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Sunday, 31 January 2010

Polkinghorne Quotes #13: Divine Action, Evil, and Slandering God

This is the 13th post in a series on the writings of John Polkinghorne.

Last Sunday morning Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, was interviewed by our pastor. Dave had just returned from Haiti and was providing us with some first hand accounts of the devastation caused by the earthquake that had rocked Haiti a couple of weeks earlier. The stories were heartrending.

The first song we sang that morning was Indescribable. Now, this isn’t my favourite worship song and I usually simply stop singing when the second verse starts with “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go …”. I’m always surprised that more people don’t find this line a little uncomfortable (Anyone here been hit by lightening? Anyone have someone they love killed by lightening?), but given current events, I was sure others must also see the problem.

Apparently not. The song continued without even a hint of irony. Ok, how about we change that line to “Who has told every tectonic plate when is should slide …”. Does that help illustrate the problem? Maybe we need to be a little blunter: “Did God kill all those people in Port-au-Prince?”

Divine Action and Evil
Polkinghorne is acutely aware of the problem of Divine action and evil. As he indicates:

The more strongly one is able to speak of God’s particular action in the world, the more firmly one asserts that world to be subject to his purposive will, so much the more forceful becomes the problem of the widespread evil within it. (Science and Providence, page 59)
As orthodox Christians (and in opposition to those who hold to process theology), we believe that God acts: he upholds his creation, he is continually creating, and he has acted in very particular ways in history (most notably the incarnation). But must we speak of particular “natural” disasters as “acts of God”? Was it “God’s will” that all those Haitians died? If God is good, why is there “natural” evil?

Free-Process Theodicy
I doubt that the “Problem of Evil” will ever fully make sense to us, at least this side of paradise. However, I do think that Polkinghorne’s free-process defence is the closest we may get. As he says:
I think the only possible solution lies in a variation of the free-will defence, applied to the whole created world. One might call it ‘the free-process defence’. In his great act of creation I believe that God allows the physical world to be itself, not in Manichaean opposition to him, but in that independence which is Love’s gift of freedom to the one beloved.

The Cosmos is given the opportunity to be itself. (Science and Providence, page 66)
Just as God gives humanity the freedom to be itself and to make choices (even when those choices are not the one’s God wishes his children would make), so too God gives the whole of his creation the freedom to be itself. And the evil in this world (both moral and natural), is the price of this freedom. I suspect the same reasoning that applies to the free-will defence (See Plantinga's “God, Freedom, and Evil” ) applies for the most part to the free-process defence.

Actually, that is NOT God’s Will
When evil occurs, Christians often say “It must be God’s will”. But I am not sure this is necessarily true. In fact, I am sure that many of the choices that God’s creatures make are not the choices God would make. As Polkinghorne notes:
God no more expressly wills the growth of a cancer than he expressly wills the act of a murderer, but he allows both to happen. He is not puppetmaster of either men or matter. (Science and Providence, page 68)
So in the face of tragedy, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to opine “It must be God’s will”. And just as we shouldn’t accuse God of causing the genocide in Rawanda, neither should we accuse him of causing the earthquake in Haiti.

And while we are at it, maybe we should make sure our worship songs do not slander God.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Evangelical Pastors and the Creation, ID, Evolution Minefield

Being a pastor must be one of the more unenviable vocations. It is both highly stressful and spiritually demanding. Although responsible for the spiritual well-being of the members in their churches, many pastors have nowhere to turn for their own spiritual needs (or questions). This combination of factors is probably partly responsible for the high levels of burn-out and depression among the pastorate.

Pastors and the Science-Faith Dialogue
Dealing with the volatile science-faith dialogue is an area of added difficulty for the modern pastor. Ours is a rapidly changing world, and technological advances due to new scientific discoveries are responsible for most of these changes. However, even though science is such an important factor in our modern culture, few pastors seem to have adequate scientific training. And since most voices within evangelicalism (with the exception of our scientists) are so strongly anti-evolution or pro-IDM, it is no wonder that most pastors default to this anti-evolution position. In fact, given the personal and professional risks inherent in publicly defending the compatibility of science and the Christian faith, one could easily forgive those pastors who do understand this compatibility for not proclaiming it from the pulpit.

