Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 36 (October 1993): 2-7.

Christianity and Darwinism

The debate between Howard J. Van Till and Phillip E. Johnson ("God and Evolution: An Exchange," June/July) sounds a lot like an argument about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Unless one is a hopeless solipsist, the universe exists. And if it exists, it either came spontaneously into existence or it was created; there can be no third explanation. All the theories of a spontaneous universe I've ever heard of are, from a scientific standpoint, sheer nonsense, fit only to titillate credulous liberal arts intellectuals determined to believe that the world revolves around their navels. There are, to be sure, physical scientists who are atheists, but scarcely because of discoveries made in the study of the universe. Rather, they frantically search the universe seeking empirical justification for their atheism.

If, on the other hand, the universe was created, the evidence points to a Creator of enormous power and considerable insight. Why would such a being bother to share the details of creation with the created, especially since these details likely are beyond human understanding and might even be used to frustrate the intent of the Creator? Under the circumstances, it seems to me that speculation that can never be rigorously tested is pointless, since no conclusions can be drawn from it.

As Tolstoy pointed out, "The combination of causes of phenomena is beyond the grasp of human intellect. But the impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man." So let people, believers and unbelievers alike, seek the causes of phenomena if they will. And when they come up with theories of how the Creator went about His task, believers can shrug and say, "Perhaps, but can you prove it? And what difference does it make anyway?"

Leon O. Billig
Seattle, WA

Why is Howard Van Till so eager to gainsay Phillip Johnson?

One would think that these two thoughtful opponents of neo-Darwinism would be in the same camp. They might not see eye to eye about many things, but their solidarity before the common enemy ought to bring them together. To the eye of an outside observer, there is a tinge of chauvinism in Van Till's attack, a transparent defense of territory. Especially against those . . . those . . . lawyers! . . .

But what about the substance of Van Till's remarks? Attending to his analysis and exegesis of St. Basil and St. Augustine, one has the eerie feeling of encountering something heard before. Underneath the very convincing arguments about Creation being endowed from the beginning with the powers to develop, there is a familiar framework of Creator- Universe relations. It is the same framework used by the metaphysical naturalist. It is the Paradigm of the Detached (Absent) Creator. God made the world. And God is now sitting there on the third row, aisle watching it unfold (Detached). Or, for the Darwinist, God didn't have anything to do with it (Absent).

Is this the best defense of the theistic position: to adopt the analytical framework of the Darwinists to combat the Darwinists? . . . I would like to suggest that there is another paradigm that could defeat them: the Paradigm of the Undetached Creator. . . .

Creation is not a singular event that happened in the past. It is an ongoing process. Every particle, every electron, every atom, every molecule, every cell, every structure in the universe is held in existence-now, right now-by a specific act of the Creator. And that creative act has been going on during the whole history of the universe. One can speculate about whether God is, in this paradigm, immanent in His creation, or whether He is outside it, holding it up (or both). But the intention of this view is that He is and always has been present, continuously. . . .

Theistic naturalism must, it seems to me, give up the paradigm of the Detached (Absent) Creator and stop trying to prove the existence of a directed universe by prior creative endowment. The Creator hasn't stopped His activity. In fact, to suggest that He, who exists in eternity, has made only one impact on the vector of time, His own creation, is to place a limitation on the Limitless.

David E. Sparks
South Bend, IN

I congratulate Howard Van Till for aiming his discussion of Christianity and Darwinism above the level of biblical fundamentalism. As a theologian, I know that belief in the literal chronology of Genesis has never been central to Christian theology, played almost no role in the nineteenth-century debates over Darwin's theory, and has become prominent only since the rise of American creationism in the 1960s. Young-earth "creation-science" is thus not only unscientific but also unrepresentative of the Christian tradition.

Van Till proposes to reconcile Christianity and Darwinism on the basis of what he calls "the forgotten doctrine of the Creation's functional integrity." This doctrine, however, is also unrepresentative of the Christian tradition. Furthermore, Van Till's proposal fails to address a deeper conflict between Christian theology and Darwinian evolution.

