The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Debate over Darwinism

An Interview with Michael Hanby by Nandagopal R Menon FAITH Magazine March-April 2007

What do you understand by the terms “Darwinism” or the “Darwinian worldview”? Why is a Christian “theological critique” of it essential at all?

 There is of course no single ‘Darwinism,’ but many, often competing Darwinisms. Since the advent of modern genetics and the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, most of these now only bear superficial resemblance to Darwin’s own thought. This raises a couple of interesting questions: whether the definition of ‘Darwinism’ has been stretched beyond the point of meaningfulness and why Darwinian apologists – who often neither emerge from nor confine their commentary to biology proper – so persist in identifying themselves as Darwinian. I suspect it is because ‘Darwinism’ is cultural shorthand for the sort of 19th century hubris that continues to mark the central conceit of many of these theories: the pretense to account for all of biological and even cultural and social life as the outworking of asingle mechanism or process.

 Admittedly, this is a controversial description of natural selection, and there are now ways of defining it perhaps that escape this diagnosis, though arguably at the cost of reducing the concept to a truism or tautology. Yet to the extent that this mechanism or process can be abstracted from the otherwise contingent instances it purports to explain, it becomes ‘transcendental’. In this way, but not only in this way, Darwinism is not simply anti-religious, theological, or metaphysical, but perversely theological and metaphysical. Ironically, this is truer of those such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett who wield Darwinism as an anti-religious weapon and who would be horrified to learn that they aren’t really very good atheists, than of those like Gould who are ostensibly morefriendly to religion but metaphysically more nihilistic.

 At the risk of vast oversimplification, if I were to identify a ‘core’ of Darwinian thought it would consist of a) the transmutation of species, which is not an exclusively Darwinian insight and b) the primacy accorded to natural selection in the evolutionary process. There has long been a tension over which of these constitutes the conceptual centre of Darwinism, and how one answers this question seems to go a long way toward how one even imagines the practice of theorizing in a Darwinian mode. I have grave doubts that the latter emphasis in particular succeeds on its own terms in fulfilling its explanatory ambitions, and I would attribute these failings to the debilitating deficiencies in Darwinian metaphysics, but I should stress that my chief complaint is not with a specifictenet of Darwinian theory, as if it were the job of theology to provide an alternative biological explanation.

To my mind, theology is indifferent to certain Darwinian claims. It should have no stake in (affirming or) denying the transmutation of species or even that there are episodes in nature conforming to Darwinism’s Malthusian diagnoses. Darwinism may be false, but it need not be simply false. And a theological critique that straightforwardly declared it so would be no clearer about its own nature as theory than the Darwinism which thinks it comprehensively explains biology. No, a theological critique of Darwinism is a good bit more complicated than that. It could never be a simple rejection of Darwinism because it could never straightforwardly debate biology on the terms set by Darwinism. This would assume that the doctrine of creation aspires to be the same kind of theory that Darwinism is,which only shows how little both the doctrine of creation and Darwinian theory are understood, as theory, by those who profess them. Confusion reigns on all sides here and is promoted by some.

 What makes a theological critique of Darwinism essential, first, is its metaphysical non-neutrality. And a theological critique of Darwinism must be precisely that, a critique of the metaphysics upon which Darwinism is premised and the theology or anti-theology Darwinism invariably tends to become. There are profound implications for biology in such criticisms, but they are not biological criticisms. And I would not confine criticism to the ‘transcendental’ character of natural selection, but include within its scope Darwinism’s endemic nominalism, atomism, and extrinsicism, each of which are integral to a conception of nature that is the starting point —not the conclusion— of the Darwinian enterprise. I would further extend this criticism to what I take to be the defectiveunderstanding of its own theorizing that results from Darwinism’s metaphysical deficiencies. Hence the different senses in which Darwinism might be true and false.

 To accept these Darwinian premises, or even to engage Darwinism on its own terms, is to accept profound distortions to the doctrine of God from the very outset. The point is not just academic. When God becomes unintelligible, so too do human beings and everything else. Thus in a world whose imaginable parameters are set by Darwinian theory, either a putative ‘explanation’ of how a thing came to be is taken to suffice for an explanation of what a thing is—which is quintessential reductionism—or the question of a thing’s being and essence is dismissed as unscientific and unintelligible.

