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Featuring guest Praveen Sethupathy

Praveen Sethupathy | Goodness, Civility & Transformation

Praveen shares his insights on what it means to be made in the image of God in light of our understanding of evolution and DNA.

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Praveen shares his insights on what it means to be made in the image of God in light of our understanding of evolution and DNA.

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Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.

From Praveen’s childhood, growing up in a Hindu family, to his later conversion to Christianity and his entry into science, he has gained great insight into the science and faith conversation. With grace and humility, Praveen shares some of that insight as he considers what it means to be made in the image of God in light of our understanding of evolution and DNA. He has long felt the importance of fostering healthy dialogue among Christians and the scientific community and discusses how such a dialogue might actually bring us closer together.

This episode was hosted by Jim Stump alongside guest host Rebecca McLaughlin and produced by Colin Hoogerwerf.


Transcript

Sethupathy:

In a lot of these other faith traditions, if the God character, we’re challenged he might become sixty feet tall and let his divinity be known to you in no uncertain terms. But here was the hero of the story, sort of naked and broken and pathetic on a cross. But what I would learn soon enough is that it wasn’t pathetic. He wasn’t on the cross because he was powerless to stop it but that was exactly how he chose to exercise his power. It was solely for the sake of others. 

Stump:

That’s the voice of Praveen Sethupathy, an Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University reflecting on his journey from Hinduism to Christianity

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump and I’m pleased to be joined in this episode by Rebecca McLaughlin. 

McLaughlin:

Happy to be here.  

Stump:

Rebecca is the co-founder of Vocable Communications. And her first book, Confronting Christianity: Twelve Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion has just come out. When you hear more than a few words from her, you can tell she’s not from these parts. Is that the key to good communication, Rebecca, having a British accent?

McLaughlin:

You know, I recently realized that there’s a communications trade off that comes with being a Brit in America. So on the one hand, people assume you’re more intelligent than you actually are. I think I get about a five IQ point bump over here. On the other hand, because humor is all about knowing exactly where the cultural line is, and nudging it just a bit, I find it much harder to be funny. 

[laughter]

Stump:

We’ll leave that for another time. What is it that brings you to the new world?

McLaughlin:

Gosh, finding a good evangelical Christian man in England is like finding an oasis in the desert. So I ended up marrying a guy from Oklahoma. He was studying in the UK and he dragged me kicking and screaming across the pond about ten years ago.

Stump:

Well we’re glad to have you here. And as you mentioned, in the US, we’re conditioned to think people with a British accent are very intelligent and well educated. But in this case, the stereotype happens to be true. You have a seminary degree and then a PhD from Cambridge University, if people have ever heard of that little place. We heard something about your occupation as a consultant and communications, but what about your vocation? What’s your calling? How are you putting your education and experience to work for the good of the kingdom? And by that I mean the Kingdom of God, not the United Kingdom?

McLaughlin:

It’s a great question. I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely with some really smart believers to Christians who are world class scholars in their fields like Praveen who we’re speaking with today. And it has felt almost like I’ve been given a map that shows how the different areas of scholarship from physics to philosophy to social psychology connect up with a personal work of Jesus Christ. Because when you’re on the ground, it can look like the barriers to faith in Christ. But if you have an aerial view or a map of the terrain, it turns out that Jesus truly is at the center. So I think my vocation, as I understand it, at the moment is sharing some of that map as best I can.

Stump:

In some of your previous work you were with the Veritas Forum and you did a bit of that kind of work there too, and also worked with our guest, Praveen. Perhaps you could describe a little bit about that, and your encounters with Praveen previously?

McLaughlin:

Yeah, so when I first met Praveen, which was actually at a BioLogos event several years ago, I had that kind of excitement you get when you meet someone and you realize that they haven’t yet done even a quarter of what they’re going to do. So Praveen is extremely smart, obviously, but he also has this fascinating testimony of coming to Christ from a Hindu background and he has a kind of humble authority about him that enables him to connect with folks who’ve been turned off by some of the more polarized public conversations about Christianity today. So he’s just really a special guy.

Stump:

So that’s some of what you saw in his work with Veritas Forum of dialoguing with others in that regard?

McLaughlin:

Yeah, you put Praveen up in front of 1000 students—Christian, non-Christian, all sorts of backgrounds—at one of the top universities in this country, and he will hold them spellbound, and he will challenge how they think about themselves and about Jesus.

