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The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”,  Part 1

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January 4, 2011 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

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.

The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”,  Part 1

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.

Notes

* 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).

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Jon Garvey - #48853

January 23rd 2011

@Rich - #48689

“Why is that “more Christian” than views in which God actually does something *specific*?”

Does anyone argue it’s more Christian? Some would argue it’s more “scientific” in that there are fewer gaps not accessible to science. But more generally the question is whether the different models are true to “truth”, that being mainly conceived as propositional truth regarding nature, scripture and/or traditional doctrine, philosophy - even aesthetics or natural justice.

“Well, in most versions of TE, God doesn’t perform any *particular* actions in nature after the Big Bang; nature self-organizes into galaxies, planets, life and man.”  That maybe true as far as it goes, but only in the same sense God did nothing “particular” in Acts 4.27-28, with profound effects. Deism, and atheism, stop short at v27.


Rich - #48876

January 23rd 2011

Jon Garvey (48853):

Believe me, Jon, at least on this side of the Atlantic, TE/EC people quite often make derogatory comments about the theology of anyone (YEC, OEC, or ID) who suggests that God did or might have performed special divine actions beyond the actions specified in the Bible as miraculous (e.g., the miracles of Jesus).  If you suggest that Jesus rose from the dead, the TE/EC people will give you a pass, but if you suggest that God might have been specially involved in the Cambrian explosion, or even the origin of man, not just your science but your theology will be attacked.  The comments range from mild reproaches of holding an “inadequate” concept of God (inadequate by whose standard? Thomas Aquinas believe that God directly created both man and the higher animals), to sneers for believing in “a cockroach of a God” (to give an example from this site).  And in almost every case it is scientists with no theological training who deem themselves judges of what is and what is not a fitting action for the Christian God to involve himself in.

I don’t see the relevance of Acts 4.27-28, as the debate is over God’s involvement in the pre-human natural world, not over God’s hand in human activities.


Cal - #48968

January 24th 2011

Rich:

The theological criticism is the understanding of the point of a miracle. Their objection is, essentially, “Why does God need to do the miraculous? What is trying to be made? If no one is to marvel, why couldn’t God manufacture a system that falls into place on its own?”

With the scientific evidence pointing towards an old earth and a slow development of life (compared to instant creation), this is saying: “God did directly create the universe and the earth, but it was in a slower and more “creative” (whatever that means) process”

I agree somewhat with this thinking but then again, there is still so much not known of how all the systems that. It is sad to see brothers and sisters sneer at you my brother Rich. Arrogance is unbecoming of anyone.


Rich - #49007

January 24th 2011

Cal:

God could of course arrange for things to fall into place on their own.  ID people grant that this is possible, and some of them even believe that this is exactly what happened.  But in that case, they argue, God would have designed the outcome in advance, and not only foreseen but foredetermined it.  This would preserve God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and providence and is completely orthodox.

However, ID people *also* grant that God could have taken a direct hand and acted in very special and local ways.  This is the more common Biblical picture of God, and also the most common way of portraying Creation in the theological tradition.

It is because ID people grant the possibility—even though they don’t insist on it—that God might have performed special actions during creation—that ID is accused of “bad theology.”  And as I say, the accusations of bad theology often come from people whose academic training is in the genetics of fruit flies or the structure of cell walls, not Biblical exegesis or the history of Christian thought.

Yes, sneering is un-Christian, but my point is a different one; the theology that many TE/EC people sneer at is in fact quite orthodox and traditional.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #49070

January 25th 2011

My point is that when we argue over the fact of evolution we are largely wasting our time and energy.  This is not the real issue.  God did create the heavens and earth.  How is not really the province of theology.

However when it comes to Malthusian natural selection where Darwin and friends, mostly non-believers it seems, declare that God’s creative process is based on war and strife rather than cooperation and mutual benefit, that is where I as a Christian have a serious problem.  We can go along with Darwin and Co. as Biologos has by default, or look deeply into science and theology to see if Darwin was right or is Lovelace and the Bible correct.


Jon Garvey - #49080

January 25th 2011

@Rich - #48876

I’d concur with you on this: and it’s not always “beyond” those specified in the Bible: the skeptical - or rather contemptuous - response of some to Denis Alexander’s statement of the Homo divinus model could be a case in point.

The basis for that particular example seems, in a majority of cases, to be from a bias towards the naturalistic (so the concept of “image” being other than biological, and the insistence that any spread of sin from a forbear would have to be genetic and can’t be).

Sometimes though it’s a straight disdain for mainstream Evangelical and historical doctrine (Genesis can’t have any factual substrate, Augustine is old hat, H divinus is dangerously like Calvinism).

Maybe the reason for the “Deistic” bias is that the impetus for TE has, as you say, come primarily from scientists-who-are-theists more than Christians-interested-in-science. There is more work to be done to integrate science not with generally-theistic or avant-garde Christian theology, but with the main streams of orthodox Christian thinking.


Rich - #49140

January 25th 2011

Jon Garvey (49080):

“There is more work to be done to integrate science not with generally-theistic or avant-garde Christian theology, but with the main streams of orthodox Christian thinking.”

I agree. 

What many TE/ECs at Biologos and elsewhere do not seem to fully grasp is that TE/EC is rejected by many Christians because it appears to be unorthodox.  And by that I don’t mean that it accepts a non-literal view of Genesis; I mean unorthodox in a deeper sense.  It often appears to be hazy in affirming even those Biblical miracles which *are* clearly marked as miracles (Red Sea, walking on the water, etc.); it talks little of design, predetermination and providence, and much of randomness and chance; and beyond a couple of stock quotations from Augustine and Calvin, its promoters tend to rely on recent rather than classic Christian theologians.  There is a strong perception that TE/EC is willing to drastically re-write Christian theology in order to conform to the demands of “consensus science.”

This being the case, Biologos can publish a thousand columns on genetics and fossils, and it won’t do a bit of good.  TE/EC is distrusted not primarily because of the science, but primarily because of the theology.


Jon Garvey - #49179

January 26th 2011

@Rich - #49140

I think we’re reached concurrence on this point!


Roger A. Sawtelle - #49507

January 29th 2011

I expect that you are right, which makes it sad that BioLogos does not develope the theological side of its message.


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