Wisdom from The Biologos Conference

I signed up for the live streaming of the Biologos Conference held in Houston last week and have watched most of the plenary lectures. They were all very  good, and I think some were outstanding.

I was moved and inspired by Jim Stump’s (Senior Editor at Biologos) talk. Jim presented a form of logical analysis related to claims by some Christians against the Evolutionary Creationist (EC) position on evolution, which I found to be compelling. He presented four arguments used by either Young Earth Creationists or atheists (sometimes both!) that depend on flawed reasoning. These arguments take the form of a chain of “If A, then B; if B, then C;…”  statements. What Jim convincingly argued was that in each case, at least one –  and usually several – of the conclusions in the chain do not necessarily follow from their premises, making the final conclusion wrong. Here is one of the examples he presented:

  1. If evolution is true,
  2. Then we didn’t descend from only two people,
  3. Therefore there was no Adam and Eve,
  4. Therefore we couldn’t have inherited original sin,
  5. So there is no need for a savior

As Jim pointed out, while B does follow from A, none of the other if-then statements are necessarily correct. Adam and Eve could have existed even if we didn’t all descend from them, and even if they were not the only two people on earth. But even if C is true, D makes no sense unless we assume that  sin is passed on genetically, which also seems doubtful. And, finally, even if D were true, E does not follow. We need a savior because we all sin, whether or not we “inherited” original sin.

After covering three more such fallacious lines of reasoning against evolutionary creationism, Jim gave a moving and insightful summation of many of the core principles behind the Biologos (and EC) world view. While not word for word accurate, and certainly not complete, here are some these thoughts:

God acts in ways that science can describe and in ways that science cannot explain. The center of Christian theology holds. I believe that EC is a good system but I hope your faith is not in a human construct like EC. The center of our faith is a person: it is Christ who holds all things together.

The other speaker that left me breathless, with a sense that the Holy Spirit had entered my soul, was Andy Crouch. He began by speaking about a mystery that I have always wondered about: why people tend to remember painful emotional experiences more than pleasurable ones. We remember all the bad things that are said about us, but very little of the good.

Listening to this, I thought of the fact that people tend to focus on bad news, something I became keenly aware of after publishing my first book (10 years ago) on progress in environmental quality.

As an example, Andy pointed out that it is generally forgotten that one of the earliest and staunchest defenders of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the famous American botanist Asa Gray, was a faithful Christian, but everyone remembers the conflictual Scopes trial. Andy proposed that the persistence of conflict between some Christians and evolution is partially due to the importance of the alienating scorn of people for those on the other side.

Shifting gears, Andy presented a fascinating biphasic model in the form of a cross, where one axis is abundance and the other is order. Genesis 1 makes it clear that God favors abundance, He wants the air to be teeming with birds and the sea teeming with fish. Included in this concept of abundance are variation, surprise, and even randomness. Order refers to the character of our natural created world that makes understanding it through science possible.

Andy’s argument is that we must have both. Abundance without order is chaos. And order without abundance is a machine. “The best time to be an atheist was around 1890” Andy said, since Enlightenment science viewed the world as a machine. Nature was thought to be precisely structured, with no messy parts, no surprises. But that view turned out to be wrong. The 20th century showed, with quantum mechanics, that the world is not a clock but is full of surprising variation and complex twists. Our world has both order and abundance beyond any mechanical ability to describe. Our world is not a machine – nor is life, nor are people, nor is God.  Life is ordered abundance.

Science is not a machine, either, but a human and unpredictable enterprise.  Andy also said something I have been telling grad students for a long time: most of the time,  scientific work simply fails.

And, of course, Christian doctrine is also not a machine: it is flexible, and we are always learning.

I note that both of these talks were by non-scientists, and perhaps the reason they resonated so strongly with me was that I could learn so much from them. This is not to diminish the excellent talks by scientists Deb Haarsma (which I also found to be spiritually very moving), April Maskiewicz, Praveen Sethupathy, or Dennis Venema, all of which were of the highest quality, but mostly confirmed and extended what I already knew, rather than provided me personally with new insights. I am leaving the brilliance of NT Wright and Francis Collins, mentioned in my previous post, in a separate category – I will get back to their wisdom later.

Biologos has promised to make all of these plenary talk videos available in the near future, and if they follow what they did for the first Conference (2015), we should also get access to the audio of the other talks and workshops that include John Walton, Jeff Schloss, Josh Swamidass, Denis Lamoureux, Jennifer Secki Shields, and many others.

Congratulations to Biologos for an outstanding conference.




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7 Responses to Wisdom from The Biologos Conference

  1. resonate47 says:

    A wonderful post, Sy. I loved every bit of that conference. Jim’s talk pretty much brought me to tears. I could really hear his love for Christ shine through in his voice. It got me thinking just how important it is for us in this faith/science dialogue to remember that as much as our beliefs afford intelligent and thoughtful engagement, it’s also a living and loving relationship with Christ that we have, constantly growing and guiding us. That’s such a beautiful thing.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    As an example, Andy pointed out that it is generally forgotten that one of the earliest and staunchest defenders of Darwin’s theory of evolution, the famous American botanist Asa Gray, was a faithful Christian, but everyone remembers the conflictual Scopes trial.

    We haven’t forgotten Asa Gray over at The Hump of the Camel, Sy, though BioLogos appears not to have actually brought his story to people’s attention. I don’t suppose that has anything to do with the detailed critique Gray made of his friend Darwin’s theory, and especially his profound disagreement over divine teleology in adaptation.

    • Jon, I am pretty sure I had no idea that Gray was a Christian until I read your posts about him at Hump. I think it would be great if BL would post abstracts of Andy’s and Jim’s (and maybe some others) talks on their blog to stimulate some discussion. And I agree that the Gray story needs to be much more highlighted by EC folks (which could be one reason that Andy brought it up. I dont know.).

      As far as teleology in evolution is concerned, you know where I stand on it.

  3. resonate47 says:

    Referring to what you said about Andy’s talk, I just came across a “self-help” book published last year about taking insights from computer science and algorithms and applying them to our daily lives, since our brains and computers are so similar and all, so the authors intend to show. Though I love algorithms and find computer science kind of interesting, I’m wary about placing too much stock in this idea. It seems to hint of that tiresome scientism that keeps popping up here and there.

    • You are absolutely right. The concept that our brains and computers are similar is largely a myth. Of course there are superficial similarities (after all we made computers and software and algorithms with our brains) but the differences are critical. Roger Penrose, a brilliant thinker and physicist has written about how vastly superior human brains are compared to any theoretical computing machine. I will look for a link. This might be a good subject for a post or two.

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