The Creation of History

I took a research trip in September to the University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections to look at the records of the 1959 Darwin Centennial Celebration.  I was hoping to find material to use in a talk at the History of Science Society meeting two months later.  That talk discussed the way that the interpretation of William Paley as a scientific foil to Darwin gradually evolved over two centuries.  My efforts to find any trace of Paley being invoked at the conference led me in turn to Jaroslav Pelikan’s address at the “Proceedings of the Institute on Science and Theology” which ran in conjunction with the main conference.  It was not until recently that I was able to listen to an audio recording of Pelikan’s address (thanks to the Library’s willingness to have the original reel-to-reel recording reformatted) Pelikan’s paper was published in both the third volume of the conference proceedings and then in the Journal of Religion (available online via Jstor.)  It contains what appears to be the only mention of Paley at the conference.  But that mention comes in a very strange context.

Pelikan’s principle statement about Paley—”Providence over Nature, as formulated by writers like Paley in his Natural Theology, could not stand if Darwin was right.” is wrong.  But it’s wrong in a way that seems consistent with the Paley-as-Darwin’s-Foil trope that seems to have had a resurgence right around 1959: where Paley was seen as incompatible with Darwin but was not yet depicted as presenting a scientific explanation for natural complexity that Darwinism refutes.  From this one statement, it would be easy to conclude that Pelikan had a naïve view of Paley.  But Pelikan only mentions Paley  tangentially; it seems that he only did so in order to connect his talk to the Darwin-themed conference rather than Paley really being part of the argument of his paper.  By 1959, it appears, invoking Paley had already become a shorthand for referencing pre-Darwinian thought (in general).

And that’s what I find so strange, because Pelikan’s paper is an exploration of the idea of “creation” and he points out an interesting evolution in the way that it was understood in the history of theology.  In brief, there’s a gradual distinction drawn between creation in the sense of creating something by assembling matter in a purposeful way, and creating something ex nihilo — out of nothing.  Pelikan argues that in the Old Testament both forms or creation are described the same way, when done by the deity, and in some cases it’s unclear whether creation needs to be understood in one way or the other.  That Genesis 1 could be understood as God co-existing with unformed matter and creating the world by giving it form, direction and purpose.  But by the early centuries of the Christian era, the distinction is drawn sharply and Tertullian (according to Pelikan) is the first to give “a full-scale refutation of the claim that matter existed before creation. Creation must mean creatio ex nihilo, even though the creation accounts do not say this in so many words.”  Later, creation from assembly of matter came to be seen as not a type of “creation” at all. The insistence that God’s act of creation was a singular miraculous event, rather than an ongoing act of creation through the operation of matter in nature (Pelikan argues) paralleled a distinction that emerged out of the Reformation: that the redemptive sacrifice of Christ was also singular, as opposed to recurring in the sacrificial nature of the mass.  So the interpretation of creation was bound up with debates over the nature of the eucharist, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and more generally the political quarrels of the Reformation and religion in Christian Europe.

So by a series of steps the meaning of a term shifts, and at each stage, the differences between old and new iterations of the term become pinned to other religious and/or political ideas, which compels at least some people to re-emphasize the differences between them.

I’m not an expert on early church history at all, but if anyone who reads this wants to weigh in on the Pelikan’s account of this history, I’d love to hear it.  It seems that several writers on science and religion after Pelikan have made similar points.  Ian Barbour (for example) even cites Pelikan’s article.  And more generally, it seems that the idea of “continuing creation” has found quite a lot of traction in the science-religion dialogue.  Perhaps Pelikan’s historical account of “creation” has also influenced that science-religion field.

But what I personally find conflicting in this article is that it can be such a clear explication of the history of ideas about creation and yet almost unreflectively typecast Paley, when the essay’s discussing a question about creation that Paley’s evidently interested in.  It’s strange because, to me, a discussion of Paley’s Natural Theology could actually strengthen Pelikan’s case.

I wouldn’t have put it this way before, but it might be fair to say that part of Paley’s goal in the Natural Theology is to demonstrate that the initial creator (ex nihilo) is the same entity as the continuing creator.  At one point, Paley writes: “it is as though one Being should have fixed certain rules and, if we may so speak, provided certain materials; [the creatio ex nihilo] and, afterwards, have committed to another Being, out of these materials, and in subordination to these rules, the task of drawing forth a creation [the creation by assembly.]”

In effect, Paley goes on to say that the fact that the continuing creation can lead to contrivances that go on to make further use of the fixed rules to achieve purposes is evidence that the two creative aspects are unified—that there’s a single unitary Deity behind it.

Because of a brief reference in the audio recording of the conference that does not appear in his published paper, I think it’s fair to say that Pelikan was suggesting that this debate about what creation meant was of major importance in 18th century Christian religious thought.  If that’s true, then Paley—writing just after the 18th century—seems to be responding to that debate by arguing for a reconciliation between the sides.  Of course that’s not the only thing Paley was doing, but it’s another context to consider in understanding the Natural Theology.

Getting back to my overall project concerning the ways people read and interpreted Paley: I’m not surprised that historians of science tend to dismiss Paley, but if ever a reader in the mid-20th century ought to have found something meaningful in Paley, it ought to have been a historian of theology asking exactly the questions Pelikan asked.  The fact that he invokes Paley in such a way only leaves me with more questions.  But new ones!

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5 thoughts on “The Creation of History

  1. Pingback: The Creation Debate as co-created spectacle | Trying Biology

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