How to reconcile God and the Cosmos, or whether such a reconciliation should even be attempted, are questions that have intrigued theologians and philosophers for ages. From the philosophers of antiquity to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham, up to Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Hobbs and David Hume, continuing on to the present with Ian Barbour, Gordon Kaufman, and Nancey Murphy, all and more have grappled in some way with these questions. Murphy's argument is an interesting one, very much worth considering, but not without its problems. A large part of its appeal is based on her taking into account quite recent advances in physics, evolutionary biology, comparative animal behavior, and the cognitive neurosciences, not to mention philosophy and theology, and in particular, the Anabaptist tradition. However this is where part of the problem resides as well: While acknowledging most of the important lacunae relating to her argument in these various narratives, Murphy cannot resist bridging–a bit too speculatively, perhaps–the underlying gaps such lacunae allude to in the attempt to make her argument more convincing. Nonetheless, her position holds some promise for bringing together God and the world in a position of redemptive nonviolence.
Religion and Science: God, Evolution, and the Soul chronicles the proceedings of the first Goshen Conference on Religion and Science. The substance of the volume consists of Murphy's three major addresses, two public lectures and one more private to conference attendees only, along with three discussion transcripts pertaining to the addresses; there is also an editor's preface, notes, and a subject index.
Nancey Murphy is currently Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. From Creighton University where she studied philosophy and psychology she received a B.A. (1973), and from the University of California at Berkeley she obtained a Ph.D. (1980) in philosophy of science. At the Graduate Theological Union she received a Th.D. in theology (1987). Besides being an author and co-editor of numerous books on the intersection between religion and science during the decade of the 90s, one of her more notable achievements was an American Academy of Religion award for excellence and a Templeton prize for noteworthy contributions in science and theology for her first book, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning (Cornell, 1990). She is ordained in the Church of the Brethren.
I shall attempt in this review to briefly outline Murphy's position and argument as principally revealed in her three lectures, without giving away some of the interesting twists and turns her reasoning takes. I will then add clarification drawn from the discussions as seems warranted. At this juncture I hope to fit Murphy's argument within the broader context of an ecumenical and pragmatic analysis of conceiving of a deity who interacts with its creation, a deity who is both perfect and loving in relationship to the whole of creation, In particular, using Murphy's position as part of an epistemic foundation, I shall be arguing - briefly, given space considerations–that it is in our best interests as individuals in community to view the relationship between God and the Cosmos as at least potentially reconcilable, that it is an important problem to work on. Moreover, for scholars interested in this problem, this little book will serve to stimulate their thinking and suggest fruitful avenues for further research.
In short, Nancey Murphy wishes to bring together God and the cosmos, and the academic disciplines which study them, religion and science respectively, by offering a different kind of theory of divine action, that of nonviolence. Murphy addresses the challenge before her by first clarifying the relationship between science, Anabaptism, and what she terms theological anthropology, in lecture one. One of the more telling parts of the lecture was her dealing forthrightly with relatively recent advances in the cognitive neurosciences suggesting a brain and nervous system foundation for capabilities that we have typically reserved for our notion of the soul. Murphy suggests provocatively that we have to acknowledge God's interests in brains and in the notion of the resurrected body, that we should re-acquaint ourselves with what she calls the New Testament idea of "participating in a partially realized Kingdom of God while awaiting its coming in full" (p. 26). Should these emphases of such a theological anthropology take precedence over the traditional idea of soul salvation for eventual placement in a "transcendent heaven"? The raising and contemplation of such questions makes for fascinating reading. Indeed, the first transcribed discussion addresses the issue of resurrection, along with metaphysics and process metaphysics and theology as they relate to the idea of the slow and painful process of redemption. While the discussion is at times confusing and digressive, there are moments of real insight-building, fun and enticing.
In lecture two Murphy showcases her central idea, or set of ideas, what she calls "God's Nonviolent Direct Action". This theory is noteworthy because it makes the case for divine action in both the animate and inanimate realms and the non-human and inanimate realms to be essentially the same. It is an action which is foundationally relational, expressing the deity's love and respect for the integrity, structure, and process of all entities, but reserving the option (?) of helping to move or nudge the entity and the cosmic whole further along the road to salvation. Following John Polkinghorne, Murphy's position presupposes as much the importance of developing a free process defense which accounts for natural disasters and catastrophes, as a free will defense which makes up the crux of her theodicy and accounts for the problem of evil. Both are crucial foundations for her theory.
It is in this second address where, after reviewing the differing traditional views on the relationship between God and the Cosmos, e.g. deism, various forms of theism (interventionism, immanentism, occasionalism, etc.), etc., Murphy attempts to make a case for a kind of divine action that includes bits of interventionism, but not of the traditional sort, made notorious by David Hume, with the Deity superceding or altering the course of nature–acting supernaturally and inconsistently with nature. Her view of theism also includes a kind of immanentism, or omnipresence. She thus prefers divine action over either interventionism or immanentism, suggesting there is enough latitude built into the nature of all entities that the Deity can exert influence as to when an entity will act in accord with its nature, without, as Murphy puts it, overwhelming its own freedom to determine itself, but also constantly and incessantly exerting its (the Deity's) influence.
