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Category: Intelligent Design

Openly Discussing Evolution, SDAs, and the UMC

Openly Discussing Evolution, SDAs, and the UMC

Credit: J_Alves
Credit: J_Alves

Evolution is one of those issues we often don’t discuss in church. There are actually quite a number of Christians who accept evolutionary theory in general or just a part of it, but quite often they just don’t want to get into the kind of acrimonious debate. Every so often (really quite rarely, all things considered) I’ll get an e-mail from someone who found my e-mail address on the list of board members for Florida Citizens for Science, and they wonder how I can be a Christian and be on that list. That is, unless they simply assert that I must not actually be a Christian. (This is a rambling post. [Which of mine aren’t?] Toward the end I do get around to referring to the SDA church in which I grew up and the UMC, where I currently hold membership.)

Now this post is more about “openly discussing” than about evolution as such. I grew up in a conservative Christian culture (the Seventh-day Adventist Church), in which it was one of the articles of our faith that we accepted the literal creation week. As a result of that, and of the resistance I met when I started to see things differently, I grew up with the impression that conservatives want to close off conversation while liberals were open. Each group was, after all, treating me in that way.

But the more I have experienced the world, the more I have observed two things:

  1. Any entrenched group will tend (or at least have a strong temptation) to exclude outlying opinions
  2. Outlying groups, especially those that actually have some traction, will tend to feel excluded even if they aren’t

The fact is that no matter how energetically we may work to be totally open, no discussion can take place on a completely unlimited field. Not all boundaries are limiting boxes.

A few years back I was teaching a Sunday School class and one of the members asked me to meet with him to discuss the future of the class. He wanted us to study eastern religions. I told him that I had no problem with the class studying eastern religions if that was what they wanted to do, but they’d have to get a different teacher. “Why?” he asked. Well, I explained, there are two reasons. First, I know very little about eastern religions. Second, I’m a Bible teacher. That’s what I do. He was quite surprised and told me that I didn’t really need to know much about eastern religions in order to teach it for the class.

That attitude is more common that you might think. On the one hand we have the idea that issues can only be discussed by a very highly qualified group of experts, and outlying opinions, those contrary to the majority position, should shut up and go away. That attitude can lead to stagnation. But on the other hand we have the view that all opinions need to have an equal place at the table, no matter how poorly supported they might be. This is another attitude that will prevent progress, this time by creating chaos and wasting time.

We live in a kind of tension between these two ideas. For example, I believe that creation vs evolution is a perfectly valid subject for discussion in the church. The debate on the interpretation of Genesis is alive and well, and carried out by highly qualified scholars in the appropriate fields. I think that there is really very little actual scientific debate on this same controversy, because I don’t see creationists doing original science that can actually challenge the various facets of evolutionary theory. I see some picking at this or that, but nothing one can get one’s teeth into. But I’m not a scientist, and I’m not qualified in any of the fields in question, so my opinion on that point isn’t particularly important.

What I think we should work toward is a creative tension between consensus and new ideas, between open discussion of all views and perhaps more productive discussion between people who are more selective. I think this sort of discussion is well served by a variety of confessional, non-confessional, and secular schools, whether the topic is religious or not. I regularly hear complaints that certain sectarian institutions should be shut down because they are too closed in their confession. I disagree. As long as those who attend know what the principles of the school are, and graduates are functional in the subjects they learn, I think that’s an appropriate way to add variety.

The problem is that “functional” is defined by too many people as “accepting what I already believe.” As an example, I hear from advocates of the historical-critical method in Bible study (and with some caveats I count myself among their number), that one isn’t “qualified” in biblical studies if one doesn’t “know” something so obvious as that there are three Isaiahs. But what if one knows that this claim is made, and knows why, but doesn’t accept it? One can be so absolutely certain of one’s scholarly conclusions that one cannot imagine an intelligent person disagreeing.

