Monday, June 18, 2007

Dogmatic Creationism or Evolution?

Unfortunately, there is hardly anything such as a new thought these days. I have been reflecting upon the parallels between the "Creation and Evolution" debate in biological science and the "Development of Doctrine" debate in dogmatic theology. It seems to me that Newman and Darwin (roughly contemporaries) introduced remarkably similar ideas into their relative fields of study.

To put it simply, where Darwin proposed a theory of the organic development of species rather than a pristine and unchanging state from the first beginnings until now, Newman proposed an theory of the organic development of doctrine rather than a pristine and unchanging set of doctrines from the very beginning of the apostolic age until the present day.

Of course I am not the first to think of such a thing. A quick websearch threw up these comments by a certain Sr Mary Scullion from 15 years ago:
This is a real opportunity for us to reflect on the life of John Henry Newman and what his life might say to us today. ...Remember He lived around the same time as Darwin who was proposing the evolution of man and here Newman was asking the Church to consider the evolution of dogma. Both of these men were offering very radical positions of thought for their day.

More than one hundred years ago, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his "Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine", stated that if the Scripture message is to be understood in an age other than that in which it was written,, in a different place and time, the message has to develop, evolve, and grow in history. Development and natural growth were contemplated by the Divine Author, Newman argues. "The whole Bible is written on the principle of development. As revelation proceeds, it is ever new, yet ever old."

In a memorable passage he opens the door to biblical exploration and discovery: "To the end of our lives and to the end of the church, the biblical message must remain an unexplored and unsubdued land, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures. Of no development of doctrine whatever, which does not actually contradict what has been delivered, can it be asserted that it is not in Scripture. Everything our Savior did and said in the New Testament is characterized by simplicity and mystery, which are evidence of revelation, in germ, to be developed; a divine truth subject of investigation and interpretation."

Vince Donovan reflects further on the writings of Cardinal Newman stating: "...Newman's original discovery, which we have not yet fully appreciated or accepted, is the place of history in doctrinal thinkingof the true evolution of dogma. We must face the implications of his disturbing thought for our time." (Vince Donovan in The Church in the Midst of Creation)
Now I have no knowledge of either Sr Mary or Vince Donovan, but what they say accords with my own thinking in this area.

Nevertheless, I believe there are questions that are thrown up when comparing Newman's theory to Darwin's.

First: At first glance it would appear that, in Newman, history is to the development of doctrine what, in Darwin, environmental context is to the development of the species. Is this correct and is it helpful?

Second: the question of teleology. Whereas Darwin's theory insists that the development of species is completely random and affected only by the chances of environment and survival, Newman would most assuredly have found a definite Spirit-directed "forward" impulse toward the goal of "all Truth" (John 16:13). Is this teleological difference in the two theories a fundamental distinction?

Third: Is there not perhaps some relationship between the form of Newman's theory which the Church has chosen to accept and the form of Darwin's theory which it has felt free to endorse: namely, a doctrine of evolution which sees even the contingent developments as directed by the omniscient, omnipotent will of the Creator?

It seems to me that there is something in the "Sola Scriptura sine Traditio" attitude toward dogma which smacks of Creationism. On the other hand, a "liberal" attitude to the development of dogma (which might, for instance, be said to include the "ordination" of women or the allowance of homosexual "marriage") seems to have more in common with that sort of theory of biological evolution that sees the present environmental context as totally determinative of the outcome. Whereas a sober attitude to the the devolopment of dogma would appear to require:

  • a direct continuity with the Origin (the "deposit of faith" and the Will of Christ)
  • a clear belief in the teleological goal of "All Truth"
  • a firm confidence that at every stage the dogmatic pronouncments of the Church in response to historical circumstances have been led unerringly along the direction between the Origin and the Goal by means of the Spirit-given charism of the infallible magisterium.

13 Comments:

At Monday, June 18, 2007 4:53:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

This is a fascinating speculation.

Couple of points:

First, I question your use of the word ‘directed’ when you talk about evolution being ‘directed by the Creator’.

If this means that evolution looks to us as though it is random, but it is in fact flowing along a course laid down by the Creator, or it is kept on track by the occasional supernatural nudge to port or starboard, so to speak, I don’t see this as necessary.

