Alone in the World?: Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology

Human Uniqueness: Standing Alone?
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They are all over the ground floor, which is still a central area of our life as well as theirs. But there are many other floors to which they do not go and cannot, because they have never wanted to enough, and so have never developed their powers beyond a certain rudimentary point [Midgley , p]. Why then have we refused to see them?

Midgley goes on to say that this is because we not internalized evolution.

We have lived within a threatening dead modernist world view, and have wanted to separate ourselves from it [Midgley , p xxix]. Another perspective, and one that gives us incontrovertible proof of our origins is available only in the last year, in comparisons of the chimp and human genomes. Graeme Finlay has detailed the way in which even errors in primate DNA have been handed down to us as humans [Finlay ]. The search for origins, for a coherent history of our past is an urgent scientific quest. Because this is so it is also an urgent theological task to do the work of dialogue and integration.

Science tells us, though, that evil preceded humanity, both in kind and in degree. How can we bring this long paleontological history into conversation with Christian theology in any meaningful way?

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In his magnum opus Alone in the World? Wentzel Van Huyssteen investigates the theological theme of imago Dei in light of the scientific record of origins. He uses the method of transversality, a postmodern epistemology adapted from a variety of disciplines [Van Huyssteen ]. In this case there is the scientific story of the origins, of human uniqueness and of the causes of human violence laid alongside the theological story of human origins and its explanations of evil and image.

How do hominid origins and the prevalence of other violent primates make us think about the meaning of imago Dei , and about sin and responsibility for violence? And contrariwise how does the story of Adam and Eve and temptation resonate in the scientific story of origins?

Van Huyssteen uses this method to look comprehensively at human uniqueness in science and in theology. The insights in one discipline resonate with and deepen an understanding in the other, but there is no false or premature closure, even though there is an implicit belief that both are attempting to find the truth. The other aspect of this dialogue must be that all scientific and theological conclusions must be taken as tentative, but at the same time, that it is often with the more speculative emerging shoot of science that interesting theological connections can be made.

Why does the way we intersect the disciplines matter? Much science and theology dialogue in the last few years has been arguing that there is a meaningful boundary. But this boundary is not an easy place to be. So much theology is done with too fast a sense of closure. People of faith have also often reacted against science without understanding it.

Evolution, for example, does not mean that God is absent.

Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology - The Gifford Lectures

On the other side there is often from the scientific side too little appreciation of the subtlety of theology, or the need for theology. In theology and science in the last decades scientific accounts have been recognized but there has been what can only be called a premature closure, and an attempt to integrate too closely the scientific and theological accounts; in these situations one account is almost always privileged. In process theology, for example, there are huge concessions in the theology of God to accommodate this overall theory.

Transversal dialogue aims to allow a mutual openness between disciplines without false closure, and without losing too much of the tension between the disciplines. Sometimes this will mean that one discipline will raise questions in another, or will help to frame those questions? So Van Huyssteen says:. When a concept like human uniqueness is used in theology, it may mean something entirely different than when it is used in the sciences But these diverse uses of the same phrases may, at the same time, alert us to promising liminalities between the disciplines.

Indeed, interdisciplinary discourse may begin at this very point of transversal intersection and tension. The tension unresolved, in my view, centres around the involvement of humanity.

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Did fallenness come in stages? What happened at the edge of human becoming which might still count as fall, albeit a reinterpreted fall? This requires a deeper transversal investigation, and perhaps questions about resonances, rather than doctrine.

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Is it possible to find resonance in the evolutionary record, with a pre-existing, or increasing fallenness, in which good and evil are entwined as Milbank might suggest? This discussion is not new.

A Theological Cartography of Cultural Evolution

In the middle of the s there was a debate going on between those who saw the world in quite static terms—having been made perfect years ago, and having fallen into depravity, and full of humans who were awaiting redemption; and a more evolutionary theory that posited long aeons of time before humanity, and who therefore saw the universe in a much more dynamic and progressive way. True there had been no perfection in the past, but nor were we stuck with what we have now—humans and God could work together for something better. There is another way of looking at these matters—somewhere in between.

