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Evolution or Intelligent Design: Which Makes a Better Bedfellow for the Faith?

December 9th, 2005 by Jason · 14 Comments

Can you tell it’s exam time with all these papers being posted? This is my last paper for the Science & Theology class, and perhaps the most controversial. I grew up a Creationist, transitioned happily (because I had intellectual misgivings about Creation Science) to Intelligent Design in college, and now find myself relatively comfortable with the evolutionist camp (though I think there are still several areas where there needs to be continued dialogue between evolution and Christian theology, some of which I discuss in this paper). For me this transition comes with a sense of relief that I can finally welcome the discoveries of science, be intellectually honest, and not worry that science will somehow destroy my faith. You can read the paper here, and, as always, here is the first paragraph:

Scarcely a week goes by without the media mentioning the never-ending debate in America between proponents of evolution and Intelligent Design. It is one of the current hot-button issues on which nearly everyone has an opinion. The question of evolution’s veracity and compatibility with Christianity, is not only debated between skeptics and believers, but also among Christians. In this paper we will delve into the latter debate, the question raised among Christians as to whether evolution is inherently incompatible with Christianity and the related question of whether the theory of Intelligent Design is more amenable to belief in a Creator.

Tags: papers · science · theology

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Dec 13, 2005 at 9:56 am

    Jason, I read the paper. I liked it. I have to admit that the world of evolutionary theory is quite foreign for me. The paper was a good window into this world that’s captured you. Seems like there is a lot there. How about some questions:

    1) On page 4 you talk about Augustine’s “non-interventionist doctrine of creation.” Do you think you could spell this out for me, because it seems to me that Augustine’s conception of creation “in the mind of God” means that creation is always in God. So, it wouldn’t make sense to say that Augustine’s doctrine of creation is non-interventionist. For Augustine creation is not something outside of God. The world is always in God. That means “intervention” language just doesn’t make sense for Augustine. It seems to me that it also doesn’t make sense to talk about “initial creation” from God’s perspective because ‘time’ is part of this creation that dwells in God’s eternity. All this can still find room for a creation “with the capacity to develop life incrementally through evolutionary process,” but my question is the fight to make Darwin’s racist and capitalist totalitarian ideologies jive with Augustine’s God who sustains creation through the unceasing embrace of God’s infinite gratuity and love? Malthus, as you mentioned, provides the bloody capitalist logic that undergirds evolutionary theory. And, as post-colonial and subaltern analysis has revealed, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (on the global and local economic levels) sticks a knife in the back of the poor in the dark shadows cast by corporate towers. Why resurrect Darwin? He’s dead and we need to exorcize his demons that haunt our social world.

    2) I think your point about humans on page 7 is really important: “humans are made ‘of the dust of the earth’ implying that there is continuity between humanity and the rest of creation.” I think that is really important. Our being is tied to the earth, the adama from which God crafted the adam. I think that should teach us something about the contingency of our createdness—we exist by God’s unnecessary (i.e., a will that defies cause and effect, that defies theory!) gift of God’s breath.

    3) I am not sure if Nancey Murphy’s question on page 8 is that interesting: “If we Christians are to imitate the character of God, what are we to make of a God who has chosen to create through such a bloody process?” That is just silly to me. First of all, the God we are called to imitate is not the God of the shifting winds of scientific whims (ok, that was a bit too pejorative), but the God revealed in Genesis 1 and 2. And that biblical narration of our creation is not bloody; rather, it witnesses to the overflowing gratuity of the God who is love—and that is the reality in which we are called to participate. The other thing is that Murphy sounds like she thinks she is able to gain access to the mysterious mind of God from which creation always flows through theories of process. Augustine and Aquinas (and Barth!) shout a big No at these attempt to achieve the divine position. That doesn’t mean that we are not called to investigate the wonder of God’s gift of creation. Instead, it means that the a properly ordered scientific investigation of the world leads us into the mysteries of God’s generous embrace of love that is the overflowing movement of the triune life of Love.

