There is a matrix within which we find Purpose and meaning. Evolution doesn’t undermine the possibility of Purpose in the world or purpose in life. The scientific study of biology alone doesn’t lead us any closer to an understanding of Purpose. But there is more to life than the naked scientific reality. In the next chapter of his book Is There Purpose in Biology Denis Alexander explores a Christian matrix within which biology and the study of biology can flourish.
Denis contends that “everyone needs some purpose in life if they wish to flourish and maintain good mental health.” (p. 179) This purpose can be found in everyday activities … work, family, hobbies, charitable activities and causes. It can be found in the pursuit of public office or in the pursuit of knowledge or adventure. Ultimately, however, all of these pursuits are limited in time and space. In the long run they are meaningless … “swallowed up in the march of time and death.”(p. 180) These elements of purpose, so essential to human health, are not intrinsic to evolutionary biology. They must be imposed from the outside.
As Christians we see a Purpose in the world that goes beyond the personal elements in everyday activities. There is a Purpose that will endure and a hope for the future that transcends the march of time and death in this world. This Purpose, like all non-trivial elements of purpose, is imposed on biology from the outside. The key question, then, is straightforward: Can evolution be incorporated into the Christian matrix of Purpose? For Denis Alexander and many of the rest of us, the answer is clearly yes.
Creator. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both begin with the affirmation of God as Creator. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. The Nicene Creed expands this to include “all things visible and invisible.” This is not an invention of the early church, but a faithful reflection of Scripture. The idea of God as creator permeates the Bible, from Genesis 1 (in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth) through John 1 (in the beginning was the Word … without him nothing was made that has been made) and more.
To speak of God as creator can be misleading though. Human create and this kind of creation comes immediately to mind. But God as creator is not the same. “The human act of creating is not the complete cause of what is produced; but God’s creative act is the complete cause of what is produced. … Creation is about ontology, the existence of things and the meanings of their existence.” (p. 184) God is everywhere and in everything. The idea that we can separate “natural mechanisms” from the acts of God stand at the root of many misunderstandings of creation. Denis quotes Aubrey Moore writing in 1889:
The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the deist’s God further and further away, and at the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out all together, Darwinism appeared, and under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend… Either God is everywhere present in nature, or He is nowhere. (Moore 1891, p. 73 quoted by Alexander, pp. 189-190)
Denis elaborates on this idea. Our scientific understanding of the world has nothing to do with the biblical understanding of God as Creator.
Within the Christian worldview, all scientific investigation must be, by definition, an attempt to further understand the properties and workings of the created order. So our present state of scientific knowledge about a particular aspect of the created order is irrelevant to its theological status as creation. (p. 190)
Ignorance doesn’t leave room for God or understanding remove him from the picture. God is active in the mechanisms we understand just as much as in the mysteries that are not (yet) resolved.
Immanent. The immanence of God is creation … that he is permanently pervading and sustaining the universe … means that there are three tenses – past, present, and future – all involved in the act of creation. In the beginning God created, he is actively involves in the ongoing work of creation, he will continue to create in the future… bringing about a new heavens and a new earth.
So the biblical doctrine of creation tells us about a dynamic process in which God is the author of the narrative, and Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). God’s creation encompasses the past, present, and future. That’s the matrix. (p. 197)
When it comes to God’s action in the world, it is important to recognize that God is not one force among many. He is the origin and sustainer of them all and acts through them as well as (rarely) outside them.
So what is the Purpose in Biology? God has intentions and purposes in the world and for the world. More specifically there is a purpose to evolutionary biology as part of God’s Purpose for the world. Denis digs into some elements of Purpose in biology in the last section of this chapter. First, there is an intrinsic value in “the great riot of biological diversity we see all over the planet.” (p. 209) Denis suggests:
A careful reading of the biblical text reveals God as creator revelling in the living diversity of his own created order, not because it had some utilitarian purposes for human use, but simply because it was there. (p. 209)
He goes on:
The theological framing outlined here suggests that it is the intrinsic value of the created order in all its wonderful diversity that matters to God. It reflects God’s creativity, a created order that has been in existence 3.5 billion years before humanity ever came on the scene to enjoy it, during which period God was really enjoying it. (p. 210)
Evolution is a description of the creative process producing the wondrous diversity of life on this planet – past and present. The Purpose of evolution is to bring about the diversity of life in God’s creation.
The second Purpose of biology is the emergence of …
creatures like ourselves … that have the capacity for free will, and so moral choice, creatures with complex minds that enable the use of language, the appreciation and investigation of the properties of the created order, reflection on the meaning of life, and engagement in loving relationships. It is all this that opens up the possibility of a relationship of love with the God who is love. (p. 211)
We are not contingent accidents of nature, but part of the Purpose of biology in God’s creation.
The third Purpose of biology is that the end of our planet is not the end of life. “It is the conviction that there will be a “new heavens and a new earth” following on from this one. (p. 214)
The “continuity yet transformed” part of the story is critical for ideas of Purpose in biology. For this entails that everything that ever lived will be caught up into this new creation. … The main point here is that there will be continuity with present biological life. (p. 216)
The Christian narrative of Purpose celebrates these three – the diversity of life, the emergence of humans, and the guarantee of eternal purpose in the age to come.
There is a fly in the ointment – the role of death, pain and suffering in the living world. We will explore this Denis in the final chapter of his book and the final post in this series. For now …
Where is Purpose found in the abundant diversity of life on earth?
What is the matrix through which you view the world and its Purpose?
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