Monday, February 27, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part Three): The Dilemma of the Schizophrenic God

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism. For a brief historical analysis see Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One).

All of the ink put to page against Marcion by writers such as Tertullian and Irenaeus serve only to demonstrate how dangerous Marcion's influence on the early Christian community was. Marcion was a threat because he had made an observation that still troubles Christians today; namely, the picture of God often portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures is very different from the picture portrayed by the Apostle Paul of the all-loving, all-merciful God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Two different portraits of God meant two different ways of dealing with human beings, hence, "Marcion's Dilemma." Given the pervasiveness of Neo-Platonism, it is not difficult to understand why Marcion and his followers had "solved" their dilemma by positing two different gods: the first, a capricious and vengeful demiurge, creator of the material universe; the second, the loving God who had sent his Son into the world to reveal the truth about humanity's existence.

For better or for worse, Marcion's Dilemma had changed the hermeneutical landscape forever. As much as Tertullian protested that Marcion had divided the Holy Scriptures, it was no longer the case that Christians could view the writings of their apostolic forbearers as the simple continuation of the Hebrew scriptural tradition. Where once there had been just one scriptural tradition, now there were two -- two covenants, two testaments, and eventually even two canons.

Moreover the stubborn continued existence of the people of the (now) "Old Testament," i.e. the Jews, only served to emphasize these differences. Marcion's contention that the Jewish scriptures were (in the words of Robert M. Price) "true enough in the Jewish frame of reference" certainly did not sit well with his orthodox detractors. For instance, Marcion had agreed with Jewish exegetes that Isaiah 7:14 (the prophecy of the "young woman" or "virgin") saw its fulfillment in Isaiah's day -- a view that would not be openly admitted in Christian academic circles until the 20th century. Thus Marcion's challenge cut deep into the way Christians had been interpreting the Hebrew prophets, establishing that the Hebrew scriptures stood on their own without any need of Christian elucidation.

Needless to say, Marcion's detractors were compelled to meet the Marcionite challenge head-on and to crush it in the polemical arena of competing ideas. Yet while these early Christian polemicists may have successfully refuted Marcionite dualism, they had not really resolved Marcion's Dilemma as much as they (unwittingly) recast the dilemma in terms of a "schizophrenic deity." For the same God that the Bible presented as commanding genocide, if not committing it himself (e.g. the flood), was also presented in Scripture as the God who "so loved the world" that he gave his only Son, Jesus Christ. Hence, theologians down through the ages would be faced with an equivocal portrait of God, whether or not they had any inkling that Marcion's Dilemma lay at the root of their work.

Accordingly, the history of theology has seen the development of two different approaches to this dilemma. The first approach -- that of discontinuity -- embraces the fundamental divide between the testaments, and, hence, the fundamentally different portraits of God and his dealings with human beings. In this paradigm, God's wrath, jealousy, and essential nature of absolute rectitude or justice stand in stark contrast and opposition to God's desire to show mercy, his love for fallen beings, and his propensity (from time to time) to bestow grace. The two sides of God's "personality" are held in tension, particularly in the Old Testament, until they are reconciled by the Cross of Christ. Lutheranism's dichotomy of "law and gospel" is a prime example of just such a theology of discontinuity, while Anabaptism and Dispensationalism represent extreme forms of this approach.

The alternative approach -- that of continuity -- attempts to blur the divide between the testaments, and, hence, to contend for a univocal portrait of God and his dealings with human beings. Reformed Theology's "Covenant of Grace" is instructive here as an example of a theology of continuity. Simply put, God's disposition towards humankind does not change between the testaments, at least not since the Fall (and its "Covenant of Works"). Rather, the contrast between the "Old" and "New" Testaments is merely one of perspective. In Christ, God demonstrates what his disposition has always been for the elect, while wrath and judgment (on full display in God's dealings with pagan nations in the Old Testament) are reserved for the reprobate. Theonomy (a.k.a. Christian Reconstructionism) represents this approach in the extreme, with its insistence on the application of the Mosaic Law Code in contemporary society.

Paradoxically, both approaches, at least in their western forms, have found common cause in their respective embrace of the satisfaction theory of the atonement (recast later as the "penal-substitution" theory). Satisfaction theory provides a way for both theologies to placate and appease the wrath of the holy and vengeful God portrayed in the Old Testament, by seeing in Christ the innocent victim who was willing to endure the wrath of God on behalf of others; either on behalf of the entire world (as a theology of discontinuity might see it), or else on behalf of the elect only (as a theology of continuity would contend).

