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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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dopderbeck - #45875

January 4th 2011

Excellent review.  I’m halfway through this book.  It is astounding, awesome, and everyone should immediately buy it and read it!


Daniel mann - #45887

January 4th 2011

John,

You lament that the church is not being heard because of its rejection of Darwin. However, several caveats are in order:

1.  There are MANY other reasons in the world’s quiver for rejecting the Gospel.

2.  The world will not respect us, seeing that we compromise very basic Biblical teachings in our embrace of Darwin. Instead, TEs appear disingenuous. Likewise, you suggest that “Darwinian empirical results” are “pious.” There is nothing pious about compromising Biblical revelation in favor of a deistic god who better accords with Darwin.

3.  You also claim that “Western culture now suffers deeply from how its cultural institutions [the church] have built a wall between ‘faith’ and ‘reason.’” This is an unfair characterization. Rejecting Darwinism – spontaneous generation over time – is not the same thing as rejecting reason.

4.  This represents the same error that the church has always committed in its embrace of the culture and science of its day – geo-centrism, steady-state theory, multi-culturalism – to appear “with it.”


Cal - #45894

January 4th 2011

Daniel:

1. Since Mr. Wright is examining Mr. Cunningham’s book, the issue he tackles is the feel of having to reject science or reason. He is merely, to use your analogy, removing one arrow from the quiver of the world.

2. He’s using the pious to flip dangerous on its head. Having not read the book, I don’t know what argument he makes, but his conclusion is obviously Christ and evolution are not separate. And we must be careful to label all an attribute. I do believe that evolution occurred but I never intend to be disingenuous. I don’t compromise biblical truth for what seems fashionable.

3. I don’t think he means the church as the cultural institution (or he would have just said Church!). There is such a fad of making such a dichotomy in America and many believe it to be the truth. Media, film etc. all play this up and confuse the public.

4. Again, I’m trying to be loyal to Truth and evidence recorded is not following the trend. Popular fads in today are evolutionism psychology and the like (treating man like a disguised animal), and I find them abhorrent. I disdain evolutionism (and its tentacles in many fields: history, sociology etc) but do think evolution is how the Creator “unrolled” His Creation.


Argon - #45895

January 4th 2011

Daniel, Darwinism isn’t the same as ‘spontaneous generation over time’. The latter is special creation and perhaps Old Earth Creationism.

As others have noted in previous discussions, insistence on a young Earth, a global flood or special creation does in fact provide a ‘reason in the world’s quiver’ for many people. Yes there are other reasons out there that people may employ (different strokes for different folks), but I ponder whether biologiocal evolution actually needs to be an impediment. Arguing that there are many reasons why one may choose to reject the Gospel does not mean that removal of an objection like the age of the Earth will do nothing. Yes, for some people it won’t matter but for others, it *has* made the difference.


Daniel mann - #45899

January 4th 2011

Cal,

I certainly respect your position, “I do believe that evolution occurred but I never intend to be disingenuous. I don’t compromise biblical truth for what seems fashionable.”

However, I don’t see how you can entertain these two masters—Darwin and the Bible—together.  While the Bible posits that God made everything “very good,” Darwin claims that it was a bloody survival-of-the-fittest from the get-go. While the Bible teaches a Fall and that sin and death came upon through Adam, Darwin has no room for such things. While Jesus is supposed to be the Second Adam, Darwin would not even allow Him to be the First.

It seems that compromise is inevitable. It also might suggest which Master is most authoritative in the life of the believer—Darwin or Jesus?


Darrel Falk - #45901

January 4th 2011

Daniel,

Any chance that you’ll covenant with us to read the book as this series continues?

Darrel


Daniel mann - #45902

January 4th 2011

Argon,

Although I agree with you that the Bible’s position on the creation is a major turn-off for some, it is far more important for us to be faithful than to be successful—to win converts or professional respectability. Besides, I think that these “successes” or fruits are mere chimera.


defensedefumer - #45905

January 4th 2011

The author, Conor Cunningham did a documentary for BBC, “Did Darwin Kill God?”. I think somebody uploaded it on Youtube. He is rather eloquent, and hopefully I will get a chance to read his book.


