Sunday, July 11, 2010

"How God Acts: Creation, Redemption, and Special Divine Action" by Denis Edwards (Pt. 2)

In Chapter 1 of Denis Edward’s new book “How God Acts”, he outlines his scientific understandings that will guide his attempts to construct a noninterventionist theology of divine action. He begins by telling the awesome story of the emergence of the universe 13.7 billion years ago in purely scientific terms. The emergence of biological life and consciousness took a lot of time, and was very costly. Yet God not only enabled all of these processes, but waited patiently throughout the process – always working in and through the processes of evolution. God is a God who creates “in an emergent and evolutionary way.” Edwards outlines the basic idea of emergent complexity. Everything in the universe is interrelated and in a dependent relationship with other elements and entities: “We human beings depend upon many different systems both inside and outside ourselves. Atoms that make up the neurons of our brains were formed in long-dead stars. We are dependent upon and interrelated with the universe. Closer to home, we become who we are in relationship to families, communities, and the land to which we belong, with its animals, birds, trees, flowers, insects, and bacteria.” However, theologically speaking, the most important relationship of all in this complex hierarchy of relationships is not accessible to science, and that is the indwelling Creator Spirit in all things that enables everything to exist. All of creation participates in the Trinitarian, communal life of God. This is the beginning of Edward’s formulation of his version of panentheism.

Thankfully, Edwards rejects Intelligent Design and “god of the gaps” theological reflection in general. Science is rightly committed to methodological naturalism. Just because science cannot explain certain natural phenomena does not necessarily mean that it will never be able to. On the other hand, science is still somewhat limited. It can’t tell us why there is anything at all, why there is order in the universe, what the meaning of our lives and deaths are, the significance of the universe, or the endless human search for meaning. This is where theology and philosophy comes in, and Christian theology can help provide answers to these questions in ways that science cannot. Edwards wants to give science it’s proper place, and allow theology to go where science cannot take us. This means totally respecting the integrity and autonomy of natural science as God-given.

While being careful not to suppose an idea of “progress” in evolution, Edwards does agree with recent work in convergent evolution suggesting overall directionality that moves towards greater complexity, and that something like humanity was bound to emerge eventually. While Edwards doesn’t suggest natural evidence for a cosmic blueprint, purpose, or design, he believes that science is still open-ended on this (not ruling them out, but not proving it either). The “fine-tuning” of the universe, while not proving a designer, still fits naturally with the idea of a God who has acted and continues to act purposefully in the universe. But he is very careful to admit this is a Christian theological interpretation of the data. This is a humble proposal that fits with the idea of a God who is achieving his purposes, through randomness and natural laws, that ultimately brings about life and higher consciousness in the universe.

Embracing the results of science entails rethinking pain and death, not entirely as the result of human sin, but as intrinsic to the process of evolution. Without them, the beauty and diversity of the world would not exist: “Death is the price we pay for a world in which there are wings, eyes, and brains.” Furthermore, consciousness would not exist without pain and suffering through evolution. So death is a thermodynamic necessity. Still, evolution is a costly process. Pain, suffering, and loss must be dealt with theologically.

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