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A True Read on Reality, Part 2

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April 29, 2014 Tags: Brain, Mind & Soul, Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Daniel Harrell. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.


  1. 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]
  2. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010), 199. [return to body text]
  3. Frank Ryan, Darwin’s Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 7. [return to body text]

Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

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Merv - #85286

April 29th 2014

Thanks, Reverend Harrell for sharing from you wealth of experiences (including representing our faith in front of large potentially hostile audiences!)

On at least one comment above, we have already seen the response in other venues from thoughtful atheists, and anticipating the same here, I want to address that as it touches on your essay in a couple different points.  You wrote:

Miracles and resurrections and souls and the Bible’s authority all lay outside the realm of scientific investigation.

I happen to agree, but this very point is questioned and the objection merits more exploration.  It has been argued that anything impinging on physical reality becomes an observeable matter accessible to science, even if it only happened once.

What I see in play is the definition of science itself.  Many of us theists here are quite comfortable noting natural limitations on what science can observe.  But those less comfortable with the notion of “edges” around science I think are willing to accommodate what we would call an “expanded definition” of science—perhaps back to what science use to mean when it was called natural philosophy and was seen as a quest for any knowledge generally.  Under this expanded regime, the historicity of, say, Julius Caesar or other long-gone figures is now seen as a scientific matter because recorded witness accounts and other tools used by historians would then become “scientific”. 

This is an interesting direction to go, and all the more so in that it comes from non-theist quarters.  Granted it seems motivated by the conviction that the scientific umbrella must be truly universal. Some more thoughtful atheists have come to realize that humanities (including history) must be given their due place at the table, and therefore they are willing to extend the umbrella. 

But modern science such as what many of us are comfortable defending has been largely defined as that which can be repeatedly demonsrable (even if the “repetition” means looking at fossil and rock layers laid down which can be repeatedly observed and verified, or finding a certain type of star of which more of that type might be found.)  To the extent that science is exclusively about these observeable patterns and predictions, one-time matters of historicity are then properly excluded to the extent that they cannot be categorized.  The rise and fall of civilizations (or even emporers and political systems) may well be “categorizable” to sociologists, but the identity of one (Caesar) seems to have a particularity that makes it a solidly historical (and to me, non-scientific) matter.  But that assessment will always provoke the objections of those who will define science more broadly we may here choose.  Acknowledging the difference of definitions makes the disagreement understandable even if it persists.

You also wrote:

If God has nothing to do with morality, then principles are nothing but self-generated and self-serving preferences.

Again—sharing your Theist basis, I agree.  But we may be guilty of the very “nothing buttery” dichotomies here in which materialists mire themselves. 

The rejoinder offered here is that morality does have a basis in wider culture (which is at least a step beyond the individual whim.)  We Christians may see no difference in this since we see cultural fads being essentially just as ephemeral and adrift as any individuals within it.  But we only reach this conclusion by comparing it to the absolute basis that we claim exists.  To those who deny that absolute basis, there if a very significant distinction between personal morality (extremely subject to whim) and societal morality (somewhat less subject to individual whim of the moment).  And I suggest we are attacking the straw man version of atheist morality if we fail to acknowledge this distinction.  I think there is ground to celebrate and embrace right morality when and where it is found (whatever the claimed basis is)—thinking of Romans 2:14-15.  And the atheist insistence that he can be “good without God” is a question that deserves attention rather than dismissal even where disagreement persists.


Chip - #85287

April 29th 2014

If God has nothing to do with evolution…

The implication here is that God does have something to do with evolution—which is interesting, given that most BL commentators are very much opposed to the notion of God “tinkering” with or “micromanaging” the evolutionary process in any way.  In your view, what does God have to do with evolution and how do we know this?


Eddie - #85289

April 29th 2014

Good question, Chip.

There are, broadly speaking, at least two ways in which God could “have something to do with evolution.”

