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Intelligent Design People Don't Get Theology, Either

Oct 29, 2007 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:43 AM


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Father Michael K. Holleran wrote three pieces for discovermagazine.com in the fall of 2006.

If the theory of evolution only appeared formally and scientifically with Darwin in the 19th century, and famously continues to evolve with burgeoning discoveries and nuances in our own time (the New York Times featured an entire section dedicated to the pullulating perspectives of evolutionary theory on June 28, 2007), perhaps religion can be forgiven a certain tardiness in catching up to the swiftly accumulating evidence. To be sure, St. Augustine already had a seminal theory of seminal causes within the potency of matter in the early fifth century. Also, Pope Pius XII already stamped his basic approval on the theory in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1951.

Nonetheless, events like the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925 did not put an end to the furor in evangelical religious circles, which continues unabated and debated today regarding "intelligent design" in school teaching. In any case, the subject of evolution has always awed and fascinated me—even though I played the opposition (i.e., Matthew Harrison Brady) in Inherit the Wind as a young Jesuit!

In modern times, the famous French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) was the most passionate proponent of evolution in Catholic circles. He was a paleontologist and mystic/poet who saw the entire universe as striving towards ever-greater "complexity-consciousness," and thus ultimately toward its fulfillment in and through Christ, whom he termed the "Omega Point." It is an enthralling vision, although both scientists and theologians complained that he tended not to respect the methodologies of their disciplines. Hence, his fellow Jesuit Karl Rahner wrote to vindicate him in more formal theological language in his Theological Investigations. Basically, Rahner sees matter as guided upward and outward by the creative impulse of what Christians term the Holy Spirit, who is Creator not just at some hypothetical moment of creation, but necessarily present in creation at every moment with a vivifying and ever-expansive action.

Such a dynamic perspective makes God's creative involvement all the more majestic, magnificent, and personal, stretching over millions, and indeed billions of years, even as, for God, "a thousand years are like a watch in the night." Here we are very far indeed from a "watchmaker" that winds up the universe, and then goes his way, as the Deists tended to argue. Yet we are also very far from a literalism that, as Rahner remarks, does not in fact take the texts literally, but actually misreads them. For, the first chapters of the Book of Genesis were never meant to be taken as history or science, as "eyewitness" accounts, either of God or of someone impossibly "interviewing" God, but as a spiritual, theological, and mystical statement about God's relationship with the world; as an "aetiological myth," to use Rahner's phrase, that provides an explanation, based on the human author's contemporary experience, of how things must have gotten to be the way we see them. The"seven days" are not seven days (how could there be a "day"before the fourth "day" when the sun was created? So asks Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind), but stages to show how creation splendidly unfolds, directly related to God in all its panoply and detail. Of course, we must also avoid the facile and misguided efforts to find correspondences between the "days" and scientific geological ages. On the contrary, modern scriptural scholarship confirms what the Kabbalah intuited centuries ago—i.e., this first chapter of Genesis has a different source from the second.

More specifically, it is a later priestly source, whose concern was to ground the sabbath and the seven-day week in some kind of primordial validating event. In other words, God's creating the world in six days and then resting on the seventh is not the source of the sabbath observance; it is the other way around.

What I would like to suggest, however, is that mature theology is also very far from intelligent design, which I consider to be a particularly unfortunate, maladroit, and problematic notion, at least as it is commonly presented and understood. It is true that the fifth argument of St. Thomas Aquinas for the existence of God is based on the design and governance of the universe. Yet theologians themselves noted, long before Richard Dawkins, that the argument is hardly cogent, and probably better serves as a reflection (in a double sense) of faith by believers than as an effort to persuade unbelievers. In addition, according with Stephen Jay Gould's insistence on the paramount role of chance in evolution, a priest friend of mine often takes the case a seemingly irreverent step further: with all the chance, chaos, entropy, violence, waste, injustice, and randomness in the universe, the project hardly seems very intelligent! Do we imagine that God is intelligent in basically the same way that we are, just a very BIG intelligence and "super-smart"? And "design," once again, evokes the watchmaker who somehow stands outside the universe, tinkering with his schemes at some cosmic drawing board. How could God be outside of anything or stand anywhere, or take time to design anything?

