Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Is There Two-Way Traffic on the Bridge?

In "Why NCSE should be involved in the science– religion dialog" (Borgeson 2002), I offered some reasons for NCSE's decision to participate in this arena. There is a good deal of ferment in science–theology conversations today, and, interestingly, less emphasis on physics and more on biology. Indeed, there is increasing interest among theologians in complex systems, emergent features, and the evolutionary sciences, as reflected by many recent books in the field (such as Barbour 2002 and Peters and Hewlett 2003). At a recent symposium honoring him on his 80th birthday, Ian Barbour, de facto dean of the dialog in the United States, called for the continuation of this shift in emphasis.

Where does the "intelligent design" movement fit in the dialog? Representatives of the movement, most often William A Dembski, are from time to time invited to the table with scientists and academic theologians. Dembski subtitled his 1999 volume "The bridge between science and theology." But is "intelligent design" the bridge? Or is it just muddying the waters?

NCSE members are well informed on the scientific objections to "intelligent design". Many may not be aware that a number of scholars and religious leaders have raised theological objections, too. Here is a brief review of some of those points. I offer it in the hope that it will be helpful especially to our supporters and activists who are people of faith, and to other grassroots organizers who have asked for approaches that can counter "intelligent design" theologically.

Dembski has said on more than one occasion (2001; 2003) that "intelligent design" is theologically minimalist. Yet the literature of the "intelligent design" movement is laced with theological allusions, and its big tent has hosted many a religious revival. While one wants to believe the openness and modesty of Dembski's assertion, it is hard to do so given the religious orientation of the publishers of much of the movement's literature (InterVarsity Press leads the pack; others include Harvest House Publishers, Broadman and Holman, Ignatius Press, and Brazos Press, a member of Baker Publishing Group). At the IDEA conference held at the University of San Francisco in September 2002 (Branch 2002), several speakers seemed to assume a conservative Christian worldview among their audience, and one workshop leader, Cornelius Hunter, began his session with prayer. So, while explicit theological propositions may be rare in the "intelligent design" movement, implicit assumptions about the worldviews and pieties of those who are attracted to it abound.

Natural Theology or Theology of Nature

Perhaps the first question theologians ask of "intelligent design" might be, "Is this Paley's natural theology in new clothes?" Many Christian theologians today would follow Barbour in finding greater integrity in a "theology of nature" approach than in natural theology. The distinction is that a theology of nature starts from a particular faith perspective, and then enters into dialog with what we know about nature through the sciences, rather than developing arguments for the existence of God from nature. When people of faith begin with an understanding of divine revelation from their scriptures and tradition, and then bring that into dialog with science, they are constructing a theology of nature. Not all theologies of nature are equally appealing to all people of faith; in fact, they can be quite narrow. For example, when an Answers in Genesis speaker exhorts his audience to "Start your thinking from the Bible!" he is building a theology of nature.

Perhaps some members of faith communities still think that natural theology has its place, since it starts with an experience of nature common to all people. But the question then becomes, from what aspects of nature is one developing one's apologetic? Is it from the artifacts and appearances of nature, or from its undergirding processes and propensities? At the 2003 Ecumenical Round Table on Science, Technology and the Church, Kendall Harmon, a conservative Anglican theologian, pointed out just how seductive "intelligent design" is. People perceive design in nature, and then find it very easy to jump to the conclusion, "God must have made it." When we perceive great beauty in nature, or an apparently cunning adaptation, our awe may be stopped short in just this way. Most of the theologians of evolution, though, suggest that we need to look to a deeper level for the truly awe-inspiring. In their view, it is the freedom God gives creation which inspires an awe that can be sustained. It is the providence undergirding the billions of years of evolving life that leads to a faith that is not shaken when we know the scientific explanations as well (for examples, see Edwards 1999; Haught 2003; Peacocke 2001). "Intelligent design", on the other hand, seems to ask us to look at the details we cannot now explain, rather than to the sweeping story of which our understanding continues to grow.

