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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Rich - #17872

June 18th 2010

U.C. (17867):

Thanks for granting me a point or two.  I now believe in miracles. 

In this new spirit of reciprocity and dialogue, I will grant you that “in the image of God” is central, rather than a particular primate body.  So you can substitute “God’s image-bearer” for “man” wherever you wish.  The main outline of my argument is unaffected.  What I was saying was that orthodox Christianity describes God as omnipotent and omniscient and insists that his will and providence can never be thwarted.  No *truly random* event, at least relevant to the chain of evolutionary causation, will be allowed.  (Maybe a subatomic particle could “blip” into existence in some far corner of the universe, without affecting evolution on earth, but we aren’t talking about that.)  The chain of events generating God’s image-bearer must be entirely under God’s control, via direct, hands-on manipulation and/or through the operation of inflexible natural laws which God himself decreed.  Any other possibility puts God out of control of at least some events that occur in the evolutionary process, which violates any version of orthodox creation doctrine.  God was never out of control, not for a single quantum event, not for a nanosecond.


Rich - #17874

June 18th 2010

C Ford:

I agree with you that the battle between TE/EC and ID people is saddening.  They should be forming a common front against Dawkins etc. 

Dialogically, the fault lies with both camps:  positions have been criticized before they have been adequately studied; extreme statements have been made; tempers have been lost; insults and accusations of heretical religion have been uttered; political alliances and legal tactics have taken priority over the pure academic love of the truth.  I don’t exempt “my” side (inasmuch as I have a side) from criticism on points such as this.

But neither should TEs exempt their side.  Francis Collins (whom I admire as a scientist) has on several occasions, albeit politely, “gone after” ID in an unfair way, misrepresenting its thesis and arguments, so even his hands are not clean.  And Biologos refuses to correct its misrepresentations of ID on the “Leading Figures” page, so its hands are not clean.

An important correction to one statement:  ID does *not* equate evolution with atheism.  Many ID supporters, including the Catholic Michael Behe, are evolutionists.  The only way of knowing what ID really says is to read what its proponents say, not what others say about it.


unapologetic catholic - #17882

June 18th 2010

Another miracle:

” The main outline of my argument is unaffected.  What I was saying was that orthodox Christianity describes God as omnipotent and omniscient and insists that his will and providence can never be thwarted.  No *truly random* event, at least relevant to the chain of evolutionary causation, will be allowed…  God was never out of control, not for a single quantum event, not for a nanosecond.

No disagreement.

But I expect disagreement with this—Nothign you said is inconsistent with evolution.  Just as the weather appears to be both random and is never out of God’s control, bilogical evolution also appears random and never outside God’s control. 

I do not equate randomness to be “outside God’s control in any way.  The vast amounts of randomness all about us throughout the universe is stunning, yet the heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims His handiwork.


Rich - #17883

June 18th 2010

U.C.:

“Nothing you said is inconsistent with evolution.”

Agreed.  I’ve never here or anywhere argued against “evolution”.  And on various threads on Biologos I’ve distinguished, oh, about five thousand times now, between “evolution” as a *process* and “neo-Darwinian mechanisms” as an *explanation* for the process.  But only a few people seem to be listening.

As for your other point, there’s lots of “statistical randomness” in nature, but I don’t believe there is any *true randomness*, by which I mean “pure chance”, anywhere in nature, not even at the subatomic level.  (That’s right, *another* scientific heresy of mine—not to accept the “Copenhagen school”.  But I’ll fight that battle on a proper physics-and-philosophy site, not here, so if anyone tries to draw me into it, I simply won’t reply.)


penman - #17886

June 18th 2010

I think Rich is making some very important points here. There is a pretty robust doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the Bible. (“Being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will…” Eph.1:11). Whatever randomness may exist on the created level, however it’s defined, it has to be compatible - even if we can’t see how - with God’s all-embracing purpose & providence, as in Eph.1:11 etc. God doesn’t just watch things happening. I wouldn’t care to specify mechanisms, or the nature of creator-created interaction; but I suggest we’ll be abandoning some essentials of biblical theology, & orthodox historical theology, if we fail to maintain that God has deliberately created precisely such a universe as will result in precisely what we see. Theodicy takes a bad turn, I think, if we try to “absolve” God by saying He couldn’t control or didn’t foresee the outcome. Doesn’t sound much like the book of Job…


Argon - #17904

June 18th 2010

Free will vs. a clockwork universe is a perpetual debate.


Bilbo - #17919

June 18th 2010

UC: “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.