But are these the only options open to us? Or can Marcion's Dilemma be resolved in another way? The next article in this series (Part Four - Divinizing Our Estrangement) will explore this question.

Part One
Part Two
Part Four

Friday, February 24, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part Two): The Gospel of Paul

Michelangelo's Conversion of St. Paul

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism. For a brief historical analysis see Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One).

It is easy to see why Marcion would have been attracted to the writings of Paul. Paul's articulation and eloquence, his mastery of Hellenistic style and rhetoric, if not the universal appeal of his message, are still features that intrigue scholars to this day. Better than any other early Christian writer, Paul had worked through the Jew/Gentile issue in a way that left no doubt as to the possibility of redemption for all, Jew and Gentile alike. Even before the synoptic tradition would attempt to find the right metaphor and language to do justice to the scope and ramifications of Jesus' life and ministry, Paul's impressive body of letters had already convincingly portrayed Christ Jesus as "cosmic Savior" -- the One who had broken down the "dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances" (Eph. 2:14-15). So Paul could easily have been taken as the severest critic of the Mosaic law with its ceremonial prescriptions, dietary restrictions, and requirement of ritual circumcision for full inclusion. Moreover, in the absence of an authorized canon, there would have been no compelling reason for Marcion to have read Paul's writings through the lens of the Book of Acts, and thus no reason to suppose that Paul was allied to or dependent upon the other so-called apostles based in Jerusalem. After all, "those who seemed to be pillars" added nothing to his message; he had even "opposed Cephas to his face" (cf. Gal. 2).

And so a modern-day vindication of Marcion might begin...

But there is a better reason than those given above to suggest that Marcion's instinct to begin with Paul may have been a sound one, even if Marcion was probably unaware of it. Of all the early Christian writings that would eventually be gathered together, canonized, and classified as "New Testament," Paul's letters represent the earliest written witnesses to the Christ-event. Thus, rather than regarding Paul's letters as theological commentary on the four Gospels/Acts (as most Christians are prone to do), would it not be more natural to begin with Paul's letters as foundational? -- that is to say, as primary witnesses to the Christ-event, while the four gospels are at best secondary? This thesis suggests itself for more than just chronological reasons. Rather Paul's claim to be an eyewitness of the risen Christ is the only certain firsthand testimony of the resurrection that we have in the New Testament, and thus, undoubtedly, the most authentic.

It stands to reason then that Paul's letters together constitute mainstream Christianity's "first gospel." Yet, unlike the later gospels, Paul's is not given in narrative form, but rather as practical, theological, and pastoral treatises. For many, this might disqualify Paul as a bona fide "evangelist." But Paul's primary witness to the resurrection over against the secondary witnesses of the canonical gospels should not be overlooked. Indeed, if Christians are compelled to draw their Christology only from canonical sources, then it stands to reason that the most natural place to begin would be with Paul before any consideration of the later stories about Jesus, i.e. the gospels, precisely because they are later stories. This is not to say that Christians are obliged to devalue the witness of the four canonical gospels -- far from it. Rather a "canonical" approach to Christology begins with Paul, the first witness, and then moves on to consider the stories about Jesus as remembered, as passed down, as believed, and, yes, even as embellished by the pious theologizing that inevitably took place in the context of the communities from which they emerged.

Part One
Part Three
Part Four

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rehabilitating Marcion (Part One): Historical Background

Note: This entry is not intended as an endorsement of Marcionism, Gnosticism, or any other form of mythical or metaphysical dualism.
Since Marcion separated the New Testament from the Old, he is necessarily subsequent to that which he separated, inasmuch as it was only in his power to separate what was previously united. Having been united previous to its separation, the fact of its subsequent separation proves the subsequence also of the man who effected the separation. (Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum 30)
Marcion of Sinope (ca. 110-160) has the distinction of being one of the first "heresiarchs" in church history. Born of wealthy parents, Marcion's father was also the bishop of Sinope in Asia Minor. It is probable that Marcion himself had been consecrated a bishop to assist his father. Some accounts suggest that his father had him expelled from Sinope after falling into sin with a consecrated virgin, though this may be slander since Marcion's austerity is well attested. In any case, Marcion had some kind of fallout with his father that motivated him to make his way to Rome around 140 AD, where he sought admission (presumably as a bishop) into the Roman Church after the death of Pope Hyginus (ca. 136-140). Despite the Roman Church's refusal to recognize him, it did not take long for Marcion to become a popular teacher and to generate a large following, particularly during the pontificate of Anicetus (ca. 150-167). Conflict with the bishops of Rome would eventually lead to his excommunication around 144, despite a generous donation of 200,000 sesterces to the church (which was later returned to him). However, Marcion would go on to establish churches of his own that would rival those of catholic Christianity for about two centuries.

