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Let's Examine the United Methodist Ban on Intelligent Design in Light of Church Teaching

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Take action now: Contact United Methodist officials and urge them to overturn their ban on Discovery Institute.

The refusal of my church, the United Methodist Church (UMC), to permit Discovery Institute a place as an exhibitor at its upcoming General Conference in Portland was based upon a resolution passed in 2008. The resolution states the church's position on education in relationship to "Creationism or Intelligent Design."

But the denial has two more sources (also passed in 2008), one relating to what the church "regards as a legitimate interpretation of God's natural world" and another (oddly enough) that attempted to "adopt fresh ways to respond to the perils that now threaten the integrity of God's creation and the future of God's children." In weighing the ban on intelligent design from an informed Methodist perspective, I would like to consider these before turning to the foundational truths of Methodist theology, in the form of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

It is instructive to examine the petitions in their original form, as approved and now in force, because there the alleged "rationales" for their adoption can be found. The first, "Evolution and Intelligent Design" (Petition 80839), reads in full:

Evolution and Intelligent Design (80839-C1-R9999)

Add a new resolution as follows:

WHEREAS, the United Methodist Church has for many years supported the separation of church and State (paragraph 164, Book of Discipline, 2004, p. 119),

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the General Conference of the United Methodist Church go on record as opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools.

RATIONALE

Creationism and Intelligent Design are appropriate topics in public education classes such as comparative religion, literature, or philosophy since scientific method incorporates critical thinking processes. All truth is God's truth. The promotion of religion or any particular religion in the public schools is contrary to the First Amendment.

This resolution demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what intelligent design (ID) actually is. ID simply is not a religious, faith-based theory; ID merely says that certain features of the natural world are better explained by an intelligent cause than by a random or undirected process. It makes no claims as to who or what may be behind that design.

Of course, ID is not creationism. There is nothing in its definition, programs, or policies that would suggest that, and Discovery Institute has never sought to push ID into public school science classrooms. But if ID is an "appropriate topic" for a variety of classes since "scientific method incorporates critical thinking processes," then isn't it a contradiction to deny Discovery Institute a place at the conference based upon its own stated rationale? But probably there are other things going on here.

"Science and Technology" (Petition 80050) is a resolution that supposedly

removes ambiguities that Christians face while wrestling with differences between literal Biblical interpretations and current scientific understandings. Our concern is that Methodism articulate a position that avoids historical blunders, embraces the scientific knowledge of today, and does so without negating the beauty of our sacred textual metaphors.

The focus here is on Genesis and the creation account. But the essential problem with this resolution is that in an effort to "remove ambiguities" about the Bible and science it creates more by failing to define precisely what those ambiguities are and by further refusing to delineate what is meant by "literal" interpretations. If the goal of this resolution were simply to admit that scientific technologies -- without defining what those technologies are -- can be a "legitimate use of God's natural world," then all would be well and good. But surely this resolution is not suggesting any and all scientific technologies are a "legitimate use of God's natural world."

Would we include abortion here? How about Jack Kevorkian's death machine to facilitate euthanasia? Additionally, this resolution claims "that many apparent scientific references in our Bible and creeds are intended to be metaphorical." Which ones? All of them, some of them, or just those we find problematic? The petition bandies about terms like science and evolution without once defining what they mean. The broad and hazy language raises more questions than it answers.

The resolution emphatically states that "biological evolution" is "not in conflict with theology." If biological evolution is taken to mean change through time or some type of teleological form of common descent (many have been proposed by some brilliant minds -- e.g., Alfred Russel Wallace [1823-1913], St. George Mivart [1827-1900], Henri Bergson [1859-1941], Robert Broom [1866-1951], Fred Hoyle [1915-2001], to name a few), who has said otherwise? Certainly not Discovery Institute!

So What's the Problem?

The real problem most likely can be found in a resolution called "God's Creation and the Church" (Petition 80990), although UMC leaders never actually cited this petition in their interactions with Discovery Institute. Portions of this resolution are simply bizarre. For example, it calls for a "Festival of God's Creation" that is "closest to Earth Day," a celebration more befitting Wiccans than Christians. We are called to stewardship over creation not celebration, which is best reserved for and directed to our Creator.

But the main issue is how it "embraces The Clergy Letter Project, an interdenominational movement with demonstrated successes at ameliorating the mindless battle some Christians pick with science." Part of the Clergy Letter contains language no thoughtful Christian would oppose, such as the claim that "among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator." Another part of the Letter discusses how to interpret the Bible, which intelligent design as a scientific theory does not claim to address. But the third topic of the Letter is evolution. It asserts that "the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests" and it "urges school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge."

Discovery Institute also affirms that the modern theory of evolution should continue to be taught in the science curriculum. It just urges that students should learn more about the current state of evolutionary theory, including scientific controversies over key parts of it that are well-represented in the scientific literature. As for whether "the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth," that depends on how one defines the term, and the Clergy Letter never offers a definition.