Argon - #45910

January 4th 2011

Daniel, have you considered that the motivation is less about a desire for professional respectability and more about eliminating a cause for people to turn away because of potentially false reasons?

As for ‘imaginary successes’, well, one can disbelieve the testimony of others as one chooses. Personally, I don’t think they’re phantasms.


gingoro - #45912

January 4th 2011

The BBC documentary was very good.  I watched all of the episodes.  Have ordered the book and expect to find it very good as well.
Dave W


John - #45913

January 4th 2011

Daniel wrote:
“However, I don’t see how you can entertain these two masters—Darwin and the Bible—together.”

How can scientists possibly be entertaining Darwin as any sort of master when we routinely understand, accept, and study non-Darwinian mechanisms?

I’m more than a little worried about what appears to me to be equivocation between Darwin, evolutionary theory, and science in John Wesley Wright’s post. Is the book similar in that way? I can see how it would be a useful hook to entice laypeople, but I would hope that the notion is squished early on.

“While the Bible posits that God made everything “very good,” Darwin claims that it was a bloody survival-of-the-fittest from the get-go.”

Darwinian mechanisms are about reproduction. Survival isn’t the criterion. Moreover, Darwin noted what many others had noted before. Are you denying that virtually every species on God’s earth produces more offspring than are necessary to maintain population sizes?


Daniel mann - #45914

January 4th 2011

Argon,

You might be right about souls saved through a culturally refined Gospel. However, these results are notoriously difficult to assess. Besides, it can also be argued that these would later become believers without the evolutionarily-modified message. In any event, these considerations must be paramount:

•  Deut. 4:2 Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.

•  Matthew 6: 24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.


Jon Garvey - #45922

January 4th 2011

@Daniel mann - #45914

Daniel, sad to say your two quotes remind me of a Methodist preacher I heard once deonounce nuclear fission on the grounds that “what God joins together, let no man put asunder”, forgetting, presumably that he cut apples to eat them.

Re Deuteronomy: to accept evolution is no more to add or detract from the law of God than to have a law against speeding on the road is. One could equally cite: “render unto science the things that are science’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Re Matthew: to accept evolution is no more to serve two masters than to follow a cake recipe is putting it in place of God. One could equally cite: “Love God, honour the emperor”, but that would be be just as inaccurate, for we serve the Lord, and we observe, not serve, science.

When I became a Christian in 1965 Creationism as popularised by Morris and Whitcomb did not exist in the UK. It is US-invented vapour canopies, unchangeable animal kinds, miraculously increased flood deposits, appearance of age etc that have modified and culturally refined, or rather restricted, the Bible, and anathemas passed against those who reject them that have modified the gospel.


Cal - #45935

January 4th 2011

Daniel:

Saying Darwin is a master is as saying that if you are to believe the sun the center of the solar system that I must choose between Jesus and Copernicus as my master. I only follow One, who would bring my eyes Light and break my shackles clean. I try my best to follow Jesus as a disciple. Darwin proposed a new theory that evidence has weighted to be true, but it is the theory that has weight in my mind, not the man, and the theory is not that important on the grand scale of things whereas the Light, Truth and Way is my everything.

Evolutionism that always uses the name Darwin has polluted much, however I do not follow ism’s. Never! I will not be shackled by ideologies. I believe in evolution and creation, neither evolutionism or creationism.

Heres an interesting article that explains my position:http://christinyou.net/pages/createvol.html


Daniel mann - #45940

January 4th 2011

Dr. John (and Cal),

I agree with you that the Methodist preacher was misusing Scripture. Such an interpretation can also be used against cutting down a tree.