    What would you think about a christian doctrine of creation that shows the necessary failure of all attempts at explaining the process of creation? That would mean that a doctrine of creation calls us to agnosticism about the order of things—we cannot know the mind of God in which all things are held together. That’s what Michael Hanby argues for in his interesting article in Theology Today (Jan. 2006): “The first function of the Christian doctrine of creation, then, is simply to protect the infinite qualitative difference between God and all that is not God, something that both Darwin and creationist ‘explanations’ fail to do. Creation thus understood is not an alternative theory or explanation of the world of the sort Darwinians or other scientists demand, but rather a denial in principle that any such ‘theory of everything’ is finally possible, and a suspicion tha tany such comprehensive theory will necessarily exercise a reductive tyranny over the things it puports to ‘explain.’ To precisely this extent, the Christian doctrine of creation is more ‘agnostic,’ less ideological and thus—dare we say?—more scientific than Darwinism” (482).

  • 2 Camassia // Dec 13, 2005 at 7:32 pm

    “Instead, it means that the a properly ordered scientific investigation of the world leads us into the mysteries of God’s generous embrace of love that is the overflowing movement of the triune life of Love.”

    It sounds good in theory, but I’m wondering what this would actually look like. In the century or so before Darwin, there were efforts to study nature through the lens of a benevolent creator, but this kept running into trouble with nature itself. Not so much regarding speculation about the past, but the reality of the present: animals whose entire design depends on killing other animals, sometimes slowly and painfully (in the case of some parasites). In fact, the main reason I’m not attracted to ID is that it seems to be trying to resuscitate that 18th-century benevolent designer, and I think Darwin superceded it because it wasn’t working.

    Even Christians who study nature today run into this problem. Telford told me about a biology professor at Westmont (whom Jason may know, but I forget his name) who said that his work had its moments of “Praise God for his mighty works!” and about an equal number of moments of, “This world is not my home.” I think that central tension exists in any scientific study of nature.

    This is not to say your idea is a bad one, just that it’s not exactly simple.

  • 3 Jason // Dec 13, 2005 at 8:57 pm

    Isaac, great points! Thanks for being willing to raise some tough questions. My response runs along the line’s of Camassia’s comment, how do we make sense of what we believe (the triune life of love) and what we see (i.e. predators, prey, and parasites)? It sounds like you say, “whatever we might see in nature is secondary; we start with Scripture, whose light is sure, and then let the chips fall where they may in terms of how it jives with our actual experiences.” Sounds strangely similar to what we were arguing here; what is the proper relation of science (meaning what we see, experience, observe) and theology (meaning what we think about God)? And, more to the point, what do we do when the two disagree?

    My response to your view (which I would call Isolationism) draws a lot from Nancey Murphy’s chapter on science in McClendon’s Witness: Systematic Theology. Modern liberal theology defined religion as a kind of feeling or awareness of God, and thus doctrine is primarily about Christian experience. This means science can essentially never contradict theology because they are operating in two separate realms. Theology operates on the level of how we are to experience God, while science is about knowing how the world around us works. I’m not saying that you are part of this Schleiermachian camp, but this seems to be the roots of Isolationism.

    However, the problem with that view of science and theology (i.e. they are mutually irrelevant) is that undermines the very heart of Christian theology. Christian theology is not just about religious experience (though it includes this), it is also about “the story of God and God’s people, embedded in the history of the world and the history of the universe” (Murphy). Christianity is a historical religion that thinks God really did act in certain ways at certain times in our world. To assert that God essentially only cares about humans, and not about being actively involved in the natural world is both anthropocentric and too narrow.

    In the end, I just don’t see how Isolationism works. Archaeology shapes our faith (imagine if Jesus’ bones were found). Our study of ancient languages shapes our faith (because we are constantly seeking to translate Scripture more faithfully). And cosmology and evolutionary biology shape our faith because both have something to say about how the world was formed. To dismiss all this “earthly” knowledge as unimportant or wholly secondary sets up that age-old Gnostic wall between the “real world” of the mind and spirit and the “inconsequential” or “evil” world of flesh and blood.

