An Emergent Creation?

Chapter 15 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology is entitled “An Emergent Creation and Natural Theology.” This chapter presents some rather interesting ideas.

First McGrath returns to Augustine – not to his cosmology or science, but to his view of God’s creative power. According to Augustine God’s creative activity encompasses both an act and a process. While Augustine applied his ideas in the context of the understanding of his day, which knew nothing of star formation, nucleogenesis, or evolution, the idea is consistent with – and sheds some light on our thinking about creation in the context of 20th and 21st century science. McGrath connects Augustine’s approach to modern ideas of emergence in science and in biology.

…creation entails the origination of a potentially multileveled reality, whose properties emerge under certain conditions which did not exist at the origins of the universe. Furthermore, these properties are not predictable by human observers a priori; they are discovered a posteriori. (206)

I have significant reservations about some of McGrath’s discussion of emergence – especially the postulate of “unpredictability.” But let us look into it more closely.

Do you think that it is reasonable to think about emergence in creation and is this a theologically relevant concept?

Continue reading

Posted in Natural Theology | Tagged | 2 Comments

To Live as Followers of Jesus

My husband and I spent last weekend visiting our daughter in Pasadena, where she is pursuing a MA in Theology at Fuller. Aside from being hot (although not as hot as when we visited her in Budapest two years ago), it was a great visit. The rooms at the guest house have copies of Mark Labberton’s recent book Called alongside other books. I picked up this book (relatively short and easy reading) and read through it while traveling. Here I will highlight a few points from the final chapter – points where I think he really hits the nail on the head.

We are all called to live as followers of Jesus – and this calling should shape our lives. The book is a good reminder. As Christians we have been known to worry about discerning God’s will for our lives. Who to marry, what to study, which job to take, where to live. It sometimes seems like life is a puzzle to be solved.

Life becomes a puzzle, and the Holy Spirit is the puzzle master who provides the clues and then the answers to all of them. In this approach our vocation is to pursue God’s direction on a step-by-step basis through special revelation. (p. 138)

While God does occasionally provide direction in direct special revelation to his people, this is not the only or even the normal form of call.

[A] call in the most profound and pervasive sense doesn’t require special illumination by the Holy Spirit. The primary call on our lives is to follow Jesus in all we do – this isn’t a secret God hides and has to be coaxed into divulging. (p. 138)

Fruit of the Spirit. Labberton provides a few suggestions for discerning call (community is important). Because our call is to be followers of Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit provide an important signpost.

The evidence that we’re hearing and living the call of God is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These fruit are the outgrowth of seeking and living God’s call. They are the tangible evidence of God’s presence that produces in and through us qualities that point to the source of our life, the gracious activity and mercy of God toward us. (p 139)

If a choice is not consistent with the fruit of the Spirit, it is unlikely to be a true call of God.

Scripture is central.

As we mature in the faith, the Bible is a very important element in our growing knowledge of God and God’s purposes in the world. Scripture unlocks God’s hopes for us and for our call. The Bible – as we read the whole in light of the parts and the parts in light of the whole – needs to form us and our theological and spiritual imaginations. Nothing else is as critical as this. We need to learn to read Scripture well, with careful thought and reflection – not using it as a spiritual version of a Ouija board, Rorschach test or dart board but as a profound narrative and guide to form and inform our faith and call. (p. 142)

Continue reading

Posted in Christian Life | Tagged | Leave a comment

Is There an End in Sight?

Chapter 14 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with the question of teleology and directionality in evolution.

The neo-Darwinian paradigm, (that popularized by Richard Dawkins for example), is that evolution is an undirected, highly contingent, random process. Evolution simply operates to preserve the replication of genetic information.

McGrath quotes Stephen Jay Gould:

“We are the accidental result of an unplanned process…. the fragile result of an enormous concatenation of improbabilities, not the predictable product of any definite process.” … The influence of contingency is such that what happens is the product of happenstance. “Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time and evolution cascades into a radically different channel.” (p. 189-190)

This description of the process poses serious problems for reconciliation with a Christian view of creation. But it is not at all clear that Gould or Dawkins are correct in this regard. The evolutionary process need not be highly contingent nor intrinsically unpredictable. In fact there appears to be a remarkably robustness in the outcome – a distinct directionality to the process. This does not deny the basic facts of evolution – as an explanatory tool evolution is essentially proven. Yet the fitness landscape that governs the process may place tight constraints on key features of the outcome. There are only so many ways to make an eye, or to harvest solar energy. Similar themes recur, … independently…constrained by physics, chemistry, and biology; constrained by the nature of the universe. Continue reading

Posted in Natural Theology, Science | Tagged | 1 Comment

Does Concordism Get a Bad Rap?

The opening chapter of Old Earth or Evolutionary Creation? focuses on the boundaries that define BioLogos and Reasons to Believe. Deborah Haarsma of BioLogos and Hugh Ross and Kenneth Samples of RTB describe the aims and unifying themes of their organizations. Robert Stewart of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary moderated the chapter. There is much to discuss here – but I would like to focus on one specific response by Hugh Ross and Kenneth Samples to a question posed by Stewart.

“How do you distinguish between “hard concordism” and RTB’s concordism?”

Ross and Samples bring up some points worth considering (pp. 22-24).

