Of Mice and Men: The future of theistic evolution

Review of Darwinism and Natural Theology: Evolving Perspectives (Chapter 14, Neil Spurway)

[image originally from http://kmcoriginals.blogspot.com/2009_11_01_archive.html]

Before returning to my review of Darwinism and Natural Theology, I want to thank Greg Koukl and Stand to Reason for the interview opportunity last night. Hopefully, everybody got something worthwhile out of it. I wanted to mention on the air (but time just didn’t permit) what a profound influence Greg and STR have had on me. Greg was the first Christian voice I heard as I was abandoning atheism in 2008. Through STR, I was introduced to the works of most of the leading apologists and thinkers on this issue.

I’ve jumped to the final (summary chapter, offered by Neil Spurway), because it is one of the more dramatic examples of just how far theistic evolution can go. Here we finally see someone willing to essentially throw in the towel. For starters, he offers “for me a naturalistic account of any aspect of being human is, quite simply, the only sort of account which can be correct.” He emphasizes that many of the things we believe make humans an exception to the animal kingdom (what has been called a “revolution” rather than an “evolution”) are simply points along a sliding scale. “Every owner of a horse or dog is quite clear” of primitive conditions of consciousness, morality and love. He goes on, “For me, the imago dei simply is the sum of such properties: the sum is larger in a human being than in any other animal.”

Spurway then justifies his allegiance to naturalism: “The whole evolutionary process is God-given, not any individual step.” This of course, as I’ve been saying for a while now, is an undemonstrated assumption. Since on his view, no matter what we find, God did it, absolutely any religion could make the same claim with complete immunity. This view that everything can be explained naturalistically, such that all naturalism is God’s way of working, is given far more credence than it should be. On this view, the best evidence for God’s activity in everything is our complete inability to detect Him in anything. That is, on Spurway’s view, we can explain everything in the natural world without invoking God. So why do we include Him?

When written as plainly as Spurway puts it, we can then see why concepts like creationism or intelligent design are anathema to the theistic evolutionist. For those such as Spurway, any suggestion that God (or any agent) would be required to explain any particular phenomenon somehow suggests that the God/agent isn’t present in the others. But is that true? Take the resurrection as an example. Most theistic evolutionists affirm the supernatural Jesus Christ (born of a virgin, performing miracles, risen from the dead, etc.). Every such claim about Jesus is a flat rejection of the naturalism Spurway insists upon. And yet, most theistic evolutionists make these claims without it means God is active in such-and-such a time and place, but not in the others.

Here, we see a profound contradiction implicit in their view. The common refrain is that “Intelligent Design and scientific creationism is inadequate because it reduces God to one agent among other agents in natural history.” They say this because such suspensions of natural law somehow lead them to conclude that God can only act supernaturally, and must therefore be divorced from all natural events. But, isn’t it equally true that, “The supernatural Jesus is inadequate because it reduces God to one agent among other agents”? This question, as I have just expressed it, is now my central question for theistic evolutionists, and I would love a legitimate answer (if any of them are listening). Why can’t God, the Sustainer, be seen in all things, and yet be an actor in those things from time to time? This does not seem to be a contradiction in terms. In fact, it is classically understood in Christianity when we discuss the difference between direct and secondary causation.

Anyway, back to Spurway. His theology is a bit different, and it seems to destroy the concept of Immanence, in favor of some form of open theism, or even deism. He writes (contra other theistic evolutionists), “I myself am firmly on the side of natural autonomy.” This is an echo of the idea (as offered by John Polkinhorne) that “an evolutionary universe is theologically understood as creation allowed to make itself.” For Polkinghorne, I think God is much more active in the unfolding of creation, but the idea is the same. Spurway is suggesting that the creation is not some determined thing that God has(is) done(doing). It is open to decide for itself, heading off in paths that are free to be decided by the creation itself. So then, Spurway doesn’t really embrace Aubrey Moore’s view that “God is everywhere present in nature,” because it renders the statement useless. If the God is not actively involved in the evolutionary process, in what way is His “presence” helpful? Spurway’s God apparently “experiences” (to use John Haught’s description) everything. But, in practical terms, such a God is an impotent bystander. He sees all things unfold, but has no preference about how they unfold, and isn’t willing to determine anything. This is deism.

Spurway also illuminates another growing trend among theistic evolutionists. He argues, “The statement ‘God created…every winged fowl after his kind” should not be regarded as being the same sort as ‘birds evolved from reptiles via intermediate forms such as gliding lizards.’ The two statements are compatible precisely because they are not on the same plane.”

Spurway rejects the notion that “science and religion occupy common ground in their explanatory accounts of nature.” Of course, what he and the others mean in making this distinction is that religion has nothing to say about material reality or the unfolding evolution of all creation. More plainly, religion offers us no explanatory power with respect to the material world. Again, Jesus presents Dr. Spurway with a contradiction.

But, I’m yet to see where such a distinction has been properly grounded. Rather than tussle with the creation account in Genesis, let us not take the bait of the straw man in granting naturalism across the board in light of Genesis 1. I suspect Spurway has no problem discounting other items like Moses and the burning bush (Ex. 3:3), water from rock (Num. 20:7-11), the angelic hand of death upon the Assyrians (2 Kings 19:35) or even Peter’s striking of Ananias and Sapphira dead (Acts 3). But, what of the other theistic evolutionists? On what grounds can all other supernatural events be excised from the Bible, but the supernatural Jesus remain? The Bible contains claims about supernatural historical events in the material world from cover to cover. Can we really say that Biblical claims exist on some other plane than naturalistic descriptions? Or, do they attempt to describe the same world?

I say this in light of the observation that Paul Davies (an agnostic scientist) has offered, “where a unique event is concerned, the distinction between a natural and a miraculous process evaporates.” And yet, secular science is chocked full of events labeled as so improbable that they only occur once in history. What Spurway (and theistic evolutionists at large) are offering is not a compatibilist approach to science and religion, but rather a sending of one to the corner and the championing of the other as the victor. Here, we come full circle on Darwinism and Natural Theology. In the introduction, Andrew Robinson recalls that atheist Daniel Dennett “could not tell from anything that he had heard that theology had anything concrete to offer him by way of additional understanding of the world.” Theistic evolution makes Dennett seem painfully correct…even as expressed in a book attempting to respond to him.

Some remaining odds and ends:

In taking on ID, Spurway objects to the idea of a God “who from time to time stirs the pond she/he/it has created, in order to overcome the inadequacies of her/his/its initial efforts.” He continues, “How infinitely more worship-worthy is a being who got it right from the beginning.” No. How completely and entirely deistic such a god would be. I would argue that a God who engages her/his/its creation, offering correction and redemption when the creation chooses wrongly, would be a much more worship-worthy being. Spurway’s God is an absentee father. Christianity’s is not.

So what of Spurway’s view of us? He’s already emphasizes the fact that we are wholly and entirely describable in naturalistic terms. So it’s not surprising that he ends his chapter with,

“If the approach I have outlined is on anywhere near the right lines, Darwinian thinking keeps us earth-bound. We are animals…and are wholly the products of terrestrial evolution…We are ‘of the earth, earthy.’ What glorious things that says about the earth!”

Or, as Isaac Brock (of Modest Mouse) wrote, “We were laughing at the stars while our feet clung tight to the ground. So pleased with ourselves for using so many verbs and nouns. But we were all still just dumb, dumb, dumber than the dirt, dirt, dirt of the ground.”



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