Marcion shared many beliefs in common with the Gnostics, including the dualistic notion that the god presented in the Hebrew scriptures and the God who was the Father of Jesus Christ were different gods. Marcion contended that the god presented in the Hebrew scriptures was a lesser god, a "demiurge," who had created the material universe, and was thus de facto the author of sin. In contrast, Jesus was the Son of an otherwise unknown or "alien" God, who, before sending Christ into the world, had no interactions with it. This God had sent Jesus into the world for the purpose of revealing the truth about existence to humankind, thus enabling humankind to escape from the earthly trap of the demiurge.

What sets Marcion apart from the Gnostics was the fact that the latter based their teachings on "secret knowledge" known only to themselves, while Marcion relied solely on the content of the Letters of Paul (minus the Pastorals), along with the Evangelikon, an edited version of the Gospel of Luke devoid of its infancy narrative and all allusions to the Old Testament. To these he compared the Hebrew scriptures, and concluded that many of the teachings of Jesus Christ were in conflict with the character and actions of the capricious and jealous god portrayed in them. He also rejected many Christian writings as hopelessly compromised in their attempts to identify the Father of Jesus Christ with the demiurge of the Hebrews. In so doing, he was the first figure in Christian history to define a recognized group of writings that he regarded as authoritative and faithful to the teachings of Christ, i.e., a "canon."

Reacting to the Marcionite threat, Christians would never view Holy Scripture in the same way again. Not only did this threat compel the official church to define its own list of authorized writings (eventually crystallizing in an official canon or "rule"), but Marcion's observation that Hebrew and Christian writings often presented two radically different portraits of God would also leave its indelible mark in the demarcation that Christians would now begin to make between the "Old" and "New" Testaments. While later generations of Christians would take this division for granted, this was not originally the case. Simply put, Marcion's observation forced the church to bifurcate their emerging list of authorized sacred writings, whereas before they were (in Tertullian's words) "previously united." Needless to say, the hermeneutical challenges and issues that resulted from this radical division would persist in the history of scriptural interpretation right up to our very day.

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Humpty Dumpty and The Idols of Our Thinking

Based on a recent conversation in another forum:

Once upon a time I too was a "top-down thinker," vainly imagining that if my philosophical and theological reasonings were sound, locked-up, air-tight, and "correct," then everything else "down below" would conveniently fall into place, eventually anyway since I did not have all the answers yet. "Common sense be damned!" The Biblical Inerrantist I once was would never countenance the possibility of formal contradictions in the Bible; any discrepancy I could not explain was merely "apparent." The Creationist I once was would never tolerate any interpretation of the empirical evidence that suggested evolution by natural selection, because, of course, that would not have been consistent with my understanding of God as Creator. But what if the Bible did contain discrepancies? And what if evolution by natural selection did occur? These were questions I was afraid to ask, because my top-down world, like Humpty Dumpty, might have "had a great fall." It is a menacing enterprise, at first, to retrain oneself to be a "bottom-up thinker." We suddenly discover that all of our "top-down" loyalties are on trial, and that is a frightening notion for those of us who have been conditioned to place absolute trust in the idols of our thinking.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sound Bite Theology: Liberation from the fallacy of historical reification

As a theistic-evolutionist, I am free to accept the stories of Genesis as mythological. Hence, I am not compelled to reify historically, or to justify scientifically, the stories of the Six Days of Creation, the Making of Adam & Eve, the Garden of Eden, or the Fall; nor need I provide any taxonomic or scientific explanations for life-giving or knowledge-giving trees, talking serpents, or paradisiacal conditions. And yet, ironically, I can lay claim to a reading of Genesis that is more "literal" than that of the so-called "biblical literalist." The text of scripture says what it says, and it's quite liberating.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Response to Kevin DeYoung's Top Ten Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam

See DeYoung's article in The Aquila Report.