God is quote capable of using contingency or randomness to achieve his purposes. Thus evolution need not simply appear to be random; it may be truly random in every possible sense of that word, and still be unfolding exactly as God wills. This is hard for us to grasp – how can a process be random but yet the outcome be intended? But, if you think about it, it is inconceivable that – in the absence of an exercise of free will by one of God’s creatures – the universe should unfold in even the smallest particular other than in accordance with the will of God. A theistic model of evolution which requires supernatural intervention (beyond the fact that for anything to exist at all requires the supernatural intervention of creation) seems to me to be based on a limited concept of God.

The development of doctrine, by contrast, is clearly not a random process. Leaving aside whatever role the Spirit may play in the process, theology is profoundly affected by the choices that individuals make, some at least of which are intentional. Suppose Newman, for example, had never become a Catholic, then clearly our thinking about the development of doctrine would be different today. Suppose Augustine had remained an Arian. Suppose Aquinas had devoted himself to scripture rather than theology. Suppose Vatican II had been convened twenty years earlier, or twenty years later, than in fact it was. And so forth.

Thus I think you’re right to suggest that there is a sharp distinction here between evolution and the development of doctrine. Evolution appears to be random and I for one am happy with the idea that it is truly random and yet that it unfolds according to the will of God. But theology is entirely the outcome of what humans do (and in particular how we respond to revelation) and, while this may be unpredictable, there is nothing random about it.

 
At Monday, June 18, 2007 6:01:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

No, no, you misunderstand my meaning of "directed" in relation to Evolution. I am quite aware of and happy with the assertion of actual and not just apparent randomness. I have blogged on this many times before. Aquinas of course makes the point that things happen the way God wills them and if God wills something to happen contingently then it happens contingently. My use of the word "directed" was simply to mean that 1) the randomness happens according to God's will, and 2) there is a sort of inbuilt "teleology" in this randomness. The second point may be controversial--especially to atheistic biologists like Richard Dawkins--but I think it is an essential element of a Christian approach to evolution.

Also, there is some connection, I think, between the randomness of macro-history involved in the development of the species and the randomness of micro-history which determines whether or not Augustine is an Arian. The development of doctrine is, as you say, Spirit-led, but that is only obvious to those of us with the faith to see it (not all readers of this blog would agree). What I am speculating about is whether there is some sort of congruence between the inherant teleology of Truth and (what the Church sees as) the inherant teleology of the creative process.

I know that's not very clear, but do you see what I am getting at?

 
At Monday, June 18, 2007 7:41:00 pm , Blogger Derek Bogle said...

I think I see what you are getting at. Are you saying that God is essentially random when it comes to development of doctrine and that we really can't be sure whether today's truths are in fact tomorrow's fish and chips wrapping?

To me this is a step too far.

 
At Monday, June 18, 2007 8:05:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

“No, no, you misunderstand my meaning of "directed" in relation to Evolution. I am quite aware of and happy with the assertion of actual and not just apparent randomness. I have blogged on this many times before.”

I’m very glad to be wrong on this!

“My use of the word "directed" was simply to mean that 1) the randomness happens according to God's will . . .”

Yes, in the sense that it is God’s will that it should be random, and therefore it really is random. But not in the sense that outcome A happened rather than outcome B because outcome A was in accordance with God’s will. If that were the case, the process would not be random.

“. . . and 2) there is a sort of inbuilt "teleology" in this randomness. The second point may be controversial--especially to atheistic biologists like Richard Dawkins--but I think it is an essential element of a Christian approach to evolution.”

Not so much controversial, I think, as difficult to grasp. If the event is random, then the outcome is random, and not foreordained, or directed, or guided, or influenced by a bias, tendency or attraction towards any particular end. But if the event is truly random then it is truly random because God created it so, and the random outcome is therefore in accordance with the will of God.

“Also, there is some connection, I think, between the randomness of macro-history involved in the development of the species and the randomness of micro-history which determines whether or not Augustine is an Arian.”

But my point is that the second of those events wasn’t random. Augustine chose to be a Christian by an act of will. Unless we take a completely deterministic view (notwithstanding his perception of his own free will, Augustine’s choice to be a Christian was in fact wholly determined by his environment and conditioning and not free at all, and the environment and conditioning which determined his choice were themselves the products of random events), or alternatively unless we take the view that his choice was one of whim or caprice, we cannot say that Augustine’s choice to be a Christian was random.

And pretty much the same is true of all those who have influenced the development of theology, and of the choices which they made which affected the way that they have contributed to our current theological understandings. Few, if any, of those choices were random.

