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

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.”

A Fundamentalist cartoon portraying Modernism as the descent from Christianity to atheism, first published in 1922 and then used in Seven Questions in Dispute by William Jennings Bryan.

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?

29 thoughts on “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

  1. i.e. the Jewish idea of linear time from beginning to end, as opposed to the Hindu/Buddhist idea of cyclical time (endless cycles of creation/expansion/contraction/destruction/creation) or Aristotle’s Eternal Cosmos/Steady State.


  2. It’s a neat realization to understand that empty space is not nothing. I recently read an article in which a scientist said that it would be more accurate to call the expansion of the universe the expansion of space.


  3. I guess that this is evidence that the universe, unlike some of its natural, local subsystems, is not cyclic. It is headed in a one way direction, and there will be no point of maximum expansion, followed by contraction, return to its original state, and then a new naturally realized genesis. The universe is a one way street; you can’t go home again.


  4. “God creates dinosaurs, God kills dinosaurs, God creates man, man kills God, man brings back dinosaurs.”

    “Dinosaurs eat man… woman inherits the earth.”


  5. And if they can exist and truly be themselves without their fierceness, danger, and deadliness later, why has God not made them to be so now? Why was it necessary for them (and us) to be so prone to pain and death before they could not be so? The theodicy problem remains.


  6. If we would get to ride a dinosaur, what’s to prevent us getting eaten by one too? There’s the problem: How will nature and its products remain themselves, really truly themselves, without maintaining their fierceness, danger, and even their deadliness? “One Law for the Lion and the Ox is Oppression” William Blake.


  7. There, one supposes, is where the resurrection comes in. Jesus died and was not lost but was resurrected, and is our hope that those lost to death are not truly lost but will be found again. The ancient tradition of the harrowing of hell is exactly this – Jesus died so as to enter death and bring out the lost from it.


  8. flora, too 🙂

    ‘speak to the Earth and let it teach you’
    (Job 12)

    and by grace, we may learn from all living things about God

    ‘O Son of God, Giver of Life, all the world glorifies Thee’


  9. –> “For this entails that everything that ever lived will be caught up into this new creation….This important for our present struggle to care for the environment, for we can see now that the promise of redemption shows us the true value of all living things.”

    Flora, too? Does God drawn a line somewhere? “This is rebirthed, this is not”…?


  10. That’s a mind bender alright.

    It would certainly have to change phsyics as many of those subsequent creatures are assembled, quite exactly, from the same material as the previous ones.

    This is certainly a wild departure from any historically imagined Eschatons.


  11. In other words, there are many more outcomes involving particles spread out all over the place than distinct, organized pockets of hot and cold.


  12. The universe does indeed seem destined to continue expanding (really space “stretching”) indefinitely…and instead of heat death it will be a very slow, cold death, where every “thing” approaches becoming infinitely far apart from everything else. This is in fact the state that tends towards highest disorder and is consistent with the concept of entropy. Having pockets of hot stars and matter and empty space is actually more ordered. Imagine a box with a slit in the middle. State A is the gas molecules all in one half, and the other is empty. State B is the gas spread evenly/uniformly throughout both halves. State A here is more ordered (lower entropy) and state B is more disordered (higher entropy), therefore the gas will inevitably expand and go from state A to state B (not the other way around). Same with why ice cube in water melts and approaches a uniform, equilibrium temperature, because it’s a more likely and disordered state that way (it never happens conversely that the ice gets colder and the water gets warmer)


  13. I was a little shocked at Denis’ Third Purpose of Biology being the Eschaton. Here is what he says:

    “The ‘continuity yet transformed’ part of the story is critical for ideas of Purpose in Biology. For this entails that everything that ever lived will be caught up into this new creation. One can speculate as to whether this involves literally every creature (somewhat mind-boggling for the imagination) or whether there is a repertoire of every species that ever lived on this planet; the main point being here is that there will be continuity with present biological life. The best of every aspect of human creativity will be brought into the fulfilled kingdom (Revelation 21:24) and, one imagines, the best of every aspect of evolutionary diversity in terms of living organisms. This important for our present struggle to care for the environment, for we can see now that the promise of redemption shows us the true value of all living things. What we do now for biodiversity really counts, not only because that biodiversity in itself brings glory to God as creator in the present age but also, one might speculate by analogy with the human situation, because that biodiversity will be represented in a transformed state in the age which is to come.”

    That is truly a Christian biologist speculating about the future. And why not? The dinosaurs were truly a spectacular creation and have long captured our imaginations. Why not resurrected Tyrannosaurs and Apatosaurus in the Eschaton? Ken Ham could really get to ride a dinosaur!! Imagine his joy!! And our pets? The Bible says “love never fails”, so why should it fail with our beloved animals. How is God going to do it and not violate the laws of physics? Maybe this universe winks out in a heat death only to be reborn in a newer more glorious Big Bang where the previous laws of physics are also recreated and transformed, and somehow our eternal spirits are along for the ride!


