Tag Archives: John Polkinghorne

God and Darwin Walk into a Bar . . .

Several years ago I spent a sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute on the campus of a Benedictine university in the Midwest. Several of the Benedictines at the abbey on site were liaisons between the abbey and the institute, and were part of our regular lunches and discussions. Wilfred, one of the Benedictines, was recently retired from several decades of teaching physics at the university as well as the prep school nearby. During one lunch conversation Wilfred noted that “Darwin taught us more about God than all of the theologians put together.” I am in the final weeks of leading an Honors colloquium this semester; my students and I have discovered just how insightful Wilfred’s comment was.

The colloquium—“Beauty and Violence: The Problem of Natural Evil”—is an exploration of what we might be able to say about what is greater than us through close observation and study of the natural world. My students, the majority of whom are products of parochial school education, have found on an weekly basis that the God they were taught to believe in simply does not square very well with what we find in front of our faces. oasA central part of the course was two weeks with Darwin’s The Origin of Species, one of the most important books ever written. None of my students, even the two bio majors, had ever read the book—they just had heard a lot about it. I often challenge my students to put persons who supposedly disagree sharply about important matters in conversation with each other. So suppose God and Darwin walk into a bar. The Almighty orders his usual 21-year-old Balvenie neat (it’s an upscale bar), and Charles orders a rum and orange juice (really—he drank that). What might they talk about?

Darwin: I read the other day that between one-third and one-half of the people in the U.S. don’t believe in the theory of evolution. Why do people hate me so much?

God: That’s because they haven’t taken the time to have a drink with you! You have the same public relations problems that I have—people assume things and make judgments about us without ever taking the time to get to know us.

Darwin: I am aware, though, that a lot of good Christians believe that the theory of natural selection, if true, undermines many of the features that Christians traditionally have attributed to you.

God: Like what? I always find it sort of amusing when people get into fights over the details of my personality on the basis of third-hand and partial information.

Darwin: Oh, for instance that you are omnipotent and created the world with a specific plan in mind. Since chance and randomness are central features of evolution, an all-powerful God who plans all of the details of creation out ahead of time doesn’t fit evolution very well.I invented it

God: No kidding! But who ever said that I’m into control and planning in the first place?

Darwin: Uh . . . just about everyone? Put that together with your being all good, as well as omniscient, and the traditional portrait of God Almighty is pretty well filled out.

God: You tell me, Charles. Does that portrait strike you as anything like what you know me to be?

Darwin: Not everyone gets to have an occasional drink with you like I do. For the most part, the ideas that people have about you are guesswork and projections based on what they have direct access to. Your followers, for instance, have thought for ages that observing the world around us can help us intelligently speculate about what you are like. And the theory of evolution didn’t help.

God: Why not?

Darwin: All I can do is tell you how the theory of natural selection affected my own belief in you over the decades that I was developing the theory. The more I studied the natural world, the more appalled I was by the violence embedded in every part of it, along with the extraordinary beauty and diversity of living things. Then Annie, my eldest and favorite daughter died after a long illness, despite my wthank god for darwinife’s and my prayers and the continuing efforts of the best medical people. I tried for many years to square my own experiences and knowledge with what I was supposed to believe about God. An omniscient and omnipotent God who allows pain and suffering to run amok throughout creation? I just could not believe in a God like that anymore.

God: Good, because I don’t believe in that God either. But you’re no atheist. An atheist could not have written your final lines in The Origin of Species: “There is grandeur in this view of life . . . having been breathed into a few forms or into one; and whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Darwin: That was inspired, wasn’t it? I think I’m an agnostic—I just don’t know what to think about God—you, I mean. Having a drink with you makes you seem so normal, but as soon as you’re gone I have far more questions than answers.

God: But that’s a good thing. A rabbi I know says that he would rather be on earth with the questions than in heaven with the answers.

Darwin: Really? But what are we supposed to do when what we thought we knew about you just doesn’t fit with what we are learning about ourselves and the world around us?

God: I always say that if you don’t like the answers you are getting to your questions, change the questions! Forget for a minute everything you’ve ever been told about what I’m like and start over. Let’s suppose that your theory of evolution by natural selection is largely correct (it is, by the way). On the basis of what that theory tells you about the world, what might you speculate about me?

