"Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world." - Todd Littleton
"I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see." - Anon
"Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all." - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
"Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be." - Kurt Vonnegut
"Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals." - Jim Forest
"People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone." - Anon
"... Certainly God's love has made fools out of us all." - R.E. Slater
"An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst." - R.E. Slater
"Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics." - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
"Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated." - Emil Brunner
"Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh" means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Asking Questions of Evolutionary Creationism

 
"I am not of the opinion that evolutionary theory poses no challenge to Christianity, but neither am I of the opinion that evolutionary theory can be ignored or dismissed. The questions therefore that must be answered, among others I'm sure, are: 1. Is evolutionary theory necessarily teleological for the Christian? 2. Is there a place for natural theology or general revelation in light of evolutionary theory? 3. What priority is to be given evolutionary science in determining Christian dogma?" - Mark Quanstrom
 
 
A Much Needed Conversation
 
by Mark Quanstrom
April 17, 2013
 
I am appreciative to those who recognize that there ought to be a place where serious conversation can take place regarding the relationship between evolutionary theory and Christianity's faith affirmations.
 
I'm appreciative because I am not of the opinion that evolutionary theory poses no challenge to Christianity. I don't think that if we just appropriated the right Biblical hermeneutic, or understood the respective epistemological domains of science and religion, or insisted on science recognizing its "faith" presuppositions, then all would be well.
 
I'm appreciative because neither am I of the opinion that the challenges that evolutionary theory pose to creedal Christianity can be ignored or dismissed. (And just for the record, I am using the word "theory" here in its scientific sense, not in the "detective novel" sense.) I am not in agreement with the young-earth creationists who dismiss or explain away the scientific evidence for evolutionary theory, even if I am sympathetic to their recognition of the problem evolution poses. Evolutionary theory must be taken seriously, as it is providing the best theoretical framework for understanding biological life on this planet.
 
So this is a much needed conversation, and for that reason, I would like to raise a few of the issues that I believe confound an easy reconciliation between evolutionary theory and Christianity. I don't think that the three questions I am raising exhaust the issues, but in my mind, they seem to be three that are worthy of reflective consideration by Christian theologians and Christian biologists alike.
 
 
1. Is Evolutionary Theory Necessarily Teleological for the Christian?
 
The first question that I believe is relative to some sort of rapprochement between creedal Christianity and evolutionary theory concerns how evolution is to be understood itself. There is considerable conversation among evolutionists about whether or not evolutionary theory is teleological in nature; that is, whether the theory necessitates purpose or direction, or whether it is simply descriptive of a blindly mechanistic universe. John Dupre, Professor of Philosophy of Science at Exeter University, in his review of John O. Reiss' Not By Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker, stating the facts of the matter, writes:
Followers of the debate between evolutionists and various waves of creationists, most recently the advocates of "intelligent design," will have been struck by one curious convergence between the views of the opposing parties. Both sides agree that life, whether or not literally designed by an intelligent agent, seems just as if it had been designed.1
This philosophic presupposition that evolutionary theory is guided by some teleological principle ("survival of the fittest" or "natural selection" for example) is being rejected by many evolutionists precisely because a teleological principle cannot be empirically verified.

So John O. Reiss, Chair of the Biology Department at Humboldt State University, believes it absolutely necessary that evolutionary theory be understood non-teleologically. In the first chapter of his book, he explains his project.
In this book, I try to show that the concept of natural selection is often invoked to explain evolutionary transformations for which we have no evidence that the mechanism of natural selection, as currently understood, was wholly or even partially responsible for the transformation. I argue that we have never been able to overcome the major weakness of this metaphor... This weakness is the implication that there is, in nature, an agent with actions analogous to those of the breeder in artificial selection, a teleological agent that intentionally, and with foresight, 'selects' variations directed toward the improvement of the organism.2
Reiss insists that evolutionary theory, for it to be coherent, must reject any implication or indication of purpose.
 
David Hanke, Senior Lecturer of Biology at the University of Cambridge, goes further and insists that the whole evolutionary theory is compromised precisely because evolutionists infuse it with purpose.

