Volume 16, Number 1

Que Res Vitas?
Phil Johnson Takes His Case to the East

John Mark Reynolds
Research Fellow
Biola University

"What is your agenda? What really motivates all this?" The lawyer leaned forward in his seat and waited for the answer. The response, typical of Phillip Johnson, came quickly. "I simply wanted to know," replied Johnson, "if macro-evolutionary theory was true."

This scene typified many encounters during Phillip Johnson's speaking tour at three Eastern colleges (Cornell, Grove City, and Ohio State), October 24-28, 1994. The modern university has lost its confidence in the old truths, relics of a nineteenth century Victorian world view. Few believe on the "evidence" alone.

Rather, naturalistic metaphysics and an active distaste for a God Who intervenes in the world of science seem to drive most of Johnson's critics. Many admit the utter lack of well-supported mechanisms for macro-evolution. Yet these same persons invoke, almost mantra-like, the evolutionary research program, as if its mere existence will remove the doubts that creep into their defense of evolution. In a defense far removed from the hearty "evolution is fact" proclaimed by the leading naturalists, one noted philosopher of science argued that answers to evolutionary puzzles might not be forthcoming for one thousand years. "After all," he said, "look how long it took us to get from Ptolemy to Copernicus." One can only wonder if Congress will commit to a millennium of science grants, on the promise of naturalism alone.

Interestingly, discussants were often perfectly willing to concede, sometimes with disarming frankness, the low level of evidence in their own disciplines. Many accepted evolution, they argued, because of all the evidence and support bruited about in "other" fields. After hearing this from biologists, biochemists, and geologists, one wonders exactly what evidence is actually out there. Macroevolution happened. Everyone is sure of that. It's too bad that the case is so hard to demonstrate in any particular field.

A conversation with a distinguished biochemist best illustrates the problems in dealing with this topic. The biochemist was quite angry that Johnson would deny the "clear evidence" from his field. The evidence, however, turned out to be the general notion that life on earth has moved from simple to complex forms. The biochemist had no mechanism to accomplish the actual "evolution" from simplicity to complexity. He was certain, however, that science would find one, and had an interesting research program to try. His confidence, a combination of metaphysical naturalism and an imperial view of the sort of questions that science could answer, may have been rational -- but it wasn't persuasive to an outsider. The biochemist believed in the rationality of his commitment. But he had only that commitment to offer the skeptic. In the end, the biochemist agreed that a different metaphysics could produce a different research project. He saw "creationism," perhaps for the first time, as potentially no threat to science. For those who would take the time to listen, this was consistently the result of their dialogue with Johnson.

Johnson didn't attempt to provide all the answers to all the questions. Instead Johnson set out to help his audience correctly frame the questions. To the philosopher, who saw God as a mere auxiliary hypothesis to explain "gaps," Johnson pointed out that within his own world view there were no gaps to explain. Only the metaphysical or theological naturalist, who must generate life from non-life, has a gap in his knowledge in this area. The Theist, on the other hand, who maintains that life always comes from life, is faced with no such "gap" needing explanation. Omne vivum ex vivo is a prior metaphysical commitment vindicated by 2,000 years of scientific inquiry. Religionists who appeal to a deity to explain the unknown have often been humiliated. Theists who move from the axioms of their particular faith to explain the world seldom are. Writers from the mainstream of Christian theism did not postulate life springing from God Himself to shed light on a problem of science, but because that is how they understood the divine economy. Nothing in science has done anything to weaken that understanding.

But all of this discussion only confirmed Johnson's basic argument: most people in science share a prior intuition that science can answer any question related to the natural world.

They see life as part of that natural world. The theistic evolutionist rightly fears what he perceives to be the ever- shrinking gaps in the naturalistic myth. Naturalists see life as something produced by non-intelligent causes, and hence see a naturalistic story richer than it was one hundred years ago. The "gaps" in that story are being filled.

