The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 1
Today's entry was written by John Wesley Wright. 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.
One should not underestimate the importance of the Biologos mission. For years I have spent Tuesday nights distributing food to those who live on the streets and hotels in downtown San Diego. In order to show that it is the church present, not some benevolent humanism, I always wear a clerical collar when I am on the streets. Many of these are my dear friends and brothers and sisters in Christ; many, however, move in and out of the neighborhood anonymously. Two weeks ago I handed sandwiches to a newcomer. He looked at my collar and said, “Why are you guys so against science? You know, how you suppressed Galileo?”
The church has lost the ability to tell a coherent story about the relationship between its history and convictions and empirical discoveries of the modern sciences. We have lost the credibility of witness even to those who receive its charity. If this is so, how can we expect to be heard in certain bio-tech corporate board rooms that seek commercial advantage by moving to the “post-human”?
The mission of The Biologos Foundation, to explore, promote, and celebrate the integration of science and Christian faith, recently took a huge step forward. A historically evangelical press, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, has just published a landmark volume: Conor Cunningham’s Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong. The work deeply explores the integration of Darwinian evolutionary theory and Christian faith. Cunningham feels no compulsion to defend Darwin at all costs; there is no bowing to irrational claims of scientific reductionism, no tossing of the Christ child to save the scientific bathwater. His commitment is to the truthfulness of the Christian faith in its deepest, fullest, most historically authentic evangelical and catholic sense.
Yet Cunningham refuses to set the Christian faith at odds with the empirical results of biological science. Unlike Daniel Dennett, he finds Darwinian empirical results “pious” rather than “dangerous.” Cunningham separates the empirical results of biological science from the reductive philosophical and (a)theological commitments that often silently accompany them. When the Christian faith is properly articulated in its deepest orthodox, catholic, and evangelical form, the so-called war between “science and the church” dissolves. Properly articulated, the Christian faith, not Darwinian theory, is the “universal dissolvent.” All creation finds its origin and end in the eternally Triune Creator God. Cunningham shows one way that human beings as rational creatures may recognize by faith the beauty and goodness in creation, even as explicated by Darwinian theory, to the praise of our Creator.
Cunningham’s book is an amazing accomplishment. The book has already gathered acclaim. Christopher Benson at the First Things Blog (Dec 21, 2010) has named the book as one of the two most important science books of 2010 (“a rare combination of scientific competence and theological erudition”) and Scott Stephens at the ABC Religion and Ethics blog mentions the book as one just outside his top ten list of his “Books of the Year” for 2010.
I know of no writing that more successfully addresses a particular issue in the interface between the claims of revelation and the human observations that we call science. To explore the integration of “science and Christian faith” with Cunningham requires languages that cross what have come to be understood as “disciplinary boundaries.” It reveals an extensive reading that is humbling in its judiciousness, wisdom, and learnedness.
But the book is not erudite stuffiness. From Irish Methodist stock, Conor is as whimsical, gregarious, and gracious in print as he is in person. Cunningham freely quotes from Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton; this is no ivory tower egghead. The book is a joy to read.
But the book is work to read, at times hard work, hard and rewarding work. The book begins by reviewing the standard story of Darwinian theory. He quickly plunges into the contested, suggestive, and problematic areas arising from this “received view.” The fifth chapter looks to “examine and critique the application of Darwin’s theory of evolution beyond the confines of biology” (p. 179), in an at times laudable, at time pernicious enterprise. The sixth chapter provides an all out assault on ontological naturalism*, and ironically, some of its likeminded theological partners in movements like Creation Science and Intelligent Design. The last chapter seeks to re-order the empirical results of Darwinian science with the biblical witness, particularly as understood within the first five centuries of the Christian traditions interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
The book therefore moves from contemporary biological sciences to high levels of philosophical and theological thought. Ultimately, however, the book finds its end in the Scripture’s witness to the eternally Triune God in Christ as found within the depths of the Christian tradition. This structure itself bears the form of the ancient, biblical structure of thought. With the Apostle Paul, Cunningham’s argument is simply, “For from God and through God and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever! Amen” (Rom. 11:36). If one at times finds oneself alienated as one moves through the technical aspects of the book, one will still find oneself fascinated and enriched by the journey.
Western culture now suffers deeply from how its cultural institutions have built a wall between “faith” and “reason.” Philosophers have long shown that philosophical rationale for such a divide is, at the very least overdrawn, if not completely false. Dominant institutional and legal categories, however, end up thinking for us and repeating the distinction. Networks then have developed that benefit from an antagonism between faith and reason to bolster their own institutional authority. Such fundamentalisms, religious and atheistic, use irrationality, fear, and power to pull their particular publics political and financial support to expand their own realms of influence.
For the church such a situation is intolerable. Such a divide between faith and reason places the scandal of the cross at the wrong place. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross demands faith and obedience; His sacrifice makes all other sacrifices, including the sacrifice of intellect, unnecessary. To allow false stumbling-blocks to be set up for our youth by intellectual sloth or its close cousin, apostasy, is unacceptable. Moreover, a continuation of the situation promises to lead to tragedy for North American culture. As even a secularized Christian culture has withdrawn from public discourse, North American society continues to reduce human life and even life itself to a commodity to be bartered on the free-market by the financial, political, and technological cultural elite. The unnecessary withdrawal of the Christian witness as yeast and light takes away options that the world does not have tools to conceive, yet alone implement. Into this cultural abyss, Biologos has stepped. At some times, it must find itself very lonely. But in the abyss that refuses a dichotomy between faith and scientific reason, however, it finds friends, unexpected friends like Conor Cunningham.
In order to explore, promote, and celebrate Cunningham’s work, I would like to provide a summary, analysis, and guide through the book in several blog posts in the coming weeks. I would encourage interested readers to purchase the book and follow the discourse together – a cyber reading group, if you will. Cunningham’s work needs not serve as the final word on the subject, but it represents an intellectual program that we cannot but take seriously. Too much is at stake in a refusal to do so.
* Cunningham writes, “There are two types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such. . . . While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion on what exists, ontological naturalism suffers no such shyness. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be. Moreover, ontological naturalism deposes philosophy’s ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence to which even science is subjected (what is called first philosophy)” (pp. 265-6).
John Wesley Wright, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology and Christian Scriptures at Point Loma Nazarene University. Dr. Wright has published numerous articles and edited a number of books, including Priests, Prophets, and Scribes: Essays on the Formation and Heritage of Second Temple Judaism in Honor of Joseph Blenkinsopp, which he co-edited with Eugene Ulrich, Robert Carroll, and Philip R. Davies. (JSOT Press, 1992) and Conflicting Allegiances: The Church-based University In A Liberal Democratic Society, co-edited with Michael Budde (Brazos Press, 2004).