The development of doctrine is not random. Yes, it is affected by such a variety of personal and historical factors that it is unpredictable, and we have a tendency to describe any unpredictably complex event as “random”, but this is not strictly correct.

Whereas, as I understand it, it is asserted that evolution is truly random, in that gene mutations arise for no apparent cause or influence at all, but simply because it is in the nature of genes to mutate.

My view is that, yes, evolution may well be truly random in a way that the development of doctrine definitely is not, but this is not at all inconsistent with the idea of God as a universal intentional creator.

“The development of doctrine is, as you say, Spirit-led, but that is only obvious to those of us with the faith to see it (not all readers of this blog would agree). What I am speculating about is whether there is some sort of congruence between the inherant teleology of Truth and (what the Church sees as) the inherant teleology of the creative process.”

On the basis of what I have just said, I think not. To the extent that our theological graspings do approach the truth, this could be – and presumably to some extent is - because theologians have some capacity to discern and articulate the truth, and they are in fact intentionally trying to do exactly that. There is no parallel or analogous statement which could be made about evolution.

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2007 11:41:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

I want it known that I am purely speculating here, so none of this is hard held opinion.

Derek misunderstands me. I do not believe that the development of doctrine is "random" in the sense of "without direction". There is clearly, in the Christian faith, a sense of an inherant teleology towards to the fullness of the truth, a teleology which is impelled and directed by the Spirit.

Yet it seems to me that we have not reflected enough on the way that the Spirit of God and History are related. How does the Spirit guide the church? Only through the free will of human beings? What about the apparent randomness of events made up by History? Was, for instance, Constantine becoming emperor the result of a free will decision, or was it a random event, or was it a case of "Spirit-nudged" cause and event?

I think that Peregrinus has not properly grasped the enormity of the paradox that the randomness of the evolutionary process present us with as believers. For without curtailing this internal randomness in the slightest, and without suggesting that God "butts in" to his creation giving it a miraculous nudge here and there, yet do we say that the whole of the created order is progressing toward that goal which God has set out for it at the very beginning in his omniscient and benevolent will, and that it is doing this precisely by means of these random contingencies.

In the same way, then, I am speculating about the randomness of historical events in the cause and event process of the development of doctrine. And yes, when you then come in and say "What about free will and the Holy Spirit and Grace", I say, "But of course!"--yet these are not historical categories and are not considered by practitioners of the historical sciences any more than biological scientists think of the Creator's design and will in relation to evolution.

The upshot of which is: is there an impulse in the evolutionary process which is "inherantly teleological but scientifically unverifiable", just as there is an "inherantly teleological but scientifically unverifiable" impulse in the history of the development of doctrine? And in both cases, would this impulse not be only discernable to those of faith?

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2007 1:23:00 pm , Blogger Derek Bogle said...

Thanks for the clarification. On reflection, it seems we may be closer than I thought; that is, if teleology is considered to be an open-ended question, and, in answering it, we do not have the benefit of 20-20 vision, but instead have to rely on the rose-coloured glasses of history.

As Perigrinus says, "it is affected by such a variety of personal and historical factors that it is unpredictable..."

See my favourite blog - "Always Yes (Lutheran Seminarian)" - on Scruton's discussion of Burkean notions of prejudice (now archived).

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2007 3:49:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

I will follow up on the comments from Tom to which you refer. Certainly from our end we cannot predict developments in either evolution or doctrine. I don't know about "rose-coloured glasses"--even those would have a hard time with much of what went on in human history, but I do view history with "the eyes of faith".

 
At Tuesday, June 19, 2007 6:37:00 pm , Blogger Athanasius said...

I basically agree with what Peregrinus has said regarding the differences between evolution and doctrinal development.

The randomness is the fundamental contrast, but it doesn't create a problem for the theist unless they think of God solely as an efficient cause. Oddly, creationists and Dawkins are united in making this false identification. But since traditional Christians identify God as the formal and final cause of the everything, we avoid this problem.

A related point is that these two ideas of 'development' propose different ideas of the relationship between past, present and future.

Evolution, being random, is no respecter of any 'tradition' of evolution, and it conserves no 'deposit' of life forms. Entire phyla disappeared from the fossil record in the early Cambrian period, and have no progeny at all. While there is continuity, there is no 'development' in the sense of the manifestation of a previously unmanifest potency, unfolding in accordance with an internal logic. Novelty is the consequence of random mutation. The past does not 'contain' the present or future in any comprehensive sense.