In a chapter titled "Teleology: the explanation that bedevils biology," he writes:
Biology is sick. Fundamentally unscientific modes of thought are increasingly accepted, and dominate the way the subject is explained to the next generation... One major reason is the manner in which Natural Selection slipped seamlessly into the place of the Creator: the Natural Selector as the acceptable new face of the Great Designer... Predictably enough, anthropomorphizing Nature as your selector leads inevitably to the false supposition that there exists the quality of selectability, called 'Fitness' on the basis of which Nature selects... 'Fitness' does not exist – it is another phantom construct of the human mind...
 
There is no selection, only differential survival... ...both 'natural selection' and 'survival of the fittest' amount to no more than survival of the survivors, reflecting the uncreative emptiness of the continuous sieving of living things...3
According to Hanke, there is no "natural selection" or "survival of the fittest," as if "selection" was the means and "survival" was the end. No, it was simply "survivor of the survivors."
 
It seems to me problematic if the future paradigm for evolutionary biologists necessarily precludes a telos or teleological principle. Those who adhere to theistic evolution will necessarily be engaged in conversations about the definition of evolution itself and how the presupposition of purpose affects the scientific methodology. So the first question that I have is this one: "Is evolutionary theory necessarily teleological for the Christian?"
 
Comment 1
 
The last article I have listed below is by an evolutionary scientist/philosopher who
actually proposes the idea of teleology being central to the "bones" of evolution.
Many Evolutionary Creationists also feel this same way as do I.
 
- R.E. Slater (res)
 
 
2. Is there a place for natural theology or general revelation in light of evolutionary theory?
 
The second question I have concerns the place of natural theology or general revelation in an understanding of the Christian Faith. I should confess at the outset that I am not Barthian in this matter. While I recognize the absolute and definitive uniqueness of the special revelation of God in Christ, and while I understand the Reformed rejection of natural theology per se, I would like to accept as true Paul's word in Romans 1:20a, which says: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen..." (NIV)

And I should note that our theological tradition acknowledges the place of general revelation to a knowledge of God. H. Orton Wiley wrote:
The Scriptures recognize the fact that nature reveals God, not only by frequent references to the work of nature but also by direct assertion. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night... The Apostle Paul... makes it clear that nature reveals God sufficiently to lead men to seek after Him and worship Him...4
However, in light of what evolution has taught us about "creation," I'm thinking I might need to be afraid to ask what nature teaches us about the Creator. How is Hume's critique of the teleological argument for God's existence to be answered by Christian evolutionists who embrace natural theology or general revelation?
Look around this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind man, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children.5
If general revelation, through creation, is a true revelation of the divine nature of God, then are we not with Tennyson, who wrote that nature was "red in tooth and claw" and who then was compelled to ask:
Are God and nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.6
Indeed, Jerry Coyne, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, calls into question the natural theology/general revelation of the Christian community in his blog when he challenged BioLogos' use of evolutionary science to draw conclusions about God's character. BioLogos, which is a "community of evangelical Christians committed to exploring and celebrating the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith," argued on their web page that God's character can indeed be discerned from evolutionary science. Specifically, they posited that God is "Extravagant" (in light of the diversity of life), "Patient" (in light of the length of time evolutionary processes take) and a "Provider" (in light of the complex ecosystems that are necessary for individual species to survive).7 Coyne responded:
As an evolutionary biologist, I would see this as deliberate humor if I didn't know better. For I could think of several not-so-nice characteristics of God also manifested by "studying evolutionary science." But I'll leave this amusing exercise to the readers...
And then Coyne asks: "What characteristics of God do you see from studying nature and evolution?"8
 
And so the second question I have concerns the place of general revelation/natural theology in light of evolutionary theory? Can we continue to look to nature to discern the Creator?
 
Comment 2 
 
I have attempted some answers to these very same questions which can be found under the
sidebars of "God," "Sin," "Sovereignty," "Theism (both Relational and Process)," and such
like. I believe that God's handiwork does reveal God as it must, but I also believe that His
handiwork has been corrupted by sin.
 
- res
 
 
3. What priority is to be given evolutionary science in determining Christian dogma?
 
The third question I have concerns the specific challenges evolutionary theory poses to the affirmations of the Christian Faith. I'm not speaking of those affirmations that are dependent on a fundamentalist hermeneutic, but rather those creedal affirmations that are grounded in the Bible-entire and not in any one particular passage or dependent on any one particular hermeneutic.
 
