Posted April 20, 2012on:
Two years ago the American molecular biologist-cum-venture capitalist Craig Venter and his research team made a spectacular breakthrough. After years of painstaking work, they assembled in the laboratory a complete DNA molecule, consisting of about one million nucleotides of a micro-organism, and then inserted the synthetic DNA molecules into cells of another micro-organism from which the DNA had been removed. Those cells functioned, grew, and divided as if they were the species represented by the synthetic chromosome. Venter gave the name Synthia to this new life form, and went along with the excited media hype that he had “created life”. This was not, of course, creatio ex nihilo, as the experiment required there to be pre-existing cells into which to transfer the DNA. However this did little to dampen the popular media’s enthusiasm for claims about the “creation of life”.
I was in London at the time Venter’s results were announced and I was greatly bemused to hear on BBC Radio, not only about the “creation of life” by Venter and his team but also a moral philosopher claiming that this was a resounding “proof of evolution”! The philosopher had evidently forgotten that this self-replicating cell had not arisen through random mutations but by purposeful experiments planned by super-intelligent forms of life that were already on the scene! The BBC also went on, with its typically mischievous bias, to state that religious thinkers would bemoan this act of “playing God” (a much misused term) without giving a single instance of a respected religious leader or theologian in Britain who had indeed done so. (And I couldn’t find anyone who did so).
Walk into any major bookstore in a Western city, even in university centres, and you will find more books on Gnosticism or the occult on public display than Bibles or serious works of Christian theology. Open a major astronomy or physics journal and you will occasionally find a discussion about “multiverses”- the possibility of an infinite number of universes of which our universe is only one. This is metaphysical speculation, strictly non-science as it is beyond empirical observation and testability. Yet if somebody joined the conversation to suggest that seeing our universe as a creation also accounted for the “fine-tuning” of its physical properties that render the emergence of carbon-based life-forms possible, she would be derided and excluded for bringing “religious metaphysics” into physics.
Ignorance and its close cousin, arrogance, are found on all sides; and this is what makes talking about such matters in the media difficult. On the one hand there is a popular Christian media in the USA, with well-endowed institutions and publishing houses that still vilify evolution and promote either six-day creationism or Intelligent Design. Many evangelical churches in the non-Western world are influenced by them, partly because serious works of theology that distinguish the doctrine of creation from “creationism” (and evolution from “evolutionism”) are not well marketed. Also, just like the BBC reporters, most Christians too prefer “sound bytes” and easy answers to complex questions. Writers like myself who have dealt with these subjects at length (in both my Gods that Fail and chapter five of Subverting Global Myths), or the websites of the Faraday Institute (UK) and the Biologos Foundation are competing in a popular church culture that is largely anti-intellectual and fearful of dialogue. So much easier to just lob grenades over the church fence, even at other Christians, than engage in serious study and genuine conversations.
On the other hand, this defensive and hostile posture is an understandable reaction to the kind of mass media hype described above, or the aggressive rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett and others who have become the poster boys for Darwinism. A biochemist friend of mine in Cambridge once told me that his biggest complaint against Dawkins was that he had made many Christians reject evolution simply because he had tied it to his militant atheist project. Some scientists think that their competence in one field qualifies them to speak with authority about other fields.
Exaggerated claims for science and the authority of scientists produce equally exaggerated defensive reactions. Creationism is a product of exaggerated claims for biblical authority (treating the Bible as if it were a sourcebook on biology or geology, something it never claims to be); while Intelligent Design is simply poor theology disguised as science and thus gets whacked by mainstream theologians and mainstream scientists. But I would still defend their right to say what they believe in universities and elsewhere, provided they also welcome and listen to criticism from their fellow Christians and secular scholars.
It is a great pity that the language of creation has come to be focused today on debates about cosmology and biology. This muddies the waters. Men and women in the arts and humanities are unlikely to confuse different levels of causation, or ontological dependence with chronological origin, or think that creation implies determinism and control. However, as the British theologian Frances Young has proposed, with echoes of Karl Barth, a better analogy for God’s creative agency is not that of a master-craftsman or sculptor producing a perfect work of art, lying entirely passive in the creator’s hands; rather, “It is the father letting go, allowing the son to go to a far country, abandoning power over all that has come into existence, while waiting and encircling and enfolding it all in love.”
All such models and analogies are limited. What are the better ones that you have come across to describe the Triune God’s creative agency?