Relying on Basil's Hexaemeron and Augustine's De Genesi ad litteram, Van Till claims that traditional Christian theology regarded the creation as functionally autonomous once it had been created by God. It is unlikely, however, that either Basil or Augustine would have agreed with this interpretation of their views. True, they advocated a temporal unfolding of creation that is probably consistent with evolution, broadly construed. But like all mainstream Christian theologians (at least through the Reformation), Basil and Augustine also affirmed a doctrine of providence whereby God continually sustains, oversees, and actively guides creation. The "functional integrity" described by Van Till owes more to eighteenth-century deism than to traditional Christian theism.

Even if Van Till's doctrine could be found in Basil and Augustine, however, it would still fail to address the more important issue of design. According to Christian doctrine, God created purposefully, and intended from the beginning to crown the creation with human beings made in the divine image. This affirmation is even more central to Christian theology than the doctrine of providence, since it follows directly from the doctrines of God and the incarnation.

Darwinian evolution excludes this affirmation. Human beings, as the last product of an essentially random process, can in no rational sense be regarded as designed. Darwin made this quite clear in his protracted debate with Asa Gray, who had attempted to put a teleological spin on Darwin's theory. Although Darwin acknowledged that life might originally have been "breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one," he was convinced that his theory excluded designed results.

The problem is not the argument for God's existence from design (which played almost no role in Christian theology until the eighteenth century), but an argument to design. For most Christians, design is a conclusion rather than a premise: as John Henry Newman wrote, "I believe in design because I believe in God; not in a God because I see design."

In the argument from design, denial of design removes a premise but in no way challenges the belief that God exists; in the argument to design, however, Darwin's exclusion of designed results is (for a Christian) tantamount to atheism. . . .

So even if it could be shown that Van Till's doctrine of functional integrity were Christian, and therefore (by implication) that some form of naturalistic evolution could be rationally held by Christians, this would fall far short of showing that Darwin's anti-teleological theory of evolution is compatible with Christian theology. The two viewpoints can be regarded as compatible only if one takes Darwinism to mean something other than Charles Darwin's theory, or Christianity to mean something other than the mainstream theological tradition through the Reformation.

Jonathan Wells
Fairfield, CA

. . . Professor Van Till, regarding Basil and Augustine, says, "Since their day . . . we have learned . . . that the spontaneous generation concept of that time fails to be viable." How so? Only for its suddenness, I assume, for if "the array of structures and lifeforms now present was not present at the beginning, but became actualized in the course of time as the created substances . . . functioned . . . to bring about what the Creator . . . intended from the onset," empirically speaking the result is spontaneous generation.

Second, regarding the "God of the gaps" (a meaningless term of ridicule), Van Till says, "Johnson . . . tends to employ the . . . rhetorical strategy of treating the absence of evidence as if it were evidence for the absence of full genealogical continuity." What, pray, constitutes evidence of discontinuity if not the absence of evidence of continuity?

I am reminded of Carl Sagan's logic in a remark in his book Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: "Design? Absolutely-without question. Designer? Not a hint."

Sidney Reiners
Grand Rapids, MN

In his article, Phillip E. Johnson states, "The fossil record is notoriously inconsistent with the Darwinian model of continuous change in tiny increments."

The research of well-known academics Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould affirmed this view so firmly that they developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium in 1972. They conclude that not only do species remain stable for millions of years, but when there is a change, it occurs relatively rapidly and the new life-forms are often radically different.

Johnson later states, "What actually did cause such a vast transformation remains utterly mysterious, as far as anyone can determine from scientific evidence." Without intending it, Gould and Eldredge have allowed even less time than traditional Darwinism for random-chance mutation to bring about today's complexity of life forms. Was random chance manipulating those genes? Or was God? Skeptical scientists have faith in the former. Believers have faith in the latter.

