Summer Reading Group: The Tale of Two Books

This is the final post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Humanism and the Death of God by Ronald E. Osborn. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

(If you have not read part one of this review, please do so, as I say some very positive things about Ron’s excellent book. This section of the review is more critical, and you will not get a fair sense of the book if you just read this second part.)

Last week, I left off asking what Ron has to offer to replace the failed secular anti-humanism and humanism that he critiqued so well in the heart of the book. If humanity really cannot be good with a philosophy that does not include the Divine, or at least some form of transcendence, how do we respond to a system that wants to base rights and values on a purely horizontal, secular, and indeed materialistic outlook?

The short answer seems to be: apart from praising the humble, servant ethic of Christ and authentic Christianity, not much else is on offer. The book ends with an extended quote from Albert Camus calling on Christians to raise their collective voices, “loud and clear,” and “confront the bloody face of history” (232). But a simple call to greater Christian activism seems to beg the central question of the book: which is how the ideas of secular humanism are inadequate to support a sufficient ethic of public activism.

Heightened activism does not appear to fully respond to the crisis of ideas behind the belief in human dignity. Perhaps Christian activism would help vindicate the ethic of Christ in the eyes of the world—“by their fruits . . .”— a kind of activist response to a philosophical question. There is some truth to this, I am sure, but it cannot be the whole answer. Ron wouldn’t have written a deeply profound book on the history of ideas, if the conclusion is that ideas do not matter, only actions do.

Subsequent discussions with Ron reveal that he viewed his project as primarily deconstructive, and that he did not intend to offer a full-fledged alternative he is critiquing. Still, he acknowledges that he has left some markers and signposts as to where he thinks the answers might lie. It is these signposts that I will deal with in this final section.

Ron appears to reject out of hand any sort of appeal to a kind of natural theology, such as the burgeoning philosophical movement known as intelligent design (ID). Ron appears to agree with those skeptics that view ID as not science, but religion. Thus, it is disqualified from being used in public discourse, as it is too much of an appeal to special revelation.

I think this is a pity and the wrong move here. I believe that thinkers like Jonathan Meyer and William Dembski have convincingly shown that ID arguments, properly understood and formulated, are at least as scientific as the theory of evolution. Both evolution and ID draw on the same kind of evidence, make the same kind of philosophical arguments, merely arriving at different conclusions about questions of design and teleology in nature.

Seeing ID theory in this way would allow for a return of arguments regarding teleology in relation to people and their physical, emotional, and moral well-being. Such a move would, I believe, create resources to enhance a secular (this world), but non-materialistic humanism. This would be perfectly consistent with Ron’s belief that there are meaningful, verifiable, if subjective evidences, of the transcendent, such as aesthetics, relationships of love and altruism, and the universality of the moral sense, which should be allowed to infuse and inform a public humanism. ID theory would support Ron’s arguments in this regard.

The support of ID theory for human dignity is hardly an original insight with me. It was a philosophy that was essentially understood by the American founders, and it lies at the core of our Declaration and Constitution. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” asserts the Declaration, “that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” The Constitution then affirms this philosophy with its anti-democratic, individual affirming bill of rights. This founding American philosophy of design and dignity needs the kind of intellectual re-invigoration that Ron has shown himself so capable of providing in his current book. I challenge him to consider it as a serious enterprise, as I believe it is where at least some of the solution lies that he is seeking.

Ron’s rejection of ID is also at odds, I believe, with his pointing to the Christ event as showing us a way forward. Christ’s incarnation, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection are really a paradigmatic example of special revelation, much more so than ID theory. So which is it? Are we to reject appeals to a transcendent, even if done through the prism of the natural world, and thus intelligent design is out? But if this is the case, then the incarnation, death, and resurrection, attested to by Scripture, is surely out.

Ron’s sign-posting of the significance of the Christ for humanistic values runs even more afoul of the “no religious argument” standard than does ID. In a sense, Ron appears to be straining at the gnat of intelligent design, and wanting to swallow the camel of the incarnation. I would counsel the reverse, let ID in as a publicly legitimate philosophy that helps us see teleology in nature and the human. And let it be a public pointer to the more profound truth of the incarnation, which surely takes a more significant step of private faith.

Another conundrum that Ron creates lies in connection with the other book of his I referenced earlier, and alluded to in my title, Death Before the Fall. That book attempts to explain how God could create through the evolutionary processes of sin and suffering, and still be a good God with a good creation. The problem with this argument in relation to Ron’s current book is that it underscores the reality that theism on its own does not guarantee universal human dignity.

