Review of The Lost World Of Genesis One, Part Thirteen

The thirteenth proposition in Walton’s book is that “the difference between origin accounts in science and scripture is metaphysical in nature. I am not certain that this is the best way of expressing Walton’s key point, which is that the Bible affirms purpose or teleology rather than a specific process. Science consciously eliminates teleology from consideration and examines natural processes. Walton therefore appears to be correct to highlight the circular character of the argument that, because science does not find evidence of God/purpose, therefore there is no God/purpose. Of course scientific investigation is not going to find evidence of things for which it is not looking, and which it is designed to exclude rather than discover.

There is a problem, however, in making this argument when one is operating within the context of classical theism. Inasmuch as God is defined as something or someone over against and distinct from the universe, then one is going to inevitably think of God as an additional and external entity who “intervenes”. And to the extent that science closes up gaps in our understanding and appears to offer a comprehensive explanation of phenomena in natural terms, its program will indeed offer challenges to theism. Human action on nature can be detected, and it is precisely this analogy that the Intelligent Design movement focuses on. And, to the extent that no external intervention or conscious agency appears to be required to account for what we find, claims that there is an intelligent designer will appear to be at best superfluous and at worst simply false.

On the other hand, in the context of views such as panentheism, which envision God as embodied in the universe and the universe as existing “within” God, it makes much more sense to work with analogies from human persons to the divine. Even though science may explain our bodily workings in chemical terms, and in biological terms, we find ourselves unable to do without the language of purpose and consciousness as well, while we also do not necessarily have to choose between these two sorts of language. Likewise, we may have reason to believe that there is more to existence, to reality, than we can detect on our own human level of it. There may be a “big picture” that we intuit and which we find helps us think about our place in it all, but which we cannot observe directly.

Walton’s way of expressing his own viewpoint is as follows: “Genesis is not metaphysically neutral – it mandates an affirmation of teleology (purpose), even as it leaves open the descriptive mechanism for material origins” (p.117). “It is not a scientific view of mechanism (naturalism) that is contrary to Biblical thinking, but exclusive materialism and its determined dysteleology is” (p.118).

There has been some discussion in recent days on blogs I read regularly about how and whether to distinguish religious and scientific perspectives. Hopefully this chapter from Walton will coincide well and contribute to that conversation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'Science consciously eliminates teleology from consideration and examines natural processes.'So either psychology is not a science, or there is something supernatural about somebody doing something because they wanted to bring something about?Why does science never discover that God has done anything, when science is perfectly capable of discovering that a murderer did A,B and C, and can do so inside just one episode of CSI?James is right. If science can discover agency, it could discover god acting as an agent.But it doesn't.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    We can say that we are "intuiting" a "reality" "beyond" what science can discover – a personal best for scare quotes :) – but is intuition some mystical process beyond our senses or merely the awareness of patterns not directly perceived by sight, sound, etc… ? To say that there is a reality which we cannot, as limited humans, perceive or conceive is not license to assume any knowledge of what that reality may be like. Agnosticism Rules! ;^)On a (somewhat) related note, if we choose to envision God as "embodied in the universe" are we not multiplying agents (universe plus God equals universe) and making an unwarranted claim about something that is beyond our ability to know. Both No-Nos in science but standard practice in theology?Of course, you may reply that you have had a spiritual experience, a "strange warming". It would seem to me that such an experience would be evidence for either an invention by the panentheist God or the perception by limited human faculties of that which we thought we could not perceive. Do either of these open up God to scientific scrutiny?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Oops, again! My assumptions about panentheism were a little too close to pantheism. So God plus universe equals universe plus something else. I am still suspicious of attempts to place God "outside" (darn quotes again). Rather than placing God at too great a distance to be seen with the naked eye, panentheism and pantheism smear God so thin that He disappears to a equally convenient degree. But as I said above, God must be involved somehow in the world, even if just through heart-warming, or we wouldn't be having this discussion.

