Review: Is There Purpose in Biology?

is there purpose in biology

Is There Purpose in Biology?Denis Alexander. Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of the idea purpose in biology, the association of purposelessness with the randomness and chance of evolution and whether this is warranted, and how a Christian perspective may both be consistent with what may be observed, and how Christian theology may deal with questions of pain and suffering in evolutionary processes.

One of the common conclusions advanced with the support of evolutionary theory is that there is no inherent purpose evident in the natural world. Much of this is predicated on a process in which life arises through chance and randomness, and that any apparent purpose is illusory.

Denis Alexander, a researcher in biochemistry and Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, argues in this book that this is not necessarily a warranted conclusion. First, though he is careful to distinguish between Purpose and purpose. He will not be trying to show evidence of metaphysical Purpose in biology, but that the processes of evolution do evidence purpose in the sense that outcomes were not strictly random, either at a genetic or macro level, but are constrained in certain directions consistent with “purpose.”

Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the use of the language of Purpose and purpose in biology through history from the Greeks up through the beginnings of science, and the subsequent denial of purpose as the theory of evolution became established. Then chapters 2 through 4 get “into the weeds” of evolutionary science.

Chapter 2 argues that the direction of evolution toward increasing complexity over time may be reflective of purpose and also that body size and plan is subject to “allometric scaling” and cannot simply occur in any form or size. Convergence where different species in different lines under similar conditions evolve similar structures, is another example of this. Chapter 3 observes that similar constraints exist at the molecular level. Chapter 4 then looks at the genetic level, and the idea of random mutations. It turns out that mutations are not purely random but seem to occur at particular places on chromosomes. Likewise, forces of natural selection are not random, but also constrain outcomes in certain directions. These chapters are fairly technical, but offer a good glimpse of the current state of the discussions in evolutionary biology, as opposed to popular caricatures.

In chapter 5, Alexander shifts to theological discussion. He recognizes that in practice, people do introduce discussions of Purpose that reflect their worldviews. What he does is articulate an understanding of “top down” creation at work through evolutionary processes–not in the “gaps” but throughout, a version of theistic evolution. A significant aspect of this has to do with his belief in God’s “immanence” in creation, working in and through evolutionary processes.

Chapter 6 concludes the discussion by dealing with one of the problems of his proposal. To argue that God is involved “immanently” in evolutionary processes makes God in some ways responsible for the pain and suffering implicit for both animal and human species facing natural selection, or dying because of mutations leading to genetic defects or cancer. Alexander dismisses responses of “fallen creation” or attributions of suffering to sin, arguing for a kind of “freedom” in evolutionary processes that necessarily includes pain–that God no more compels creation than he does human beings.

I suspect there is material here in every chapter that someone will take exception to, including the basic theistic evolutionary position Alexander takes. Those who dismiss theism will reject Alexander’s case for purpose. Others will struggle with his theodicy. Some would argue that you can see not only purpose but Purpose in biological science in itself. I would contend that the strength of Alexander’s argument is that it is neither dismissive of evolutionary science nor of a God engaged with creation working out God’s purposes. He shows how the two are at least consonant with each other. He chooses a “messy” explanation to the problem of pain that leaves room for mystery rather than pat answers. For those not interested in an oppositional approach to evolution and creation, Alexander’s work offers a way, or at least hints of a way forward.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good

The Lord is Good: Seeking the God of the Psalter (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Christopher R. J. Holmes. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores what we mean when we say God is good, contending that God is essentially good, that this is why the Psalms focus so much on the goodness of God, and how Thomas Aquinas may prove quite helpful in our reading of Psalms and understanding of God.

You are good and do good;
    teach me your statutes.

