On Mark Vernon and Simon Conway Morris

Mark Vernon, one of this year’s Templeton-Cambridge Science and Religion Journalism fellows, has a lengthy, erudite yet quite readable post on Simon Conway Morris’s talk this year. Conway Morris is a fascinating and brilliant paleobiologist (meaning he studies fossils). It’s almost impossible to capture how Conway Morris talks — his sentences are punctuated by jokes, puns and small dialogues, all referring back to one another and his main point in a spiraling routine of science and stand-up comedy (think Douglas Adams riffing on evolutionary biology). But Vernon, in his post From genes to Jesus, does a good job of summing up Simon’s ideas, starting with the convergence theory of evolution (that different traits evolved repeatedly in different areas and times) and where he diverges from the orthodoxy of evolutionary biology (without diverging from evolution) and why they must still be taken seriously.

Perhaps most notably for a science-and-religion fellowship, Conway Morris is developing a theology of evolution that has nothing to do with intelligent design. A theology of evolution is just plain audacious — as my notes from last year show, Conway Morris himself says “Darwin is not evolution’s Einstein — there isn’t a general theory for biology, as with chemistry and physics.” Coming up with a theology for something that doesn’t have a theory just seems crazy, and Simon himself acknowledges that many of his colleagues think he is “barkingly mad.” But he’s also smart enough and well-read enough to have a shot at pulling it off, and I’ll be interested to see his book when it’s published (I think later this year). Vernon nails it when he writes, “He is clearly a brilliant evolutionist with a strong Christian faith, and an intellect that might apparently bring the two close together.”

Vernon’s synopsis of Conway Morris’s talk is a good one, much better than one I might have done after last year’s talk. He captures much of Simon’s nuance and the way Vernon puts things in context seems generally reliable to me. Except in one area: Vernon’s specific reasons for stumbling over Conway Morris’s Christianity. Conway Morris makes a big deal of the resurrection as a historical event, and there are plenty of people who don’t accept that. Vernon doesn’t like this on a historical basis, a theological basis or even a rhetorical basis (this last seems to me anti-historical on Vernon’s part). I have no issues there; you believe it happened or you don’t. But then Vernon says

“Surely, given the evolution of culture, we’d expect this pretty old insight into reality to be superseded? The ‘search engine’ has not stopped searching and so one would expect it to come up with a better set of metaphysical insights, in much the same way as Ptolemy was succeeded by Newton who was succeeded by quantum mechanics. The problem for Christianity is that it is so tied to the person of Jesus. It is not just a historical revelation, in the sense that its origins can be dated, but in the sense that it is tied to events around those dates too. Conway Morris reinvents the scandal of particularity [note from me: that being the idea that God chose a particular people, the Jews, for revelation, and came to Earth in the form of Jesus Christ].”

And yet the even older insights into reality of Plato Vernon has no issue with, saying they’ve evolved. Vernon’s bio says he was once an Anglican priest, so he certainly knows things I don’t about theology, But I don’t see how he could possibly say that Christianity has remained static for the last 2000 years. Heck, it’s even managed to adopt elements from both Plato and Aristotle at different points in its development. Vernon must know this.

Maybe he was just dashing something off at the end of a long blog post. Because then he asks “How plausible will a return to the specifics of his [Jesus’] life, death and resurrection seem our relatives, say, 10,000 years on?”

Again, perhaps I’m being simplistic, but why would the answer 10,000 years from now be different than it was nearly 2,000 years ago, when the first apostles died without seeing Jesus return? The faith shifted direction right then. Perhaps it’s been a 2000-year rearguard action and in another 1,000 years or so, nobody will care anymore. That seems arbitrary to me. Maybe I’m just not smart enough or learned enough to get where Vernon’s coming from. But it seems to me he’s discounted the basic quest for meaning and how people respond to it. The Jesus story is radical and has a compelling power to it. Even Richard Dawkins wrote an essay entitled “Atheists for Jesus” , and there’s a group called Atheists for Jesus that support the Jesus-as-philosopher ideals from the Sermon on the Mount (which reminds me that Gandhi was once asked if he was a Christian and said that if “I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, ‘Oh, yes, I am a Christian.'”). That might fit very nicely into what Vernon posits will be “some future synthesis of ‘science and the transcendental’,” though this strikes me as almost blather, or maybe it’s Swedenborg meets the future. I can’t quite tell what Vernon means.

He seems to be looking for something beyond mere materialism, and yet unable to see that Simon is, too. Simon told the fellows in my year that “I would rather have a Manichean universe than it be meaningless, nihilistic.”

My own T-C project looked at cognition of religion. Over the last decade, cognitive psychologists have started to coalesce around a theory that across cultures, people by and large have a predisposition towards belief in a higher power or powers. We can talk ourselves out of it, but it’s there on some level (in some ways, this is not a new insight: Marx took great advantage of this tendency in developing Communism, engagingly discussed by Schumpeter in “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”). Then the question becomes if we choose not to talk ourselves out of it, but to accept it, what path do we follow? I can’t begin to psychoanalyze Simon Conway Morris. But he is a scientist. Perhaps, like Keith Ward, a theologian who was also a T-C speaker last year, he feels that the Abrahamic tradition, as old as it is, meshes best with science. Perhaps as is most likely, it simply does come down to Conway Morris’s decision to act on his belief in the historicity of the gospels and the events of Pentecost. In that case, it’s beyond me why Vernon would credit Simon’s potential for being able to develop a theology of evolution. As for me, I’m going to keep an open mind about his chances.

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