Science

Part 6: The Metaphors We Use to Speak about God and Creation

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Paul Arnold

This article is the sixth and final in a series by Paul Arnold on the relationship between Science and Christianity. Paul received his Masters of Science in Physiology before recently completing his Masters of Christian Studies at Regent College where he focused on Christianity & Culture. Paul’s final comprehensive paper was on modern science and divine providence, which forms the basis for this series. He is currently living with his wife, Krista, in rural Uganda where they are working with a community development organization. Paul also works as a writer and editor for Converge Magazine.

Over the course of this series, we have established, I hope, a theology that enables us to affirm God acting in creation without giving up a robust scientific understanding of creation. It is a theology that makes room for what is observed in the empirical world without denying the reality of things unseen.

In this final article of this series, we turn our attention to the language we use when we speak about God, creation, and the relationship between the two. The complexity of such a task becomes apparent when we think of the many metaphors used to describe this relationship. It is said that God is a watchmaker, an architect, or an absentee landlord of a world that is a machine, a design, or an experiment. It is also said that God is an artist, a composer, or a choreographer of a world that is a painting, a song, or a dance. While offering beautiful imagery, these metaphors can unfortunately offer mutually exclusive descriptions and cannot, therefore, be equally true. So how do we, as humans bounded by creation, determine which metaphors best reflect God’s true relationship to his creation? Furthermore, is it even possible to know which metaphors are best?

Metaphors are a powerful and even necessary part of understanding how God acts in creation. They offer a symbol or picture of reality that we cannot fully express; a reality that we can only know in part. For this reason, I do not want to propose one “best” metaphor. As an alternative, I will use Ian Barbour’s “Five Models of God and Evolution” to help provide us with a framework from which we can evaluate some of the lingering issues regarding the language and the metaphors we use to understand how God relates to creation.[1] The five models Barbour presents are:

  1. God as designer of a self-organizing process;
  2. God as determiner of indeterminacies;
  3. God as top-down cause;
  4. God as communicator of information; and
  5. God as self-limited.

In this article I will consider each of these models in turn, along with the metaphors related to them.

God as Designer

The first model of God as a “designer of a self-organizing process” implies that God’s design possesses a certain measure of autonomy within physical processes. When describing a self-organizing physical process, the term “emergence” is commonly used in relation to evolution. It denotes a process capable of developing “novel, unpredictable properties and behaviours at increasing levels of complexity within the natural world.”[2] The notion of emergence does not, however, necessarily imply an evolutionary process that is, as Paul Tillich would describe, either “causally deistic” or “absolutely nonteleological.”[3] God’s role in this physical process can best be understood in the concept of creatio continua, with God playing a part in bringing creation toward its eschatological fulfillment and consummation.

Along similar lines, many consider God to be the “Intelligent Designer” of a self-organizing process. At face value, this is true for any Christian because God is both intelligent and a designer. However, if by Intelligent Design we mean that creation is imbedded with cases of “irreducible complexity,” then we are moving away from the self-organizing process of evolution. As I mentioned before, an argument for an Intelligent Designer based on observations of irreducible complexity are simply inferences of design, not proofs of design. This does not mean that the Intelligent Design group does not provide a helpful voice in the discussion concerning the process of evolution; it simply means that their goal must be limited to the encouragement of belief in design, not to the proof of design.[4] Plantinga helpfully evaluates the Intelligent Design group and its most well-known spokesperson Michael Behe:

Behe has not demonstrated that there are irreducibly complex systems such that it is impossible or even monumentally improbable that they have evolved in a Darwinian fashion – although he has certainly provided Darwinians with a highly significant challenge.[5]

Discussion concerning God’s role in a self-organizing or emerging evolution process inevitably brings us backs to the issue of chance versus design. Even though beliefs supporting chance or design must rely on metaphysical inferences, we can ask whether our empirical observations encourage us more toward a belief in one rather than the other.[6] Again, since the debate over chance and design concerns the purpose of a physical process, empirical observations can potentially have little persuasive influence on metaphysical conclusions. As Plantinga notes on this issue, “it is perfectly possible both that life has come to be by way of guided natural selection, and that it could not have come to be by way of unguided natural selection.”[7] The open-ended nature of these empirical findings is why it is so important that we recognize the place and need for proper theological reflection concerning creation.

In closing this discussion, we must point out that chance and design—and thus evolution and Christianity—are not necessary mutually exclusive. As John Polkinghorne argues:

To acknowledge a role for tame chance is not in the least to deny the possibility that there is a divinely ordained general direction in which the process of the world is moving, however contingent detailed aspects of that progression (such as the number of human toes) might be.[8]

And so, perhaps there is a way forward in which we can affirm the divinely-ordained direction of a chance-driven, self-organizing evolutionary process.

