Where the Conflict Really Lies

Perhaps no where is there more controversy than in the United States over the alleged conflicts between science and religion. Most of that controversy is conducted by folks who are woefully uneducated when it comes to either subject.

Alvin Plantinga, noted philosopher, attempts to bring some systematic thinking to the dispute. His basic premise is that apparent differences between science and theism are largely superficial and the two are actually deeply in agreement. His second basic premise is that the true disagreement lies between science and naturalism.

First let me say, that this is all quite heavy reading for the average person. If you are untrained in logic, statistical analysis, and philosophy, you will probably, as I did, struggle to follow the train of argument. However with patience, you will certainly tease out the main arguments.

It is most important that one understand what evolution is. It is not as is popularly thought, how life arose on planet earth. It is how existing life became increasingly complex over time moving from the more simplistic to the more complicated. In other words, from amoeba to human. The basic scientific explanation for this is commonly known as “Darwinism” or the random genetic mutation which drive evolutionary change.

Plantinga, as I understand him, doesn’t say that this process is inaccurate, but he does say that there is nothing to stop God from using his own laws to “cause” this or that mutation, thus “directing” the movement of otherwise benign processes.

He addresses the issue of miracles by claiming that those who think there is a conflict claim that miracles are antithetical to a universe operating under “laws” which ours seems to be. Indeed, some theologians would agree,  and claim that the biblical references to miracles are nothing but fairy tales used to make more consequential arguments, but not reflecting reality. Dr. Plantinga points out that this no-miracle scenario is only compatible with a “closed system”, and whether it be Newtonian physics or quantum physics, modern science no where posits the idea of a closed system. Therefore when God effects a miracle (if indeed God does) it cannot by definition violate any “law”.

He goes on to explain that certain scientific truths are not “defeaters” to theistic belief, such as the interpretation that the earth is flat from a reading of Genesis, and our scientific understanding that the earth is round. Plantinga would argue that this doesn’t defeat belief in God, but merely informs us that our interpretation of some parts of the bible may be faulty.

Generally speaking his finds Bebe’s intelligent design to be flawed in its thinking which I think is basically in accord with most of the mainstream scientific community.

As Plantinga moves into this arguments involving why science and naturalism are really at odds, the going gets quite a bit more tough and only someone with some basic background can make solid sense of the arguments. He finds that we as humans can be assured that our senses are reliable because God, he claims helps us to see truth. This is our compass in discerning the value of our senses and memories and reason. Naturalism only works for survival and reproduction and truth is not part of that equation, though one could argue I would think that a properly functioning memory, sensory apparatus and reasonable faculty do aid in survival in the end.

I’m ill-equipped to make a judgment here as to whether Plantinga has made a compelling case or not. I find his arguments persuasive in large measure, but then I am a believer and carry that foremost into my reading. I hope that I am open-minded enough to see obvious flaws, and were I trained in philosophy, perhaps I could.

However, I will say that I too, like Dr. Plantinga, feel ill-served by the so-called New Atheists who tend to substitute more insult than actual substance to their arguments. It is impossible I find to hold a decent conversation with their followers, well-versed or not, when all you get is snide “santa claus in the sky” retorts when you try to make cogent arguments.

I think this is an important contribution to the discussion, and one that all believers and non-believers need to read and discuss seriously. In the end, if properly understood, I don’t think we have all that much to argue about. Thinking believers are not anti-science and never were.

I am grateful to Oxford University Press and their publicity department for providing this book to me free of charge for review. There are no agreements with them as to the contents of this review, and all the remarks made are mine.

Creation and the God of Abraham (reprint)

(This was first published at AFeatherAdrift)

I am deeply indebted to Cambridge University Press for their kindness in sending me a copy of Creation and the God of Abraham, edited by David B. Burrell, et al.

This is an amazing book, to put it quite simply. It is a difficult book, especially if you are not learned in science, philosophy and theology. But I promise you, if you take the time to explore and read carefully, you will come away with a wealth of new understanding and knowledge.

The question is posited: Is there a place for the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, and with it a logical explanation of the God of Abraham that is consistent with modern philosophy, science, and theology?

Quite a question. A group of scholars, spanning all three “People of the Book” religions, and including philosophers, scientists, historians, and theologians, set out to ponder together this foundational issue at the Vatican Observatory. Each of the participants then wrote a chapter in their area of expertise, and this book is the collection of that conference.

