Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Two interesting essays

Over at the Colossian Forum, Jamie Smith has an outstanding review of Enns's The Evolution of Adam, echoing so many of my own concerns. Smith makes a lot of important points in this essay, and it's hard for me to pick a snappy quote to tease you with here. Maybe this will do the trick:
Indeed, in many ways, the very mission of The Colossian Forum is predicated on the conviction that Christians too quickly rush ahead to settled “positions” before reflecting theologically on just how we should proceed. If one wants to disagree with Enns’ conclusions, it is crucial to first attend to the whole framework within which he pursues his project. In fact, even if one were inclined to agree with his conclusions, it is important to consider whether one also wants to accept the way he gets there. More importantly, if evangelicals are going to debate these matters well, we need to consider more foundational issues and not rush ahead to nailing down a “position.”
He also discusses the question of whether we can settle for human authorial intent when discussing the Bible and whether "historical" and "theological" are really so conveniently separated (as so many scholars seem to want to do). So read the essay. It'll be good for you:
Whose Bible? Which Adam?

Meanwhile, over at BioLogos, the first part of William A. Dembski's essay Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral? has been posted. This essay is part of their "Southern Baptist Voices" series, wherein BioLogos is inviting genuine critique of their position. I see BioLogos undergoing quite an evolution right now (or is it a designed change?). They used to be all about promoting acceptance of evolution among evangelical Christians, which I couldn't agree with at all. According to their latest newsletter:
Our goal is to help evangelicals see that persons who hold an evolutionary view of creation can do so without letting go of those tenets that lie at the heart of what it means to be an evangelical Christian. BioLogos wants people to be more aware that there are Christians who accept evolution and still maintain their commitment to Christ.
It's a subtle shift, but I think a significant one. Perhaps they don't want you to believe evolution, they just want you to believe that they can believe it. At least that's a goal that creates less anxiety in my mind.

Anyway, back to Dembski's essay: As much as Smith's review resonated with me, that's how much Dembski's half-essay left me confused and uneasy. He opens with the claim that Darwin explicitly ruled God out of explanations, and quotes Dawkins to the same effect. I've read a lot of Darwin and Darwin bios, and I don't get that sense from Darwin at all. I've dealt with this theme before in my review of Wiker's aptly named The Darwin Myth. I think the evidence from Darwin's own writings is against this "atheist Darwin," and Dawkins and Dembski are both oversimplifying this point.

For me the half-essay sort of derails when Dembski introduces his "non-negotiables" for both Christianity and Darwinism. For Christianity, he lists four: Divine creation, "reflected glory" (meaning that God's glory is reflected in creation), human exceptionalism, and Christ's resurrection. That's an odd list of non-negotiables. I can definitely agree with the resurrection being non-negotiable (which excludes Ruse's form of "Christianity"), and I think some form of creation is a non-negotiable also. The other two are weird additions to a list that omits the sinful, fallen nature of humans. Granted, he notes that the list is not intended to be exhaustive, but is "Reflected Glory" really a non-negotiable? In the sense that if I think the creation is totally fallen and destroyed by sin (which I don't), I can't be a Christian? That strikes me as really odd.

Even odder, though, are the non-negotiables for Darwinism: Common ancestry of all organisms, natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution, humans continuous with other animals, and methodological naturalism. For an evolutionary biologist, however, the first three of those non-negotiables are entirely derived from interpretations of evidence. Could you have an evolutionary biologist who doubted the efficacy of natural selection to explain most of evolution? Sure, there have already been such evolutionists. Could you have an evolutionary biologist who thinks humans (or maybe some other critters) did not come from the same ancestor as everything else? Of course. Here's a famous one:
I believe that animals have descended from at most only four or five progenitors, and plants from an equal or lesser number. Analogy would lead me one step further, namely, to the belief that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype. But analogy may be a deceitful guide. Nevertheless all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction. ... Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.
So if Darwin himself equivocated on one of the non-negotiables of Darwinism, does that make him not a Darwinist?

And that brings me to my final concern: The ubiquitous use of "Darwinist" and "Darwinism." The way Dembski uses it implies that it is some kind of dogmatism, as if it actually had non-negotiables. Since three of Dembski's four non-negotiables are contingent on evidence, I'm not sure what a "Darwinist" could be philosophically. Dogmatically committed to an untenable scientific position? I am dubious such a creature would exist (present company excepted, of course). If we think of Darwinism as the version of evolution that Darwin believed, then there are no Darwinists left, since science has advanced much in 150 years. I haven't seen the BioLogos response to Dembski, but I'd be willing to bet (heavily) that they'll deny being "Darwinists." Now I've used "Darwinism" in the past as a shortcut for random variation and natural selection, Darwin's mechanism for evolution, but I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the word, largely because of the pejorative tone it has taken on in the past decade or so. I think there are more accurate terms and better nuanced categories we can use when writing and speaking about evolution and Christian faith, and I think we owe that to our Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with us.

The real challenge I see with Dembski's strategy of listing non-negotiables I think will come in the second half of his essay: trying to show how the non-negotiables are incompatible. If the non-negotiables themselves are dubious, then what of the whole argument? I don't know. I'll have to wait to see how he brings it all together, but I am definitely concerned.

For those still not quite sure what to make of me, let me say again that I'm a young-age creationist, and I have profound and troubling disagreements with evolutionary creationism. I also happen to believe that the disagreement over evolution isn't getting anywhere and that the strategies creationists have employed to debate the issue have been colossal failures. Insofar as Dembski's essay is yet another unsatisfactory rehash of old arguments, I think it too will fall on deaf ears. Resolving this conflict (which I think is quite possible) will require much more than just more of the same.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.