16 November 2006

hanby on creation

Earlier this year a stimulating and suggestive article by Michael Hanby of Baylor University appeared in an issue of Theology Today (62:476-83), entitled "Reclaiming Creation in a Darwinian World."

His focus is not a discussion of the mechanisms of change within the natural order, or to advocate for "intelligent design" over against Darwinism. Rather, Hanby attempts to step back from such specific questions in order to provide the larger metaphysical context within which other such discussions occur. His point is to help us "recognize latent metaphysical [and even theological] presuppositions in Darwinism" - presuppositions that "arguably threaten to undercut its explanatory power" - but also to suggest that some versions of "creationism" unwittingly share those very same presuppositions (477).

Hanby opens his article with the observation that a
...world known and loved into existence by God and for our enjooyment of God is, in its very meaning and essence, a different place from an intrinsically meaningless, machine-like world that is merely the accidental product of blind forces, governed by scarcity and force, and that patiently awaits our free and arbitrary assignment of quality and values to it. (476)
What we have in the debates over Darwinism is not simply a dispute about the findings and status of science, but rather a conflict over "control of the stories that are going to define, guide, and orient our lives, a preoccupation that well exceeds the bounds of scientific concern" (477).

Part of the difficulty in any such discussion, however, is the definition of terms, in particular here, the definition of "Darwinism" itself. Some scientists, such as Richard Lewontin, define Darwinism primarily in terms of the "transmutation of species" (to which Christian theology does not necessarily have an immediate objection). Most definitions of Darwinism, however, emphasize the mechanism of "natural selection" and all that it assumes about scarcity and competition, as Hanby suggests, a sort of biological Malthusianism.

But there are conceptual difficulties with his notion of "natural selection," even apart from attempts to impute purpose to the process. In particular, Hanby notes, "selection" (like Hegelianism and Marxism) attempts to proved "a logic for contingent history, a kind of secular providence accounting for all cultural and biologial life as the outworking of a single process transcending those events," which is, of course, a metaphysical thesis that, as such, "defies empirical or experimental verification" (479).

After all, what exactly is it that we can grant, on purely scientific grounds, that justifies viewing all the diverse and disparate events of nature as "instances in the operation of a single transcendent process" (479)? Some scientists see this difficulty and suggest that "natural selection" is not a single mechanism, but a name we give to a variety of different sorts of causal mechanisms at work in nature. But, as Hanby asks, what "makes this unity more than abitrary" and, furthermore, why doesn't this move just turn "selection" into "everything that happens" (479)?

These sorts of questions are not, however, Hanby's main focus of concern. Rather his aim is to note the importance of "a rigorous recovery and articulation of the doctrine of creation" that disentangles the doctrine from its enmeshment within evolutionary debates (480). Creation, strictly speaking, is not an "explanation" and cannot be used to answer the kinds of questions about origins that Darwinism seeks to raise. When "creationism" is used as an answer to Darwinism, Hanby suggests, it has already succumbed to Darwinism's rules of engagement and, even if it is able to point towards some kind of god, it will not be God of Christian faith.

Hanby notes that for Thomas Aquinas creation is an article of faith. Aquinas writes, "By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist," so that "the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself" (Summa Theologiae I.46.2). This is not some kind of blind fideism on Aquinas' part, but rather stems from a proper understanding of what we mean when we speak of "God" and of his "creating."

Creation, ultimately, is not a kind of causation that is univocal with other kinds of causation. When we ask questions about the origin of species, we are still in the realm of causation from within the created order, as Hanby notes, the realm of "Why this instead of that?" (481). But "creation," in the proper sense of the term, refers to things coming to be out of nothing, moving from nonexistence and potentiality within the mind of God to existence and actuality as the created world. And that difference - between nothingness and being something - is an infinite difference.

Thus, as Hanby asserts, creation's "'mechanism' remains inaccessible to us by definition, for the simple reason that prior to the movement there is nothing for this mechanism to act upon" (481). Hanby explains further
Creation simply names a relationship of dependence between effect and cause that occurs when anything genuinely new appears, which happens with everything that is neither reducible to the sum of its parts nor to the sum of causes that produced it - which is, of course, every single thing in existence. (481)
And there is, in the relationship of dependence, a radical asymmetry, since God stands in absolutely no need of the created world and thus creation cannot be "explained" by any sufficient reason beyond the non-explanation of "the sheer, extravangant generosity that God is, in his essence as trinitarian love" (482).

The Christian Trinity, therefore, is not merely the first item in a causal chain of effects. If that were the case, then "God" would name some thing existing outside of and above the essentially closed world of nature and limited by that natural order. The god of such quasi-scientific explanations turns out to be merely one more finite item in a world of such items, designed to meet the needs of science's own explanatory expectations - once again, the modern god of onto-theology.

No, the Trintarian God of Christian faith is entirely other. Hanby paints the picture:
God is that simple, immutable act of being and love so transcendentally other to creation as to be at once external and internal to it, mysteriously indwelling it while calling it into the novelty of existence in the mystery of the divine love. (482)
According to Hanby, this recognition of super-abundant love at the center of all reality suggests something important about the nature of the world: "that each created thing is also a mystery" (482). That is to say, the novelty of creation as an overflow of divine love is analogically disclosed in created things that are surpassingly irreducible either to the sum of the causes that produce them or to their own constituent parts.

After all, to explain this blog post as an electrical array appearing on a computer monitor, registering as squiqqles and shapes upon the retina is not an "explanation" since it leaves out what is most important: that this is a blog post, a form of personal communication and expression. As Hanby says, knowing the world truly requires that we "recognize in matter and in the wholes composed of it the true reality of qualities - form, beauty, and purpose, for instance - that are manifestly part of the world" (482). In that light, Christian faith cannot be construed as closing off the possibility of scientific inquiry, but rather as opening up a space for the possibility of a better understanding of the world.