New packaging on an old idea

26 09 2007

In 1857 scientist Philip Henry Gosse published a book called Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (available online, although be forewarned that it is a very large .pdf), proposing that God had created the world with the illusion of great age, other researchers of his day being deceived into thinking the world was more than 6,000 years old. Today Gosse’s work is largely forgotten, and if Gosse had listened to his friend Charles Kingsley (author of The Water Babies) the book might not have been published at all. When Gosse asked Kingsley to review his book (probably thinking that he’d get a glowing summary from his friend), Kingsley replied;

Shall I tell you the truth? It is best. Your book is the first that ever made me doubt [the doctrine of absolute creation], and I fear it will make hundreds do so. Your book tends to prove this – that if we accept the fact of absolute creation, God becomes God-the-Sometime-Deceiver. I do not mean merely in the case of fossils which pretend to be the bones of dead animals; but in … your newly created Adam’s navel, you make God tell a lie. It is not my reason, but my conscience which revolts here … I cannot … believe that God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie for all mankind.

[Reproduced from Wikipedia]

Obviously, Gosse published anyway, and although American evangelicals would later suggest that fossils were “tricks of the devil,” no one seems to hold to the strong version of “Deceitful Creation” Gosse advocated. A weak version of Gosse’s ideas continue to survive in Christian apologetics to this day however, and evidence of this can be seen in an article in the Spring/Summer 2007 Harvard Divinity Bulletin entitled “God and Evolution: A New Solution.” The author of the work, Sarah Coakley, sets out to accomplish the following;

First, there is the issue of how we should understand the relation of God’s providence to prehuman dimensions of creation and their development. Second, there is the issue of how God’s providence can relate to the specific arena of human freedom and creativity. Then third, there is the problem of evil, the question of why what happens in the first two realms manifests so much destructiveness, suffering, and outright evil, if God is indeed omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent.

These are relatively “classic” areas of conflict in the evolution vs. Christian theology culture wars, and I do find it interesting that even modern apologists are doing the best they can to separate man from all other forms of life on earth (primarily through culture since anatomical differences have proven to be poor support for such distinctions). Dealing with the first question, Coakley writes;

As such, God is both “within” the process and “without” it. To put this in richly trinitarian terms: God, the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual invitation and lure of the creation to return to its source in the Father, yet never without the full—and suffering—implications of incarnate Sonship. Once we see the possibility of understanding the contingency of precultural evolution in this way, we need not—as so much science and religion “dialogue” has done in recent years—declare the evolutionary process as necessarily “deistically” distanced in some sense from God. Rather, I propose in contrast that God is “kenotically” infused (not by divine loss or withdrawal, but by effusive pouring out) into every causal joint of the creative process, yet precisely without overt derangement of apparent “randomness.”

Such might qualify as pious prose but it has little actually explanatory power; the references and allusions are more poetic than sharply attuned to the topic at hand. The first section relates to the popular Christian notion of a “God-shaped hole” (ok, ok, take a few minutes to get the laughter out of your system and then continue) in every person’s soul or spirit, attributing a spiritual need to every person on earth. There is no proof at all for such assertions, and so it seems to be a bit of popular Christian doctrine that ties itself to the belief that everyone must be saved by Christ to enter heaven (and who wouldn’t want that? Wait, don’t answer that…).

The second half of the paragraph is where it gets interesting; Gos is infused through “effusive pouring out” (so God is in a liquid state?) into the process of evolution, giving it an orthogenic pathway but still exhibiting randomness and contingency. This is the “weak” version of Gosse’s argument, God being present in the evolutionary process but making it look as if he was not, seeming to take a method once suggested in the show Futurama ; “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” Things get a bit sillier as the explanation continues;

But how, the skeptic might object, is evolutionary contingency—and genuine human freedom—to be seen as logically compatible with secret divine guidance? The intuition pump I want to propose here is what Peter Geach once called the “chess master model.” The basic idea is this: God is like a chess master playing an 8-year-old chess novice. There is a game with regularities and rules; and although there are a huge number of different moves that the child can make, each of these can be successfully responded to by the chess master—they are all already familiar to him. And we have no overall doubt that he is going to win. The analogy with God and the evolutionary process, or with human freedom, admittedly involves some stretching. For a start, God has created the whole game. Also, God timelessly knows what will happen in any different scenario depending on what moves occur. But there is a crucial difference here between God knowing what will occur and God directly causing what occurs; for in this model the contingent variables and choices occur at the level of secondary causation (albeit undergirdingly sustained and thus primarily caused by God).