1. The Bible does not put an artificial wedge between history and theology. Of course, Genesis is not a history textbook or a science textbook, but that is far from saying we ought to separate the theological wheat from the historical chaff. Such a division owes to the Enlightenment more than the Bible.
While DeYoung admits that Genesis is not a "history textbook" (or a "science textbook"), the underlying assumption of his first reason is that we are still obligated to treat it as such, a classic case of having your cake and eating it too. Anything less is met with the charge of putting an "artificial wedge between history and theology," strongly suggesting that theology cannot be communicated in anything less than a straightforward historical narrative. But this simply begs the question, why not? Why is it untenable to suppose that theological truth could be mediated through sacred story or myth? By revealing his prejudice against this possibility, DeYoung has unwittingly betrayed his own debt to Enlightenment thinking.
2. The biblical story of creation is meant to supplant other ancient creation stories more than imitate them. Moses wants to show God's people "this is how things really happened." The Pentateuch is full of warnings against compromise with the pagan culture. It would be surprising, then, for Genesis to start with one more mythical account of creation like the rest of the ANE.
The biblical story of creation was not meant to supplant other creation stories of the Ancient Near East (ANE) as much as it was meant to tell Israel's particular story within a common cultural milieu. This being the case, it should not surprise us at all that Israel's story contains both affinities and stark contrasts with these other stories, and that is exactly what we see. So, for instance, Hebrew cosmology is hardly distinguishable in some places from what was commonly believed in the ancient world: e.g. chaotic primeval conditions, flat disk-shaped earth, the firmament as a "vault" or "dome" above the earth upon which the heavenly bodies are fixed. Are we to accept these beliefs as straightforward descriptions of the way things actually are, especially when science has demonstrated otherwise? Or would it be better to acknowledge them as part of the ancient cosmogony common to that period, time, and region of the world? Indeed, the real contrast between the biblical story and others of ANE provenance is not to be found in some supposed myth/history dichotomy, but rather in Israel's monotheistic outlook and explanation of the origin and workings of the world around them as they understood that world to be.
3. The opening chapters of Genesis are stylized, but they show no signs of being poetry. Compare Genesis 1 with Psalm 104, for example, and you'll see how different these texts are. It's simply not accurate to call Genesis poetry. And even if it were, who says poetry has to be less historically accurate.
Comparing Genesis 1 with Psalm 104 would be analogous to comparing a Haiku with a Shakespearean sonnet. What point is there in such an exercise? The real question is what does DeYoung mean by characterizing the opening chapters of Genesis as "stylized"? Might it have something to do with the seven-day framework of Chapter One? The parallelism between the first and last sets of three creative days? The evening-morning formula for each day? Or the chiastic structure of verses 26-27 describing the creation of humankind? Obviously, "stylized" is a loaded term, which in the case of Genesis 1 unquestionably impinges upon one's hermeneutical approach regardless of whether one calls it poetry or not.
4. There is a seamless strand of history from Adam in Genesis to Abraham in Genesis 12. You can't set Genesis 1-11 aside as prehistory, not in the sense of being less than historically true as we normally understand those terms. Moses deliberately connects Abram with all the history that comes before him, all the way back to Adam and Eve in the garden.
The Book of Genesis has all the characteristics of an "antiquarian history," a common type of literature in the ancient world which connects the identity of a people, or the pedigree of a notable person, to a distant past. Greek historians like Homer were particularly noted for it. Such histories show little concern for making distinctions between myth, legend, and historical events/persons, and often weave the three together into an incredibly evocative meta-narrative. In fact, making distinctions between myth, legend, and historical fact is a concern peculiar to modernity. By ancient standards, the "seamless strand of history from Adam to Abraham" in the Book of Genesis is to be expected.
5. The genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 treat Adam as historical.
The genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1 and Luke 3 serve to connect their respective stories to the biblical meta-narrative that began back in the Book of Genesis, and hence to the entire history and identity of the People Israel as a continuation of that same "seamless strand of history" noted above (see response to Reason 4).
6. Paul believed in a historical Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45-49). Even some revisionists are honest enough to admit this; they simply maintain that Paul (and Luke) were wrong.
Paul was a traditional Jew of his day, and as a traditional Jew we can assume he believed that Adam was a real person. In fact, it would never have occurred to him or to anyone else in his day or context to question that assumption. Besides, he had neither the historiographic or literary methods to raise the question in the first place. So was this assumption wrong? As it turns out, yes. But does it matter? No, because regardless of ancient assumptions (or modern ones for that matter), the story of Adam (indeed, the entire story of the Bible) provides the divinely-inspired backdrop and stage upon which the drama of the Christ-story unfolds. If C.S. Lewis could liken pagan myths to "divinely-inspired glimpses" of God's "true myth" (i.e. the story of Christ), then how much more appropriate the divinely-inspired myths and stories of Hebrew poets and storytellers? (For further discussion of this argument, see my Weighing in on the Adam Debate.)
7. The weight of the history of interpretation points to the historicity of Adam. The literature of second temple Judaism affirmed an historical Adam. The history of the church's interpretation also assumes it.
The weight of the history of interpretation - both Jewish and Christian - points to a geocentric universe. The weight of the history of interpretation is mistaken.
8. Without common descent we lose any firm basis for believing that all people regardless of race or ethnicity have the same nature, the same inherent dignity, the same image of God, the same sin problem, and that despite our divisions we are all part of the same family coming from the same parents.
Science has been able to establish the solidarity of our species and our common genetic heritage independently of any theological considerations. It seems reasonable to suggest that theologians should have the competence to establish the creation of humankind in imago Dei independently of any scientific ones.
9. Without a historical Adam, Paul's doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.
The doctrine of Original Sin as commonly understood in western Christianity is an Augustinian construct, not a Pauline one. Paul's point in Romans 5 is not to tell the story of how we contracted "original sin and guilt" from Adam, but rather to tell the story of how death was unleashed on humankind as a result of one man's transgression. In other words, the story of Adam is not about how we became "sinners," but about how we became "mortal." (For a fuller discussion of Original Sin from an evolutionary perspective, see my Paradise Imagined.)
10. Without a historical Adam, Paul's doctrine of the second Adam does not hold together.
Regardless of historicity or even Paul's assumption of it, his use of the Adam-story is metaphorical and typological, akin to the way the author of the Book of Hebrews employs the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7. Even assuming that Melchizedek was a historical person, are we really compelled to believe that he is "without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life" (Heb. 7:3)? Or, rather, is the story of Abraham's encounter with the shadowy figure of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 a fitting type or metaphor to illustrate a theological truth about Christ's eternal priesthood?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Coming soon to a post-catholic blog near you...