Ron acknowledges this, pointing to the long history of the abuses of the Medieval church, as well as the historic and current violence of Islam. It is not just the existence of God that matters, but the kind of God He is conceived to be. Well if that is the case, then why is it that the God who can create through survival of the fittest, including competition, suffering, death and even mass extinction may not be compatible with the Nietzschean outlook after all? Perhaps God is not dead; but he happens to be the monster deity that as children we fear lies under our beds or in the closet.

Ron would surely respond that Christ in His humiliation and love has revealed the true nature of God. Yet there is a long Protestant tradition, going back to Luther and Calvin, of the hidden God, the Deus absconditus, that lies back of the tender, loving figure of Christ; one that is capable of anything and everything. It offers a kind of dualistic account of God: in the foreground, the loving figure of a gracious and knowable Christ; but behind Him lies the figure of the unknowable God whose decrees for salvation and damnation are impenetrable to the human mind. Calvinism has a long tradition of this view of an apparently arbitrary God whose glory is in His power. I know that Ron rejects the theological voluntarism associated with this view. But I fear his view of theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism allows it to creep in the back door.

I have to agree with Cliff Goldstein on this point: To surrender to the materialists on the alleged fact of macro-evolution is really to ultimately import their materialist philosophy of ethics. Actually, it is perhaps worse than a materialist philosophy of ethics, which is that nature is pitiless, indifferent, and just does not care. But the theistic version says God actually approves of and intends the system of suffering and death, not as a matter of response to evil, but in an initial, pre-fall creation that He describes as good.

So, we have a tale of two books. A story in which, in my view, only one of Ron’s books can be mostly true. I vote for this recent one. But to make its argument really work, I think that Ron is going to have to take more seriously the reality and interconnectedness of two other books—God’s books of nature and revelation. Ron’s acknowledgement of transcendence in nature in the wonder of aesthetics and beauty, relationships and love, and a sense of morality and conscience is a good start. But I believe he should also consider the evidence and philosophy of intelligent design, for reasons discussed above. Second, as a religious matter, taking more seriously the biblical account of a good creation, without sin, suffering, and death, would remove the latent theological nominalism found in his current religious arguments that allow for versions of theistic evolution.

I know this argument will not set well with many in the Spectrum readership. But it has always puzzled me that a group so rightfully concerned and interested in character of God issues would embrace a theory of origins that raises so many questions about that Character. It turns out that many of the main theological theorists behind the “biblically conservative” embrace of theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism are Calvinists. I believe this is so because they embrace the theological voluntarism and nominalistic view of God that is less concerned with the character and love of God, and most concerned with His glory as seen mainly in His power. Ron’s book reminds us, if perhaps inadvertently, that that group is not really part of our team.

Nicholas Miller is Professor of Church History at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University where he is also Director of the International Religious Institute. He recently published a book on the development of religious freedom and civil rights in the west entitled 500 Years of Liberty: From Martin Luther to Modern Civil Rights (Pacific Press, 2017).

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8307
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Nick, thanks for your additional comments. I would offer the following thoughts for your consideration.

It is unfortunate that you do not engage at all with the long section of my book exploring Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky is quite central to the positive case I want to make for Christian humanism. My appeal to Dostoevsky is by no means merely concerned with ethical action. One doesn’t get to Alyosha falling weeping on the ground from an overwhelming sense of God’s presence, amid the beauty as well as the suffering of all of creation, via some kind of vapid theological liberalism that reduces faith to nothing more than “horizontal” behavior. What Dostoevsky gives us is in fact an aesthetic even more than a moral argument for God. My book attempts, perhaps not explicitly enough, to weave together the three classical ideas of goodness, beauty, and truth as inseparable from each other and from the “wager on transcendence”.

In these ideas I am much indebted to Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, whose book The Beauty of the Infinite is well worth your time if you haven’t already read it. I actually quote from Hart perhaps more than any other single individual (apart from Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche) throughout the book (to the point where I at times feared I was simply echoing him). This leads me to a second observation.

You have devoted a large part of your review to defending the importance of “Intelligent Design” theory, giving readers the impression that my book is in some way centrally concerned with refuting it. In fact, ID is mentioned on a single page in my book! It is rather strange that you would make ID so central to what you want to say in response to my book. However, if I were to write at any length about ID theory, I would once more refer you to David Hart and particularly his book on metaphysics, The Experience of God (Yale University Press, 2013).