Tim Keller’s Pastoral Approach to the Dialogue on Evolution
Tim Keller should command all of our respect. I’m usually suspicious of “mega-church movements” (my odd mix of conservative anabaptist & Plymouth Brethren upbringing is probably responsible for this bias), but Keller’s approach at Redeemer in the heart of Manhattan (including his unflinching stance against consumerism) is both effective and laudable. In the past, Keller has been unafraid to enter the science-faith fray with a qualified support for theistic evolution (see our past discussion: "Would your church allow you to publicly support Evolution?"). More recently, he co-sponsored the first Biologos workshop that brought together evangelical scientists, theologians, and pastors to explore the relationship between science and faith. Many good papers were presented at this forum.

Keller’s contribution to the workshop included the paper "Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople". As any good pastor, Keller’s priority in the discussion is its effect on the Christian laity (If only all pastors were more concerned with their parishioners than with their “ministry”!). What questions about evolution are at the forefront for ordinary Christians? What are the theological implications of evolution? How will these questions, answers, and implications affect the spiritual health of the individual and the church? These are the questions Keller sets out to address.

Keller’s Advice to other Pastors
But Keller also provides important advice to other pastors as well. In his paper he states that:

… if I as a pastor want to help both believers and inquirers to relate science and faith coherently, I must read the works of scientists, exegetes, philosophers, and theologians and then interpret them for my people. Someone might counter that this is too great a burden to put on pastors, that instead they should simply refer their laypeople to the works of scholars. But if pastors are not ‘up to the job’ of distilling and understanding the writings of scholars in various disciplines, how will our laypeople do it?
Now this type of response is indicative of a man that doesn’t shrink from his responsibilities. No parade of excuses (even entirely justified excuses). Keller knows the needs of “ordinary people learning to follow Jesus in our time” (part my own church’s motto) and also understands that pastors are probably in the best position to fulfill these needs.
This is one of the things that parishioners want from their pastors. We are to be a bridge between the world of scholarship and the world of the street and the pew. I’m aware of what a burden this is. I don’t know that there has ever been a culture in which the job of the pastor has been more challenging. Nevertheless, I believe this is our calling.
I encourage everyone with an interest in the science / faith dialogue (especially pastors!) to read Keller’s paper. Although I’m not sure I agree with Keller’s response to the 3rd important question he articulates (the historicity of Adam and Eve), I really like the summarized answer he gives to the question:
Belief in evolution can be compatible with a belief in an historical fall and a literal Adam and Eve. There are many unanswered questions around this issue and so Christians who believe God used evolution must be open to one another’s views.
This is what we need from our pastors: The courage and confidence to address difficult topics but tempered with Christian humility (we don’t have all the answers and must be prepared to admit we are sometimes wrong), and the desire to encourage Christian unity in the face of theological differences.

A Harbinger of Change?
I have often thought that my own pastor’s response to the evolution controversy was the best one could hope to hear in an evangelical church. In his message on creation a couple years ago he briefly noted that: “It doesn’t matter if God created through evolution or Intelligent Design”. Ok, not a great way to frame the choice, but at least he proclaimed a healthy view of creation that was not just about origins.

However, maybe I am being too pessimistic about the chances for positive discussions on science & faith in our churches. Maybe it is not just our scientists and theologians that are making progress here; if Keller is any indication, maybe this positive change is happening at the ground level of Evangelicalism as well.

I’d be interested in what others have to say on this. Maybe the shrill voices insisting that evolution & faith cannot be reconciled are just the loud ones and not necessarily a significant majority. Maybe having someone of Keller’s stature publicly defending the compatibility of evolution and faith will provide the impetus for other pastors to take a similar stand (or at least investigate the topic further). Is there reason to be optimistic? Are there other similar examples of agents of change? Maybe the most important question of all: How can we help our pastors start, continue, or publicize this discussion?