In the twentieth century we have been under the sway of a much more pessimistic evolutionary philosophy—and a much more absent God. The evolutionary process is a mixture of randomness and law regarding fit and survival. This process has no personal intentions, no concern for humanity above other creatures, and is associated with no final nor formal causes.

Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology

The long and rich tradition of the Gifford Lectures challenges the feasibility and credibility of modern dialogues between theology and the sciences. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen rejects the idea that religious faith and scientific thought inhabit opposing domains of rationality. Among other things, van Huyssteen argues that scientific notions of human uniqueness help us to ground theological notions of human distinctiveness in.

This is very much the pessimistic space in which many scientists—for instance Dawkins—dwell today, having lost the sense of paradise but fixating up on the more random and purposeless characteristics of the evolutionary process. Thus we imagine the world and evil in diverse ways. The debate continues. There have been many attempts to reconcile Genesis with an evolutionary understanding of fall. Most common, as mentioned above, have been new forms of existential interpretation of fallenness.

Richard Bube argues that to be fallen means that which we experience as temptation and recrimination [Bube ]. Clatworthy insists that evil is our responsibility, and the world is not fallen [Clatworthy]. Randy Isaac makes a case for progressive fallenness [Isaac ].

Thus he sees a fall begun by humanity but increasing through the years with increased rebellion. Although I think this understanding of fall is insufficient, not taking into account pre-human violence, it does make the concept of fall more fluid, and opens it up to the possibility of happening in stages or over a long continuum. Where it is weakest, though, is in dealing with the long history of pre-human brokenness, the long prehistory of the human race. These interpretations, valid as they are, however, cannot exhaust the text of Genesis, which inevitably has also an historic component, albeit one that must be re-understood and reinterpreted in light of the complexities emerging from anthropology, paleontology, genetics, and also more recent studies in animal behavior.

In this I follow Henri Blocher who argues that while Genesis has a highly complex literary and mythical structure that does not thereby rule out some form of historical reality and some historical reading as well. It involves no tension. It should cause no embarrassment.

Thinking otherwise is unwarranted prejudice,.. The problem is not historiography as a genre narrowly …but correspondence with discrete realities in our ordinary space and sequential time [Blocher , p50].


Even when this narrative is no longer intended, ambiguous liturgical and theological references to Adam or Eve often throw up the suggestions of this history in some form or other. Within evangelical circles even those who are prepared to pay lip service to evolutionary history will sometimes exempt humanity.

Thus I turn next to a method of interaction between theology and science which has been used recently in charting a similar theological problem—that of human uniqueness. Imago Dei and fallenness are both most evident in humanity.

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Fallenness is manifest in the escalation of violence and revenge which accompanies human intelligence and community, in the seeming inevitability of sin. Imago Dei , although it too has been discussed mainly in relational and functional terms in the twentieth century , can be seen —in substance— in the greatness, especially moral greatness, to which humans can aspire.

Together they constitute the core of theological definition of the person. Where then does this leave us in terms of theological interpretations of fallenness and of origins, for they are related? We can easily look at this data and think that Genesis was wrong. There is nothing special about us at all, neither in our imaging of God, nor in our wickedness. In his Gifford lectures Van Huyssteen argues otherwise. He argues that the scientific data is sufficient to show there is a fluidity to our intelligence, and opening up of interconnected intelligences that is unique in humanity, but this conclusion is a judgment call, made after long and deliberate transversal indwelling of the multiple disciplines associated with human being.

Van Huyssteen quotes the now extensive scientific evidence that suggests there has been a remarkable opening up of the human mind in the second wave of hominid progression out of Africa, the progression which encountered and eventually replaced Neanderthal. This is the mind that made the art in the caves of France and Spain. There is every scientific reason to accept that there are analogies to what we call the image of God, but they are in capacities which are in continuity with our ape precursors.

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Thus whatever work the imago Dei doctrine does, starkly separating us from animals is not the effect. Similarly with our tendencies to violence.