All of this is mind-numbingly anthropomorphic, and what seems to be irreverent and blasphemous is actually the only way to avoid being so. As I already suggested in my blog, we are perhaps not aware of the radical purgation of our concept of God that is incumbent upon us, whether necessitated by the challenges of science, or by those of our own theology and spiritual growth. Unfortunately, the most fervent people are often the most naive: the monks of the desert in the fourth century got violently upset when traveling theologians suggested that God did not have a body.

Nor does "he" sit somewhere as a being on some throne. God is not a being; God is infinite being. Therefore, as a Council of the Church defined in the 15th century, whatever is said about God in the similitudes of our poor human language, the dissimilitude is even greater. If we say that God is "Father" or "good" or "intelligent" or a "designer" or a "person," God is more unlike what we say than like it. As St. Thomas affirms, we have to accomplish a three-stage trek across the territory of the mind in a way that we can recognize today as much resembling the thesis-antithesis-synthesis of Hegelian philosophy. When we affirm something of God (kataphatic theology), we have subsequently and immediately to deny it (apophatic theology) before we can dare assert it again on a new level. For example, if God is personal, God is decidedly not personal in the way we normally experience it or grasp it; God is transcendently personal (perhaps "transpersonal"?). (This approach is also called analogical, as opposed to univocal or equivocal, and has a more general application: a single term [e.g., "alive"] may be predicated all along the scale of being, but only if suitable adaptations are made at each threshold.) God is "semper major" (always greater), such that, to employ St. Augustine's phrase, "If we have grasped or understood it, it can't be God" ("sicomprehendis, non est Deus"). Again St. Thomas: If we know that God is, we don't know what God is; we rather know what God is not than what God is.

Now that we are swinging the hammer, there are yet further idols to be smashed in our theological language. The relationship between God and the world is often—and I think disastrously—characterized as supernatural vs. natural. But how is God supernatural? What might seem beyond nature to us is natural to God. And how could "he" be outside of or above ("super") nature. Nothing is outside of God. As St. Thomas himself notes, astounded and astonishingly, there is no more being after creation than there was before, since God is already infinite being. How can you add to infinity? Or, as the Kabbalah touchingly notes, God "shrank" a bit (tzimtzum) to allow creation to be at all. So, creation is simply a reflection of God contained in God, a reflection, as Thomas notes somewhat heavily, of the Eternal Law. And not some arbitrary and capricious law that he devises, but a Law that he Himself is. Hence, God does not design; he is the design. The laws of evolution, whatever they may be, are not in competition with God, but are a reflection and revelation of God's richness. Similarly, miracles are not some magician's momentary suspension of rules he simply concocted arbitrarily, but the manifestation of the creative potential of God using the creative potential contained in matter and energy to manifest in ways beyond our usual ken. Miracles are absolutely not outside the laws of nature when taken in this broader sense. Similarly, God is not separate from creation, for where would he be that is separate from it? He is not something behind it, since God is not "something." He is "no-thing", but not nothing. So, does this amount to saying God is Everything, as the pantheists do? I let AlanWatts, a brilliant early Zen Buddhist and onetime Episcopal priest answer in his own words from

The Wisdom of Insecurity

in 1951:"If you ask me to show you God, I will point to the sun, or a tree, or a worm. But if you say, 'You mean, then, that God is the sun, the tree, the worm, and all other things?'—I will have to say that you have missed the point entirely."

Instead of the hazardous "intelligent design," perhaps we could hazard saying that God is luminous, vivifying Consciousness/Energy in the universe. But even then we would have to disown our words almost at once. This is a perspective, nonetheless, with which I believe not only Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but also Buddhists and Hindus might be able to resonate.

Perhaps you can "divine" how such a view will also redefine how we imagine the inspiration of scripture, the big bang, or the problem of the soul.

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