-Psalm 119:68, ESV

This verse serves as the kernal or core of the argument of this book. The author’s contention is that God is goodness, and that this attribute, among all the others, is pre-eminent in the Psalms. Futhermore, because God is essentially good, his acts are simply an extension of his being, particularly all that God has done in creation. Because God is good, we exist. Furthermore, while there are some qualities that are particular to persons of the Trinity, goodness is common to the persons of the Triune God as one undivided essence. Consequently, particularly as creatures fallen away from God’s original goodness and restored through Christ, we cry out “teach me your statutes” that we might understand how to live into the goodness of God.

Holmes begins this argument with a discussion of the simplicity of God–that God is his attributes. These qualities do not exist apart from God but because God is these qualities. However Holmes argues for a particular understanding that goes back to Thomas Aquinas, rather than Karl Barth, whose theology serves as a reference point for much contemporary theology. His approach that is compatibilist rather than dialectic, where God is known by what God does. Holmes would argue for a much more seamless connection between who God is, what God does, and who we are and are becoming (if I understand this distinction correctly).

In subsequent chapters, Holmes explores how saying “you are good” is to describe a “pure act of being that is God.” He argues for the unity of God’s essence as good as prior to the Trinity. For God to “do good” is a reflection of the God’s being as pure act. God’s goodness is generative and results in a good creation.

The chapter on evil is striking as Holmes make the argument that evil is not a “something” but a “nothing,” a corruption of good. We recognize our need for help, leading to our cry to “teach me your statutes,” that mirror the goodness of their source. He explores how the incarnation of the Son uniquely communicates the goodness of God to us. He then concludes with an exploration of how the goodness of God leads to our perfection.

It is frustrating to try to summarize such a rich work in a few paragraphs. This is a work to be read slowly and savored. Sometimes a single sentence would stop me dead in my tracks, moving me to reflection and then to praise. One example was this: “God loves us by willing good to us, so much so that he conserves and perfects us in the good he is.” Another, from his chapter on creation: “Creation is radically contingent and has no other reason for being than God’s great goodness.” The effect was not simply intellectual illumination, but a response of turning to praise for yet another facet of God’s infinite goodness.

The challenge of this work, is that there is so many sentences of this character, really one after the other, in this work. It is rare that I have encountered writing of such precision, depth and elegance. It brings to mind the summer I spent reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for its combination of intellectual rigor and devotional warmth. Like Calvin, Holmes is a pastor-theologian and brings to his readers both the carefulness of a scholar and the passion to lead us to more deeply love the good and beautiful God. Unlike so many books that are “chop steak” theology, this is filet mignon, to be eaten in small slices savoring each bite, each chew, for the rich and juicy fare that it is.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainC. S. Lewis. New York: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published 1940).

Summary: Lewis’s classic work exploring the existence of suffering and pain and how this is possible in a world made and sustained by a good and omnipotent God.

There is some sense a reviewer has when reviewing books like this to feel the mere “poser” and to be simply tempted to say, “read Lewis!” But that would be a very short review! So what I might do is simply suggest a few reasons why we might read Lewis on this subject.

One is that while the experience of suffering, even as Lewis acknowledges, requires of us fortitude when we ourselves face it and supportive sympathy when we walk along side friends in the midst of this, there are other times when we must take the larger view and ask “why pain and suffering?” And here, Lewis begins to help us because he observes that this is alike a question for the theist and the materialist. Particularly as we witness both the ravages of disease and the inhumanity of people against each other, it seems that this is a monstrous assault on our sense of the good. The fact that the central figure of Christianity suffered at the hand of evil himself is not in itself an answer to this question but only poses another–why this death?

Some of what Lewis does that is quite helpful is define terms. Omnipotence does not mean that God is able to do what is impossible because of who he is or what he has decreed, to do. For God to be good does not require that he make us happy. We must at least allow that suffering may not be contrary to a God who loves us and seeks our ultimate good.

He also helps us take a hard, and uncomfortable look at human wickedness, in itself, the source of much suffering and pain. We are fallen creatures, not simply by the fault of another but by our own active perversity.  We often minimize the “crooked timber” of our own lives even as we displace the focus onto God.  Pain, at least has the function of shattering our illusions that all is well, and we are sufficient in ourselves. It also calls us into the belief that holds onto God when there is no benefit in doing so.