Conservatives will doubtless nod and agree, but from them I hear that if someone can’t make a good argument for the 6th century dating of Daniel, or for the Mosaic authorship of all or part of the Pentateuch, that person doesn’t really know what she or he is talking about. Or perhaps the secularly educated scholar doesn’t truly understand Calvinist theology. Or Arminianism. Whatever.

My suggestion would be that if all your knowledge comes from one source or type of source, such as all your academic ideas are those favored by the school from which you got your degree, you may be a bit narrow. And that means that the simple fact that your college is confessional on the one hand, or very secular on the other, doesn’t mean you’re ignorant or closed. Ignorance and closed-mindedness are cultivated attitudes. Especially in modern America, you have no excuse not to know how the other side thinks.

You also have a variety of avenues to challenge the other side, so you don’t really have an excuse when one school or organization doesn’t like your ideas and tells you to hit the road. I may not like it. I too have an ideal academic environment, one in which serious scholars who disagree are welcomed irrespective of confessional statements. But that’s my imaginary ideal. I think I got a rather decent education from confessional schools that were closed in many ways I wish they were not. But they were nonetheless good schools.

All this blather has been leading to two links with quick opinions on my part. The first comes from a Seventh-day Adventist source, in which an SDA writer responds to some claims of supposed challenges to evolutionary theory. It’s in Spectrum Magazine, titled Dangling or Not? A Response to Chadwick and Brand. This article critiques another in which creationists see some new scientific discovery challenging the foundations of evolutionary theory. Just as I’ve been hearing all my life that the end of the world is upon us because of some recent story in the news, so I have been hearing that evolutionary science was on life support due to some new discovery. I’ve become just as jaded to both. But this story takes place in an organization that really doesn’t want to open the door to full discussion of this issue. Being an advocate of evolutionary theory in the SDA educational system is unlikely to be good for your career prospects.

On the other hand we have the UMC general conference. Now in religious terms, as I’ve said, I see creation vs evolution (though I don’t see the two in conflict), as a valid debate. Amongst the advocates against evolutionary theory is the Discovery Institute. Before you read the rest of this, you should know that I truly dislike the Discovery Institute. I think they largely make what should be scientific and theological questions into political ones. But just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard in the church. Yet according to this article from UM-Insight, they were denied a booth at the UMC General Conference. Why? Because they are not in accord with our social principles. Hypocrisy anyone?

I recall when I first joined a United Methodist congregation, I asked the pastor if I had to affirm the social principles. He said, “Those? We don’t pay much attention to them.” I know a number of Methodists who would object to his saying that, but what he says is very accurate. The social principles are a box that few would like to be confined in, yet that provide an excuse for many things. Advocating to change them is a recreational sport. If the GC venue was running out of space, you have to exclude someone, but this is a particularly thin excuse. There are plenty of United Methodists, though presumably a minority, who would be sympathetic to the institute’s work. Many of them live in this area. I disagree, but in the church they should have a voice.


Adrian Warnock – Evolutionary Spectrum

Adrian Warnock – Evolutionary Spectrum

I always find it interesting when Adrian Warnock produces a spectrum on some topic. I almost always disagree with some point on the spectrum, but the exercise is worthwhile. After all, if I produce a spectrum, there will doubtless be people who disagree at some point.

This time Adrian has produced a spectrum on beliefs regarding evolution. I think it generally covers the ground. At the same time, I think it skips over the majority of theistic evolutionists.

The reason may seem subtle, but I think it’s important. Adrian divides the theistic evolutionists between “passive” and “active” equating the latter with intelligent design. I have a couple of problems with that. First, I think natural laws are an expression of God’s will. That a law continues unchanged, or a process functions and finishes (if finishing is appropriate) does not mean that God is less active than when (or if) there is some sort of intervention. Thus God is not less active when he designs a process that works without active intervention than he is with something that requires him to step in from time to time.

Secondly, I think there is a problem with the concepts of intervention, active, and passive. God is. God is infinite (or something close enough we can’t tell the difference). In any case, in terms of interacting with the universe, God doesn’t have to prioritize. He isn’t less active one place than another. So the idea of God being active or passive is an effect of human perception. A process that continues consistently does not appear to require action by God, while one that varies or changes direction is more likely to seem to require such intervention.

