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.

 

 

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Dominion: The Image of God and the Feminine Experience

Probably no other topic has engaged my interest as the imago Dei—what it means for humans to be made in God’s image.

My interest in the topic began as a personal exploration of my own identity and has blossomed over the years into a long-term research project. It turns out that there are more facets to the imago Dei than are dreamed of in our theology.

Besides my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Brazos, 2005), I’ve written over a dozen journal articles, book chapters, encyclopedia entries, and blog posts on various aspects of the subject. And I am deepening my understanding of the imago Dei all the time.

The Image of God in the Ancient Near East and in the Modern World

I was recently interviewed on the subject of the image of God by Deb Gregory for the Betwixt podcast series.

The interview I participated in, which is fifth in a series on “The Image of God and the Feminine Experience,” addresses whether the so-called “functional” interpretation of the imago Dei, which involves human “rule” or “dominion” over the earth (a view that I have argued for in my writings), excludes women—either explicitly or implicitly.

Deb Gregory starts the podcast with an excellent overview of the ancient Near Eastern background to the functional view of the image of God, then raises the question of whether this includes women.

The thirty-five minute interview starts at about the ten minute mark, and is followed by Deb’s brilliant five-minute meditation on implications of the discussion.

You can listen to the podcast  on the Missio Alliance website or on Sound Cloud, which is the home for Betwixt podcasts.

Here is Deb’s description of the interview topic:

Near the end of the twentieth century, the Functional View of the image of God emerged with virtual consensus among Old Testament scholars. The discovery of ancient texts which used “image of God” language in reference to kings and cult images led scholars to recast the imago Dei in terms of how a king or priest functions as a royal representation of God.

The Functional View asserts that man was created to be God’s physical representation on earth and to function as his agent and vice-regent in exercising dominion. But what about women? Was Eve also made in the image of God or was she a derivation of the man from whom she was extracted? Did she also possess this royal dominion or was she created to submit under the authority of the man who acted alone as God’s royal representative?

In conversation with theologian J. Richard Middleton, Betwixt explores the Functional View along with questions it raises about dominion, power, gender, ecology, and politics.

The Betwixt Podcast Series on the “Image of God”

If you are interested, you can access all the podcasts on the “The Image of God and the Feminine Experience” on the Missio Alliance website.

1. Introduction to the Image of God & the Feminine Experience

2. Female Men of God & the Early Church

3. Are Women Rational? Let’s Ask Google!

4. Sex Difference & the Image of God

5. Dominion

Other Betwixt Podcasts (including interviews with Walter Brueggemann)

You can listen to other Betwixt podcasts here, including a couple of great conversations with Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann.

Why “Betwixt”?

Here is the website explanation of what the Betwixt podcast tries to accomplish:

The Betwixt podcast is devoted to the betwixing space where faith and culture converge. This intersection, at once sacred and dangerous, sanctions the shedding of our past and the mantling of our becoming. Conversations with fascinating guests will coax us out of our ideological trenches with betwixting stories from the middle space.

 

Science and Faith in Canada (May 11–14, 2018 Conference at Trinity Western University, Langley, BC)

The Canadian Scientific & Christian Affiliation is holding a conference dealing with science and Christianity in Canada, co-hosted by Trinity Western University, on May 11–14, 2018. This conference will include Canadians in science, speakers dealing with issues relevant to the theme, and talks on science and Christian faith in general.

I will be one of the keynote speakers (on “Human Distinctiveness and the Origin of Evil in Biblical and Evolutionary Perspectives”), along with University of British Columbia president Santa Ono (on “Science And Faith: Servant Leadership and the Secular University”), Dennis Danielson (on “Copernicus and the Structure of the Universe”), Robert Mann (on “The Edge: Physics and Theology”), Kathryn Hayhoe (on “Christians, Climate Science, and our Culture”), and Janet Danielson (whose musical piece “Six Pieces of a Reverberant Cosmos” will be performed). There will also be the screening of a movie by Loren Wilkinson (professor emeritus at Regent College), called “Making Peace With Creation” followed by a panel discussion.

Breakout Sessions

Fifty breakout sessions are scheduled on topics like artificial intelligence, creation care, origins, and more. There is even a session entitled “A Physicist, Geographer, and a Biologist Go Into a Church, and” (which I’d like to hear).

I happen to know a number of the presenters, including Gord Carkner, who will be speaking on “Scientism and the Search for an Integrated Reality,” Doug Harink, whose talk is entitled “The Burning Bush, the Theotokos, and the Theology-Science Relationship,” and Janet Warren (president of the Canadian Scientific & Christian Affiliation), who will be addressing “Addiction: Discomfort and Denial.”

Sky Gala

There is a “Sky Gala” on Saturday evening, which is open to the public. The evening features a talk by renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe (Texas Tech) and a cosmos-themed concert by Janet Danielson (Lecturer and Instructor, School for the Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University) and the Isotone Ensemble (Oakridge, Tennessee). The evening will conclude with a reception featuring hors d’oeuvres.

Conference Schedule

The conference, running from Friday dinner through Monday lunch, will include morning devotions and a Sunday morning worship service.

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

Registration

For further conference details, including registration, see the CSCA conference website.

You can see a video with registration instructions here.

Early-bird rates end March 31.

For those unable attend the entire conference, single-day tickets are available, and the Saturday evening gala can be attended as a stand-alone event. The conference fees are low to moderate, with discounted on- and off-campus lodging options. Those who also attend the nearby Regent College Pastors’ Conference (May 9-11, ending with lunch) will receive a 25% conference registration discount for both conferences.

Scholarships

Scholarships are available to cover student attendance & travel. Registration includes meals.

For questions, please email Mark McEwan.

Plenary Presenters


Dennis Danielson, Ph.D.
(Professor and Former Chair, Department of English, University Of British Columbia)

Janet Danielson, M.F.A.
(Lecturer and Instructor, School for the Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University)

Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D.
(Director, Climate Science Center, Texas Tech University)

Robert B. Mann, Ph.D.
(Professor of Physics & Astronomy, University of Waterloo)

J Richard Middleton, Ph.D.
(Professor of Biblical Worldview & Exegesis, Northeastern Seminary)

Santa J. Ono, Ph.D.
(President & Vice-Chancellor, University of British Columbia)