  • Antonio Jerez

    I certainly think Steven has a point. And I find it tiresome to hear people like Walton go on claiming that it´s a circular argument if science claims that because we don´t find evidence of god there is no god. What science has so far not found is any evidence whatsoever for a god who INTERACTS with the world in the way the traditional Christian god does. There is ZERO evidence for the kind of god Jesus and his earliest followers believed in and preached about. One might of course imagine or invent any kind of god who interacts with the world in a way that is more in sync with the scientific worldviewas it stands at the moment. But I don´t think that kind of god has anything to do with the traditional Christian god. And I expect Christians (specially liberal ones) to go on reinventing their god to make him fit with the facts that scientists go on finding. It´s natural. It´s the only way that religions normally survive despite being proven wrong time after time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Antonio, couldn't I make the same criticism of cosmology? "As new evidence is found, people keep revising their viewpoints." I thought that was a good thing! :-)

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,don´t really think you can compare cosmology with religion (in this case the makeup of the christian god). Most modern cosmologists I know of don´t claim that they get their ideas about the makeup of the universe through heavenly revelation. People like Stephen Hawkins arrive at their ideas through reason, mathematics and that more elusive thing called inspiration. And any cosmologist worth his salt knows that his ideas about the grand design of the universe will very probably be tested, revised and even proven wrong in the future. That´s the nature of science. A revelation religion like Christianity on the other hand doesn´t get at nature of the universe through brainpower and reason – they get it straight from supernatural powers. That´s the way Jesus supposedly found out that the Eschaton was not far off, that´s the way Paul got many of his more bizarre ideas and that´s the way people like Matthew got their looney ideas of reading Christ´s fate into Isaiah and some of the other prophets. And since we are dealing with a guru (in this case Jesus) and his disciples (in this case Paul, Matthew, Luke…) who claim to have special knowledge (both about the makeup and ultimate fate of the universe) straight from the maker of the universe it is a bit strange to say the least to see a 21st century disciple of those 1st century jewish weirdoes arguing that that it really doesn´t matter very much if Jesus, Paul and the others got the revelations wrong since Darwin, Richard Dawkins and the others will ultimately come to the rescue :-)PS Your book "the only true God" finally arrived at our library here in Göteborg. I´ve had it in my hands a few days. Can´t give I final verdict yet since I haven´t yet gone beyond the chapter on Revelation yet, but so far I think you are definitely right about Paul´s view on Jesus divinity. I am still not 100 % sure about John…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I'm not sure that ancient cosmologists had revelation to go on. They expressed their convictions about the nature of reality through their cosmology, and we tend to do the same today. We just have more information to go on, and thus can paint a more accurate picture. But I don't think there's anything that requires Christian cosmology to look for divinely-revealed truths (where?) and ignore data that is far more readily available and much easier to verify.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07085674629106780182 laBiscuitnapper

    I'm a felloww skeptic of the 'circular' argument, though from a different viewpoint (I'd like to think so anyway). When one looks back at the history of science in the West, the idea seems to have been that as God is inherently rational, the workings of It's world can also be rationally deduced. Therefore,it does not seem to me that science inherently eliminates teleology from consideration so much as it expects any sort of teleology there might be to arise from studying natural processes (in that sense, I could argue that the apparent lack of teleology suits certain ideas about God just fine!).'A revelation religion like Christianity on the other hand doesn´t get at nature of the universe through brainpower and reason – they get it straight from supernatural powers.'As supernatural powers don't exist (I personally have the view that any forces or existing objects must have some physical parallel that can be described scientifically, even if that initially does take the romance out of it!), surely we can say that in a revelation religion, the 'gurus' also get their deas from inspiration and reason? From an objective (of course I mean secular materialistic) view, the idea of a 'Good', interventionistic God could as much have come from their – perhaps mistaken – interpretation of the world around them and the way the observed people behave. It would only be strange to say the correctness of said gurus doesn't matter, if their basic 'philosophy' was utterly dependant on their model of the world around them. In the case of Christianity (and indeed other religions), I am not so sure that is actually the case – though perhaps this is just because the 'original' model of God and the world is often as confused as one's would be in a pre-scientific age and nothing to do with any inherent truth.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,I think Biscuitnapper has already raised some good objections to your latest answer. Just like him I find it strange that you seem to hold the position that whatever a particular guru says – no matter how outrageously, factually wrong – it really doesn´t matter since we are all fallible humans, children of our times and it´s worldview. The only problem with your reasoning is that the earliest christians (maybe Jesus too. Who knows…) were claiming that their particular guru was far more than a fallible human being – he was Israels king, Messiah, Son of Man, Logos etc etc. He was co-ruler of the Universe with supernatural powers, an exceptional clairvoyant and a guy with exceptional prophetic powers. His knowledge about the workings of the Universe are actually so great that the only thing he doesn´t know is the exact date and hour for the Endtime (Matt 11.25-27). He is as close to the allknowing God as one can get in this Universe. If I met a guru (or his disciples making claims on his behalf) on the street making all kinds of extravagant assertions about the nature of the Universe and its ultimate fate, claims that will soon be proven wrong then I know how I would react. I would probably laugh, walk away and let that guru fool somebody else. Based on what you have said so far I am less certain about your reaction. I also find it strange that you try to bypass my claim that Jesus and the early christians got much of their particular brand of jewish cosmology through revelation. It is pretty obvious if one looks at Paul´s letters and the gospels. Just to name a few passages in one of the gospels – Matthew – that deal with cosmology. Matt 11:25, 12:42, 13:40, 19:28, 22:29, 24:24, 25:31. Personally I think that all these christian mutations of jewish cosmology came to Jesus and disciples like Matthew through what they thought was direct revelation from God (see Matt 13:11). I therefore find it strange again to see you arguing that, yes Jesus, Matthew and the others were obviously wrong about the arrival of the SoM with his avenging angels. And yes they were wrong about sin coming into the world through Adam. Time and Darwin and a few other folks has shown us that. But to you, James, it still doesn´t matter. Christianity is true in some unfathomable way anyway. The fact that the traditional christian view appears to have been that God is infallible, knows what his creation is all about and can´t impart false revelation to his chosen ones doesn´t appear to matter either. A final question James: can any religion ever be falsified with your strange standards?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I certainly think religion can be falsified, in the sense that Paul thought that our cognitive faculties took place in the heart rather than the brain, the author of Genesis thought that the sky was a solid dome, and Jesus and his first followers thought the world would end within their generation. In many of these respects, they weren't particularly "more wrong" than most people in their specific historical-cultural context. It is largely with hindsight that we've discovered they were wrong, as new evidence has come to light. The appropriate response is to revise and improve our views and make them less wrong wherever we can.When people cling to (or add new) wrong beliefs by appealing to a religious authority, I find that at best unfortunate, and at worst despicable.But when we're talking about "religion" or even "Christianity", we're not talking about this or that belief, but a broader endeavor. Some of Christianity has had to be revised. More may need to undergo the same treatment in the future. But I'm not sure that doing to others what you'd have them do unto you is invalidated by Jesus' mistaken eschatology. That's why I thought the comparison to cosmology is helpful. The enterprise of cosmology used to be about misconceptions and claims to revelation. Now it is about factual data, but still with a measure of the exploration of the ultimate and the mysterious. I think religion ought to be thought of in the same way.

