Re: [asa] Re: natural theology, bad and good

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Mon May 04 2009 - 13:43:10 EDT

I am finding this exchange between Cameron and George very interesting!

For my part, I want to comment on one of Cameron's statements, as follows:

“I am for the most part uninterested in any theology written after about 1600-1700 anyway, except to the extent that it helps to revive and explain for modern audiences the pre-modern tradition of theological thought.”

Wow--this resonates very much with what I found, when I engaged a large group of ID proponents concerning TE and ID a few years ago. Most of those folks were from the sciences or engineering--or, were hangers on without science backgrounds. Nearly all, at least nearly all of those who said anything directly to the point, said that they did not really read any modern theology; some of them added that modern theology was apostate, others that it had nothing of interest for them.

Consequently, it was all but impossible for most of those folks to understand what I was saying, relative to talking about someone like Polkinghorne or Russell--the kind of serious TE thinker who *does* understand the issues in a deep way, unlike most TE scientists who write pretty casually and shallowly about their theological views (I won't fill in any names here, but it would be very easy to do so using only well known authors). The classical theology with which many IDs have some familiarity is much deeper, frankly, than most of the theological thinking of most TE authors: ID proponents seem to recognize this, and it doesn't earn those TE thinkers any bonus points in their accounting.

There are several consequences of these two facts -- by which I mean the shallowness of many popular TE writers and the ignorance of most ID proponents when it comes to modern theology. Some are these.

(1) It's pretty easy for many ID adherents to dismiss TE as a serious option for the serious Christian, far too easy than it should be. The issues engaged by Polk, Russell, and other orthodox TEs (here I mean "orthodox" in terms of their christology and in terms of their sincere affirmation of traditional creeds such as the Nicene Creed, not necessarily their understandings on other specific points of doctrine though in many cases those would also be orthodox) are very serious, and much more wide ranging than the rather narrow set of issues engaged by ID proponents. For example, I don't see ID saying anything at all about christology, or even about divine action in any explicit way (though I do think that ID proponents probably have strong views about divine action that lay submerged under their "big tent."); by contrast, a small group of important TE advocates -- scientists, theologians, and philosophers -- spent the better part of a decade in deep thought about divine ac!
 tion, just when the ID movement was getting off the ground, and yet I don't see where ID proponents have paid much attention to this even though divine action is (as I said) just below the surface of their tent.

(2) The serious stuff about TE is done mostly by people with serious theological educations; it is not done by those with educations only in science. In rare cases it is done by folks without theological training, but at least those folks have read some modern theology and understand the larger picture into which TE fits. But those ID proponents who do not read any modern theology for themselves (as vs getting opinions about it, second hand, from authors who have or even from authors who haven't) are ill equipped to form adequate judgements about what they hear about the serious TE. It's easy to jump to the wrong conclusions. A pertinent example: one of the questions I was asked by ID proponents, quite often, is whether Polkinghorne is a process theologian. That's what the Brits like to call a "howler," an error so basic that it's just funny, and yet it was asked frequently and sincerely. Anyone with a decent working knowledge of Polk and process theism would never ask!
  that question, and yet Polk's views and those of process theists are among the most important ideas concerning science and theology that I could point toward.

(3) The fact that serious TE views are often articulated within a larger context -- a context that is not limited to conversations about design, or even origins, but a context that includes theodicy, christology, eschatology, divine action, and even world religions --means that those folks who don't read any modern theology are going to be incapable of evaluating fairly and accurately what is being said, in its context. Consequently, the wrong conclusions will often be stated, and in such a way to appear authoritative to others when in fact they are largely formed in ignorance. Thus, for example it is easy to offer glib criticisms of a kenotic view of the doctrine of creation, or of the quantum view of divine action, when in fact both of those views are probably fully consistent with orthodox theism (esp the former with its direct biblical base and its emphasis on the Incarnation) and neither ought to be dismissed as being motivated by a desire to fit in with secular reaso!

(4) It becomes difficult for many ID proponents to write discerningly about fundamental differences that exist among various forms of TE--because those forms usually involve differences related to the theology, not to the science. It becomes easy to dismiss all forms of TE as unorthodox.

(5) ID doesn't suffer from this problem, obviously, since ID (as ID) scrupulously avoids both the "G-word" and the "t-word." I don't mean that ID is not also subject to being badly distorted and misunderstood--that happens all the time, and sometimes probably with deliberate intent on the part of a given author. Rather, I mean that serious ID as ID is not usually being carried out by a group of scholars whose body of work is being completely ignored by those who write about it. Many IDs are scientists, and scientists read modern science all the time; whereas serious TE is carried out mainly by theologians, and many critics of TE don't read modern theology at all.


Now, to take this in another direction, I note an irony in Cameron's statement, when compared with the attitudes toward modernity of both Peter Atkins ( and the late Arthur Peacocke. Though they obviously did not share the same view of religion, Atkins and Peacocke did share a similar, very low view of theological writing and other writing about science & religion prior to the 20th century. For the most part, they held that modernity began around 1900 -- certainly not until after Darwin -- and that what had been done prior to that point was just irrelevant to the modern conversation about science and religion. They were both quite badly mistaken, obviously, but I want to point out that their view is perhaps the polar opposite of Cameron's situation. It's impossible IMO to understand someone like Polk or Russell without looking both backwards and forwards from 1900, let alone 1600. P considers himself to be a "consonantist," who,!
  "while wishing to ensure that theological understanding is consistent with what science tells us about the structure and history of the physical world, will insist that theology is as entitled as science to retain those categories which its experience has demanded that it shall use, however counterintuitive they may be. Jesus Christ will continue to be understood in the incarnational terms discussed [in an earlier chapter of the book from which I am quoting]..." As for the relevance of theological tradition, Cameron, P implies that Peacocke and others have much to learn from classical theologians, whereas scientists have quite little to learn from Newton. "Religious understanding, however, does not increase with time in that linear kind of way. The theologians of the past century still convey to us insights that are uniquely their own. The conversation with the Fathers, with Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, will never come to an end."

To the extent that this captures your own view, Cameron, as I think it might, we share this with Polkinghorne. But, I do urge you to take a more positive view of theology since 1600, let alone 1900. There's more there, than you may realize.


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Received on Mon May 4 13:44:21 2009

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