Materialism Isn’t Enough

QThe next two interviews in Science and Religion: 5 Questions are with William Lane Craig and William Dembski, both Christian philosophers. (See the post 5 Questions … And Some Answers for the questions posed in this book). William Lane Craig is trained in Philosophy (Ph.D. University of Birmingham) and Theology (D. Theol. University of Munich), while William Dembski is trained in Mathematics (Ph.D. University of Chicago) and Philosophy (Ph.D. Univ. of Illinois, Chicago) with an M.Div. from Princeton.

Both William Craig and Bill Dembski hold to an old earth and neither sees any reason to read Genesis as portraying creation over a literal six days some 6000 years ago. Both, however, find reason to question the “natural” evolutionary mechanisms for the origin of the diversity of life and argue against the sufficiency of natural mechanisms for the origin of life and the evolution of the diversity of life we see. Materialism alone simply isn’t a sufficiently powerful explanation. Both Craig and Dembski hold to a form of progressive creationism. Their arguments are interesting – especially in light of the post on Tuesday outlining the reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution at Princeton college and seminary (Purpose Matters!).

William Lane Craig addresses question two “Do you think science and religion are compatible when is comes to understanding cosmology, biology, ethics, and/or the human mind? at length,” giving only short responses to the other four questions posed in this book. Each of the four areas in question two is considered separately.

Cosmology. Science and Christianity are compatible when it comes to cosmology. The Judeo-Christian view that the world was created a finite time ago is consistent with the Big Bang theory for the origin of the universe. There is a beginning to time in our universe. The fine-tuning of the universe is not only consistent with Christianity but points to a Creator and Designer of the universe. He argues against the various multiverse type explanations, considering them incredibly improbable. The fine-tuning is not plausibly explained by either physical necessity or chance, leaving a designer as the best explanation.

Biology. Craig also argues that biology and evolutionary theory are compatible with theism. When scientists claim that there is no direction or purpose they have overstepped the bounds of science.

… science is just not in a position to say with any justification that there is no divinely intended direction or goal of the evolutionary process. How could anyone say on the basis of scientific evidence that the whole scheme was not set up by a provident God to arrive at homo sapiens on planet Earth? (p. 35)

God could intervene to control direction or he could set the initial conditions to arrive at the desired end. There is no way that scientific inquiry alone could determine that this is or is not so. Craig also argues that the religious scientist has a freedom to follow the evidence that the atheist committed to naturalism does not. The probability of the origin of life from inanimate chemicals appears so small as to be effectively impossible. The most natural explanation is that the origin of life is “an event which was supernaturally brought about by God.” (p. 36) He also argues at length that the evolution of the diversity of life by “natural” means is improbable.

But that raises the question, then, why think that it has evolved by these neo-Darwinian mechanisms? Indeed, doesn’t the evidence suggest just the opposite? A progressive creationist view involving periodic divine causal interventions seems to fit the evidence better than naturalism. (p. 39)

But this is an argument about mechanism, the sufficiency of natural mechanisms, and the presence or absence of divine intervention. It is not an argument against the general evolutionary process, which is well supported by the data. The argument makes a leap from “this proposed natural mechanism is improbable” to “the best explanation is God.”

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Purpose Matters!

LivingstoneThere is a purpose to the universe and this purpose matters.

The final case study in David N. Livingstone’s fascinating new book Dealing with Darwin: Place, Politics, and Rhetoric in Religious Engagements with Evolution, looks at the approaches to evolutionary theories at Princeton – both the college and the seminary. Most of the professors at Princeton were willing to accept a limited form of evolution. Limited, first, by the available data of their era. Evolution was gaining acceptance in the general scientific community, but there was considerable doubt concerning mechanism. It was not at all clear that natural selection could play the entire role that Darwin assigned to it. Thus there was a certain caution, noting that evolution by natural selection was not yet a proven theory. Limited, second, by a reaction against the purposelessness that some attributed to Darwinian evolution. There was no room for compromise on teleology, the design and purpose inherent in creation.

When do scientists, including evolutionary biologists, go too far?

What is the appropriate Christian posture toward science?

Charles Hodge at the seminary and James McCosh at the college (then the College of New Jersey, only being renamed Princeton and becoming a University in 1896) took very different rhetorical stances on Darwinian evolution. Livingstone argues, however, that their views, while different, were not all that different and the men admired each other.

