In November 2010, a small group of leading pastors, scholars, scientists, public intellectuals, and informed laypersons gathered in New York City to consider several pressing questions at the interface of science and faith. This was the second Theology of Celebration BioLogos Workshop (see details about the 2009 workshop). Three papers, each addressing a different question, provided the framework for our discussions at the meeting. These were presented by Faraday Institute Director Denis Alexander, MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson, and Oxford theoretical biophysicist Ard Louis. Today we begin a series taken from Louis' paper (PDF). In addition to this blog, be sure to also check out the summary statement derived from the 2010 NYC Workshop.
Many barriers to the acceptance of the BioLogos model by evangelical Christians arise from popular misconceptions about the nature of science and its relationship to God's action in our world. These misconceptions mirror those held by the general public (and are regularly exploited by the new atheists).
For example, difficulties result from conflating “mechanism” and “meaning”. Thus claims that the biological complexity around us arose through regular physical processes often smell like deism or even atheism to the average person in our pews. A second set of issues clusters around popular views of natural theology where the waters are further muddied by the misuse of value-laden metaphoric language (e.g. “random” and “selfish gene”) to describe biological evolution. Finally, difficulties also arise from questions of authority: Who can a Christian trust to judge the reliability and implications of new scientific findings?
This essay will argue that to overcome these obstacles BioLogos should:
- Draw on the robust biblical theme that God sustains the world and the rich tradition of theological reflection on the difference between God’s regular and miraculous acts.
- Carefully delineate the limits of natural theology, and develop a more nuanced set of metaphors to describe the emergence of biological complexity.
- Sensitively mediate between the community of Christian academic scientists, the Christian laity and the general public.
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being
-- Sir Isaac Newton. "Principia Mathematica" (1687)
Perhaps the most spectacular early success of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation was its natural explanation for Johannes Kepler’s observation that the planets orbit the sun in elliptical orbits. But upon further reflection, some nagging problems emerge. The perfect elliptical orbits are only valid for an isolated planet orbiting around the sun. Gravity works on all objects, and so the other planets perturb the motion of the Earth, potentially leading to its ejection from the solar system. This problem vexed Sir Isaac, who postulated that God occasionally “reformed” the planets, perhaps by sending through a comet with just the right trajectory.
In a famous exchange of letters, cut short only by his death in 1716, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, took Sir Isaac to task for his view. He objected that:
if God had to remedy the defects of His creation, this was surely to demean his craftsmanship.1
And moreover that:
“..when God works miracles, he does it not to meet the needs of nature but the needs of grace. Anyone who thinks differently must have a very mean notion of the wisdom and power of God.2
In other words, the regular sustaining activity of God, as evidenced by natural laws, should be sufficient to explain the regular behavior of the solar system, without the need for additional ad-hoc interventions. Making it right the first time is more glorious than having to fix it later. Moreover, when God deviates from his regular sustaining activity to perform miracles, he does so for soteriological reasons, not to repair nature.
When I present this story to an evangelical Christian audience, most side with Leibniz: they agree that it is indeed more glorious if God doesn’t need to occasionally reform the planets. A good many will grant me that Leibniz’s point on miracles is consistent with the Bible. But if I try to push the analogy further and suggest that it could be more glorious for God to create the rich biological diversity we observe around us through a continuous evolutionary process, rather than by episodic “intervention”, my audience is typically much more skeptical. And I have some sympathy for their apprehension. Living beings impinge more closely on theology than planets do.
This response to the Leibniz-Newton exchange encapsulates many of the main themes of this essay. While theological concerns about evolution and how it relates to the fall and Adam are tremendously important, I will argue that other factors also play a key role in the resistance of many Christians towards evolutionary science. Like the proverbial iceberg, these issues lie submerged beneath the surface and will sink discussions about evolution unless they are recognized.
The first cluster of submerged issues surrounds the nature of science and God’s action in the world. In popular culture, a scientific explanation of the physical mechanisms by which a process occurs is often privileged as the primary source of meaning and purpose — e.g. “we used to think that God created the world, but now we know that it was the Big Bang”.3 Furthermore, even among Christians, the influence of modern concepts like a semi-independent Nature lead to the expectation that God mainly acts by supernatural intervention in the physical world. Thus the worry arises that if a comprehensive scientific account of a process can be obtained, God’s power and presence are diminished.
The second cluster of issues arises from popular views of natural theology. Despite warnings from great thinkers such as Pascal, Newman and Barth4, the idea that an unbiased observer should be able to use science to find unambiguous evidence for God’s existence is remarkably resilient among Christians. Furthermore, many attempts at natural theology rely heavily on value-laden metaphors that come from popularizations of science. This cuts both ways. On the one hand Archdeacon Paley saw the hand of God in the intricate watch-like “contrivances of nature”5, while on the other hand Richard Dawkins sees a pitiless and indifferent “blind watchmaker”6 in what he believes are the wasteful and purposeless processes of evolution. Although their conclusions couldn’t be more different, both are engaging in a natural theology based on similar rationalistic assumptions.
It would greatly facilitate the in-house Christian conversation about evolution if we could loosen the grip of these modernist versions of natural theology. Nevertheless, metaphors do matter. I think that is why my audiences are reasonably happy with a God who places the planets in stable orbits without further intervention, while they are much less comfortable with a God who uses evolution, for which popular descriptions use morally loaded words like chance, random, purposeless and survival of the fittest. I will argue that these popular metaphors may not be the best ways to describe the richness of current evolutionary theory.
The final cluster of issues concerns the critical problem of trust and the world of higher learning. How Christians should relate to the full spectrum of ideas surrounding modern biological evolution is a complex question that needs expert input from geologists, chemists, biologists, philosophers, historians, theologians and perhaps even physicists. Should Christians rely on individuals they trust or can these kinds of questions only be addressed by communities of scholars? Here I am heavily influenced by Mark Noll’s prophetic book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Eerdmans (1994). He points out that although Evangelicals exhibit an extraordinary range of virtues, careful engagement with the intellectual world is not usually one of them. This is curious because modern Evangelicals descend from “leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind.”
If Evangelicals are the ones who insist most aggressively that they believe in sola scriptura, and if Evangelicals are the ones who assert most vigorously the transforming work of Jesus Christ, then it is reasonable to hope that what the Scriptures teach about the origin of creation in Christ, the sustaining of all things in Christ, and the dignity of all creation in Christ-about, in other words, the subjects of learning -- will be a spur for Evangelicals to a deeper and richer intellectual life: "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:15-17)."7
"In him all things hold together." How can BioLogos help our brothers and sisters in Christ to explore how this confession relates to what science has discovered about the origins of the biological complexity we see around us?
1. 1. John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion, CUP, Cambridge (1991), p147.
2. From letter 1 point 4 (Nov 1715). The full correspondence can be found online. As always in history, the whole story is more complex (and interesting) than the bits I highlight here.
3. For another example: :“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from [the structured vacuum of modern physics]. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist” -- The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (Bantan 2010).
4. Alister E. McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, Wiley-Blackwell, (2008)
5. William Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802)
6. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Norton (1986)
7. Mark Noll, “The Evangelical Mind Today.” First Things (October 2004)