  • 4 isaac // Dec 14, 2005 at 8:44 am

    Ok, so I’m an isolationist ! Jason, you sound like a good Niebuhrian—all of a sudden I am one of those “Christ against culture” sectarians! I think you mis-read my position (I’m not quite sure I have a position…yet, but this conversation seems to steer me somewhere). How am I an isolationist if I am engaging Darwin on the level of ideology? His project is quite ideological—he starts with an economic law of scarcity and moves towards an ontology of violence. It is no accident that his so-called neutral empiricism leads his to see a world ruled by survival, and the logical flow of his discovery leads him to racist conclusions. Here’s a quote from The Origin of Species : “If any one species does not become modified in a corresponding degree with its competitors, it will be exterminated.” Notice the passive tense: will be exterminated. The extermination of the “inferior races” is just the way the world works. Who is there to blame when someone among Darwin’s empirically determined “inferior race” happens to die, or be killed, in the name of the survival of the species? Darwin ends there because that’s where he starts; when he looks out into the world through the lens of scarcity and survival, then of course he is going to find so-called ‘empirically-determined’ evidence that finds its place in his order of things. How is this line of engagement with Darwin isolationist ? If anything, its militant. And, to bring in Camassia’s comment, this is only “theory.” But I hope there’s nothing wrong with that. Darwin starts with a worldview (or ‘ontology,’ or ‘phenomenology,’ whatever) that filters his vision of the world. Why not engage him at the level of theory, at the level of ideology? But, like Camassia said (I am always confused as to whether I should be talking to the person or refer to them in the third person; oh, well), this engagement is in no way “simple.” It is complicated because taking Darwin and evolutionary theory seriously requires an investigation that refuses the terms layed out by Darwin (and the Creationists who let Darwin set the terms of the argument). It requires digging deeper into evolutionary theory to expose the heart of the matter: whose founding story/myth is true? As Michael Hanby puts it, “At issue is control of the stories that are going to define, guide, and orient our lives, a preoccupation that well exceeds the bounds of scientific concern. The meaninglessness that grips virtually every aspect of contemporary culture should serve as an index of just how successful Darwinism, and the capitalist theory from which it sprang, have been in assering themselves as normative” (Theology Today, Jan. 2006: p.477). Hanby goes on to show how Darwin and evolutionary biology is really a metaphysics, and thus makes claims on the transcendent logic that moves the world (and history, if we turn to Hegel and Marx). Drawing from Thomas Aquinas (Hanby is Radically Orthodox, after all) he argues that so-called “scientific inquiry” into nature/creation in the mode of evolutionary theory is deeply rooted in metaphysical/ontological convictions that actually distort what we can empirically oberserve. The logic of progress or development at the heart of Darwinian science over-determines the pieces of data observed in the world. So, according to Hanby, mainstream scientific practices are not very scientific because they are bound so tightly by totalitarian visions of how the world works. That’s why, it seems, we need to engage Darwin and the science left in his wake at the level of ideology—which is just another way to say at the level of story-telling. To turn the tables on Jason, we know quite well how modern science works. There’s a building right next door to the Duke Divinity School chapel where science is figuring out the empirically determined logic that governs human conception. Their raison d’etre is to reach back through the logic of “survival of the fitest” to the point of pregnancy so doctors can kill/terminate the fetus/baby/zygote (whatever) before the mother has to go through the trouble of birthing a “worthless” child, a setback for the development of the species. That’s one way how Darwinian science works in concrete reality. And that’s why Hanby argues that a Christian doctrine of creation makes us agnostic about the scientific “mechanisms” that order the world—modern science claims empiricism while operating according to destructive ontological convictions. “To recognize the world as creation,” writes Hanby, “is to recognize…that each created thing is also a mystery, that there is intrinsic to each thing a novelty and an excess of form that defies reduction to the sum of the causes that produced it and that each whole, precisely as a whole, is irreducible to the sum or function of its parts, even as it is inconceivable apart from them” (p.482). So, the problem is scientific investigation of the world around us that attempts a totalizing grip of any phenomenon that excises the mysterious excess of every object—and that means that a strictly ‘scientific’ inquiry refuses to allow the object’s excess to distrub its vision of reality, to disrupt the convictions sustaining the method of investigation. And, like Camassia pointed out, this methodology doesn’t differ depending on whether or not someone is a Christian or not: “I think that central tension exists in any scientific study of nature.” The problem is that we in the modern world thought it was a good idea to separate something called “natural sciences” from the “divine science” (this is John Milbank’s point over and over again). And that’s why Hanby wonders if Christians are daring enough to imagine ways of doing science that blur disciplinary lines (Camassia is right to ask, “what does this look like?” I’m just not creative enough to answer, nor do I know enough): “aesthetic and moral judgments are absolutely integral to true knowledge of reality. We need a model of knowledge adequate to the mystery of the world… [a way to] recognize in matter and in the wholes composed of it the true reality of qualities—form, beauty, and purpose, for instance—that are manifestly a part of the world yet inaccessible to science as it is currently composed” (p.483). And this mode of mysterious exploration that refuses scientific mastery of the “mechanisms” of the world offers a space where “we might yet hope for evolutionary theory—even elements of Darwinism—to become genuine science.”