Resurrection seems interventionist. Birth and death seems natural. To us.

The evolution of a new life-form seems “special” and perhaps to require intervention. The continued life of a single creature does not. To us.

I just don’t think there’s a real difference from God’s point of view, insofar as one can catch God’s point of view (not very far, I fear). My breath stops without God (Psalm 104:29-30). Gravity stops without God. When all of this works, it appears not to require God’s intervention.

I’m probably writing this too quickly (it’s Sunday morning), to be clear, but my point is simply that God is active whether the process he is using operates consistently and without identified points of intervention or whether (as in intelligent design) there are points at which God intervenes in some special way.

Otherwise, I love the spectrum. I’m glad Adrian included the ruin and restoration folks, who are often forgotten. I’m also glad he distinguished some nuances such as young earth/old universe, and “the earth is young but appears old” vs. “the earth is young and would appear that way if you got the science right.” (My descriptions, not Adrian’s.)


Why I Believe in a Designer but Don’t Accept Intelligence Design

Why I Believe in a Designer but Don’t Accept Intelligence Design

Pocket watch, savonette-type.
Image via Wikipedia

This was triggered by Ed Brayton’s answers to the short ID quiz, and particularly by the first question.

1. On a scale of 0 (diehard disbeliever) to 10 (firm believer), how would you rate your level of belief in Intelligent Design? (Minimal Definition of Intelligent Design: The idea that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, and not by an undirected process.)

I agree with Ed that this definition isn’t terribly accurate for what is actually presented as intelligent design. I’m regularly told that I must not substitute “God” for “intelligent designer” and that it might, for example, be intelligent aliens who interfered with the process of evolution in order to produce the results we actually have. Design by an intelligent alien would only push the process off into the distance, not solve it.

But it is hard to regard something as a serious theory where a single part can be filled by either God or by a super intelligent alien. Yet for various reasons (PR and politics, in my opinion), ID advocates don’t want to just say God.

On the other hand, if you say God is the designer, then you can quite justifiably call ID a God-in-the-gaps argument. Where we have no known path of evolutionary development, or better, where we believe there can be no such path—always based, as it must be, on current knowledge—then we suppose the involvement of a designer.

Such an argument is subject to tomorrow’s knowledge, and indeed new gaps have been filled. Behe‘s “black boxes” don’t always remain black boxes.

But for me, the main issue is simply that I do see  the universe as designed, and I do so for religious reasons. I do not think the natural laws as we see them exist independently, even for a moment. May problem with Paley’s watch is not that I don’t think it’s designed, but that I think the grains of sand around it are also designed.

God, who created the universe, is quite capable of creating either finished creatures or the processes by which they would come into being, and I don’t see any portion as less (or more) the product of design than any other. At most, ID could produce evidence that God’s process was insufficient to its purpose and required interference.


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Another Note on Design

Another Note on Design

Pocket watch, savonette-type.
Image via Wikipedia

Since I hadn’t commented on the Intelligent Design controversy for some time, I want to add a couple of notes to what I said yesterday.

I absolutely believe in design. I believe everything is designed by God. I believe God is involved in everything. In teaching on this subject I have occasionally simply started dropping my pencil on the podium. Someone will surely ask me why I’m doing it. I then ask why the pencil always falls. The 20th or 21st century answer is, of course, gravity. Duh! “No,” I like to say, “The pencil falls because God wants it to.”

What do I mean by that? Do I not believe in gravity? Oh absolutely! Like everything else, I do so because I believe in God. God’s desire is expressed so consistently that we can write it as a law.

I followed the suggestion in one of the comments to the Science and the Sacred post I linked yesterday, and went and read the entire essay in PDF, thus avoiding the wait for the second half. I want to quote a couple of paragraphs.