The problem is that Miller gives two arguments in his chapter.  The first is the one you are referring to, where Miller starts out by saying that God could intervene undetectably at the quantum level.  I’m referring to his second argument, where he compares God allowing randomness the same way he allows free will.


Bilbo - #17922

June 18th 2010

Rich:  “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.

Congratulations.  This means you should be able to understand the following illustration.  Let’s imagine that we are shooting craps with God and we are trying to decide if God is cheating—causing the dice to come up in a certain way—or if He is allowing the natural course of events to occur.  He throws a six.  Now as long as He doesn’t throw a seven, he can keep rolling.  If He throws a six again, he wins.  So after throwing a four and a three, He throws another six and wins.  So far, it doesn’t look like God is cheating.  But two hours later, God is still winning.  Never throwing the same number more than once in a row, but always throwing it again before He throws a seven.  Some of us start to get angry and demand our money back, claiming that God is cheating. 

Cont.


Bilbo - #17927

June 18th 2010

Can we know for sure if God is cheating?  If we know the probability of His continuing to win, given the number of throws He’s made, then yes, we can know.  If it turns out that it exceeds all reasonable probability calculations, we can reasonably assume that God has cheated.

So now back to the creation of life.  Can we know that God has cheated, or has everything happened according to quantum physics (Copenhagen interpretation).

Let’s say we’re not sure how improbable the creation of life is.  In that case, we do not know if things happened randomly, or if God intervened, or if God set it up initially, like a pattern of dominoes. 

In that case, THERE IS NO WAY WE CAN RULE OUT GOD ALLOWING NATURAL RANDOM PROCESSES TO BRING ABOUT THE CREATION OF LIFE.  THEREFORE, THERE IS NO VALID THEOLOGICAL OBJECTION TO GOD ALLOWING THE RANDOMNESS OF NATURE TO BRING ABOUT LIFE.  Now let’s say that we also don’t know what the probability is of human beings coming about through natural random processes.  What then?  THE SAME CONCLUSION..

I hope that wasn’t too confusing for you.  I only have a BA in philosophy and no books, but I’ll try to think of something.


Gregory - #17931

June 18th 2010

Thanks for this post, Rachel! Good to learn from one of the participants about their experience at the Conference. I’m glad to included some humour & communication issues as well.

My question is re: how the concept of ‘biologos’ was treated at the Conference. Was ‘biologos’ presented as a conceptual alternative, i.e. as a preferred linguistic term (to other possible terms)? Or was it rather BioLogos Foundation contributing a new pathway of discussion that was mainly highlighted?

I’m sensitive to both your 8. & 9.

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

Was it discussed how one can consider themself an EC & a promoter of the meaning of ‘biologos’? What I mean is, as has been discussed here before, the active verb sounds strange in biologos, so perhaps that is why ‘evolution’ is still included in the EC label. Saying that God ‘biologosed’ the world & continues to ‘biologos’ (in) it might be difficult to promote.

Thanks also to Pete for clarifying: “ID was almost a complete non-issue at the conference, from both the presenters and the attendees.”

I’d certainly caution about “the synthesis of Christian faith and (non-physical) evolution”.


unapologeti catholic - #17933

June 18th 2010

“I’m referring to his second argument, where he compares God allowing randomness the same way he allows free will.”

Your’re right and that one I agree with.  I just don’t think that God’s allowign randomness can be detectabel by science yet.

Thanks.


Rich - #17938

June 18th 2010

Bilbo (17919):

You point out that Miller gives two completely different arguments in one chapter.  This is the sort of thing I’m talking about when I suggest that Miller is not a very good philosopher.  Either one of those arguments might be coherent in itself, but by leaving the reader with the impression that he accepts both simultaneously, wihtout interrelating them, Miller gives the impression of being badly confused.  A philosopher would have taken the time to sort out those two arguments more carefully and would have been clearer about whether or not they were compatible and how he stood in relation to each of them.  But Miller presents them as if they were two different arguments that he stumbled across while mall-shopping, and that he rather likes both of them, as they both can be used to sustain his preferred conclusions about methodological naturalism and Darwinian processes.


Dennis Venema - #17939

June 18th 2010

Rich are you willing to point us to your books? I’d be interested.


Rich - #17940

June 18th 2010

Bilbo:

Congratulations on your studies in philosophy.  What is needed in these debates, on both the ID and TE side, is much more philosophy. 