There was a point in my life when I was very impressed by ID literature and consumed a great deal of it. This was when I was taking a course in evolutionary biology in the “great books” program at St. John’s College in Annapolis that consisted primarily of close reading of Darwin. As a good Adventist creationist, I thought it was my job to somehow refute Darwin at every page, and ID literature (including Dembski, Behe, Philip Johnson, and others) was my ready ammo. But Hart points out that it is entirely anachronistic and inaccurate to equate classical theology’s natural teleology with modern “ID theory”. Even more devastating for ID proponents is Hart’s dissection of the metaphysics of the movement as an unconscious form of deism (or belief in a “demiurge” as Hart calls it). Essentially, ID imagines God as a kind of Grand Artificer rather than as Ground of Being, but this is really a form of onto-theology. (My final chapter also includes a long discussion and critique of onto-theology that you never mention, in which I make clear that true theology is rooted above all in doxology, i.e., worship.)

There is a basic dualism in much of the ID literature I have read (typically written not by trained philosophers or theologians but by an odd assortment of scientists, lawyers, mathematicians, and others). The movement, for example, attempts (insofar as one can generalize) to distinguish “natural” from “supernatural” causation and to pinpoint cases of “irreducible complexity” that can be attributed to the latter (as in Behe’s book, Darwin’s Black Box). But this is in fact a gross misunderstanding of classically orthodox natural theology according to Hart. “As either a scientific or a philosophical project,” Hart writes, “Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and, from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction.” He continues (and I quote at length):

…the argument from irreducible complexity looks irredeemably defective, because it depends on the existence of causal discontinuities in the order of nature, “gaps” where natural causality proves inadequate. But all the classical theological arguments regarding the order of the world assume just the opposite: that God’s creative power can be seen in the rational coherence of nature as a perfect whole; that the universe was not simply the factitious product of a supreme intellect but the unfolding of an omnipresent divine wisdom or logos. For Thomas Aquinas, for instance, God creates the order of nature by infusing the things of the universe with the wonderful power of moving of themselves toward determinate ends; he uses the analogy of a shipwright able to endow timbers with the power to develop into a ship without external intervention. According to the classical arguments, universal rational order—not just this or that particular instance of complexity—is what speaks of the divine mind: a cosmic harmony as resplendently evident in the simplicity of a raindrop as in the molecular labyrinths of a living cell…but a good argument can be made that only a single infinite cause can account for perfect, universal, intelligible, mathematically describable order. If, however, one could really show that there were interruptions in that order, places where the adventitious intrusions of an organizing hand were needed to correct this or that part of the process, that might well suggest some deficiency in the fabric of creation. It might suggest that the universe was the work of a very powerful, but also somewhat limited, designer. It certainly would not show that the universe is the creature of an omnipotent wisdom, or an immediate manifestation of the God who is the being of all things. Frankly, the total absence of a single instance of irreducible complexity would be a far more forceful argument in favor of God’s rational action in creation.

I do not want to get into a lengthy back and forth with you or other readers about ID theory because that really was not what my book was centrally concerned with. We already had one discussion thread earlier in this series that turned into a somewhat frustrating rehashing of arguments about hermeneutics from my book Death Before the Fall. However, I do want to at least call your attention to literature you might not even be aware of (Conor Cunningham’s book Darwin’s Pious Idea also comes to mind). This literature vigorously critiques the ID movement as well as other forms of “scientific creationism” from the perspective not of theological liberalism or atheistic materialism but rather from the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy. If I were asked to put a label of some kind on my theological commitments and the place from which I write, Radical Orthodoxy might in fact be the most accurate description.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with Calvinism, incidentally. Adventist creationists have historically been very happy to make common cause with Calvinist creationists groups (cf. Ron Numbers, The Creationists), even as they have attacked their fellow Adventists who argue against fundamentalist readings of Genesis on thoroughly Arminian lines (seeing principles of freedom and indeterminacy in the creation where others see only divine fiat). I might add that David Hart (to again cite my favorite theologian) has, in his book The Doors of the Sea, made as devastating a critique of Calvinism as I think you will find anywhere.

Thanks again for your engagement with my book. I’m glad you found much in it with which you agreed. I’m sure we will at some point have the opportunity to continue debating the other parts in person.

