Alvin Plantinga’s review in Books & Culture of Karl Giberson and Francis Collins book The Language of Science and Faith is both insightful and frustrating — much like Plantinga’s own work on issues of faith and science.
It is insightful in that Plantinga identifies a key failing of theistic evolutionists of Giberson and Collins’ stripe: they seem to lack metaphysical and theological sophistication, particularly concerning causation and agency, theological anthropology, and the problem of “natural evil.” These are, indeed, difficult problems. Giberson and Collins are right to argue that we can’t make the problems go away by ignoring or rewriting the empirical observations of the natural sciences, which establish the framework of biological evolution for all life on earth, including humans, beyond any reasonable doubt. But it isn’t enough — indeed, it is major failing — to make passing references to open theism and process thought in order to resolve theological tensions. This is precisely, I think, what Giberson and Collins are doing when they refer to the “freedom” of creation to evolve and talk about God taking “risks.” It’s a popular way to think about the science and faith relation — perhaps a dominant way to think about it in the mainstream science and faith academic literature — but it is bad theology.
Plantinga’s review (and his broader work in this area), however, is also frustrating — deeply frustrating — because of his epistemological assumptions. He casts oblique aspersions on both the processes and conclusions of the natural sciences. He implicity does the same, oddly enough, to the classical Christian intellectual tradition. Some of these assumptions lead to his embrace, though perhaps in his recent work a more cautious embrace, of the warmed-over Paley-ite watchmaker theology of intelligent design theory. In his review of Giberson and Collins, this comes out in his musing over whether “evolution” by definition is an “unguided” process. This is a tired and tiresome trope of young earth creationist quacks, intelligent design flacks, and new atheist hacks alike. All of them share rationalistic foundations that owe more to a god who is univocal with “nature,” an onto-theological “being” or non-being, than to the transcendent Triune creator God of Christian faith.
The way to move beyond the question whether “evolution” means “unguided” is to retrieve the Christian theological tradition’s two thousand year conversation over causation and metaphysics. Have any of these folks read Plato, the Church Fathers, or Aquinas (I’m certainPlantinga has read them)? The problem of how to relate agency and freedom in the created order to God’s providence is not a new problem. It was not first prompted by Darwin. There is no final and perfectly comprehensible “solution” to this problem that will satisfy the grammatical rules of analytic philosophy, of course, and the effort to impose such rules on a God who is unknowable in esse is the fundamental failure (and indeed basic a-theism) of modern analytic philosophical theology. But the long Christian conversation about this question supplies rich resources for speaking well about it, even if it can’t be fully grasped. Nor are the final and perfectly comprehensible “solutions” to the problem of “natural evil” or to the mysteries of the imago Dei and human fallenness — and again, these are not questions that first pop up after Darwin, and again, there are rich historical resources for thinking and speaking well about them even though they can’t be “solved” (have any of these folks read Athanasius?).
The “solutions” to supposed “problems” with evolution reside in the traditional doctrines of creation and Christology. The Church has always believed that creation is the gift of the Triune God’s generosity. The Church has always believed that creation participates in God’s perichoretic life and thus is granted a freedom and integrity that in no way violates His loving providence, in a fashion that finally transcends human comprehension. The Church has always believed that God’s creation is “good” and that “evil” is an inexplicable sort of de-creation that finally cannot be rationally explained. The Church has always believed that human beings are uniquely related to God in a way that transcends the material world, and that this relation is broken by the surd of human sin. The Church has always believed that the creating Logos is the same incarnate Christ who took on the suffering of all creation on the cross, rose victorious over the void of evil, and through his self-emptying love is actively reconciling all things. The empirical realities of biological evolution prompt us to think more deeply about these truths, but in no way undermine them. How could they? ”Reality” ultimately is the Triune God revealed in Christ, who both transcends the material world and is immanent within it. It is finally that basic.