One World: Science and Christianity in Respectful Dialogue, Part 1
A Response to Alexander, Coyne and MacDonald
The BioLogos Foundation, with its commitment to the “integration of science and Christian faith” is one of many signs that the 150-year-old idea of a “warfare” between science and religion is ending. That language of opposition is unhelpful for several reasons.
First, it obscures the recognition that science at its core, is a religious activity, in the deepest and most literal sense of “re-ligious”—that which links. Religion and science both come from the uniquely human passion to see the diverse pieces of our experience as one supple and coherent body of knowledge: thus its connection with a word like “ligament”, the tissue which holds the skeleton together. There is no science without scientists, and scientists are always and only humans, probing and coming to know an inexhaustibly mysterious cosmos by means of their own passions, beliefs, hunches and theories.
Second, and more specifically, the warfare language hides the fact that the modern tradition of empirical science has deep roots in the Jewish and Christian tradition. The point was first made clearly in Michael Foster’s meticulously reasoned series of articles, “The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Origins of Modern Science”, published in the resolutely positivist philosophical journal Mind in 1934. It was only as late medieval Christian thinkers distanced themselves from the Platonic idea that creation was an imperfect manifestation of eternal and perfect ideas in the mind of a transcendent God that they began to be able to appreciate the contingency of creation, and thus the necessity of investigating it empirically, not in terms of what a rational Creator must do, but in terms of what a personal and loving God wills to do. It is no accident that, for better and for worse, science is a plant which grew primarily in Christian soil.
Third, The warfare language implies that there were two kinds of knowledge: “religious knowledge”, established only by emotion and authority, and scientific knowledge, established by experience, experiment and testing. If true this would be a disastrous situation, culturally and personally, since it would doom “religious” people to living in a pseudo-reality constructed from dogma and wishful thinking, and “scientific” people living in a meaningless world of emotion-free “facts” each of which they must establish for themselves. But of course neither the “religious” nor the “scientific” person lives in such a world. We live in one world, part of which we know on authority, part of which we know on experience. But its full meaning always eludes our grasp, and thus leads us into the uniquely human activities of art, science and worship.
These reflections on the relationship of science and religion cast some light both on Denis Alexander’s recently-posted BioLogos “white paper” on the theological problems raised by thinking scientifically about “Adam”, and some quite caustic responses to that paper by Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald on their own websites, writing on behalf of “science” against what they perceive to be the excesses of “religion”.
Alexander, an experienced research scientist with a long career in immunology, begins by pointing out the usefulness of “models” in science, drawing attention to the fact that in periods of ferment and discovery it is often the case that two or more models exist side by side, in some tension, to help explain sets of data. He then suggests two models for resolving the apparent tension between the Biblical story, which speaks of the religious importance of one couple, Adam and Eve, as the progenitor of all humanity, and the emerging scientific evidence that humanity arose as part of an evolutionary process in which we cannot clearly identify one couple as the ancestors of all humans. The first he calls the “retelling model”: in it the early chapters of Genesis are seen as the gathering, under divine guidance, the story of early humanity into one rich and subtle myth that includes all that we need to know about human persons and their relation to God, each other, and the earth. The other model, which he calls the Homo divinus model, is more complex and problematic: he suggests that out of a neolithic population of anatomically modern humans God chose two people to enter into personal communion and responsibility with their Creator; these were the historical Adam and Eve, the first human bearers of “the image of God,” and thus the beginning of the Biblical story of sin and redemption that culminates in Jesus, the second Adam.
Both models allow us, says Alexander to deal with two sets of data: the facts about the human condition expressed in Genesis 1-3, and the facts about the physical origins of man (about which Alexander gives some intriguing details) emerging from DNA analysis. However, though he argues that there is room for both models within the BioLogos commitment to “the integration of science and Christian faith”, he prefers the Homo divinus model.
Coyne and MacDonald are critical of Alexander’s article for several reasons, some of them, I believe, quite legitimate. But the scornful and dismissive tone of their critiques diminishes their value. Both write from within that familiar fog of confusion (typical of both a-theist and religious fundamentalisms) which arises whenever we assume that the only relationship between religion and science is one of warfare. Ignoring the deep unity between the two keeps these critics from seeing Alexander’s main purpose, which is to unite all that we are coming to know about humanity into one coherent body. Thus they take aim often at Alexander’s very tentatively proposed Homo divinus model, and both articles are scattered with words like “obsessed,” “ludicrous,” “crap,” “baseless,” laughable,” “simplistic”, “charade” and “embarrassing”. Such language doesn’t hold much promise for learning or dialogue on either side.
