In Part 1 of this posting, I introduced “the Wesleyan Maneuver,” one of the great BioLogos devices for getting away with an evasive and unsatisfactory account of the relationship between divine action and evolution. Here in Part 2, I wish to illustrate the Maneuver by means of a real example.
Perhaps the most memorable example can be found at:
On this thread, a poster named “Crude” ventured to ask Dr. Dennis Venema – the leading columnist at BioLogos on matters of genetics and evolutionary theory – for his view on the role of God in the evolutionary process. The exchange that followed illustrated many of the typical features of discussions on this subject with BioLogos personnel, including the final resort to the Wesleyan Maneuver. To be sure, the exchange does not perfectly match the idealized pattern given in Part 1, but it is close enough for the purpose of our analysis and critique.
In the first comment (67555) under Venema’s column, Crude asked:
“In your view, is evolution an entirely unguided process? Or was it guided by God, even if not in a way science is capable of detecting?”
One would think that such a straightforward question would generate a straightforward answer. Not so. The immediate reply from Dr. Venema (67556) was:
“Can you define ‘guided’ for me, as you see it?”
One would not think that the everyday English word “guided” was so tricky as to require definition, but Crude did not object, and restated as follows (67563):
“Broadly and for the purposes of this question, guided as in ‘God knew what the results of evolution would be before they took place, perhaps at the moment of creation. And that God likewise had the ability to choose different outcomes either at that beginning or during the process.’”
We would now expect Dr. Venema to be forthcoming with a couple of paragraphs of exposition of his view. Here is what we got instead (67564):
“I’m not trying to be coy here, but much turns on precise definitions. One more question of clarification – if God is omnipotent and omniscient, is there anything at all in the entire cosmos that is, in your view, “unguided”?”
Venema’s procedure is masterful. Without actually defining “guided” himself, and without saying whether or not he thought that evolution was guided, he shifts the question back to Crude. Yet Crude persists, by answering Venema’s question (67565):
“In an ultimate sense? Perhaps not.”
So Crude concedes that in one sense everything could be said to be guided. But of course, with regard to Darwinian evolution, which is a contingent process with no guaranteed outcome, the question is whether God guides evolution in a special way, above and beyond the general sense in which he can be said to “guide” everything. Presumably Crude, having granted a general, universal kind of guidance of all natural events, is now awaiting Venema’s opinion on whether there is, in addition to that, a more particular kind of guidance that dictates particular outcomes of evolution. (Later on, Crude gives examples, e.g., was the emergence of mice guided?)
But Venema at this point drops out of the conversation. He has implicitly promised to answer Crude’s question, if Crude answers his; yet the answer does not come. Does Venema think that, because of Crude’s answer to his question, he is free? Crude does not think so, for he says to “Merv” (67567): “I’m not letting Dennis off the hook. I’m still waiting for his answer.”
Venema does eventually answer, after a delay of two days, during which the argument is taken up for him by Darrel Falk, who engages in a lengthy conversation with Crude. But when he does answer, he picks up not on the original question that Crude had asked him, but on a comment Crude made to Merv (67567):
“I said from the start I’m fine with Dennis explaining what, if any, power he sees God as having over evolution.”
Venema replies (67689):
“Well, If that’s what you’re truly asking, then it’s an easy answer.”
If that’s what Crude was asking? Is Venema questioning the sincerity of Crude’s line of questioning? If so, the effect is rather insulting. But even odder is the implication that Crude’s question was unclear from the start, and is only clear now. I would wager that every reader of the BioLogos thread knew what Crude was getting at from the start, and that Venema understood it, too; thus, had he not decided to make difficulty, he could have saved Crude much effort by answering the question the first time. But be that as it may, he continues:
“I believe God created and continues to sustain the entirety of the cosmos, moment by moment. We observe that sustaining both in what we would call natural mechanisms and supernatural events – both have their source in God, and both are means of His providence.”
Notice that the word “evolution” – used in the reformulation of the question which Venema has just approved – does not appear in Venema’s answer. Instead of talking about what God does in the very specific process of “evolution,” Venema talks about God’s relationship to something much broader and more general – to the “cosmos.” And what Venema says is not clear. He says that God “sustains” the cosmos, with no indication what “sustaining” involves. But as generally used by TE/EC people, “sustaining” refers to a “general” divine action by which the world and its laws are preserved in existence, as opposed to a “particular” divine action by which God interacts uniquely with one part of nature to achieve a particular effect (e.g., the parting of the Red Sea). So Venema’s answer may well imply that there is no special activity of God going on in the evolutionary process.
This impression is confirmed by Venema’s avoidance of the original word used by Crude, “guided.” Even though he now claims to understand what Crude originally meant, he does not return to Crude’s chosen verb. So we are left wondering: is “sustaining” different from “guiding”? If so, how? Is Venema’s answer: “No, God does not guide evolution – he sustains it”? If so, why does he not say so, and then explain the difference between the two?
Venema’s expression “both in what we would call natural mechanisms and supernatural events” confuses matters. First, what is the significance of the caveat “what we would call”? Is Venema suggesting that our understanding of these terms needs correction? If so, why does he not offer the needed correction, rather than leave us guessing what he thinks is inaccurate about the terms? To raise doubts about terminology, and then fail to resolve those doubts, is deeply counterproductive. And second, if there is a valid distinction between natural and supernatural, how does Venema divide up past actions between the two? Does he take the line of most TE/EC people, and say that “supernatural events” occur only in the case of Biblical miracles, whereas all the changes in the evolutionary process are wholly “natural”? Or is he leaving the door open for the possibility of supernatural interventions in the evolutionary process? To mention the two options, without clarifying whether both, or only one, is relevant to evolution, is to confuse matters, when Crude’s question was about the “power … God has over evolution.”