Biblical Faith and Evolution at Cambridge

This is the seventh installment about my speaking tour in the UK.

In between my two visits to Oxford I spent the day in Cambridge.

I gave a lunchtime lecture at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge (housed in St. Edmund’s College), as part of their bi-weekly series of Research Seminars on various topics relating to science and Christian faith.

Most of my other lectures in the UK were presented to divinity students and faculty at various universities and in a few cases to wider audiences that included non-academics.

Those lectures were all related to my teaching and research on the Bible, deriving either from my published writings (A New Heaven and a New Earth) or from material I am currently working on for publication (the lament psalms, Genesis 22, and Job).

My lecture at the Faraday Institute was a bit different; my assigned topic of how the early chapters of Genesis might relate to an evolutionary account of human origins (“Human Distinctiveness and the Origin of Evil in Biblical and Evolutionary Perspective”) was quite new to me; I’ve only begun thinking about this issue in the last few years.

The audience for the lecture was also different, being composed of scientists, theologians, and students, including people of different religious faiths, and even some skeptics.

This was the largest group I spoke to on my entire UK trip. Whereas some of the academic audiences I addressed were as small as 15 or 20, the Faraday organizers told me they counted 99 people in the audience, the largest turnout they had in recent memory for one of their seminars.

In the Faraday lecture I was representing BioLogos, an organization in the US that tries to help Christians see the harmony between science and faith, especially focusing on how we might understand evolution as the way that God has worked in the created order.

I became a BioLogos theology fellow in 2016, tasked with writing a number of blog posts on issues relating to biblical interpretation and evolution. I was also asked to become a member of BioLogos Voices, which is their Speaker’s Bureau (I am one four speakers listed under Bible and Theology).

My approach in the Faraday lecture (which has also been my approach in my BioLogos blogs) was to use my expertise as an Old Testament scholar to help the audience notice what the relevant Scriptures were saying about the topic at hand, and then speculate (tentatively) on how this might connect with what we know about human evolution.

I had very diverse questions from people of different faith stances; I can only hope that my exposition of Scripture helped those in the audience (Christian or otherwise) realize the rich resources of the Bible, when it is taken seriously and read carefully.

Some Interesting People That I Met

Keith Fox is Associate Director of The Faraday Institute and Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Southampton. He was my initial contact with Faraday and the person who decided on the topic of my lecture (from the options that I suggested).

Jennifer Wiseman works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the Senior Project Scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope (having previously headed the Goddard’s Laboratory for Exoplanets and Stellar Astrophysics); I had previously met her at a BioLogos conference in the US. She was at the University of Cambridge to work on a short-term research project in astrophysics and was the next speaker for the Faraday Research Seminars, two weeks after my lecture.

Hilary Marlow, Lecturer in the Faculty of Divinity at University of Cambridge, is an Old Testament scholar well-known for her work on ecology in the prophetic literature. She is one of the editors of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Bible and Ecology, for which I wrote an essay on “The Image of God in Ecological Perspective.” I met Hilary last November when she gave the keynote address on ecology and justice at the 2016 meeting of the Ecological Ethics and Biblical Studies research group of the Institute for Biblical Research (I will be giving the keynote address on ecology and hope at the 2017 meeting).

Fox, Middleton, Weisman, and Marlow

Ruth Bancewicz, a biologist, is a Senior Research Associate at The Faraday Institute, who also writes for BioLogos. After my lecture Ruth interviewed me for the Science and Belief blog, which she is in charge of. The interview, which will also be released as a podcast, is meant for those who couldn’t attend the lecture, and generally appeals to a wider audience. The interview has been requested by the editor of The War Cry, a Christian newspaper in the UK published by the Salvation Army (since 1879). Unlike many Christian organizations in North America, it looks like the Salvation Army in the UK isn’t afraid of evolution!

Daniel Weiss is Polonsky-Coexist Lecturer in Jewish Studies, in Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. After my Faraday lecture, Daniel took me aside and chatted enthusiastically about his work on biblical interpretation and the Jewish intellectual tradition. I was pleasantly surprised when he affirmed that my analysis of humanity as the image of God (in The Liberating Image) was helpful for his own work.

The Work of Michael Faraday

And now a word about Michael Faraday, the nineteenth-century English Christian (1791-1867) for whom The Faraday Institute is named. Although he had almost no formal schooling, Michael Faraday became fascinated with science in his teenage years and became an important experimental scientist as a young man. He was the first to demonstrate the relationship of electricity to magnetism, and he developed the first electric motor. Later on he demonstrated the connection of electromagnetism to light. In 1825 Faraday instituted a series of Christmas lectures on science for the public that continue to this day.

In the plane on the way home, I happened to watch a special episode of Cosmos (the science TV series) on Michael Faraday; it was quite inspiring.