Their most valid point, it seems to me, is asking why, when Alexander outlines a better model-- “retelling” early human history as though it were the story of one couple-- he goes to such effort to defend a more difficult one. And there are real difficulties with the Homo divinus model which Alexander (very tentatively) defends. It seems very odd to have a human population of many individuals, only two of which bear God’s image; it is not clear how their relationship to God, whole or broken, would be then communicated to the rest of humanity; most seriously, it seems to me, the choice of those two alone, above all others, places at the very roots of human history the kind of arbitrary divine will which make some versions of “predestination” so hard to accept.
The main reason Alexander gives for preferring the Homo divinus model is that whereas it is abundantly clear from the anthropological and genetic evidence that the first humans appeared in Africa, the Biblical story seems to begin in the Middle East. Yet as MacDonald points out, the real narrative line of the Biblical story, in which particular places and people are important, doesn’t begin till the end of Genesis 11, with the calling of Abraham. The Biblical story is far more about the descendants of a historical Abraham and Sarah than it is about the descendants of a historical Adam and Eve, and Alexander (like many before him) gets himself into real difficulties by trying to carve out a historical place and time for early Genesis. All sorts of things about Genesis 1- 3 hint that it is quite a different type of literature than the narrative which begins with the story of Abraham—most obviously, the fact that Genesis 2 backs up and tells quite a different story about the origin of the human than does Genesis 1. But the most striking of these hints, as Alexander points out, is the name “Adam”—which is not only a generic name for humanity, but also a deeply significant pun on the Hebrew word for soil or dust: i.e. Adam from Adamah (“human from humus”) underlining at the beginning of the human story the human task of earthkeeping. Eve’s name also, “mother of all living” shouts that she is meant to be seen as a symbol.
One does not have to be a theological “liberal” (as both Coyne and MacDonald suggest) to recognize that Genesis 1-11 is not history in a normal sense of the word. For example, a recent book by John Walton, a scholar of Ancient Near East religion who teaches at Wheaton College (hardly a “liberal” institution) in a recently published book, The Lost World of Genesis One, argues persuasively that Genesis 1 is all about function (how does this cosmos work) in terms of the science available in the day. He writes:
The most respectful reading we can give to the text, the reading most faithful to the face value of the text—and the most “literal” understanding, if you will—is the one that comes from their world, not ours.
On the one hand such an understanding removes any possibility of tension between “science” and the Biblical text. It is not about science; or, to be more precise, those ancient writers used the science available to them to talk about things which they considered to be much more important: Is there a purpose to the cosmos? What is my purpose in it? How do I relate to the cosmos, its creator, my fellow human beings? The answers to these questions do provide an important “data set”; but for answers to questions like the age and physical origins of the earth, or of humanity, we use the data set from the best science available to us. It would be, as Alexander insists from the beginning, a mistake to regard the two sets of data as having nothing to do with each other. Thus the need for “models” to explore how they might be related.
Coyne and MacDonald find the Homo divinus model inadequate; so do I. Unlike them, however, I think Alexander’s task is a very important one. Why, if a better model is available, does he cautiously support this one? Coyne suggests the real reason: Alexander is speaking to a group of people who are learning slowly, cautiously, how to bring the worlds of science and faith together, how to get beyond the “warfare” metaphor for their relation which seems to still inform the thought of Coyne and MacDonald. This is a painful process. A colleague of mine, for example, a senior and highly respected Biblical scholar in the evangelical world, was just dismissed from a school where he was an adjunct professor for suggesting, mildly, the idea discussed above, that Genesis 1-11 is a very different sort of literature from the rest of the book, and therefore not to be judged as “historical” by the same standards. Change comes slowly in deeply held beliefs, and Denis Alexander is to be commended for his attempt, however flawed we might find it, to persuade a group of Christians that Christianity and science can indeed be integrated, that they help us describe and live in one world, not two.
That does not seem to be the case with Coyne and MacDonald; for whatever reason, they seem to believe that many essential parts of our humanity—passions, beliefs, commitments—are irrelevant to knowledge, which they seem to regard as a gradual, impersonal, accumulation of fact. Thus they are bound to see the task of BioLogos (and of many thoughtful humans) -- the attempt to live in one world, not two -- as futile. In the next post we will consider their thought, and the thought-world it comes from, in more detail.