CharlesHodgeAgainst Darwinism. Hodge went on record against Darwinism, speaking against it at the 1873 New York meeting of the Evangelical Alliance. “[O]ver the following months he turned his preliminary reflections into a 178 page volume entitled What is Darwinism? The book delivered Hodge’s answer with crystal clarity: “It is atheism.”” (p. 159) But this does not mean that Hodge supported a young earth, or that he was anti-evolution. His pronouncement was based on a definition of Darwinism, and this definition gave the clarity and conviction to his view.

Livingstone expands on the context of Hodge’s view.

[At the New York meeting he asked] what he considered to be a fundamental question – one that separated “theists from atheists – Christians from unbelievers.” Was “development an intellectual process guided by God,” or was it “a blind process of unintelligible, unconscious force, which knows no end and adopts no means?” This was the “vital question.” “We cannot stand here and hear men talk about development,” he went on, “without telling us what development is.” (p. 165)

“My idea of Darwinism,” he observed a little later in the discussion, “is that it teaches that all the forms of vegetable and animal life, including man and all the organs of the human body, are the result of unintelligent, undesignated forces … Now, according to my idea, that is a denial of what the Bible teaches … it excludes God; it excludes intelligence from everything.” (p. 166)

The definition here is important – because Hodge’s certainty hinges on his definition of Darwinism.

By this definitional move Hodge could set the terms of the debate. To control definitions, of course, is to exercise power. In Hodge’s case, it meant that he could adjudicate on who was or was not a Darwinian. Those like Asa Gray who considered themselves Christian Darwinians were either mistaken or just plain mixed up; that label had no meaning. Thus for all his efforts to teleologize Darwinism, Gray was simply “not a Darwinian.” That he was a Christian evolutionist, Hodge had no doubt, but that was entirely a different matter. Darwinism was atheism. (p. 166)

Hodge defined Darwinism using atheistic terms and concepts and then declared that Darwinism was atheism. But he never declared that evolutionary theories of the development of life were intrinsically atheistic.

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Of Artists and Activists

We need grace dispensers. We are called to be grace dispensers. Part two of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? starts with a reflection on a remark by a friend.

While discussing the growing antipathy toward Christians, a friend remarked to me, “There are three kinds of Christians that outsiders to the faith still respect: pilgrims, activists, and artists. The uncommitted will listen to them far sooner than to an evangelists or apologist.” Although nonbelievers do not oppose a spiritual search, they will listen only to those Christians who present themselves as fellow-pilgrims on the way rather than as part of a superior class who has already arrived. Activists express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds. And art speaks most authentically to the human condition; when believers do so with skill, again the world takes note. (p. 89, emphasis added)

We are all fellow pilgrims, so this should not be hard … although some seem to prefer to come across as apologists or evangelists with all the neat, pat answers. The last post on the book looked at what Yancey means by fellow-pilgrims. Activists and artists are a more select group, especially artists. While we all should be active, known by our deeds, we are not all called to be activists making this our focus; and most of us simply are not artists of any note at all. My gifts are not in the areas of artistic expression. Yet activists and artists play an important role. Art can touch the soul where argument and information cannot.

Where do you see the power of activism in the church? Who embodies this witness?

What roll can or should art play? Who is making an impact through their art?

Relief2 Activists. Most Americans don’t think of activism when they think of evangelicals. Or if they do it is associated with a political activism to impose moral values on a diverse society and promote the study of creationism. But Christians have long supported hospitals and educational missions. Organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision engage in a wide range of activities world wide, from organizing volunteers for medical missions to working for the provision of clean water and much more, through a conviction that the gospel calls us to this kind of involvement.

Yancey suggests that Miroslav Volf may have framed the best way of communicating our faith – especially in a skeptical, post-Christian culture.

By emphasizing doctrine, we set ourselves apart from “the other” and may be tempted to impose our beliefs by force. Instead, guided by the Golden Rule we should concentrate on living out our beliefs, progressing from hand to heart to head. Practical acts of mercy (extending a hand) will express our love (the heart), which in turn may attract others to the source of that love (head beliefs).(114)

It is important however, that the acts of love be genuine. They cannot convey a spirit of superiority toward others, or be sugar coating an ulterior motive. We express love and act with mercy and generosity because God first loved us. Others are drawn in by the genuine, no strings attached, love.