God as Determiner of Indeterminacies

According to Barbour’s second metaphor, in order to understand God as “determiner of indeterminacies” one must take seriously the ontological realities of quantum physics—as examined in Part 5. If the world’s natural processes are fundamentally open, then God is free to influence macroscopic events at the microscopic level in a bottom-up causal direction. As Robert John Russell describes, “God (indirectly) creates macroscopic structures and interactions, as well as classical chance, as a result of quantum processes and statistics.”[9] The freedom indeterminacy provides, however, only allows for a regulated form of divine action, limited by the regulations of the created order. John Hedley Brooke, for example, describes the common 17th Century understanding of divine freedom within mechanical regularity of natural laws:

Physical laws were an expression of the divine will, the ultimate source of order. But they were in no way binding on God, who was always free to act in other ways if He chose.[10]

The indeterminacies within nature, therefore, must be held in proper relationship with the regularities or laws of nature.

God as Top-Down Cause

We now come to Barbour’s third model: God as a top-down cause. This model leans upon the Thomist understanding of God as the primary cause, who initiates a chain reaction of causes through the natural channels that exist in creation. Philip Clayton, George Ellis, and Elizabeth Johnson all argue that this top-down understanding does not mean that God cannot act in the world through bottom-up causes.[11] As Clayton points out, a possible Aristotelian interpretation of quantum physics allows the subatomic world to be the locale in which potential becomes reality.[12] Torrance and Polkinghorne, however, criticize a Thomist top-down model of causation because it holds an inadequate notion of contingence and relies on intrinsic gaps in the account of the bottom-up explanation.[13]

Another idea that calls upon God as a top-down cause is “divine embodiment.” Divine embodiment asserts that the way God acts within creation is analogous to the way we act through our physical bodies. This understanding of divine embodiment is often referred to as panentheism, where creation, while remaining distinct from God, is in no way separate from God. Jürgen Moltmann describes the relationship between God and creation as a dialectical tension between God’s transcendence and immanence. Moltmann finds panentheism helpful because it discourages the objectification and exploitation of nature. In his estimation, “The goal of the scientific knowledge of natural laws is power over nature, and with that the restoration of the human being’s resemblance to God and his hegemony.”[14] However, panentheism does not come without significant criticism. Colin Gunton believes that panentheism does not adequately distinguish God from his creation, arguing that a panentheistic understanding of creation could not have given rise to the practices of science.[15] Along similar lines, Polkinghorne argues that “Only by breaking the tie implicit in embodiment can God be let be to be God and his creation be let be to be itself.”[16] In other words, panentheism is thought to lose the contingency and autonomy of nature that is the result of God creating the world ex nihilo.

Another way of understanding God as top-down cause is through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in creation points to a personal agent working through an open created order to bring creation to its eschatological consummation. Gunton describes the work of the Spirit in the world as follows:

Theologically, it is a way of speaking of the personal agency of God towards and in the world; anthropologically a way of speaking of human responsiveness to God and to others; cosmologically a way of speaking of human openness to the world and the world’s openness to human knowledge, action and art.[17]

This understanding of the Spirit is much different than Wolfhart Pannenberg’s understanding of the Spirit as a “field of force,”[18] which Gunton argues makes the Spirit temporal, impersonal, and non-eschatological.[19]

God as Communicator of Information

The purpose behind the fourth model—God as “communicator of information”—is to avoid violating the law of conservation of energy. The law of conservation of energy asserts that the total amount of energy in an isolated system must remain constant over time. Although I have argued that creation is not an isolated or closed system, appealing to God as an explanation for such a system does not offer an adequate scientific explanation. Again, to do so would be to set up a “God of the gaps” situation that would be susceptible to strong rebuttals from future scientific explanations. In seeking to avoid this problem, Polkinghorne refers to God’s action in the natural world as an injection of non-energetic or “active information” that can effect change while holding to the laws of the natural world.[20]

In opposition, Richard Grigg argues that even the “transfer of information involves expenditure of energy” because intelligible information depends on the formation of patterns, which require energy.[21] Not incidentally, Grigg uses his argument against the injection of active information in the natural world to push against the idea that God can act through efficient causes in creation. I am, however, unconvinced. Grigg’s argument rests on identifying the injection of active information with the arrangement of patterned information, which of course requires the expenditure of energy. This understanding of information does not, however, adequately appreciate the other forms of information found in the natural order such as patterns inherently built into the created order in the form of laws. To rely on patterns in order to effect causal changes through active information therefore seems to me a perfectly acceptable way of understanding divine action in the world without violating the law of conservation of energy.

God as Self-Limited

Fifth and finally, to understand God as self-limited is to appreciate the notion of divine kenosis. According to kenotic theology, God limits himself in order to allow creation to be itself, as evidenced in the incarnation (Philippians 2:1-11). This concept of divine kenosis is closely related to the concept of divine embodiment in that, as Moltmann describes, “God makes room for his creation by withdrawing his presence.”[22] Unfortunately, an over-emphasis on God’s self-limitation tends toward a “Process Theology” where God becomes separated from creation and therefore unable or unwilling to act in it. As McGrath notes, a misunderstanding of divine kenosis will lead to an interpretation where God is essentially “getting out of the way, so that natural processes (even if God-originated) may proceed without divine interference.”[23]

The Limitations of Metaphors

What, then, does this mean for the metaphors we use for God and his relationship to creation? Ultimately it means that we need to use more than one metaphor to capture God’s relation to and action in creation, because no one metaphor is adequate. Therefore, what is important here is not to find the metaphors that work best (even though such a task is needed), but rather to affirm that metaphors for God acting in the world are appropriate and necessary, even in an age dominated by modern science.