A Speaking Tour in the United Kingdom

I am getting ready to head to the UK to give a series of lectures, mostly on eschatology (but with a few other topics included as well). The first stop is in Scotland, with most of my time spent moving southward through England.

I was initially invited by folks who run the Thinking Faith Network (in Leeds) to speak on the topic of my eschatology book, A New Heaven and a New Earth. Given that I would be coming all the way across the Atlantic, they worked out a series of other speaking events for me in the UK.

It is a bit of a grueling schedule, so I would appreciate prayers from anyone who feels so led, both for my sustained energy and that my talks would be helpful to those in attendance.

If you are going to be in the areas where I’m speaking, you are invited to attend any of the public lectures.

So far the following locations and events have been confirmed.

St. Andrews

Two public lectures sponsored by the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology and the School of Divinity (St. Mary’s College), at the University of St. Andrews.

  • April 20 – “A New Heaven and a New Earth: For God So Loved the World.” Thursday afternoon lecture (4:00 pm), Lecture Room 1, St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews.
  • April 21 – “Voices from the Ragged Edge: The Gritty Spirituality of the Psalms for a Broken World.” Friday afternoon lecture (4:00 pm), Lecture Room 1, St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews.

Aberdeen

Durham

  • April 25 – “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.” Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion, Tuesday afternoon (4:00-5:30 pm), Seminar Room C, Abbey House, Palace Green, Durham University.

Mirfield

Leeds

Two public lectures in the Life Matters series, Thinking Faith Network, Leeds. Click here for a flier about both talks.

  • April 28 – “Why Are We Here? Our Sacred Calling in God’s World.” Friday evening lecture (7:30-9:00 pm),  Quaker Meeting House, 188 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds.
  • April 29 – “Voices from the Ragged Edge: The Gritty Spirituality of the Psalms for a Broken World.” Saturday morning lecture (10:00 am-12:00 noon), Quaker Meeting House, 188 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds.

Oxford

Cambridge

Oxford

Cheltenham

  • May 3 – “A New Heaven and a New Earth: For God So Loved the World.” Wednesday evening public lecture (6:00-7:30 pm), University of Gloucestershire, Room TC001, Francis Close Hall Campus, Swindon Rd., Cheltenham. You can download a flier here.

Bristol

My Six Degrees of Separation from Malcolm Gladwell

I started working on this blog post a long time ago. But I never completed it, due to a variety of writing commitments that took priority.

However, a recent turn of events has brought Malcolm Gladwell, and his family, to the forefront of my mind.

On March 11, 2017 Malcolm Gladwell’s father, Graham, passed away, after suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s for a number of years. My heart goes out to the family, as I remember vividly the passing of my own mom and dad (Jack and Phyllis Middleton) a few years back.

My wife, Marcia, and I met Graham Gladwell and his wife, Joyce, in Jamaica, while walking on the beach at Silver Sands in February 2016. They had been visiting from Canada, where they lived for almost fifty years (Graham was a Brit, and they met in England when Joyce was studying in London). It turns out that both our families were frequent visitors to that beautiful (and relatively inexpensive) Jamaican resort (though Malcolm didn’t accompany them that year).

Marcia and Richard Middleton with Joyce and Graham Gladwell

It was after meeting the senior Gladwells that I began thinking more seriously about doing this blog.

The way we met them is interesting. Las Newman, newly retired president of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (CGST), was with us. He stopped the couple and asked: “Is that Faith Linton?” “No,” the answer came back. “It’s her twin sister, Joyce.”

What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me

Previous to that chance meeting, I had met Faith Linton (Joyce’s twin and Malcolm’s aunt), also in Jamaica.

While on Sabbatical in February 2009, I taught a three-week course at CGST in Kingston. While I was there, Las Newman (who was then CGST president) brokered an introduction to Faith.

CGST had recently hosted a launch of Faith’s new book, What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me: Identity and Gospel in Jamaica (BayRidge Books, 2008). Las had written the Foreword, and Malcolm Gladwell introduced and promoted the book at the event.

What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me is a semi-autobiographical meditation on the importance of creation theology—especially the human status as the image of God—as the basis for proclaiming the Gospel. Having taught at girls’ summer camps in Jamaica for many years, Faith came to see the difference it made to invite young girls from broken families (who had often been abused), with low self esteem, to be open to God’s surpassing valuation of them as his image, rather than trying to guilt-trip them into the faith by focusing on how sinful they were (that’s something they already knew very well).

Since I had written on what it means to be made in God’s image (in chap. 3 of The Transforming Vision, in chap. 6 of Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, and in The Liberating Image), Faith had wanted to meet me, and I likewise wanted to meet her.

Three of us drove from CGST in Kingston, up and over Mt Rossa (appropriately nicknamed Mt. Diablo), to Ocho Rios on the north coast (this was before the opening of the new highway from Kingston to Ocho Rios). From there we traveled eighteen miles into the rolling hills of the parish of St. Ann, to Cranbrook estate, a farm with surrounding lands that had been converted to a botanical garden and ecological park by proprietors Ivan and Faith Linton (both of whom were retired school teachers).