First, God could set up the universe at the time of the Big Bang so that specific evolutionary outcomes, including man, are *guaranteed* by the outworking of natural laws.  This would be a somewhat “Deistic” version of evolution, as it would picture “nature” as for practical purposes autonomous (albeit “sustained” by God in that he created its laws and ensures their continuance); the creation of new species, even of man, does not in this scheme need any special divine involvement after the Big Bang.  Man just naturally pops out as a consequence of the cosmic-biological evolutionary process, the way a boulder rolls down a hill and hits the bottom once it has started; in neither case does God have to do any extra, special, or personal pushing, pulling, steering, etc. to guarantee the outcome.

Second, God could constantly interact with nature in a “hands-on” way (whether scientifically detectable or not) in order to steer or guide cosmic and biological evolution to his intended ends.  This might be called a “theistic” version of evolution, as it pictures God as being involved in his creation not merely by sustaining a set of mechanical natural laws, but in a personal a very specific way, as he is involved in a personal and very specific way in the history of Israel, the history of the Church, etc.

This second way, though endorsed by a small minority of TE leaders (e.g., Robert Russell), is roundly denounced by most TE leaders (especially those who are in biology or biochemistry as a profession) as “tinkering,” and is regarded as out of tune with our scientific knowledge of genetics etc. and also as theologically unacceptable for various reasons (a good creator wouldn’t need to tinker, but would get it right the first time, etc.).

The first way has almost no following among TE leaders, with only Denis Lamoureux treating it as a serious possibility.  The biologist-TEs mostly don’t like it because they think there is far too much randomness in biological evolution for any guarantee to exist based on the initial conditions of the first life.  The physicist-TEs wouldn’t like it because they think there is far too much randomness in physical events for any guarantee to exist based on initial conditions at the time of the Big Bang.  Indeed, many TE leaders, both biologists and physicists, don’t like it theologically, either, as it sounds too deterministic about the future, not “open” enough, not leaving matter and life “free” enough to “do their own thing.”  Interestingly enough, such objections often come from TEs who identify themselves as Arminians or Wesleyans, and they seem to be extending concerns about human free will to inanimate matter and subhuman organisms—something Arminius and Wesley never did.  (It’s an interesting religious psychology that is more concerned about preserving the freedom of molecules and of worms than preserving the freedom of God to predetermine the future as it pleases him, but never mind that for the moment.)

So the question is:  if God didn’t set up the initial state of the universe such that certain evolutionary outcomes would be guaranteed, and if he didn’t “tinker” or interact with the universe after the initial moment, what exactly has he got to do with the outcomes of evolution?  It certainly *looks* as if TEs are arguing that God set up some impersonal natural laws and then, as it were, rolled the cosmic dice, and watched, hoping that the bounces (or maybe the probabilities, given large enough numbers of atoms, stars, planets, etc.), would produce what he wanted.

It is interesting that, confronted with this impression of how their view looks, some leading TEs invoke “mystery”—the mystery of how true (not merely apparent) randomness in nature can go hand-in-hand with God’s providential design.  Yet above, the columnist indirectly criticizes the habit of theologians of invoking “mystery” when they have no logical explanation for something:  ”“It’s a mystery,” I replied, elusively, sounding very much like a theologian.”

I wonder if Dr. Harrell would agree with those TE leaders who, faced with the misfit between *real* (not merely apparent) randomness in nature (a randomness which both biologists and quantum physicists now take for granted) and the doctrines of divine sovereignty and divine providence, appeal “very much like a theologian” to divine mystery.  I wonder if he would join some of us in asking TE theorists to come up with a clearer, more coherent, more rational exposition of how God is involved in evolutionary outcomes.


GJDS - #85290

April 29th 2014

It is a curious thing that many who profess the Christian faith appear to have developed a ‘cringe’ when confronted with the sciences, especially the bio-paradigm. This is especially so in Universities. An interesting comment is made by Miroslav Volf at Yale University: 

In the West at least, the Christian faith is undergoing a subtle transformation: instead of sketching a life worth living and offering an orientation for life’s pursuits, it often serves merely to energize and mend people as they pursue their preferences formulated without reference to the faith they embrace. Faith then degenerates to a “performance enhancing drug” and “religious band-aid” - or, in the words of Christian Smith, God functions as a combination cosmic therapist and divine butler. A faith that has itself abandoned serious engagement with the question of what kind of life is worth living can hardly nudge universities to return to this question.”