A skeptical world judges the truth of what we say by the proof of how we live. Today’s activists may be the best evangelists. (p. 114)

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You Are Your Brother’s Keeper

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Cain_slaying_Abel,_1608-1609We’ve been slowly working through Iain Provan’s new book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters. The next chapter addresses the Old Testament’s answer to the question of how we are to relate to our fellow humans. Provan takes two major approaches to addressing this question. The first continues his general approach of starting with Genesis. The second looks at the sweep of the rest of scripture. Both are interesting and will be outlined here.

The fall of Cain. Provan takes Genesis 4 as the starting point for this discussion. There is meaning in the names of Cain and Abel and in the statement of Eve that created Cain with God. This is a literary masterpiece with a message for the ancient Near Eastern audience (and for us). Eve claims to have become a cocreator with God producing Cain whose very name “speaks of the human tendency toward self-divinization.” (p. 192)

The name Abel (Heb. hevel) speaks, in contrast, of the reality of a human being’s existence as mortal. Hevel means “breath” or “breeze” (e.g., Isaiah 57:13) and thereby refers to what is insubstantial or fleeting or to actions that are in vain or to no purpose—futile or pointless endeavors whose effects do not last. Everything to do with mortal existence is said in the Old Testament to be “ephemeral” or “fleeting” in this way. Representative is Psalm 39:5: “You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath (hevel).” Where the name Cain speaks of grasping after divinity, then, the name Abel signifies the transient nature of human existence. (p. 192-193)

The tendency of Cain toward, if not self-divinization, at least a sense of arrogance toward God is seen in the incident of the rejected sacrifice. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. (Gen 4:3) In contrast Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. (Gen 4:4) Abel’s offering was accepted, but Cain’s was not. Provan suggests that there are two reasons for this – first because Abel brought the best, but Cain did not. The second is more important – Cain did not bring his best because his heart was not right. Cain brings an offering to get something from God and is angry that God didn’t fulfill his part of the bargain as Cain understood it. The story reflects a commentary on the typical ancient Middle Eastern attitude toward sacrifice.

These ancient peoples “expected their gods to show them favor in their various endeavors. They were therefore very interested in how to attain the favor of the gods.” As one ancient Babylonian text counsels its readers, “Every day worship your god. Sacrifice and benediction are the proper accompaniment of incense. . . . Offer him daily, and you will get your reward.” Sacrifice, in this way of thinking, is about giving in order to receive; it is nothing other than a form of bribery. (p. 194)

But biblical sacrifice is not about feeding and appeasing the gods As Provan puts it “God is interested in what is right” and ethical performance is more important than ritual importance. He comments on Isaiah 1:10-17 and quotes several other passages from the OT to back up this point.

I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them . . . but let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream. (Amos 5:22-24)

To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:3)

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Community Matters

creation of Adam dsJonathan Hill, an assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College, recently released the results of a National Study of Religion & Human Origins. This study was funded by the Evolution and Christian Faith grants program at BioLogos and you can find a link to the full report with a summary of the major findings in Jonathan’s post The Recipe For Creationism on the BioLogos Forum.

Most surveys that probe questions of science and faith, including beliefs about creation and human origins, use a small set of frustratingly limited questions. Well, frustrating for those of us who want to nuance all of the possibilities, finding none of them useful without qualification. A recent Gallup poll on views of the bible illustrates the impact that limiting choices can have on the results. The limitation is frustrating for sociologists as well. Jonathan Hill’s study aims to better understand the beliefs of Americans concerning human origins through a much more detailed survey that can parse out positions with more accuracy and explore the importance of social context on these positions. From the results Hill develops four categories – Creationists, Theistic Evolutionists, Atheistic Evolutionists, and Unsure and uses these categories to explore the variety of views, the confidence with which they are held, and the importance of social context.

In one way, both creationists and atheistic evolutionists are the same. Majorities of both groups say that science and religion are ultimately incompatible. When science and religion conflict, one group favors religious ways of knowing (primarily a literal reading of scripture) and the other group favors scientific way of knowing (trusting the mainstream scientific establishment to provide accurate information). Only theistic evolutionists oppose this conflict model in any substantial number. (p. 2)

There is much to dig into in this report, and I’ll probably come back to it again in a later post – but here I want to concentrate on two points.

