This week’s “Time” cover story, “The Evolution Wars,” explores the growing debate over teaching “intelligent design” in schools. Meanwhile, a just-released book suggests a new model for advancing dialogue between science and theology.
Fortress Press last Thursday announced release of Creation and Double Chaos: Science and Theology in Discussion.
Author Sjoerd Bonting, a scientist/theologian who taught and researched biochemistry for 30 years at universities in the United States and Netherlands and is an ordained Anglican priest, contends that both scientific and theological worldviews are God-given.
They need not clash, he argues, but rather taken together can offer a deeper view of reality.
Since the early 19th century, Bonting says, there have been three possible attitudes for the relation between science and theology: enmity, neglect and dialogue.
Enmity, he says, is characterized both by fundamentalist Christians, who attempt to hold on to a literal reading of Genesis by developing a “pseudoscience” called creationism, and by “scientism,” which maintains that science can explain all facets of life and rejects all theology.
On the other hand, most of the popular writing theologians of the 20th century–Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Hans Kung and others–neglected science by discussing creation with no mention of evolution.
Bonting sets out to bridge the divorce between science and theology with dialogue based on a six-point approach:
–Science and theology provide two worldviews of a single reality, the cosmos.
–Both have limitations. Science asks “how” questions. Theology asks “why.”
–Both seek a rational explanation of data, either biblical or observational.
–Dialogue is needed to achieve deeper understanding and solve problems like bioethics.
–The two disciplines may challenge each other, such as on the virgin birth, but it is not permissible to reject a well-founded theory like evolution to uphold a literal interpretation of Genesis.
–The “meeting ground” is found primarily in creation theology on one side and cosmic and biological evolution on the other.
Bonting faults both disciplines for “mistaken positions” that hinder dialogue.
Scientists are guilty of “reductionism,” a materialistic ideology that fails to recognize the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and by claiming evolution occurred “by chance alone,” rejecting any divine purpose or design.
By denying universally accepted scientific facts and theories, meanwhile, creationists “violate the integrity of science in order to support their questionable literalist understanding of the Bible,” he writes.
But Bonting is also skeptical of Intelligent Design, a controversial hypothesis that recently made headlines when President Bush said he believes it should be taught in science classes along with, and as an alternative to, evolution.
Bonting calls Intelligent Design a form of “God-in-the-gap” theology subject to disproof by scientific advance. He cites several examples where Michael Behe’s claim that certain organisms are “irreducibly” complex turn out to be “not quite so irreducible.”
“It seems to me that Intelligent Design is an argument from ignorance,” he writes. “Our rapidly increasing insight into gene play suggests that the Intelligent Design hypothesis will soon become superfluous.”
One area where science clashes with theology, Bonting says, is the 1,800-year-old doctrine of creation “ex nihilo,” or “out of nothing.” Science, he says, cannot explain an origin of matter out of nothing.
But Bonting argues the doctrine did not appear until the end of the second century in reaction to Gnosticism, a dualistic movement that threatened Christianity with teachings that the world was created by an evil “demiurge,” often identified with God of the Old Testament, and that salvation is obtained by esoteric knowledge revealed to the initiated by the good God, the Father of Jesus Christ.
While creation out of nothing made its way into various church creeds over the centuries, Bonting says the doctrine presents serious problems, including the problem of evil.
Creating the world out of nothing implies that God is responsible for evil, both in natural disasters and disease and in moral evil committed by humans, he says.
Summed up by three propositions–evil exists, God is all-powerful and God is completely benevolent–various attempts through the ages have sought to solve the problem by denying one of the propositions. Eastern religions and New Age thinking deny the existence of evil, claiming it is only part of a higher reality. Authors like Harold Kushner and pragmatist philosopher William James say God is compassionate but limited by what is logically possible. The goodness of God is denied by persons who reject the Christian faith.
Efforts by Christian thinkers to solve the problem, which theologians label “theodicy,” are grouped under two models. The Augustinian model says the world was created wholly good and blames evil on the Fall of man. The Irenaen model maintains that evil exists somehow within God’s good purpose.
But Bonting says neither view takes into account the “evolutionary nature of creation,” where both death and extinction are necessary parts of God’s continuing creation.
Problems with creation ex nihilo prompted Bonting to develop a revised creation theology, which he introduced in a book Chaos Theology in 2002.
Genesis describes creation out of an initial chaos, rather than nothingness, he says. God separates the chaos into boundaries and then orders it by creating plants, animals and human life. That creative work continues and will not be fully completed until chaos is abolished at the end of time.
His central thesis is that both physical evil, like natural disasters and illness, and moral evil committed by humans result from the remaining element of chaos.
Bonting believes the model has implications for various issues where theology and science intersect, such as cloning and stem cells, the understanding of disease and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.