Universities should encourage questioning of all intellectual efforts, especially those that are directly related to a quality of life and what it means to be a human being. I cannot understand anyone claiming the Christian faith prevents anyone from an intellectual rigorous examination of all religions and all secular outlooks. The morally seriousness found in Patrisitc writings, or in Plato’s accounts, or in Aristotle’s ethics, is not only worthy of such effort, but necessary to the exploration of the life worth living. The physical sciences, and especially the bio-sciences, may contribute up-todate insights on what may euphemistically be termed reality, but their stance within the larger questions simply cannot stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Universities are heirs of the Christian faith’s search for understanding; many if not all, have abandoned the pursuit of a central question that animates the faith and its search for understanding of the “life worth living” which relies on faith and an understanding of the good. Good faith activities are given to all, religious or otherwise. This understanding is all but lost in the West, although I have heard atheists also wish to talk of a good and happy life. The Christian message, especially as it deals with the attributes of the good human being, should receive a much more serious treatment in the Educational sector.


Merv - #85292

April 30th 2014

[Christian faith] often serves merely to energize and mend people as they pursue their preferences formulated without reference to the faith they embrace.

Or ... the preferences people are busy formulating and following reveals the faith they truly embrace.


GJDS - #85293

April 30th 2014

I think the meaning is that faith, by being ‘transformed’ by such people, is no longer the Christian faith, but a sentiment and ‘God is seen as a butler’ who is invoked to suit their whim and fancy (or to militant atheists, that inadequate god who also does not exist). I am advokating a notion of ‘acting in good faith’ as a starting position for academics, be they theists or atheists.


Merv - #85302

May 1st 2014

Agreed.

A starting point of “acting in good faith” should be something all parties embrace.  The fun starts when we consider where to go from that starting point.  That direction would be determined by whatever active faiths are in the drivers seat, be they overtly religious or not. 

Or perhaps we just settle on the agreed “starting point” and sit there?  That’s probably impossible.


GJDS - #85307

May 1st 2014

”.... when we consider where to go from a starting point of (good faith).”

This appears like a simple point but is a profound one. By this I mean that ‘where we go’ is a reflection of what we are, and where we have been. I am sure that all of us have experiences which highlight an almost innate capacity for human beings to act in a generous manner demonstrating good will to others - and if we find out the background of such people, we see that are diverse, including religious and secular - yet the opposite can be said, in that we may (rarely hopefully) encounter people who simply enjoy hating, hurting others, and are generally a bad lot - and many may claim a religious outlook (we would consider these hypocrites), and others are proudly modern, secular who would justify their evil acts in many many ways.

These experiences are a backdrop to the questions off freedom and the will (good will or bad will) and faith that we discuss from time to time. They are also useful in giving us (me) a grounding in the way I (we) may understand man and the teachings regarding God.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #85317

May 2nd 2014

Rev. Harrell,

Thank you for sharing your experience.

For me it illustrates just how complicated these issues can be and we Christians do not help the situation if we so not do our home work. 

I remember when a well known scientist breathlessly declared that science has determined that there is no soul.  A local science professor agreed comparing the wonders of the mind (psyche or soul in Greek) with crude illustration in his boyhood Catholic religious class. 

The Greek word for soul seems to mean both mind and spirit, depending on context.  The Hebrew word translated as soul used in Gen 2:7 generally means life, so you have two languages to deal with and many religious traditions. 

Personally I prefer to say that humans have bodies, minds, and spirits.  In Star Trek clones were identical in every way to the original.  That is until they begin living their own lives and have different experiences. 

In our world a clone is genetically the same.  Presumably if genes make the person which some people seem to think, then clones would be very much the same.  However if enveironment and experiences make the person, then they could be much different, and the “person” or spirit would be the soul.  Every human has a spirit.        

 


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