Stump:

Well, Praveen is obviously a top rank scientist. In our conversation here, we don’t actually get much hard science in this, but he has clearly thought deeply about his faith in theology and philosophy. As he tells his story of coming to faith in Christ, tackle some of our hard questions about the implications for faith from contemporary science.

McLaughlin:

Yeah, if finding an evangelical man in England is like finding an oasis in the desert, meeting Praveen is like finding a lake. There is so much depth in what he has to say.

Stump:

Well, very good. Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Praveen, thanks for joining us. We’re so thankful that you’d spend a little time talking to us. Can you tell us a little bit about your family heritage and background? 

Sethupathy:

Yeah, sure. So my name is Praveen Sethupathy. That is the name of someone who hails from south India in the Brahmin caste. So there is a rich tradition of orthodox Hinduism that’s followed in my family. And that’s what I grew up with. So even though I grew up primarily in America and was born in Canada, my father and my mother are South Indians, Tamil speaking. So this is the Southeastern state of India, and being from the Brahmin caste are sort of keepers of the Hindu faith, if you will. So we practiced regularly despite the fact that I grew up here in America and had only visited India a few times. It was still a very rich part of my upbringing. And it really wasn’t until I went to college that I thought about any other faith tradition in any kind of serious way. 

McLaughlin:

What was it that got you thinking at that point, Praveen? 

Sethupathy:

You know, it was actually my very first day on campus. One of my roommates had asked me the question, “what are you?” To which I thought he meant, you know, what, what do you believe? And so I told him I was a Hindu and he followed up by saying, “well, what does that mean?” And I was sort of embarrassed that I didn’t have a coherent answer for him. I had been practicing this faith for 18 years. And yet I was not able to articulate to him what it meant to me. I always loved telling that story actually because that was the beginning of coming to Christ, wanting to actually learn more about what it meant to be a Hindu. So, you know, I think the Lord, there’s nothing he won’t do, no route he won’t take to draw people ultimately to him. So for me, it started with wanting to actually know more about Hinduism, which then led me to want to compare that with other faith traditions that I was starting to become more aware of and more sensitive to. And in the mix, eventually, although I was resistant to it at first was Christianity. 

Stump:

What was the practice of Hinduism like in your house growing up, for those of us in the west who have not seen that firsthand very often? What did you, what does that look like? 

Sethupathy:

Yeah, it’s a great question actually because it looks very different to different practitioners of Hinduism. And it’s one of the more interesting things about that faith is that it is whatever goes, anything goes. In fact, I was talking to a Hindu scholar once as I was going through my own spiritual journey and that’s actually what he said, was “anything goes.” right? However you want to do this—if you want to be a Christian, you can be a Hindu. And so this kind of flexibility and liability in the religion is why I think it has persisted for as long as it has. So there’s a remarkable amount of diversity. But for me, the practice was tied closely to going to the temple and performing various ritual activities, but also music is really a central part of worship in the Hindu faith. And so I grew up singing a lot of the worship songs, not really understanding or knowing what I was singing, but I certainly had memorized them and knew how to participate in the worship and singing that would occur at the temple. But we would repeat that kind of thing at home. Every Hindu Orthodox Hindu home has what’s called a swami room, which is a room with various pictures and images of a lot of the different gods and goddesses. And so we’d usually sit in front of this room with the idea being to humble yourself before the presence of God and sing these worship songs. And I used to do this every day growing up. 

McLaughlin:

So just going back to that question, Praveen, if you want to be a Christian and the Hindu, that’s fine. Is that what you did? 

Sethupathy:

Uh, no, that’s not what I did. There may have been a temptation to do that, in the beginning, certainly. I think when I was going through my spiritual journey as a college student at Cornell, I think at the back of my mind I had been hoping that at the end of all of this I’d be able to say that all of these things are really pointing at the same type of being. They’re all just different cultural manifestations and ultimately we can all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. I think I really wanted that to be true. But I found that to be an intellectually untenable position as time went on, particularly as I interacted with the person of Christ. 

Stump:

Unpack that process a little bit more for us. What were some of the stages or steps that you came through in coming to that conclusion? 