View of Creation

This leads me to another objection to "intelligent design" raised by theologians of evolution. "Intelligent design" seems to close off the future unfolding of life and our understanding of it. Those of us who have studied the movement can see how a "god of the gaps" approach fails to stimulate scientific inquiry. But it also fails us in constructing an open and hopeful future of our life with God. Haught points out that God is the ground of novelty, not just order, and the one who "makes all things new", as asserted in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In fact, Haught goes so far as to assert that "the central theme in the Bible's vision of God" is that of promise. God reduced to the role of designer cuts off the possibilities of emergent new realities, and ultimately, hope (Haught 2001, 2003).

"Creation" is used in two ways in Christian theology. It is used as roughly synonymous with nature, meaning all that exists because of God's loving it into being. But it also means the ongoing process by which God is continuously creating, sustaining and being present to all that exists, called classically creatio continua. Creation is thus not a once-and-for-all done deal, as in deism, nor is it an intermittent activity, as in a little flagellum assembly here, a little clotting cascade tinkering there. The "intelligent designer", then, somehow seems less than the ever-immanent and providential God of Christian theology.

The little we know about God from "intelligent design" is not congruent with an understanding of God that takes Hebrew and Christian scriptures seriously. When we read the pivotal texts and explore the key themes of scripture — in fact, even when we read Genesis 1–3 — looking for metaphor and deep meaning, not empirical science, we find little or no emphasis on a God who is designer and artificer. Instead, when we read the scriptures as a whole, we find a God who is first and foremost relational, that is, a loving God.

In Christian scripture, the central way in which God is related to his creation is, of course, through Christ's redemption of the suffering of the world. Out of this emerges a theodicy that embraces as the price of the freedom God has bestowed on creation what we often read as the cruelty and caprice of nature. A designer God, though, must also be the designer of pain and death. In theological terms, "intelligent design" offers no articulation of how salvation is accomplished and constructs a God that is hard to square with the God who is steadfast love and suffering servant. George Murphy, working within his Lutheran tradition, has placed much emphasis on a theology of the cross as central to an understanding of God's interaction with creation (Murphy 2002, 2003). Jürgen Moltmann stresses God's suffering with God's people, drawing on the Hebrew concept of shekinah and the kabbalistic concept of zimzum along with the Christian understanding of the kenosis (self-emptying) of God (Moltmann 2001). WH Vanstone pointed out in prose and hymn that the image of God as a creator, omnipotently, serenely, and detachedly presiding, then occasionally condescending to manipulate things to his will, is totally incongruent with what Christians know in the divine self-emptying of Christ (Vanstone 1977).

William Dembski has said that "intelligent design" is not a doctrine of creation, and we can agree with him. Yet "intelligent design" remains attractive to many believers. This can be attributed in part to the continuing polarization of science and faith in much of the media. But the appeal of "intelligent design" may also be attributed to its resonance with a theology of creation, persistent in favorite hymns, liturgical texts, and popular piety, where images and concepts remain untouched by the last century and a half of scientific discovery. So those of us who work in academic and popular theology can thank "intelligent design" for a great stimulus to do our work — developing a contemporary theology of creation — while we also recognize that "intelligent design" has offered little of substance to the science–theology dialog.

Instead, it has, in its equating of methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism, and its recycling of a god of the gaps, attempted to colonize science with religion. It seems that the bridge has been hastily constructed for purposes of invasion, not to sustain the two-way traffic of an enduring dialog. A true dialog (Bohm 1996) allows each party to retain its integrity, while making its assumptions transparent to the others. Clearly this has not happened with "intelligent design". A constructive theology of evolution, or, as members of some faith communities might call it, an evolutionary understanding of creation, requires that science be itself, bring its best work to the dialog. Only good science, methodologically natural science, will offer a theology of nature the freedom it needs to express its own truths. As Robert J Russell, the founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, commented in a response to Dembski (2003), "I don't need to change biology to make it fit my theology."

By Phina BorgesonFaith Network Project Director, NCSE
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

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