Re: [asa] Deism, Apologetics, and Neglected Arguments

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Mon Aug 17 2009 - 12:33:13 EDT

This conversation is a very important one, and touches on many aspects of ID, theology, and the history of science. I need to get a lot of writing done this week or I would do a lot of writing, right here, on this topic. I will still say more than many may want to read.

First, I should say that my own view of natural theology is intermediate between George Murphy's view and the view that I think is generally held by many in the ID movement -- that is, the view that it's essential to both Christian faith and the culture wars (sorry, Cameron, I can't separate the latter from this conversation, given what a lot of ID leaders have written) to have something very close to the old style natural theology, a "knockdown" proof of God's existence to use vs "Ditchkins" and on which to ground assaults on moral relativism in legal and educational contexts.

I have learned a great deal from George, and for the most part I resonate with what he calls (citing Luther) the "theology of the cross," rather than the "theology of glory." This is very similar to what Polkinghorne calls (citing Moltmann) "the crucified God." With Polkinghorne, I would say that the very possibility of my Christian faith depends on seeing Christ as "the crucified God," holding out to us an answer (more existential than philosophical) for what Lewis called "the problem of pain." Indeed, the epigram that book by Lewis, borrowed from George MacDonald, eloquently summarizes just such a theology of the crucified God: "The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His." In my view, the objections often raised against a TE position, in terms of why a good God would use a process like evolution to create us and all other living things, are best met by a christological doctrine of creation (as vs one l!
 ooking only to God the Father as Maker of Heaven and Earth), in which the Creator is understood to be the twisted figure on the cross, the suffering servant who brings new things out of old. And, like Polkinghorne, such a view has real value only if involves an ontological view of the Incarnation: that God really did take on human form, that Jesus really was and is the second person of the Trinity and not merely a human being who trusted God more fully and deeply that most of us can. This view, with its emphasis on divine "kenosis" (self-emptying, or "pouring out"), is IMO theologically superior to the older theologies of creation, emphasizing only God the Father, or at least not seeing the LOGOS of John's gospel as the suffering servant. IMO, most ID advocates either do not understand this view (most ID advocates do not read any modern theology), or think it heretical for some reason (perhaps b/c it suggests like the book of Job that suffering and evil are ultimately pa!
 rt of God's choice not to create heaven now and cannot simply !
 be blame
d on the "fall"), or b/c they believe that it results from an erroneous acceptance of evolution. But, as I say, on theological grounds alone, entirely apart from whether evolution is true or not, I think this is the best route to take relative to theodicy.

I do not extend this view as far as George does, however, when it comes to natural theology. I agree with George that God is very often "hidden" in the world, and I also agree with George that the truest and best revelation of the divine is in the events of the passion week, not in the creation. However, I give more value to natural theology than George does. I do think that God has displayed wisdom and power in aspects of the creation. (I leave aside here the question of why some do not see it, except to note that the dark side of creation, if I may call it that, does raise questions about divine goodness, completely independently of human wickedness, questions that were largely or entirely ignored by the classical natural theologians. For Darwin this aspect of creation was clearest in parasitism.) I don't think that God is completely hidden, in other words, but at that same time I don't think that God wears his heart upon his sleeve, to borrow Einstein's words. I do!
  sometimes think that ID aims at writing God's name on the sleeve of creation, and certainly the classic natural theologians believed that God had done precisely that, from Boyle right down to Paley.

George quotes the following passage from Richard S. Westfall's Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (Yale, 1958), pp.106-107:

"While the virtuosi [scientists in today's parlance] concentrated vigorously on the demonstrations of natural religion and proved to their own satisfaction that the cosmos reveals its Creator, they came to neglect their own contention that natural religion is only the foundation. The supernatural teachings of Christianity received little more than a perfunctory nod, expressing approval but indicating disinterest. Although the absorption in natural religion and the external manifestations of divine power did not dispute or deny any specific Christian doctrine, it did more to undermine Christianity than any conclusion of natural science."