First, Americans often have relatively muddied and not entirely consistent views. A corollary to this is the fact that many Americans appear to have relatively little understanding of science. Approximately 39% of creationists, 25% of theistic evolutionists, 22% of atheistic evolutionists and 16% of the unsure believe in recent creation/emergence of humans (within last 10,000 years). The percentage for creationists seems rather low, but the percentage for atheistic evolutionists seems amazingly high, only 64% were sure that humans emerged more than 10,000 years ago. As Hill puts it “many people, both creationists and evolutionists, are simply uncertain about the timeframe.” (p. 12) This is somewhat surprising to the atheistic evolutionists – who generally base their view on science and trust of the scientific establishment. But perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising – trust in an authority, whether religious or scientific, does not require an understanding of the details. But the importance that trust of an authority plays leads into the second point.

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Posted in Science and Faith

What Is Religion Anyway?

QThe first three interviews in Science and Religion: 5 Questions are with fairly outspoken skeptics of religion (something of a coincidence as the order is strictly alphabetical) – Simon Blackburn, Susan Blackmore, and Sean Carroll. The views they put forth are worth some consideration as these questions and concerns are raised by many others in our society. For each of them science is rather well defined – the empirically verified understanding of the nature of the material world, but religion is something of an enigma defined differently in each of the interviews. It is hard to nail the questions when religion can be anything from orthodox Christianity to a vague spiritualism or a natural sociological phenomenon. It is clear, however, that Christianity is generally in view.

The five questions:

1. What initially drew you to theorizing about science and religion?

2. Do you think science and religion are compatible when is comes to understanding cosmology (the origin of the universe), biology (the origin of life and the human species), ethics, and/or the human mind (minds, brains, souls, and free will)?

3. Some theorists maintain that science and religion occupy nonoverlapping magisteria – i.e., that science and religion each have a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority, and these two domains do not overlap. Do you agree?

4. What do you consider to be your most important contribution(s) to theorizing about science and religion?

5. What are the most important open questions, problems, or challenges confronting the relationship between science and religion, and what are the prospects for progress?

Simon Blackburn is a British philosopher interested in the philosophy of the mind. In his view science and religion are compatible because the function of religion is to unite adherents into a moral community. The religious rites, rituals, and mysteries only exist to unite the tribe or congregation. Any religious group can teach specific views that are at odds with science – but this isn’t the core definition of religion. There is no inherent reason why the moral community need be at odd with the scientific understanding.

Gould’s suggestion of nonoverlapping magisteria is “a silly idea” because religion, in Blackburn’s view, has no teaching authority or domain of knowledge at all. After all, how can social glue have a legitimate domain of knowledge?

Blackburn also views the idea of any element of the supernatural as out of the question. A Divine Architect or First Cause gets us nowhere and has no influence on the world and no implications for our understanding of the world. Religion at its best (a non-dogmatic uniting principle) makes no ontological claims at all. Religion that makes ontological claims that include supernatural in any form (a being, a miracle …) is simply a product of human fancy serving to bind the group together. The supernatural is illegitimate luggage, the results of flights of fancy or the “uncritical reception of the views of some particular tribe of thousands of years ago.” Continue reading

Posted in Problems for Faith, Resources for Discussion, Science and Faith

Fellow Pilgrims

The next section of Philip Yancey’s new book Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? looks at three kinds of Christians having an impact in our world: pilgrims, activists, and artists. Yancey devotes a chapter to each, and each deserves some consideration here over the next several posts.

The First ThanksgivingPilgrims. This is a particularly apropos this week – at least for those of us in the US. The painting of the first Thanksgiving shown to the right is not historically accurate (wrong clothing etc.) but the image of humans together is a powerful one.

A pilgrim is a fellow-traveler on a spiritual journey, not a professional guide.

We are God’s people on earth, and none of us are perfect. In fact we are a rather motley crew. But apparently this is the plan. The Gospels relate the marvelous story of Jesus’s ministry on earth, his miraculous healings and his control of nature, his appalling crucifixion and then the magnificent victory of resurrection. But the story ends with the disciples staring up into the sky and wondering what to do next.

“Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” were the disciples’ last words to Jesus, and it was left to the angels to provide an indirect answer: “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Get moving – you’re the main actors now.

We bumbling pilgrims are “the Jesus left behind” after the ascension, the heirs of God’s Spirit. Paul takes the concept further, calling us the body of Christ and God’s temple – meaning the actual presence of God in the world. We are the reason Jesus came, to set into motion a kingdom without borders that eventually would indeed reach Europe and China and Australia and the Americas. (p. 101)

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