Finding God in What We Know

Dennis Venema’s final chapter in Adam and the Genome examines his move from a position of Intelligent Design to Evolutionary Creation. It isn’t that he finds the world a random mess with humans as lucky accidents. Rather, he has come to believe that evolutionary mechanisms are God’s means of intelligently designing and sustaining his creation. This is an important point. All Christians believe that God intelligently designed the earth and that humans are created in his image. The issue is really one of process – does science reveal an accurate evolutionary history or not? If so, this will have consequences for the ways in which we might understand and interpret Scripture – but it does not change the fact that God is the Creator.

The Intelligent Design (ID) movement argues that there are firm limits to the power of natural processes and that the origin and structure of life on earth exhibits features that point unmistakably to a designer. The key point is that these limits provide scientific evidence for the existence of this designer. As Christians we believe the designer to be God, but this isn’t a key tenet of ID.

Two significant design arguments advanced by Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution) and Stephen Meyer (Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt) center on irreducible complexity and the genesis of new information content. Dennis digs into both of these areas of research. He finds the arguments for ID less than compelling (and I agree completely on this). I am not going to summarize Dennis’s analysis – buy the book and read it. Send questions – or set up a discussion group including biochemists and geneticists in the mix. One key point is that, in addition to the popular single site mutation, a variety of other mechanisms can also result in changes to the genome. These include gene duplication, register slippage and whole genome duplication. Many of the changes are neutral, but provide the working ground for the development of new or modified biochemical systems capable of new function. If a modification is beneficial, it eventually becomes dominant in the population.

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Posted in Evolution, Intelligent Design | Tagged | 2 Comments

What Would You Choose?

Since 1982 the Gallup Poll has been asking Americans about their views on evolution and human origins. This week they released the results of their most recent survey conducted in early May of this year (here). The question posed (with the order of options randomized):

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings:

  • Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,
  • Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process,
  • God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?

The answers have changed modestly over the last 35 years, with the most significant change an increase in the percentage of those who are comfortable with no guidance at all. This has increased from 9 to 19% over the years, with a concomitant decrease in those who see God involved in the process in one way or another. The plot to the right summarizes the data reported by Gallup. I’ve added error bars at the +/- 4% level reported for the current poll as this helps to clarify the reliability of the results.

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Posted in Public Issues, Science and Faith

Lord, Save Us From a Prooftext Faith

Scripture is not a collection of proof-texts, propositions and commandments, to be pulled out on demand to answer our questions and guide our behavior. Scripture is the story of God’s mission in the world. The Gospel writers understood this and conveyed the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in this context. Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, examines the various ways in which the Evangelists used to Old Testament to frame their message. This is an outstanding book – well worth the time and effort to read and ponder. The gospel is not some timeless and placeless abstraction. In the fullness of time God sent his son into the world. At a chosen time, in a chosen place, and for his purpose.

As Christians we can, and should, read the Old Testament through the filtering lens of Jesus the Christ. But this isn’t a simple monochromatic lens providing a selection of proof-texts for our faith. Each of the Evangelists provides a different perspective. Hays suggests that these differences are a God-given gift to the church.

One function of the church’s canon, a diverse collection of writings, is to model a repertoire of faithful ways to receive and proclaim God’s word. The fourfold Gospel witness is a providential gift to the church; it protects the community against the dangers of rigid monologic discourse and offers a range of theological resources for diverse circumstances. Particular voices within the canon will be more or less useful in different times and places, as the church discerns the points of vital intersection between the Bible and its own immediate cultural situation. (p. 356)

We are called to wrestle with Scripture in our context today, and the model for this interaction is found in the pages of the Bible itself. Hays concludes his book reflecting on what this approach to Scripture should look like for us today. While we can understand the essence of the gospel with a superficial understanding of the Old Testament, we will not get the depth and nuance of the Gospels or the gospel without a deep appreciation for Israel’s Scriptures.

What would it mean to undertake the task of reading Scripture along with the Evangelists? First of all, it would mean cultivating a deep knowledge of the Old Testament texts, getting these texts into our blood and bones. It would mean learning the texts by heart in the fullest sense. The pervasive, complex, and multivalent uses if Scripture we find in the Gospels could arise only in and for a community immersed in scriptural language and imagery. Scripture provided the “encyclopedia of production” for the Evangelists narration of the story of Jesus. Their way of pursuing what we call “doing theology” was to produce richly intertextual narrative accounts of the significance of Jesus. Because the language of Scripture was the Evangelists’ native medium of expression, their reflection about God was articulated through subtle appropriations and adaptations of that linguistic medium. But alas, many Christian communities have lost touch with the sort of deep primary knowledge of Scripture – especially Israel’s Scripture – that would enable them even to perceive the messages conveyed by the Evangelists’ biblical allusions and echoes, let alone to employ Scripture with comparable facility in their own preaching and narration of the gospel story. (p. 357)

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And the Sea Will Be No More?

Consider the opening chapter of Genesis.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:1-4 NIV)

In this passage we see that God created the land and the sea. Not only did he create the sea, but he saw that it was good.

But the sea is also an image of chaos.

On the other hand, the image of the sea is often an image of chaos in scripture and in ancient Near Eastern culture more broadly. In the Genesis 1 the “deep” and the sea are inanimate objects, but remnants of this image of chaos are still present, if nothing else in the emphasis on them as inanimate objects.

A retelling of creation in the Psalms is somewhat more explicit in reference to the ANE view of sea as chaos: It was you who split open the sea by your power (Ps 74:13). References can be found in a number of other passages as well.