 To admit either the limits of Darwinian explanation or a possible true answer to a question of natural ‘fact’ beyond Darwinian competence in the other, would be to deprive Darwinism of its animating conceit. Hence along with the capitalist economics from which it emerged, Darwinism indeed acts as ‘universal acid’ (Dennett’s phrase) that dissolves persons and things of any and all intrinsic meaning and, carried to its conclusions, even dissolves the apparent world into unreality. Theology must regard this as false and dangerous. And Darwinian biology’s long complicity in the eugenics movement, and now the eugenics renaissance, attests to this. This is the second reason a theological critique of Darwinism is essential.

 What is the “Christian doctrine of creation”? How does it differ from “intelligent design” and “creationism”?

 According to the traditional, orthodox doctrine of creation, all created being is freely generated by God ex nihilo and therefore depends for its existence on its intrinsic relation to and participation in the act of being which is God. Just as important, however, are the correlative points that have always been included within this claim: that created being is no ‘part’ of God, has no claim on God, adds to or subtracts nothing from God, and thus neither causes any compulsion in God nor completes any end or purpose which God was otherwise lacking. The doctrine of creation, in other words, is logically a consequence of the doctrine of God, and one of its principal functions is to insist upon the absolute difference between God and the world, and thus to secure for thought God’stranscendence and otherness with respect to the world. Because this difference by definition lies beyond our capacity to survey it, and because the act of creation, strictly speaking, is not an event in the world but rather the event of the world, it is just as important to stress what the doctrine of creation is not.

 The doctrine of creation is not a theoretical alternative to Neo-Darwinian evolution or even big bang cosmology for the origins of life and the world precisely because the unique nature of the act in question prevents its ever coming to view. (Hence my qualified indifference to Darwinism’s central claims.) There can be no ‘mechanism’ for the passage from nothing to something for the simple reason that prior to the passage, there is nothing upon which the mechanism might act. Of course this reflects the more fundamental point that God is not one ‘thing’ and the world another, and not simply hypothetically ‘beyond’ or ‘outside’ the finite world, a point that is frequently occluded in the misleading characterization of divine action as ‘intervention.’ So while we may think of the actof creation as the principle of causality as such insofar as the novelty characteristic of creation is integral to the generation of real difference necessary for causation, the act of creation properly speaking is not a cause among causes, and the doctrine of creation is less a theory of causes than the insistence that no such comprehensive ‘theory of everything’ is either possible or desirable.

The positive aspects of the doctrine of creation flow logically from the negative. For the same reasons that it is not a theory of how the world came to be, the doctrine of creation is an account of what the world is: namely, the sheer gift of divine gratuity and the ‘pointless’ reflection of the infinity of divine beauty. It follows then that the doctrine of creation is also an aesthetic doctrine in both the objective and subjective sense, implying that transcendence is inherent in immanence and that every intelligible whole, as such, is more than the aggregate of its component parts, since each created thing, being intrinsically related to the source of its being, must therefore be more than itself. Subjectively, the doctrine of creation then implies a hierarchical order of knowledge,which is comprehensive but not reductive, for the dual reason that the defining principle of the world is other to it and that the highest form of knowledge of such a world is properly aesthetic and dis-possessive.

 All of this is miles from either Intelligent Design or creationism. Briefly, ID is a programme purporting to comport with scientific canons, and thus to distinguish itself from creationism. It accepts evolution in principle, but rejects Darwinian evolution, contending that systems such as the eye, in which the status of parts as parts are dependent upon the wholes of which they are parts, are for this reason too irreducibly complex to be accounted for by Darwinian mechanisms acting on a long history of individual accretions and isolated phenotypic variations. ID thus follows the 18th century natural theology of William Paley in inferring from such ‘contrivances’ that ‘some sort’ of designer best accounts for this complexity. There are numerous variations of creationism, but in itscrudest and most vilified form creationism simply rejects evolution tout court and seeks to employ ‘scientific’ means to justify a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2.

