What Makes Us Human: Reflections on Genesis and Genetics in West Chester, PA

I’ve been doing quite a bit of speaking on behalf of BioLogos, a Christian organization dedicated to helping Christians and others see the hand of God in the evolutionary process.

Francis Collins

BioLogos was founded by Francis Collins, the evangelical Christian physician and geneticist, who—as head of the Human Genome Project—developed the first comprehensive analysis of the human genetic code.

Collin’s book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), is both a good non-technical introduction to evolution and genomic science and a testimony to his view of the harmony of science and faith.

It was the honest questions that Collins received from the public about the relationship of Christian faith and evolution that led him to found BioLogos in 2007.

Praveen Sethupathy

I’ve now done three joint talks with Praveen Sethupathy, a Christian professor of genetics at Cornell University, who did a post-doc with Francis Collins at the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Both Praveen and I are members of BioLogos Voices, a group of speakers sponsored by BioLogos, who are offering our services to Christian and secular audiences interested in thinking about the relationship of science and faith in non-polarizing ways.

Our Lecture at West Chester University

The most recent talk that Praveen and I did was in West Chester, PA on April 8, 2018. We were invited by Raymond Johnson, the pastor of The Journey Church in West Chester, to give a joint presentation in their Sunday Night Theology series, held at West Chester University.

The title of our talk, to a packed room, was “What Makes Us Human? Lessons from Genetics and Genesis.”

Praveen kicked off the evening by narrating some of his own faith journey and how he understands the intersection of his scientific profession and his Christian faith. He then discussed the various possibilities that scientists have proposed as characteristics that might distinguish humans from other animals, including anatomical, behavioral, cellular, and genetic distinctives. But none of them hold up to sustained scrutiny.

Not Biology, but the Image God

Instead, he suggested that the Bible understands human distinctiveness not in terms of any particular features of Homo sapiens, but in our calling or vocation to image God by how we live (a point on which there is nearly unanimity among contemporary biblical scholars). He introduced the topic by quoting from my own book, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (p. 27):

“The imago Dei designates the royal office or calling of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, granted authorized power to share in God’s rule or administration of the earth’s resources and creatures.”

After discussing this “functional” human calling to image God and reveal God’s character, Praveen went on to talk about God’s delight in his creation, especially as portrayed in Psalm 104; thus our own ability to delight in God’s world may be an aspect of the image of God, a way in which humans uniquely reflect their Creator.

Along the way, Praveen addressed the paradox that ordered and purposeful outcomes often result from what we might think of as random processes. This is because randomness (such as we find in evolution) is often not purely random, but is impacted by all sorts of chemical and biological constraints that are built into nature. Thus even the supposed randomness of evolution is not inherently contrary to the notion of design in creation.

What Does the Bible Say about Human Distinctiveness?

Praveen then handed things over to me. My task was to develop the biblical materials on what it means to be human.

First, I took the audience through a tour of various Scriptures (in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job) that assumed a commonality or kinship between humans and other animals. I suggested that this commonality can prime us theologically to be open to the idea of common descent.

But the Bible also portrays humans as different from other creatures, in our calling to image God.

It is true that the Bible only rarely refers to humans as created in God’s image (there are only five or six passages that explicitly say this). Does that mean that the idea of the imago Dei is not particularly important in the biblical worldview?

To address this question, I used the following analogy:

Whereas the coherent vision of being human found in the Bible is like a powerful underground river that fertilizes much biblical theology, the explicit statements about our creation in God’s image are those places where the water bubbles to the surface, and the flow becomes visible.

I then fleshed out some of the content of the imago Dei, by examining a variety of biblical texts that articulate aspects of our calling to represent God and manifest his presence by how we live in the world.

This imaging function is clarified by how the ancients thought of images (idols) in temples dedicated to their various gods. Whereas the image/idol was understood as mediating the presence of the deity being worshiped, Scripture affirms that only humans are God’s authorized images in the cosmic temple of creation.

Humans can thus do what idols can’t. They are able to represent God on earth and to mediate God’s presence through their obedient response to God’s will in the full range of earthly life.

The Image of God and Evolution?

I concluded by speculating about how our unique calling to image God (the core of human distinctiveness) might be compatible with human evolution.

To that end, I sketched a possible scenario, wondering whether God may have entered into relationship with a group of Homo sapiens, sometime after the species had emerged and stabilized. This new relationship would have radically transformed human consciousness and thus initiated the imago Dei as the distinctive human response to God’s presence.

Of course, the truth of the Bible, and our calling to image of God, does not depend on this (or any other) imaginative scenario.

Questions, Questions, and More Questions

We then had a substantial time of discussion as people in the audience asked their probing questions and we tried to answer them as best we could.

Some of the questions had to do with scientific issues, but many had to do with the Bible and how we interpreted biblical creation accounts in relation to evolutionary science. We certainly did not get through all the questions the audience had in the time frame allotted, neither did we answer all the questions to everyone’s satisfaction.

Nevertheless, we tried to articulate our trust in the God of the Bible, who is revealed in Jesus Christ, while embodying an openness to science and the humility to acknowledge that we didn’t have all the answers.

Audio Recording of the Presentation

For those interested in the audio recording of the presentation, it is available here, either for online listening or for download.

The audio begins with an introduction by Raymond Johnson.

Praveen’s talk begins at about the 7:56 minute mark. And my talk starts at around 38:10 minutes.

The Q&A time is not part of the posted recording.

 

 

Advertisements