The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 6

| By N.T. Wright

The Biologos Foundation and “Darwin’s Pious Idea”, Part 6


For readers who have followed my series, “The Biologos Foundation and Darwin’s Pious Idea,” it will come as no surprise that I think that Cunningham’s work exemplifies the mission of the Biologos Foundation. I am humbled at the sheer magnitude of Cunningham’s work. Perhaps the most amazing feature is Cunningham’s ability to see connections in disparate areas of contemporary biology, physics, and philosophy, while maintaining a mastery within the orthodox, catholic, and evangelic “great tradition” of historic Christianity. Cunningham is thus able to see coherences that lesser minds miss.

Cunningham mediates historic Christian theological positions to contemporary scientific thoughts with a thoroughness that would make even the most liberal Protestant blush. Unlike liberal Protestants, however, never, never does Cunningham alter the fundamental grammar of the Christian faith to make it more palatable to its cultural despisers; he writes continuously aware of the adage that the theologian who marries the thought of their age is widowed tomorrow. Cunningham argues for the coherence of evolutionary theory, properly construed, with historic Christianity; but he argues for more: without the truthfulness of historic Christian convictions, centered on Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine in one undivided person, only nihilism remains. And nihilism cannot give an account of the rationality of human experience at its most basic levels, let alone with the complex rationalities of the sciences. Science without Christ undercuts its own rationale and rationality.

Cunningham permits no “faith” and “scientific reason” divorce. He does not limit reason to make room for faith, or modify revelation to the “givens” of reason, scientifically or otherwise. Reason itself becomes tied to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Divorced from its origins in God, reason, and all creation, ultimately collapses inward upon itself. Here is the core importance of the Biologos foundation: to retrieve genuinely the faith given to the saints, not for building a “faith fortress” impenetrable against the attacks of “secular reason” in order to protect revelation. It is rather to articulate the truthfulness of the faith given to the saints for the sake of the world, to render all creation intelligible to the world for the glory of God with a thoroughness that the world itself cannot provide and finally to show that, ultimately, there is no such thing as “secular reason” -- reason itself is imbued “all the way down” with its origin in the eternally Divine Word from Whom and through Whom and to Whom are all things.

I would like to summarize Cunningham’s accomplishment in three main points that I deem most important about his work. First, in unity with pre-modern Christian thought, Cunningham insists that we frame issues of “science” and “religion” with a thoroughly Christological beginning, middle, and end. Evangelicals may balk here. A deep strand of American evangelicals have historical roots in the early modern, dissenting, English Puritan tradition that sought to ground all its language about God in what the Scripture explicitly affirms. The impulse within evangelicals is always to reduce issues of “science” and “faith” to issues of the Bible. Therefore, Dr. Henry Morris, the founder of creation science, sought to attack modern scientific positions on the age of the earth to preserve his reading of Genesis 1 -3. Yet to preserve a historicist reading of the first Adam and Genesis, he embraces a radically unorthodox view of Jesus Christ. Of course, liberal Protestants merely invert such a reading to argue that Genesis 1-3 has an enduring “mythological significance” grounded in human experience. Just like Henry Morris, such a view seeks to preserve Scripture from scientific criticism. Again, it does this by making Scripture a reservoir of some human experience behind it that is utterly separated from Jesus Christ. This undercuts the particularity of Scripture and tends to make Jesus a representative of God, the same God found within the human experience behind Scriptures, rather than God’s eternal Word in the one human person, Jesus. One thus finds the heat of the dispute between “creation science” and “intelligent design advocates” with those formed by critical biblical scholarship so vociferous, unending, and unenlightening. “Science” and “revelation” becomes equated with “science” and “the Bible.”

Cunningham refuses to correlate scientific findings directly with the biblical witness so that one or the other has to give. Instead, he mediates both through a rich, deep, fully evangelical, orthodox, and catholic view of Jesus Christ. In so doing, he brings all things in submission to Christ, re-ordering both science and Scripture to Christ in a way that maintains the full integrity and authority of each. The simplicity, beauty, and truthfulness of such an understanding show the intellectual vitality of the historical Christian tradition.

The so-called “science versus religion” debates evaporate and the disciplining of the church by a secular reason shows itself as the irrational power move that it always has been, even as the church’s attempt to discipline empirical science tries to emulate the same power play. Cunningham reorders our understanding of Scripture as absolutely necessary for the church to render Jesus Christ and the church’s life intelligible; Scripture does not, however, function as a replacement for a scientific and historical discourse that would actually render Scripture unnecessary if we had full historical and scientific transcripts of the events.