 Much as Dawkins and Dennett are bad atheists, preserving in their own thought the metaphysics they reject, so creationists and ID proponents are bad theists, preserving in their thought the scientistic naturalism they reject. Neither ascends to a metaphysically adequate understanding of either the act of creation or the world as the fruit of this act, and so each threatens to compromise the doctrine of God in a fashion quite similar to the scientific naturalism by reducing God to a not-genuinely transcendent ‘object’ extrinsic to creation. Each joins natural science in reducing ‘creation’ to ‘causation,’ and thus confines the meaning of creation to the uninteresting question of whether God stands at the first of a long line of efficient causes of effects that remain extrinsicallyrelated to God and one another. Ironically, because each concedes too much to scientific naturalism, each is less capable than the orthodox doctrine of creation of either criticizing that conception or assuming within its ambit the conclusions of science operating independently of theology. Conversely, because the orthodox doctrine of creation is less accommodating to the metaphysical first principles of modern science, it is more capable in principle of mediating the conclusions of science.

Does not a “theological critique” of Darwinism run the risk of reviving the stereotype of a science-religion conflict? Moreover, does it not confuse their distinct roles in understanding and explaining reality?

 This conclusion is probably inevitable, since Darwinians typically are not long on metaphysical subtlety and often have a stake in invoking ‘creationism’ as a foil to underwrite their own cultural authority. Whatever the risk, I am sure that it is considerably less than the risk of accepting the sort of concordat proposed by Stephen Jay Gould in his No Overlapping of Magisteria of Science and Religion (NOMA) principle. Theologians should indeed be wary of biologists bearing such gifts! This sort of proposal simply serves to underwrite the secular order and its construction of reality. It misconstrues the nature of scientific autonomy and enforces Christianity’s confinement to the private realm of leisure pursuits or to impotent commentary on moral problems thought to be beyond thereach of reason.

 But Christian faith does claim that the inter-Trinitarian kenosis manifest in the Incarnation reveals and consummates the meaning of existence as such; though this claim is often misconstrued as being fundamentally juridical and extrinsic in character – something ‘tacked on’ to the primary meaning of space, time, matter and persons – rather than intrinsic and original to their meaning as creatures. To relinquish theology’s rights to speak truth about the same world biologists study is to relinquish this claim and thus to abandon the Christian faith in the guise of protecting it. This is to the detriment not only of Christians, but the world. In a moment when our incomprehension of the meaning of being (human and otherwise) is matched only by our technological capacity to manipulate,dominate and destroy it, the failure by Christian theology to articulate the implications of the faith in its fullness is tantamount to a profound abdication of responsibility for the care of the world.

 For my part, though, I have no stake in promoting some timeless conflict between science and religion, which is both historically and theoretically false. To the contrary, I would contend that their interrelation must be harmonious in principle since all truth is God’s. Yet, contingently, their harmony depends on this relationship being in good order, and good order depends not just upon religious authority recognizing a certain autonomy to scientific inquiry, or even upon science conceding its incompetence in the realm of ‘values,’ but upon science recognizing the true nature of its autonomy.

 There are moral and political questions here, but they are of a secondary nature. ‘Scientific autonomy’ should mean the irreducibility of scientific inquiry to religion or theology and consequently, a significant measure of liberty for science to operate according to its own lights without interference from religious authorities. This is why a theological critique of Darwinism is not a biological critique, though if heeded, such a critique would not be without effect in biological theorizing. However, ‘scientific autonomy’ does not mean that scientific rationality is sufficient to sustain itself apart from metaphysics and ultimately theology. I take Darwinism’s reliance upon nominalism and atomism, its transcendental tendencies, and its frequent incursions into theology proper asevidence of the fact that there can be no question in practice of science dispensing with metaphysics, only a question of whether science is sufficiently honest or self-aware in acknowledging this fact. So the real question is not whether metaphysics and theology, but which, and whether the metaphysics assumed by science can actually sustain the scientific enterprise.