Concordism has gotten a bad rap from both theologians and scientists because it is often conflated with a fusion or near fusion model for integrating science and Scripture.

A figure is included in the text that four possible relationships between science and Scripture. (1) Separate magisteria with science and scripture unrelated to each other, occupying separate spaces; (3) complementarity where the two touch, but don’t overlap much; (2) fusion with science and Scripture occupying the same space; and (4) constructive integration with considerable overlap – but not total. Continue reading

Posted in Science and Faith | Tagged | 1 Comment

Is There Evidence for Design in Biology?

Is there evidence for design in biology? Or for that matter, what would constitute evidence of fine-tuning in biology?

This is the next question arising as we continue on with Chapter 13 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology:

If there is any question guaranteed to excite some controversy in the science/faith debate this is it. After all – fine-tuning leads to intelligent design and intelligent design to creationism. Well, in the minds of some the connections are obvious – both those who wish to discern empirical evidence for the hand of God in creation and for those who insist that science disproves the existence of God.

On one level “fine-tuning” in biology is obvious, imperfect, and a result of evolutionary mechanisms themselves. After all, the premise of evolution is that nature fine-tunes itself. This is the standard Darwinian answer to questions about functional precision and design. According to McGrath At first sight, the neo-Darwinian model seems to undercut any possible appeal to the biological domain as evidence of design or fine-tuning.” Even if we move beyond the reductionist approach of the selfish gene to a systems based approach there is still no need to invoke other than natural mechanism to account for the appearance of design and fine-tuning. But perhaps it is still the possible to discern fine-tuning in biology. The question is where to look.

The question – what constitutes evidence for design – is by far the hardest question. It is difficult to pose a suggestion that is not inherently an argument from ignorance, either ignorance of mechanism or ignorance of method.

The correct question is not “Is our current understanding of neo-Darwinian evolution by random mutation and natural selection sufficient to explain this feature or phenomenon?” but “Is there a natural explanation for this feature or phenomenon?” If someone someday demonstrates that neo-Darwinian mechanism is insufficient to produce some phenomenon it neither disproves the general features of evolution nor demonstrates design.

Continue reading

Posted in Evolution, Natural Theology | Tagged

Adam, Eve, and the Fall

The final four theses in chapter six of Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science focus on the role of Adam and Eve in human history. First – humans are fallen. It is important that we do not read too much from later theological developments and categories into the story (this would violate the principle of respect for the original ancient Near Eastern context), but neither should we ignore the disobedience of this pair. Scot McKnight covers many of the classical questions and views that arise from the story of the Fall in Genesis 3. Here I will highlight only a few to focus in on Adam and Eve.

9. “Adam and Eve … have the freedom to choose to defy God and the arrogance to think that they can be “like” God.” (p. 139) The very first humans in the very first story of humans in our Bible emphasizes their freedom and their disobedience. This is important, but it is not cast as the origin of all human sinful desire – as Peter Bouteneff has put it (Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives), Adam (and Eve) is the original sinner, but not the origin of sin. Scot elaborates: “Neither the Old Testament nor Romans 5 blames Adam for the sins of others or blames Adam for our own death. We sin by choice; we die because we sin.” (p. 139)

Adam, Eve, and the serpent experience the consequences of their sin. Adam and Eve are sent into exile out of the Garden. Life becomes much harder and conflict more pervasive. God’s mercy is displayed and a plan for redemption begins.

Continue reading

Posted in Adam | Tagged

Top Down or Bottom Up?

Chapter 13 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology poses some interesting questions about evolution and the language used to describe evolutionary mechanisms. (For those paying attention – I’ve skipped Ch. 12; it is worth reading, but poses questions quite similar to those considered in our last post on the book.)

There are three factors at play in much scientific writing: empirical observation, scientific interpretation, and metaphysical assumption. The first two are always at play – one of my mentors emphasized the importance of separating data from discussion and interpretation as much as possible. I in turn emphasize the distinction with my students. The experimental results or observations should always stand the test of time, the interpretation may or may not. New information or insights may change our interpretations in the future. The third factor above – metaphysical assumption – is always present at one level, but is not always important. However, it is often significant when the discussion borders on issues of science and religion or faith, and this is certainly true in evolutionary biology and speculation on the origin of life.

How carefully do we, should we, analyze the levels of observation and interpretation in what we read?

McGrath notes (p. 169):

Even a cursory reading of contemporary works in evolutionary biology shows how theological or antitheological agendas repeatedly intrude into what are supposed to be neutral, objective scientific discussions. What is presented as reality often turns out to be infested with nonempirical assumptions, often involving covert metaphysical dogmas. … Dawkins here sets out [in The Selfish Gene p. 21 (pp. 19-20 in my copy)] the “gene’s-eye” view of evolution, which was then dominant in biological circles.

[Genes] swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence.

But this paragraph contains an empirical observation intertwined with scientific interpretation and metaphysical assumption. How does the following paragraph differ? (p. 170)

[Genes] are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings, moulded by the outside world, communicating with it by complex processes, through which, blindly, as if by magic, function emerges. They are in you and me; we are the system that allows their code to be read; and their preservation is totally dependent on the joy that we experience in reproducing ourselves. We are the ultimate rationale for their existence.

Continue reading

Posted in Natural Theology | Tagged | 2 Comments