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Thursday, 31 January 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #7: Rejecting Process Theology

Polkinghorne is often accused of accepting and promoting Process Theology (PT). This theology, initially developed by Alfred Whitehead in the early 20th century, proposes that God is neither omnipotent nor directly active in his creation. To most Evangelicals, PT is heretical as its view of God can not be reconciled with the God revealed in scripture. I agree that PT is unacceptable but I strongly disagree that Polkinghorne subscribes to PT. Anyone who believes otherwise has badly misunderstood what he is saying.

God’s Omnipotence

PT rejects the possibility of an omnipotent God. To fulfill his divine purpose, God’s power is limited to persuasion. The PT divinity is a cajoling, pleading supplicant desperately trying to save his creation from itself. Thus the problem of theodicy is resolved but only by rejecting the God of the resurrection, the God who can, and will, “make all things new”. But this impotent God is not the God that Polkinghorne describes. Here is what he says in Science and Christian Belief, page 81

God remains omnipotent in the sense that he can do whatever he wills, but it is not in accordance with his will and nature to insist on total control.
The view that Polkinghorne describes is clearly not the PT God; it is in fact the God revealed in Jesus Christ who: "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Phil 2: 7, 8)

God’s Action

PT insists that either God has no power to intervene in creation, or is morally obligated not to intervene. After all, if you intervene once, why not intervene all the time to prevent evil? But the God of the Bible is certainly a God of action, something that Polkinghorne strongly affirms.

Christian theology cannot do without a God who acts in the world by more than simply keeping it in being, for it looks to the One who brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead. Science and Providence, page 43
Given the insights of modern science, we must indeed rethink and rearticulate our view of divine action; the old view of a constantly intervening divinity is inadequate. At best, it reduces God to a slightly inept divine tinkerer, at worst it implies he is some sort of cosmic tyrant. But it is not necessary to swing so far towards PT. As Polkinghorne states in Science and Christian Belief, page 80

One is trying to steer a path between the unrelaxing grip of a Cosmic Tyrant and the impotence or indifference of a Deistic Spectator. I believe process theology to be impaled on the impotent branch of the horn of the dilemma.

The dilemma is real - articulating a model for divine action is indeed difficult. However, I believe Polkinghorne’s ideas are some of the most helpful ones we have. For Evangelicals to accuse him of being a Process Theologian because of God’s self imposed limits on divine action is grossly unfair and unreasonable, just as unfair and unreasonable as accusing him of being a hyper-Fundamentalist because of his insistence that God can act, has acted, does act, and will continue to act in order to fulfill his divine purpose.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Monday, 28 January 2008

More Thoughts on Apologetics

In my recent Evangelical apologetics post I should have pointed to John Stackhouse’s Humble Apologetics as an example to follow. His guideline to “First, Listen and Understand” needs to be heard by all who desire to engage in Christian apologetics.

Other related thoughts and conversations:

1. Stackhouse is also doing an interesting series on “Do you have to choose between your Brains or your Beliefs?”. See here for the first post.

2. David Heddle has a good post that addresses the oft-heard contention that a scientist cannot be a Christian without compartmentalizing. (He has an interesting challenge for anyone who makes this claim – check it out). And on cognitive dissonance he states:

Sometimes being a scientist and a Christian is described as cognitive dissonance. It is not. Cognitive dissonance is when I simultaneously hold two beliefs that I recognize as being in opposition or in tension. It is not holding to two beliefs that someone else thinks are in tension.

3. Cliff is back blogging at Outside-the-box. In his re-introduction to the blogsphere, he has some pertinent observations on the importance of honest Christian apologetics that do not ignore the findings of modern science. He shares some very personal thoughts on the whole theological enterprise and why it is important, including this:

And I think about how science informs my understandings of the Scriptures when I consider the coming train wreck for the church. When the powerful DNA evidence for common decent finally filters down to be understood by the masses it will not be a pretty sight. I feel desperately the need to alert my friends.

4. Gordon is mulling over a follow-up project to Beyond the Firmament. I’ve reviewed some portions of this – it should be good. Here is what Gordon says on why using anti-evolutionary arguments to back up the Christian gospel is a very, very dangerous thing:

While I struggle to honestly understand the difficult data, a fellow Christian will make a completely uninformed statement like, “don’t worry brother, there is no evidence for evolution; the theory is losing support in the scientific community and will soon be considered one of the stupidest ideas in the history of man.” It takes every ounce of civility within me to not unload. Some say we are in a culture war. If so, then we should fire every officer in our intelligence community. Why? Because while our sworn enemy is building tanks and helicopters, we are led to believe that paintball guns will repel their advance. And so we go about our business with a false sense of security.