Johnson is right; in either instance-we're talking religion.

Bob Fritter
Lombard, IL

I write to commend Professor Phillip Johnson on his part in "God and Evolution: An Exchange." His rebuttal was lucid, penetrating, and gentlemanly. As he suggests, science, as practiced by those under the influence of evolutionary beliefs, is devolving into something akin to superstition. . . . To maintain their evolutionary belief system, the scientific establishment has to ignore such empirical data as the incompatibility of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (entropy) with the supposed evolution of complex organisms and the absence of transitional forms in the fossil record. The radioactive dating methods, which provided the long time periods so desperately needed to cover the lack of current and observable evidence, have themselves fallen into disrepute because of their assumptive basis and inconsistent results.

The quality of science is deteriorating to an extent apparent even to laymen. . . . We have the pathetic sight of Big Bang proponents trumpeting infinitesimal variations in background radiation temperature, measurements that an engineer on the project confided were well within instrument error.

It's as if Western scientists have willingly enslaved themselves to essentially the same materialistic orthodoxy that stifled Soviet science. But instead of Lenin, it's Darwin that they keep pumping full of formaldehyde. . . .

Robert Ditmars
Mt. Vernon, OH

To a great many of us sitting in the bleachers, the differences between Phillip E. Johnson and Howard J. Van Till appear to be about the degree to which the revealed Word of God is to be viewed in the uncertain and flickering light of the adduced word of material evolutionism: Van Till being a bit further into the evolutionism camp than Johnson. . . .

It seems not to have occurred to them that they are both being heavily influenced by the ubiquity of evolutionism in science. Instead of trying to interpret Scripture to accommodate the latest fad in evolutionism . . . it would no doubt be more fruitful to go at it the other way around: review science in the light of Scripture.

There is less conflict between Scripture and science (unencumbered by evolutionism) than there is between science and any doctrine of evolutionism, materialistic or theistic. . . .

Tom Humble
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Since random mutation is an anchoring feature of evolution theory, the term "random" deserves more scrutiny than it was given in the Van Till- Johnson exchange. In the sense that a random event is uncontrollable and unpredictable, it may be said to lie outside the realm of physical science, i.e., it is a metaphysical phenomenon. So, also, the "blind watchmaker" is a metaphysical concept, although Darwinian theorists might be miffed at the idea. In truth, however, the term "random" is only pseudo-metaphysical. If one grants modern science its premise that all physical reality is in principle accessible by empirical investigation and inductive logic, then randomness is merely perceived as such because of incomplete understanding of the system under observation. There appears to be no a priori reason why sufficient study of the gene and its environment would not ultimately lead to the predictability of mutation, just as understanding the mechanics of coin- flipping removes the randomness of the flip. From their standpoint, theists believe that such further study will put us back on the creation-by-God path.

The scientist, for his part, has a solemn responsibility for further study. The credibility which science has attained in our modern culture has made the scientist hostage to a Faustian bargain: he must ever keep looking for replacements for his conclusion, no matter how treasured. This is especially true for the present subject. One who rests his case on randomness as a central cause of creation is not qualitatively far different from the believer in "spontaneous generation" in Augustine's time.

Kenneth L. Kreuz
Cold Spring, NY

Having reread Phillip E. Johnson's "Creator or Blind Watchmaker?" (January) as well as his exchange with Howard J. Van Till, I found myself full of questions. Professor Van Till laments that the effect of Professor Johnson's pronouncements is to ensure "that the gulf between the academy and the sanctuary will only grow wider." Does he not realize that amongst those Professor Johnson labels "the reigning scientific and educational authorities," scientism prevails and that there is an irreconcilable difference between those who embrace scientism and theists? Of course, the gulf is the fault of both sides: scientists who proudly and arrogantly think science can provide the "theory of everything," disdainfully dismissing the immaterial realm, and those who adamantly adhere to their interpretation of Divine Revelation (e.g., biblical literalists) and refuse to accept scientific evidence, grasping at any weakness (such as gaps in evidence) in the scientific position. Does Professor Johnson not realize that by relying on weaknesses in the scientific theory to support his own beliefs, he leaves himself vulnerable to subsequent scientific discoveries?

