Sunday Night Journal — July 11, 2004
The new issue of Touchstone arrived a week or so ago. Touchstone, which subtitles itself “A Journal of Mere Christianity,” does a marvelous job of serving as a platform for what has been called “ecumenically orthodox” Christianity. I like it better than the somewhat similar First Things, partly because it is less academic and partly because it is more focused on spiritual life and less on political and social questions.
This issue is devoted to the emerging attack on atheistic evolutionism known as the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. I haven’t yet read the featured articles and am greatly looking forward to them. There have always been philosophical problems with atheistic evolutionism, but that didn’t matter because its proponents were able to stigmatize any dissent as unscientific. I am unqualified to judge the scientific arguments, but it seems that ID is making progress in providing a scientifically respectable alternative to the crypto-religion of evolutionism. (I use the latter term as shorthand for the insistence that Darwin and his heirs have proven that no cause beyond the physical is required or indeed acceptable to account for the physical world.) The premise of ID is the fundamentally commonsensical one that living things are so complex that they must be the work of an intelligent designer; this of course is easy enough, and often enough, said, but the ID movement attempts to support common sense with scientific evidence.
What is so frustrating about the argument between theism and evolutionism is that adherents of the latter refuse to admit that their philosophical system is a philosophical system, insisting that it is a matter of pure fact and that any challenge to it is by definition irrational. One need not read very much at all in evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet to recognize that they have a very intense emotional attachment to atheism, which is (one supposes) both cause and effect of their evolutionism.
Opinions on this question arise from a pre- or sub-rational sense of what is plausible. There was a time when I felt a great deal of tension between my conscious belief in God and an underlying sense that the idea of a lifeless, meaningless, purely material universe was fundamentally more believable or at least more likely than the idea of a conscious Creator. As the years went by and I lived with and meditated upon the latter idea, my attitude slowly shifted, and I now regard the notion of creation by chance as little short of preposterous. And I lean toward the belief that at some point in the future people will wonder how we could have believed such a thing, much as we wonder at the superstitions of our ancestors.
To the evolutionist, of course, it is the concept of an active intelligence acting upon the physical materials of the universe that is absurd on its face. Rational argument alone will not change many minds on this subject, certainly not the minds of doctrinaire evolutionists. What, then, can the ID movement hope to do?
It can present, to minds not already given over to materialist axioms, a scientifically respectable alternative to evolutionism. It can deal a serious blow to the pretensions of scientific materialism. It can buttress the confidence of theists who are troubled by evolutionists’ contemptuous dismissal of their beliefs but who have not the knowledge and credentials to challenge evolutionism in the scientific arena. (Anyone, of course, can challenge the basic logic of evolutionism, but this is generally fruitless; the significance of the fact that evolutionist doctrines merely push the fundamental question of causation backward without resolving it simply does not register on them, or does not strike them as worth thinking about. In this respect evolutionists are much like those who reject any transcendent source of morality and naively accept their own moral axioms as self-evident, requiring no source, authority, or justification.)
What ID cannot do is provide direct support for the Christian faith. More specifically, it cannot resolve the apparent discrepancy between the history told in the Bible and the history told by science. The Christian story of salvation requires a state of innocent perfection, a fall into sin, and redemption. It is extremely difficult to fit this story onto the framework which science gives us for the development of life, and this is true whether or not the scientific account assumes the absence of God. I am always a little taken aback by Christians who do not see this difficulty. The usual response, of which George Sim Johnston, in his generally excellent Did Darwin Get It Right? provides a good example, is to take the very long periods of time and the gradual development postulated by science as the problem, and to say that these don’t matter, that the seven days of Genesis may be considered symbolic, and that the important thing is that God created all things, not the time he spent doing it or the mechanisms he used.
Well and good, but the problem is not, at bottom, the millions of years and the gradualness. The problem is how creatures lived during those years. The problem, as my sister-in-law Christy put it succinctly some years ago, is death.
Not only Genesis but the Gospels and the letters of Paul tell us that death entered the world because of sin, and that sin entered the world through the first man and the first woman. The current scientific consensus, on the other hand, shows us a period of millions of years in which animals destroyed each other in blood and pain, and a period of at least tens of thousands of years in which man (as far as we know) did the same, not only to the animals but to his brethren.
I have never come up with, or heard, a persuasive reconciliation of this conflict, and it troubles my faith. It does not seriously disturb my faith, because I am persuaded by many other evidences that Christianity is the most plausible account of the world in which I live, but it does trouble it. I make do with two responses. The first is to conjecture (I can’t call it much more than that) that the innocence and the fall described by Genesis are not just more but far more subtle and mystical than they are portrayed there, that the fall took place not along the timeline on which we live but on another ontological level altogether (no, I am not entirely sure what I mean by that), and that the world we know, including the very long and death-full past we think we know, actually somehow came into existence with that fall. Or that the past fell along with the present when the first man and woman sinned. But although I sometimes think I see a glimmer of truth in these conjectures they are hardly coherent enough to put into words.
My other response is to put the whole question aside as having, in the present state of both faith and science, no good answer. I can live with this. I can tolerate this puzzle—I am obliged to tolerate a great many—and anyway am more like Chesterton’s poet, who wanted to get his head into the heavens, than like his lunatic, who wanted to get the heavens into his head.
Neither response is terribly satisfactory. I am not a seven-day, six-thousand-year creationist, because I cannot, without the support of some very good authority, depart so far from what the best investigators seem to have established. But sometimes I wish I were. Try for a while the thought experiment of looking at the world as if you were a six-thousand-year, literal-Genesis, Adam-and-Eve creationist and you will see what I mean: the entire Christian story leaps immediately to a level of simple and immediate plausibility that it simply does not have for most of us most of the time.