And I believe the “If” in the above paragraph is critical. Not only are we fighting with inadequate weapons - we are often fighting the wrong war. Two millennia ago there was an itinerant preacher who also accused the religious leaders of confusing the cultural and spiritual wars.

5. There was an excellent recent discussion on the ASA listserv about how Christians should approach the pseudo-science often found in our community. Loren Haarsma kicked it off with this post. There are some very thoughtful responses, particularly those by Stephen Matheson and David Opderbeck who occasionally comment here on my blog. To follow the conversation, simply follow the “Next Thread” link from the original post. My post from last September entitled Dialogue, Debate, Silence, or Confrontation: How should we approach the topic of evolution? is also related to this discussion.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Promoting a Positive Relationship Between Faith and Science in Evangelical Churches

It is not often you hear a positive message on the relationship between science and faith in an Evangelical church , or at least a positive message on evolutionary science and faith. If evolution is mentioned at all, it is usually cast in a very negative light. Is there hope that this could change in the near future?

The Clergy Letter Project

Three weeks from now hundreds of Christian pastors will be preaching about evolution during their Sunday morning sermon. But rather than delivering a warning against the evils of evolution, these ministers will be promoting peaceful coexistence between the scientific theory and the Christian faith. The coordinated messages on evolution will be delivered on Feb. 10, 2008 to coincide with the 3rd annual Evolution Sunday event (renamed to Evolution Weekend for 2008). It is a event spearheaded by The Clergy letter project, a group of more than 11,000 clergy that have signed a formal letter calling for an end to the conflict between religion and science.

At first blush this project may be encouraging for those of us who wish to promote a peaceful coexistence between science and the Christian faith. After all, removing the evolution “stumbling block” should allow many seekers to reconsider the gospel, and stop many Christians from doubting or abandoning their faith. However, I suspect this initiative will be unhelpful in promoting peace between science and a specifically Evangelical expression of the Christian faith since there is very little Evangelical representation in the group and the character of statement itself is not one that will attract many Evangelicals.

a) Very Little Evangelical Presence

From my quick perusal of the thousands of clergy that have signed the letter, I suspect that very, very few of them are Evangelicals. In fact, denominations lying outside of orthodox Christianity (eg. Unitarian Universalists) are grossly overrepresented in the group while thoroughly Evangelical denominations seem entirely absent. Now denominations with historic roots that include at least a minority of Evangelicals (eg. Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, and Baptist) are well represented, but I doubt that many of the congregations or pastors on the list come from the Evangelical end of the spectrum in their respective denominations. This may be a broad coalition of Christian clergy that promotes a positive view of evolution, but it clearly does not represent broader Evangelicalism.

b) Not an Evangelical Statement

Parts of the statement are indeed quite good. Saying that “the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist” is a great place to start. And I would more-or-less agree with the assertion that “To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God”. I realize that shared statements like these must be broad in order to enable broad participation, but a statement that does not include a single mention of Christ is clearly not written with the input of Evangelicals or with an Evangelical audience in mind. A careful reading of the statement shows more of an influence from NOMA originator Stephen Jay Gould than from prominent Evangelical Faith / Science commentators like Allister McGrath or Francis Collins. (For a more positive Evangelical assessment of The Clergy Letter Project, see Vance’s post at The Submerging Influence).

Building an Evangelical Statement

Personally I would welcome a specifically Evangelical statement regarding a positive relationship between evolutionary science and faith. A statement like this could have the same positive effect in the Evangelical community that The Evangelical Climate Initiative has had in the climate change discussion. The ASA’s statement on Creation includes a section entitled “The Theistic Evolution (Continuous Creation, Evolutionary Creation) View”, and this probably comes closest to fitting the bill right now. However, I don't believe this statement will have a dramatic effect since the positive view of evolution is included in a document that also includes anti-evolutionary statements (there is a YEC view as well), there is very little awareness of this document within the Evangelical community, and it seems unlikely that the statement will be widely promoted. Darrel Falk in his lecture Bridging the Worlds of Faith and Biology (a very interesting lecture that I recommend) hints that he and other Evangelicals may be working on an initiative like this in the near future, but I'm not aware of any details. I will definitely be watching this closely.