  14. Adam, perhaps there IS a ‘response’ to our pain that we may not fully understand now, but in time, we will.

    Take a look at this photo:

    and the story:

    We do not necessarily CONSCIOUSLY know we are being cared for when we are suffering pain or grief, but I think we can trust that in our weakness, we are not left to bear it ‘alone’ without a Presence staying near . . .

    “…25But if we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it patiently. 26In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. 27And He who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.… ” (Romans, chapter 8)


  15. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It is a term, I believe, whose meaning wanders; sometimes deliberately. I do not believe it is so straight-forward. Which is just one part of what makes these issues difficult to discuss


  16. But isn’t that what we mean by suffering? That loss, personalized and felt in the senses and imagination?


  17. Even the droid’s backup is subject to the physical constraints of the universe, no? That backup may not be a meat suit, but one of microchips and electrical circuitry, some kind of hardware. If our bodies have the appearance of being designed for disposability, then the universe must have the same lineaments. Which brings us full circle to an issue often discussed here at iMonk: How exactly is this world with its appearances of disposability and a built-in expiration date our home, and how does it have a one-to-one correspondence with the world of the eschaton?

    Or maybe there will be no eschaton. In which case, what is the hope in our faith?


  18. > such a huge amount of pain, suffering, and death?

    I know I may be fringe in this; but it isn’t really pain or suffering that bug me.

    I’m not sure Pain|Suffering is Bad [like, Evil Bad]. Pain|Suffering, at least in some range, does not preclude happiness or even joy.

    Not in any way meant as a trope, or with hand-wavery, but with great solemnity, I am on board with: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” — Tolkein

    It is the Loss that tweaks me. Even down to Spike [who was a pony] and Absalom and Gaspar [who were dogs]. These were not great and mighty beings, but they were distinct from others, and parts of a family, they were capable of humor, and capable of friendship. And they are gone, after very brief existence. And then there are the Humans who need not even be named, often broken down and extinguished in humiliating manner. It is the accumulated loss and indignity, with no apparent “response” what-so-ever, that piles on.


  19. This is off topic, but I find it fascinating, and it raises questions for me: I’ve been reading that new data about the speed of the universe’s expansion has led physicists to believe that the universe may never stop expanding, but continue endlessly. If this is the case, does it modify the law of entropy? Wouldn’t it mean that there is no heat death, no complete state of energy equilibrium, in the universe’s future? Mike the G, any other scientifically informed iMonkers out there with answers…


  20. “””How will the eschaton be free of the same possibility of harm and pain unless laws of physics and chemistry do not apply in it,”””


    “Is the idea of such a world absurd, as per your observation?”


    “he can create such a world, why did he not do it already?”


    Goodness, at least if I was a Droid I could be restored from backup [if obliterated] or rather simply have broken parts swapped out. But, this meat suit? This thing is an disaster; it very very precisely appears to be designed to be disposable – and with me in it.


  21. “””Can anyone imagine how absurd such a world would be?”””


    It seems to me that it would be a world [Universe?] which would rather quickly grind to a halt.


  22. I recently heard an interview with a physicist (I don’t remember his name) who said that, if entropy were not a characteristic of the universe, nothing could ever happen, since everything would be in a static, total energy equilibrium. Because we tend to have a magical-thinking view of God, we must underestimate the constraints involved in creating a universe in which life is possible. But the questions that your observation gives rise to are these: How will the eschaton be free of the same possibility of harm and pain unless laws of physics and chemistry do not apply in it, or God constantly miraculously intervenes in them? Is the idea of such a world absurd, as per your observation? And if it is not absurd, and he can create such a world, why did he not do it already? Why did he create the agonistc world first?


  23. “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?”

    Well, either God would have had to build a universe where the nasic laws of physics and chemistry do not apply (conservation of energy, entropy, ad inf.), or else constantly and miraculously suspend those laws the moment they might cause harm or pain. Can anyone imagine how absurd such a world would be?


  24. “300 GOATS”
    In icy fields.
    Is water flowing in the tank?
    Will they huddle together, warm bodies pressing?
    (Is it the year of the goat or the sheep?
    Scholars debating Chinese zodiac,
    follower or leader.)
    O lead them to a warm corner,
    little ones toward bulkier bodies.
    Lead them to the brush, which cuts the icy wind.
    Another frigid night swooping down?—
    Aren’t you worried about them? I ask my friend,
    who lives by herself on the ranch of goats,
    far from here near the town of Ozona.
    She shrugs, “Not really,
    they know what to do. They’re goats.”



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