Friday, February 15, 2008

Thank God for Evolution, Conclusion

I have been reading Michael Dowd's Thank God for Evolution! in the hopes that it would help me put together the Biblical view of God as creator of heaven and earth with the evolutionary view of the long, slow development of the universe. I appreciate Dowd's commitment to seeing the development of the universe as a meaningful Great Story. In the end, though, he doesn't engage the science enough to help me clarify a biblical understanding of evolution. More frustrating to me, his reinterpretation of Christian language is so ambiguous that I can't tell if he could deliver the faith/science connection that he promises, even if he did have more detail on the science.

Dowd does have an interesting theory of the connection between brain development and sin, which I wrote about earlier. And he does have a useful timeline of cosmic evolution. Ultimately, though, he says he is not trying to coordinate religious views and scientific ones. He even seems to reject the project, though he does in fact do a bit of that himself. He is, as he says, a popularizer and evangelist for the view that evolution is itself a religious worldview. So if there is not as much science as I would like, that is more my problem than his.

Dowd's ambiguity and reinterpretation of Biblical language is more of a problem even within his own project. He distinguishes between the "night language" of religion and the "day language" of science. Here he gives a translation from one to the other:

Our purpose, individually, is to grow in Christ and to support one another in staying true to God's Word and God's will. Collectively, we are here to create Christ-centered institutions that glorify God and embody the values of the Kingdom.

He continues, "A day language way of saying the same thing might be:"

Our purpose, individually, is to grow in trust, authenticity, responsibility, and service to the Whole, and to support others in doing the same. Collectively, we are here to celebrate and steward what Life has been doing for billions of years and to devise systems of governance and economics that align the self-interest of individuals and groups with the wellbeing of the larger communities of which we are a part.

The latter might be a worthy ethical view, but I don't see how it is simply a translation of the former view. He articulates at some length his theory of Evolutionary Christianity, Evolutionary Islam, Evolutionary Judaism, Evolutionary Buddhism, etc., which re-interprets all faiths into one - the same one that he sees in evolution. Dowd even contends that all faiths will evolve into his version of cosmopolitan unitarianism when everyone faces up to "reality." Sociologically, it seems very unlikely to me that all the world's faiths will give up their tradition and what he calls "flat earth" Scriptures to embrace scientific unitarianism.

What has been hardest for me to pin down in reading this book is what Dowd means by God. On the one hand, he uses God talk all the time, starting with the title. On the other hand, he says:
God was active at every moment, at every critical juncture. God, as I have been using the term, is no less than a holy name for Supreme Wholeness, that Ultimate Creative Reality that brought everything, step-by-step, into existence.

On the other hand, he denies that God designed anything. Everything evolved by natural selection. In his final credo, Dowd asserts
I believe that God is creator and ruler of the Universe. And I know that this statement is metaphorical, not literal, in what it says about the nature of reality.

I can't tell what Dowd's God is - if he thinks God is real. If you take Dowd to mean exactly what he says, then God is a metaphor we use to describe whatever it is that happens to emerge from evolution. He believes that evolution is leading the universe toward greater complexity. Moreover, he thinks the fact that human beings understand the universe means that they evolved in order to be the universe's way of understanding itself. This is a pretty vision, but I don't see how he can derive that either from his science or his theology.


Anonymous said...

"He believes the evolution is leading the universe toward greater complexity."

Quick science caveat that I'm sure Dowd would concede : Assuming complexity implies order,2nd law of thermodynamic (put simply) states everything is trending towards disorder (in the closed system of the universe). Evolution (and life in general) is enormously complex/ordered, but it is at the cost of greater disorder abroad (every time you break down food it becomes less 'complex' CO2, energy, and unmentionables for example). Evolution/life seemingly makes the universe more ordered, but it is an illusion driven by our inability to intuitively understand the really small.

Anonymous said...

