Editor's note: In light of yet another wave of legislation to augment teaching of evolution in U.S. public schools, Covalence would like to revisit some of the basic issues that were inherent to the last cycle of legal challenges related to creationism and evolution that culminated in the intelligent design movement. This article was originally published in 2002.
Intelligent Design (ID) is the latest American cultural and religious challenge to evolution. 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.
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. 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.
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. While some ID proponents accept evolution 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. 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 vales 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.
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." The distinction is made clear in his 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.
We have to ask, however, if such a God is the one revealed in the cross and resurrection of Christ.George L. Murphy, a retired ELCA pastor and physicist living in Tallmadge, Ohio, is an adjunct faculty member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. Murphy's website (http://home.roadrunner.com/~scitheologyglm) is home to his work in theology and science.
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." 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. According to Luther, "true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ." 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." 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."
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. 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. The name is taken from the Christ hymn of Philippians which speaks of how the one who "was in the form of God ... emptied 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).
Covalence, April 2011