Footnotes

  1. Ian G. Barbour, "Five Models of God and Evolution," in Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy, and Robert John Russell (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009).
  2. Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 230.
  3. Richard Grigg describes Tillich’s understanding of emergent evolution as one that relies heavily on the contingency of creation and looks for “depth teleology” found in God’s being, not a directional teleology found in God’s purposes. As Grigg describes: “For while I can find no meaningful linear telos that will rescue my evolutionary origin from pure contingency and apparent meaninglessness, I can find instead what I would call a vertical or depth teleology.” Richard Grigg, "Religion, Science, and Evolution: Paul Tillich's Fourth Way," Zygon 38, no. 4 (2003), 950.
  4. As Oliver Barclay notes: “Indeed, even if  [intelligent] design arguments were accepted, they could by themselves lead no further than a deistic or semi-deistic position. Their aim is to encourage belief in a divine power or intelligence that has influenced the world directly only from time to time.”  Oliver R. Barclay, "Design in Nature," Science & Christian Belief 18, no. 1 (2006), 53.
  5. Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 231.
  6. Elizabeth Johnson is an example of someone who argues that empirical observations do point to the reality of chance: “Taken together, scientific understandings of the indeterminism of physical systems at the quantum level, the unpredictability of chaotic systems at the macro level, and the random emergence of new forms through the evolutionary process itself undermine the idea that there is a detailed blueprint or unfolding plan according to which the world was designed and now operates.” Elizabeth A. Johnson, "Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance," Theological Studies 57 (1996), 7.
  7. Plantinga, 39. (Emphasis added)
  8. John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989), 40.
  9. Robert John Russell, "Divine Action and Quantum Mechanics: A Fresh Assessment," in Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy, and Robert John Russell (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009), 374. Plantinga describes a similar process in which God is able to influence macroscopic events at the microscopic level: “Furthermore, if, as one assumes, the marcopscopic physical world supervenes on the microscopic, God could thus control what happens at the macropscopic level by causing the right microscopic collapse-outcomes.” Plantinga, 116.
  10. John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 127.
  11. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy, and Robert John Russell, eds., Philosophy, Science and Divine Action (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009) Chapters 6, 9; Elizabeth A. Johnson, "Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance,"Theological Studies 57 (1996).
  12. Philip Clayton, "Constraint and Freedom in the Movement from Quantum Physics to Theology," in Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy, and Robert John Russell (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009), 202.
  13. John Polkinghorne, "The Metaphysics of Divine Action," in Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy, and Robert John Russell (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009); Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1981), 87.
  14. Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 1993), 27.
  15. Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), 39.
  16. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World, 21-22.
  17. Colin E. Gunton, The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 187.
  18. Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science," Zygon 23, no. 1 (1988), 14.
  19. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study, 161-162.
  20. John Polkinghorne, "Natural Science, Temporality, and Divine Action," Theology Today 55, no. 3 (1998), 340.
  21. Grigg, 947.
  22. Moltmann, 87.
  23. McGrath, 238.

Works Cited

  • Barbour, Ian G. "Five Models of God and Evolution." In Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy and Robert John Russell. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009
  • Barclay, Oliver R. "Design in Nature." Science & Christian Belief 18, no. 1 (2006): 49-61
  • Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991
  • Clayton, Philip. "Constraint and Freedom in the Movement from Quantum Physics to Theology." In Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy and Robert John Russell. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009
  • Grigg, Richard. "Religion, Science, and Evolution: Paul Tillich's Fourth Way." Zygon 38, no. 4 (2003): 943-954
  • Gunton, Colin E. The One, the Three, and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  • ________. The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1998
  • Johnson, Elizabeth A. "Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance." Theological Studies 57 (1996): 3-18
  • McGrath, Alister E. Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
  • Moltmann, Jürgen. God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God. Minneapolis, MN: First Fortress Press, 1993
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. "The Doctrine of Creation and Modern Science." Zygon 23, no. 1 (1988): 3-21
  • Plantinga, Alvin. Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011
  • Polkinghorne, John. Science and Providence: God's Interaction with the World. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989
  • ________. "Natural Science, Temporality, and Divine Action." Theology Today 55, no. 3 (1998): 329-343
  • ________. "The Metaphysics of Divine Action." In Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy and Robert John Russell. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009
  • Russell, Robert John. "Divine Action and Quantum Mechanics: A Fresh Assessment." In Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, ed. F. Leron Shults, Nancey Murphy and Robert John Russell. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009
  • Shults, F. Leron, Nancey Murphy, and Robert John Russell, eds. Philosophy, Science and Divine Action. Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009
  • Torrance, Thomas F. Divine and Contingent Order. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1981

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