Is There Purpose in Biology?: The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander,
Chapter 5- The Christian Matrix Within Which Biology Flourishes
We are reviewing the book: Is There Purpose in Biology? The Cost of Existence and the God of Love. By Denis Alexander. Chapter 5- The Christian Matrix Within Which Biology Flourishes.
Alexander returns to the point he made in the beginning discussions in this book. That is that Purpose (with a capital P) is consistent with the evolutionary story, even though it cannot be directly derived from it; it must be imposed upon it by human reflection and interpretation. He notes that Darwin’s own worldview was Christianity as he puzzled over the vast amount of observation and data that came from his famous voyages on the Beagle (even if Darwin later came to a more agnostic view). He goes even further and says that evolution has a particular affinity with Christianity via its nurturing within natural theology. He cites as evidence for that assertion that many of Darwin’s Christian contemporaries were quick to incorporate evolution into the Christian faith. He quotes Scottish evangelist Henry Drummond (1851-97) who maintained that natural selection was “a real and beautiful acquisition to natural theology” and that the Origin was “perhaps the most important contribution to the literature of apologetics”. Aubrey Moore, another Victorian cleric, maintained that Darwin’s theory had done the church a great service in helping to get rid of the more extreme forms of natural theology and claimed that there was a special affinity based on the intimate involvement of God in his creation as revealed in Christian theology. Moore said:
“There are not, and cannot be, any Divine interpositions in nature, for God cannot interfere with Himself. His creative activity is present everywhere. There is no division of labor between God and nature, or God and law… For the Christian theologian, the facts of nature are the acts of God.”
The American historian George Marsden reports, “… with the exception of Louis Agassiz, virtually every American Protestant zoologist and botanist accepted some form of evolution by the early 1870s” (Marsden, 1984, Understanding Fundamentalist Views of Science. In Science and Creationism, ed. A. Montagu, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 101).
That trend held fast among scientists in Protestant congregations until the rise of the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy in the 1920s.
Alexander’s next point is that the Bible contains no concept of “nature” as referring to the natural world apart from God’s creation. Robert Boyle, one of the founders of modern chemistry, wrote a book entitled, “Free Inquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature” (1685) where he attacked the notion that nature had any autonomous existence, or that it acted as a mediator between God and his works. God has not appointed a “vicegerent called nature” wrote Boyle, and if there were such a “Lieutenant she must be said to act too blindly and impotently to discharge well the part she is said to be trusted with.” Alexander says that in the hands of Boyle, and indeed of the biblical text, the idea of nature as a quasi-independent entity has been demythologized, as Aubrey Moore said above, “…the facts of nature are the acts of God.”
Alexander says this is why the arguments for God based on biological “designs” so loved by the natural theologians of previous centuries, and those of today who portray God as an engineer who occasionally designs bits of living things, represented such hostages to fortune – once the idea of adaptation by natural selection came along, what need was there for God as an explanation? He again quotes Aubrey Moore:
The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the deist’s God further and further away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out all together, Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend… Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere. (Moore, A. 1891, The Christian Doctrine of God, p.73.)
So how does God act in the world, in Alexander’s view? Denis has tried to avoid the scenario where God ends up like the divine tinkerer with the world, rather than the author and sustainer of the whole created order. Once again he quotes Aubrey Moore, who hits the nail on the head:
The scientific evidence in favour of evolution as a theory is infinitely more Christian than the theory of “special creation”. For it implies the immanence of God in nature, and the omnipresence of His creative power. Those who oppose the doctrine of evolution in defense of a “continued intervention” of God, seem to have failed to notice that a theory of occasional intervention implies as its correlative a theory of ordinary absence. (Moore, A. 1891, The Christian Doctrine of God, p.184.)
Instead, Denis likes to highlight the language of top-down causation used by the Bible when it refers to the activity of God in creation, which is the theological language of God speaking. There is the language of Genesis 1 where God speaks on every one of the six days to bring order and beauty into the world that is formless and void. Once you start looking for it the idea of God speaking to create is all over the place in the Bible, especially in the Psalms. Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.” Psalm 29:3, “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.” But even in the Gospels, Luke 8:25, “In fear and amazement they asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” And the epistles, Hebrews 11:3, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.”
Denis says: “Speaking expresses power, mind, intelligence, and will. Through top-down causation, even we ourselves exert dramatic influence through our language over the behavior of those around us. “Please pass the salt” we say to someone at the dinner table and our invisible words are causally effective in bringing about the desired result, with no breaking of scientific laws in the process.”
Denis is also clear that such reflections do not somehow “explain” divine action. He points out the metaphor of “God as designer” is actually not found in the Bible. Of course, all who believe in God as creator see the intelligibility of the created order in some overall sense as being “designed” to be that way by God, so that we can speak sensibly of the intentions and purposes of God being fulfilled in creation, but that is a very different concept from the idea that God is actively designing some particular aspect of a living organism, for example.
Denis’ understanding is that evolutionary biology is consistent with a God who has intentions and Purposes for the world, so he now lists what those Purposes might be. The first Purpose of biology that we note as we start reading the Bible is the intrinsic value of the great riot of biological diversity that we see all over the planet. A careful reading of the biblical text reveals God as creator reveling in the living diversity of his own created order, not because it has some utilitarian purpose for human use, but simply because it was there. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” says Psalm 24:1. “God saw everything that he had made, and it was very good” Genesis 1:31. Denis says:
Such a reflection becomes all the more relevant when we come to the second main Purpose of biology, which is equally clearly written all over the Bible, namely, that God’s intentions and Purposes for biology are that creatures like ourselves should emerge that have the capacity for free will, and so moral choice, creatures with complex minds that enable the use of language, the appreciation and investigations of the properties of the created order, reflection on the meaning of life, and engagement in loving relationships.
The third Purpose of God for biology that is expressed in different ways in many parts of the Bible is that the end of our own planet does not entail the end of life as we presently know it. Denis admits this is the aspect of Purpose that those not within the Christian community find most difficult to accept. Yet it is central to the preaching of Jesus in the New Testament. Christ came to die for the whole cosmos; the coming of the Kingdom that starts right now as his reign begins in the hearts and lives of all those who follow him. Yes, individuals enter the kingdom as they put their trust in Christ, but his redemption extends to the whole created order, that is “groaning” in its anticipation. Denis says this is no ethereal existence, but rather far more real than our present existence, with people with resurrected bodies, and biological organisms with resurrected bodies, in intimate continuity with the present created order, yet now transformed in to a totally new kind of created order.
Now this is all good, and I appreciate what Denis is trying to do. He wants to make a Theology that is consistent with reality. Which is a hell of lot better than trying to twist reality to comport with one’s theology. That’s never going to work. If your interpretation of inerrant scripture doesn’t line up with what are clearly the facts of life (bios), then despite your protestations that scripture is inerrant, your interpretation is… has to be… errant. As Aubrey Moore said earlier, “Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere… and, “…the facts of nature are the acts of God.”
But there is a fly in Denis’ ointment; how can such a Christian narrative of Purpose possibly fit with the observation that the evolutionary process is marked by such a huge amount of pain, suffering, and death? After all, there were 5 major extinctions in the biology of this planet; one in which at least 90% of all life was extinguished. Was that “very good”? Were those facts of nature indeed also the acts of God?