At face value, the UMC's endorsement of the Clergy Letter Project certainly does not justify excluding intelligent design proponents from a place in the exhibit hall at the UMC General Conference. For one thing, much of the letter is either irrelevant to intelligent design or its wording is highly ambiguous. More importantly, nothing in the UMC resolution endorsing The Clergy Letter Project claims that The Clergy Letter is the ONLY acceptable approach to science and faith that should be allowed within the UMC. Recommending one approach does not necessarily rule out other approaches, and to interpret this resolution to justify the censorship of any other view is an abuse of power.

Having said this, I admit that those behind these resolutions may have been far more intolerant in their personal views than the text of the resolutions they offered. Given the preoccupation of some United Methodist leaders with the topic of evolution, it does seem that many of them would like to equate unguided evolution (aka Darwinism) with science itself. They haven't succeeded in getting the UMC to officially adopt this view, but they would like to act as if they have (witness the effort to exclude Discovery Institute from the exhibit hall).

Again, I think this is an abuse of church power. But speaking as a Christian and as a United Methodist (not as an intelligent design proponent), I believe there is another very important issue that needs to be addressed: Is the apparent uncritical embrace of unguided evolution by certain UMC leaders really consonant with Methodist theology? These leaders claim that intelligent design is beyond the pale, but in reality it is the unguided Darwinian version of evolution that should raise real concerns.

One of things I honor and respect the most about Methodism is its reliance upon the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is, in effect, a four-fold criteria of analysis and critical examination. "Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason" (see The Book of Discipline, pp. 80-86). Let's see how Darwinism holds up under these standards.

Scripture

Given the fact the Darwinism argues for biological diversity (life in all its abundance) based upon stochastic, random, and wholly blind processes, how does this comport with Scripture? While that is not a question ID would ever ask, for Christians it becomes a critical issue. Many misconstrue the Darwin/ID debate as a battle between Creationism and Science, a formulation favored by most Darwinian evolutionists and one apparently endorsed by the UMC's misguided approval of the three resolutions outlined above.

But this is simply wrong. Two points are key here: 1) Darwinian evolution is not just another scientific theory, it is at heart a materialistic metaphysic; and 2) ID posits no particular designer and, therefore, is not creationism much less Christian fundamentalism. Apparently under the "Creationism versus Science" scenario the first three chapters of Genesis become the battle ground. Thus, the three resolutions, including The Clergy Letter, seek to make the creation account metaphorical, a poetical whimsy if you will. Scripture seems clear, however. Psalm 8, for example, is David's proclamation of God's majesty in nature. The psalmist is at once poetic and descriptive of God's intimate relationship with His creation and His creatures:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that you are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor. (vs. 3-5)

Then there is Psalm 19:1-6. Here the psalmist makes clear that "The heavens declare the glory of God" and "the firmament show His handiwork" in which creation itself daily speaks of God's manifold power and presence in nature. Psalm 104 reiterates this theme.

Yet Darwinian evolution turns the profound profane by making man not a "little lower than the angels" but rather a little higher than the beasts. Such a perversion is full of immediate moral and ethical implications. Instead of God's majesty in creation and His interest in His creatures, Darwinian evolution reduces nature to mindless, purposeless mechanisms -- neither good nor bad nor remotely interested in humanity. Indeed Darwinian evolution proclaims materialism as the supreme truth while other "truths" are relegated to the realm of the subjective -- a hazy world of feelings and fairy tales, nice but vague and ethereal.

How could it be otherwise? Darwin himself did not view man as a being made in God's image. Instead, God was an idea in man's mind. "The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator," he wrote, "does not seem to arise in the mind of man until he has been elevated by long-continued culture" (The Descent of Man). As for purpose and guidance in Nature, Darwin stated, "There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows" (Autobiography).

But Paul spoke less poetically and more directly of God's intimate connection to nature: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse" (Romans 1:20).

Embracing the Darwinian understanding of evolution means embracing materialism, a perspective that at best gives lip service to a vague religiosity while turning Scripture into a mere work of literary effusion, making a mockery of its enlightened metaphors while rejecting any suggestions of design in nature. In stripping God from nature the Bible is either made into pointless poetry or worse -- a lie.

Tradition

Any embrace of Darwinian materialism would also reflect a complete abandonment of Christian and Wesleyan tradition. As to the former a few words are in order. Apparently the idea behind the petitions discussed earlier was to distance the UMC from Young Earth Creationism. But one need not be a creationist to have grave concerns over Darwinian evolution. Augustine warned that the six days of creation were not ordinary days but epochs or periods. In the words of R.F. Baum (d. 1986), "God [according to Augustine and cited approvingly by Thomas Aquinas] originally created not the world that men saw around them, but a world that, over time, would produce the world that men saw, a conception in complete accord with descent with modification or evolution" (Doctors of Modernity: Darwin, Marx, Freud).

But Augustine and Aquinas would have been appalled by Darwin's positivism and materialism. The real problem isn't with evolution, it is with the wholly stochastic and naturalistic mechanisms of Darwinism. In short, Darwinism runs afoul of our Patristic tradition by insisting upon "chance and necessity" through naturalistic selection as the sole viable explanation for the diversity of life.