  • 5 John Doyle // Aug 19, 2006 at 12:32 am

    Jason—I just read your article this am (clicktrail: Ben Witherington post on government, Camassia comment, Camassia archived post). Since no one has commented on your article for some time, I’ll assume that you’re the only one who will read this—so it’s more like an email.

    Though I’m not an evolutionary biologist, I have a pretty good sense that the accumulated evidence very strongly supports the evolutionary theory in general and in most particulars. Thus far evolution has withstood thousands of rigorous empirical trials and, while some gaps and rogue scientists remain, the theory of evolution stands firmer than ever.

    Various efforts have been made throughout history to salvage Genesis 1. Augustine’s fudging on the days wasn’t motivated by Darwin; he was responding to the Greek idea of perfection. God is eternal, so there’s no need for him to muck about in linear time. Other neo-Greeks of the early church were worried about the perfect God creating an imperfect universe—hence demiurge theory and all sorts of other schemes to absolve God from responsibility for a botched job. In brief, controversies come and go, but the Judeo-Christian tradition seems to muddle through.

    Are you prepared to consider an alternative reading of the Genesis 1 text? I’ve posted a detailed exegesis on a blog, which you can reach by clicking my name. It’s longer than your paper, but still it’s only part of a longer treatment. Briefly, I assume that there was a narrator at the creation, an eyewitness who reported the events and who began by writing, “In the beginning…” Cutting to the punchline, I conclude that the story describes not the creation of nature but of reality: a way of making sense of raw nature. The narrative becomes a conversation between a teacher (elohim) and a student (the witness). If you don’t have the patience to read the whole thing, look at the OVERVIEW, THE WITNESS, and AND THERE WAS pages.

    Now I don’t claim to resolve all the problems of Biblical cosmogeny. But I’d be very interested in whether you think this interpretation “works” at least as well as the other leading literal interpretations. If you get over to the blog you can either post a comment or send me an email at (deleted). As far as I know, youll be the first person to read this exegesis (other than my wife and possibly some guy who emailed me the transcendent musings of his Avatar-Guru).

  • 6 isaac // Aug 19, 2006 at 4:01 am

    John, I hope you don’t mind. I deleted your email address in order to protect you from spam and whatever else. But Jason can still see your email address.


  • 7 isaac // Aug 29, 2006 at 4:13 am

    Jason, seriously… John Doyle has offered a very careful and well-thought comment and he gets nothing from you. I think we need some lessons on blogging hospitality.

    John, I’m very sorry for Jason’s non-response. (I shouldn’t be talking, since I do the same all the time). Anyhow, Jason is in the process of moving his life from Santa Barbara CA to Seattle. So, I can imagine he’s not paying much attention to the world-wide-web. Too much happening in the everyday.

    In the meantime, I wanted to say thank you, John, for taking the time to read our blog and make a thoughtful comment. Thanks.

  • 8 Jason // Aug 29, 2006 at 7:35 am

    Your right, your right Isaac. Very sorry John. It is on my list of pending items to read your post and respond, but we know how those things go. Anyhow, I will respond, hopefully sooner than later.