I assume the hapless 8-year-old playing chess against God was not Bobbie Fischer (and I thought it was Death who played cosmic chess… oh well). Nevertheless, such reflects another popular Christian notion that God is “in control” and “has a plan” even when it is not apparently so, and you have to beat him in chess in order to get what you want, I mean, you’re at the whim of seemingly undirected events that are in reality being directed, making you generally confused as to what the often-cited “will” of God really is. All of the assertions from the author’s essay operate out of unstated assertions about the definite reality of God (it is considered a given), therefore the history of life on earth must be crammed into tight theological boxes if it is to prevent people from abandoning their faith. It is really nothing more than Gosse’s argument with new paint on it, humanity ever playing the fool because they just can’t win against the omni-present “Chess Master.” Coakley’s discussion of resurrection after death/extinction (?) is also rather odd;

Here, once more, there is an equally seductive modern misapprehension to avert: the presumption that dying, or indeed evolutionary “extinction,” is the worst thing that can happen to anyone (or thing). Again, I would contest the misapprehension. This point is not to be misread as a seeming justification for avoidable suffering, victimization, and abuse; but it is to be heard christologically as an insistence that the deepest agony, loss, and apparent wastefulness in God’s creation may, from the perspective of atemporal divinity (and yet also in the Son’s agony and “wasted” death), be spanned by the Spirit’s announcement of resurrection hope. Evil, from this perspective, is mere absence of good; death is the prelude to resurrection. To be sure, the risk God takes in human “freedom” is the terrible risk that humans announce their false “autonomy” in cruelty and destructiveness. Yet the risk is the only risk out of which the worthiest—and, again, most incarnational—forms of participation in God can arise.

[emphasis mine]

Does this mean that there will be glyptodonts, mosasaurs, and tyrannosaurs in heaven? The extinction alluded to in this paragraph is probably that of Homo sapiens (although I’d be interested to see what the author would have to say about the presence of absence of Megatherium in heaven), again hearkening back to the somewhat scary Christian idea that death is necessary for “true life.” I won’t go into a long rant about the subjective use of “good” and “evil” here (I find the position that evil is merely the absence of good to be absurd), but I will briefly mention the dig aimed at atheists in the 2nd-to-last sentence. Human “autonomy” (as if such a thing had not existed at some point and had been given) is related to destructiveness and cruelty, reinforcing the misapprehension that in the absence of God (=good) there is only evil. Such a statement is patently untrue, even though those who are already inclined to agree with such a statement will nod there heads and move on.

And then I arrived at this bit, which I can only describe as “treacly”;

[I]f by that we mean that God is perpetually sustaining us, loving us into existence, pouring God’s self into every secret crack and joint of the created process, and inviting the human will, in the lure of the Spirit, into an ever-deepening engagement with the implications of the Incarnation, its “groanings” (Romans 8), for the sake of redemption.

So if God stopped loving us, we would cease to exist? Again, the psuedo-poetic religious buzzwords and catch phrases mask any sort of rigorous intellectual understanding of what is being said, but such off-key notes will gain the assent of those who have already trained themselves to respond to them without much further thought.

I will leave the reader of this post to continue on with the initial document if they so choose; I don’t want to spend all my time today pointing out fairly obvious defects within it. I will close by saying, however, that the author of the paper seems to desire a more active God (vs. a more distant God as in deism), found throughout nature but not being apparent, thus allowing Christians a sort of “secret knowledge” not shared by atheists or members of other religions. This approach is often diluted into evangelical techniques, like suggesting that some of the names of God sound like breathing, and therefore even when a atheist breathes they’re speaking the name of God. Such notions may make some people feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it seems to be little more than the construction of a person God that is just active enough to be influential in person life but not enough to intervene when needed the most (tragedy is assumed to be “God’s Will,” any number of reasons being ascribed to a trauma). Indeed, Coakley’s paper puts forth a deceitful and controlling deity that is present in everything but sees fit to let it run riot all the same, and as Laplace once replied to Napoleon on a similar subject “I had no need of that hypothesis.”



9 responses

26 09 2007
Futurama Benders Big Score » Blog Archive » New packaging on an old idea

[…] Original post by Laelaps […]

26 09 2007
Zach Miller

Well, this is all very well and good, but I do not think about things I do not think about. 😉

26 09 2007
JS Bangs

As a Christian who accepts the standard account of evolution and enjoys this blog, I find this article baffling. Mostly, I can’t figure out why you bothered to write it, and why you even care about what some theologian writes about God’s action in creation.

