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).
intelligibility of the world.
The adaptation of
living organisms to their environment.
The ways in which
inorganic life is conducive to the emergence and maintenance of life.
The way in which
the natural environment nurtures moral development in human beings through
coping with hardships.
progressiveness of the evolutionary process.
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
B. New Challenges
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
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
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
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):
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.
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).
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.
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