Creator God: The Debate on Intelligent Design

By Steinmetz, David C. | The Christian Century, December 27, 2005 | Go to article overview

Creator God: The Debate on Intelligent Design


Steinmetz, David C., The Christian Century


Intelligent design is the theory that the universe is too complex a place to be accounted for by an appeal to natural selection and the random processes of evolution. Some kind of overarching intellect must have been at work in the design of the natural order.

In principle, intelligent design is religion-neutral. The intelligent designer is not named and no claim is made that the designer is the Christian God. But in fact, intelligent design is mainly advocated in America by conservative Christians, who regard the account of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific description of the origin of the world.

When the members of the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania, a small community near Harrisburg, required students to read a short statement concerning intelligent design before studying ninth-grade biology, they met stiff resistance from some parents and teachers. The result was a court case in Harrisburg that will be adjudicated in January.

It is easy to understand why intelligent design appeals to conservative Christians. As long as all Christians, conservative and liberal alike, confess that their God is the "Maker of heaven and earth" and the "Creator of all things, visible and invisible," they are on record as supporters of what looks for all the world like intelligent design. Christians have always brushed aside the notion that the world is self-generating, a random concatenation of miscellaneous atoms accidentally thrown together by no one in particular and serving no larger purpose than their own survival. The first article of the Christian creed could not be clearer: the world exists by the will of God. No intelligent designer, no world.

What less conservative Christians are not committed to is the idea that intelligent design excludes the possibility of evolution. For example, the Roman Catholic Church has informally taken the position that evolution is one of the tools God used in the creation of the world. Cardinal Christoph Schonborn has even argued that a scientist who uses evolution as the grounds for atheism is speaking as an amateur theologian, not as a professional scientist. Science has no answer to the question of whether there is a God.

Nonfundamentalists are similarly skeptical of the idea that the biblical story of creation is a scientific account that should be read as literally as possible. As long ago as the third century the great biblical scholar Origen raised substantial doubts about whether a literal reading of the story made good theological sense. In his view, readers should distinguish between stories that are both true and factual (like the story of the crucifixion of Jesus) and those that are true but not factual (like the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son).

Was there actually a good Samaritan who helped a Jew wounded by thieves, or a prodigal son who wasted his father's substance in riotous living? Who knows, and even more important, who ultimately cares? The power of the stories is independent of the question of whether they actually happened in space and time.

The same is true for the account of creation. Origen could not believe that light and darkness existed before there were sun, moon and stars. Or that the invisible and transcendent God took a daily stroll in the Garden of Eden to enjoy the evening breezes, like a squire surveying his estates. Or that the Maker of heaven and earth could not locate Adam and Eve when they hid from him, and had to ask them to show themselves.

These "absurdities" (as Origen labeled them) were unsubtle hints from God that he wanted the account of creation read in an altogether different way, not as history but as truth "in the semblance of history." Truth embedded in "the semblance of history" is truth conveyed through fiction. But truth conveyed through fiction is still God's truth. No one has an excuse not to pay attention to it.

Origen was aware that it is possible to devote oneself to the study of the world and not conclude that it was made by God. …

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