By Frank Michael McCormack
NEW ORLEANS—The Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum in Faith and Culture—an annual dialog at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in which an evangelical scholar and a non-evangelical scholar discuss issues of faith, science, philosophy and culture from different perspectives—held its 10th debate Feb. 21.
The 2014 forum, titled “God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology,” featured William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, and Sean Carroll, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology.
Building on the title of the forum, Craig argued that contemporary cosmology — the study of the universe — can be used to bolster the claims of theology that God exists.
“Tonight I want to defend an even stronger claim, namely that the evidence of contemporary cosmology actually renders God’s existence considerably more probable than it would’ve been without it,” Craig said.
Craig cautioned he wasn’t saying that contemporary cosmology proves God’s existence.
“Rather, I’m saying contemporary cosmology provides significant evidence in support of premises in philosophical arguments for conclusions having theological significance,” he said.
Craig then presented to the crowd gathered in Leavell Chapel — in addition to the more than 10,000 watching online — first the Kalam Cosmological Argument, and then highlighted the fine tuning of the universe, which points to God’s existence.
Carroll, in contrast, said contemporary cosmology and, more specifically, cosmologists themselves do not address the existence of God or God’s involvement in the origin of the universe at all. Among cosmologists, Carroll argued, the debate over God is settled.
“The discussion we’re having tonight does not reflect a debate that is ongoing in professional cosmology,” he said. “If you go to cosmology conferences, there’s a lot of talk about the origin of the universe but there is no talk about what role God might have played in brining the universe about. It is not an idea that is taken seriously.”
Ultimately, the debate over God’s role in the origin of the universe and God’s very existence, Carroll said, comes down to “two major, fundamental pictures of the world, or what philosophers call ‘ontologies’ — naturalism and theism.”
Naturalism sees the natural world as being ruled by laws of nature and looks to science to help people discover those laws.
“Theism says that, in addition to the natural world, there is something else, at the very least God, or perhaps there are other things as well,” Carroll said. “I want to argue that naturalism is by far and away the winner when it comes to cosmological explanation.”
Carroll revisited the overarching debate between naturalism and theism later in the forum, saying that 500 years ago he too would’ve been a theist. At that time, theism was the best explanation available for the existence of the world, he said, but since then, naturalism and scientific advances have made theology, in a word, obsolete.
“Now we know better, given advancements in physics, biology and cosmology,” Carroll said during the Saturday sessions of the Greer-Heard. “Naturalism is the conclusion of thinking about what empirical information tells you about the universe.”
Craig, though, countered throughout the debate that contemporary science points to a beginning of the universe and, thus the universe needs a cause. He insisted this is not the only reason to believe in God, but in his opinion, God is the most likely explanation. During the Saturday sessions of Greer-Heard, when asked about weaknesses in his argument and weaknesses he sees in Carroll’s position, Craig’s answer hinged on the evidence that the universe had a beginning.
“I suppose that the greatest weakness [of his own argument] would be the tentativeness of the empirical evidence that the universe began to exist. That would mean that all our conclusions are always provisional and not certain,” he said. “And I would suppose the greatest weakness I would see in Carroll’s argument would be that we do have good tentative evidence that the universe began to exist.”
Greer-Heard: Looking back, looking forward
Bob Stewart, Professor of Philosophy and Theology, and Greer-Heard Chair of Faith and Culture at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said reaching the 10th anniversary of the Greer-Heard Forum is an amazing achievement.
“The program began as a 5-year pilot program, and we’re in the 10th year of the 5-year pilot program, so I guess the Heards are pleased with it,” he said.
In that 10 years, Greer-Heard has welcomed the likes of N.T. Wright, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman and Ben Witherington. The forum has also seen incredible advancements in technology and interaction via social media.
The 2014 installment offered, for the first time, a live video feed of both the Friday debate and the Saturday sessions.
“We know that a little over 10,000 devices tuned in to the debate live,” Stewart said. “We don’t know precisely how many people those 10,000 plus devices represent.”
Thus far, the forum has amassed more than 35,000 online views. And through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, future viewers from around the world will be able to engage speakers with questions and reactions in real time.
“Greer-Heard has reached far more people than any of us ever thought about 10 years ago,” Stewart said. “I’d say it’s safe to say that this year’s forum has been seen by more than the combined nine previous years.”
Next year’s Greer Heard Forum, set for April 10-11, 2015, will feature E. Calvin Beisner and Bill McKibben in dialogue on how Christians should relate to the environment and the issue of climate change. Beisner is a spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and an author of more than 10 books, including The Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming. McKibben, a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the founder of 350.org, wrote the 1989 book The End of Nature, which warned of the threat of global warming.
Stewart said the 2015 forum will be different from all the others in that there is no “orthodox” position on the environment.
“There is no single shared evangelical view on these topics,” Stewart said. “So next year won’t feature a clearly-stated evangelical position over against a non-evangelical position. I’m looking forward to it because, truthfully, I don’t know what to think on these issues.”