This is interesting but problematic. Such a move reminds me of compatibilism–which is indeed acknowledged in the first discussion by Murphy–a doctrine put forth by Paul Helm, in his The Providence of God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), to account for the possibility of God determining all human action while at the same time permitting humans to freely act; i.e., to freely act in this view is to act in accordance with one's wants, beliefs, and desires. And, such beliefs and desires can be in accordance with God's beliefs and desires. This notion runs counter to the more traditional notion of freedom; i.e., to act–or be able or be permitted to act–contrary to one's beliefs and desires, to act outside or in contradistinction to, the Deity's beliefs and desires. However, Murphy seems to embrace both concepts of freedom: indeed, her relational view of the Deity requires the created being able to act contrary to the Deity's wishes if the relationship is going to be meaningful, while her version of divine action–an interventionism and immanentism of when–necessitates allowing the Deity to exert its will (in some minor sense nudging or influencing the created? in some sense with the created?) in the interests of fomenting salvation. Can Murphy have it both ways? I don't know. This particular bifurcated notion of freedom in the end may be inherently self-contradictory. In my mind it may be one of the more crucial philosophical and theological problems plaguing her position that needs further attention. In the corresponding discussion one of the participants brought up the question of a "fulcrum", what I took to be the point at which freedom and determinism came together or dissolved. It does not appear to me that Murphy answered the question satisfactorily. She did not see the necessity for such a fulcrum as long as another better articulated competitor position did not exist. The subsequent discussion took some interesting turns into the veiled nature of God and the purpose of prayer and its relationship to the freedom-determinism dichotomy, which many readers should find quite stimulating.
In the third, final, relatively short, and more private address to the conference participants, Murphy gives an Anabaptist's (her) view of evolution. After helpfully reviewing the numerous and varied kinds of responses to Darwinian evolutionary theory, Murphy contends that what should be at issue is the neglect of most of these responses to acknowledge God's working through creation in numerous, natural, and consistent ways, i.e., God's incessant direct action on the cosmos. Of course, this brings her to the problem of "nature red in tooth and claw," to which she suggests that, among other things, this characterization does not necessarily capture the essence of relations in nature. She juxtaposes with this predator-prey view the possibility of peace-making and reconciliation, citing some anecdotal evidence of Frans de Waal, the noted primatologist (see his Peacemaking Among the Primates, 1989). While interesting to consider of course, part of the problem with this work is its not being confirmed in more controlled laboratory studies, i.e., it is very much an open question just how deliberately altruistic, as opposed to self-serving, and just how deliberate, per se, is the action of which these anecdotes highlight (see Povinelli and Giambrone, "Reasoning about beliefs: A human specialization?" Child Development, 72: 3 (2001), 691-695). In the corresponding and final discussion, much attention is paid to speculating about the motives of the various anti-Darwinian evolutionists (the young-earth creationists, the intelligent design movement, etc.), with stops along the way readdressing to some extent the problem of divine action versus interventionism alluded to above, and the more general fundamental problem of reconciling moral and natural law. As with all such discussions, more questions are raised than answers given, but the various twists and turns are fun for the reader to take.
There are not many volumes like this which include transcribed discussions relating to the more formal and polished lectures of a major player in the murky boundary waters of the intersection of religion and science. Nancey Murphy, Carl S. Helrich (editor of the volume), and Goshen College should be congratulated on having the temerity to publish a volume including such discussions, with their moments of tautology, the hopeless morass of obscure pedantry, the talking past one-another, the inevitable price one must pay sometimes for the freedom to discuss whatever one believes is relevant to the matter at hand. But such discussions also ring with their moments of brilliance–sometimes the best that one could hope for in a discussion, building on each participant's insights to reach new and higher levels of understanding of the matter at hand. And the matter at hand, the possible reconciliation of religion and science, is even more crucial now than ever before to take seriously.
One of the virtues of Nancey Murphy's position, especially given the tenor of the times, is its nonviolent focus. It attempts to bring together what may be one of the crucial theological frameworks–non-coercive redemption–necessary for establishing an ecumenical embracing of the numerous major religious views, with what is being learned about the created world, both animate and inanimate, via the application of the scientific method. It seems imperative that work continues on this project in such a way that the respective developing views of religion–God–and science–the cosmos–serve to keep each other honest. It is only then that for whom it is important, the hope of the promised land may eventually be realized, where freedom on all levels and among all entities accord with the will of God.
In conclusion, Murphy and Helrich and all of the participants do the outlines of such a project justice in this readable little book, suitable for undergraduates and graduate students alike for an introduction to the issues. For scholars in this area, this slim volume serves as a provocative and stimulating agenda of reconciliation of religion and science, however tentative and loose in the center and around the edges at this point it might be. At the very least, in this reviewer's opinion, the publication of this volume accomplishes the hope of the editor, Carl S. Helrich, to "convey, in some sense, the atmosphere and hospitality of Goshen College" (p. 10). Indeed, the life of the mind seems quite at home there.
Paul T. Lewis
Professor of Psychology and Philosophy