The Patheos symposium on the future of evangelicalism introduced another set of essays on August 4th under the rubric of “Transforming Culture.” Karl Giberson, a physicist, scholar on science and religion, and Vice President of the BioLogos Forum, has written a short essay that expresses his worry about the future of America’s conversation on science and religion.
Creationists are more entrenched than ever, building a $27 million Creation Museum and media outreach, circulating a magazine to almost 70,000 readers, and insisting on a young earth because, according to Al Mohler (president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), the “theological price” of alternative views is too costly. A Pew Forum poll conducted in 2007 showed that only 25% of evangelicals believe in evolution and 10% in evolution through natural selectiona statistic that puts them at odds with the scientific consensus, reinforcing the cultural perception of Christian anti-intellectualism. The New Atheists have emerged, defining the terms of engagement in the debate on science and religion. And the Intelligent Design crowd has lost its stamina, becoming a scientific embarrassment.
I am sympathetic to Giberson’s proposal for via media:
What seems to be appearing on the horizon is a well-articulated culture war of religious belief. Both the atheists and the creationists/ID supporters are in full agreement that there can be no peace between the religious and scientific views of the world. Neither is interested in any synthetic middle ground where one might simultaneously embrace a science shorn of its over-reaching scientism and a faith freed from a simplistic biblical literalism. As the voices grow louder and more insistent, the perch between them will grow ever more precarious, making it all but impossible to avoid sliding by default down a slippery slope toward one or the other.
Here is the question that I want to briefly explore: What are the issues that need to be addressed in order for Christians to achieve a “synthetic middle ground” in the debate? There are at least two.
The first issue relates to the vocations of science and religion. Alister McGrath and Francis Collins rightly promote what they call “partially overlapping magisteria” (POMA), “reflecting a realization that science and religion offer possibilities of cross-fertilization on account of the interpenetration of their subjects and methods” (qtd. from The Dawkins Delusion?). Where the biblical claim about the universe is primarily concerned with human redemption, the scientific claim is exclusively concerned about the processes of nature. This should be straightforward enough, but I am amazed at how often ultra-Darwinists overreach with metaphysical statements while biblical literalists wrench the Bible out of context, turning it into “primitive science.”
The second issue relates to the doctrine of creation. Where there is an absolute distinction between Creator and creation, there is a relative distinction between human and non-human creatures. Let me begin with the first distinction. If God is an actor in the cosmic drama, errors are bound to occur. Look no further than Isaac Newton’s God-of-the-gaps. But God is the playwright, as Anglican theologian Diogenes Allen writes in his chapter on “The Limits of Science” in Theology for a Troubled Believer:
God is not a member of the universe, and any attempt to have God involved within the processes that science studies is theologically utterly unacceptable. And almost as important, we need to realize that biblical religion does not affirm God’s reality because its writers were trying to explain the working of the natural world. Biblical faith is a response to God’s initiative, rather than the result of an investigation of nature. Thus not only is God not part of the world, but the grounds for belief in God are also quite different from that found in science. Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth never tired of stressing both these points.
The next distinction is explained by Reformed theologian Colin Gunton, who has made a significant contribution to the doctrine of creation. His chapter “Establishing: The Doctrine of Creation” in The Christian Faith delineates three ways that God creates through mediation: creation by personal word, creation by craftsmanship, and creation by ministry. What matters for this discussion is the third way, where “worldly agencies are enabled by divine action to achieve their own ‘subcreating,’ not in the absolute way that God creates, but relatively, as creation from what already is” (cf. Gen. 1:11, 20, 24). Focusing too much on “men and women as the chief ministers of creation,” Gunton says, can “‘blind us to the fact that the difference between human and non-human creatures is relative, not absolute.” He continues:
God grants to the lesser creatures their own capacity to generate beauty and truth. The garden needs to be tended, but the gardener does not make the plants grow, merely provides some of the conditions for their growth. If this side of things had not been as neglected as it has in the history of theology, the theory of evolution might not have proved the stumbling block to belief that it has in recent times.
In conclusion, Christians can achieve a “synthetic middle ground” in the debate if they get a better handle on the vocations of science and religion and a more robust doctrine of creation.