 In fact, I have contended elsewhere that the metaphysics of Darwinism tends to vitiate its capacity to account, not only for the biological world, but for Darwinism. Given its voluntarism and atomism, for instance, why should we regard the analogical imposition of ‘natural selection’ to a range of discrete historical episodes to be anything other than an arbitrary convenience? And why, therefore, should we credit this convenience with any explanatory power? In other words, it is unclear how Darwinians consistently holding a Darwinian view of the world could ever expect their theory to capture the truth of that world, since the same theory would require us to regard the phenomenal manifestation of the world at the root of our scientific engagement with it as epiphenomenal. But thenagain, it is impossible in practice to hold consistently to a Darwinian view of the world.

 So while I do indeed think that religion and science are harmonious in principle (though I am uncomfortable with the dichotomy), this harmony is not a simple concordism that would baptize the existing order of scientific knowledge or the current relationship between theology and science. And I would contend finally that such harmony can only be maintained within a theological framework, and more fundamentally still, that science ultimately needs theology to secure its own status as science. There are objective and subjective dimensions to this claim.

 Objectively, I would contend that only a theological framework which requires science to refer things to their infinite sources and thus to acknowledge within immanence a transcendence for which science cannot account, can ‘save the phenomena’ for science. On the subjective side, I would maintain that such an acknowledgement of transcendence should lead science to acknowledge its limited place within a ‘hierarchy’ of knowledge. Only this acknowledgment, only the confession that the ‘highest’ science is beyond our reach in the logos of God himself and yet articulated through the mirror of faith, can prevent science from becoming theology and from falsifying both itself and its objects by making the world less than the theophany that it is.

 What are your views on Christoph Cardinal Schönborn’s New York Times article on the Catholic Church’s understanding of Darwinian evolution and the controversy generated by it? Do you think the Cardinal’s article makes theological sense?

 I think Cardinal Schönborn’s was a brave attempt to articulate a couple of important truths, namely, that Christian faith does indeed make truth claims about nature and that these claims are at odds with the reductive boast of Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy to account for the biological world in its totality. He was also attempting to correct what he judged to be a distortion of the Church’s teaching in this area. I am sympathetic to the Cardinal’s aims, though I would not have chosen to contest Neo-Darwinism on grounds of design. Most of what I’ve said so far suggests why. I would only add that this approach risks confusing teleology with the ‘functionalism’ characteristic of 18th century natural theology, and it has the potential – inadvertently, I’m sure – to promote the confusion thatthe viability of the doctrine of creation is bound up with the success of ID.

I am unsurprised by the controversy, which, sadly, was easily predictable. The boundaries of Darwinian orthodoxy in the U.S. – not to mention religious belief – are rigorously policed. And the New York Times, after all, is home to Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd. It is hardly a venue for serious reflection, much less philosophical or theological reflection. I trust the Cardinal knew what he was getting into.

Pope John Paul II’s views on the theory of evolution (“something more than a hypothesis”), science-religion compatibility (“truth cannot contradict truth”), and efforts to undo the damage done by the Church’s criticism of Galileo are widely seen as having contributed towards promoting the science-religion dialogue. What is your assessment?

 I remain suspicious of the so-called science-religion dialogue as currently composed for reasons that are probably clear – religion seems only to be granted partnership in this dialogue to the extent that it accepts in advance the marginal place allocated to it by secular, liberal society. Still, the historiography produced by this dialogue has helped to clear up some of the misconceptions that have been employed in the last century or so to represent religious belief as outdated, superstitious, and irrational. This is good, of course.

 I concur with the Pope’s statements. Yet as my own position on these questions probably illustrates, the statements are of such general nature that they are susceptible to contradicting interpretations unless supplemented by other, more definitive statements. This, in fact, is what Cardinal Schonborn was attempting in the Times piece. Whenever that happens, the Pope’s remarks are not usually so widely embraced.

 I remain ambivalent about Galileo. Jean Borella sums up my feelings about this better than I can. “Still today the Catholic Church is mocked for condemning Galileo in the name of a retrograde world view, whereas those who do so are themselves prisoners of an obsolete cosmology. One is ridiculed and blamed for belonging to such a Church, and made ashamed of a past judged disgraceful on grounds that have proven invalid.” A person should confess his sins. So too, perhaps, should the Church. But scrupulosity is a sin as well.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2007