Tuesday, May 13, 2014

No ID Required: Why Darwinism and Christianity are Compatible

I'm neither biologist nor professional theologian. I'm a Christian writer with a longstanding interest in working through Christianity's place in the modern world: understanding social changes in our post-Enlightenment culture and advances in our scientific knowledge through a Christian lens.

For some years now I've understood the history of life in a way that is both Christian and Darwinist. But is this possible? Are these two encompassing views of reality compatible or not? (Note: I've titled this page "No ID Required". I mean it in the sense of: "No intelligent design at the genetic level." Intelligent design in cosmology and physics, however, is a different matter, as Francis Collins has argued: the universe is designed to give rise to life. Some of Collins' arguments presented here.)

In a nutshell, below, I present my Christian thinking on the processes of creation, evolution, and redemption. Of course anyone with more knowledge in either Christian or Darwinian thought is welcome to weigh in on what I offer.

Of course I'm well aware that the scenario I'm presenting is speculative. That it is laid out in declarative sentences shouldn't be taken to mean that I consider it in any way authoritative. And yes, my writing here is somewhat abstruse and perhaps a bit too condensed for its own good. But that is a result of trying to stay concise.

How, then, do the universe and consciousness arise? What role does evolution play in what is, nevertheless, a willed and intelligent creation?

Creation, Evolution, Bridging and Redemption

God creates the universe with certain fundamental laws that entail the possible rise of life. Given that the created universe is vast, the likelihood of life arising somewhere or other (or indeed in various places) is certain.

With the rise of life, in any given place, begins a process of evolution, which in turn may eventually bring about the rise of a creature capable of consciousness. Such a creature is capable of recognizing both the creation's origin in God and its own likeness to God.

The process of evolution, up to this point of recognition, is as Darwinism has it: it is entirely a matter of random mutations resulting in variation then subject to natural selection. People may call my thinking here deism if they like, I don't care, because once the creature "in God's image" (i.e., having consciousness) arises, God begins a process of bridging to this creature.

The initial stage of what I call bridging is the endowment of spirit, which Genesis figures as God's breathing in of "the breath of life" (an action described there only in relation to humankind).

The spirit, sensing its origin, begins to seek that origin and connect with it. Thus we have the history of religion(s). Then God sends his Word: initially the Word as prophecy and law; eventually the Word as His very own Son. Through the Word, in these two stages, the process of redemption is begun.

Note that in all of this I see no need for God's intervention in the natural process of evolution before the rise of humankind, that such extra-evolutionary intervention only begins with humankind through the gift of the spirit. It continues with the rise of religion (the spirit trying to make sense of its having been given) and finally advances through biblical prophecy (the election of Israel) on to the Christ. Four stages of intervention then: spirit; religion(s); biblical religion; Christ.

That the initial stages of spirit and religion(s) are paralleled by the acquisition of language (a crucial element of our ability to know God) is a wonder (the wonder of language) and provides an almost inexhaustible wellspring for study and speculation. We are in fact matter, spirit, and language--language mediating the matter and spirit in us and providing one of the crucial channels through which we relate to God.

Recap: Yes, the process of evolution took billions of years before consciousness arose. So what? And consciousness may never have arisen on this planet at all, given that evolution is a random process. Again: So what? God needn't be overly concerned with time, which I take is only an element in the creation of our universe, and likewise God needn't be concerned with the question of where consciousness may arise, since the whole of the universe is God's creation. In short: This way of thinking does not conceive God as a deist watchmaker.

The Creator God can let physical matter follow its own laws for eons, then can love and sustain the creature that has arisen in one or another place at one or another time. I believe this because here and now there is in fact a planet where consciousness has arisen, and God is in fact present among us not merely as creator (the one who set the laws of the universe) but as sustainer (the one who sustains us in being like unto Him).

Again, that I say he is present as sustainer shouldn't be taken to mean that I think everything in the universe is a direct expression of his pre-determining will. The three positions I do not subscribe to are atheism (obviously), radical deism (the God who creates then departs), and occasionalism (the God who is willing every physical event as it happens). My sense of God as creator and sustainer combines deist with orthodox thinking. Do I believe in miracles? Yes. Do I believe in natural selection? Yes. Are they the same thing? Well, except to the degree that Being itself is a miracle: No. Miracles and natural selection are two different things, but they needn't cancel each other out.

Have I been clear here in these various points? If clear, am I persuasive? Comprehending how this universe is both theologically and scientifically feasible, getting beyond the false dichotomy of randomness vs. divine intervention, is a matter of slightly widening and deepening the perspective. But the upshot of this combinatory view of reality is that I've come to accept certain basic givens: 1) There is and has always been a consciousness behind the physical universe. 2) There is here and now a consciousness in the physical universe. 3) The consciousness behind the physical universe has instilled in us a sense of its presence and communicated something of Itself to us. 4) We have thus been given, first, the gift of being and, second, the gift of sensing the Being in which we are grounded. 5) We have also been given the gift of a saving grace through God's Son, the Christ. 6) Redemption is now in process.

With the rise of the creature of consciousness, then, God's plan, gaining a foothold in this time and place, began to work its way forward in a more interventionist mode, in contrast to previously, the few billion years during which the earth was host to only a naturalist mode of evolution.

I do not see any conflict with evolutionary theory except vis-a-vis those evolutionists who subscribe to scientism, whose enthusiasm for their method has led them to insist that said method renders our experience of the divine obsolete. Neither am I convinced by any tendentious waving of Occam's razor, because I do not believe positivist science is our only, or even our most important, mode of knowing.

Eric Mader

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