  • Antonio Jerez

    James,the fact that all people in antiquity were wrong about a lot of things that we today take for granted doesn´t mean that their kind of ignorance is in the same league as that of Jesus and his early followers. As far as I know most people in antiquity didn´t claim that they had special knowledge come directly from God or that the leader of the sect was almost as infallible as God himself. If Jesus and his followers hadn´t made such claims (claims that have been proven time after time to have been patently false) there wouldn´t be any reason to scrutinize their claims or put any blame on them. But the problem is they have. Although I am not very fond of the ideology of Deuteronomy I think that it´s authors at least showed some common sense when they stated that a man claiming to be a prophet whose predictions are shown to be patently wrong is not a true prophet. Obviously you and many other modern Christians are not in agreement with that kind of definition of prophethood since you appear to hold on to the view that a man can still be called prophet, king, lord, logos, son of man and a lot of things despite being proved not having a clue about the makeup or fate of the universe despite making a claim to having exactly that kind of knowledge. And it doesn´t surprise me the least that you bring out the increasingly popular argument in modern liberal christian circles that Jesus and his religion can still be "right" despite failed cosmological predictions since his ethics is "true" or useful. By that definition of what makes a religion "true" I guess that no religion can ever be falsified. You could as well claim that the mormon guru Joseph Smith is also prophet, king, messiah, logos etc etc. His ethics prohibiting smoking and alcohol seem to be "true" and useful after all. The simply fact that those golden plates never seem to have existed is not going to spoil the party for true believers…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I don't invalidate someone's ethical insights because of wrong predictions and more than I invalidate Newton's insights into gravity and mathematics because I may disagree with him on alchemy or Biblical interpretation. I'm in favor of critically evaluating what we are offered and clinging to what is good.As for Deuteronomy's standard for prophets, I do indeed find it problematic – for reasons internal to the Bible. On the one hand, by Deuteronomy's standard Jonah was a false prophet and shouldn't be in the Bible, since 40 days passed and Nineveh was not overthrown. Of course, the Book of Jonah is a work of fiction, but that certainly doesn't salvage its right to be in the prophetic corpus from Deuteronomy's perspective, does it? What's more, we see in Jeremiah why Deuteronomy's standard was unhelpful: a king couldn't just wait to see whether Jeremiah or his vociferous opponents were proven right by subsequent events. The king had to make alliances now.What I'm advocating, as I've said before, is a critical appropriation of religious traditions, not their uncritical acceptance as "true" or "authoritative" without further qualification.


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