Darwin: My first guess is that you like change more than stability, and novelty more than the familiar. Annie Dillard, who is almost as astute an observer of the natural world as I am, wrote that “not only did the creator create everything, but he is apt to create anything. God and evolutionHe’ll stop at nothing. There is no one standing over evolution with a blue pencil to say: ‘Now, that one, there, is absolutely ridiculous, and I won’t have it.’” I’d guess you also favor process over finality and imperfection over perfection.

God: And why would I value imperfection over perfection?

Darwin: Because as every artist knows, imperfections are fundamentally necessary to beauty. Charles Baudelaire wrote that “That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity–that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.”

God: And Baudelaire was pretty good, wasn’t he? This reminds me of something a physicist-turned-Anglican-priest said recently in an interview: “God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity.” John Polkinghorne is right, because I really am more like Ella Fitzgerald than Beethoven.

Darwin: Most importantly, you apparently are committed to freedom and creativity above everything else—not just in human beings, but in everything. Within very broad parameters, life never stops recreating itself in new forms.teilhard

God: One of my favorite guys, Teilhard de Chardin (how can you not like a Jesuit paleontologist?) hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “Properly speaking, God does not make: He makes things make themselves.” But of course this is risky . . .

Darwin: No kidding! Freedom, open-endedness, radical creativity, a “hands off” attitude—that raises a whole bunch of other questions: the problem of evil, is there a point to all of this, what faith amounts to, can science and religion cooperate . . .

God: Stop! Stop! I’m not sure of the answers to some of those questions myself! (checks his phone)god so loved—Shit! Look what time it is! Can you pick up the tab this time, Charles? I forgot my wallet back home . . .

Darwin: Again? Okay, but now you owe me big time . . .

God: In more ways than you know. Wilfred was right. You’ve taught people more about me than all of the theologians put together!

Something Rather Than Nothing

One of the most reliable ways to deaden a lively conversation in class is to ask a “philosophical question.” indexNothing is more certain to produce blank stares, then uncomfortable silence, than questions like “Is the world we experience primarily a matter of what we perceive or of what we create from what we perceive?” or “Is the truth something we find or something we invent?” Jeanne read one of these sorts of questions—“Is the self assembled from my memories, and if so, what if my memories are inaccurate?”—in a book she was reading not long ago. “This person sounds like you,” she said. “The problem is, I just don’t care about this question.” I know. The fact that in twenty-eight-plus years together I have failed to get Jeanne to understand the importance of properly splitting philosophical hairs is a constant source of disappointment.

For most of my years of teaching philosophy, I have managed to ask such questions, which are the bread-and-butter of my discipline, in ways that actually have some relevance to the lives that my students live. But there’s one philosophical question, perhaps my favorite, which is close to perfect in the form that it has been asked for thousands of years. 100030303-the-mystery“Why is there something rather than nothing?” That doesn’t grab you? Try this version: Assuming that the world (and us in it) could have been different, or not have existed at all, why is it the way that it is? And what might we learn about ourselves and the larger reality within which we find ourselves by pursuing possible answers?

These were the guiding questions behind the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium I will spend with a dozen Honors juniors and seniors next semester. It’s odd to be thinking about next semester when I am buried under grading this semester, but the Honors Program director asked me for a course description of the colloquium a couple of days ago, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed it the last two times I taught it. One of the authors we will study is P2P_sphysicist-turned-Anglican-priest John Polkinghorne, who once said in an interview that Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. In other words, the creator might be more like Ella Fitzgerald than Ludwig van Beethoven. Many people carry a model of the natural world around that we inherited from the Scientific Revolution, the model of an intricately and finely tuned machine, designed and created by a cosmic being whose favorite things are precision, order, economy and control. If we speculate about the personality traits of this “designer God,” characteristics such as “powerful,” “rational,” “logical,” “rule-making” come to the fore, which are but a short step to “judgmental,” “controlling,” “aloof” and “distant.”

The problem is, we don’t live in that sort of world. If our world was designed with precision, order and economy in mind, the designer was having a teilhard-1-sizedpretty bad day. Darwin opened the door wide to speculation that the world we live in is vastly more messy and open-ended than ever imagined; a century and a half of further investigation in all of the various sciences has con-firmed Darwin’s insight. It’s very possible to investigate the messy, inefficient and spectacularly fascinating universe we inhabit without reference to anything greater than ourselves, but I find it impossible to do so. If we are in fact part of a creation that is unfinished, in which in Teilhard de Chardin’s memorable phrase, “God does not make: He makes things make themselves,” where does intelligent speculation about such a creator lead? In directions both stimulating and iconoclastic.