The first is this:

The point is, different chance hypotheses give different results. Dembski writes, “…opposing chance to design requires that we be clear what chance processes could be operating to produce the event in question.”2 Dembski is very explicit about the necessity of the design inference eliminating all chance hypotheses. But this is a fatal flaw: except in very unusual cases, it is impossible to identify all possible chance hypotheses simply because finite human beings are unable to identify every chance scenario that might be operative. [link added]

This is what I meant in my fumbling, non-mathematician’s statement that I reject the design inference on the grounds of garbage-in garbage-out. We don’t know how the creation of life or certain biological structures occurs, and thus it is not possible to determine the probability of such events.


Also, suppose an intelligent agent designed a natural process that incorporated chance. Human beings do this frequently …

Even if we accept, as I do, that God is the creator, we don’t know the process, so how precisely to we identify God’s fingerprint? I would also suggest that the claim that God cannot design a process that includes chance is just as limiting to God as any of the many other limitations we try to put on him.

Dr. Bradley further argues that design is one of those points where theology can legitimately contribute to our knowledge of the world. It’s a great essay. I suggest reading it.

I would note another issue I have with intelligent design, which is simply that it is detecting instances of design in a universe that is, I believe, designed. Thus, in some sense it is detecting “more” design in some portions of the universe than in others. This is the problem I have with the design argument going back to Paley. The watch is designed, yes. But the sand is also designed in some sense. (Note that I’m aware the analogy is between the watch and living organisms, not sand. That is, in fact, my problem with it.)  One could almost infer that the design argument tests for the absence of God’s designing work in other places in the universe. Almost, but not quite. This is, of course, a theological argument on my part, but then I have always thought this argument should be theological and philosophical, rather than scientific.

Incidentally, it is my belief that God is involved at all points in the universe that makes theistic evolution a difficult thing for me. For many people it is simply a matter of saying that the Bible tells us God created but science tells us how God created–evolutionary processes. This said, we move on without examining our theological views based on the result. But the idea that the earth is old and that death occurred before before the fall seems to display a God who is quite willing to let sparrows, amongst many other things, fall. That is a challenging gulf to bridge. I cannot agree with many of my friends who say that evolution doesn’t really make much theological difference.

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On the Design Inference

On the Design Inference

I’m definitely going to follow this new series on Science & the Sacred. The first post is Why Dembski’s Design Inference Doesn’t Work. Part 1.

I’ve rejected the design inference on the grounds of garbage-in garbage-out. You can’t determine how likely a chain of events is when you don’t know what events constitute the chain. The probability of unknown events is, well, unknown, or so it seems to me.

James Bradley is Professor of Mathematics emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, and is addressing the heart of the matter.

Of ID, Evolution, Christianity, and Blasphemy

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.

Is Intelligent Design Religious?

Is Intelligent Design Religious?

David Opderbeck has an excellent post on the question of whether intelligent design (ID) is religious and how this relates to our view of natural theology. (HT: Through a Glass Darkly)

In the post, he gets into an issue that I have raised before, which is the question of whether we really want to advocate teaching of a sort of “creation lite” (my term) in public school classrooms. I personally say this not form the perspective of keeping religion out of the public school classroom, but rather to keep the state out of the business of teaching religion. I believe that two things generally result from the state trying to teach religion: 1) They do it badly, and 2) They tend eventually to want to enforce whatever it is they have decided to teach.

Opderbeck says:

But even if a plausible argument could be made for the constitutionality of teaching some version of ID in a public school, I personally find this “wedge” strategy pragmatically and theologically suspect….[I’ll leave you to go discover the analogy he uses where I have the ellipsis!]

The imagined Christian majority in this country often seems to believe that whatever is taught in the classroom will be acceptable to them. But a review of the differences in viewpoint among Christians on many issues should suggest that it is difficult to create a single course that is acceptable to all. I would not object to a course in the Bible as literature, for example, provided it was clear that this was not a class in the Bible as a source or object of faith.

I think Christians ought to seriously consider whether or not strategies used to get some form of religion taught in the public school classroom might do more damage to faith than their potential benefit (or damage) to the state. Perhaps we should recapture the notion that it is the task of parents to pass on their faith to their children.