A True Read on Reality, Part 2
This post is part two of a two-part essay. Read the first half here.
Here’s where I messed it up. I was prepared to argue that a clone wasn’t offspring, but I was not prepared to argue that a clone wasn’t human. “It’s a mystery,” I replied, elusively, sounding very much like a theologian.
The bioethicist seated next to me was visibly agitated. Younger than me, he was probably bucking for tenure, looking to make a splash by taking down a minister. “There’s no ‘mystery’ to any of this!” he bellowed. “Humans are humans are humans regardless of how they come about. Nervous systems are just like respiratory or digestive systems. A clone would have a soul because the very idea of soul is nothing more than a fabricated belief conjured up by our ancestors for the sake of some reproductive advantage.”
“Hmm, now that is mysterious,” remarked the Nobel laureate on my left, who came to my rescue. “Whatever is meant by ‘the soul,’ it is not solely a neurological entity. Natural selection requires interaction with environments; cultures and communities play a role too. It’s complicated.”
And it remains complicated. Following that experience, I intended to read everything I could about evolution and Christian belief, and even ended up writing a book about it myself. That got me invited into a number of conversations, including one in the rural Midwest where I encountered Christians convinced that science had it all wrong. The earth could never be as old as the evidence suggested because if it was then Jesus could never have risen from the dead. If the Bible is wrong in one area (age of the earth) it would have to be wrong in every area (the resurrection of Jesus). The breakdown in this logic is its failure to account for the shortcomings of human understanding. Belief in an infallible Bible does not make us infallible people. The same applies to science. While scientific observations of data may prove indisputable, scientific interpretations of data get disputed all the time. The same with philosophical and theological interpretations. My concern is that differences of opinion between Christian faith and science be understood as differences of interpretation rather than devolving into arguments over the age of a rock or whether a particular gene can be traced back to ancient, pre-human hominids.
It’s unfair that so much vociferous resistance to Christian faith has been fueled by a certain interpretation of evolutionary evidence. Scientists themselves have been known to bristle at antagonistic atheists’ claims against religious faith that use evolution for support. Evolutionary theory has no stake in the existence of God. Miracles and resurrections and souls and the Bible’s authority all lay outside the realm of scientific investigation.
The biblical author of Hebrews insists that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1 NIV), but that only means that there’s more to reality than what we see. It doesn’t mean we ignore what we can see. Faith is not fantasy. It corresponds with the way things really are. Inasmuch as “all truth is God’s truth,” any pursuit of truth, through whatever discipline we pursue it, will eventually lead to God. Rather than feeling threatened and frightened by scientific advances, we should see scientific advancement as new vistas for theological consideration, new mountains to explore.
Sure, I didn’t like the bioethicist’s interpretations and attitude, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have his facts straight. If all truth is God’s truth, a true read on reality will only buttress theological understanding. Clinging to false notions about how God operates in nature only forfeits the opportunity to praise God for how he truly operates. Theology needs to function alongside scientific reality or it ends up not only irrelevant but boring too.
As a minister, the last thing I want to preach is about a God with no relation to observable reality. If God has nothing to do with actual life as we live it, then ethics function solely on the basis of utility instead of principle. If God has nothing to do with morality, then principles are nothing but self-generated and self-serving preferences. If God has nothing to do with evolution, then its valueless assertions are free to justify all sorts of aberrant behavior. Evolution was cited as justification for Nazi eugenics. More recently, some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that rape may be a “natural” behavior. Without systems of faith and value that address actual behavior and choices, it’s hard to argue against this.
I believe that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps 24:1 NRSV). Therefore theology needs not merely to withstand, but to celebrate accurate scientific discovery as a display of God’s handiwork. And not just to celebrate, but to safeguard too. Science is too easily tempted by its own sense of importance to abuse its discoveries for power and profit. Science needs values that theology can provide to funnel its work into soliciting wonder at the marvels of creation and into serving the needs of humanity.
- Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2008. Portions of this chapter are adapted from my book. [return to body text]
- Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010), 199. [return to body text]
- Frank Ryan, Darwin’s Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 7. [return to body text]