To know how God created would require knowing the mind of God. Despite Professor Johnson's claim that "the inquiring mind of man was created in God's image," the whole of man is created in God's image. Nevertheless, we finite creatures are not able to grasp the Infinite. Attempting to do so is a chasing after the wind; it is vanity. The theist knows science cannot know the mind of God; the materialist remains ignorant.

T. Ross Valentine
Plano, Illinois

The implied support by Howard J. Van Till for "contemporary scientific theorizing" seems to be quite insupportable because scientific theory without experimental fact to back it up is conjecture. Evidence for the slow and continuous evolution proposed by Charles Darwin does not exist. Moreover, because a Darwinian mechanism must involve systems that are very close to thermodynamic equilibrium in some sense, increasing complexity in a Darwinian system, i.e., attaining higher degrees of order, flies in the face of the second law of thermodynamics. Systems near equilibrium always tend to degrade to states of lower order. Systems far from equilibrium, however, may become more ordered (or they may become "chaotic"). The ability of theorists to handle nonequilibrium systems is very limited because of the analytic intractability of the equations that describe the systems and because of extreme sensitivity to the initial conditions of the systems as well as fluctuations (can God be at work here?) in the states of the systems. Almost unquestionably, all of the complexities of "chaos" and nonequilibrium are of overwhelming importance in the evolutionary process. Because of this complexity we may never learn the evolutionary patterns or how they took place. The evolutionary problem is very similar to trying to predict the weather-easy until instabilities occur and then very unreliable to impossible. Darwinian evolution is most certainly wrong, at least scientifically, and we should stop claiming to the public that it is right. It is myth!

Robert C. Whitten, Jr.
Cupertino, CA

Inappropriate Humor?

I was particularly unhappy with Jean Bethke Elshtain's opinion piece ("The Newtape File IV") in the June/July issue.

Take her amusement with the various efforts to define family and I will apply it to my own experience.

  1. A father, mother, and children-my father dies.
  2. A mother and children-my mother dies.
  3. I do my best to care for younger siblings-children and children.
    Let us hear the raucous laughter-it wasn't funny then and it isn't funny now.
  4. My sister is a social worker who raised her two sons alone when her husband disappeared into the sunset. That should be worth a snicker or two.
  5. The Children's Defense Fund, a lawyer, and children-my oldest son is editor of all the publications of CDF, his wife is a public interest lawyer, and they have two young children. Let us hear a round of loud laughter for young people so idealistic they work for modest income on behalf of children.

Why does a publication that makes high claims to be Christian care so little about the least of these?

Virginia A. Heffernan
Bethesda, MD

Reconciling Athens and Jerusalem

In "Athens and Jerusalem, Again" (June/July), Peter J. Leithart argues that the differences between the platonic and biblical teachings are too great to be harmonized, especially on the question of homosexuality. This seems plainly in error.

Quoting primarily Phaedrus out of the Symposium, Leithart takes that particular man's perspective as the typical, and apparently loftiest, Greek attitude. But in the same dialogue, one may find Socrates taking a different stance, and it is obviously Socrates whom Plato intended as the greater authority.

At the climax of his speech on the subject of love, Socrates quotes the wise woman Diotima, who assured him that those who have reached the highest vision of beauty-a vision that seems to be the same vision of Heaven extolled by the prophets and apostles of the Bible-will grow beyond homosexual desire. In other words, homosexuality is a sign of a stunted soul, or at least one not yet fully realized. . . .

Leithart concludes that our Greek and Judeo-Christian traditional values are inconsistent with one another, but I hold to the contrary that not only do the Bible and Plato agree that the highest value is the love of the One, but that this is the core belief of Confucius, Lao Tzu, Muhammad, the Buddha, and all others who have distilled the truth to those principles that deserve to be called "first things."