...My response to Kevin DeYoung's Ten Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam.

Here's a little teaser:

(DeYoung) 10. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of the second Adam does not hold together.

While doubtless Paul did believe in the historicity of Adam, this belief is really not relevant to the way he uses the Adam-story in Romans 5 or even to the theological point he is making. Stated in a slightly different way: if it turns out that Paul was mistaken to believe that Adam really existed, why would it matter?

Regardless of historicity or even Paul's assumption of it, his use of the Adam-story is metaphorical and typological, akin to the way the author of the Book of Hebrews employs the figure of Melchizedek in Hebrews 7. Even assuming that Melchizedek was a historical person, are we really compelled to believe that he is "without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life" (Heb. 7:3)? Or, rather, is the story of Abraham's encounter with the shadowy figure of Melchizedek in Genesis 14 a fitting type or metaphor to illustrate a theological truth about Christ's eternal priesthood?

[To be developed and continued...]

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Paradise Imagined (Part Two): Toward an evolutionary account of Original Sin

See also: Paradise Imagined (Part One) and The Two Minds of Augustine.
[The story of the Fall] is the profoundest and richest expression of man's awareness of his existential estrangement and provides the scheme in which the transition from essence to existence can be treated. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology 2:31)
Until recent times, the traditional meta-narrative of Original Sin has been able to provide a sufficient answer to the origin of sin through its telling of the story of Adam's fall. Though somewhat at pains to explain why the Fall happened in the first place (i.e. beyond "sin-as-possibility," or, in Augustinian terms, "posse peccare"), the traditional meta-narrative nonetheless neatly explained every subsequent sinful act in human history as predicated on Adam's first sin and its consequent deleterious effects upon human nature. Thus sin becomes both inevitable and universal in Adam's progeny (who were now deemed non posse non peccare). However, with the decoding of the human genome, science has put the final nail in the coffin of monogenesis (i.e., human origins from an original couple), and with it the idea of Adam's sin as "causal event." Eden's story of "Paradise Lost" suddenly becomes the story of "Paradise Imagined." Genesis's epic etiology is recast as a mythic story of realization, not of how things had gone awry, but simply that they have. To borrow a phrase from Tillich, our ancient storytellers had "dreamed of innocence."

