Junk Theology Disguised as Junk Science
(as originally published in the 8/29/05 Citadel of Trinity Church, Easton.)
Every week we stand up in Church and say “We believe in one God…creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” Sounds like we Episcopalians would naturally be fighting for the teaching of intelligent design in secular classrooms, doesn’t it? Well, we are not and there is good reason. Intelligent Design has nothing to do with science, and is very bad theology.
I am not a scientist, but I am a fan. I love to watch the Discovery Channel and have been addicted to its predecessors, NOVA and the National Geographic Specials, since before Junior High. I grew up with the original space program and on dinosaurs. The whole debate over whether or not evolution is true—or at least the best working theory as to the speciation of the planet—is very strange to me. Being a science “fan” I will not even try to deal with Intelligent Design on the basis of science. That’s okay because the debate is not really about science. It is about how we make meaning out of science. It is a debate about theology.
The current clash between a few people of faith and science is mainly political. It reminds me of a scene in the 1997 film “Contact” where in a hearing to decide who will get to represent humanity to the extra-terrestrials, the main character, Dr. Eleanor Arroway, is asked if she believes in God. When she says sees no empirical evidence for God, she promptly loses her seat on the mission.
The logic of ID’s proponents goes something like this: believers must reference God in all they do and say; scientific theory does not reference God therefore scientists must not be believers. This is kind of like saying that since love songs, or Shakespeare’s sonnets, do not reference God, then all people in love must be atheists.
Now it is true, some scientists are atheists. And it is also true that some people who are public about their non-belief use the ID debate to deride religious people as a whole. But the actions of atheist fundamentalists are just as extreme and kooky as religious fundamentalists. They deserve each other, and for the most part I would just let them be.
Even though most of us have no dog in their fight we are being dragged in through our school boards, politicians and public forums. If you have seen the news lately, it might seem as if you can’t be a real Christian unless you believe in ID. (For that matter, it looks like you can’t be a Conservative either…just ask George Will!) What about the rest of us who say “We believe in one God…creator…” and who want to give up neither on God nor on science?
I wholeheartedly believe that God created everything and is intimately involved in our universe. I see no reason why God could not have used the mechanisms science has been learning about. I also don’t want the wall between faith and science to become any higher. I’d like to see them studied and talked about as interrelated partners. And here lies my difficulty with ID as it is most popularly articulated.
Intelligent Design is a theory, just not scientific one. It is a theory about the how revelation works. ID is based on a particular view of the Bible. The sleight of hand ID attempts to pull-off is that just as scientific theory can work without specific reference to God, ID is attempting to have a theology with talking about God by name.
It goes like this: (1) The Bible is true and without error in its original texts; (2) The Bible says that God made Creation happen in seven days; (3) We see evidence that shows the complexity of creation; (4) Complexity shows that God created everything; (5) Therefore the Bible is right and creation happened in seven days; (6) Therefore the Bible is true and without error in its original texts.
ID uses bits of scientific data (and anecdote) to reinforce the theory that God created everything all at once from nothing in seven days. By emphasizing parts (3) and (4) above, ID works to draw us into the rest. ID folks have recycled a few (but not all) of the classical proofs for the existence of God, turned them around (and inside out) and tries to sell it as biology. But they are not even trying to prove the existence of God, per se—they are trying to prove a view of the Bible.
The tripwire that I fall over as a Christian is that for me, like a lot of believers, the complexity of the universe does point to the creativity, the complexity and the mystery of God. In my heart of hearts, I am, like the proponents of ID, sympathetic to the old “watchmaker” argument for God. I love Hymn 409 “The Spacious Firmament” which, set to a majestic tune by Haydn, paints a wonderful picture of a perfect Newtonian universe that runs like clockwork and proclaims
In reason’s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice;
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”
I don’t think the ID people really closet deists. They tend to see the solutions of the Enlightenment era debate about science and faith as the problem, not the answer. The truth is that Intelligent Design is not science (it can’t really be “bad” science since it doesn’t function as science) but even worse, it is bad theology. By posing bad theology as science, it creates a wall between science and religion, and worse yet, between the culture and the Church. If our job is to bring Good News to this culture, in our time and place, ID is taking our eye off the ball.
Here are a few of my basic objections to the theory of Intelligent Design as a theology:
What about designs that fail? In saying the God is the designer who creates and controls everything; ID leaves open a classic problem of the “watchmaker” proof of God and ignores it. If the human eye points to a Designer, then what kind of Designer does cancer, birth defects or extinction point to? Either the Designer is imperfect, malicious, or is dumber than we think. Or maybe the Designer is making it up as He goes along? We sue manufacturers when products fail; whom do we sue when creation goes awry?
ID paints an incomplete and contradictory image of God. ID tells us that the Designer works ones way and communicates in another. Here is the picture that ID would have us believe: The Designer makes his creatures share huge swaths of DNA with many other species, designs creatures able to adapt to myriads of environments, and also fills similar niches in different eco-systems with different creatures. And it happened all at once, not very long ago. Adaptability in this view is a ruse perpetrated by the Designer. The complexity of creation serves to confound us by showing mechanisms that point one way when the truth lies in another direction.
Where is the Mystery? In attempting to take random chance out of evolutionary theory, ID proponents also take mystery out of creation. ID assumes that we can know everything there is to know with certainty, and this is at best hubris if not outright heresy. Christians believe that God is beyond our knowing and that through revelation and incarnation God comes to us in ways we comprehend. At the heart of our knowledge of God is mystery. Both the ID folks and some of their vehement secular critics share this point: there is no mystery; there is only what we can know. ID’s Designer is too small.
ID reinforces the notion that knowledge and exploration are antithetical to faith. When we explore creation, when we make meaning from what we learn, and when we evaluate knowledge we are using the same skills that help us grow in our spiritual lives. When we close the door on new knowledge, or stipulate that one approach to science is antithetical to faith, then we limit God and God’s action and our ability to respond to God with awe, wonder, love and praise.
None of this would bother me very much; except for encounters such as the one I had this summer with a 13 year old young man who attends a Catholic school, who seems to be both creative and intelligent beyond his years. He told me he loves science and would love to be a scientist, except that one cannot be a Christian and still believe in evolution. To me this was a shocking statement that was said with utmost sincerity. This is what happens when a group uses children as a wedge to exploit our deepest fears.
The chief failure of ID is that it profoundly misstates both the Christian faith and science. ID pits science—and therefore our schools—against a healthy, mature spiritual life. This is an unnecessary stumbling block to average people—people of faith, and people seeking faith. ID is junk theology as much as it is junk science because it defines faith in terms of what it is against, exploits people’s fears and makes ignorance our friend.
I believe, as the Nicene Creed says, “in one God…creator of heaven and earth.” It is what we do with that belief that separates ID from the rest of Christianity. ID forgets that faith is more than a series of propositions that we simply agree to. Faith is more than simply having all the answers in a neat package. The fact that I see God in complexity and mystery of creation is not proof of anything—except my faith. When we invite people into that faith, we invite them into a journey not a multiple choice test.
The Gospel life is a life that is lived in terms of the Gospel. Healthy faith in God grounds us and helps us understand ourselves in the universe, assists us in knowing the world we are in and is the starting place for what we will do with what we have. Mature, dynamic faith helps us come to terms with what we don’t know about the universe as much as it is strengthened and challenged by what we do.