He takes on the idea of hell, and perhaps most helpfully says that his aim is not to make the doctrine tolerable, for it is not, but to show that it may be moral, despite the objections raised. He observes that most of us do want to see retributive punishment and that we would find great offense in God forgiving one who remains unrepentant in great wickedness. He notes that eternal may be something different than an endlessly prolonged time. He also cautions against literal interpretations of vivid imagery.

His final chapters consider the question of animal pain and heaven. On animal pain, he cautions that there is much that we do not know about this, nor for that matter the ultimate destiny of animals. On heaven, Lewis observes that whereas hell is privation, heaven is the fulfillment of those deepest longings that we reach for and never quite grasp, that filling of a place in us that nothing has ever filled that being in the presence of God at last fills utterly and beyond measure.

The group with which I discussed this book had one quibble with Lewis. He states that when we reach the maximum of pain, the pain of another does not add to the sum total of the pain. While this may be true at a physical level, we did wonder about the emotional pain we experience when we witness the sufferings to others, particularly those inflicted by human cruelty. It also raises a question about the suffering of Christ. Was the pain he experienced as sin-bearer of humanity (if we believe this) any greater than bearing the sins of just one person? There was something in the way Lewis framed this that was unsatisfying, even if logically true.

This summer, the group I mentioned will probably be reading A Grief Observed, where all of Lewis’s ideas are tested in the crucible of the loss of his wife Joy. It will be interesting to see if this changed his thinking in any way, or to what extent his ideas helped him. Stay tuned!

Review: Outlaw Christian

outlaw-christian

Outlaw ChristianJacqueline A. Bussie. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2016.

Summary: Challenges the “unwritten rules” of Christianity that respond with denial or cliches when faced with the hardest challenges of evil, pain, suffering, doubt, and death and invites both honest responses and offers reality-based hope.

Jacqueline Bussie is tired of the hackneyed clichés Christians throw out when faced with hard situations for which there really are no glib answers. She knows, having grown up in a family that either didn’t talk about their pain or used some of the same answers. Eventually she started breaking the “unwritten laws” of how Christians are supposed to speak and act, and discovered that in fact, there were good models for doing the same in the pages of scripture. People got angry with God, mourned, doubted, and sat with others as they poured out all these things, allowing them to be utterly honest, and giving the one gift they had, being with the. She writes,

“The name outlaw Christian describes the kind of Christian I am and the kind I’m setting myself to become: namely, a follower of Jesus who no longer accepts cocky clichés, hackneyed hope, or snappy theodicies–defenses of God’s goodness and power–that explain away evil and suffering with a theo-magical sleight of hand. An outlaw Christian doesn’t condemn questions or discourage doubt. Instead, an outlaw Christian seeks to live an authentic life of faith and integrity, and chooses to defy the unwritten laws governing suffering, grief, and hope that our culture and our religious traditions have asked us to ingest” (p. 5-6).

The first law she deals with is that we should never get mad at God, which is blasphemy. She observes that Job, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes are bluntly honest and angry with God, and in the end, it is Job who is vindicated and not his friends. We only get really angry with those we really love and take seriously. Far more deadly is indifference.

The second law is that which forbids doubt because it is thought to be the opposite of faith and thus sin. Bussie shows that doubt is actually a part of the life of faith and good–it opens us up to ambiguity rather than holds onto “certainty,” is honest, creative, and open, builds community as we support each other, and drives us to action.

The third law is to never question. I so appreciated this because I’ve seen many thoughtful young people turn away from the faith simply because they were using the brains God gave them and asking good questions and told to “stuff it.” She observes that the journals of Mother Teresa are full of her questions and struggles to believe. She notes how much of scripture is filled with laments that ask, “how long?”