Sethupathy:

Yeah, so as I said, it really started with wanting to learn more about Hinduism and I strongly felt that if I were to understand the religion that I had to read the texts that the people that follow that religion felt were the word of God, were at least inspired and taught things about who god was. And so I read the Upanishads and the Vedas and translations of those, of course, because I don’t know Sanskrit. And that process was incredibly enjoyable for me. I learned so much that I didn’t know about my own faith tradition. But it was in the process of that, that I became sensitive to other faith traditions and what they taught and how it compared to what I was learning about Hinduism. And so I learned, I read Buddhist texts and I read the Koran and I read these things in as much as is possible with the help and guidance and advice of people on campus who followed those faith traditions. And so when I was reading the Koran, I took a class on Islam and when I was reading the Buddhist texts I took a class on Buddhism and usually the professor was a practicing Buddhist or Muslim. 

And so I’d often meet with him or her in their office and ask my questions to learn more about the faith. It was in that process—there were all of these other faith traditions I was very glad to add to the panoply of different cultures that I was learning about—but I was resistant to Christianity because I grew up hearing about and learning about missionaries who would go to India and trick people, right, into following Jesus. There was a kind of lack of dignity that they gave to the people to whom they were ministering. And that left a very bad, bitter taste in my mouth about missionary work and about Christianity. And, you know, I grew up in this country, so I had friends who said they were Christian and there was nothing particularly compelling or attractive about their lives. 

And so I never considered it seriously. Nor did I really want to take it seriously, but I was happy to do so with these other faiths, but as I went along doing that, I felt this nagging sensation that it was incomplete, that I was not being honest in this process. And the whole point of all of this was to be open and learn and be vulnerable to what I was going to find. So I was broken at one point and I decided, you know what, I can’t put my dukes up on this. I’ve got to be willing to read the Bible as well now. 

McLaughlin:

Now Praveen, you were a science major at Cornell. Is that right? How did you go about even thinking about these kinds of religious truths? I mean, presumably you have a sense of truth when it came to science that was based on evidence and measurability and things that people from India and people from North Carolina could agree on. 

Sethupathy:

Right. So I don’t know that I was even consciously pursuing it this way, but in retrospect, I think I was applying the same kind of sensibility to my religious process. It was an intellectual pursuit for me. On the one hand, I wanted to know how these different cultures viewed God and how they represented him. But the other hand, you know, if there were claims of historicity, right, there are different ways in which you can go about trying to evaluate whether, if it adds up. You know, interestingly in a lot of these other faith traditions, particularly Hinduism, it’s not really tied to a lot of historical claims. And so I didn’t really have to do a lot of that wrestling there. It was more a philosophy. Do I buy it, do I not? Does it provide an explanatory model for what I see in the world around me?

I was thinking about more things like that. But when I got to Christianity, there were plenty of opportunities to evaluate the claims of the faith even from the standpoint of whether or not these things occurred. And that was true to some extent of Islam as well. That differentiated those faith traditions for me than, you know, reading about Buddhism or Hinduism where they weren’t really falsifiable in any concrete way where as claims of Islam and Christianity in part because they were newer, right, afforded the opportunity for me to read about textual critiquing that has been done of those texts and evaluation of different kinds through archaeology or anthropology or historical studies of the claims that were made. So I did apply that kind of sensibility when studying these traditions. 

Stump:

As good evangelicals, we are always interested to hear in these conversion stories. In this sense you’ve talked about this gradual progression or a coming to be more and more aware of the claims of Christianity and evaluating those. Was there still a moment for you at which it was, okay, I’m all in now. I’m past the intellectual consideration and into this putting my faith and trust in Jesus? 

Sethupathy:

Oh, absolutely there was. Aside from the person of Christ, I didn’t find what I was reading in the Bible to be particularly more compelling than a lot of the other faith traditions that had been interacting with. So, you know, you hear about the golden rule, for example, this is not a uniquely biblical concept. You can find it in many other faith traditions in slightly different words, right? One of my favorite stories in all of Hinduism is this legend about a king named Rantideva, and he is a devotee of Vishnu, and is one of the most self sacrificial characters and all of a Hindu, a legend. It represents a kind of ideal and aspiration that I think many of us have, independent of creed and color and size and shape. There’s a kind of humanity to him that is still appealing to me to this day. 