Thus, for the theistic-evolutionist, the origin of sin as event is no longer an issue of theological importance. Even if it were possible to determine the exact moment when the willful act of a common ancestor could be counted as sin, there would be no basis, either theological or ontological, to posit a causal connection between that supposed "original" sin and every subsequent sinful action in the history of the human species. Instead, the theistic-evolutionist seeks to explain the origination of sin as grounded in conditions that would not only make sin possible, but also inevitable; and, if inevitable, then universal as well.

So we must start with a consideration of divine creative activity, and in particular creatio continua with its divine gift of "becoming." If, as we have argued previously, the "freedom to become" means that the processes of an evolving universe are free, contingent, and undetermined on the physical level, then what does this "freedom to become" imply on the level of consciousness? What does indeterminacy look like in the actualized moral realm of this evolving universe? And in what ways do free moral agents experience or exhibit this "freedom to become"? These are the questions at the heart of a theistic-evolutionary account of Original Sin.

As a preliminary answer to these questions, we suggested in Theosis Interrupted that the indeterminacy and contingency of the cosmos take on new significance with the arrival of human consciousness, particularly in the corresponding emergence of the human faculty of volition, or "will." Simply put, human beings, considered as moral agents, are "free" to make moral choices; a "freedom" that includes the very real possibility of sin because it assumes "free will" as an essential human faculty (i.e., libertas voluntatis essentialis). Yet, as tidy as this explanation may be in explaining "sin-as-possibility," the universal aspect of sin (or "sin-as-inevitability") must be posited on different grounds; and therein lies the rub, for one must exonerate nature as the cause of sin (else fall into Gnosticism) while at the same time avoiding the suggestion that God is the author of it.

Yet this may not be as imposing a dilemma as it appears to be at first glance. If the course of the evolution of our species had followed a straight directional line from single cell through to us, with the achievement of consciousness as its ultimate end, then we should expect to see not only the "freedom of will" but also the "perfection of will" as its consequent results, making the question of the presence of sin in the cosmos a greater theological conundrum. (Incidentally this is why both orthogenesis and Intelligent Design fall short as explanations.) But, as was argued in God's Purpose or Nature's Dice, the physical processes of nature, including our own evolution as a species, follow no inherent "end-driven" (i.e. teleological) pathways. Consciousness, as far as the physical realm is concerned, is merely a successful adaptation of our species, and the faculty of volition, or "will," a mere byproduct of the same.

As a species we are an accumulation of our biological past, with its baggage of both useful and vestigial systems, complete with structures, faculties, and instincts that may give all the appearance of having been evolved for our particular moment in cosmic history, but have more than likely been conscripted and co-opted into service from earlier stages of our evolutionary past. This can be seen in stark detail in the evolutionary layers of the human brain: with its "reptilian layer" (i.e. brain stem and cerebellum), which controls our vital functions; the limbic or early mammalian layer (i.e. hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus), which constitutes not only the seat of our judgment values, but also of our unconscious behaviors; and finally, the most flexible layer, the neocortex, which we share with higher primates, constituting the seat of learning and (in humans) of higher abstract thought.

It stands to reason then that while we may call our faculty of will or volition "free," the choices set before us are certainly far from it. Luther's keen insight into the servum arbitrium comes to mind here, not the mistranslated "bondage of the will" but rather the "bondage of choice." Human choice is contextually conditioned, subject to our human finiteness, and always obliged to pay attention to our more basic "lower" instincts. The undeniable fact is that we spend most of our time suppressing and re-directing instincts we once depended on for survival and/or the passing on of our genes.The instinct of "fight or flight," once a useful defense mechanism (and still of limited value in that regard) becomes the anxiety that so afflicts our higher selves; the primal urge to reproduce easily becomes lust; the instinct to horde easily becomes greed. Indeed, in the final analysis, Aquinas' suggestion that concupiscence involves not the corruption of human nature, but rather the struggle to overcome the lower passions and desires which are natural to it, turns out to be not far from the truth.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

