View by:  Subject  Theme  Question  Term  Person  Event

20th Century: New Forms and New Challenges

A. New Forms

One might think that Darwin had dealt arguments from design the decisive blow, but the argument arises with new vitality and reemerges in the 20th century. Now the shape is no longer examination of the particular instances of design but general principles behind apparent design. In a manner parallel to what happened with Newton's discovery of physical laws, with Darwin's discovery of principles of natural selection the theological interest shifts from particular divine interventions to the wider divine design: What makes mutation and natural selection work in the way that it does? How did material existence come to be self-organizing in the way that it is?

You see this taking shape in the work of F.R. Tennant in Philosophical Theology (2 volumes 1928-30) in the 1920's. He presents a fresh discussion of the teleological argument pointing to six kinds of adaptation that seem to evidence design and when taken together to point toward a theistic interpretation (from Alston 1967, p. 86).

  1. The intelligibility of the world.

  2. The adaptation of living organisms to their environment.

  3. The ways in which inorganic life is conducive to the emergence and maintenance of life.

  4. The way in which the natural environment nurtures moral development in human beings through coping with hardships.

  5. The over-all progressiveness of the evolutionary process.

  6. The aesthetic value of nature.

Here we have in rudimentary form elements of what will become the argument from design in the contemporary discussion - the intelligibility of the universe and its suitability for life.

But not so fast, we must first encounter the new challenges of the 20th century! Two of the challenges I will name are explicitly theological challenges.

B. New Challenges

1. Neo-orthodoxy

With the theology of Karl Barth and the advent of neo-orthodoxy, the 20th century experienced a theological disillusionment with natural theology - the idea that there is a point of contact whereby we may easily perceive who God is by studying the natural world. The risk of natural theology is that what we discover will not be God, but our own reflection - which we then name as God. It is too easy to find God in our race, our culture, our interests. Barth's context was, as you may recall, Hitler's Germany and the rise of the third Reich and the failure of protestant liberalism to issue a prophetic challenge. Barth insisted on the prophetic distance of revelation - over against the culture Christianity of his day. So the early Barth said no (or "Nein!") to natural theology and cautioned that God is "wholly other."

2. Evil in the 20th Century

A second challenge that arises in the 20th century is the problem of evil. That is not exactly a new challenge. It is one to which any form of the argument from design has to give a thoughtful response. But it has lately been sharpened in new ways. The optimism of the enlightenment and the 19th century - that every day and every way things are getting better and better - has been severely chastened in our time. Two world wars, the holocaust, ethnic cleansing - evil has proven too pervasive and too heinous in the 20th century for it to be dismissed as a brief passage on the way to God's good ends, the necessary dark shades in God's beautiful painting.

Any argument for the existence of God working from design has some hard questions to answer here. Some forms of it simply will not stand the test of evil. If by "design" we mean that whatever comes to be in world process can unequivocally be identified as happening by God's design, according to God's will then the theodicy problem rears its ugly head. Unless we are willing to sacrifice the theological affirmation of divine goodness, we will need to think again about what we mean by "God's design."

The mixture of good and evil offers evidence sufficiently ambiguous not to require belief in a good and all-powerful creator. Many theologians today, particularly process theologians, are giving a more careful accounting of the nature of God's power. The exercise of divine power must be sufficiently subtle to allow for real freedom in world process. Both the problem of evil and the scientific picture of how the world works invite us to a reconstruction in this direction. To see God at work in setting initial conditions conducive to flourishing of life and working in concert with natural processes is a role more theologically arguable and more consonant with what we know from science than one that presents God as overriding natural processes and controlling events so as to unilaterally determine every state of affairs.

Minimally, if the shape of things can be admitted to be conducive to the realization of valuable ends that lends credence to the hypothesis that the universe is designed for good purposes.

3. Chaos theory/quantum mechanics

The last challenge I will name comes out of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. The reintroduction of the role of chance and contingency in the way the world works has for many, challenged notions of design. Biologist Jacques Monod in Chance and Necessity has expressed the conclusion of some, (quoting)"The ancient covenant is in pieces: man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down." (Monod 1972, p. 167)

Some renderings of the teleological argument for the existence of God do assume that by design we must mean that there is "a detailed preexisting blueprint in the mind of God" (Barbour 1990, p., 173). This plan is foreordained and is working itself out in all its detail. Such a view of design is antithetical to chance.

But must design be understood in such a constraining mode? What if it is part of the "design" that some things happen by necessity others by chance others in open interplay of relative freedom? A design might include a whole range on the spectrum: contingency as well as regularity, chaos as well as order, novelty as well as continuity.

Ian Stewart, in his mathematics of chaos, has noted that with the advent of quantum mechanics the clockwork universe of Newton's day has become a cosmic lottery (Stewart 1989, p. 1). As he notes, “The very distinction...between the randomness of chance and the determinism of law, is called into question. Perhaps God can play dice, and create a universe of complete law and order, in the same breath" (Stewart 1989, p. 2). As we learn more about chaos theory the question becomes "not so much whether God plays dice but how God plays dice" (Stewart 1989, p. 2).

Contemporary theologians who wish to uphold design are responding variously to the observations of science that much of what occurs in the universe is random activity, pure chance. Ian Barbour has offered a helpful typology that I think accurately reflects the basic theological options on the horizon today (Barbour 1990):

  1. One way of responding is to claim that what appears to be random is only apparently so. Einstein was himself persuaded of this position (Stewart 1989, p. 1-2). We simply cannot see the causal activity behind it. Some theologians see God in control of even the subatomic indeterminacies. If such a view is taken there are questions to be answered regarding all the blind alleys, waste, suffering, and evil that have attended this process so carefully designed and closely controlled by God.

  2. Another way of responding - more common among theologians - is to rethink the meaning of design as a general directionality and not as a detailed blueprint. Design might be the systematic conditions that make life and consciousness possible. This view is more conducive to evolutionary understandings and has the capacity to incorporate into "design" elements of chance as well as necessity. This has profound implications for the way in which God and God's relation to the world are viewed. As Polkinghorne expressed it, this view is "consistent with the will of a patient and subtle Creator, content to achieve his purposes through the unfolding of process and accepting thereby a measure of the vulnerability and precariousness which always characterize the gift of freedom by love" (Polkinghorne 1987, p. 69).

  3. The third view is very much like the last one except that it wants to extend the role of God in the process. The second view has God setting the conditions conducive to life and then not interfering with the system. An option from process theology would envision a more interactive role for God. God's purposes are expressed not only in the unchanging structural conditions of but also in the novel possibilities introduced. Divine creativity works within order and chaos persuading toward good ends. It works with and does not coerce the self-creating activity of creatures.

There is generally speaking a willingness to reconstruct as our theology as illumined by what we learn from science about the way the world works. So you see these revisions attending the discoveries of quantum mechanics and chaos theory.

Contributed by: Dr. Anna Case-Winters

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Argument from Design: What is at Stake Theologically?

20th Century: New Forms and New Challenges

Early Greek Philosophy and the Early Church
The Middle Ages: Classic Formulation
The Scientific Revolution: Challenges and New Forms
18th and 19th Centuries: New Form and New Challenges
Contemporary Forms: Intelligibility and Suitability for the Emergence of Life
Conclusion: What is at Stake Theologically?


Anna Case-Winters

A revised version of this paper was published in Zygon, March 2000, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 69-81.

Related Media:

The Anthropic Principle
The Argument from Design
Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
Was the Universe Designed?
Are we Alone?
Interview Index
Hubble Deep Field Animation
  Media Index

Other Resources:

Big Bang Cosmology and Theology
Glossary Terms
Bonus Material Home...