Thinking Aloud Together, Part 2
Note: At the Biologos Theology of Celebration workshop in New York City in March, Scot McKnight was one of the featured speakers. This is the second of a three-part series containing his lecture.
Theologians thinking with scientists
Let me give two examples of topics that are probably safer places to begin that practice of pastors and scientists thinking aloud together. My father was an English public school teacher; my church was fundamentalist; I was armed against science on all fronts; so I went into the humanities and put off my Biology and Chemistry classes until the last semester of college, and I should add that my college had a policy – so grades could be calculated – that a graduating senior in good standing had his or her grade determined at the midterm grade, which meant that I really only had to take one half of a semester of science, which gave me more time to read theology and Bible. I learned to think theologically.
Then along came one “RJS” who wrote up a post on my blog one day about death entering the world long before Genesis 3, which jolted me not because of evolutionary theory but because I wanted to think about death theologically in that context. My life has not permitted me to chase that one very deep into the tohu va-bohu but I do wonder if the ongoing cycle of life and death over millions of years, red in tooth and claw, is not a sacrament of resurrection and of God as giver and restorer of life – in an ongoing sacramental cycle. Our bright young science students would like to be at the table for this one, and I suspect pastors could say mostly anything they want on this topic and not get in trouble.
Death is one such topic pastors need to think through with scientists, and so also is original sin. I am a fan of the writing of Alan Jacobs, professor at Wheaton, and his book called Original Sin is a goldmine of judicious and timely quotations across the span of history, but I wondered as I read that book what would happen to this book if pastors and churches began to think through DNA, human nature, the development of the brain and the frontal lobe, and original sin with a group of scientists who also care about original sin? Jacobs gives us one chapter, a short one, but we need three or four, or a few books, on this topic. Timely quotes from brilliant writers who evoke a history of the sophisticates makes for a wondrous romp, but the science student will ask how this stuff really does happen. Pastors and churches can play a role, if they are willing to think together in a safe environment with constructive aims in view. Very few churches can do this; about the same want to do this. It matters and the church will be left behind by many today if they don’t come to the table, or bar, or café.
The mode of conversation matters
One of my friends, a pastor who says he’s from California but is really from Rockford Illinois, and played for a team called the E-Rabs (he’s named John Ortberg), will ask this question so I might as well begin to answer it. What can we do at the local church level? I begin with this: if we want to influence a generation with an intellectual embrace of orthodox Christian faith and responsible science, we have to avoid satire, insults, and ridicule. You may well hear the common insult that you can believe chimps are your ancestors but Christians don’t, and it isn’t often of much use to reply, or retaliate, that theistic evolution believes in common ancestry but that we are not descendants of chimps. When that claim is made no response works.
Chimps lead the young, restless and conservative to Adam, and I’d like to dwell on Adam a bit tonight as a topic some pastors and scientists need to discuss together. Some of you may know that I have a blog, and some of you may mistakenly think I write about science and faith issues every Tuesday and Thursday morning. I don’t, but that same “RJS” does. I have told her a dozen times I am amazed at how often the discussion turns to Adam. I want to make a stronger claim: all science-faith discussions eventually lead to Adam (and his often unmentioned wife).
Here’s the common theology: God made Adam and Eve directly, out of the dust. That primal couple sinned, and death entered into the world through their sin. Adam is almost entirely absent from the Old Testament and so the next really important text (for our purposes) is either Romans 5:12-21 or 1 Corinthians 15:21-22. Nuances aside Paul contends that as sin and death entered into the world through one man, Adam, so righteousness and life enter back into the world through one man, Christ. We can ramp this up one notch: Luke has a genealogy that runs from Jesus all the back to Adam. Sometimes it works out as back-logic: if Christ is real, then Adam is real. If Adam isn’t real, then neither is Christ. Or, if Adam isn’t real, then the whole thing falls apart.
It would be easy at this stage to take the way of Heschel and Einstein and start shooting the arrows of insult at one another. It may bring the momentary joy of the artful put-down or it may bring (and this is the leader’s temptation) the congratulations of our political allies in the theological world. We need to stop flogging the genuine question, the genuine quester and the genuine quest.
I suggest that instead of trading insults, we develop the virtue of tranquil, intellectual patience, and that the church be a place this can begin. Our goal, and here I can remind us of the many comments of Polkinghorne about the quest for truth and “well-motived beliefs,”1 is to land as firmly as possible on the kind of truth that permits intellectual integrity from both a theological/biblical perspective and a scientific perspective. Intellectual tranquility and patience love questions and frown upon dogmatic claims. Two facts now: the first one is theological, By all accounts, the Bible looks to me like it tells a Story in which God made a singular couple, Adam and Eve, that they were real people, that they sinned, and that they somehow passed on both death and sinfulness to everyone.
One could, I suppose, point to particular examples of sinners to prove this, some pointing to Neandertals and Denisovans while others might point to Green Bay Packer or New York Yankee fans, which for me is the same crowd. I digress. Speaking of Neandertals, I want to point to the second fact: Biologists and evolutionists know that death didn’t first enter the world through humans, and they know the DNA make-up of humans today originated not in two people but in perhaps thousands, and they are inclined to think the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 1—3, and beyond, needs to be looked at through the lens of myth or ancient cosmology. For them, Genesis 1—2 is not straight science. The pastor and scientist now have to look one another in the eye with some trust to get along.
I’m an amateur, perhaps worse, when it comes to science. I read RJS’s posts, and I read books like Edward Larson’s wonderful parade through the history of the idea of evolution, and so some things take me by surprise when others have known such things for decades. Take, for instance, Dennis Vennema’s article that argued that our DNA pool came from perhaps thousands. Well, I thought to myself as I was reading his details and microscopic focus on evidence and scientific letters, this sure does the number on Adam and Eve. I read Karl Giberson’s and Francis Collins’s The Language of Science and Faith, and it was that story of creation and evolution in the last chapter that got me going. It’s all about quarks and leptons and about “beneficial mutations” or what Simon Conway Morris calls “favored pathways” or what Polkinghorne calls “inbuilt natural potentiality.” This too does the number on Adam and Eve. And if these scientific theories are right we need to think about Adam and Eve and creation in more expansive pathways. And I want to suggest churches are a good place for this discussion. Scientists need to talk about this with pastors, and pastors need to talk with scientists.
Tomorrow the series concludes with Part 3.
1. J. Polkinghorne, Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011)
Scot McKnight, a New Testament scholar who has written widely on the historical Jesus, Christian spirituality, and the emerging church, has been the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University since 1994. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Grand Rapids Baptist College, a masters from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a doctorate from the University of Nottingham. He has written several books, including the popular The Jesus Creed, which won an award from Christianity Today in 2004, and his latest book The King Jesus Gospel. You can read more from McKnight at his blog Jesus Creed.