Intelligent Design and God
The idea of God as 'Intelligent Designer', overseer of all Creation, the All-knowing Planner - is fashionable these days. Maybe that's because it suits the new triumphalist Christianity - it involves choice, election, favour - and unique divine access for us.
by Michael Morwood
On August 6, 2005, the Melbourne Age carried a front page story, "Creation crusade marches again, under a new banner." The Campus Crusade for Christ, following a trend in the United States, is pushing to have the intelligent design theory taught in every high school in Australia. The theory proposes that Darwin's evolutionary theory is wrong because it fails to acknowledge an intelligent design at work in the complex development of life. The push has the blessing of Monsignor Peter Elliott, overseer of religious education for the Archdiocese of Melbourne. He is "a great supporter" of intelligent design. This is hardly surprising, since the theory is beloved by Christian fundamentalists who use it to demonstrate that God created life. The argument is relatively simple: life and its development are so complex that a higher intelligence must be involved. It is merely a short hop, step and jump from there to the theological conclusion that the God in which Christians believe is the necessary higher intelligence.
This is a neat answer, but it is motivated by blinkered theological parameters, especially those surrounding the traditional Christian notion of God. The end result is a stand-off between scientists who continue to reject this notion of God and Christians who continue to demand that their God be acknowledged as the higher intelligence ordering the universe.
"Intelligent design" is a loaded term. It is not surprising that scientists are sceptical about its use. It too readily suggests an intelligent designer working to a plan, as if billions of years ago when a supernova exploded scattering the stardust of which we are made, a Grand Designer had a long-range plan in mind. That, for the scientists, is a leap of religious faith, not scientific data.
It is a pity that the debate or the discussion about God and life gets off to such an unfortunate start. It would be better to enter discussion, not with a focus on intelligent design but with a focus on "mind" operating all through the universe, taking a lead from Bede Griffith who wrote in A New Vision of Reality, "There is an organizing power at every level and this organizing power has the character of mind." The scientific community would generally accept that from the galactic to the sub-atomic world there is an "organizing power" holding everything in connectedness and relatedness. This is vastly different from the suggestion of a design in process, as if an intelligent source somewhere had a goal in mind. The scientific community would not deny that the human species gives expression to this power in a wonderful way. Scientists, no less than Christians, can wonder and marvel at the cosmic journey of stardust into a life form with conscious awareness.
The common ground, then, between scientists and Christians wanting to explore their understanding of God (rather than Christians wanting to remain locked into traditional or popular notions of God) is the universal presence of mind on which everything depends for connectedness. This organizing power or presence need not be a designing mechanism (or Mechanic), but rather a power holding everything in connectedness as encounters take their course over billions of years. Nor would we want to identify this power with God. The wise move would be to allow recognition of this power at work throughout the vastness of the universe to lead us to examine our understanding of God and God's presence throughout the universe.
Christians who want to acclaim scientific acceptance of mind at work in the universe and want to build on this to shape their understanding of God and humanity's basic relationship with God should then be rigorous in their intellectual pursuit of where this data leads. It certainly does not lead to an Intelligent Designer in the form of a Supreme Being, an Almighty, All-knowing deity. It does not lead to the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. It does not lead to the God of Christian dogmas. It does not lead to a Personal God who thinks, plans, oversees, chooses some people and not others, intervenes, reacts when offended, and sends "His" Son down from heaven. No, if we now want to explore our understanding of God using this scientific data, then we have to take seriously the everywhere nature of this God.
Christian tradition gives lip-service to God being everywhere, but the focus has consistently been on the elsewhere God, the localized Supreme Being, because this notion fits in with its theology of salvation and its claim to have unique access to this God through Jesus. It is to this notion of God that Christian proponents of intelligent design hop, skip and jump as if mind operating throughout the universe proves the existence of this human construct. Not only does it not prove it, it does not even remotely lead there. Rather, it demands we ask some interesting questions about God. For example:
If by "God" we are acknowledging a presence active throughout the universe (while not wanting to limit God to this), how can this everywhere presence be a "personal" reality?
If by "God" we are acknowledging a presence active throughout the universe, when will Christianity return to its source, Jesus, and with him acknowledge that presence in everyone who lives in love?
If by "God" we are acknowledging a presence throughout the universe, when will Christianity admit its mistake in interpreting Jesus as the unique connector with God and return to acclaiming him as revealer of who we really are - people who live in God.
If by "God" we are acknowledging a presence active throughout the universe, when will Christianity die to its claim of unique access to this presence?
There's the rub, isn't it? The Intelligent Designer, Personal God, Overseer of all Creation, the All-knowing Planner concept of God who reacts to humanity's fall from grace suits Christianity because it involves choice, election, favour, and unique access. It gives hope to people who immerse themselves in biblical fundamentalism. It also gives identity and authority to institutional Christianity based on ignoring Jesus' preaching about God-in-our-midst in favour of interpreting Jesus as the connector and mediator between a fallen race and an elsewhere God.
A sad feature in this is institutional Catholicism's intellectual dishonesty and incompetence. Dishonesty? Definitely. It is dishonest in these times to quote "No one can come to the Father except through me" from John's Gospel as if (a) Jesus actually said these words, and (b) to prove that only through Jesus can humanity have access to God. Yet the present Pope does it. The Catholic Catechism does it. Cardinal George Pell does it. They do this turning a blind eye to the clear evidence in the earlier Gospels that Jesus never taught this. It is time for some honest recognition of this, together with an explanation of why the Christian community came to put such emphasis on this passage and neglect the earlier, clear teaching of Jesus. When will light dawn that Christianity cannot continue to proclaim that in loving we live in God and God lives in us while at the same time insisting that people before Jesus could not possibly have lived in God and God have lived in them? Or, that baptism makes people "children of God" - as if love and being neighbour and decent human beings had nothing to do with giving expression to God's presence?
Catholic institutional leadership refuses to look at the issues and questions being raised by contemporary scientific data about the universality of God's presence and the very nature of God, choosing instead to remain locked into the issues and questions of a religious worldview in which humanity lost access to an Elsewhere God who then sent His Son "down" to earth so that humankind could have connection restored again. It is that God, and that God only that Church leadership is interested in. Never mind that the scientific data about our universe and the universality of the power at work in it makes that God look like a tribal Lord who became upset because his plans were not followed, punishes when he is disobeyed, plays favourites, intervenes in worldly affairs when he wants to, and shares his thoughts on important issues with a select few, usually males. It is not surprising that many scientists recoil at the idea of any scientific data giving support to belief in that God. And that's the pity in the debate about intelligent design: it is being driven by Christians who are not open to having their concept of God being challenged by the data presented by the scientific world.
Michael Morwood is a laicised priest known throughout Australia and overseas for his work in spirituality and adult faith development. His books, God Is Near: Understanding a Changing Church (1992) and Tomorrow's Catholic: Understanding God and Jesus in a New Millennium (1997) were runaway bestsellers. He was silenced by the then Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, in 1998. He resigned from the priesthood later that year after he was banned in a further four dioceses. Recent books Is Jesus God? Finding our Faith (2001), and Praying a New Story (2004) deal with faith questions and the scientific (evolutionary) worldview.