Richard with Faith and Ivan Linton

It was a delight to spend an afternoon with Faith and Ivan; and Faith and I exchanged signed copies of our books.

Brown Face, Big Master

I found out from Faith that her sister Joyce (Malcolm’s mother) is also an author, having written a fascinating book about being brown (mixed race) and a Christian. The book, Brown Face, Big Master, was originally published in 1969 by Inter-Varsity in England, and has been reprinted through other publishers a couple of times since (Doctor Bird, 2001; Macmillian Caribbean, 2004).

Faith also gave me a copy of Joyce’s book (the 2001 edition).

In the book, Joyce recounts what it was like to grow up in a mixed-race, privileged, educated family in rural Jamaica (her father was headmaster of the local school), but then to experience racial discrimination in England for being “coloured.”

Joyce grew up in Jamaica during a time when the precise shade of skin color mattered (the lighter, the better). This contrasted sharply with my own experience of growing up in Kingston when black power was significantly impacting people’s self image. I can remember Nina Simone’s song, “(To be) Young, Gifted, and Black”—especially the reggae version by Bob and Marcia (1970), which predated Aretha Franklin’s version (1972)—getting a lot of airplay in my teenage years.

So Joyce’s book provided an important (and very personal) glimpse into race and class in pre-independence Jamaica.

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of his mother’s life, and recounts an excerpt from Brown Face, Big Master, in the epilogue to his own book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown, & Co., 2008; paperback 2011). Since Outliers is about how context affects success, the epilogue (entitled “A Jamaican Story”) is Gladwell’s attempt to account for the impact of his mother’s heritage on his own life.

I haven’t (yet) met Malcolm Gladwell, though I’ve read most of his books. But it was a privilege to meet his parents and his aunt, as it was to read What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me and Brown Face, Big Master.

Six Degrees of Separation

In Malcolm’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, & Co., 2000; paperback 2002), he writes about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone is linked together by no more than six steps (via other people).

So, if you are person #1, someone you know (person #2) is connected to another person (#3), who is connected to another person (#4), and through one more step (person #5), you are linked to person #6. And this is thought to be able to account for the links between just about everyone in the world today.

According to Wikipedia, the idea of six degrees of separation can be traced back to a short story called “Chains” by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, in his book Everything is Different (published in 1929). The idea then became the premise of a 1990 play by John Guare, called “Six Degrees of Separation.” This then spawned the game “Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon.” And on it goes.

Gladwell himself cites the so-called the small world experiment done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram, who tried to find out how many steps it would take to connect 160 people from Omaha, Nebraska to a stockbroker in Massachusetts.

Milgram discovered that half the connections were channeled through just three people, whom Gladwell calls Connectors. Gladwell goes on to illustrate the point by pointing out that thirty of his forty closest friends are ultimately linked to him through one particular person.

This leads to his comment: “Six degrees of separation doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.” (The Tipping Point, from chap. 2: “The Law of the Few”)

My Six (or Less) Degrees of Separation from Malcolm Gladwell

So I thought I would share my own “six degrees of separation” from Malcolm Gladwell. It isn’t primarily about my meeting his parents and his aunt.

My connection to Malcolm Gladwell actually precedes those meetings, though I only found out about the connection through my conversation with Faith Linton.

  • The maiden name of Malcolm’s mother (Joyce) and her twin sister (Faith) is Nation.
  • Joyce and Faith Nation are first cousins to Dave Nation.
  • Dave and Barb Nation (Jamaicans currently living in Canada) are aunt and uncle to my wife Marcia.

That may be only four degrees of separation (depending on how you count it)—from Richard to Marcia; from Marcia to her uncle; from Marcia’s uncle to Joyce; from Joyce to Malcolm.

And I don’t even think there was a Connector involved.

An Extra Connection

I’ll just throw in an extra, other bit of linkage—this time between Faith Linton and myself.

Faith’s book What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me was published by BayRidge Books, an imprint of Castle Quay Books (Canada). This publishing company is run by a husband and wife team—Larry Willard and Marina Hofman Willard.

Marina is an Old Testament scholar, who got her PhD from Wycliffe College, at the University of Toronto.

In October 2014 Marina won the Jack and Phyllis Middleton Memorial Award for her paper presented at the Fall theology conference of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association. This is an annual award given in honor of my parents.

Then in June 2015 Marina and Larry, being publishers, attended the Word Guild gala awards ceremony for books by Canadian authors (held in Toronto).

It was Marina who first let me know (by email from her iPhone) in real time during the ceremony that my book A New Heaven and a New Earth had won the Word Guild award for best Biblical Studies book.

It really is a very, very small world.