The Berkeley boat-rocker
A review of Reason in the Balance — The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education, by Phillip E. Johnson, Intervarsity Press, 1995, 245 pages.
Phillip Johnson would be well known to most readers for his brilliant critique Darwin on Trial. This latest book cannot really be called a sequel; rather, says Johnson, his frontal assault on Darwinism was an essential ‘prequel’ to this one.
As a Berkeley law professor, Johnson is eminently qualified to comment on the broader areas of law, ethics and social breakdown covered here. However, since he frequently blames thought patterns allegedly deriving their authority from ‘science’, it was important for him, as a non-scientist, to first establish his credibility in science/philosophy with Darwin on Trial. He has since handled with ease the attacks of angry establishment figures, and the many debates have further honed his already exquisitely sharp mind.
Reason in the Balance brilliantly exposes the foundational reasons behind the war raging in modern Western culture. Many believers have been baffled by the direction of this war—why, with Christians so numerically strong in the US in particular, has there been so much retreat of Christianity and its ethics from visible society?
Johnson shows that it is the assumptions of naturalism (‘nature is all there is’) which have profoundly influenced the movers and shakers, those in charge of public life. Other Christian writers complain that ‘absolute morality has been replaced by relative ethics’, as if that were an explanation in itself for social decay—but they don’t know or tell why the replacement has happened—Johnson does. If everything just evolved, then it is ‘unscientific’ (interpreted as ‘non-factual’) to propose anything outside of nature. Once it is believed that no standard outside of the natural world is allowable, everything becomes a matter of human opinion. Relativism in ethics is not just some new fad, or the result of global conspiracy, it is a logical outcome for a society heavily educated in naturalistic (evolutionary) science.
Every Christian thinker, especially those active in the ‘culture wars’ (abortion, morality, etc.) needs to read this book. Understanding the thinking of those who regard Christians as ‘the enemy’ is crucial.1
Theology students need to absorb this incisive exposé of the surrender to atheistic presuppositions which is inherent in many theological discourses on the science/religion interface.
Students of the humanities, particularly sociology and psychology, need to be continually aware of the way in which atheistic presuppositions, as logical consequences of Darwinism, have crept into all disciplines. The advent of such things as ‘political correctness’, even deconstructionism, suddenly makes much more sense. Johnson is not only convincing in all this, but exceptionally clear and calm.
US readers in particular will be fascinated by this academic lawyer’s concise analysis of the foundational reasons behind the society-changing impact of many Supreme Court decisions regarding the interpretation of the US Constitution. These inevitably have flow-on consequences in other (especially Western) countries.
All Christians would be far better equipped if they understood what lay behind their own particular country’s ‘culture wars’. Instead of merely getting worked up about the symptoms and trying to fight them only at that level (e.g. lobbying politicians on moral issues), they would be able to focus on the underlying disease (rejection of God as Creator, using the justification of evolutionary ‘science’).
The author of Reason gives little comfort to most ’theistic evolutionists’ (TEs), even though he carefully distances himself from that which they despise, the literal Genesis position. He lays bare the awkward fact that TE scientists have aided and abetted the decline of the Christian ethic by accepting, for all practical purposes, the assumptions of naturalism (nature is all there is) so far as their science is concerned.2
Too hot to handle
Because it keeps the ‘hot potato’ areas (global Flood, recent creation) at arm’s length, this book can be warmly embraced by those (like Hugh Ross and his disciples) who are happy to challenge Darwinian naturalism in biology, but feel acute distaste towards any who challenge similar anti-biblical assumptions in such fields as geology or astronomy. However, unlike Ross, Johnson does not denigrate or misrepresent what I will call ‘straightforward Genesis creationists’.
Are Johnson’s tactics, deliberate or not, good strategy? Naturalism is now so firmly entrenched that even a slight whiff of what he calls ‘theistic realism’ in academia generates instant ridicule to try to marginalize proponents. Doubtless, such attempts at marginalization succeed more easily when aimed at such overtly biblical concepts as recent creation/Flood.
Leading the charge
So even if the Bible is right about earth history, some might say, why not ignore these issues and aim for more achievable victories over naturalism? (First things first, as it were?) Why should not creationists of all persuasions storm the battlements of naturalism by uniting around explicitly theistic assumptions (such as intelligence behind biological design), regardless of differing opinions on the other issues (such as the age of the earth) for the moment?
In the short term, this may seem sensible and appealing, but I fear that in the long run it is a charge down a blind alley. A scientific model capable of seriously challenging the dominant naturalistic one cannot choose to deal purely with biological design, vaguely speculating about intelligence vs non-intelligence; sooner or later it must grapple with the actual flow of events in the history of the universe, the earth and life. And if explicit theistic assumptions are to re-enter scientific debate, the challenge will come—which theos? Johnson’s, as his own book shows, is clearly not divorceable from the God of the Bible.
Therefore, inevitably, even non-Christians will insist that the argument will have to come back to the Bible. And rightly so, since theism in the absence of revelation has no coherent structure, and revelation is meaningless unless presumed reliable, authoritative and comprehensible. Christians in science will need to face the facts which ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, Thomas Huxley, thrust in their faces years ago—that the whole framework of biblical history and soteriology collapses without recent creation/global Flood.3 (See A child may see the folly of it, Creation 17(2):20–22, 1995.)
Nevertheless, I am immensely glad this book exists. At the least, it will wake up many Christians, especially the intelligentsia, to the fact that it is a fool’s paradise to think that one can regard creation/evolution as a ’side issue’; the conflict is at the heart of every issue in thought and life. By pretending that the problem could be solved by popping it into some isolated box called ‘science’, the Church has effectively ‘given away the store’, handing over the reins of cultural power in the West.
Johnson’s important book will help force the issues out on to the table, ultimately assisting the vital, ever-expanding task of biblical creation ministries such as CSF [now CMI]. Those creation scientists (many working at jobs not involved in actual ministry) engaged in constructing a coherent biblical (not merely theistic) model of origins will, I think, be generally tolerant of Johnson’s desire not to go ’all the way’ with them at this stage in history. I highly recommend Reason in the Balance.
- The style and language are different, but the broad social diagnoses are hauntingly similar to many in Ken Ham’s classic The Lie: Evolution. Return to text.
- Polkinghorne and other TEs have retreated to a non-falsifiable definition of God as merely the sustainer of some eternally existing ‘spacetime egg and the ordainer of its quantum laws’. As Johnson points out, such a God is effectively undetectable, and when naturalists/atheists have forced theologians to retreat this far, they have accomplished their purpose. Return to text.
- Even if Rossists were to try to co-operate with literal creationists for the sake of a ‘theistic’ model, how could it work? In their desire to maintain the uniformitarian/naturalistic presuppositions in their own (generally non-biological) disciplines—regardless of the exegetical contortions required—Rossists have ended up placing death, disease and cruelty before the Fall, having apish humanoid creatures without souls before Adam, and such inconsistencies as Noah spending more than a century building an Ark to save creatures (which could have strolled or winged across to a nearby mountain range) from a local Flood. Given all the goodwill in the world, how could such a mish-mash of naturalistic and biblical assumptions ever give rise to a coherent ‘theistic’ onslaught? Return to text.