Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Jonathan Edwards may be on to something

To be frank, I have never been attracted to the theology of American Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. Perhaps because of his historical and geographic situation, he always seems to exist in an eddy of history, a backwater, protected and immune from the force of the enrushing early Enlightenment and its theological questions and challenges. Plus, in matters spiritual or otherwise, the guy was a hard ass. There, I said it.

Nevertheless, this quotation from Sam Storms, the author of Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections says I'm no doubt badly mistaken. In an interview printed in Crossway's publicity publication, The Book Report, Storms says:

[Edwards] saw everything in the light of the glory and power and majesty of God, from the smallest of spiders to the most expansive of galaxies. Everything exists by virtue of God's incessant infusion of life and energy. Everything exists to reflect the glory and splendor of its Creator. Everything exists to draw us to God so that we might glorify him by finding satisfaction in all that he is for us in Jesus.

Let's face it. In the wake of a personal openness to science, I'm hunting around to see what models theology can provide. And though I am not at all interested in adopting process theology, a direction which, in my opinion, gives the store away in exchange for contemporary ideological legitimacy, Edwards "incessant infusion" hints at possibility.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Evolution: three faithful responses

In the October 2007 edition of First Things magazine, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., wrote an interesting article surveying the general approaches Christians (he says Roman Catholics, but includes many who are from different traditions) are taking to evolution. I would like to briefly summarize these positions.

“Catholics who are expert in the biological sciences,” Dulles begins, “take several different positions on evolution.” These are as follows.

Theistic evolutionism
Those who, believing that science and religion address “different levels of knowledge,” espouse a combination of “Darwinism in science and theism in theology.” This group rejects “Darwinism as a philosophical system” and “holds that God, eternally foreseeing all the products of evolution, uses the natural process of evolution to work out his creative plan.” Theistic evolutionists believe that science is epistemologically limited. “It can tell us a great deal about the processes that can be observed or controlled by the senses and by instruments, but it has no way of answering deeper questions involving reality as a whole.” God, to this group, gets things going by the big bang, knowing from that point how it will all go. Dulles includes in this group Kenneth R. Miller, Stephen M. Barr, Francis S. Collins, Fred Hoyle, and Arthur Peacock.

Intelligent design
Michael Behe is the only researcher named to this school, though there are others. Here we find the usual appeal to irreducible complexity. God interferes in development by producing organs that are irreducibly complex. Dulles says that sudden divine intervention in the formation of species should not be ruled out. Nevertheless, he prefers Darwin, and warns.

As a matter of policy, it is imprudent to build one’s case for faith on what science has not yet explained [what today appears irreducibly complex], because tomorrow it may be able to explain what it cannot explain today. History teaches that the “God of the gaps” often proves to be an illusion.

Process thinking
A teleological position once called “vitalism,” Dulles includes Henri Bergson, Michael Polanyi, and Teilhard de Chardin in this group. This school believes that mechanical principles just can’t explain the behavior of living things. Living things want to live. And “this internal finality” sets them apart from the dead earth. Life goes somewhere. It stretches out toward the future. Dulles references English physicist John Polkinghorn’s insight that “there must be in the universe a thrust toward higher and more complex forms.” God urges, advocates, and initiates each graduate development. “Many adherents of this school would say that the transition from physicochemical existence to biological life, and the further transitions to animal and human life, require an additional input of divine creative energy.” And we hear from Georgetown professor John F. Haught [see my post “Let’s ask the Catholic about science”] who notes that

Natural science achieves exact results be restricting itself to measurable phenomena, ignoring deeper questions about meaning and purpose. By its method, it filters out subjectivity, feeling, and striving, all of which are essential to a full theory of cognition. Materialistic Darwinism is incapable of explaining why the universe gives rise to subjectivity, feeling, and striving.

Thomist Etienne Gilson, in his book From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again put the blame on Francis Bacon and his peers. Seeking to explain everything mechanically, they elided two of Aristotle’s four causes. They kept the material and efficient causes, but discarded formal and final causality. In their wake, writes Dulles, science “simply disallows the questions about why anything (including human life) exists, how we differ in nature from irrational animals, and how we ought to conduct our lives.” He continues,

Without the form, or the formal cause, it would be impossible to account for the unity and specific identity of any substance. In the human composite, the form is the spiritual soul, which makes the organism a single entity and gives it its human character. Once the form is lost, the material elements decompose, and the body ceases to be human. It would be futile, therefore, to try to define human beings in terms of their bodily components alone.

Final causality is particularly important in the realm of living organisms. The organs of the animal or human body are not intelligible except in terms of their purpose or finality. The brain is not intelligible without reference to the faculty of thinking that is its purpose, nor is the eye intelligible without reference to the function of seeing.

Blogger Michael Liccione has an interesting response to this part of Dulles’ argument in a post entitled, “God and evolution: the state of the question.” Liccione says that there is a good reason for excluding formal and final causes. Progress in the sciences requires their exclusion because including them would undermine the basis for rigorous experimentation. They are good philosophical principles, he says, that help contextualize scientific findings. But that context is philosophy, not science.

I like the way Liccione summarizes Dulles’ position: “Dulles' view may be summed up thus: he finds ID too dependent on a God of the gaps, and TE too deistic. Rather, and given the Church's irreformable teaching about the origin of the human soul, we should look to some form of vitalism as a viable option.” Science, of course, does not think God should interfere at all in the natural order of things. But Dulles is correct when he asserts that Christians believe in a God who incarnates, who works miracles, who reveals—indeed, who intervenes! He warns theistic evolutionists not to hold too tightly to the reasoning that is current in modern science. “Science and technology (science’s offspring) are totally inadequate in the field of morality.” And morality is where Dulles leaves off.

Right and wrong, and the inner understanding that it is a noble thing to choose the right even at the cost of suffering or pain—what can science tells us about this innate higher law, he asks. Evolutionists, he says, say that morality and religion arose for survival value. “But this alleged survival value, even if it be real, tells us nothing about the truth or falsity of any moral or religious system.” And just because science explains a belief, does this discount it? One might also point out that the pursuit of scientific knowledge is, itself, an incorrigibly moral act.

We should recover reason, Dulles concludes. Reason is the full range of human thinking, and we must discover and embrace all of it, and not limit its range merely to that which is empirically verifiable. In this, Dulles’ call to good thinking agrees entirely with Philip Kitcher [see my post “Evolution, providence, and the political”] who said that religious people should look to the riches of their theological and philosophical traditions and discover ways of understanding and dialoging in a secular world of science.

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