Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Dome of Eden, by Stephen H Webb




Catholic convert and philosopher Stephen H Webb offers many valuable contributions and says much that I agree with yet I found much in this book frustrating. For a theology book, it's an unusually thrilling read; Webb gives us one exciting idea or fascinating thought on practically every page.

Stephen Webb accepts the fact of evolution. He does not deny the theory, though occasionally he seems to suggest that there are scientific problems with evolution and that there are grounds for the arguments of Intelligent Design. Nevertheless, despite not disputing the fact of biological evolution, he feels that Christian theologians have failed to reconcile evolution with a Christian worldview. He berates the advocates of theistic evolution for failing to see the problems with evolution as a Divine work. His argument is that evolution involves a struggle for survival which involves an acceptable level of animal suffering. Such natural evil, in his view, is incompatible with the loving God we find in Scripture.

Webb's solution is to argue that evolution is to a large extent the work of Satan and not God. He does this by arguing for the Gap Theory, that is a gap between Genesis 1 and 2, during which Satan rebelled and the original creation fell into ruin. The millions of years of geological time occurred during this gap. The extinction of one species after another and the devopment of predatory and parasitic forms of life result from Satan's interference in creation during this time of chaos.

I was already familiar with this idea, having read the work of Open Theist Greg Boyd seven years ago. In God at War and Satan and the Problem of Evil, Boyd made the same argument that the high level of suffering in nature should be accounted for by the activities of Satan and evil celestial powers during the Genesis gap. I wholeheartedly adopted this view at the time, despite rejecting Boyd's Open Theism. I have not completely rejected it. I am not completely sure how I interpret Genesis chapter 1 these days, but I have never shaken off the idea of the Gap Theory and it still remains my default view. I think a strong case can be made for a pre-cosmic fall. I was a little surprised that Webb did not make any reference to Boyd until half-way through the book. Given the similarity of Webb's view to Boyd's, I think it would have been polite to have mentioned him a little earlier.

While I think Webb (and Greg Boyd) is correct in adopting some form of Gap Theory and a primordial fall of Satan, I am not so convinced these days that it is right to attribute predation in nature to Satan. Webb is of very conscious about the fact that this seems close to Gnosticism. He offers the somewhat weak argument that the Gnostics might have been along the right lines to some extent in denying aspects of the creation were not the work of God. He is also aware that some passages of Scripture seem to imply that predation is a fundamental part of creation and demonstrates God's glory, such as Psalm 147 (146). Our author suggests that such passages demonstrate God's providential care without indicating that predation was part of God's original design, which is not altogether convincing. I am simply not convinced that the Scriptures share Webb's view of natural evil. I can't help suspecting that Webb's horror at animal suffering is a result of modern sentimentality and would not be shared by the authors of Scripture. I do see a tendency in some theologians and Bible scholars towards sentimentality towards animals.

Webb has other thoughts on Genesis chapter 1. He also argues that the days of Genesis 1 concern not the creation of the entire cosmos, but only the Garden of Eden, a particular location on Earth. This was God's attempt to establish a perfect microcosmos, free from the effects of Satan's fall. It was inhabited by non-predatory animals living in harmony, a kind of Platonic realm of ideal animals, as they would have been had there been no Darwinian evolution. He argues that the firmament or dome (which creationists use to think was a water canopy surrounding the Earth) was a protective barrier, separating Eden from the chaos of the fallen cosmos. I think the idea of Genesis 1 dealing with the formation of Eden is a good move and harmonizes well with the approaches of John Walton's cosmic temple theory or John Sailhamer's promised land theory of Genesis 1. I am not so sure about how Webb approaches the firmament. As an argument against the creationist canopy theory, he refers to the fact that the sun and stars seem to be within the firmament. This would seem to be a problem with the firmament surrounding only the Garden of Eden and not the whole cosmos. Not that it matters much, but Webb seems to be unaware that the Young Earth Creationists have largely abandoned the water canopy theory.

Our author seems to want to argue that God is in some sense corporeal. This is among several criticisms he makes of classic theism. This is a bold claim and he never outlines in exactly what sense he thinks that God has a body. I suppose he must give a clearer idea of this in his book on the metaphysics of matter, but it would have been nice if he had given us some clearer indications of his thoughts in this book. He rather misleadingly implies that theologians prior to St. Augustine did not hold to the incorporeality of God. I'm a little bothered that for a Catholic writer, he shows little concern in demonstrating that his views in this area are in harmony with the teaching of the Magisterium. Either he assumes that they we know they are, he assumes the reader does not care, or he does not care if he has strayed from orthodox teaching. I rather hope that it is not the latter.

One really valuable contribution that this book makes is in the case it makes for the Scotist view of the primacy of Christ's incarnation, that is that if the Fall had not occurred, the incarnation would still have taken place. This is something I very much agree with and the implications for out theology are enormous. If the Scotist view is correct, then all of creation, all matter is created for Christ. Our humanity is created for the very purpose of union with God. He uses this to make an interesting argument for the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Of everything in the book, it is this defence of the Primacy of Christ that impacted most on me.

Given that Stephen Webb accepts the fact of evolution, I found it surprising that he takes such a harsh and combative tone towards evolutionists. He insists on referring to them as Darwinians, even though evolutionists have pointed out that this is a misleading term. He is of course, primarily criticising the moral and philosophical implications of evolution, nevertheless, once or twice he defends the scientific criticisms of evolution made by the Intelligent Design advocates. I think evolutionists reading the book are likely to be put too much on the defensive. I think this book would have really benefited from a much more irenic tone. At times, the author comes across as a little bit cocky in his willingness to dismiss the ideas of others and to adopt radical views. He also makes the old implication that evolution is a 'theory in crisis,' which is something that creationists have been claiming for decades. There is no doubt about evolution in the scientific community.

I think this is an enjoyable and fascinating book, despite its flaws. One thing that really impresses me about Stephen H Webb in this is his high view of the Bible. He really takes the authority of Scriputre seriously, which is not always readily seen in Catholic writers.

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