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Creation, Evolution, and the Over-Active Imagination, Part 2

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May 13, 2014 Tags: Design, Evolution & Christian Faith project, Science & Worldviews, Worship & Arts
Creation, Evolution, and the Over-Active Imagination, Part 2

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

Note: Today’s blog post was first published on the IMAGE project’s ‘Good Letters’ blog, and arose out of conversations and experiences with participants of the Whidby Island Colloquy, funded by the BioLogos Evolution and Christian Faith grant program. Today’s post is continued from Part 1 yesterday.

In yesterday’s post I had to skip over a lot of detail and nuance, but only to make what I hope is a fair point: that behind much of the polemics of the evolutionism controversy lies an imagination that has got out of hand. The problem is not with the imaginative drive to find and construct patterns, which help us make sense of things, or the fact it often works with metaphors. The difficulties start when the imagination gets over-confident too quickly, ending up with patterns that extend beyond their proper use, and thus distort our view of reality.

How can artists of Christian faith help us here? At the very least, artists can help us imagine the universe as the creation of the God of Jesus Christ.

The Christian imagination is, or should be, in the business of discovery, disclosure—just as it constructs its visions, metaphorical or otherwise. (Just think of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.) It cannot indulge in undisciplined fantasizing, only in disciplined truthfulness to the vision of the cosmos disclosed in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In this light, with limited space, I close with four reflections.

First, artists need to be invited to explore the distinctive depths of the Christian tradition, and not settle for a shallow theology which stifles the magnificent vista which biblical faith makes possible.

So, for example, to say that God created all things out of nothing is not to claim God made everything “at a point in time”; it’s to say the entire universe (including time) depends on God at every point for its existence. God is not another cause on a time line; God is the one who creates time. A Christian account of creation is not a rival to a scientific account—for how could science ever establish the existence of the One on whom everything depends?

Science cannot account for the existence of the universe, nor for the fact that it is ordered—the Christian faith can indeed give an account of these things. In short, the Christian account of creation is both subtle and vast in its implications, and artists ought not to be content with anything less.

Second, artists can help remind us that Scripture is awash with “artistic” genres—myth, parable, narrative, extended metaphors, drama, and so on.  To make that point with students I often point to Isaiah 40-55, where the prophet longs to jerk the imaginations of the exiled Jews in Babylon out of their apathy. He does not deliver a lecture on international relations; he offers streams of potent metaphors—law courts, rivers, plants breaking through dry earth, a mother in labor. That is how the Jews’ vibrant hope will be restored.

Third, artists can help rescue us from the bleak wilderness of “reductionism.” The creationist-evolutionist debate is bewitched by reductionism, the idea that one type of explanation can account for everything we encounter. So, for example, the creationist wants to shrink the notion of “truth” to what can be encapsulated in a certain kind of historical statement; the evolutionist (or at least one type of evolutionist) wants to explain the whole of human life in terms of genetic variation.

This kind of move may appeal to our sense of control—once we have the key to everything, we can control the world. This is the imagination run wild. But reductionism leads to a withered life. The arts, by their very nature are multiply allusive (as Calvin Seerveld puts it), always suggesting more than can be perceived at one level. The arts remind us that the world always exceeds our grasp, always eludes our control, that it is an arena of suggestiveness, in which, as Jacques Maritain said, things “give more than they have.”

The arts can’t prove reductionism is wrong, but the artist can bear witness to a world in which one type of explanation is never enough. Indeed, in this light, there are some respects in which creationists and evolutionists need each other; at their best they can prevent each other from succumbing to reductionism.

Fourth, artists can testify to the world’s good future. The problem with some forms of evolutionary theory is that when they get over-inflated by the imagination, they encourage a kind of optimism that suggests the world is progressively improving. Applied to the human sphere, humankind is thought to be on a steady march of moral betterment. Fortunately, this type of thinking is less popular than it used to be. Even so, many of us are slow to face up to the wider picture that the sciences do indeed unfold for us—that the cosmos is heading inexorably and predictably towards dissolution. In purely physical terms, the future is dark and hopeless.

The Christian hope, however, is not rooted in evolutionary optimism. It is grounded in God’s raising of Jesus from the dead, itself a promise of re-creation, a re-making of the cosmos (Rev. 21). Moreover, the claim is that foretastes of this new creation are possible here and now. Artists can help us counteract the facile optimism of the undisciplined, over-active imagination with evocations of what the dying and rising of Jesus actually promises for the future.

I came across a remarkable example of this the other day in a TV documentary about Auschwitz, a place devoid of all newness and creativity, flat with a grey sameness and horrific predictability. The virtuoso Maxim Vengerov played the entire Chaconne from J. S. Bach’s D Minor Partita for solo violin while walking around the death camp.