It’s just that it wasn’t manifested in any real historical character outside of the person of Jesus Christ. And yet, that story in the Hindu faith is a reminder to me that there’s a lot that we can find connection with in many other faith traditions. And so for some time it was really these kinds of connections that I was finding and I was enjoying identifying those, but it was the person of Christ that kind of blew the lid off, if you will. Because here I found someone who was completely disabusing me of my notions of power, right? In a lot of these other faith traditions, if the God character were challenged he might become 60 feet tall and let his divinity be known to you in no uncertain terms. But here was the hero of the story, sort of naked and broken and pathetic on a cross. 

It was very difficult for me to think of the protagonist of a story in this way, even more difficult for me to imagine such a story to have been fabricated by a human mind. But what I would learn soon enough is that he wasn’t pathetic. He wasn’t on the cross because he was powerless to stop it. It wasn’t a broken hero. But that was exactly how he chose to exercise his power. Right? It was solely for the sake of others with no sense of self promotion. And that was completely new to me. Oh, I’d maybe seen it here and there in stories like the stories of it Rantideva, but I hadn’t seen it in a character who claimed to be God and whose historical validity could be evaluated. So that was something on a totally different plane that took me on a trajectory to Christ. 

Stump:

How does that change things for you then back in your story here with relationships to family, to what you’re studying in school, the direction that your life is taking? Are there implications in those senses of that leap that you took? 

Sethupathy:

There are implications to every corner of my life, because for me, the leap that I took is not to a particular culture or not to a particular tradition, but to a person and that person, the person of Christ, transforms and wants to transform every aspect of who I am. There was some concern at first among my family members about what this meant. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of hurt. Was I rejecting my brownness or my indian-ness? Was I laying aside, you know, centuries of beautiful, wonderful heritage so that I could be white, right? So that I could abandon my ancestral heritage and adopt the colonialist’s, the oppressor’s religion, right? What’s going on here? Why is he doing this? Was he going to change his name to Peter? Right? He wasn’t going to be Praveen anymore. 

All of these things actually though, even though they’ve taken a long time to break down those misconceptions, they’ve provided opportunities for me to convey that becoming a Christian has nothing to do with any of those things. That doesn’t mean I have to start eating meat and make you feel uncomfortable around me. Right? It doesn’t mean that I have to change my name. Those are not the things that Christ is calling me to change. There’s a transformation of the heart, a difference in why I do what I do, my motivation for who I am. Why I do what I do has changed. And that’s what has been important for me to try to convey to my family members. And so when you ask and how has it transformed your relationship? I think it has made me love my family more than I ever thought I would or could, and make me desire to give to them and to sacrifice to them and to be a model of Christ to them in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated before being a Christian. 

McLaughlin:

And how did your conversion change how you’re related to the science that you were pursuing and to your graduate studies after your Undergrad time at Cornell? 

Sethupathy:

Yeah. So originally, many of the people that were instrumental in my life and guiding me toward thinking through this spiritual journey and then making a decision for Christ were very well meaning and I love those people for their heart toward me. But I think they misguided me for some time with respect to how I should think about the sciences. So I remember there was a time where I was wondering whether I should go into genomics, which I knew was rife with evolutionary thought. And one of the interesting things about my early Christian life is, I think I was so tired, in a way, it was intellectually fulfilling, but I was so tired from the journey that I just wanted to now be a part of something. And I’m in the process of that, I sort of assumed the lens that was given to me, this evangelical lens through which to see every issue, and have a spoon fed, talking point about. And this is what I did for a little while in the very beginning, before I felt it to be very intellectually dissatisfying and dishonest. But there was a period of time where I was wondering whether or not I should go to graduate school and study genomics. And I was advised to do so. But from the standpoint of, you know, breaking down these beliefs.

Stump:

To Show why it’s wrong. 

Sethupathy:

Yeah, right, exactly, from within the vanguard of academia to sort of break down the thought of evolution and things like that. So I think there was some negative thinking and poor reasoning that had guided me in the very beginning, but I’m very grateful to the Holy Spirit and a number of influential people in my life to bring me back to a path where I could love God, not only with my heart but with my mind, as Christ says. 

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Two

McLaughlin:

So I think one of the concerns that a lot of Christians have about evolution is how it reflects on the character of God. So that God created everything good and we look at evolution and we see suffering and, what in human terms would be called sin, baked into the model. How do you process that now? How did you process that at the time? What are your thoughts on how evolutionary theory relates to the character of God? 