For example, granting that the first three chapters of Genesis are primarily theological in nature, how is the doctrine of original sin or inherited depravity to be understood? If Adam and Eve are archetypes, then how is the "fall" to be explained? Is a primeval paradise from which humanity fell and to which it longs to return essential to the Christian Faith as it has been understood in the West?
 
Related to the above questions is the question of death. Christian Faith teaches that death was an intrusion on the created order. Death was the consequence of the fall, is judgment on sin and is an enemy to which the resurrection of Jesus Christ was the victorious answer.
 
Evolutionary science demands that death be understood as an essential part of the biological world. If death is essential to God's creation and therefore a necessary good, then why is there a need for resurrection from the dead? Why has the Christian Faith considered death to be an enemy? Evolutionary science poses challenges to the Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as well. In short, was He the God-man, the prototype of a restored humanity, a second Adam? Did all the fullness of God dwell in human form? Or was he a homosapien on the evolutionary continuum? If so, was He perhaps an exception to evolution and therefore a "tertium quid," which means not fully human after all? If He wasn't human as we are human, then we must rethink atonement as well as Christology.
 
The real issue for Christians which I believe confounds an easy reconciliation between evolutionary theory and Christianity is nothing other than the incarnation. The first confession for Christians is the confession that "Jesus is Lord," that "the Word became flesh." I believe this foundational confession precludes Gnostic answers to the challenges that evolutionary theory poses, for example, that death must be understood in a spiritual sense; that resurrection is symbolic; that the new creation is immaterial. If we take incarnation (and therefore Christianity) seriously, we must take Christ as fully human seriously, and we must take creation as good creation seriously.
 
So I am not of the opinion that evolutionary theory poses no challenge to Christianity, but neither am I of the opinion that evolutionary theory can be ignored or dismissed. The questions therefore that must be answered, among others I'm sure, are:
  1. Is evolutionary theory necessarily teleological for the Christian?
  2. Is there a place for natural theology or general revelation in light of evolutionary theory?
  3. What priority is to be given evolutionary science in determining Christian dogma?
  4.  
Comment 3

Most specifically does Evolutionary Creationism affect classical Christian doctrine... as well it should. Dogmas which are not biblical must fall, and more  helpful descriptions of God, His Word, and His creation, be allowed in. We  live in a world that must now admit this and can no longer consider relevant the older, cherished, Christian doctrines that were concluded during non-scientific eras (nor even our most recent modernistic era of the past 100 years!). However, as I, and others, have shown, through our words and blogsites, what results will be a far richer, more deeply relevant Christian faith than first thought imagined. And that without giving up the fundamentals of our faith... just the fundamentals of our religious ideologies and inaccurate biblical descriptions.  - res
 
 
1 John Dupre. "The Conditions for Existence," American Scientist, Volume 98, Number 2 (March-April 2010): 170
2 John Reiss. Not by Design: Retiring Darwin's Watchmaker. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) 4.
3 John Cornwall, ed. Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 143-155.
4 H. Orton Wiley. Christian Theology, Vol 1. (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1940) 51-52.
5 Dorothy Coleman, ed. Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Other Writings. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 86.
6 Alfred Lord Tennyson. In Memoriam A.H.H., LV, http://www.online-literature.com/donne/718/
7 http://biologos.org/
8 http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/biologos-goes-all-natural-theology/ 
 
 
 
Mark Quanstrom
Olivet Nazarene University
Professor of Theology and Philosophy
 
Rev. Mark R. Quanstrom, Ph.D. is a full-time professor of theology and philosophy in the School of Theology at Olivet Nazarene University. He is also the University Campus pastor at College Church of the Nazarene in Bourbonnais. He began teaching at Olivet in the fall of 2005.
 
Prior to coming to Olivet, he was pastor for 23 years at the Belleville, IL First Church of the Nazarene. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Olivet, a Master of Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from St. Louis University.
 
His Ph.D. dissertation was published in 2004 by Beacon Hill Press under the title A Century of Holiness Theology. His second book, From Grace to Grace, is a call to holiness which places priority on grace (hence the title) and was published by Beacon Hill Press in October of 2011.
 
 
 
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