Nov 27 2009

Open Theism & Theistic Evolution: mysteriously friendly

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 8:58 am

Two popular notions among certain Christian academics these days are open theism and theistic evolution.

What’s interesting to me is that there is a group of theologians and a few theistic scientists who subscribe to both.  They seem not to be too concerned about the contradiction between:

1) theistic evolution, which basically posits a God who just about never changes his mind in the process of creation, and pretty much never intervenes in a significant way in the working out of the laws of nature as their interplay leads to the universe we see, and almost requires some form of reasonably strong determinism in order to allow its adherents to say “God created the human race,” and

2)  open theism, which posits a God who changes his mind sometimes, can be surprised at how things turn out, doesn’t know the future exhaustively in every fine detail, but only those future events He has predestined in a specific way, and so on.  (Openists would say that God knows all possible futures, including how He will work out His will and foreordained events in each one.)

These sound like two different Gods to me.  And I’m not too sure that either one of them is the God that I worship, though I suppose I’m willing to be convinced by compelling evidence and logic.

A very prominent Christian biologist, Francis Collins, in his book The Language of God, essentially admits that some form of relatively exhaustive predestination is required in order for God to have used evolution to bring about humanity.  Collins doesn’t like the phrase “theistic evolution,” preferring his own term, “biologos,” but as far as I can see, they are the same general idea.   Collins’ distaste for the phrase “theistic evolution” seems to have more to do with the difficulty of selling it to the public than with the inaccuracy of it.  Collins specifically rejects the notion that God did anything directly to bring about humanity via evolution, other than set the conditions of the big bang in the first place.  Presumably he does this to avoid being placed in the company of those foolish, benighted believers in Intelligent Design.  That wouldn’t be respectable, y’know.  So his acquiescence to some form of “pre-creation” determinism makes sense.  How else to say God created humanity, rather than merely a universe in which a planet like Earth might come about, on which life might arise, which might evolve into intelligent beings who might happen to have a spiritual nature as well?

From the Biologos website (the organization founded by Francis Collins, but from which he withdrew to accept an appointment from President Obama to head the National Institutes of Health):

Because evolution involves seemingly “random” mutations, it seems that the Earth could have been the home of a different assortment of creatures.  But belief in a supernatural creator leaves the possibility that human beings were fully intended.  An omniscient creator could also have created the Universe’s natural laws so as to inevitably result in human beings. (emphasis mine)

As in Collins’ book, this seems a clear admission that some form of determinism is required for theistic evolution, as understood by one of its chief scientific proponents.

Open theist Greg Boyd, in his book God of the Possible, presents a view of God’s created order in which the future is not pre-determined, so much so that God does not know it exhaustively.  To quote from the Amazon description of his book,

Boyd sidesteps the more abstruse theological debates surrounding this issue in favor of a patient, but not pedantic, exposition of a “motif of future openness” in biblical narrative and prophecy. These biblical texts repeatedly portray God as changing plans in response to human decisions, viewing future events as contingent and even being disappointed at how events turn out. Boyd clearly believes the debate over open theism has gotten off to an unfortunate start, as disagreements about the “settledness” of the future have unnecessarily been interpreted as challenges to God’s omniscience or sovereignty.

In other words, in contrast to process theology, in which God is seen to change, develop and “learn,” open theism is presented by Boyd as merely “the open view of the future,” i.e., it’s more a statement about the kind of universe God chose to create than about God Himself.

Understandably, historic Christian understandings are often seen to be threatened by either of these perspectives.  My point here is not to challenge them directly, but to point out that they challenge each other.  That makes it very interesting that there are so many academics who appear to believe both.

Consider:  if God brings about his fore-ordained will in an “open future” universe, He is a God who clearly is constantly interacting with it, adjusting circumstances to reflect events that were NOT fore-ordained, and which God did not directly choose.  When the first bacterium turned left instead of right, God moved its food source where it would find it anyway.   (Hey you, the orphan germ, can’t you see where the kitchen is?)   And surely there would be many such events all along the developmental path of life on earth.

The point?  It seems to me that the Intelligent Design view of the development of life is more suited  to the “open future” view (of the open theists) than “theistic evolution” is.   Yet the open theists love to keep company with the theistic evolutionists, to the extent that they appear on the same academic programs at universities, apparently because the programmers of these conferences believe that theistic evolution and open theism somehow support each other.

I guess they buy the notion of a God who doesn’t know how it all turns out, but predetermined it anyway to make sure it turned out like He wanted.

I suppose it’s also possible that God cheats at solitaire.