Sethupathy:

Yeah, it’s a really interesting question and I’m not sure that I have a full and satisfying answer. I think I’ll be thinking and wrestling with that for some time. But there are a couple of points that I can perhaps make in response to that. One is that, you know, as you say, God said it was good. He did not say it was perfect. He certainly could have if he wanted to, I think, but that’s not the word that’s used. And so I think it’s an opportunity to take a step back and say, “do we know what God thinks is good?” There’s an opportunity to exercise humility, to say that maybe goodness in God’s eyes has a broader, more complex, more nuanced definition than we like to imagine. It’s about putting God in a box, but maybe taking him out of there and saying “he doesn’t have to fit into our concept of what we think good should be.”

So there’s a bit of a challenge there, in thinking about what good even means.”But one thing that’s always been helpful to me is in looking through places in scripture like psalms and proverbs, you’ll come across verses where God is delighting in the way that he’s made animals and features of animals that are clearly intended to pray and kill—the fangs and the claws and the, you know, the largeness and so many other qualities and features of animals that he exalts and extols, whether it’s in Job or in other places that are clearly intended as a function of killing and praying for these animals in the context of their environment. So the notion that death would not have been involved prior to the fall has never really actually made sense to me even outside of the light of evolution or anything like that, just taking scripture on the face of it to try to make sense of it holistically. 

I think it’s evident that even from there you might come to the conclusion that death existed. And if that is the case, how do we understand what the fall, the consequence of the fall really is? Right? And Adam has said to, that if he eats of this, he will die. But he doesn’t die or at least not then. Right? Physically. He is kicked out of the garden. There is a separation from God. So there is a possibility to try to understand this in a different way as opposed to physical death. I’m bringing all of that up because we tend to think that there was no death and sin brought about death and that’s why we see all this horribleness today. But if death existed prior to the fall, if there is that possibility purely from just a reading of scripture, that challenges our notion of God’s goodness. Because if you called it good, but there was a death, there was pain, that there was suffering, Eve’s pain didn’t commence, it was increased, so pain existed, even those kinds of things challenge our ideas of God’s character. So I’m bringing that up, not as an answer to the question, but to say that those problems exist for us in the Christian community irrespective of evolution. So that’s just sort of a tack-it-on type of thing. So okay, that might introduce new things, but still we have to wrestle with this fact that maybe when God says good that we have to think about it differently in terms of what that means. 

McLaughlin:

So I’m going to push you even harder on that Praveen. I was reading an article recently about them mating behavior of chimpanzees or it may have been another primate,I think it was chimps, and it was talking about the violent behavior of male chimps toward female chimps and how even outside the immediate context of mating that male chimps will assert their dominance by essentially physically harassing the female chimps and kind of knocking them about a bit so that they know when mating season comes, they better conform to the male chimp desires. We’ve talked about death a little bit, but how would something like that possibly be good in the eyes of Creator God? 

Sethupathy:

It may have something to do with the trajectory of the created things that he is making and that he eventually has a relationship with. And that would be us in a very sort of serious, tangible way. So there is something to be said for, it’s good, but there’s always room for improvement, right? If something was perfect, there is no room for improvement. But perhaps what good means is that there’s potential here and it needs to be sort of molded and massaged into something even better and that there’s always room for that betterness. There’s always room to get better. This is true even of our lives. I don’t think we need to resort to chimpanzees. I think that we have enough of our own type of behavior that, you know, maybe is not always clear that it’s necessarily because of the fall. And then you end up getting the same question of, “well, why would God make us this way?” I think part of me, the way that I think about it is that we have a responsibility as image-bearers of God to always be thinking about how we reflect him better. 

Stump:

I think that observation of good not perfect is really important and key here and the way you described it, forcing us to recalibrate a little bit what we understand as good. So what God has done is good. And yet as in this story in Genesis one, you just refer to when God creates it, the first thing he tells these human beings is to be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it, which makes us think, God, if you wanted it filled and subdued, why didn’t you do it that way? So instead, we must be thinking somehow God’s plan is to use us to fill and subdue, to use us to help bring about the purposes that he has ultimately. Otherwise, why not just create us in this final perfect heaven at one time? 

Sethupathy:

There’s a partnership aspect to this that I think that you’re alluding to here that he wants us to partner with him to continue the things that he has done 

Stump:

And that it must be good for us to work toward those things. It’s good that there’s room for us to get better. 

