As some of you may know I have considerable sympathies for intelligent design both as a natural theology and as a counterbalance to the pervasive materialism in science. However, I do believe the choice of terms for this cultural phenomenon is unfortunate. It is unfortunate because it automatically creates an image of teleology in nature that is theologically problematic. When people hear the words “intelligent design” they, of course, think of human designers. Human designers attempt to shape the world around us and its materials in ways that offer a function or an aesthetic. With this picture there comes the typical sense that design is coercive and manipulative. For human designers there is much truth in this. There is an “intervention” in natural stasis to produce something that is desired. After all designers do impose their will on unruly and “defenseless” matter. Designers do disrupt the state of affairs, tinker with designs, jump in a various points, make changes, and “force” the designs to do what they want. If this is the picture that comes to mind when the terms “intelligent design” are heard, it offers only one theological vision for teleology in nature. The vision it offers is that of classic theism. In a classic theism God is ontologically detached from the world and not affected by it. Accordingly this type of God would appear to jump from time to time into the ontologically distinct world and “violate” the order already present. God would be coercing the world according to God’s separate will. Judging from the many objections within the theological community to ID, this is the picture that emerges because of the terminology.
I say this is unfortunate because it undermines the true heart of ID sentiment. At its core what ID says is that the world does not emerge through purposeless, blind chance and necessity but through the telos of God. At its heart the motivation of ID is to affirm the ever present loving relationship of God to the world and what it becomes. What that relationship is between God and the world and how God acts in the world need not be framed within a classic theism. In fact I believe that vision is bankrupt both theologically and because of the knowledge we have gained about how the cosmos unfolds.
A better vision for the telos of reality is an organic one where God and the world evolve together. Perhaps a few better phrases to describe this are “teleological evolution”, “intelligent evolution”, or “meaningful evolution”. This is an organic model because God is not ontologically distinct from the world imposing on it from the outside, but an intimate participant in evolution and life itself. If this was the sense that “intelligent design” conveyed, I think there would be far fewer theological objections to ID sentiment. However, I guess culturally we are stuck with the phrase and for those who see a different theological undergirding to ID than a classic theism one task will be to show there are other alternatives.