Darwinism runs afoul of Wesleyan tradition as well. This tradition was most clearly established in John Wesley's Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation, Or a Compendium of Natural Philosophy (1763). William H. Mills tried, in his curious John Wesley an Evolutionist, to make Wesley a prophet of Darwin through his Survey, but, as Methodist minister and scholar Laura Bartels Felleman points out, Mills could make this connection because, "By this time [1893], the work was out of print and difficult to obtain, and Mills reasonably assumed none of his readers were aware of its contents." Mills attempted to make strained links between the Survey and Darwin, Fisk, and Huxley. Felleman is highly skeptical of Mills's claims and believes:

This work is about God's creation and God's attributes. It views the natural order through the eyes of faith and sees in the various components of creation worldly examples that can be used to illuminate the divine characteristics of God. Natural philosophy, according to the Preface to the Survey, should serve one purpose: "to display the invisible things of God, his power, wisdom, and goodness."

Wesley's Survey should not be construed as a creationist work if one means by that a literal young earth rendering of the first three chapters of Genesis. That clearly was not Wesley's intent. Wesley's Survey is an explication of nature not a commentary on Genesis. But he does make it abundantly clear that God's design is evident in His creation -- as evident as it was to Paul in Romans or to Augustine and Aquinas.

Wesley saw in mankind not an evolutionary chain of naturalistic development, but rather the hand of God Himself. Like the natural theologians of his generation, he saw in the form of man divine design. "So fearfully and wonderfully are we made!," he proclaimed. "With what holy fear," he adds, "should we pass the time of our sojourning here below! Trusting for continual preservation, not merely on our own Care, but on the Almighty Hand, which formed the admirable Machine, directs its agency and supports its Being!"

Wesley unquestionably recognized intelligent design in nature and man. The bold expressions of Wesley are precisely the kind of ideas that Darwin wrote against in his life and works. Neither Wesley's view of creation nor his view of evolution (if, in fact, he ever had one) is at issue; the question is, did he view nature as intimately woven into God's fabric of intentionality or did he view God's intentionality as wholly absent in nature? For that matter was evolution -- however construed -- infused with teleology or was it without plan or purpose? Wesley would have found the latter views in each case unthinkable.

Reason

The rationale behind supporting The Clergy Letter was supposedly to ameliorate "the mindless battle some Christians pick with science." But ID has no battle with science; it does have a serious issue with the kind of radical materialism embodied in Darwinian evolution. To dismiss a priori any design in nature on the premise that only naturalistic and positivistic evidence count as science is a seriously limiting view.

Furthermore, there is little attempt to explain how, under Darwinian mechanisms of randomness and chance, God could in any real sense be interested in a personal relationship with His creatures. Would UMC leaders ask us to believe in and support rank materialism in our view of the nature He established, on the one hand, and still embrace a personal triune God with love and compassion for each individual even though our very knowledge of Him is wholly derived, according to Darwin and neo-Darwinists, from thoughtless biological and cultural processes? Such thinking defies reason.

Experience

Finally, we come to experience. It is a sad irony that at the very same time some UMC leaders were giving their full assent to Darwinism, the UMC offered its "Apology for Support of Eugenics" (Petition 81175), referring to the UMC's historic role in that destructive movement:

Eugenics, the belief that certain "genetic" traits are good and others bad, is associated in the public mind mostly with the extreme eugenics policies of Adolf Hitler, which ultimately led to the Holocaust. The study of eugenics did not begin with Hitler or his German scientists, but rather was first promoted by Sir Francis Galton, in England. Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, who expanded on Darwin's theories and applied them to the human population.

The United Methodist General Conference formally apologizes for Methodist leaders and Methodist bodies who in the past supported eugenics as sound science and sound theology. We lament the ways eugenics was used to justify the sterilization of persons deemed less worthy. We lament that Methodist support of eugenics policies was used to keep persons of different races from marrying and forming legally recognized families. We are especially grieved that the politics of eugenics led to the extermination of millions of people by the Nazi government and continues today as "ethnic cleansing" around the world.

This petition was long overdue. Even scholars otherwise sympathetic to Darwinism admit to the untoward consequences of its social applications. Adrian Desmond and James Moore write in their biography Darwin:

"Social Darwinism" is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin's image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start -- "Darwinism" was always intended to explain human society.

Is this the "science" that the UMC apologizes for out of one side of its mouth only to insist on another version of it out of the other? One hopes past experience would have a more chastening effect.

In the end, apparently some in the UMC leadership are opposed to the idea that "there are tell-tale features of living systems and the universe that are best explained by an intelligent cause -- that is, by the conscious choice of a rational agent -- rather than an undirected process" (Meyers, Signature in the Cell). They seem to be more comfortable with Darwin's mindless and unguided version of evolution. I wonder how many of the laity knows this. They should know it now.

Image: John Wesley, by Willam Hamilton, National Portrait Gallery, via Wikicommons.