Significantly, some think Bach wrote this piece in the wake of the death of his wife. It is, in effect, a breath-taking musical protest against death—over sixty variations on one simple bass line and a set of chords; each variation is full of the unforeseen, alive with newness, and at the same time directly engaging dissonance. Into this site of mass annihilation, comes music which demonstrates an almost infinite possibility, one that is gloriously unpredictable.

Newness from beyond. A sonic preview of a world to come.

Jeremy Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke University, North Carolina, and Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge. He is a professionally trained musician, and has taught widely in the UK, USA and South Africa.

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Eddie - #85408

May 13th 2014

Thanks again, Jeremy.  I think that your second, third, and fourth points are all useful, and I certainly think that the artist’s way of looking at religious truth has been underrated in popular Christian discussion.  I suspect that it is the iconoclasm and the overemphasis on the verbal that is so characteristic of Protestantism, especially in America, that is responsible for this underrating.  The defects of a word-oriented, concept-oriented, argument-oriented Protestantism became even more clear to me the last time I visited Europe and stood in its great churches and cathedrals, listening to the music and beholding the art.  In comparison, the white, boxy, homely church (which is the spiritual matrix of so much of American evangelical Protesantism, whether Wesleyan or Calvinist) represents a contraction of spiritual vision.

I would make one modification regarding your first point.  You wrote:

“So, for example, to say that God created all things out of nothing is not to claim God made everything “at a point in time”; it’s to say the entire universe (including time) depends on God at every point for its existence. God is not another cause on a time line; God is the one who creates time. A Christian account of creation is not a rival to a scientific account—for how could science ever establish the existence of the One on whom everything depends?”

Agreed that “at a point in time” is a misleading expression, for reasons well-known to those who have read Augustine and Boethius; nonetheless, your first sentence, as worded, gives, or could give, a misleading impression of what the Christian tradition has actually claimed.  It *sounds* as if you are saying that the Christian doctrine of creation is not really about the *origin* of the world but only about its *dependence on God*.  But in fact creation doctrine has always been about more than just the world’s dependence on God; it has also been about the origin of the world.  

I’m not talking here about literal interpretation of Genesis 1, but it is important to establish that Christians have always believed that there was a “time” (speaking inaccurately) when the world was not, when God was alone, himself all in all, and that the world is a contingent reality of a certain duration which will (at least in its current form) certainly pass away.  In that sense, creation doctrine is certainly committed to an origin of the world “in time” (allowing for the inevitable inaccuracy of expression in such matters).  It is not merely a doctrine of dependence, or ongoing sustenance, etc.  

Aquinas makes this clear in one of his discussions.  He notes that, logically speaking, the world could be coeternal with God; God could will that the world should always coexist with him.  But, Aquinas says, while that is logically possible, Scripture indicates otherwise—there was a time when the world was not; God brought the world into existence.  So it is clear, for Aquinas (and he is following Augustine and the other Fathers in this) that creation doctrine is decisively about a physical origin, not merely about dependence (though of course the latter is implied).

PNG - #85409

May 13th 2014

Anyone who loves the Bach Chaconne is a friend of mine. There was a CD (Morimur - Hilliard Ensemble) some few years ago built around the idea that the Chaconne was a response to the Passion of Christ. I could be confusing this with Paul Galbraith’s version on the guitar - working from memory here.


As to the idea that an unconstrained imagination gets us into trouble, I agree. Being a scientist, I would express it differently. When a science gets started and has its first big success in terms of a hypothesis that seems to account for a lot that was mysterious before, sometimes practitioners get carried away and think that this initial hypothesis (or set thereof) accounts for everything. That happened with genetics in the early 20th century, when the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, combined with the seminal statistical ideas of Francis Galton, proved to be a heady drink for scientists at the time. It’s dangerous to base vast practical programs on a science in its early stages. The result in the case of genetics was eugenics and social Darwinism. The thing is that as the science progresses, things always turn out to be more complicated than the early hypotheses can deal with. 


J.B.S. Haldane captured it well when he said:

Many of the deeds done in America in the name of eugenics are about as much justified by science as were the proceedings of the inquisition by the gospels.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85418

May 14th 2014

Many of the deeds done in America in the name of eugenics are about as much justified by science as were the proceedings of the inquisition by the gospels.

J.B.S. Haldane


Thank you for the comment.  While I agree with much of it, I am very wary of facile analogies such as that of Haldane.  It bears careful scrutiny.

I hope that we are agreed the gospels have no direct relationship to the Inquisition.  The gospels did give rise to the Church and although the Church is a divine institution, it is also a human institution aqnd it is from the human side that the Inquisition regretfully developed.

On the other hand eugenics did arise directly I understand from science as represented by Darwinism, that is “Survival of the Fitest.”  Also the backlash against eugenics came from the moral criticism of Hitler and racists who used the rationale of eugenics against “mud” people and Blacks.

