Sunday, September 03, 2006
Keith Ward: Beyond Boundaries
The following article comes from The Tablet. Keith Ward is one of my favorite contemporary theologians. This is worth a read.
Beyond Boundaries - The Infinite Creator
Pope Benedict and his former doctoral students meet this weekend to discuss creation and evolution. Despite their apparent differences, the idea of the evolution of human life and its intelligent design by God are not in conflict, says one leading philosopher of religion.
I was surprised to discover a survey of over 1,000 students last month by Opinion Panel Research, an independent research group for recording student opinions on a wide range of topics, which purported to show that over 30 per cent of UK students believed in "creationism or intelligent design, rather than evolution". I was not quite so surprised when I found that "creationism" was defined as the view that God created us within the last 10,000 years, and "intelligent design" as the view that some features of living things are due to a supernatural being such as God. The trouble with this is the vagueness of the definition of "intelligent design". For every orthodox Christian, it is necessarily true that some features of living things are due to God. In fact all features of living things are due to God, and the cosmos is indeed designed with supreme wisdom and intelligence. So any student might say that they believe in intelligent design, but that would not compete with belief in the evolution of life.
God creates adult human beings as organisms that have developed from a single cell over a period of time. It is not in principle different to say that God created human beings on earth as a species that developed from single cell organisms by a process of development over four thousand million years. The evolution of human life, and its intelligent design by God, are not in conflict.
I guess that some students were rightly puzzled by the question. This is not surprising, because there is a school of thought in America that propagates what it calls "intelligent design". These theorists, like William Dembski and Michael Behe, do not deny evolution. They propose that some specific and identifiable phenomena, like the bacterial flagellum or the blood-clotting cascade, are "irreducibly complex", and cannot be accounted for by the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection alone. They require specific intelligent planning, presumably by something very like God.
The vast majority of biologists regard this as an extremely weak hypothesis. Most informed Catholic theologians agree with the American Catholic philosopher, John Haught, that it is also a very questionable view of how God interacts with the world. It suggests that God has to interfere with physical processes every now and then in identifiable ways. This theory was christened the "God of the gaps" hypothesis by the British mathematician Charles Coulson. It seems at odds with the Christian view that God is constantly sustaining and directing all creatures.
So it is important to distinguish the American "intelligent design" school from the general Christian belief that the universe, and the evolutionary process as a whole, are indeed designed by a supreme intelligence. If the students surveyed were indeed confused by the question, then only about 12 per cent of students questioned in the survey were "young Earth" believers - that is, they thought the universe to be less than 10,000 years old. This is still very sad, since it is the virtually unanimous testimony of astronomers and cosmologists that the cosmos is 14 billion years old. It demonstrates a huge conflict between the best modern science and the Christian (or Muslim) beliefs of some students. It means that such students will regard modern science as the enemy of faith.
Modern science originated in a context of Christian belief that God had created the cosmos through reason, through the Logos, and that the human mind could discern the glory of God in the works of creation. It is regrettable in the extreme that some Christians have now abandoned this belief.
Neither the Pope nor the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the overwhelming majority of Christian theologians are creationists, so what accounts for this strange state of affairs? I think two main factors are at work. First there is a loss of a sense of the importance of metaphor and poetic language in religion. Nobody believes that the Earth is a flat disc floating on a great sea of chaos, or that the stars are lamps hung on the dome of the sky, above which is another great sea. Yet that is what the Book of Genesis literally says. So all agree that we cannot read the Genesis creation account (or two accounts) literally.
Once you have made that step, the obvious thing to say is that here is a piece of inspired poetry, depicting the dependence of all things on the creative wisdom of God. There is a literal truth expressed in the text - the dependence of all things on God - but the text expresses it in a poetic way that is both more emotionally affective and more evocative of associated ideas. The problem is that some people think poetry is not important, or cannot express things which go beyond what can be literally described. This is the death of religious imagination, and it is sad to see the profound symbols and metaphors of religion reduced to literal descriptions of purely physical facts.
Second, there is a failure to see the amazing cosmic vision that modern cosmology provides for Christian faith. That God should, over thousands of millions of years, by laws of incredible beauty and simplicity, bring out of the basic matter of the early universe all the complexity of galaxies, planets, living beings and intelligent moral awareness, is truly wonderful. As the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians depict it, Christ is the eternal wisdom of God through whom this unimaginably vast emergent cosmos was formed and in whom it develops, working towards what the writer calls the "final mystery" of the divine will set forth in Christ, the unity of everything in the cosmos (the writer says, "everything in heaven and earth", and we might say all the stars and galaxies), in Christ (Ephesians 1, 9).
This is a religious vision of the utmost grandeur. Christ is Lord of the galaxies, and foreshadows on this planet the final goal of all creation, to be united in God. The cosmos is moving towards a great goal, it groans as in childbirth waiting for the revealing of the children of God (Romans 8:19). For a Christian, evolution is not just intelligently designed; it manifests a divinely intended purpose, that the material universe itself should become a sharer in the life of God, as it grows towards its fullness in Christ.
What a grandeur of vision those who cannot accept evolution are bound to miss. How much smaller and more restricted is a God who has only one little planet to worry about, and that not for very long. How much greater it is to worship the creator of innumerable worlds of beauty and wisdom, and to be grateful that this infinite creator has been pleased to be known in human form on this planet, at this point in cosmic history.The argument about creationism in our schools is not really about science, because the creationist theory is based not on scientific study, but on a particular literalistic interpretation of Scripture. There are important questions at issue about the proper understanding of science. Some scientists say science gives an adequate explanation of everything, that evolutionary science shows human life to be a random accident in a purposeless universe, and that science excludes the possibility of divine action in the world or of miracles. It is important to see that these are not scientific statements. They are philosophical remarks about what science is. No believer in God could accept them. So Christians would wish to say that God, who is most truly real, is beyond the range of scientific explanation. Evolutionary science does not rule out a belief that the evolution of human beings is purposive and eternally planned by God. God can act in the world, but God's actions cannot in principle be explained by any scientific laws.
There are arguments here, but they are about philosophy, and classes in philosophy are the right place to discuss them. Yet as part of that discussion it is important to see that Christianity is not a sort of physical science, which rejects what the best physical scientists say. It is about the existence of God as the supreme spiritual reality, and about how God relates to the human world through the person of Jesus and the Church.
Creationism seems to be gaining strength because people are failing to see or to convey the deep truth and distinctive nature of religious language, and failing to see the truly exciting cosmic vision that Christianity has to proclaim. These are the things a properly Christian education should seek to convey; if they are seen, then the debate about creationism might simply fade away.