We spent a number of weeks the last time I taught the “Beauty and Violence” colloquium teasing out some of the differences that understanding the world in this way might have for how we think about God. For some of my students, the implications were fascinating and liberating, while for others they were disturbing and paradigm-shifting. Two of the traditional characteristics attributed to God, for instance, are omniscience and omnipotence. God knows everything and has the power to do anything. These “omni” characteristics have been problematic for centuries when thinking about human choice and freedom. 20080626_kristatippett_2When thinking about an open-ended universe that continues to be created by the creatures that inhabit it, such characteristics are more than problematic—they need to be jettisoned entirely, as many cutting-edge scientists and theologians suggest. Here is the full John Polkinghorne quotation, taken from an interview with Krista Tippett:

The act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love. Kenosis-school-of-art-and-creative-services_11310_imageIt is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word. God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world involves God accepting limitations, and, I believe, accepting limitations such as not knowing the future.

Rather than a tightly controlled and designed universe, this is a universe in which power and knowledge on the part of the divine are sacrificed for—something. Freedom? Choice? Beauty? At thegod_created_risk_postcard-r1d8ae1c777454aa29480a38b805f6646_vgbaq_8byvr_324 very least, the motivations for such an ongoing creative process are something other than control and order. A world in which creatures are empowered to create in novel and unique ways sounds less like a universe energized by ordering power and more like one embedded with creative love and emerging beauty, a beauty that theologian John Haught defines as “ordered novelty.” Only a universe structured on the edge of order and chaos could generate such results.

A God who intentionally created a partially finished, non-economical and messy universe that is still a project in the making is not a God who knows everything that will happen or inserts divine power into every organizational detail. This is a God who has taken a significant risk—on us. In an intellectual notebook entry, one of my students captured this idea concisely and beautifully.

God is only truly taking a risk if He has a desired intention for us—a purpose, so to speak—that could either be fulfilled or unfulfilled through our free actions and the way in which we live our lives. God is gambling on us because He has allowed for the opportunity of failure. God has fixed His hand by giving us everything we need to fulfill our purpose. He is actually no less omnipotent, he is simply using His power to limit His power, a theory that if true would be the noblest of all divine endeavors. If we deny our egos, we are to be awakened by His silence and transformed by the realization of our limitations.

This, of course, raises many more questions than it answers. But they are better questions in my estimation than the traditional ones, in keeping with my favored definition of philosophy as “the art of asking better and better questions.” Yet another confirmation that Socrates was right when he said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”quote-the-unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living-socrates-174068

Blue Maples

Although I am mercilessly critical of New Englanders who complain about snow and cold weather, as if they just became aware that these sorts of things happen in New England in the winter, and find their reactions to snowflakes—images“Whence cometh these strange and terrifying white particles from the sky?”—highly amusing, now that it is March I am ready for winter to be over. We have had a real winter this year, with several significant snow falls and frequent dips at night into single digits of temperature, and I’m ready for what comes next. “That would be spring,” you say, and that’s fine—I enjoy digging in the flower beds, removing the winter detritus, and keeping an eye out for the first signs of new life. But in my preferred imaginary world, making it through winter intact should be rewarded with the immediate appearance of my favorite season—and it ain’t spring.

            Autumn is my favorite season—not even a close contest. I grew up in northern Vermont, surrounded by spectacular foliage colors every late September and crisp, jacket-wearing sunny days in October. Or so I remember it—given that Vermont reportedly has more cloudy days per year than any other state, there probably weren’t that many sunny days. Forty years later in southern New England, we get autumn several weeks later than in Vermont. I’ve also noticed that Rhode Island trees are not as coordinated in their color-changing as up north. untitledOn my street, for instance, one tree turns yellow and drops its leaves every autumn while the oak across the street remains as green as in mid-summer.

