Darwin and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

“On religion I lean towards deism but consider its proof largely a problem in astrophysics…In contrast, and of far greater importance for humanity, the existence of a biological God, one who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs (as envisaged by theism) is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences.” E.O. Wilson –Consilience p268

Deism is alive and well. It exists in the Church, amongst members of the public, and is still to be found in intellectual circles. I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with people, some of whom are religious and some who are not, where the idea of God that they ascribed to was very definitely the God of Deism. This position was for some, the only satisfactory one in the modern and scientific age and for others it was simply an intuitive assumption and casual affirmation which made sense of the world without being too demanding of a committed and dedicated life response. The quote by E.O. Wilson that heads this post reminded me of Pascal’s famous contrast between the God of the Philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In contemporary terms there is also the contrast that Richard Dawkins made in one debate between the God of the physicists and the God of the theologians. The former he had respect for, the latter he denigrated.

Herein lies the apologetic challenge for the Christian Church. The God of the philosophers or the God of the physicists is generally considered to be a more sophisticated version of the gods of religion and therefore better suited to a modern frame of mind. Many non-religious people including scientists can allow for the possibility of a God. For example there is a YouTube clip of David Attenborough referring to an incident of an ant nest that had its top removed so the internal workings could be observed and filmed. He realised that the ants did not register the presence and gaze of the humans outside their nest and had no means of doing so. He then likened this to the possibility that there was a God watching us and although he had no way of knowing if this was true or not, he didn’t rule it out. Lewis Wolpert has maintained over the years that he is an agnostic not and atheist as there may well be a God who is the source of all things. However, he is pretty adamant that the “Christian” God could not possibly exist. The issue here is that the God of the philosophers and physicists is conceived of as an absolute transcendent reality related to the mysterious world of “being” with a capitol “B”, and the wonderful world of mathematics and the stunning architecture of the universe. However, when we try to relate God to the world of nature, in particular evolutionary theory, it all gets a bit “messy.” Likewise, when the same is done in relation to human history and human experience the nature of the Divine often appears to be simplistic and unsatisfying, intellectually speaking. The “High” God of the philosophers and physicists seems to be worlds away from the “anthropomorphic” gods of religion. It is in this arena that Christianity has to state its case.

Now Deism comes in many forms and it can be defined in a more positive manner than it has usually be understood (I know because I have flirted with it myself at times on my own pilgrimage). Nonetheless, traditional Christian belief would want to affirm both the transcendent God of the philosophers and physicists and the incarnational God of the New Testament witness. This however, presents us with considerable challenges (but whenever was that not the case for the believing community!). A couple of years ago, I presented the God Question series to a church in Edinburgh. The first session went extremely well with good and positive feedback. However at the end of the second session on evolution the local priest commented that he didn’t find the Christian contributors as convincing on this subject as they had been on the Cosmos. I told him that this was well spotted! I qualified this by pointing out that this was not a reflection of the contributors themselves but more with the subject matter.

Daniel Dennett likes to talk about “Darwin’s Dangerous idea” - the universal acid which eats through all beliefs and worldviews (except of course atheism and materialism!) - and Connor Cunningham has a book on evolution and theology which is entitled “Darwin’s Pious Idea”. I steer a middle course between these two. Dennett is far too pessimistic and Cunningham far too optimistic. Let’s just refer to “Darwin’s challenging Idea”: that is a good starting point. Some creative responses have been made in this area over many years but Christian apologetics on this subject remains a work in progress. In the meantime we need both honesty and realism. The quote by Wilson at the beginning of this post indicates a predisposition which is increasingly common in our culture and one we need to engage with in humility and faith. There are no quick fixes or easy answers.

by Rev Dr Russel Moffat

1 Response

  1. /July 27, 2018/ by Iain Morris /

    Again thanks for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking blog.

    The nature of God’s interaction - or intervention- in nature and human affairs is a deep and challenging issue. Indeed it is inevitably beyond us to comprehend. Yet it is our nature to interrogate and explore even the most profound issues. We should go on doing so, in my view.

    But there is a dilemma- as you have made clear.  On one hand the theist position needs to uphold the view that the God of Christianity is one who is engaged with his creation. Paul teaches that He ‘upholds the world by the word of His power’! But on the other hand, the evidence that nature has a freedom to develop and evolve is overwhelming. The apparent importance of granting us free will is another crucially important factor in trying to evaluate God’s role in the present and future of human kind.  I have no wish to be deprived of my free will- assuming it exists!

    In some ways- whether in nature or with respect to autonomy over our lives there is a certain dignity and satisfaction in the freedom we seems to enjoy. However the very existence and deployment of prayers of intercession is an expression of hope that God does indeed intervene in our affairs. But how? When ? In what circumstances?  Are there patterns of intervention we can observe? Does intervention take place in the natural world? One senses the answer is ’ it depends’ or ‘sometimes’. The idea of working out God’s pattern of in intervention is probably one step of bold ambition too far.

    As we look at the history of the natural world -whether in the cosmos or the biosphere, we do recognise teleology: purpose. I wonder if how it is achieved will forever elude us. However i don’t subscribe to the view that we should abandon the attempt. That is not consistent with our status as being in the image of God.


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