As I've said sometimes, the late "Sam" Westfall was my mentor in graduate school. This passage very fairly summarizes his position, which has been reinvigorated by the contemporary Catholic scholar Michael Buckley, in his book, At the Origins of Modern Atheism. I think this view is at least partly correct. Among other things, it very accurately cautions against the dangers of an independent natural theology -- here I would agree with George. On the other hand, Westfall's view is fairly heavily based on serious misunderstandings of the views of both Robert Boyle (to whom I devoted many years of study, starting when I was Sam's student) and Isaac Newton (to whom Sam devoted much of his life, yet Sam's view of Newton on theology and science is not shared by me or by most modern Newton scholars). To see what I mean, relative to Newton, read one of the Newton pieces listed on my web site ( On Boyle, it would be instructive to compare what S!
 am said about him on pp. 124-27 of the book cited above to what I wrote about Boyle's religious life and attitudes in Science & Christian Belief (Oct 2007). Suffice it to say that I do not at all accept Sam's statement (126), "Apparently Boyle did not keenly feel the need for divine redemption in his own heart. The even tenor of his life was seemingly unbroken by violent temptation, and he pursued a steady course of virtue unmarred by even the faintest breath of scandal. The problems of morality were not pressing concerns in personal life. He talked about sin like an American discussing cricket; he had heard about it but had never seen it close at hand. The Christian doctrine of redemption rang no response in his soul."

To the contrary. As I argue in my essay, it was the depths of depravity that Boyle saw all around him, esp in the lives of his family members and their spouses, that drove Boyle to reject courtly mores and to remain chaste his whole life. It was deep struggles with his own religious doubts that led him to write so much about the positive functions that natural philosophy and the experimental life had for the Christian. And, it was Boyle's own religious experience of redemption -- through the sacrament of the Eucharist -- that provided the antidote for the despair that had driven him to contemplate suicide as a young Christian. Sam was put off by Boyle's deep piety -- he saw Boyle as "priggish," I recall -- and unable to see the positive role that doubt played in Boyle's spiritual and intellectual life.

Nevertheless, I agree with Sam's observation, that "Boyle never considered natural religion a substitute for Christianity." (124) Some others probably did, and I very much agree with Sam's point that "In the hands of men who were less devout [than Boyle] his religious expressions could readily have been turned into deism." (127) It is to Boyle more than anyone else that we owe the clockwork metaphor (which Newton rejected); it is to Boyle more than anyone else that we look for inspiring the Anglo-American tradition of natural theology, culminating in Paley and leading directly to Dembski and Behe. I do not intend to imply anything here about any lack of piety or genuine Christian faith on the part of Paley, Dembski, or Behe; but there can be no doubt that lots of others who followed after Boyle accepted the full force of the design argument while rejecting the redemptive power of God in Christ. I don't blame Boyle for this, any more than I blame Darwin for Hitler. But i!
 n his public and private writings Boyle certainly put more emphasis on creation than redemption.

I can't blame him for that, either. I hope George will correct me if I am mistaken, but as far as I can tell it has only been in relatively recent times that anyone has developed the kind of christocentric theology of creation that I outlined above. Boyle and pretty much anyone else -- Calvin, Thomas, Augustine, Wesley, and probably even Luther most of the time (is this correct, George?) -- did not join creation and redemption to the degree that has been done by George, Polkinghorne, and some other recent authors. True, some 17th century Lutheran theologians took a kenotic view of redemption; but no one took a kenotic view of creation until quite recently. No one, that is to say, tried fully to integrate the passion week into the creation week, such that conversations about God the Father, Maker of Heaven and Earth, were not simultaneously conversations about God the Son, whose suffering has redeemed us and whose resurrection is the first fruits of the new creation.

That is where I would try to get people to go: to the cross, where the Creator died before being raised again. When dealing with Ditchkins, however, all of that is (as Paul said) just so much foolishness to the Greeks. For conversations in the public square, sometimes it can be helpful at least to blunt the point of the Ditchkins spear, aimed not at the side of the suffering servant (whom Ditchkins cannot even see) but at the head of the believer, in order to show the foolishness of a reason that ultimately denies the basis of its own rationality. To that extent, and only to that extent, I think natural theology has some value, independently of revelation.

On the other hand, I do have the impression, a very strong impression, that many ID thinkers believe that getting Ditchkins to admit the possibility of genuine design will thereby result somehow in cultural renewal. IMO this is to miss the "lesson" of people like Robert Hooke, a close friend of Boyle who absolutely believed in the reality of divine design in the world, but who went on his merry way of living a rather licentious nocturnal life (Hooke's diary provides abundant evidence for the curious). I sometimes wonder whether Hooke was in the front of Boyle's mind, when he thought of "practical atheists" as he did on at least one occasion, or when he spoke of baptized infidels of various types as he did quite often. In any case, Boyle really believed that natural theology could move hearts as well as teach minds; I can't agree with him on that, in most cases. To that extent, I think ID is barking up the wrong tree.


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Received on Mon Aug 17 12:34:19 2009

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