God's Purpose or Nature's Dice? The proper role of teleology in an evolutionary account of the cosmos

An early pioneer of theistic-evolutionary thought, the Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), suggested that the course of evolution followed an inevitable path, a directional course, toward a particular goal, which he termed the "Omega Point." In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard outlined certain watershed moments or stages along this course. The stage which saw the unfolding and development of the material universe of primordial particles resulting in the formation of the elements and chemical compounds that would serve as preconditions for biological life he termed "geosphere." That which saw the emergence and proliferation of biological lifeforms he termed "biosphere." The arrival of humanity, endowed with consciousness and a rational mind, he termed "noosphere" (from nous meaning "mind" in Greek). His final vision was that of the Omega Point, to which all creation was being drawn from the beginning. 

Some have found Teilhard's model  helpful in providing a logical outline for a theistic-evolutionary account of the cosmos. However, care should be taken in how far one goes in employing Teilhard's model, lest its use draws the charge of orthogenesis or autogenesis (i.e. progressive evolution). Classical orthogenesis is the hypothesis that evolution follows a straight or unilateral course towards an end or goal because of some internal or external driving force. Natural selection as the basic mechanism for evolution is either discounted or deemed unimportant. Typically speaking, orthogenetic models attempt to infer teleology, or final causation, in nature, meaning that design and purpose are detectable in nature. This is the fallacy of the so-called "Intelligent Design" movement.

While it certainly could be argued that an inferred teleology is necessary for a theological explanation of an evolving cosmos, teleology has no place in the scientific interpretation of the physical universe. Any theistic-evolutionary account that claims to detect teleology in nature or to replace and/or modify scientific explanations with theological ones is entirely out of bounds. The fact is, the physical processes of the universe possess no internal, directional "end-driven" goals, and there is no reason, whether theological or scientific, for the theistic-evolutionist to challenge or question this.  

However, this does not mean that intrinsically there are not directional "end-seeking" goals in the physical universe.  Specifically, one can speak of teleomatic processes (i.e. those that follow natural laws), teleonomic structures (e.g. organs or traits that serve an overall purpose), and adaptive systems (those that exist because they have survived). But these are functional descriptions, not, strictly speaking, teleological. A scientist may speak of a particular adaptation occurring in an organism for the "purpose of survival," but this is metaphorical language. What the scientist really means to say is that those organisms that adapt to their environment survive. As John S. Wilkins aptly explains:
It may help to think of a social analogy. We can explain the behaviour of a stock broker teleologically, for a stock broker seeks a goal (the best profit). We cannot explain the behaviour of a stock market, for stock markets have no goals, just outcomes. When Dawkins talks about genes maximising their representation in the gene pool, this is a metaphor not an explanation. Genes just replicate. It happens that those that out-replicate others end up out-surviving them. There is no 'goal' to genetic behaviour.
While teleology may not be valid on the level of scientific inquiry, there is certainly every reason to infer teleology in the actions of moral agents, in the social sciences, in political theory, in philosophical discourse, and ultimately in theology. Any attempt at a comprehensive understanding of reality is compelled to venture beyond the narrow restrictions of scientific inquiry and its question of "why things appear to be the way they are." Merely explaining the outcome of nature's "throw of the dice" does not satisfy the human yearning to understand the reason, purpose, goal behind the cosmos. "To what end (teleosdoes the cosmos exists at all?" "What is the purpose behind our own existence?" Indeed, the theologian's great task, particularly in light science's explanation of the "way things appear to be," is to ask, "What is God's purpose in all of this?" 

In "Theosis Interrupted," Creation was presented as an act of kenosis (divine "self-emptying"), which included the freedom to "become" as well as the freedom to "be." Hence, not only for scientific reasons, but also for good theological ones, the theistic-evolutionist is compelled to concede that material processes are undetermined, contingent and free (i.e. random), rather than determined and pre-ordained. This does not, however, negate the idea that the Creator God has created the cosmos for God's own purposes, nor the theological conclusion that, from the beginning, the Creator has been lovingly and graciously drawing the cosmos to share in the divine life -- the transformative process termed theosis.