A little later on in Genesis 1 we read that God created “the great creatures of the sea,” that is the sea monsters, as well. And again he saw that it was good. Later Jewish tradition makes this idea of God’s creation of the great sea monsters explicit as we see in 2 Bar 29:4 And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation and in 4 Ezra 6:49-54. Both of these texts appear to date around 90-100 AD and likely reflect ideas current in first century Judaism.

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Posted in Bible

Cause and Effect

How should we think about divine action?

As Christians we believe in a personal God who acts in relationship with his creatures and to his creation. Christianity is theistic not deistic. But the question of divine action – how God can (or cannot) interact with his creation has become a significant question. We wonder if God’s action should be scientifically testable or discernible. Is God a cause from within creation or outside of creation? Chapter 10 of J. B. Stump’s recent book Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues, looks at these questions.

In classical Greek philosophy Aristotle argues that cause can be broken down into four complementary answers. Jim Stump uses the example of Michelangelo’s statue of David to illustrate the differences (p. 120):

  • The efficient cause of the statue is Michelangelo’s chiseling the block of marble into the shape that it now has.
  • The material cause of the statue is the substance that it is made – the marble – which provides some limitation to what it could be (we couldn’t make an enduring statue out of butter).
  • The formal cause of the statue is the kind of thin that it is; according to both Plato’s and Aristotle’s metaphysics, there are essences of things which determine the kind of thing an object can be.
  • The final cause of the statue is the purpose for which it was made.

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Posted in Science and Faith | Tagged | 1 Comment

Evolution is Stochastic (not Random)

At the first public BioLogos Conference in the summer of 2015, Prof. Ard Louis, a professor of theoretical physics at Oxford gave an outstanding talk “Randomness and Other Metaphors in the Theory of Evolution.” The lecture is available on YouTube (see below). I’ve held off on posting about it because the lecture runs 46 minutes, while clips of even 7 or 8 minutes tend to exceed the attention span of most readers. However, I just came across the video and watched it again. It is well worth the time, presented with humour and a number of excellent visuals (including videos). I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with Ard on several occasions. He is equally at home discussing science or Christian faith and takes both very seriously. A number of concepts he touches on in this talk are ones that my group, or those of my colleagues, have investigated and his points are ones we need to take seriously. If you have the time to watch the video you will not be disappointed. (A couple of shorter videos below also introduce some of the major points.)

When the talk was posted at BioLogos, Ard introduced it:

Popular descriptions of evolution can employ many value-laden metaphors such as survival of the fittest, selfish genes, or random mutations. While these can have precise scientific meanings, they are unfortunately often misappropriated in popular natural (a)theological arguments, used both by religiously motivated anti-evolutionists and metaphysical naturalists, that look at the natural world and then extract theological meaning (or lack of meaning) from it. In this talk I will re-consider some of these metaphors. For example, the word “random” can have overtones such as purposeless. But in science and engineering we often use methods that employ random number generators to precisely calculate well-defined properties. There are many parallels between these methods and the way that evolution works. Technically these are often called “stochastic” methods, so it might have been better if we scientists had used the term stochastic mutations, instead of random mutations, since the former term is scientifically correct but runs less risk of carrying unnecessary metaphysical baggage. Helping people avoid misunderstandings of these metaphors may allow them to better appreciate just how beautiful the science of evolution really is.

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Posted in Evolution | Tagged | 1 Comment

A Matter of Providence

Human life isn’t random luck. Rather it is the result of divine providence.

Darrel R. Falk, former president of BioLogos and emeritus professor of biology at Point Loma Nazarene University agrees with Dennis Venema (Adam and the Genome) when it comes to the evidence for the long history and evolutionary past of the human species. In the second chapter of the new book Evolution and the Fall edited by William Cavanaugh and James K. A. Smith, he lays out a range of evidence in the fossil record, and in the genome. Darrel is the only scientist contributing to the volume, and his contribution is important, for it lays the foundation for the rest of the book. It is the abundant evidence for a long evolutionary lineage, evolution as a population, and common descent, that drives us deeper in the search for understanding God’s world and the Holy Scripture.

Darrel’s most significant contribution, however, isn’t his presentation of the scientific evidence for human evolution. Rather his most significant contribution is the metaphysical and theological interpretation he draws from the evidence. Darrel argues that we are the result of a number of highly contingent events. A massive meteor strike that ended the age of the giant reptiles and prepared the way for the rise of mammals, about 65 million years ago. This was a highly unlikely and unpredictable event, but it appears to have happened at just the right time. Mammals were present and able to expand and diversify in the void.

The evolutionary path in Africa that led to the development of Homo sapiens. But about 100,000 years ago something significant happened within Homo sapiens and anatomically modern humans became behaviorally modern humans. This “something” is almost certainly connected to the development of language, the capacity for symbolic thought, and a theory of the mind (i.e. the realization that other individuals have independent minds like my own). This has happened once, and only once, on the planet. Considering close relatives: Neanderthals existed for more than 150,000 years. Over this time they used tools and clothing (of some sort) and were skilled, intelligent hunters. “However, they showed little sign of creative activity. Their stone-working tools did not vary much … Neanderthals would sometimes adapt old tools to new uses, but unlike Homo sapiens … they did not excel at inventing new technologies.” (p. 7) Other species also used tools and fire. But only humans developed the capabilities required for the constant technological innovation of the last 50,000 years or so. It has been a creative, cumulative and accumulative process. (The image is a museum reconstruction of a Neanderthal male: image information.)

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Posted in Evolution, Humanness | Tagged