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Because I Said So

September 29, 2014

Since I covered evolution last week I thought it would be appropriate to put up this short thought this week. This thought starts with a simple incident every biology professor seems to have experienced. You put a “why” question on a test. It may be, “Why do flowers have brightly colored petals?” or, “Why do cell membranes need protein ‘gates’?” but it’s a “why” question. It’s also a question that is supposed to be answered in an evolutionary context where a more efficient or effective design outcompetes a less efficient and effective design. However, someone in your class dislikes this evolutionary line of thought even though it isn’t explicit in the question or answer and just writes, “Because God made it that way.”

It’s a bad answer. In fact, it’s not merely bad but bad in a multifaceted way. First, it’s obviously not the answer that the question is looking for. Second, it’s generally not advisable to both blow off studying and then cover for not knowing the answer by trying to obliquely engage the professor in a fight about evolution. Thirdly, it’s crappy theology.

There are a lot of ways to answer “why” questions that are technically correct. For instance, the expected answer to, “Why do flowers have brightly colored petals?” is something like, “To attract pollinators so that the plant increases its odds of reproducing.” However, “Because they grow that way,” is also technically an answer to the question. Most of us would realize that it’s not a good answer though – we want to know why plants grow brightly colored petals rather than dull petals and simply stating that they have them because they grow them never touches on the crucial comparison. Similarly, “Because God made it that way,” avoids the crucial comparison. Much like, “Because they grow that way,” it is a statement about how something came to exist that never explains why it came to exist in the way that it is rather than some other way. This is where the bad theology comes in. “Because God made it that way,” is a good answer under only one scenario: God’s motives are beyond knowing.

In some sense it is of course fine to say that God’s motives are beyond knowing. God is not immediately comprehensible to us and no amount of study reveals to us all that God is and knows. However, when one is faced with two alternative designs for a biological part and one is clearly more efficient or effective than the other claiming ignorance of God’s reasons for going with the more efficient and effective design constitutes not merely a denial of having knowledge but of actually knowing that whatever God’s motives are efficiency and effectiveness could have had nothing to do with them. In other words, if X is clearly more efficient than Y and we believe that God chose X saying that we don’t know why God chose X means specifically that God is not interested in efficiency and so our knowledge about the efficiency of X is worthless.

While this is odd theology I actually think it is fairly common. A lot of people seem to think of God not as a being with reasonable motives but as a black box out of which come decisions with no clear internal logic. Why did God give us the Bible mostly as narrative? Because He did. No need to ask whether narrative is especially appropriate to God’s work because God isn’t comprehensible like that. Why didn’t Jesus use his powers to seat himself on the throne of Rome and fix the Roman social order before he was crucified? No reason, he just did it that way. There’s nothing to be learned about the limits of governing power here.

The odd thing about all of this is that it actually undermines God as an authority figure. Some time ago I discussed the nature of authority and the fact that authority exists in at least two pretty distinct flavors. Command authority forces compliance whereas expert authority is followed because following experts produces better results than ignoring experts. If God’s main answer to many problems are “Because I said so” (as this theology I have been outlining suggests) then God has command authority without expert authority. “Because I said so,” is a mere assertion of power to command without any rationale. Asserting that God has command authority but not expert authority takes some of God’s authority away – orthodox theologians have always claimed that God has both sorts of authority. The trick to taking away God’s expert authority is that God has not issued precise commands about everything. Instead, God has taught us about the nature of things. If we must listen to God as an expert and not just a commander we must listen to a great deal more.

There’s one more troublesome aspect to this. People with command authority but no expert authority are usually bad commanders. They tell you to do things that turn out to be really stupid. It’s hard to trust a commander who isn’t also an expert in the area in which they command you. A God Who is a black box from which arbitrary commands are issued isn’t nearly as trustworthy as a God Who is an expert on the universe He has shaped and is guiding you with His expertise.

One Comment leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    September 29, 2014 11:22 pm

    I suspect the “black box” God exists out of fear of a slippery slope. What if efficiency isn’t the only answer to why flowers are brightly colored? What if we get in the habit of thinking we can ascertain God’s reasoning and encounter a case where we can’t? Doesn’t God as an understandable expert seem more human than God as an ineffable first-cause existing outside of creation? How do we explain some of the more difficult passages of the Bible and still hold to a particular fundamentalist/inerrant/literal reading?

    Of course, many of those types of arguments may not be slippery slopes at all, but excuses for not accepting uncertainty, thinking critically, and paying attention.

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