I am interested in hearing what others think about creating an Evangelical statement on evolution and faith. Do you think there is enough momentum in the Evangelical community for this type of proposal to garner a significant level of support? Or would it be dismissed as an initiative from the radical Evangelical fringe? What do you think is the best approach for this type of initiative? Is it something that should originate in Evangelical academia? In Evangelical denominational structures? Should Evangelical umbrella organizations like the NAE and the EFC be consulted and/or involved? Or would this work better if it originated outside of these types of organizations? After all, one positive aspect of the Evangelical movement is that grass roots initiatives can be very, very successful. Maybe the most important question of all is whether this type of initiative is constructive? Ie. will the benefits outweigh the obvious risks?

A Positive Evangelical Sermon on the Faith / Science relationship

For those that believe that a proposal like this is doomed to fail or fizzle, and for those whose experience in the Evangelical church is very painful when it comes to the topic of evolution, I invite you to listen to this sermon entitled “How can I reconcile Science and Faith” by Tom VanAntwerp of Grace Chapel in Lexington, MA (HT: David Opderbeck). It is an incredibly good sermon that provides an honest overview of the historical context, the modern conflict, and a way for Evangelicals to approach issues of science and faith. For those of us that have studied the science / faith dialogue closely, there is probably nothing new in the sermon. However, I doubt that many of us have heard anything this astute, wise, and pastorally helpful on the topic of science coming from the pulpit of an Evangelical church, nor could many of us do any better. I sure couldn’t.

If this sermon is any indication, there is hope that we Evangelicals can and will overcome our self-defeating battle against evolution. At least I am hopeful.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Polkinghorne Quotes #6: The Mutually Enriching Relationship between Faith and Science

The remarkable insights that science affords us into the intelligible workings of the world cry out for an explanation more profound than that which it itself can provide. Religion, if it is to take seriously its claim that the world is the creation of God, must be humble enough to learn from science what that world is actually like. The dialogue between them can only be mutually enriching. The scientist will find in theology a unifying principle more fundamental than the grandest unified field theory. The theologian will encounter in science’s account of the pattern and structure of the physical world a reality which calls forth admiration and wonder. Together they can say with the Psalmist: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom thou hast made them all.

From Science and Creation, page 117

It may appear that evolutionary creationists are constantly defensive, defending our faith on the one hand, and our science on the other. But that is only because we live in a world that assumes there is an inherent conflict between faith and science. The most salient conflict may be whether or not conflict is necessary. When d├ętente is reached and dialogue occurs, that dialogue between faith and science “can only be mutually enriching”.

The converse is also true: avoidance of dialogue can hamper both faith and science. As Einstein put it: “Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame”. I disagree with the limitations Einstein imposes, particularly the claim that Religion is “blind” without science, but I do agree with the claim that faith and science can benefit each other. My own take on the relationship (both positive and negative) is as follows:
  1. Through faith we can experience an intimate relationship with the Creator, but science allows us to appreciate more fully the majesty of the Creator and the grandeur of creation.

  2. Through science we can acquire an intimate knowledge of the character of creation, but without knowledge of the Creator it is an incomplete knowledge, a knowledge that is limited and ultimately unsatisfying.

Other Polkinghorne Quotes: [Introduction] [Previous] [Next]

Friday, 11 January 2008

The Sad State of Evangelical Apologetics

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

1 Peter 3:15

Many times I feel like apologizing for what passes as Evangelical apologetics. Providing a “reason for the hope that we have” certainly includes a rationale for the reasonableness of the Christian Faith. However, we should never for a moment deceive ourselves into thinking that faith in the Incarnate Christ is primarily about “reasonableness”. Neither the Christian faith nor God’s existence will ever be proven mathematically, no matter how elegantly Godel summarized Anslem. The coherence of the Christian faith should certainly be shared with others (noting particularly Peter’s qualification above that it be done with gentleness and respect), but it should not and cannot be reduced to a set of rationalist axioms.

