Published in Covalence, The Bulletin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, Volume IV, Number 2 ("Summer Reading" Issue, Second Quarter, 2002). All rights reserved. Posted with permission from the author, and from the editor of Covalence.

 

INTELLIGENT DESIGN AS A THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM

George L. Murphy, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron OH

The ID Movement

Intelligent Design (henceforth ID) is the latest American cultural and religious challenge to evolution. 1 Its immediate prehistory is the attack of Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson on Darwinism and "naturalism" in general which began with his Darwin on Trial.2 The emphasis on ID came from two lines of argument having to do with the complexity of biological systems. Biochemist Michael Behe claims that some aspects of living things, such as the blood clotting mechanism, are "irreducibly complex" and cannot have arisen by means of natural selection alone.3 Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, on the other hand, presents theoretical arguments to the effect that "complex specified information" in living systems could not have been generated by natural processes.4

These arguments attempt to show that important features of biological systems and life itself can’t be explained by neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory but require the action of an Intelligent Designer. ID has played a major role in what Johnson calls the "Wedge" strategy directed against naturalism throughout contemporary culture.5 While some ID proponents accept evolutionary theory as valid but incomplete, others reject it.

Not surprisingly, there have been attempts to get ID introduced into public school science curricula as an alternative to standard presentations of evolution. One is taking place in Ohio as I write. These attempts provoke debate having to do largely with whether or not ID is science (or perhaps whether it’s good science) and questions about church-state separation.

The Religious Element

ID claims are scientifically questionable, but our concern here is with theology. Advocates of ID have often been less than straightforward about their religious agenda. In some settings they play the "Nobody here but us scientists" card, arguing that their claims should be investigated like those of any scientific theory. This tactic is necessary if there is to be any chance of getting their ideas into public science education. On the other hand, the fact that religious beliefs are central to ID is clear from statements by major figures in the movement and is inherent in the attack on naturalism. There are no protests by ID proponents when some Evangelicals use their claims to try to prove the existence of God and creation.

The existence of an Intelligent Designer is supposed to be a conclusion of scientific argument. But who is this Designer? The statement is sometimes made that it could be a natural agency - e.g., some process of "directed panspermia" in which extraterrestrials seeded the earth with life.6 This would not, however, solve the scientific problem of the origin of life but would only push it back a step. It would also be of no use in the attack on naturalism. If the argument is to be worth anything, the Intelligent Designer must be God. We are then faced with a choice. We might be prepared to subject God to study with the techniques of the natural sciences. But if it is realized that such study is inappropriate, the ID conclusion becomes a STOP sign for further scientific research. God did it and that’s that.

Ambiguity about claims for a Designer allows the ID argument to appeal to many religious believers.7 Theists certainly have no objection to the idea that there is a Designer, for that seems to be just an expression of the belief that God is the creator of the universe and life and has purposes for creation. The ID claim, however, is that the activity of a Designer is not only a religious belief but a science result, and can, in principle, be observed by scientific methods.

Religious believers agree that God was the creator of the first life on earth. God is also the creator of each life that arises in the womb, and the one who makes the grain grow to provide us with food, but God is not a kind of Intelligent Embryologist or Farmer whose actions are part of a scientific explanation of these phenomena. Traditional doctrines of providence have held that God acts in and through natural processes in the world, cooperating with creatures as instruments.8 Our observations of the world see these instruments but not the one who works with them.

The ID movement has not followed this tradition by addressing the relationship between the actions of its Designer and natural processes, and there are good reasons for its failure to do so. A theological attempt to understand how God acts through natural processes to introduce information into biological systems would seem to mean surrender to the naturalism that ID is fighting against.

One may ask, for example, whether or not the carbon-12 nucleus is "intelligently designed." The question is important because the element carbon is, as far as we know, essential for the existence of physical life. The carbon nucleus can be formed by fusion reactions in the interiors of stars only because the strengths of the electromagnetic and nuclear interactions have just the values that they do have. This is, in fact, one of the "anthropic coincidences" that seems to make our universe precisely adjusted for the development of intelligent life.9

ID proponents are in a bind here. Clearly they don’t want to deny that carbon-12 is intelligently designed. But if they say that it is then they concede that such design can be accomplished through natural processes - for we understand in detail the nuclear reactions that give rise to this nucleus. And in that case the normal reaction of scientifically minded believers to other systems whose formation we don’t completely understand will be to look for better scientific theories, not to fall back on the God of the Gaps.