The fourth law she discusses is “to always speak in clichés about suffering and evil.” She then proceeds to name them:

  • Evil is nothing except the absence of good.
  • Evil is obvious. You will know evil when you see it.
  • We need evil to grow closer to God and know what good is.
  • Evil only describes really big, bad sins.

She argues that God doesn’t need us to defend God and doesn’t require us to spout these things.

The fifth and last law she covers is to never tell your real story because vulnerability is weakness. She argues that the greatest gift of love that brings meaning and sense in the midst of pain and senselessness is when we let people tell their stories without shame. It’s the way, she graphically writes, that we turn the garbage and crap in our lives into compost that gives life.

She doesn’t end here, however, but concludes by discussing how this radical authenticity with God and each other leads and can be turned to foster real hope. She begins by exposing the lies of hopelessness and talks about practical steps through which we cultivate hope and joy while “keeping it real.” Much of it, to me at least, boiled down to just paying attention to one’s life and to others, being as it were, a “hope sleuth.”

I have to admit, I was prepared for a book of Millennial clichés that in the end, I would say “meh” about. Instead, I found myself delighting in writing that was passionate about truth, unflinching in facing life’s hardest realities, and that pressed through pain to wonder. She’s both eloquent and gritty and I can see why her students say of her, “You are the only person who ever tells us the truth about anything.” She is vulnerable herself, as she describes the painful journey of losing her mother to early onset Alzheimer’s. Her own willingness to flout the clichés invites us into a deeper encounter with God that can be both angry and deeply love, can doubt and yet believe, can face unspeakable evil without giving up on goodness, can question and cling to God, and can reveal our garbage and yet know we are deeply loved.

This is a book I wish I had read much younger. I spent too many years keeping the unwritten laws and spouting the cliches, to the hurt of others and the deadening of my own soul. I’m glad for this voice that helps a new generation break free, hopefully sooner, of such soul-deadening things into real life.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

Review: Suffering and the Search for Meaning

SufferingSummary: This book surveys seven different approaches to the question of why pain and suffering if there is a God. This serves both as an introduction to the subject of theodicy and provides pastoral and personal resources for responding to people in pain, including one’s own suffering.

Suffering raises profound questions for every human being. For the Christian or other theists, it raises the question of how we are to understand a good and powerful God allowing evil and suffering. But even for the atheist, who can only say that suffering is, there is still the profound sense of the “wrongness” of suffering and why one thinks it wrong. Then there are the times where suffering becomes real in our lives, or for someone who we care deeply. At times, the numbness, or the outrage of suffering leaves one thinking no answers make sense. Yet few of us wish to live our lives believing it is really all senseless. We try to make some sense out of suffering, or are in the position of walking along others as they make their own sense out of it.

This is a book for those times. What the author does is survey seven approaches to this question that have helped Christians over time. The approaches are:

  1. Perfect plan theodicy: that all suffering is a part of God’s perfect plan
  2. Free will defense: that suffering is a result of human free will used badly.
  3. Soul-making theodicy: this approach finds meaning in how suffering changes us for the better.
  4. Cosmic conflict theodicy: this approach recognizes the role of the devil in directly or indirectly causing suffering.
  5. Openness of God theodicy: God doesn’t foreknow the choices we make, only the possibilities, but how we actually exercise free will is only known to God when we act. This approach has much in common with the free will approach.
  6. Finite God theodicy: God is not all powerful, the “when bad things happen to good people” approach.
  7. Protest theodicies: These are expressions of outrage against terrible evil claiming no God could permit such evil.

For each approach Richard Rice outlines the basic contours of that approach, why it is attractive as a response to the question of suffering, and what the drawbacks of the approach are.