Proof-Seeking Apologetics is a Dangerous Methodology

David Opderbeck has an excellent post comparing the proof-seeking apologetics so often seen in the Evangelical movement, and a more responsible, reliable, and credible approach to Christian apologetics. Responding to the statement that “if the church wants to keep the younger generation, it needs to stress evidence and proof”, David states:

I can’t help but feel a little ill for young people expecting to find “evidence and proof” of a proposition such as “the Bible doesn’t contain any mistakes.” I’m sure folks like Strobel, Geisler and McDowell make some good arguments in support of faith. However, the hyper-rationalist, “provide evidence and proof that the Bible doesn’t contain any mistakes” school of apologetics is not only wrong, it’s harmful.
I couldn’t agree more. As an early teen I sat through a steady diet of Josh McDowell films that defended various Christian faith claims. The basic message seemed to be that anyone brighter than a toad would immediately put their faith in Christ if they were presented with the facts. Although my grasp of probability was relatively limited, I was troubled by McDowell’s “creative” use of statistics to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah. Although this dubious methodology did not lead to a rejection of the faith for me personally, it certainly led me to question some of the very conclusions McDowell was defending. I am concerned that there are others whose faith will not remain intact when they are exposed to this Evangelical proof-centric PR campaign. As David states, it can:
“ultimately undermine the faith of anyone who takes the time to seriously investigate many of the difficult issues involved in understanding various parts of the Bible”.
Defending the Wrong Gospel

Dubious methods are not the only harmful aspect of Evangelical apologetics; sometimes the conclusions being promoted are also dangerous. J. P. Moreland, a prolific Evangelical writer, theologian and philosopher, was recently asked by Christianity Today to identify the top 5 books on Christian Apologetics. One of the five he chose was Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells which claims that:

“many of the most famous “Icons of Evolution” –including Darwin’s “Tree of Life,” finches from the Galapagos Islands, and embryos that look remarkably similar – are based on outdated research and sloppy logic”.
The perplexing aspect of Moreland’s choice is that Well’s treatise is primarily (solely?) about scientific ideas, not Christian thought. Leaving aside the book’s central claims (see Icon of Obfuscation for a thorough critique) I cannot understand how Moreland justifies including it in the category of Christian Apologetics, let alone identifying it as a “Top 5 pick”? What in the world does a scientific theory have to do with the redeeming work of Christ through his incarnation, death, and resurrection? An attack on evolution or any other scientific theory (or for that matter a defense of evolution or any other scientific theory) may be an interesting scientific argument, it may even be a good argument, but if it doesn’t interact with Christian theology or faith, it can hardly be categorized as “Christian Apologetics”. (Disclaimer: I have not read the entire book, just snippets that are available online. I have read articles about the book - both pro & con - and have also perused the table of contents and index. If there is any interaction with Christian theology, it certainly seems well hidden. I would appreciate if someone can confirm whether or not Wells includes any discussion of Christianity).

Even if Wells had discussed Christian theology, I still believe it would be a serious mistake for Moreland to highlight it as a work of Christian apologetics. The implication is that the rejection of evolution is an important aspect of the gospel, and that the gospel stands or falls on the “truth” of evolution. Thus the gospel of Christ is shackled to a specific scientific theory (or more accurately, a rejection of a specific scientific theory). Maybe Moreland and other Christian anti-evolutionists should seriously consider whether Paul’s warning in Galations 1:6-9 is relevant to the message they are promoting.

Evangelical or Moonie Apologetics?

Given that Christianity Today bills itself as the “Magazine of Evangelical Conviction”, it is particularly galling that Wells book was tabbed as a “Top 5 pick” on Christian Apologetics. Wells is a member of the Unification Church led by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and cannot be considered an orthodox Christian by any stretch of the imagination, let alone an Evangelical. He has published apologetics for Moon’s church and this particularly unorthodox view of the relationship between marriage and the Fall. Is this the type of representative that Evangelicals look to for a defense of their faith? What is next for inclusion in Evangelical Christian Apologetics? How about something written by Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology? Why not add some Rastafarian apologetics for balance?

Credible and Responsible Apologetics

For Evangelicals really interested in credible apologetics, I suspect that David’s suggestions at the end of his post are a much better place to start than the list provided by Moreland. It includes some fine books by Allister McGrath, one of the best Evangelical writers contributing to the Science / Faith dialogue. And Peter Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation, a personal favorite of mine, is an excellent example of how sound Evangelical scholarship should grapple with the biblical, scientific and historic evidence.

The conclusion of David’s post is also a fitting conclusion to mine.

Some evidential apologetic arguments can provide support for faith, and we are right to stress the general trustworthiness of the Gospels and the circumstantial evidence that support our proclamation that “Jesus is Risen.” But true knowledge, and true faith, do not come from forced external rationalizations. True knowledge and true faith come from relationship.

Well said. Thankfully a relationship with the Creator is not limited to those who wish to set limits on how the Creator creates.

Addendum: After I finished writing this post I noticed that David published a second post on apologetics called Postmodern Apologetics: a Person, not a Proposition. I highly recommend reading this as well.