A theistic rationalist like Johnson, however, sees no gaps at all. Science has unquestionably expanded its knowledge of the natural world -- but failed to explain the origins of life, intelligence, and mind. The traditional theist who saw these categories as springing from higher Mind, Life, and Intelligence knew this all along. For the rational theist, the gaps existed only for those who would commit a category error and try to reduce the world of ideas to the world of becoming.


Johnson made his case at three schools -- each representing, almost perfectly, a distinctive aspect of American academic life. Johnson began at historically elite Cornell University, small and competitive, but jaded by the intellectual liberalism that was its birthright. Accommodationism, elaborate and ahistorical methods of reading Scripture, and "warfare" metaphors are old hat at Cornell. But "having been there and done that," Cornell seemed eager for a new vision. Having made the ritualistic denunciation of the fundamentalist, capitalist running dog Johnson, they are ready to hear something that can help with the intellectual lack of confidence and the ethical mess of a deconstructed program.

Will Provine, who teaches evolutionary biology at Cornell, hosted Johnson in Ithaca. Provine, a pit bull in debate, is remarkably gracious in person. The only thing more expansive than Provine's marvelous library on the history of evolutionary biology is his concern for the educational process. He wants his students to think, not to parrot today's orthodoxy. And in his willingness to follow his world view to uncomfortable conclusions, he denies immortality, a rational basis for ethics, and free will -- which separates him from the vague and platitudinous on all sides of this issue.

Johnson met with a group of Provine's students over chinese food that first night. The students selected themselves and seemed quite sympathetic to Johnson's position. (One student carried with him like a bible Walter Remine's brilliant book, The Biotic Message.) All of the students had read Darwin on Trial. Provine assigns it in his class. It was clear that whatever their position, Johnson's book had shaped their view of the issue. The theists seemed empowered and the non-theists encouraged to reformulate their own outlook. The questions to Johnson were thoughtful, and so open was the conversation that our host was willing to defend his own world view during the course of the evening. Meaningful theism is on the table at Cornell University.

The next day Johnson spoke to the four hundred students in Provine's evolutionary biology class for non-majors. All the students had read his book and so Johnson spent most of the time answering questions. At first the questions seemed mainly to come from the sort of person who gets his information from the Usenet Group talk.origins. The questions indicated an inability to see beyond young-earth creationism, a position conflated with Johnson's. In an earlier hard ball session with the teaching assistants, an example of the simple scientism that dominates Cornell came to light. To demonstrate that arguments by extrapolation are dangerous, Johnson asked a Ph.D. candidate if the past increase in the height of Americans should lead to the conclusion that in 100 years we would all be 20 feet tall. The response of this bright Ivy Leaguer was a confused, "Yes...if internal changes came with it..."

"What sort of thing is life?" asked Johnson. "An artifact of intelligence, or a natural phenomenon?" Those impressed with the findings of modern science, including the talk.origins crowd, and a few Christian scientists, had already decided this issue, and wanted to talk about the age of the earth and miracles. Johnson kept pressing the point that intelligence coming from intelligence was no miracle. His skeptical interlocutors simply did not know what to say. It is doubtful that minds were changed in this exchange. That was not the intent. Minds were clearly opened.

One graduate student left murmuring that theism was possible after all, and arguing with his own kind against their intolerance. Johnson's infectious questioning had found another carrier.

Johnson was interviewed on video by a group of Cornell students studying views of origins. The questions were fair and to the point. Such journalistic malpractice may prevent these students from landing jobs at the major networks, but it did produce a stimulating exchange. The rest of the day was spent answering questions in the confines of the Provine library. It was clear from the questions that the questioners were motivated by the desire for natural answers to assumed natural events. There was great candor about how little was actually known ("mechanism of evolution? We are working on a mechanism"), and the frequently expressed fear that a "creationist" approach would hinder science. When reassured on this point, strong opposition often petered out. While not changing their views -- these questioners were not creationists -- the student products of postmodernism are not inclined to oppose any viable intellectual program. It may be the only good to come out of the death of the modern.