Miles Hawthorne
Granbury, TX

A Simplistic Distinction?

Paul V. Mankowski's distinction between "the experience of religious authority" and the "authority of religious experience" ("The Skimpole Syndrome," May) is labored and simplistic. Further, it is insulting to dismiss an appeal to one's own religious experience by comparing it to a child's "I like what I like because I like it," and it is outrageous to place feminist (Carol Christ's) or any other religious experience that critiques biblical authority on a par with "Nazi theorist Alfred Rosenberg" trashing the Gospel of Mark.

Mankowski cites Jon Levenson's reminder that there was in "biblical times" no such thing as the Bible . . . and goes on to stress that the Bible "was assembled over a number of years for the Church and by the Church [not to mention the Synagogue, he might have added] . . . through liturgical usage and the ratification of bishops." In point of fact, parts of what is now the Bible were already, in "biblical times," influencing one way or another the community's "assembling" what became the rest of the Bible-e.g., Deuteronomy surely influenced the rest of the Tanakh; the letters of Paul, the rest of the New Testament; and the Tanakh itself, all of the New Testament.

The historical processes are imperfectly understood and the Spirit but dimly apprehended in the way by which the Bible has been shaped. The biblical record seems clear on one point, however: without the varied and compelling religious experience by which the prophets and apostles from time to time took sharp issue with religious authority-including the latter's interpretations of the emerging scriptures-there would be little Scripture to care about.

The issue is not between cumulative authority and the authority of lived religious experience. It is, among other things, whether their dialectical relationship is best nourished today in a religious community that is more nearly democratic than monarchic. But that is another subject.

As he has caricatured the authority of religious experience, Mankowski's Dickensian trope could as well be turned around to caricature canonical authority as he seems to invoke it: "We hold to what we hold because we hold it." You could say Father Mankowski is hoist with his own Skimpole.

Bruce T. Dahlberg
Smith College
Northampton, MA

Christianity and Sex

I read Phillip Turner's article, "Sex and the Single Life" (May), with some interest.

I found the first five pages both interesting and seemingly leading to the clear conclusion that sex outside of marriage is wrong and that arguments to the contrary, despite their intellectual/cultural appeal, are designed to appease a misguided society or church member. . . . Obviously Professor Turner is not in sympathy with the so-called Christian reformers' free-sex position; on the other hand, he is far from convincing in stating his own case, presumably the moral, biblical position.

My dictionary defines promiscuous as casual or indiscriminate, particularly applying to sexual relations. Prof. Turner states: "Most people who enter even the most casual sexual relation are not promiscuous. They are however lonely." This apparent definition is simply erroneous. Sex outside marriage, by definition, is promiscuous and a sin and more often than not driven by personal desire and self- gratification. Unfortunately, although I may have missed it, I don't recall Prof. Turner using the words sin or sinful in his article. He does, however, talk about "punishing legalism." I suppose that refers to the biblically "inerrant" position that calls a sin a sin and that demands clear distinctions between right and wrong acts. . . .

Robert N. Mateer
Lynchburg, VA

Philip Turner's "Sex and the Single Life" provides a much appreciated positive account of the Church's traditional teachings on social and sexual relations. Its great strength is that it begins from a pastoral point of departure rather than a dogmatic one. For this reader, Turner's approach makes eminent sense. Christian sexual norms have never been universally canonical. The Creeds, for instance, may be noted for their lack of sexual concern. As Turner notes, the historic cultures in which Christianity has been present have gone through periods of sexual license and restriction. He is right to emphasize the pastoral way in which Church teachings have been formed given the current practices of particular cultures. For this I applaud him.

