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Of ID, Evolution, Christianity, and Blasphemy

There’s quite a bit of discussion amongst the blogs that cover creation and evolution regarding the claim that ID is blasphemy. I got started on this with Jason Rosenhouse on the Evolution Blog, but he got started with an article in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy by Peter M. J. Hess of the National Center for Science Education.

There are quite a few topics in the article and in the responses, but I want to address just one issue. First, however, I want to note that while Hess calls the idea that early opposition to evolution was essentially religious the “warfare myth”:

Since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859,11 in which Darwin laid out a meticulously substantiated case for his theory of evolution, the debate about design has taken some fascinating turns. The reception of On the Origin of Species was not as the “warfare myth” portrayed it, with godless volutionary scientists ranged against biblical literalist theologians and bishops. Darwin‘s theory met a mixed reception, with some theologians enthusiastically endorsing it as compatible with religious belief, and some scientists vigorously opposing it on scientific grounds.12 Darwin himself gradually abandoned Christianity as he found its teleological presuppositions to be incompatible with empirical evidence supporting natural selection, although John Brooke has inferred that Darwin‘s loss of traditional faith had more to do with his emotional response to the tragic death of his daughter Annie.13 Although the theory of
evolution was in some respects consonant with Darwin‘s agnosticism, it was not necessarily the cause of Darwin‘s beliefs.

I don’t know the history well enough to comment on this in detail, but I think it is clear that modern opposition to evolution comes primarily from a religious foundation, as Dr. Michael Zimmerman (of the Clergy Letter project) notes in a recent blog post. It’s valuable to break down early opposition to evolution so that we can see that not all theologians were opposed at the time, but then again, not all theologians are opposed now.

There is a particular set of religious beliefs, however, that must be in opposition to evolution, and that is a belief that the Bible in its early chapters provides a form of narrative history. In addition, even those who take some of that text figuratively may see certain aspects, such as a literal first Adam and a literal fall based on the sin of the first couple, as necessarily literally true. In turn, a number of other theological points regarding soteriology hang on those elements.

We’ve seen the importance of these points to some in the evangelical community with the resignation of Dr. Bruce Waltke from RTS Orlando (regarding which I blogged on Friday), and of Dr. Tremper Longman from his reformed seminary (via Michael F. Bird). I must note that while I admire both these men tremendously, I do understand how folks in their theological stream can have a problem with their beliefs. Agreement is not necessary to understanding, in my view.

Which leads me back to the issue of ID and blasphemy. Quoting again from Dr. Hess:

What are the central theological failings of intelligent design? First, it is blasphemous. Intelligent design constrains God to work within the limits of what its adherents can understand about nature. In so doing, it reduces God from the status of creator to that of mere designer, and a not very competent one at that, … [text continues with a quotation-HN]

I have previously called intelligent design (ID) bad theology. But I need to clarify what I mean by bad theology. Most often when used in conversation, “bad theology” simply refers to “theology with which the speaker disagrees,” and thus is just another way of saying “I disagree.” I think there is are only a very few ways in which one can apply the label “bad theology” with any objectivity. First one can apply it to a self-contradictory theology, with the caveat that some theology embraces contradiction. Second, one can apply it to theology that is not precisely what it claims to be.

I think ID suffers from its roots as more of a political strategy than an attempt to be either pure science or pure theology. It’s part of a distinctly American attempt to get creationist ideas past the wall of separation of church and state as understood by American courts. So it has ideas that sound like theology, some that sound like philosophy, and some that at least attempt to sound like science. I don’t see ID as being good science, but that’s not my point here.

Where I encounter ID in person is from lay people in the church who have read one or another of the books or articles on the subject. Without exception, those I have talked to believe, after reading such material, that science has proven that God exists and that God created. Most ID advocates would not claim explicitly that they have done any such thing, and many would go out of their way to deny it. To me that is a sign of bad theology–it seems to do one thing, yet it does another.

The problem with tying this sort of thing down comes from the hybrid nature of ID. I believe in intelligent design myself, not ID the theory, but intelligent design, the classical theology. God is the designer, and the entire universe is designed. One basis on which I would reject ID the theory is simply that I don’t believe that one part of creation is more or less designed than another–God is ultimately the cause of all things, whether he moved directly or indirectly. But that is a theological view, not a scientific one. So I can call ID bad theology from my perspective, but only in the sense that I disagree.

I do indeed believe it is God of the gaps theology, in which things not scientifically explained are claimed as proofs of the activity of some intelligent designer. Once this gets into church, as I’ve noted, the designer is automatically assumed to be God. I think it is quite proper for folks in church to assume the designer is God. Any blame I would place on those who try to present intelligent design with some other designer. I really think very few take that seriously except as a political side-step. So if your theology opposes God of the gaps, then I think you should oppose intelligent design (ID the theory).

In one sense, ID says too much, but in another too little. God’s creative activity is, in my view, all encompassing. I believe that is in accord with the biblical view as well. God is also infinite, and thus doesn’t have to pay less attention to one thing than another. Such prioritization is the result of limitation. Because I am finite, I cannot pay full attention to all of my grandchildren at one time. God could create a mechanism that produces a mechanism that produces a mechanism, for any length of chain he desires, and still have his full attention available to every part of the process.

But again, that is comparing my theology to the theology of ID advocates, thus calling this bad theology is simply another way of saying that I disagree.

I think that saying that ID is blasphemous is an instance of this latter usage of “bad theology.” It seems blasphemous under my theology to discover that God is more involved one place than another or that God is more the designer of life than another.

The ID advocate, however, would likely simply claim that he is arguing that God’s design is more detectable in one place than another. While I would not think it correct, I would hardly call it blasphemous to assert that God chose to show his fingerprints more in some cases than others. I don’t think so, but I don’t think it’s blasphemy to suggest it.

Any problems that are brought up by less than optimum design in nature, as cited by Hess, are problems for theistic evolutionists as much as for any ID advocate, I believe. In my view, that is none at all. I would suggest it is necessary to see God giving a certain freedom in nature to explain the process of creation in any case, whether or not God interferes in the process. I find it much more elegant to think that the form of creation comes through seamlessly, that God does not play with the rules along the way, but that is just my view, not an example of good theology vs. bad.

I think it is valid to point out theological difficulties with ID in the first sense I have mentioned. Do people really understand the implications? What does it say about God? Is it, in fact, theology at all? Those are valid points of discussion. But in all such discussions we need to acknowledge that theology is not a body of knowledge with a single standard for what is right and wrong, and what is good and bad. We need to ask “Bad in what way? Why? In reference to what theological system?”

One last note on compatibilism. Is evolution compatible with Christian theology? Again, one has to definte that theology. Not only is such compatibility dependent on a certain understanding of texts in Genesis (or perhaps not holding a certain understanding), but it does depend on certain concepts in soteriology. I think the two can be compatible, but I do not think the issue is trivial.

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