Grove City, the second stop, contrasted sharply with Cornell. This is a college of great intellectual confidence, believing fully in the nobility of its educational mission. Having abandoned the vapid posturing of the Protestant left for the rigors of great books and Bloom's Great Conversation, this is a Christian college that has avoided the internecine wrangling of some private schools. The clarity of her mission, and her statements about the world, allows for debate on all fronts. Such intellectual honesty itself defuses the more personal and less productive power plays all too common in the academy. This is not a school at war with its alumni or its donors. At Grove City one may have almost any position -- but one must however be clear about the content of that position, and its relationship to the historic mission of the college.

Johnson spoke first to Grove City's "Civilization" class. If the faculty encountered during the time at the college are reflective of the general population, this is a school well on its way to asking the right questions. The intellectual intensity on campus was remarkable. Almost without exception, the message Johnson brought to campus was received with enthusiasm. Following an open seminar with students and two faculty meetings over meals, Johnson delivered the most eloquent address of the trip in an evening Distinguished Scholar Lecture. Johnson sketched how a secular religion had been established in America, the current situation, and his diagnosis for the future. The lecture contained echoes of C.S. Lewis's "Abolition of Man," and George Marsden's latest book on the American university. The audience, an adult evening crowd, responded enthusiastically to the talk.


Johnson travelled next to the Byzantine campus of Ohio University. Its 65,000 or so students (perhaps no one really knows how many there are) wander a campus larger than the capitols of several states. The architecture of the school reflects the intellectual program. Some of it is quite marvelous -- every period of state history is represented -- and yet there in no particular theme or design that ties it all together. The Christian faculty and students, eager to engage the world, were a shining exception in such a place. Knowing what they believe, they turned out in huge numbers to hear what had no obvious utilitarian interest or hedonistic value.

Johnson began by addressing the Veritas Forum at Ohio State University in a mid-morning lecture. This forum, which united most of the campus ministries and Christian faculty, attempts (as its name implies) to examine the truth claims of Christianity.

Veritas is the child of business man and philanthropist Jerry Mercer. Not content to watch and listen, he has acted to put religious questions on the table at secular universities.

Speakers during the week included Johnson, Boston College Philosopher Peter Kreeft, sociologist Paul Vitz, and numerous other academics well known in both the secular and Christian communities.

Johnson opened the Veritas Forum by framing the issues of the current "culture war." He continued this theme in a meeting with a small number of Christian faculty. Both groups were excited about the promise of integrating their faith and their discipline.

Ohio State faculty expressed a dissatisfaction with the superficial and non-confrontational materials currently available from Christians in most disciplines. One Christian sociologist cried out for other options, and Johnson extended this desire into an extended conversation with other faculty.

Johnson continued non-stop dialogue with both critics and friends right up to the plenary session. This included a joint radio appearance with Peter Kreeft. The variety of callers, ranging from an elderly Bible-quoting Pentecostal lady to a pugnacious secularist calling on his cellular phone, was astonishing. The host invited both Johnson and Kreeft back.

The main lecture Thursday evening packed the hall. A panel mixed with friend and foe responded to a lecture from Johnson based on materials from his upcoming book. Johnson forcefully argued that Darwinism had inadequate scientific support, and that only a philosophical (or in some case theological) vision of the world made Darwinism satisfying. If one assumes intelligence can only come from intelligence, on the other hand, and that life fits within that distinction, the case for Darwinism collapses.

The scientists had little to say in response. The main challenge from the naturalists came from an Ohio State philosopher. A former evangelical, he seemed quite impressed by evangelical criticisms of the Johnson position. In many areas, however, he was quite sympathetic to the general program being described. His argument against Johnson centered on the conviction that although science fails to give answers at the moment in biology, our rational choice would be to bet on its ability to answer such questions. He viewed this choice as logically compatible with certain forms of Christian theism, though he seemed to believe that few would find such a theism compelling. He refused to define, or even to attempt to define, either "science" or "religion." The strength of his distinction was, therefore, impossible to measure.

