Intelligent Design and Theology

A repost from the archives, providing background in theology

The Leaking of the Wedge:

The story begins, so far as the world at large is concerned, on a late January day seven years ago, in a mail room in a downtown Seattle office of an international human-resources firm. The mail room was also the copy center, and a part-time employee named Matt Duss was handed a document to copy. It was not at all the kind of desperately dull personnel-processing document Duss was used to feeding through the machine. For one thing, it bore the rubber-stamped warnings “TOP SECRET” and “NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION.” Its cover bore an ominous pyramidal diagram superimposed on a fuzzy reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rendition of God the Father zapping life into Adam, all under a mysterious title: The Wedge.

I love imagining the vaguely Masonic document underneath a red “Top Secret” cover sheet. Some Very Important Creationist drafting this claptrap, thinking that the world would be utterly scandalized if they learned that Intelligent Design had a religious agenda.

Last night I went to hear the U. of Chicago’s Divinity School Dean speak about Intelligent Design. This isn’t what he works on specifically, he’s interested in narratives and providence (talking with him gave me a vague sense of what that means, but suffice it to say that I’m sure it isn’t ID, what exactly it is gets fuzzy).

As he did his research in preparation for the talk, Professor Rosengarten immediately found that ID was indistinguishable from Christian theology, and was struck by the similarities between the arguments advanced by the creationist school board in the Maclean case and the creationist arguments advanced in Dover. The claim that Intelligent Design is not a form of Judeo-Christian theology was “disingenuous,” according to this independent expert.

He’s probably seen the Wedge Document, but that’s not what convinced him, what convinced him were the arguments advanced.

He was prepared to credit the possibility that some IDolators might believe that the Designer isn’t the Christian God, but he noted a DI response to the Dover decision in which they went from claiming ID isn’t religion to complaining that Judge Jones doesn’t know his Bible, and pointed out that similar juxtapositions are commonplace in ID papers and presentations.

Following a theme from the discussion with the Dover lawyers, Rosengarten talked about the necessity for a language that can encompass the very different nature of theological claims and scientific claims. Picking up on a distinction that Langdon Gilkey made in the Maclean trial between ultimate and proximate causation, Rosengarten argued that recognizing the different nature of religious knowledge and scientific knowledge is an essential starting point of the conversation.

Science studies proximate causes, testable relationships between processes and events. Evolution is a proximate explanation for the modern diversity of life, and it provides a proximate cause for the details of modern life. Proximate causation is the “how.”

Ultimate causes are the cosmic “why” questions. Ultimate causation, as Rosengarten described it, is not testable, and claims about ultimate causes of creation represent a “fundamental trust,” one not necessary for proximate causes.

The problem emerges when people use the language and mindset of one approach to try to go beyond the limits of their field. Creationists trying to wedge ultimate causation into science are as bad as scientists trying to treat proximate causes as suitable for ultimate questions.

As a society, we need both, and each depends on the other. We need a language for relating one to the other, and a way past the “either/or” dynamic of the creationism/evolution battle.

He pointed out that John Calvin, no pantheist, acknowledged that “it can be said, provided it is said with reverence, that nature is God.” There are ways to have a conversation about ultimate causes for humanity in a context that acknowledges the proximate answers science offers about the process.

I mentioned something that Jack Krebs said at the Dover lawyers’ event, that “Intelligent design isn’t just bad science, it’s bad theology,” and Rosengarten agreed. There are conversations in the Divinity school about putting together a model curriculum for a public school religion class, and I encouraged him to go for it.

I’ve praised my high school religion class, so you know where I stand on that. Bill Wagnon, who represents me on the Kansas Board of Education, discussed the possibility of the Board issuing some standards for an elective course in December 2004, but the conversation went no where. The conservatives wanted to save their fire for science class, and the moderates didn’t want to be fighting two battles at once.

In the absence of a well-defined forum for discussing ultimate questions, people who want to discuss them will keep trying to shoe-horn them into every place that might be able to accommodate them.

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