Suter Science Seminar

A student response to
Dr. Howard Van Till “Do We Live in an Evolving Creation? Traditional and Process Theology Perspectives”
by Jason Hostetter, Anny Smucker and Maggie Parker – March 26, 2007

Dr. Howard Van Till, emeritus professor of Physics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan outlined several perspectives regarding the nature of the universe and how it came to be. He assumes that the universe has a formational history that natural science has access to which is discovered through observation, analysis, and human curiosity. Humans formulate theories on the basis of what we know or what we think we know. Dr. Van Till states that we assume our universe has the right resources, capabilities and potentialities or the “right stuff” to create every type of physical structure in history without supernatural intervention. He also calls this the “robust formational economy of the universe” or the “right stuff universe principle”. These terms signify that there are no gaps in creational history that need to be filled by a supernatural entity. Therefore, God’s role in the creational formation of the Earth is not dependent on gaps in scientific knowledge. Van Till asked the question “Do we live in a right stuff universe?” and presented answers from five distinct perspectives.

The first perspective examined was the natural sciences which assume a robust formational economy but provides no meaning or purpose for the end result. The natural sciences attempt to explain how the universe got here but can not explain why the universe is this way and not another way. The second perspective is one of episodic creationism where supernatural powers are assumed to fill in the gaps in our naturalistic knowledge base. This perspective would not accept the “right stuff” universe principle because it eliminates the need for a God to fill in the gaps. Extreme naturalism or naturalistic atheism on the other hand, assumes that nothing is missing from the universe and therefore rejects the existence of a God or ultimate meaning in the universe. After outlining these three common perspectives, Dr. Van Till presents two lesser known views he feels do a better job of explaining the origins of our universe and their meaning.

The view Dr. Van Till has spent the most time developing he calls “fully gifted creation”. The first assumption in this view is that the universe is a creation only because the Creator has given it being and continues to allow it to have being. This creation includes the robust formational economy of resources present in the naturalistic views. Each of these resources can be celebrated as a gift of being from the Creator suggesting His creativity and generosity. The more robust the gift of creation is the more respect and awe should be given to the Creator. In this way Dr. Van Till’s robust formational economy does not eliminate God’s role as Creator but rather owes its very existence to Him.

The last perspective Dr. Van Till presented was Naturalistic Theism or Process Theology. He recently discovered this view which is based on events and processes instead of being substance or object based. In this view the relationship between God and the world is essential to His existence. Therefore, there has always been both a God and a world but God is above the world. This view also stresses that God’s action is persuasive rather than coercive. Since God is not coercive episodic creation is not accepted. The “right stuff” universe principle is true but God’s persuasive action has been highly influential and beneficial in forming the creation.

Dr. Van Till closed by addressing his views on the war between Christianity and science. He states that the “right stuff” universe principle is not exclusively owned by extreme naturalism but is also accepted by at least two Christian perspectives. He wants more collaboration, discussion, and realization of common ground between the two extremes.

Respondent 1: Dr. William Hawk

Dr. William Hawk began by stating that the “right stuff” universe principle is a powerful claim but generally supports Dr. Van Till’s viewpoints. The one problem he pointed out was that the cosmos had full potential to become creation but there is no way of saying what actualized this potential. He outlined three advantages to the “right stuff” universe principle. It presents a comprehensive explanation of the universe, gives a basis for reverence of creation (leading to environmental concerns), and is intellectually challenging with a spiritually rich concept of God.

Respondent 2: Taz Daughtrey

Daughtrey responded with a few main points in support of Dr. Van Till. He appreciated that Dr. Van Till emphasized that God is more than a gap filling god because when gaps are filled by science, people tend to retreat from religion. Instead of supporting the term “supernatural” which represents God’s power over creation, Daughtrey coined the term “infranatural” which signifies that God provides a foundational support for creation. Like Dr. Van Till, Daughtrey views the warfare between science and Christianity as detrimental and believes the tension should be positive and enriching. He truly believes that love is the deepest way of knowing and from a faith based perspective, even practicing science is an act of love.

Student Response #1: Jason Hostetter

As a student in the midst of the long journey of figuring out what I think of the world and how it came to be, I was very attracted to the topic Dr. Van Till was presenting, and feel enlightened to have heard his views. The “Right Stuff Universe” principle is one I have come to accept through my studies in the sciences, and one that has been exceedingly difficult to sort out in terms of theology. Questions concerning who can believe what – and with how much reasonable support – constantly invade the science vs. religion discourse, and Dr. Van Till’s thoughts have given me new clarity about another, perhaps somewhat cleaner, way to reconcile God and science.

Student Response #2: Anny Smucker

The origin of the universe has been a long and intimate debate between all facets of science and religion. As humans, I wonder if we can ever fully fathom how such an expansive entity came into existence from nothing. Van Till presented an interesting argument in his support of the “right stuff” universe principle, a theory about the beginnings of the universe that I had previously not been aware of. I am aware that many argue against the concept of a creator God and claim there is no need for a supernatural God to fill in the missing gaps that are present in our current system due to their ideology that there are no missing pieces in the universe. I appreciated Van Till’s support of a God that provides a much higher level of care to the universe besides the role of being a gap filler. I believe it is important to understand the nature and characteristics of the God who chose to create the intricacies of the universe so that one can understand that his role is beyond filling in the gaps. The notions that the universe had a robust formation can be perceived as the ultimate gift from the creator that gives humans a sense of his generosity. I feel much more confident supporting the idea of a creator because it provides a foundation for the “right stuff” principle rather than relying on chance, randomness, and evolution.

Student Response #3: Maggie Parker

Dr. Howard Van Till presented a well formulated theory which explains the creation of the universe in a way that satisfies scientific evidence but also provides a way for God to be ultimately involved. His “right stuff” universe principle stipulates that God created the universe as “fully gifted”. Typically the belief that the universe has all the capabilities and resources to make every aspect of creation is coupled with a belief that there is no need for God. Yet, Dr. Van Till expertly showed that there is a way to place God in this “right stuff” understanding. I still feel that his explanation does not allow for enough involvement of God in the everyday workings of the world. I believe that although resource-wise the world is capable of functioning on its own, God is inherently involved in each second, every inner-working of the world. Dr. Van Till seems to place too much separation between the world and God. A stronger relationship between the two needs to be inherent in the “right stuff” universe in order to mesh well with my faith. Dr. Van Till brought excellent thoughts and issues to the foreground and I appreciated how he expounded on his intriguing theories.

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