In contrast, doctrinal development is precisely the manifestation of a potency in the deposit of faith. Novelty is not due to 'mutation'. In that sense, it is not new at all, and the past does 'contain' the present and future, though the specific manifestation of the development also depends on external challenges.

Since we're on the subject of meta-narratives, I was also thinking about the relationship between the view that the whole universe is driven by evolution (posited by modern science), and the view that the real story of the universe is a history (posited by the monotheistic religions). There is also a third view: that the universe is a machine.

I suggest that these three world-views roughly correspond to what Alisdair MacIntyre calls the "three rival versions of moral inquiry": the Genealogical (Nietzschian) outlook, the Aristotelian (Catholic) outlook, and the Encyclopedist (Enlightenment) outlook.

There could be a Ph.D. thesis in that. Any takers?

 
At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 11:10:00 am , Blogger Schütz said...

Athanasias, I accept your distinction between evolution and the development of doctrine in terms of whether or not "the past contains the present and future". That seems a good distinction.

I think you are also right to point out the difference between mono-theistic historical metanarrative (is history only possible because of the Abrahamic religions?--it isn't possible in a hindu or buddhist cosmology!) and evolutionary models--but we need to recognise that in its own way, evolution is also a "meta-narrative" used by biological sciences.

I am really uncomfortable with the "machine" analogy. Not only is it often used of the cosmos, but you often find the mechanical analogy being used by biologists with reference to biological life-forms (especially by Intelligent Designers). I don't accept this Cartesian approach. I think that it fundamentally misunderstands what "life" is.

In fact, I am very curious about "life". We talk about it all the time but hardly know what it is or where it comes from or where it goes. Moreover, I find in "life" precisely that teleological drive that impels the whole evolutionary process forward into the unknown future at such a headlong downhill pace--like the force of "gravity" which draws objects toward it. Or is "life" a force within the evolutionary process much like "the Spirit" is a force within the development of doctrine (the bible of course draws connections between the Spirit and life!)?

These are the things I puzzle over.

 
At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 3:15:00 pm , Blogger Athanasius said...

Schutz said: "...we need to recognise that in its own way, evolution is also a 'meta-narrative' used by biological sciences".

Exactly. I might go even further an describe evolution as the current "meta-narrative of scientism".

I also agree that the machine analogy is a lousy one. In fact, it peaked in the late 19th century, and has largely been displaced by the evolutionary narrative these days. It rose and fell along with Enlightenment thinking.

However, just because a view has lost intellectual respectability, it doesn't follow that it loses cultural currency.

A lot of opposition to the Church's teaching on embryonic life, for example, implicitly appeals to this idea that the embryo is simple, and therefore not the same as a complex human. The complexity of the machine, as we see it right now, tells us its status.

Taking a more Aristotelian view, we appeal to the idea of development, that an embryo is a person-in-potency, and not essentially different from an adult.

And I think modern developmental biology supports our view better it supports than the 'machine' view.

 
At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 11:47:00 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

David! To be curious about life is a sure sign of it - welcome to the living! Lutheran theologian Ted Peters offers some helpful thoughts on this topic - especially on the vexed question of how God's providence intersects with the randomness we observe in nature. The most helpful thing he says, I think, is that we make the mistake of thinking that God's direction or guidance results in determinism, or as you put it, "butting in". But he makes the point that the exercise of God's power in fact leads to greater freedom, not greater coercion (eg the Exodus). When God's power is at work, we are more ourselves, more free than before.

 
At Wednesday, June 20, 2007 11:54:00 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

One more thing - Peregrinus said that randomness happens according to God's will. We could add that randomness also has its limits set by God's will. Throwing a dice will always result in a completely random result - but only within a pre-determined range of results, ie between 1-6.

 
At Thursday, June 21, 2007 12:01:00 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, one last thing. I know more about Thomas the Tank engine than Thomas Aquinas, but I once noted Fergus Kerr saying this in some book about Thomism, which relates to this discussion:"Thomas sees no conflict between God's working in everything and every being doing its own thing". He also says that TA offers no explantory theory for double agency, but merely notes that the same effect is produced by a lower agent and by God, by both fully and immediately. "It is always by divine agency that the human agent produces his or her proper effect. It is not superfluous for creatures to do things, even if God can himself produce all natural effects, has happens in the case of miracles".

 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home