Sethupathy:

Exactly. And I think that’s ultimately what differentiates us from other creatures, right? Is that we do have this special call to work together with him to make it better. And I think therein lies the distinction between us and other creatures and what the image of God really is. 

Stump:

Let’s talk some more about that distinction. That’s one of the topics that you’ve presented on a fair amount—human uniqueness. 

What does it mean to be human? Maybe let’s start by addressing that question from the scientific perspective itself and see how far that can take us and see whether we need to supplement that with a theology, but what is it about us that’s unique and so special? 

Sethupathy:

Yeah. This is a question that scientists have been asking for a long, long time and I think will probably continue to. And there’d been many iterations in the scientific community of trying to identify biological qualities or features that appear to be unique to us humans relative to other creatures. And I think each of those iterations, each of those attempts have been extremely valuable in providing some insight into who we are biologically, but I think ultimately have been dissatisfying in providing a full answer. So I think we will get to the theology. But these iterations, you know, you’ll be familiar with many of them. 

We had a time period where behavioral features we’re focused on, whether it was tool making or empathy or trickery or cooperation or these kinds of things were thought to be at some point or another uniquely human traits. But of course now it’s widely appreciated that they’re found in many other species, not only primates, but you know, birds and hyenas and they may not exist to the same extent, but they’re present, right? So that you can’t draw definitive, immutable, biological lines in these various behavioral features. 

And so then scientists said, well, what about cellular level? What if we dig deeper? Right? And so if we get to the cellular level and we define a human by all of his or her human cells, right? And whatever is packed into a cell or the contents of it is what a cell is, and all human cells make up a human, right? 

But what we’ve now realized, of course, and is now widely known and appreciated, is that we have more bacterial cells in our body than we have human cells. So we’re more than 50 percent non-human, if you look at it from a cellular perspective. And it’s not just that these bacteria are there, but it turns out that there’s this really interesting symbiotic relationship we are providing for them and they’re also providing for us and they’re shaping the way that human cells work without even touching our DNA. Right? So at the cellular level it kind of makes it clear that it obliterates this traditional view that you can just define a human by a collection of human cells, right? Even biologically, we’re clearly more than that. 

So then you can dig deeper. And one of the more recent iterations has been at the genetic level. I mean, what if we just said a human is defined by human DNA. We have the genome now, right? So what if we just read out the human DNA and we said that the potential that DNA has to bring about life is what a human is. Right? But then you have a problem there too because littered across the human genome are sequences that arose from viral integration events. So you have all these like little remnants of viruses that are littered across our genome and you know, an underestimate of the amount of those viral sequences would be 10 percent. And now some scientists would go as far as to say up to 60 percent, potentially, right? Soeven at the genetic level, we’re at least 1/10th virus. Right? So what becomes clear is that no matter how granular you get or how out of the weeds you get, it’s very difficult to draw definitive lines that separate us from other species, even species we consider ourselves very different from, like viruses. 

So I think one of the freeing things about science is that it is agnostic with respect to any other way to try to define humanity, right? So it’s neither going to refute nor accept some sort of orthogonal perspective on this question. So if you look to what scripture has to say about this, I actually find it rather striking. I think it’s extremely careful that we not read the Bible as a scientific text, but that being said, it’s rather telling for me that in a lot of ways it refers to humans with the same language that refers to other animals. Right? So in Genesis, we don’t even get a separate day, right? In one of the Genesis accounts we are created right alongside animals on one of the days, right? It refers to humans as nephesh chayyah or “living soul”, which is the way that it’s often translated and it’s the same language used for animals. So even this concept of soul that we sometimes like to think is uniquely human is not borne out in the early parts of scripture. Ecclesiastes says it rather poetically that, like animals, from dust we came and to dust we shall return. So there’s actually this kind of connectedness between us and other kinds of biological life that the Bible seems to be making over and over again. And the only massive and major distinction I can see between us and other animals has to do with calling us images of God. Right? That is a phrase that is not used for any other animal as far as I can tell. And so I think if we want to understand what makes us unique, I think it all rests on what it means to be made in the image of God. And to cut a long story short, I think that my best reading of scripture, and in understanding biblical scholars, is that it has less to do with what we’re made of and more to do with a vocational calling. What we’re called to do, as we’ve been talking about, to make this better together with God. 