Secondly, Cunningham delves into the relationship between the “orthodox Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum physics and philosophy. Underneath all of Cunningham’s work is an often subtle, at times explicit criticism of contemporary scientific and philosophical thought, particularly in its reductionist form. Cunningham argues that too many contemporary thinkers still dwell in a Newtonian rather than a quantum understanding of “matter.” More fundamentally, such thinkers persist in a “culture/human” versus “nature/matter” dichotomy that has become philosophically, institutionally, and culturally embedded into Western culture. Cunningham thus pulls together disparate movements in philosophy, ancient and contemporary, to challenge the dominance of modernist and postmodern philosophies (modernist philosophy’s inverted twin). Cunningham grasps that the Christian tradition refuses a “mind/matter” dichotomy that has become basic in the modern (and post-modern) Western world. He thus shows a deep common logic shared between a certain strand of quantum physics (the irreducible and indispensable role of the participant-observer in Copenhagen quantum physics), recent continental philosophy (the phenomenology of Michel Henry), and recent analytical philosophy (philosophy of mind of E. J. Lowe). He thus subtly aligns himself with a new movement in philosophy that seeks to overcome or deny the “correlationist” commitments between the binary poles of the human and nature, a correlation that has formed all of us in Western culture and is classically stated in the works of Immanuel Kant.

Thirdly, Cunningham shows the need for new evolutionary synthesis that accounts for form. Cunningham participates in an inner-biology, scientific dispute that argues that the neo-Darwinian synthesis is not sufficiently comprehensive to account for the empirical data. He explicitly notes his dependence on the work of Conway Simon Morris – as readers of this blog have noted as well. To steal a pun from Cunningham itself – evolutionary studies show that form matters. Evolution itself depends on the formal characteristics the very materiality that evolution presumes—and matter itself evolves in formally rational ways. Suddenly the abandonment of a Platonic/Aristotelian/Thomistic theory of forms that entered scientific discourse in Francis Bacon with his commitment to late medieval nominalism no longer seems warranted. We remain in the awkward position in evolutionary theory whether the neo-Darwinian theory can account for this new data, or whether a new theory that incorporates the successes of the neo-Darwinian account into a broader understanding remains to appear. In either way, it seems to me that any full biological account with have to include the role of structure and form within evolutionary and biological systems. Cunningham places his finger on the correct spot for biological, philosophical, and theological reflection – which, of course, are not three different “things.”

Perhaps the “orthodox Copenhagen” account of quantum physics will pass as a scientific theory; perhaps a neo-neo-Darwinian synthesis can appear to account for the role of structure, systems, and form in evolution. Perhaps someone can give a neo-Darwinian account where natural selection itself evolves along formal patterns. Even if so, in his most fundamental point, Cunningham is correct: because of the Incarnation, the church catholic is committed to matter, not because matter is ultimate, but because it is not: it is a gift of God. Christian thought at its most basic commitments, is a type of speculative materialism or realism. If and/or when new data requires a modification to our scientific understandings, it will still be human beings that produce the science, and human beings who understand it. And Cunningham’s book will still sustain its importance: for it is ultimately anchored in Jesus Christ, the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

Given the constant production of new knowledge, Cunningham’s work will require new mediating thoughts, rethinking the issues again and again in taking all things to Christ. In so doing, humans may receive the gift of the wonder at the life that the eternally Triune God, as Life itself, has given us through participation in Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is this very same task that lies at the root of the Biologos Foundation. By the grace of God, may its program continue for its witness to a humanity that finds itself, at the point of its highest achievements in science and technology, unable to give an account of even why it should matter -- and in the process, even lose its grip on matter. At least Christians can tell why it does: because God has gifted us with life, and redeemed this life from endlessly turning into itself through becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ, to point us to not only God, but in pointing us to God, to point us to our truest humanity.


About the Author

N.T. Wright

N.T. Wright is a leading biblical scholar, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and current Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, University of St. Andrews. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and was ordained at Merton College, Oxford. Wright holds a Doctor of Divinity from Oxford University in addition to several honorary doctorates. Wright has also written over fifty books, including the multi-volume work Christian Origins and the Question of God and his two most recent books Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters and How God Became King.