I would urge him, in addition, to put the reformers advocating the New Ethic more on the defensive. The contemporary notions of "person" and "self" are brandished about with great deception. Charles Taylor's moral definition of the self needs to be challenged. As Turner rightly notes, this definition amounts to a dog chasing his tail. Why? Because the self and the person are both conceptions of human being that occur only in community. The mere talk of rights and respect for others already indicates the social foundation of selfhood. No matter how great or small is the self's interiorization and own consciousness, its being a self is shaped and formed by the larger social reality in which it exists. . . .

Let us press on to the upward call of God to engage our fellow men and women in the intimate social relations which the Church names communion. Therein lies the goal of all interpersonal relations. And let us make equally clear how intimate sexual relations are specific gifts that help define the basic building block of community as marriage and family. Let us challenge those who today define human being as preeminently sexual being, reminding them that our social being precedes and succeeds every one's sexual prowess. . . .

(The Rev.) Russell L. Meyer
St. Mark's Lutheran Church
Isle of Palms, SC

True Shepherds

Your Jesuit correspondent's observations about shepherds inclined to treat wolves "pastorally" at the peril of sheep (Public Square, June/July) puts one in mind of the Bishop of Rochester's response to three fellow-bishops who visited him in the Tower of London in May 1535, to try to persuade him to submit to Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy and Oath of Succession:

Me thinketh it had bene rather our partes to sticke together in repressinge these violent and unlawfull intrusions and injuries than by any manner of perswasions to helpe or sett forward the same. And we ought rather to seeke by all meanes the temporall distruccion of the so ravenous woolves, that daily goe about worryinge and devowringe everlastinglie the flocke that Christ committed to our Charge, and the flocke that himself dyed for, than to suffer them thus to range abroade. But (alas) seeing we do it not, ye see in what perill the Christen State nowe standeth: We are beseeged on all sides, and can hardly escape at the howse of God, what hope is there lette (if we fall) that the rest shall stande! The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it. And therfore seeinge the matter is thus begunne, and so faintly resisted on our parts, I feare we be not the men that shall see the ende of the miserie, wherfore seeing I am an ould man and looke not longe to live, I minde not by the helpe of God to trooble my conscience in pleasing the king this waie whatsoever become of me, but rather here to spend out the remnant of my old daies in prayinge to God for him.

On Tuesday, June 22, 1535, barely a month after Paul III had made him a Cardinal, John Fisher, the only bishop in England who refused to submit, was beheaded. From the scaffold he spoke:

Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's holy Catholick Church, and I thanke God hitherto my stomack hath served me verie well thereunto, so that yet I have not feared death; wherfore I do desire you all to helpe and assiste me with your praiers, that at the verie point and instant of deaths stroake, I maie in that verie moment stand stedfast without faintinge in any one point of the Catholick faith, free from any feare; and I beseech almightie God of his infinite goodnes to save the kinge and this Realme, and that it maie please him to holde his holy hand over it, and send the king good Counsell.

His head, hung on London bridge along with those of the Carthusians executed earlier, was replaced two weeks later with that of Thomas More. John Fisher was canonized four hundred years later.

Helen Hull Hitchcock
St. Louis, MO

Poetry Critic

I note that a poem in the June/July edition, "Simple Anna," is a perfect commentary on the general run of poetry you publish.

"Simple Anna liked the words although she didn't understand what many of them meant" seems to reflect the only possible rationale behind publishing such poems as "Drouth" and "For Duns Scotus."

The only flaw is that the line indicates that the words are incomprehensible because Anna is "simple," when the truth is they are incomprehensible because they are sheer nonsense.

True, they do "sing" nicely, but printing words only because they have a nice ring seems somehow out of place in a magazine dedicated to promoting reality.

Chadron R. Orton
Rock Springs, WY

With Friends Like Us . . .

"Sober, reliable, prone to the pietistic, and too often dull" ("A Word on 'The Competition,'" Public Square, June/July). As I complete my fifteenth year with the National Catholic Register, it's the heartwarming encomiums from friends that I most enjoy. I'll pass the good word along to the rest of my staff-though, of course, I'll have to talk slowly.

Francis X. Maier
National Catholic Register