Stump:

Image of God then. And this relational model that you’re proposing makes us ask this further question then why us? Why does God enter into that kind of relationship with Homo sapiens as opposed to any of the other species that are around and presumably it’s because there are some behavioral baselines are absolute minimums that are required in order to bear that image. So talk a little further about that, that even if we can’t say absolutely we differ in kind on these scientific measurements from everything else, there’s at least some degree that sets us apart to the point where God would even say, you’re the ones that I’m going to ask you my image, right? 

McLaughlin:

Why not the dolphins, that’s what I want to know. 

Sethupathy:

And I think it’s fair to say that. And you know, my previous comments, only try to dissuade one from trying to identify clear immutable lines, right? That’s where I think you fall into some trouble. But there is a spectrum, right? And I think that’s what you’re alluding to and for many of these traits that may have… Before we may have said they were uniquely human and now we’re backtracking from that. But for many of those traits, we may still recognize that we possess them at a greater level perhaps, where there’s something still different about the way that we have those traits compared to some of these other animals where we’ve seen hints of them. For example, I don’t think the dolphins are sitting around having this podcast session right now. Right? 

So there’s clearly some amorphous, biological requirements, it seems, to reflect and represent God’s character in certain ways. But Jim, I think part of the reason why I tend to stay away from that or think too deeply about what those biological requirements could be is that, you know, there are brothers and sisters of mine, who may have lost mental faculties, right? Or who may not possess some of these behavioral traits that we’re thinking about to the extent that you and I do. And so the question then becomes, can they not represent the image of God? Are they not made in the image of God? And I would strongly propose that they are made in the image of God. And so that makes me realize there must be other creative ways. Who am I to say that they can’t reflect him and represent him and take delight in him even if it’s not in the way that I might conventionally do myself. So there’s something still else to it that I don’t know how to put my finger on, but I don’t know that I want to really sink my teeth into the biological requirements as a way to understand it. 

Stump:

Can we push Rebecca’s a question further then and wonder whether dolphins in their way reflect, maybe we don’t want to say the image of God, but at least reflect something of God’s glory and the way that is appropriate to their kind of being. 

Sethupathy:

I think that’s absolutely true. I think that is undeniable even from a scriptural standpoint and perfectly consistent, I think, with the way that I understand God. But you’re right, that I wouldn’t say it’s the image of God, mostly because it only uses that phrase for us, right? SoI think I would be extending scripture and God’s word to suggest that it could be true that other animals are also made in the image of God when it is uniquely ascribed to us. So I think it is something for us to wrestle with to say what is different about what we’re called to? But I think there is a calling placed on other animals as well to reflect his glory in ways we may not fully understand and appreciate.

[musical interlude]

McLaughlin:

Praveen, I have three questions in one.  

Sethupathy:

Three in one. There’s no better way to do this. 

McLaughlin:

One, what proportion of your scientific colleagues also believe in Jesus? That’s question one. Question two is if it is a small proportion, why do you think that it is? And question three is, what would you say to a scientist who was skeptical of Christianity if you had one minute to make the strongest case for your faith that you have? 

Sethupathy:

Yup. All good questions. A very small minority of the colleagues I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with in my career would be Jesus followers. Not zero, right? But very small. That percentage might increase or decrease depending on where they’re situated in the country, how comfortable they are sharing their church-going practices with people around them, what their discipline is, their area of expertise. So all of that is going to impinge on the precise answer to this question, but generally speaking, it’s rather low. Now why I think that is, I don’t want to generalize because I think that there are a lot of unique circumstances and to lump people into one group and say, okay, you’re a monolithic entity and here’s why you don’t believe in Jesus wouldn’t be appropriate nor even close to accurate. But there are some shared themes that I think I have identified in relating with my colleagues. 

I think a lot of it is a perception that to have a faith-based worldview, you’ve got to check your brain at the door, right? I think a lot of people have bought into this idea. Why they’ve bought into that idea is complicated and may have to do with their home environment while growing up, it may have to do with the loudest voices in our culture and may have to do with this sort of, what they might perceive as an intellectually deprived political discourse in our country. There may be many, many reasons and be all of those reasons rolled into one. But nonetheless, I do think there is a pervasive feeling, sentiment that one can’t really live a vibrant, intellectually rich life and still hold to these archaic, you know, views that people only believed back in the day because they didn’t know better. Right? I think that there’s a common theme of that. 