The True Creator

Our religious discussion to this point has been limited to a general theism. Johnson makes his belief more explicit by distinguishing between "theistic naturalism," which he rejects, and his own "theistic realism."10 The distinction is made clear in an oft-quoted statement.

God is our true Creator. I am not speaking of a God who is known only to faith and is invisible to reason, or who acted undetectably behind some naturalistic evolutionary process that was to all appearances mindless and purposeless. That kind of talk is about the human imagination, not the reality of God. I speak of a God who acted openly and left his fingerprints all over the evidence.11

We have to ask, however, if such a God is the one revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Contrast Johnson’s last sentence with a thought of Pascal: "What meets our eyes denotes neither a total absence nor a manifest presence of the divine, but the presence of a God who conceals Himself. Everything bears this stamp."12 Pascal had Isaiah 45:15 in mind, and Luther refers to the same verse in arguments for the Heidelberg Theses which set out his theology of the cross.

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.

He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.13

According to Luther, "true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ."14 Conversely, one who wants to discover God from some clues in creation "does not deserve to be called a theologian."

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on God’s action in the world during his imprisonment were in this tradition. In one letter he says that reading a book on modern physics "has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. ... We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know."15 This is not simply a concession to the successes of science, for his belief that "we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [though God were not given]" is christologically grounded: "God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us." 16

If Luther is right, if the cross is where we really see what God is like, then we should expect that God’s actions in the world bear the mark of the cross.17 To say "God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross" means that God acts in such a way as to be considered unnecessary from the standpoint of the natural sciences. A number of participants in science-theology dialogue have pursued this logic by developing kenotic theologies of divine action.18 The name is taken from the Christ hymn of Philippians which speaks of how the one who "was in the form of God ... emptied [ekenosen] himself, taking the form of a slave" (Philippians 2:6-7 NRSV). Just as the Son of God limited himself by taking human form and dying on a cross, God limits divine action in the world to be in accord with rational laws which God has chosen. This enables us to understand the world on its own terms, but it also means that natural processes hide God from scientific observation.

A theology of the cross then suggests that, contrary to the belief of ID advocates, methodological naturalism is appropriate for natural science, which is not to invoke God as an explanation for phenomena. This is not to be equated with a metaphysical naturalism which assumes that the natural world is all there is, for the triune God revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ is the true creator of nature. But this God does not compel the belief of skeptics by leaving puzzles in creation which science can’t solve. The mark God has placed on creation is both more stark and more subtle. "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah" (Matthew 16:4 NRSV).

Endnotes

[1]. Robert T. Pennock (ed.), Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics (MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2001) contains essays debating philosophical, theological, and scientific issues related to ID.

[2]. Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (InterVarsity, Downers Grove IL, 1991).

[3]. Michael Behe, Darwin's Black Box (Free Press, New York, 1996).

[4]. Wlliam A. Dembski, Intelligent Design (InterVarsity, Downers Grove IL, 1999).

[5]. E.g., Barbara Forest, “The Wedge at Work” in Pennock, Intelligent Design Creationism,

pp.5-53.

[6]. E.g., Francis Crick, Life Itself (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1981).

[7]. The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, Ohio reported on June 9, 2002 on a poll indicating that 59% of Ohioans favored teaching evolution together with ID in science classes in public schools.

[8]. Benjamin Wirt Farley, The Providence of God (Baker, Grand Rapids, 1988). Ian G. Barbour, Religion and Science (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), Chapter 12, provides a survey of models of divine action.

[9]. John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford, New York, 1986), pp.251-253.

[10]. Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance (InterVarsity, Downers Grove IL, 1995), Ch.5.

[11]. Phillip E. Johnson, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds (InterVarsity, Downers Grove IL, 1997), p.23.

[12]. Blaise Pascal, The Pensées (Penguin, Baltimore, 1961), #602, p.222.

[13]. Luther's Works, Volume 31 (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1957), pp.52. Isaiah is cited in support of the latter thesis on p.53.

[14]. Ibid., p.53.

[15]. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition (Macmillan, New York, 1972), p.311.

[16]. Ibid., pp.360-361.

[17]. George L. Murphy, The Trademark of God (Morehouse-Barlow, Wilton CT, 1986).

[18]. For a survey of such ideas see Barbour, Religion and Science, pp.315-318. More detailed treatments are Nancey Murphy and G.F.R. Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe (Fortress, Minneapolis, 1996) and George L. Murphy, “The Theology of the Cross and God's Work in the World”, Zygon 33 1998, 221.