  • 9 John Doyle // Mar 21, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    I see someone clicked through to my site from here yesterday. Some of the pages I refer to in my prior comment I’ve subsequently taken down, but I have added a very short summary of the exegesis. If you want more details I’d be happy either to repost those hidden pages or email them to you.

    My comment on your blog was about the 2nd week I’d been doing anything with blogs. I thought I could interest people in my exegesis and related implications, in hopes of generating some sort of buzz. Alas, 7 months later I think my wife might still be the only one who’s read the whole exegesis, even though it was up on my blog for 5 months. I’ve subsequently inferred an unspoken rule of the blogosphere: asking people directly to come to your blog is too crassly self-serving to be honored. Strange, since if you write something you think is interesting on its own merits you’d like to let other people know about it. I guess you’re supposed to wait for somebody else to point to your stuff, thereby inserting a layer of objective enthusiasm between yourself and your intended interlocutors. Sounds like some sort of Marxian alienation of the worker thing.

    Anyhow, my sense is that evangelicals, emergings, even postliberals aren’t prepared to read Gen. 1 as a narrative about something other than creation ex nihilo. Maybe you’re done thinking about this issue, in which case I’ll take it as a sign of good faith that you eventually did visit my blog. I too have moved on to other concerns with an air of melancholy pervading my musings. I’ll go have a look at your current blogging endeavors to see what you’re up to these days.

  • 10 Jason // Mar 22, 2007 at 8:11 am

    Hi John,
    It’s funny you should post on this topic now. As you guessed it receded into the background for a while on my list of things I am thinking about, but then a few days ago I was subbing at a Christian high school and the class project was on describing 4 different views of Genesis (something like literal creation, gap theory, day-age theory, and theistic evolution). It reminded me how crucial an issue this is for so many people and, unfortunately, how often we ask the wrong questions of Genesis and so get forced and misleading answers.

    Regarding your post, The Seven Creations of Genesis, I found it thought-provoking. Like you, I’ve found that the more I read Genesis 1 & 2, the more I find that it sets the foundation or the worldview for so many areas of inquiry: human rights, bioethics, culture, environmental stewardship and so on. Unfortunately, when Genesis 1 & 2 is read solely as a literal transcript of the creation of the universe it’s easy to miss those other aspects. However, my concern both with my reading and yours is how much it corresponds with the original intent of the authors. Not that we know the original intent of the authors perfectly, but we do know they were writing in the midst of other ancient near-eastern creation myths, such as the Enuma Elish. Do modern readings, even those which aren’t strictly about the science of creation, pull too much out of the text or, conversely, read too many of our modern questions into the text? There’s no hard and fast answer to that question, but it’s one that keeps coming back to me.

  • 11 John Doyle // Mar 23, 2007 at 5:52 am

    Thanks for checking out my exegesis. It’s hard to tell what the author’s intent might have been, isn’t it? Is the present-day reader struck more by the similarities or the differences between Gen. 1 and the Enuma Elish? Owen Barfield in Saving the Appearances talks about how remarkable it is that ancient Judaism rejected idols when all the surrounding religions built them. In Lev. 18:1-5 Yahweh instructs the Israelites to walk after His statutes but specifically not after the statutes of the Egyptians whom they are leaving nor of the Canaanites to whom they are going. Everything is about being separate. It seems unlikely that the writer of Gen. 1 would specifically have written a creation saga as a polemic to compete with the Mesopotamian story. His would purposely have been a different story, one might surmise.

    Probably 95% or more of all written text is intended to be read as straightforward exposition and narrative. To present-day eyes Genesis 1 reads like a straightforward narrative text about an extraordinary event. There are no clues in the text itself to suggest that it should be read as poetry or “true myth” or some other literary genre. The main reason to invoke genre is because the narrative just doesn’t seem to be true.