So given that, you know, the answer to the third question, how does that inform the way that I present Christianity to people if I had a minute or two to do so? I think the most important thing I can say is that it’s important for people to experience—given that they are coming with these misconceptions—it’s important for people to experience cognitive dissonance, right? They need to get to a point where they’re invested in asking a question. You have to appreciate that they’re so far away from caring about any of this, right? If they find out I’m Christian, for example, it’s easy to dismiss as another wacko or a crazy person or this weird anomaly, right? But if they get to know me as a colleague and as a person, we relate well, we’re collegial, we work well together, they see how my lab functions, they get to like a lot of the things that I do and say. And then, you know, day eight, they realize I’m a Christian. There’s a cognitive dissonance that happens, right? Where they say, well, now wait a minute. You seem like a reasonable guy. You seem like someone I would like to actually do scientific work together with and yet you have a commitment to this faith-based worldview. How does that work in your head? 

But that’s a question they’re asking, which means they’re invested in hearing the answer and that’s where a genuine conversation can occur. And so I just don’t bother with these kinds of conversations until people are ready to have them. And I’m mindful of that’s how it was for me when I was not a Christian, right? I wasn’t really that interested in having the conversation, so it wouldn’t have been that productive to try to draw me into one, right? But as I got to know you and you were compelling to me as a person or as a scientist or as anything that I cared about, that’s when it might be more meaningful to me to learn more about how you hold all of these positions and don’t blow up. Right? So.

Stump:

Praveen, why is civil dialogue so important for our society and for the Church right now?

Sethupathy:

More than anything else, what troubles me is that we are unable, in the Christian community, I feel like at large, to have a conversations about topics that we disagree on with civility and with a shared commitment to honoring Christ. I feel that we too easily fall into this mentality of tribalism, even within Christianity. And it just becomes this rah-rah mentality where you have different factions just fighting for what they believe as though they were battling for the Lord himself. Right? 

And so I think this does a great disservice to the Lord and in a lot of ways. Number one, we are called to build one another up, but we’re actually tearing each other down. And it also turns out to be a terrible witness. I remember as a non-Christian observing these kinds of battles, whether it was science of faith or not, it was really immaterial, but it was just watching the ungracious with which Christians interacted that was perhaps most unappealing than anything else prior to really learning much about the faith. 

So what I believe BioLogos presents, is a forum where you can have disagreements about topics like creation or how to understand Genesis, but with a commitment on both sides that we’re wanting to be faithful to the word of God. That we’re wanting to reflect and represent him to the best of our abilities, that we are understanding and reading this differently but that in the process of wrestling with this together, we actually grow closer to each other and closer to him. And isn’t that really the point? That it’s really not ultimately about whether I’ve converted you to this position or that position that’s an essential for salvation, but rather we’ve taken an interesting and important topic that relates to how we view God and we’ve wrestled with that together as a community, and sharpened each other. But right now I don’t think we’re sharpening each other. We’re tearing each other down. And so I love BioLogos as giving the space for that. 

Stump:

Thanks so much for talking to us about this today. 

Sethupathy:

You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.

McLaughlin:

Thanks Praveen

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf with additional production assistance by Truth Works Media. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. If you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks. 


Featured guest

Praveen Sethupathy

Praveen Sethupathy

Praveen is a Professor of Biomedical Sciences and Director of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics at Cornell University, where he directs a research lab focused on genomic approaches to understand human health and disease. He received his BA degree from Cornell University and his PhD in Genomics from the University of Pennsylvania. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Human Genome Research Institute under the mentorship of Dr. Francis Collins, he moved in 2011 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics. The same year he was selected by Genome Technology as one of the nation's top 25 rising young investigators in genomics. In 2017, he returned to Cornell University as an Associate Professor. Praveen has authored over 95 peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals and has served as a reviewer for over 35 different journals. Recent honors include a faculty merit award for outstanding teaching and mentoring and the prestigious American Diabetes Association Pathway To Stop Diabetes Research Accelerator, which is awarded to only three people per year. Praveen has been an invited speaker for the Veritas Forum, has served on the advisory board for the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, and serves on the Board of Directors for BioLogos. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife and three children.

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