Editor David Burrell, calls it a “feast prepared” for the reader. And I concur.

Creatio ex nihilo is the concept of God creating out of nothing, and it has come to be foundational to all three Abrahamic faiths. Early chapters explore the history of the development of the concept. It was not self-evident from Scripture, since it is arguable that the Bible speaks to an initial watery chaos. But it too speaks of an all-powerful deity, and over a period of one thousand years, the doctrine was fleshed out and refined.

Authors Ernan McMullin and Janet M. Soskice take us through the scriptures and philosophical development from Aristotle through Augustine, Philo and Plotinus in the search for a fully formed theology of creation, one that comported with our understanding of a God that was both omnipotent and intensely involved with creation.

Of course, for Christianity, Aquinas becomes the standard for the theological underpinning of creatio ex nihilo. David Burrell explores this aspect. Others then look at Aquinas in the light of the Enlightenment philosophers, and from the great Jewish minds, Maimonides and Crescas.

At times, it is easy to get lost in the language used. Philosophy always has its unique definitions of words we know and think we understand. Most assuredly we must be careful. I can state that I no doubt understood a good less than was conveyed, yet I can unequivocally say with patience, I came away understanding Aristotle, Scotus, Hume and Kant better than before I started.

Jewish and especially Islamic philosophy was quite new to me, and I had more difficulty with explanations from the authors covering them. Daniel Davies section on Maimonides and Crescas was difficult but highly enlightening.

The second half series of chapters moves into the scientific realm, and cosmology. This is an area that I have some lay familiarity with, and I could follow the arguments and evidence much easier here.

One of the more interesting chapters is that by Simon Oliver, who as a theologian, explores the idea of the Trinity and motion and emanation. He continues through to Newton and cosmology. Again, hard going, but worth the effort.

Perhaps the chapter by William R. Stoeger, S.J. was the most useful for me. His explanation of the Big Bang and cosmology was the best synopsis I’ve encountered. I am reasonably well-versed in this area yet, he explained the early Planck era in a way that truly cleared up a lot of fuzzy thinking on my part. His conclusion that creation ex nihilo and the current quantum cosmological models of creation are not alternatives creations but complementary was well shown.

His discussions of time was particularly useful and illuminating to the lay mind. Science can only take you through successive regressions in time, and this is never-ending, whereas creatio ex nihilo does posit a God who is self-evident, self-sustaining, and is the basic ground for all existence.

“. . .God, instead enables and empowers creation to be what it is–and both ultimately endows and supports all the processes, regularities and processes of nature with their autonomous properties and capacities for activity. Thus God as Creator does not substitute for, interfere with, countermand or micro-manage the laws of nature. They possess their own integrity and adequacy, which God establishes and respects.”¹

For me this was thrilling, for it stated what I had deduced in some manner myself. It has been my journey to examine the God defined to me with the world that exists, as I see it, and then to mesh these two things. Stoeger comes closest to voicing my conclusion, certainly with greater eloquence.

One minor error was located in Simon Conway Morris’s chapter, What is Written into Creation? He pointed out that certain elements were “essential to life.” Phosphorus was one of them. As we learned a few days ago, that is no longer true. A bacterium in a lake in California replaces phosphorus with arsenic in its DNA sequencing. Obviously this is no fault on Mr. Morris’s part.

James Pambrun’s discussion about free will and sin were deeply important and I thought well explained and convincing. I found Thomas E. Tracy’s contribution wonderfully beautiful in its concepts. God’s act of creating is at once but never-ending, since he continually acts “through” his creation, under the concept of double agency.

Of course, I am only setting out the barest of understanding of these issues. All these authors are experts in the field they are addressing. Finally we circle back to Aquinas:

In the life of Christ, God learns as a human being in order to grant human beings divine sight. In the grace of the Spirit, human beings receive the sight of God through learning to see themselves as God sees them.²

For Aquinas, God is the ultimate scientist.

This is an expensive book. It is a difficult book for those unschooled in these disciplines. But, it is a beautiful, rich feast for those willing to explore. You will learn many things I promise you, and if you too desire to know God, much will be found here to ponder.


¹ pg. 173

² pg. 242

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