Your silliest gripe is this one: “All of the assertions from the author’s essay operate out of unstated assertions about the definite reality of God.” Well, duh. Isn’t that a valid assumption for an author writing in Harvard Divinity Bulletin? The intended audience is theologians and Christian academics, not skeptics. Proving God’s existence is completely out of the article’s scope. Likewise, the article is a theological reflection, not a research proposal, so providing “explanatory power” is not its purpose.

And pretending not to recognize a simple metaphor like “effusive pouring out” is petty.

I would understand your contempt if the author were trying to influence public education or making falsifiable scientific claims, but neither of these is the case. The article is a modest discussion of theodicy that takes the standard account of evolution for granted.

26 09 2007
JS Bangs

However, the author is guilty of gross purple prose. That much I agree with you on.

26 09 2007
Zach Miller

That’s right, Brian. Shame on you for pointing out frivolous argumentation and ludicris claims on the side of the Christian right. Why should you care if millions of people are being misinformed about science? It’s not like that topic is close to your heart or anything!

26 09 2007
JS Bangs

Except that the article doesn’t make any scientific claims of any import. If it did, then I would see your point. The only content that it has is theological.

26 09 2007

JS; I appreciate your comment here, but hopefully I can help to illuminate why I wrote what I did in the manner in which I did. Granted, the argument about taking God for granted may be a bit frivolous given the context in which the article appears, but what I was trying to get at was that the author is trying to combine science & theology without acknowledging the problem of proof of God’s existence. I wasn’t expecting a research proposal, but a statement as to whether belief in God was an entirely a leap of faith or could be based on physical proof is important.

The main reason I wrote this essay is because of the sloppy reasoning of the author and the recycling of an idea that God is deceitful, just on a smaller scale. Two years ago I became a Christian myself, although know I’m essentially an agnostic. I didn’t write this out of sheer antagonism, but merely to point out that theological arguments about evolution in this particular vein don’t have much substance to them. The paper I discussed seems to straddle the line between being inspirational and being semi-technical, and I feel that if the author is going to make the “pouring out” of God a primary aspect of their argument some example of this (or some further explanation) is needed.

As I stated before, I didn’t write this because I’m a rabid atheist or because I think everyone should abandon their faith, but I am concerned with sloppy reasoning when it comes to evolution. What the author of the paper proposes is a kind of vitalism or orthogenesis that requires a hidden or deceitful deity, running counter to what is known about evolution and theological beliefs (how can God be good and deceitful at the same time?). I injected some pithy humor here and there to perhaps get a chuckle or two (come on, it was hard to resist during that chess-master argument), but I wouldn’t say that my intent was malicious.

Science and religion conflict, and it is at that intersection that a lot of waffling occurs. The current trend is an attempt to have an active and loving deity but also recognize scientific reality, and (at least in the attempt discussed above) such compromises often do not work. There are big problems with God being continuously pushed back into the laws of physics or the singularity that may have produced the big bang or more abstract areas, and it seems to me that the particular writer discussed was attempting to take their favored concept of God and apply it to science, then calling everything square. I don’t think it works, and I am concerned about what the proliferation of such ideas might do to the debate in the long term as I don’t feel that merely “believing” in evolution is the goal we should have. A true understanding of science will perhaps cause more problems than offer solutions for the devout, but I can’t say that I’m not frustrated when theology is twisted this way and that to try and make it appear as if there is no problem whatsoever, and that’s why I wrote what I did. I hope that helped to clarify things a bit.

26 09 2007
Steve Martin

Hi Brian,
I too am a Christian who enjoys this blog (although I have a hard time keeping up with it – how the heck do you find time to write all this good stuff????!!!!!). I guess I too am a little puzzled as to the objective of this post: yes addressing sloppy reasoning needs to be done, and I’d wholeheartedly agree we need to kill the “God as deceiver” line. However, I’m not sure what you mean by “I don’t think it works, and I am concerned about what the proliferation of such ideas might do to the debate in the long term as I don’t feel that merely “believing” in evolution is the goal we should have.” Are you saying that Christians need to possibly reevaluate some of their theology based on the evidence of modern science (including evolution)? If this is what you mean, I’d certainly agree with this – and admit that it can be a challenge (although hopefully not an impossible challenge). Or are you stating, as would Dawkins, that you think evolution actually means Christianity/Religion should be abandoned? That seems like a pretty big leap.

26 09 2007

As Terry Pratchett might say, the trouble with “intuition pumps” is that they tend to spew crap all over the place. And it’s really hard to get that stuff out of the secret cracks.

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