Evolution and the Christian View of God

| June 17, 2012

The traditional Christian view of God is that God is constantly involved with his creation on an intimate and routine level. At the same time, theologians have held that “miracles” in which God sets aside the routine workings of nature he devised are infrequent. By the way, I use “he” only in the universal sense here. The Bible does not attribute a gender to God, other than in clear metaphor, so far as I know. Frequent, incontrovertible miracles (or routine proof of God) are seen as violations of our free will to choose God and as events that would render faith moot. We are told that if God were to simply sky-write “I exist and this is what you must do” that we humans would have little choice, but to believe. Thus, we believe that weather patterns, in example, with their inherent stochastic noise are an example of a system that God created and can intervene in, but generally leaves to function as they were created. God is also seen as outside of time, space and the material universe, but able to interact with our physical world, as God chooses. We are also told, and I believe that, the wonders of our physical world, the intricate beauty, complexity and patterning speak of Gods creative nature, that our world is a canvas on which God is painting something beautiful, although many of the steps may be messy. Further, we postulate that the painting is alive.

On origins, Deists postulate a God who designed the laws of nature, but then left the mechanistic universe to function on its own, without further input. This is tied to Newton’s billiard ball, mechanistic view of the universe in which, if you knew the original locations and trajectories of the universe, you could start it in motion like clockwork and predict future actions backwards and forwards through time. We still hold some of that view, but have come to accept that, although we can increasingly know something of the mechanism, we often cannot know the specifics well enough to predict all of the outcomes. An anti-evolutionary perspective on biological creation is deistic. It postulates that God created the universe, the workings of nature and humans ex nihilo and other than miraculous interventions is no longer involved in creation. A Deistic view presents a couple of challenges for Christian theology. If God is loving and designed the entire system to run precisely like clockwork without any trial and error elements, than he designed it badly. There have been many species that have died out. Perhaps more than currently exist. Why? Why create species that would not be a final product and whose genes may not have contributed to a final product? Questions like these are best understood by the directionless nature of evolution. Deistic views also do not fit with an involved God and are a bit hard to reconcile with a God who allows choice.

“God of the Gaps” theories are theories that hold that Gods working exists only in places where the mechanistic laws and actions of life and the universe are not observable. Deism in both the humanistic and anti-evolution forms (such as young-earth anti-evolutionism) is by definition a God of the Gaps view that places God only at the start of creation. The form of anti-evolutionism known as intelligent design looks for areas in which we are, as of yet, unable to determine how nature might work and places God in those spaces by attributing miracles or proof of design only to the places in which we cannot yet understand cause and effect naturalist explanations. One of the problems with a God of the Gaps theories is that the parts we cannot describe naturalistically continue to get more distant as we understand more. Whether you place God, as creator, only at the beginning of the universe or in the questions on how evolution and other mechanisms work, God gets smaller and farther away as we learn more and the time “before” our knowledge is pushed farther back and the areas where we have unanswered questions on the mechanisms of creation get smaller. Another problem with any God of the Gaps view is that it violates classical Christian thinking on the nature of God by 1.) requiring God to supply “signs and wonders”, that is incontrovertible proof of Gods existence and 2.) removing God from the routine involvement with Gods creation when God chooses.

In contrast to Deist and God of the Gaps views, biological evolution provides a means for God to routinely be involved in dynamic creation on the physical plain and to do so without frequent events seen as miracles. That is to say biological evolution is uniquely suited to the historically postulated nature of the Christian God. Natural selection works on genetic variation. Genetic variation arises through recombination events, transposition and mutation. All of these are stochastic or chaotic events that we might call random. We can understand rules as to how they work and even look at forces that may drive them to one or more most likely ends, but we cannot predict which particular new genetic variation will occur. Given the evidence that on the subatomic level we will never be able to do more than statistically place an electron in a “cloud,” we may never be able to do more than give a statistical measurement of the likelihood of a given mutation or genetic outcome from recombination, much less a series of mutations and environmental pressure over evolutionary time. If God chooses one seemingly random mutation or linkage event over another, how would we know, especially if the system itself usually functions without Gods input. If over time those changes and other similar, seemingly stochastic processes, such as the rise of this disease or that local environmental event are used to sculpt a given, intended outcome, we’d be unable to tell. Dr. Kenneth Miller has described this as a tool by which God can make minute changes that can be subtly amplified to speciation and beyond in his book “Finding Darwin’s God.” This allows an area that is basic to the development of new species, where God can routinely work across deep stretches of time that are “but as a day to God” to develop creatures that God chooses without overly revealing Godself in too frequent miracles.

Natural selection itself and genetic drift provide additional opportunities for God to work behind the scenes and without disturbing the evolutionary mechanism God designed. If Dr. Simon Conway Morris, FRS is right that convergent evolution suggests that some traits such as camera like eyes and complex human like brains are favored by as yet un-elucidated selective mechanisms or “engineering requirements”, that and the design of the other mechanisms in nature is yet another (although first cause) place where God can work. In this view, based on evolutionary biology and other natural mechanisms with stochastic elements, God is indeed intimately and continuously at work at the basis of all creation. God can let the programs run their course or nudge them without flagrant intervention as often as the artist chooses.

– Dave Evarts


Category: God's Work and the Natural World, Theistic Evolution

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