This philosopher correctly argued that the absence of a natural explanation did not always prevent us from holding rationally that such an explanation exists nevertheless. He pointed out that a bridge in the area had been destroyed by unknown, and unknowable, natural causes. "Should we attribute such destruction to God?" he asked with a rhetorical flourish. "Would you want to ride on a bridge built by creationists, who simply sat on their hands and believed?"

In asking this question the philosopher ignored the fact, however, that the investigators of the bridge disaster had already eliminated intelligent causation as the cause of the collapse. They were justified in looking for natural causes, because intelligent ones had been eliminated. But it was his final rhetorical question that had been the sound bite, sending titters through the ranks of the talk.origins crowd. Johnson turned to the philosopher and calmly said, "I would prefer a bridge built by someone who can recognize intelligent design." The crowd, quiet and listening intently up to this point, erupted in laughter, cheering, and applause. This was the exchange of the evening for most -- and it was the secularist who had played the rhetorical card and lost.

On Friday morning, Johnson met with the law faculty at Ohio State, and spoke on the legal status of naturalism and creationism. Most questions turned on the assumption that "Johnson-style" creationism should get a hearing. Much of the discussion centered on working out the details. The lawyers appeared suspicious of motives, cant, and forced orthodoxy of any kind, and were quite open for one of their own to move their opinions when the questions were correctly framed. The ACLU and the People for the American Way should be warned that, given enough time, Johnson may effect a paradigm shift in the legal profession.

The next meeting was more confrontational. The entomology department, a huge number of grad students, and many from the general public, all met to expose or defend Johnson's position.

Sparks flew from the first. If the students at Ohio State and the other schools are any indication, the "God is invisible in biology but still somehow active" picture of theistic evolution is held in even greater contempt than young-earth creationism. Some respect is accorded young-earthers as wrong-headed but brave. No one has much time for a vague deism or non-interventionist theism (or, if the view had defenders, they were pretty silent). It was a "known" position; theistic evolution engendered no enthusiasm. Most viewed it as possible, but not interesting enough to discuss.

There was both progress and failure at this meeting. Failure came in the sizable contingent of students who would not listen and discuss, but who shouted preprogrammed assaults or wanted to discuss the age of the earth and Noah's flood. These students appeared to want to take on Duane Gish, not Johnson. As always Johnson brought them back to their own presuppositions. However, the most eminent biologist in attendance -- forthrightly holding to his naturalistic position -- left seeing Johnson's position as a rational alternative for some. His fair mindedness, and Johnson's insistence on asking the hard questions, were signs of progress.

Johnson concluded his time at the Veritas Forum with two more sessions. The last involved international students on campus.

More than any other campus sub-culture they grasped the essence of his message. "The ideologies of the nineteenth century are passing," Johnson proclaimed. They nodded in agreement. They have seen Marx and Freud pass away. The church that saw Marxism as "economic truth" that could (and should) be accommodated within a Christian framework was known to all of them. They wanted a different approach. Darwin, that other great maker of the modern mind, could only be next. Darwin on Trial was a manifesto to them for intellectual freedom from the last vestiges of Victorian cultural colonialism.


An American liberal returned from an ultimately ill-fated trip to Stalinist Russia and said, "I have seen the future and it works." I was privileged to tag along with Phillip Johnson on a tour which included colleges that tried to embrace elements of this naturalistic vision of the future: determinism, reductionism, atheism. I can report that I have seen this vision's end, and it did not work. What does work is the questioning and searching that have been the heritage of the theistic West for two thousand years.

Copyright © 1995 John Mark Reynolds. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.02.95