Whether I should be embarrassed to say this or not, I don’t know, but I’ve never played craps and don’t even know the rules, so your example is not the best one for me.  I would have preferred that you used one of Bill Dembski’s examples from *No Free Lunch*, about coin flips or roulette wheels or something that I can easily understand without having to learn a new game.

I’m not persuaded by your general line of argument.  For an event to be *truly random*, as I’m using the word, it has to occur by “pure chance”, and ultimately this must mean “without sufficient natural cause”.  Thus, certain physicists assure us that there is *no natural law* governing certain events at the level of the electron.  I believe that those physicists have mistaken our inability to discern law at that level for an absence of law at that level, i.e., I believe they have illegitimately drawn a metaphysical conclusion from epistemological considerations.  (continued)


Rich - #17941

June 18th 2010

Bilbo (continued):

Let’s take a concrete example.  Suppose that Mutation A, which alters something significant in the notochord of some primitive chordate, was necessary for true vertebrates to come into being.  Now Mutation A is either completely explicable in terms of physical antecedents, through natural laws (even if the pathway of previous physical events is far too complicated for human science to reconstruct, so that it is *apparently random*), or Mutation A was caused by a “quantum blip” of some sort, whereby a chemical alteration in the genome occurred because a genuinely non-law-bound change at the subatomic level just “happened” (which supposedly is possible according to quantum physics).  If it’s the first, God can easily be in control, since he can control all chains of causation from the Big Bang forward, by setting up the initial conditions exactly.  But if it’s the second, then what?  Either God controls the “collapse of the wave packet” (in the incomprehensible jargon of the physicists), or no one does.  If God controls it, then we have design in disguise, and complete theological orthodoxy.  If he doesn’t, then evolution is out of his control, and we are denying God’s omnipotence.  Take your pick.


R Hampton - #17944

June 18th 2010

Thus, certain physicists assure us that there is *no natural law* governing certain events at the level of the electron.

Rich,
They can be absolutely correct and still that does not limit God. Scientists and the electrons they study are confined to this universe and can only act (and understand its actions) contingent to the universe’s nature. Not so for God who has perfect knowledge of *truly random* events.  That true randomness exists is prima facie evidence that God created it to be so. Thus God understands randomness without error or ignorance - God knows of every possibility and every outcome and “designed” accordingly. Think of it this way; entropy is truly real in this universe, so given enough time everything will degrade. Not so for God who is perfect.


Rich - #17945

June 18th 2010

Dennis:

I’d love to point you to my books, but as an ID proponent and Darwin critic, I’m vulnerable to economic reprisal in the area where I make my living if my identity is known here, especially given the number of clearly hostile commenters writing under pseudonyms.  I wouldn’t care if I were a tenured university faculty member; I’d take the heat of all critics.  But I’ve already been deprived of my academic career for reasons analogous (in a non-biological field) to those which denied astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez the career he richly deserved at Iowa State, and I can’t endanger the much lower income I now have to live on by revealing myself to the world.  If you promise complete confidentiality, I might consider relaying the information to you through your school.


Rich - #17947

June 18th 2010

R Hampton:

You still don’t see that for *orthodox* Christian creation doctrine, God cannot merely foresee or foreknow all quantum events.  He is not just a cosmic spectator.  He is the ultimate cause of *all* that happens, including every last quantum event.  For him there is *no* randomness, not in *any* sense.  He cannot “use” randomness to create anything, because “randomness” (in the absolute sense) and “God” (in the orthodox Christian sense) are logically incompatible terms.  He can use atomic or genetic events which, from a human point of view, *look* random, and have to be *mathematically handled* as if they were the product of pure “chance”.  But he’s in control of every one of those events at every moment, either through direct, hands-on intervention, or through natural laws which he has ordained.  There are no surprises for God. 

Of course, if you want to champion an unorthodox, “open” theism, in which God *can* be surprised, that’s another kettle of fish.  But I’ve been speaking of historic Christianity, in its main forms (Augustinian, Thomistic, Calvinist, etc.).


Dennis Venema - #17957

June 18th 2010

Hi Rich,

I understand fully. Frankly, I’d rather not know, simply because I would be afraid of unintentionally leaking the information due to forgetfulness or carelessness.


Bilbo - #17961

June 18th 2010

Rich,

Let’s assume the Copenhagen interpretation is correct, and Mutation A happens completely randomly.  God is only not in control if He (1) didn’t want Mutation A to happen, and (2) He had no means to stop it.  Neither of those conditions is entailed by the proposition that Mutation A happened completely randomly.


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