Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Augustine on Creation

Alister McGrath has a fine article in Christianity Today on Augustine (354 A.D. - 430 A.D.) and "how the great theologian might weigh in on the Darwin debate." It's surprising, perhaps, to read how prescient Augustine was:

In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, which was written between 401 and 415 .... Augustine draws out the following core themes: God brought everything into existence in a single moment of creation. Yet the created order is not static. God endowed it with the capacity to develop. Augustine uses the image of a dormant seed to help his readers grasp this point. God creates seeds, which will grow and develop at the right time. Using more technical language, Augustine asks his readers to think of the created order as containing divinely embedded causalities that emerge or evolve at a later stage. Yet Augustine has no time for any notion of random or arbitrary changes within creation. The development of God's creation is always subject to God's sovereign providence. The God who planted the seeds at the moment of creation also governs and directs the time and place of their growth.

The idea of a seed, an acorn perhaps, is a nice metaphor for an increasingly popular theory among some Intelligent Design advocates called "front-loaded" evolution. In this view God created the universe with all the potential for everything that would emerge in the universe packed into the initial conditions which obtained at the Big Bang. Thus the physical universe unfolded in precisely the way God intended, ultimately producing human beings.

Augustine also argues that Scripture teaches that time is also part of the created order, that God created space and time together. For some, however, the idea of time as a created thing seemed ridiculous. Again, Augustine counters that the biblical narrative is not open to alternative interpretations. Time must therefore be thought of as one of God's creatures and servants. For Augustine, time itself is an element of the created order. Timelessness, on the other hand, is the essential feature of eternity.

This is an incredible insight for a man of the fifth century given that this view of time is exactly that held by modern cosmologists. Time requires matter in motion. To see this try to imagine time in a world in which all matter is frozen in a motionless state. It's a condition not unlike that of the characters in a movie when the pause button on the remote is pushed. For these characters there is no time until the action resumes. If there's nothing, no matter nor energy, then there can be no time, at least not as we understand it. Thus apart from the universe, and the movement of its material components, the kind of time with which we are familiar does not exist.

Now, Augustine may be wrong in asserting that Scripture clearly teaches that the Creation was instantaneous.... Other options certainly exist-most notably, the familiar idea that the six days of Creation represent six periods of 24 hours, or the related idea that they represent six more extended periods, possibly millions of years. Nevertheless, Augustine's position ought to make us reflect on these questions, even if some of us believe him to be incorrect.

So what are the implications of this ancient Christian interpretation of Genesis for the Darwin celebrations? .... For Augustine, God created a universe that was deliberately designed to develop and evolve. The blueprint for that evolution is not arbitrary, but is programmed into the very fabric of creation. God's providence superintends the continuing unfolding of the created order.

This is a point similar to the one we illustrated a couple of months ago with the analogy of a braided river.

Where some might think of the Creation as God's insertion of new kinds of plants and animals readymade into an already existing world, Augustine rejects this as inconsistent with the overall witness of Scripture. Rather, God must be thought of as creating in that very first moment the potencies for all the kinds of living things to come later, including humanity.

This means that the first Creation account describes the instantaneous bringing into existence of primal matter, including causal resources for further development. The second account explores how these causal possibilities emerged and developed from the earth. Taken together, the two Genesis Creation accounts declare that God made the world instantaneously, while envisaging that the various kinds of living things would make their appearance gradually over time-as they were meant to by their Creator.

The image of the "seed" implies that the original Creation contained within it the potential for all the living kinds to subsequently emerge. This does not mean that God created the world incomplete or imperfect, in that "what God originally established in causes, he subsequently fulfilled in effects." This process of development, Augustine declares, is governed by fundamental laws, which reflect the will of their Creator: "God has established fixed laws governing the production of kinds and qualities of beings, and bringing them out of concealment into full view."

Augustine would have rejected any idea of the development of the universe as a random or lawless process. For this reason, Augustine would have opposed the Darwinian notion of random variations, insisting that God's providence is deeply involved throughout. The process may be unpredictable. But it is not random.

McGrath's article is good and would reward the reader who tackles the whole thing, especially those interested in how a strong commitment to the truth of Genesis can be reconciled with a contemporary belief in descent through modification.


Preliminary Thoughts on the Sotomayor Pick

David Frum caused eyebrows everywhere to rise by making the counterintuitive claim that the nomination of the very liberal Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is perhaps the best thing that could have happened for conservatives. His reasoning, however, makes sense:

On the other hand, here's the possible good news in the Sotomayor nomination. A conservative legalist friend notes that the all-important 5th vote on the Supreme Court is Justice Anthony Kennedy's. The Reagan-appointed Kennedy has drifted to the left in recent years - in part (it's gossiped) because of his negative reactions to the brilliant but sometimes acerbic Antonin Scalia.

Having lost in 2008, Republicans had no hope of a conservative or even a moderate judicial nominee. What we should therefore be hoping for, my friend continues, is the most personally obnoxious liberal, someone certain to offend and irritate Kennedy - and push him careening back rightward. For this reason, the politic Elena Kagan would be the very worst pick from a conservative point of view. As dean of Harvard Law School, she proved herself adept at wooing conservative support. By contrast, if Jeffrey Rosen's reporting is correct, Sotomayor was almost unanimously disliked by her colleagues on the Second Circuit and even more by their clerks. And she's unlikely to gain humility from this latest promotion... so who could be better?

This is interesting, but there's really no need to find out whether Frum is correct, since the GOP could easily block Ms Sotomayor's appointment. In order to get a nominee to the full Senate for a confirmation vote the Senate Judiciary committee has to give her ten votes, at least one of which has to be from the minority party. With Senator Specter having defected to the Democrats the remaining Republicans could, if they had the resolve, refuse to give that vote to Sotomayor, just as Democrats bottled up numerous Bush appointees to the federal bench and just as many of them voted against John Roberts and Samuel Alito in the full Senate.

It is one of the ironies of politics that Senator Obama, having declared Roberts and Alito both qualified, legally and temperamentally, to serve on the SCOTUS, nevertheless voted against both and led the filibuster against Alito. Now that he's nominated a woman who gives us good reason to doubt her temperament, Republicans are being warned by such as Senator Schumer that they better not oppose her.

Actually, given Sotomayor's judicial philosophy they should, but given the GOP fear of alienating minority groups, they probably won't.

It's remarkable that Democrats had no qualms about savaging Clarence Thomas, Condaleeza Rice, Miguel Estrada, or Alberto Gonzalez, nor did they pay a political price for doing so, but Republican knees turn to jelly at the thought of losing votes they don't have anyway by opposing a Hispanic woman who believes that the role of the judge is to usurp the role of the legislature by making policy. If Republicans don't block Sotomayor it'll be a good example of the GOP's willingness to sacrifice principle to politics and another reason why they languish in the minority in Congress.