Trusting the Bible and Accepting Evolution—Call me Crazy!

I just returned from Cornell University, where I gave a joint-presentation entitled “Origins, Self, and Soul” with Praveen Sethupathy, a Christian geneticist on the faculty of Cornell.

Our presentation, which addressed biblical and evolutionary perspectives on human origins and identity, was co-sponsored by Chesterton House, a Christian study center near the Cornell campus, and the Cornell Graduate Christian Fellowship.

The implicit question we addressed was whether it is possible to be a faithful Christian and accept an evolutionary account of human origins.

Whereas Praveen brought a scientist’s perspective, my portion of the presentation focused on what the Bible tells us about human commonality with animals and about what it means to be created in God’s image, which is usually taken as something unique to humans.

I wasn’t able to cover very much in the twenty minutes allotted to me.

However, those twenty minutes were part of longer presentation that I have given on the topic of the Bible and evolution, which covered a larger scope.

The last time I gave the full presentation was in May 2018, when I participated in a conference sponsored by the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation (CSCA), held at Trinity Western University, in Langley, BC.

I was one of six plenary presenters. The presenters all came from different disciplines and addressed aspects of the intersection of faith and the sciences.

Can We Believe the Bible and Accept Evolution?

As the biblical scholar of the lot, my talk focused on biblical themes. Given the nature of the conference (and my interest in the faith-science interface on matters of origins), I attempted to relate the biblical themes of human distinctiveness and the origin of evil to what the sciences are telling us about our evolutionary origins.

I began by highlighting a number of tensions that Christians have perceived between the Bible and an evolutionary account of human origins. Then I suggested that these tensions are not necessary, but have to do with the way in which we read the Bible.

So I engaged in some serious Bible study.

My talk was videotaped and astutely edited together with my PowerPoint slides. The entire talk (with slides) can be viewed here.

Part 1: Human Distinctiveness

In part 1 of the talk, I addressed how the Bible understands the commonality of humans with other animals (in a variety of creation texts from Genesis, Job, and the Psalms), which suggests that we shouldn’t have an aversion to the idea of common descent. Then I explored the Bible’s teaching about humanity as the image of God (found in Genesis 1:26–28 and related texts). I speculated how the human calling to image God might be related to what science is telling us about human origins.

Part 2: The Origin of Evil

In part 2 of the talk, I focused on the portrayal of the origin of evil in Genesis 2–3, probing the way in which this portrayal is true to human experience and represents a profound phenomenology of temptation and sin. Then I picked up on my earlier speculation about the image of God and evolutionary origins, and added a suggestion for how human evil could have entered the evolutionary process.

I thus did what many Christians claim it is impossible. I attempted to affirm both an evolutionary account of human origins and the biblical teaching on human distinctiveness and a historical fall.

Call me crazy. But I respect God’s revelation in Scripture and God’s revelation in creation, which can be studied by science. I can’t deny either.

In fact, I believe that God is revealed—and glorified—in the evolutionary complexity of the biological world.

Insightful Devotional: “Called to Indwell the Earth”

At the conference we had a wonderful devotional one morning given by Patrick Franklin, current vice-president of the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, and newly appointed associate professor of theology at Tyndale Seminary, in Toronto.

You can watch Patrick Franklin’s talk here.

Recordings of Other Talks at the Conference

You can see the entire conference schedule of keynote speakers and breakout sessions here.

All the keynote talks and some of the breakout sessions were recorded. You can find links to them here.

 

Advertisements

Origins, Self, & the Soul (Cornell University, September 21, 2018)

I’ll be joining with biology professor Dr. Praveen Sethupathy to give a public lecture at Cornell University on Friday, September 21, 2018.

Having done joint-presentations on similar topics in the past, we have found that our perspectives are helpfully complementary.

The lecture, entitled “Origins, Self, & the Soul,”  is sponsored by Chesterton House, a Christian study center near the Cornell campus, and is part of their Friday Conversation series.

The event is co-sponsored by the Cornell Graduate Christian Fellowship and by BioLogos, an organization of orthodox Christians who take seriously both the biblical revelation of God as Creator and the science of evolution. Both Praveen and I are members of BioLogos Voices, and often write and speak on behalf of the organization.

Here is the Chesterton House summary of the September 21 event:

Join us for a Friday Conversation with Dr. Praveen Sethupathy and Dr. Richard Middleton. What better way to engage the historic conversation between science and faith than to feature thoughtful, renowned scholarsone a scientist and the other a theologian. Listen and join in as they discuss and examine the study of genetics and human origins from scientific and theological perspectives, exploring the implications for human identity as the image of God.

The event will be held in the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium in Klarman Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, at 5:00 pm on Friday, September 21, 2018.

Focus of the Joint-Lecture

Having presented with Praveen Sethupathy before, I expect that he will recount in a wonderful way his own journey of faith in relation to science and will explore ways in which scientists have attempted (and failed) to isolate what is distinctively humans about us. His suggestion is that we need to attend to what the Bible says about human distinctiveness, namely, that we are made in God’s image (imago Dei).

For my part, I will focus first on what the Bible says about the similarity or kinship of humans with the non-human and then explore the meaning of the imago Dei as the distinctive human vocation or calling, concluding with some (tentative) thoughts on how this might relate to the current scientific picture of human origins.

Both Praveen and I are committed, orthodox Christians, who take seriously the biblical teaching about what it means to be human and what science is telling us about our evolutionary history. We don’t think there is a necessary conflict between them.

Our presentation (sure to be controversial) will be followed by at least half-an-hour for open discussion, accompanied by free pizza for all.

If you are in the area, please join us on the evening of September 21 for this important discussion.

Praveen Sethupathy Bio

Praveen Sethupathy is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Cornell University. He received his BA degree from Cornell 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. In 2017, he returned to Cornell University as an Associate Professor.

Praveen has authored over 70 publications, and has served as a reviewer for over 30 different journals. Recent honors include a faculty merit award for outstanding teaching and mentoring. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife and three children.

If You Need Directions

For directions to Cornell, including a campus map, click here.

For more information, including directions to the location of the lecture (the Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium in Klarman Hall), you can email Chesterton House.

Chesterton House link for the event.

BioLogos link for the event.

 

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

Praveen and I recently did a joint lecture 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.