Yes, there has been criticism of Darwinian Survival of the Fitest, but as far as I can tell Survival of the Fitest is still of basis of the NeoDarwinian understanding of Natural Selection, it seems to be considered good science. 

It is well known that the concept of Natural Selection is based on Artificial Selection by human breeders of plants and animals.  Now I can see that one can make a moral judgment that humans should not play God by making the decision as to which humans shall survive to reproduce, but not a scientific one.     

In my opinion the Church is responsible for its use of the Inquistion and Science is responsible for its role in its role in Eugenics.  We cannot excuse anyone by facile analogies.   


PNG - #85434

May 15th 2014

Roger, I should think it is fairly obvious that neither I nor Haldane was trying to excuse anyone. That the things that were done in the name of eugenics were wrong should have been seen on simple moral grounds, but it’s also true that there was no scientific justification either. (In the Name of Eugenics is also the title of a fine book on the subject by Robert Kevles.)

PNG - #85435

May 15th 2014

Sorry, that should be Daniel Kevles.

Merv - #85419

May 14th 2014

Also be aware of analogies that may unintentionally harbour a competition mode.

It may be good to be wary of thinking of “science” and “theology” as distinctive entities even if they do appear to get embodied in various and often separate institutions.  Then we are lulled into the same categorical fallacy that still entangles so many new atheists and creationists alike:  as they leap into comparison mode to see which might out-perform the other.

... as if the head is in competition with the hands or the eyes with the ears.  I think some analogies born from Scripture apply well here; but even in that we may still fail to recognize the complexity of the inter-relationship.  I like to think of theology as being the mind, and the science the arms and hands of our intellectual life.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85420

May 14th 2014


I like the way that you think, but I disagree with how you think.  It is good that we are thinking in analogies which is basically what these artlcles are about.

I see the analogy as the head is philosophy, which is about how humans think and understand, (and generally is the odd person out in these discussions,) the “heart” or spirit or “soul” is theology, and lastly agree that science is the body of the Person. 

They are distinct aspects of the Person, but they need to work together if humanity is to survive and thrive, which is why New Atheism is dangerous as is science denial of the Tea Party and many evangelicals. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85459

May 16th 2014

PNG wrote:

Roger, I should think it is fairly obvious that neither I nor Haldane was trying to excuse anyone.

PNG, I am glad that you are not trying excuse anyone.  However it is my personal experience that others using the faulty reasoning found in the Haldane quote to justify indirectly the misuse of science.  

The other question is whether natural selection as Survival of the Fitest is good science or not. 

The quote makes the claim that the crimes of eugenics were as justified by science as the crimes of the inquisition were justified by the gospels. 

The first problem here is that it elevates the Gospels to the same level as “science” and in this case the science of Darwin, which is clearly false.  If science is equal to the Gospel, then why not give science a chance to solve the world’s problems. 

The problem is that science does not have a clue as to how to solve these problems.  Eugenics was one of science’s efforts to fix the world and it was a disaster, so there is no equivilance.

To be sure we understand science is a tool, while the gospel determines the proper motive.  Therefore science does not justify anything. 

If eugenics did what it claimed to do, in other words if it were scientifically sound, would it still be right from the Christian moral viewpoint?    

While eugenics is supposedly dead, I observe the spirit of survival of the fitest very much alive in US among those Social Darwinists who also advocate liberatarianism and laisez faire capitalism.  Strangely many who reject evolution accept politically survival of the fitest.  

As I said before the theory of Survival of the Fitest if false because it is atomistic based on competition.  It appeals to imperialistic Victorians and macho white men, but that does not make it right or good science.  Ecological theory based working together for mutual benefit is both scientifically and theologically sound.    

Eugenics was wrong because it was not based the gospels just as the Inquisition was wrong because it was not based on the gospels.              

PNG - #85489

May 18th 2014

There is no faulty reasoning in the Haldane quote - it’s just a statement that in neither case was there any real justification for what was done, which is true. I’m not going to get into a discussion with you on your favorite topics, because it’s long been apparent that you pay no attention to anyone, regardless of what their what relevant experience or training they have.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85525

May 22nd 2014

If I could make one more comment.

Basically here we are dioscussing the role and limitations of models.  Models for nature are required for understanding.  The problem is when we make the model absolute, instead of relative.

A machine is a good model for the universe, however when people such as Dawkins reduce all plants and animals, including humans to survival machines, he goes too far.  Plants and animals are organic, not mechanical, so they are more than machines.

Denis Noble uses music, which of course is an art, as his model for Life, the Bio Sphere.  I think that this is a good model for life and evolutionary change, which needs to be explored, but it like others has limitations.  


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