    There’s reason to believe that the normal, natural, literal meaning of a text is more or less the same for us today as it would have been for a Near Eastern Bedouin from 3,000 years ago. All human languages work pretty much the same way. Even otherwise primitive cultures use sophisticated grammar and syntax. All human languages are grammatically and syntactically similar to one another. By an early age children become adept users of the language spoken in whatever culture they happen to be raised in, even without explicit instruction.

    Language evolved as a means of communication, so that speaker and listener could orient themselves to the world in a similar way. Why are languages so similar to each other? Noam Chomsky says it’s because the unique structure of the human brain essentially causes language to take a certain form in all human societies. Psycholinguist Michael Tomasello suggests that all languages are structurally similar to one another because they’re all offshoots of a single complex Ur-language: It may just be that language, for whatever reason, began its historical development first – early in the evolution of modern humans some 200,000 years ago – and so reached something near its current level of complexity before modern languages began to diverge from this prototype.

    It seems fair to say that genetic, developmental, cultural, and historical forces have all contributed to the similarity of all modern natural languages. Say we’re trying to read a Biblical text written in 1000 BC. Say it existed in oral tradition for generations before that. From the standpoint of genetic evolution the writer would have been a biologically modern human, no different from us in terms of sheer brain capacity and ability to use language. In linguistic history three thousand years just isn’t all that long ago: the structure and complexity of ancient Hebrew is more or less the same as modern English. We should be able to understand what the ancient writer had to say.

    All that said, I can understand why Christians would have a hard time with the idea that Genesis 1 isn’t really about the material creation of the universe, but rather about making sense of what’s there. Still, a lot of exegetes have observed that the 6-day structure of the creation seems more logical and hierarchical than chronological—check out the framework hypothesis of Kline and others for a complicated interpretation of Genesis 1 based on this insight. I propose that maybe the story is explicitly about God creating that rational linguistic ordering of the material universe and teaching it to man.

    Or maybe it was just a myth.

  • 12 Jason // Mar 26, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    I agree John, “myth” is often taken as “an invented story” (which is one definition). But myths can also be “true stories” which describe a worldview and which are told to convey something that can’t be described as a series of facts. I think your designation of “true myth” does work best as a designation for Genesis if we flesh that term out a bit more.

    Do you mean by “rational linguistic ordering” “consciousness”? So the first few chapters describe the process of how God enabled humans to “make sense” of all that was around them as they (presumably) evolved into conscious creatures?

  • 13 John Doyle // Apr 3, 2007 at 3:32 am

    Yes, I agree with your last-sentence summary of my read of Genesis 1. I’m saying that it’s the story of elohim talking to a witness about the stuff in the universe, distinguishing categories from one another and assigning names to them (e.g., light/dark), creating a framework of meaning by which the witness could make sense of the world he finds himself in.

    But there is a disagreement that I should point out. You said this: I think your designation of “true myth” does work best as a designation for Genesis if we flesh that term out a bit more. But I said this: There are no clues in the text itself to suggest that it should be read as poetry or “true myth” or some other literary genre. To me the idea of myth as worldview doesn’t work. An event can be interpreted in terms of a worldview. But it seems to me that the event itself is either historically accurate, historically inaccurate, fictional, or some combination of the three. Melville may have written Moby Dick in part as a vehicle to elaborate a particular worldview, and that worldview may possess wisdom and truth, but that doesn’t transform Melville’s fictional story into a true myth.

    If you’re interested in exploring this further , you might want to check out a post on Open Source Theology I wrote awhile ago about “true myth” and what possible meanings could be ascribed to that seemingly oxymoronic phrase. The post has generated some discussion; you might want to check it out if exploring the “true myth” idea interests you. Put up a comment there if you like. Embedded among the comments on the OST post is a summary of my exegesis and some interaction around it. Or you can go check out the page on my blog called “an alternative literal reading of genesis 1.”

  • 14 David Migl // Apr 29, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Very interesting paper! I myself am on a journey from YEC to TE. Points like the duality of “red tooth and claw” and “myriad of happy beings” were especially interesting, as I had not heard of them before. I wish that more detail was present on the rethinking of doctrinal points such as the garden. I think that is an area needy of thought and exposition, as I have yet to see a definitive work reconciling evolution and original sin (maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough).