Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Whole confusion about cosmic evolution

Recently I was asked to comment on the book, “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love” by Ilia Delio. Here are my thoughts.

I am in sympathy with some of the values and aspirations of the book. I certainly think theology cannot be completely divorced from science, grand narratives are important and inspiring, holistic [rather than reductionist] perspectives can be valuable, community rather than individualism, love trumps all, … However, I have severe reservations on how Ilia Delio tries to justify these perspectives.

Science has such a powerful influence and credibility in our culture that there is pressure for people to claim that their theological and/or political views have a scientific basis. Marx claimed evolution supported communism. Andrew Carnegie claimed evolution supported capitalism. Richard Dawkins claims evolution supports atheism. Some theologians claim evolution supports theism. They can’t all be correct. This problem arises because the philosophical interpretation of any scientific knowledge is debatable. Science is science and philosophy is philosophy.

Most of Ilia Delio’s discussion of science seems to be based on popular books. Unfortunately, most such books oversimplify the actual science and present it with a philosophical baggage and breath-taking implications that many actual scientific practitioners would balk at. For example, Fritjof Capra stopped doing physics more than 30 years ago. He wrote a best seller the “Tao of Physics” that claimed quantum theory supported Eastern religions. A critique is hereDavid Bohm was a very distinguished theoretical physicist, but from the 1960s he pursued speculative ideas such as “implicate order” that are not really taken seriously in academic physics.

Much is made in the book of “quantum entanglement” to justify that we are all interconnected. In the lab one can now create a unique situation where the quantum state of a few atoms are entangled. However, in normal and natural systems atoms are not entangled. The individual atoms and molecules in the cells in your body are not entangled. Furthermore, my wife and I are not entangled! Thus, I find the discussion on pages 24-29 debatable and problematic.

It should be stressed that the term “evolution” used here is not the well-established scientific theory that describes and explains biological change and diversity. This is made clear on the top of page 19. Rather “evolution” is some universal principle that applies to everything! This is just a philosophical claim that has no more scientific basis than my claim that the Biblical narrative provides the grand narrative which makes sense of everything [without scientific details].  Similarly, the Omega point, advocated by Teilhard de Chardin, and described on page 20, is just a philosophical speculation for which there is no scientific evidence.

Overall, though what is most disappointing to me is the lack of confidence in the Biblical narrative to provide the grand story. The standard view of liberal theology is that science has undermined the authority and reliability of the Bible and so we have to look elsewhere and particularly to science for inspiration and guidance. I know there are many subtle issues and people certainly need to give up on simplistic readings of the text; e.g, that Genesis 1-3 is historical/scientific record. However, once you read it theologically, paying due attention to literary genre and historical context, I think the main “conflict” issues are taken care of.

I don’t think we need “evolution” to make sense of the Christian life. Orthodox theology [whether Augustine, Calvin, Barth, St. Francis, ….] does for me. Importing “scientific” categories and concepts may just confuse the issues.

Again I stress I think we do need a more holistic perspective on everything, whether church, politics, the environment, and society. We are all inter-connected. But, I think Scripture has that message too, once we stop reading it through individualistic Western glasses. In case you are interested in my own modest efforts to engage “emergence” with orthodox theology I refer to a paper I wrote on the subject. It may also help see why I think that individual disciplines are actually more or less autonomous. Specifically, quantum physics is not particularly relevant to biology which is not particularly relevant to sociology.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. You have reminded us that we should take science seriously and that even when we do we don't know enough to adopt any supernatural conclusions as our very own.

  2. Should we all be doing more storytelling? The living testimony in real life experience is more poetic than our way which can be overloaded with pedantry and lengthy prose.