However, I must stick-to-my-guns (sorry for the American expression) regarding Matthew 6:24. Darwin has indeed become a “Master” when we use evolution to undermine Jesus’ blatant affirmation of the history of the creation account (Mat. 19:4-6). Such demonstrates a preference for Darwin over Jesus.

Likewise, “adding or subtracting from the Word” (Deut. 4:2) is appropriate. The Bible claims that God created everything “very good” and that humanity screwed things up. Evolution SUBTRACTS these truths and in its place ADDS the idea that humans evolved from lower life-forms – the Bible doesn’t give a hint of such a thing – and that sin and death had a beginning prior to the Fall (among many other things).

I know little about Morris and Whitcomb, and I don’t think that they are necessary to the points I’m making!


John - #45941

January 4th 2011

Daniel mann wrote:
“Darwin has indeed become a “Master” when we use evolution to undermine Jesus’ blatant affirmation of the history of the creation account (Mat. 19:4-6). Such demonstrates a preference for Darwin over Jesus.”

This is ridiculous. The notion that Darwin = evolution is simply false and deceptive rhetoric.

“Likewise, “adding or subtracting from the Word” (Deut. 4:2) is appropriate. The Bible claims that God created everything “very good” and that humanity screwed things up. Evolution SUBTRACTS these truths and in its place ADDS the idea that humans evolved from lower life-forms…”

Evolution is a phenomenon. It is directly observable. What you object to is the set of theories pertaining to the mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of evolution.

And you don’t even get the fundamental phenomenon right. It’s not a ladder with “higher” and “lower life-forms,” it’s a tree or bush.

But accuracy gets thrown out when your goal is the profoundly un-Christian one of demonizing others.


gingoro - #45942

January 4th 2011

John&45941;
“And you don’t even get the fundamental phenomenon right. It’s not a ladder with “higher” and “lower life-forms,” it’s a tree or bush.”

My understanding is that the proper mathematical description for life’s derivation was a network if we are trying to be exact.  There seems to be horizontal transfer of genetic material, at least to some extent and thus a tree is not a proper description.
Dave W


BioLogos - #45944

January 4th 2011

Gingoro,

With regard to multi-cellular organisms, the proper metaphor is a tree or bush, and not a network. Here’s a fine 2008 “Nature Reviews” article on the subject. 

http://www.botany.ubc.ca/keeling/PDF/08NRG.pdf


Cal - #45950

January 5th 2011

Daniel:

It wasn’t just Man who messed up (though we certainly did, starting with Adam), but all free agents have suffered the weight of treachery against God. Satan defied God and brought a war against Heaven, he enslaved mankind by inviting us to his rebellion. He manifested Sin, all that is not God, instead of Love, hate, instead of Truth, lie, instead of Life, death.

I see some of this war take place in the unrolling of Creation, but God saw the ultimate plan, in His ultimate display of Love on the Cross and the breaking of the chains of the Devil, as it is written: “...for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8)

I take beginning to mean before time, before what we know began. Satan set himself against God, and he tried to drag with him all of creation, but God allowed it, and triumphed over it, saving all of mankind in the resurrection.

Also something of note: it says God created everything good, however it does not say perfect. Good enough to fulfill the work that was to be done, the crushing of the head of the serpent by the heel of a man.

I agree with John. Darwin was a theorist of an idea that expanded realms beyond him (he was not even aware of the work of Mendel who brought about the ideas of genetics! Darwin had little idea the true mechanistics that were behind procreation). Evolution is not just a plan of how life diversified, it is testable on the genetic level and has helped advance medicine and virology. I don’t adhere or follow Darwin, I follow Jesus. That is what defines me and though “new atheists” have nearly lifted up and deified Darwins name in popular publications, it does not change the truth of the matter.


Daniel mann - #45968

January 5th 2011

Cal,

Good points. Perhaps I’m using the term “Darwin” in a sloppy way—to refer to macro-evolution. We all endorse micro!


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