Let me put this on the table, if it hasn't already been put there:

I agree with those who suggest it is disingenuous to believe that God purposely has placed artifacts (fossils and for that matter, any physical evidence) in our world that would cause us to have to choose between religious faith and scientific faith (and, as one may suppose, I've purposefully chosen those terms).

Simultaneously, I agree with those who suggest it is disingenuous to believe that God has essentially implemented the same counterintuitive strategy in reverse--placing artifacts/information in Scripture that would cause us to have to choose between a faith that is religiously rigorous and that is scientifically rigorous.

Yet, that is the dichotomy we wrestle with, and others write books about, yet ultimately failing to deliver the satisfactory conclusion to the matter that we all wish someone would deliver. That's not to disparage their own personal satisfaction with whatever conclusions they've reached, but speaking for myself (and it doesn't appear that I'm alone), their conclusions appear to be substantially lacking on one side or the other--either they obviously aren't as versed or do not give proper weight to the science, or they aren't as versed or do not give proper weight to the Scripture. And thus, the harmony they portend doesn't translate well to those of us seeking a good, solid place to stand on both sides.

I've said all of that to say this: I'm not "there" yet, but feel myself being drawn to a contemplative position that says, "There is a gigantic piece of this puzzle that we just don't have... and though we hopefully might eventually gain it, it's also possible that we never will."

That may seem to be a very fatalistic position and one that would be synonymous with "I give up."

Therefore, it's one that is naturally repulsive to anyone who is an honest seeker of meaning, regardless of whether you approach that "seeking" from a scientific/humanistic perspective, or from a spiritual perspective.

But, in honesty and candor, isn't this what we're left with, at least, for this generation at this point in the earth's and humanity's existence?

The science-first philosophers/researchers freely admit that there are holes in the record, and while they point to the fact that we have fewer holes today than we had 5, 10, and 50 years ago, there are holes that aren't filled, not because of lack of scientific evidence, but because of the logistical/statistical leaps of intelligence that time and research aren't capable to resolve. Rather, they're left with having to say, "Regardless of how infintessimal the chances that all of these things could occur, the very fact that we are here testifies to the fact that it must have happened"... a highly unsatisfactory diagnosis, since it essentially suggests that we must suspend the statistical guidelines/rationale (some would say "common sense") we otherwise routinely employ in looking at any research in any other context.

The religion-first philosophers/researchers, those affiliated with Discovery Institute and even those affiliated with orgs like Answers in Genesis, recognize that there are holes, as well, that are best (if not practically exclusively) filled by evolutionary theory. And routinely, they're left with having to say, "In spite of the interpretations of the evidence that the conventional scientific community have made relative to these pieces of evidence from across the natural sciences, conventional scientists are not to be trusted over the Word of God"... a highly unsatisfactory diagnosis, as well, since it demands that we cast negative presumptions about natural science researchers in general in order to discredit what otherwise may be very valid conclusions--ironically, that we must presume/assign certain presumptions that automatically invalidate others' evidence and interpretations of the evidence.

Okay, so none of the three are "intellectually satisfying" positions to take. But if we can't have an "intellectually satisfying" position, isn't an "intellectually honest" position a worthy second-best thing to shoot for?

I would even argue that Integrity would seem to demand it.

We have solid reasons to believe the evidence proposed by Darwin and his advocates. We have reasons to believe the evidence proposed by Biblical writers and their advocates.

Yes, science and theology come together in places, but in other places, we admit that one must seriously strain reason, integrity, or both, to bring them together...

And, therefore, we are left with, not the Big Bang, not the Creation story, but with "We don't know, and possibly can't know because the large chunk of information necessary to bring it all into perfect harmony either isn't recognizable or, if it's recognizable, it's not yet understandable."

Gruntled said...

Sturt, I largely agree with you. It seems to me reasonable to make a distinction between the historical sections in the middle of the Bible, and the "dream time" sections (to borrow an anthropological term) at the beginning and end.

So I am OK with thinking that the Creation did happen, but not in six 24-hour days. However, if the science backs up the order of creation that the Genesis 1 story tells, that seems to me a helpful point of mutual reinforcement.