His concluding chapter, titled “Fragments of Meaning” explores how one uses this material to help the suffering, whether the suffering is “theirs” “ours” or “yours”. Each is a unique situation with unique pastoral requirements. He suggests that in formulating our own theodicy the twin questions of What kind of world did God create? and What kind of God created the world? are key to the theodicy we form. Rice would suggest that most will form a bricolage, an understanding drawn from the fragments of different theodicies rather than favoring only one. For the author (who favors open theism but evenhandedly presents each view) his own bricolage consists of these four statements:

  1. God is Lord and God is Love.
  2. Suffering is real and suffering is wrong.
  3. God is with us when we suffer
  4. Suffering never has the last word.

What I most appreciated about this book was the conciseness and clarity of explanation of the different views as well the pastoral sensitivity that realizes that these are not “answers” we give, but resources on which we draw as we try to make sense out of our own suffering or walk alongside others. For those looking for the “right” answer, this is not the book, but as the author observes, in Job, even God does not really “answer” Job.

Review: Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering

Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering
Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Ronald E. Osborn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The problem of predation, animal suffering and death has always posed a theological challenge to those believing in a good God. Those who believe in a literal six day creation and young earth believe the problem is solved by attributing it to the curse following human sin. But this poses the question of why should animals be cursed for what humans did, and may not be supportable in the Genesis text. Likewise, for those who believe in some form of old earth creation or theistic evolution, the problem is that this assumes animal predation, suffering, and death prior to human sin and the question is how can it be argued that God and his creation are “good” if these things occur even before sin entered the picture?

This latter problem is the focus of Osburn’s book, or at least part of the focus. The surprise is that most of his treatment of this question is in the last third of the book. The prior two thirds are devoted to the problem of biblical literalism and our attempts to reconcile biblical accounts of beginnings with what scientific research has uncovered.

He begins by showing that a plain reading of Genesis in its ancient near east context does not require the young earth, scientific creationist reading. The next four chapters are devoted to why this reading is so problematic in terms of hermeneutics, science and reason. He basically contends that the “scientific creationism” movement unwittingly cedes too much to modernism and foundationalist assumptions in its attempt to prove Genesis with science.

He then looks at the sub-culture behind these readings describing them in the next two chapters as a gnostic enclave. He observes the “circle the wagons” and “purge ourselves of those who disagree” tendencies along with a tendency to assume a “knowledge for the pure few” stance that regards others as inferior–a kind of gnosticism. While I’ve observed some examples of this, I felt this section “over the top” and not helpful to his argument. He concludes the first section by citing Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and Maimonides as non-literalist interpreters and argued for a post-foundationalist reading of Genesis with the rest of scripture seeing a “web” of truth.

The second part of the book first critiques the position of animal suffering only being post-fall under the categories of “stasis”, “curse”, and “deception.” He then considers the cosmic conflict position of C.S. Lewis but thinks this gives Satan too much credit. He argues for a position based on Job 38-42 that somehow in a way that is unanswered, this suffering is part of God’s good creation. He cites Kathryn Schifferdecker in concluding this chapter: “But submission to God…means learning to “learning to live in the untamed, dangerous, but stunningly beautiful world that is God’s creation'” (p. 156).

He also argues that it is Christ’s kenotic suffering that closes the circle of the six days of creation as he suffers and dies on sabbath eve bringing true sabbath rest to creation. As an Adventist, Osburn argues for the continuing relevance of sabbath in the church’s practice and that this includes concern for needless animal suffering.

This interesting proposal was marred, in my view, by raising at points the question of whether there was a literal Adam, and calling into question the idea of substitutionary atonement, something that seems a trend among “progressive evangelicals.” He also launches at the end of the penultimate chapter on the evils of “late capitalism” and the question of whether our existence as a species is justified in light of our destructiveness.

Osburn writes with eloquence and elegance about all these matters, but I believe also out of the pain of his own church roots. I felt he distracted at points from good argument with tendentious statements. In the hotly contended area of origins, if one is to write irenically, it seems necessary to choose battles very carefully. My sense is that this book took on too many battles that rendered it less helpful than it could be. I wish the author would have focused more on the title theme and gone into greater depth on these issues.

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