But I still love autumn. Last October on Columbus Day (or as I call it, “Celebrating the destruction of native peoples day”), as Jeanne and I ran errands and enjoyed having a day that we could actually go and see a movie, we noticed a particularly beautiful bright orange tree on the edge of a mall parking lot. Orange is my favorite fall foliage color, but I began reminiscing about the maples in Vermont that turn a deep red hue that I have never seen on any tree in Rhode Island. “Amazingly enough,” I said, “they are called ‘red maples’. blue mapleThat’s pretty boring. If I was in charge, I’d officially name them ‘blue maples,’ just to mess people up.” Sort of like giving the blue spruce in our front yard that very seldom is any color other than green the name “Blue.” There is a diabolical streak in me that is always looking for ways to blur boundaries and lines that people depend on. I guess it’s a good thing that I’m not in charge.

My Honors colloquium last semester spent a couple of weeks studying Darwin’s The Origin of Species;imagesCAKCYKC0 one of my favorite things about Darwin and his theory of natural selection is that this theory erased boundaries that everyone for centuries had considered to be fixed and showed them to be fluid and evanescent. One of the most attractive features of the natural world for many people is its apparent predictability—things have a proper place, behave in a reliable manner, and generally provide a dependable backdrop to our human adventures. When something shows up in the natural world that doesn’t clearly fit our preconceived categories, we often are unsure concerning how to proceed. untitled.3The egg-laying, beaver-tailed, otter-footed duck-billed platypus, for instance, baffled European naturalists when explorers first brought specimens back from the Southern Hemisphere; some considered it to be a hoax.

But in tension with this seeming regularity and predictability is a flexibility and novelty that many of my students last fall found both surprising and disconcerting. The fuel of the process of natural selection is not stability or predictability. What makes the whole thing work is the apparent attraction of natural energies toward the novel, the unusual, and the irregular. The title of this colloquium was “Beauty and Violence”; in the natural world, these two are inseparably intertwined.

250px-Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_Le_Moulin_de_la_GaletteIndeed, great artists tell us that predictability, regularity and order are deadly to beauty of any sort, natural or otherwise. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for instance, once said that

Beauty of every description finds its charm in variety. Nature abhors both vacuum and regularity. For the same reason, no work of art can really be called such if it has not been created by an artist who believes in irregularity and rejects any set form. Regularity, order, desire for perfection (which is always a false perfection) destroy art. The only possibility of maintaining taste in art is to impress on artists and the public the importance of irregularity. Irregularity is the basis of all art.200px-Fleurs_du_mal

And Charles Baudelaire observed that

That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity–that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential part and characteristic of beauty.

Irregularity, the unexpected, novelty, even the disturbing and edgy not only contribute to what is beautiful—they arguably define it.

This throws various interesting doors wide open. Why, for instance, are human beings tuned to beauty on frequencies and wavelengths that intersect with the seeming contradictories of beauty? Once again we find that traditional binaries such as sacred vs. profane, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, individual vs. community, and so on are not opposites at all. Annie DillardSuch binaries are so intimately and intricately interwoven that only a forced, surface level interpretation can insist on their absolute independence of each other. With regard to the natural world, Annie Dillard observes that “Terror and a beauty insoluble are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of garments of things both great and small.” Is this objectively true of the world we find ourselves in, or is this a fascinating feature of human observers? Is the world really this way or are we, products of the evolutionary process, wired to experience the world in this way? Both? Neither? I feel a class coming on!

It will come as no surprise to those who regularly read this blog that I am most fascinated with the question of what this complex mixture of good and evil, beauty and violence, regularity and irregularity, the predictable and the novel, might tell us about the creative force that put all of this into being and motion. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps all of the above is best explained naturalistically with no reference to anything greater than us. But on the assumption that there is something greater than us that has something to do with the reality in which we find ourselves, what might be said? What could God have been thinking in fashioning such a world? Whatever else might be said, this definitely ain’t your parents’ God. This is not the traditional clock-maker God who created, then continues to tinker with and fine-tune, a cosmic machine.

What if, instead, the creation process is a continuing one, within which, as Teilhard de Chardin suggested, God does not make: He makes things make themselves. untitled.4Such a world is not finished, but is rather is a creative process in which we are deeply involved. Is it pointed toward something? Beauty? Freedom? Something else? These are questions for future posts. But suppose that John Polkinghorne, a physicist turned Anglican priest and theologian, is on to something when he speculates that “Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity.” A God who is more like Ella Fitzgerald than Beethoven—now that’s interesting.

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