evolution with atheism and critiqued Francis Collins.  Surely there must be a better way, as I sincerely want to respect the ID folks in spite of my differences.

This brings me to your point 5.  I agree it is important to help students at Christian colleges retain their faith upon learning evolution, but it is just as important to reach out to students and faculty and non-Christian colleges…as well as the Campus Ministry folks that they might come to for advice.


John VanZwieten - #17790

June 17th 2010

Kathryn,

I love your posts on randomness!  I always learn good stuff from them.  Please keep them up even now that there is a FAQ entry


Rachel H. Evans - #17800

June 17th 2010

On randomness: Kathryn has written several posts on this subject which are pretty easy to understand, even for laypeople. Just search for “randomness” here on the BIoLogos site…or check out the new Q&A on the subject: http://biologos.org/questions/chance-and-god

I’ve had several friends ask me about this issue, and was relieved to find manageable resources about it.


Bilbo - #17801

June 17th 2010

Hi Kathryn,

I’m looking forward to reading the new FAQ.  As to your theological objection, I might be mistaken, but I think apparent design in living organisms was taken as evidence, by most people, of a Designer for most of human history.  I imagine that only since Darwin has it become popular to believe that the apparent design isn’t real design.  If so, then ID is merely trying to correct an aberration in history.

As to your second point, yes people come to faith for all sorts of reasons, and ID may or may not help.  For example, Fred Hoyle, whom I consider to be the father of modern ID, as far as I know never came to faith in God.  So I don’t advocate ID as a great evangelistic tool.  I just happen to think that there is very good evidence for it.


Bilbo - #17804

June 17th 2010

Hi Mike,

I can’t take credit for the argument, since I got it from Ken Miller.  I would urge caution in how far we should believe God “must” allow freedom to nature.  We humans push nature around and make her do things every time we exercise our will.  Who are we to say that God cannot do likewise?


Bilbo - #17807

June 17th 2010

Hi Rich,

Miller’s argument from free will does not muddy the waters, it clarifies them.  You do not know how much randomness there is in nature.  It is at least logically possible that all of it is.  We can be sure that God accomplishes His purposes.  We can’t be sure how.  Give up your theological objection to neo-Darwinism.  It’s dead in the water.


R Hampton - #17864

June 17th 2010

Rich,

“True randomness” can not limit God if he is omniscient and omnipotent. Aquinas summarized it thusly (see previous clip from Summa Theologica):

So, things in potentiality are known by God, although they are not in act. [existing]

Randomness is a set of outcomes unknown to beings/material entities within the universe, like the flip of a coin. How one particular possibility becomes reality where others do not, we can not know without a full accounting of every variable involved. But God’s knowledge of this is perfect, and was so even before Creation existed. So God must have created the concept of randomness (possibility) as well as each and every instance of randomness that occurred and will occur.

Think about that—to know completely each and every instance of “true randomness” and its impact upon everything else until the end of time would take an intellect of unimaginable power. God.


Rich - #17866

June 17th 2010

R Hampton:

You don’t understand Aquinas.  “Potentiality” is a technical term in his system, and doesn’t mean “possibility” in the modern, statistical sense.  You need to understand Aristotle before you can understand Aquinas.  Spend some time reading the Categories and the Physics, then read the opening parts of the Summa in light of those. 

“True randomness”, if it could exist, *would* limit God.  That is why I don’t believe that true randomness exists.  But Darwin’s God is not the Biblical God, or the God of Christian theology.  His God does not appear to determine evolutionary outcomes in advance.  For the Christian God, God’s will cannot be thwarted in even the tiniest detail, and, at least up to the creation of man, *everything* is determined in advance.  (Once free will enters the picture, we have new problems, and debates like Calvinism vs. Arminianism then come into play.)


unapologetic catholic - #17867

June 17th 2010

I must agree partially with Rich and partially with Bilbo.  Bilbo is corect that Miller’s hypothesis treats God’s potential interventions at the quantum level as “non-random.  Miller is arguing that God can intervene a the quantum level non-randomly in a way that appears random to humans.  If tha tis true then our mathematics is wrong.  Rich is correct that this is muddy thinking.

It is not essential to modern evolutionary theory that teleology is absent and it does not appear to be essential to Christianity that God cannot work through actual randomness, as He often apparently does.  I agree we do not knwo how much randomness there is in nature, nor is it recognized how randomness is constrained by evolution.

I agree with this statement except to usbstitute “doess allow” for “can only allow:”

“Neo-Darwinism, interpreted according to its original intention (and not the TE revision), can allow only the latter [Man]. 

I disagree with this one.:

Orthodox Christianity requires the former.

When we talk about man made in the Image of God, I see no reason to conclude that the creature that God intended to be in His image had to be a primate.  It did work out that way but there’s no theological reason why it had to.


Rich - #17868

June 17th 2010

Bilbo:

Here is where a philosopher has an advantage over Miller.  The philosopher realizes that “randomness” is not a *fact*, but an *interpretation*.  Miller’s arguments about randomness at the quantum level follow the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum physics, which, as its name suggests, is an *interpretation* of quantum phenomena.  True, it is the majority interpretation, but not the only consistent interpretation, as physicist John Polkinghorne (see his essay in the Ruse/Dembski collection) acknowledges.  And even granting the Copenhagen interpretation, Miller’s application of quantum indeterminacy (even disregarding the fact that Miller is a cell biologist, not a physicist), is philosophically and theologically dubious, to put it as charitably as possible. 

Be careful what you assume about people.  I went to university on a science scholarship, and I have four university math courses, including one in Probability Theory.  I also have a doctorate in religion and science and two well-reviewed academic books on science and creation doctrine.  So I’ve been thinking at a high level about “randomness” and “chance” in their relations to God and Creation for decades now.  That puts me well ahead of Miller.


Rich - #17869

June 18th 2010

Bilbo:

We can’t be sure how God accomplishes his purposes, but we can be sure that he accomplishes them in a non-self-contradictory manner.  We can be sure that if he wants to create something through a law-bound process of evolution, without ever intervening (a dogma which I find questionable, but which I adopt here for the sake of argument, to concede the maximum to TEs who are dead set against intervention), he cannot admit non-law-bound events into the sequence.  Either quantum events are law-bound or they aren’t.  If they are law-bound, their action is entirely predictable to God; if they aren’t, God will have to intervene to counteract their effects, to prevent the evolutionary process from being thrown off.  So you can’t maintain *real* quantum indeterminacy (having macroscopic effects) plus *a determinate outcome*, plus *non-intervention*.  One of the three has to give.  That’s a simple logical inference.  So which will Miller surrender?


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