Anonymous said...

My intellectual difficulty with the six days and the proposal of a non-literal Genesis 1 & 2 is two-fold.

First, that the Sabbath itself is a 24-hour period; and to be consistent, if the "day" that God rested wasn't 24 hours, then we're looking at quite a span of time for resting

But even more substantial to my mind is the fact that both Paul, one of the principal apostles and writers of the New Testament, and Jesus himself, spoke in terms of a literal Adam, not a figurative one as the non-literal approach to Genesis 1 & 2 is pivoted upon.

I'm, of course, open to any better reasoning on this that anyone has to offer.

José Solano said...

For Paul and Jesus not to speak of a literal Adam would mean they would have to transmit to the everyone of their time the entire scientific world view and understanding that we have attained only through considerable study and experimentation over millennia. This would not have been possible for anyone then to believe or comprehend. Jesus and certainly Paul were not privy to such knowledge and therefore could speak meaningfully only within the available contexts.

Remember, Jesus did go through a learning process. To expect them to detail the actual beginning of the universe—that we still do not understand—is like expecting them to literally reveal the future and that would put an end to the entire mystery of life which God in his wisdom does not care to do.

For practical purposes (praxis), for faith and loving interactions, it really makes no difference whatsoever if you see Genesis literally or symbolically. Furthermore, I believe the sages of the time knew perfectly well that those ancient descriptions of events were wisdom stories conveying a deeper meaning of the human condition that need not be taken literally but for which there is no significant problem if, in childlike innocence, you do.

Anonymous said...

Jose, I'm not completely sure what to make of your post, but let me try.

It sounds as if you actually end up in the same spot that I end up--that we really just don't have a good way of synthesizing Biblical text with conventional scientific interpretations of natural evidence. And, therefore, as I wrote, that if we are to be intellectually honest to both faiths, there is an incredibly large piece of the puzzle that we just don't see right now, and maybe will never see.

But on your way there, you appear to contend that Paul and Jesus actively participated in maintaining a popular Mosaically-established lie on the basis that they didn't want to reveal the whole authentic story, or or didn't have the capacity to know it in the first place.

To that I don't know that it's worth pursuing, because it's not at all my intention to offend. But suffice it to say this:

First, that if Jesus and Paul were put on the witness stand and it came out that they'd propogated a lie about the first man and woman, when they clearly had the option of not even citing the story in their preaching, that would have to cause any common sense jury some serious consternation about what else the two misled people about.

Putting aside Paul, who I would agree wrote about unseen things on the basis of how much was actually revealed to him... our perspectives on Jesus' deity and humanity, and thus what he knew and was capable of knowing, appear to be discordant.

When he said, "Before Abraham was, I AM," and caused the great outcry among the great teachers of the day... his words were/are consistent with the Genesis writer's contention that man was made in "our" image. Many if not most theologians of our time have even come to the conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, the Creator-entity in Genesis. So, I do not take that he "grew in favor with God and man," as is told to us in Luke, to suggest anything exact about what he did or did not know at any particular point in his life. To the contrary, once he begins his ministry, there's only one occasion where he tells his followers that he is not aware of something--ie, the time of his return.

But while the possibility that Paul and Jesus were propogating a lie isn't something I feel comfortable with if I'm going to be a believer in their religion... there's a second problem with all of this that in a way is even more salient to me.

That is, Paul doesn't just speak about Adam's existence, but more explicitly, cites the Garden of Eden story and says that just as sin entered the world through one man, Adam, so sin has been demolished through one man's sacrifice, Jesus. And the point is that if Adam didn't actually exist, then Paul's theological argument here is essentially rendered to be nonsense, empty, discrediting, and potentially even disingenuous.... he should have stuck with the other arguments he makes that have nothing to do with sin coming into the world through one man.

Hope this is taken in the spirt intended. I don't mean to disparage how you see things; I only say these things to clarify the interpretations I've made and why.