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Highly complex discussions, like this one, often seem like trains passing in the night; you see a flash of light when looking out the window, and then it’s gone. Hart’s “argument,” if you can call it that, is, as Ron says, more philosophical and aesthetic than ID. In this, Hart follows many before him who ask: “What ‘feeling’ permeates your consciousness when you contemplate the mystery of Being (the cap is important), the ever-increasing enormity and wonder of the universe as you stare at the heavens on a dark night for half an hour or more, the experience of consciousness, especially of yourself, the bliss of love and courage in the midst of unspeakable pain?” While “something cannot come from nothing” is a sound rational argument, it is a distant second from contemplating what “something” means in all its beauty and complexity. H. D. Lewis, a British philosopher many years ago, was only one of several who pointed out (as did the Psalmist) that “religion begins with a sense of wonder.”

Even if we cannot, at this moment, “square” our view of creation with the mounting pressure of evolutionary thought, it does nothing to challenge what Ron and Hart have described. But only those who open themselves to this way of “feeling” and thinking (btw: I am convinced feelings have epistemological significance) will feel faith grasping them, which is clearly a better experience than spending so much energy looking for ways to grasp faith.

From there, one cannot help but contemplate the beauty and wonder of the various religious stories, the most compelling being the story of Jesus.

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I must say that this summer-reading has been very interesting and challenging. Ron’s provocative and beautiful style of writing and high level of reflection has laid the ground for an interesting reading. Although I have different perspectives on a couple of Ron’s key actors in his narrative (Marx and Nietzsche), I share his acknowledgement of transcendence. And the key to understand ‘transcendence’ begins, as I see it, with, and is nurtured by, Jim’s saturated “sense of wonder”.

William Franke (Vanderbilt University), who is trained in contemporary literature, philosophy and religion, claims (The Deaths of God in Hegel and Nietzsche…) that this ‘wonder’ and awe-inspiring experience, of transcendence, which Hart so beautifully describes in Jim’s quotation, must be sheltered from the flattening tendency of ‘pure reason’, and the scholarly habit of reducing everything to pure immanentist propositional truth. Not unlike Nietzsche’s critique of Socrates, and the entire tradition of Western philosophy, for being overtly rational and dependent on abstract concepts, Franke argues that it is important not to collapse transcendence into claimed self-evident, autonomous and immanent conceptions.

This ‘collapse’ into sameness (Levinas, Derrida), he claims is exactly what prepared the ground for Nietzsche’s critique of both Modernity and Christianity. The irony of secularism is therefore that it hijacked the theological paradigms of “being unto itself,” that is, “self-generated and self-generating being.” He writes, “to this extent, secularism, as the declaration of the self-subsistent autonomy of the world, consists in the transfer of a certain logical and metaphysical structure of self-groundedness from God to the world……The irony here is that in order to be godless the world must itself in effect become God.”

For Franke, to shelter transcendence from the flattening force of immanence, we must acknowledge it for what it is: the mystery of Being. And the only way to express this mystery is in a narrative and incarnational language. In other words, instead of reducing theology, that is, the Divine event, to ‘systematic’ natural theologies kept within the limits of reason, we must not rob theology of its apophatic qualities: “Theology so understood, is based on what we do not know; it is a not-knowing”…… which is not based on “the positive formulas of Christian dogma,” or on 28 Fundamental Beliefs. That is, “the superior authority of theology, lies simply in its more radical capacity to sustain the self-critique of reason.” _(A Philosophy of the Unsayable), and thus rescuing transcendece from drowning in immanence.

Based on this, I find Nicholas Miller’s excellent and comprehensive critique, somewhat problematic when it comes to his scientific notion of ID and natural theology as the proposed rescue plank for the moral project in postmodernity. Isn’t that just to collapse transcendence into immanence? I think it is, and it makes ID and natural theology the postmodern viceroys of God in our time, perfectly graspable for the ‘thinking mind’, yet nihilistic. And, as I see it, it risks laying the ground for an exclusive morality, based on “the created order”, not able to welcome the great diversity that is at the core of the human condition (ref. the present cultural-doctrinal struggles in Adventism). This is a scepticism I also have with Radical Orthodoxy, even though I agree with its critical perspectives on Modernity.

Therefore, I concur with Terry Eagleton (Reason Faith and Revolution), that “God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer”, or “a celestial engineer at work in superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body… He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love…. Creation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever.”

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Such a helpful contribution to the discussion, Ole! I did put the comment in quotes, but it is mine, trying to summarize Hart’s proposal. Glad you think it was “beautiful!”

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