Huyssteen, Design in twentieth century: new forms and new challenges

One might think that Darwin had dealt arguments from design the decisive blow, but the argument arose with new vitality in the twentieth century. The shape was, however, no longer examination of the particular instances of design but the general principles behind apparent design. In a manner parallel to what happened with Newton’s discovery of physical laws, with Darwin’s discovery of principles of natural selection the theological interest shifted from particular divine interventions to the wider divine design.

What makes mutation and natural selection work in the way that it does? How did material existence come to be self-organizing in the way that it is? This approach began taking shape in the 1920s with the work of Frederick R. Tennant in Philosophical Theology (1928–1930). He presents a fresh discussion of the teleological argument pointing to six kinds of adaptation that seem to evidence design and, when taken together, to point toward a theistic interpretation:

(1) The intelligibility of the world.

(2) The adaptation of living organisms to their environment.

(3) The ways in which inorganic life is conducive to the emergence and maintenance of life.

(4) The way in which the natural environment nurtures moral development in human beings through coping with hardships.

(5) The overall progressiveness of the evolutionary process.

(6) The aesthetic value of nature.

Here, in rudimentary form, are the elements of what became the argument from design in the contemporary discussion—the intelligibility of the universe and its suitability for life. Interestingly, these newly emerging forms of the argument arise from science, while some of the direct challenges to grounding intelligent design thinking in observations of the natural world come from of theology.

Theologian Karl Barth, for example, exemplifies a twentieth-century theological disillusionment with natural theology—the idea that there is a point of contact whereby one may easily perceive who God is by studying the natural world. Barth’s context, Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, shaped his theological critique. The risk of natural theology is that what one discovers will not be God, but one’s own reflection, which one then names as God. It is too easy to find God in one’s race, culture, and interests. Barth observed the failure of Protestant liberalism to issue a prophetic challenge.

He insisted on the prophetic distance of revelation over against the “culture Christianity” of his day. So the early Barth said no (Nein!) to natural theology and cautioned that God is “wholly other.” A second theological challenge to intelligent design thinking arose in twentieth-century experience with the problem of evil. This is not a new challenge, but one to which any form of the argument from design (in any age) has to give a thoughtful response. But during the twentieth century, the challenge of the problem of evil was sharpened in new ways. The optimism of the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century was severely chastened. With two world wars, the Holocaust, and ethnic cleansing, evil has proven too pervasive and too heinous to be dismissed as a brief passage on the way to God’s good ends, the necessary dark shades in God’s beautiful painting.

Theological responses to this challenge have been mixed. In response to the problem of evil, for example, some maintain design, by which they mean a kind of divine blueprint is working itself out inexorably and in all its detail. If one could but see world processes from God’s perspective, all evil would be only apparently evil, a matter of one’s limited perspective or a necessary means to some greater good. Other theologians, especially process theologians, are willing to rethink the meaning of design in the face of evil. If absolutely everything that happens comes about by God’s design, then what does one make of all the blind alleys, waste, suffering, and evil that have attended this process so carefully designed and closely controlled by God?


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