In an era where conflicting ideas often cause anger and division amongst those who disagree, the disagreements in religion and the sciences – particularly around the areas of creation and evolution – seem almost insurmountable. Yet an international, interdisciplinary group of scholars has been committed to engaging these issues in a respectful, thoughtful way, even if they will never fully agree. Those conversations (with the financial support of the BioLogos Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation) led to a new book that tackles heavy theological topics: Finding Ourselves After Darwin: Conversations on the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil.
Morgan Feddes Satre, editor of Advance, spoke with the book’s general editor, Stan Rosenberg (founder and director of Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford (SCIO), the CCCU’s UK subsidiary, and director of the CCCU’s BestSemester programs in Oxford), and with one of its associate editors, Michael Lloyd (principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where the CCCU’s student programs in Oxford are based), about the origins of the book, the approach it takes to these issues, and how CCCU faculty and students can engage it. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What spurred the creation of the book? What brought the group of you as contributors and editors together?
Michael Lloyd: Well, it began as an interdisciplinary group meeting to discuss human origins. So we had theologians. We had philosophers. We had biologists. We had biblical studies scholars and ancient Near Eastern scholars. We used to meet up roughly once a month over voluminous amounts of pizza, and we had a lot of discussion about the whole issue of how Darwin and modern genetic discoveries affect the way in which we understand our origins as human beings, and out of that emerged these clusters of issues, which we then addressed in the book.
Stan Rosenberg: One of the things we really endeavored to do throughout the whole process was focus on opening up the conversation. For many of these debates and discussions, people want to close discussion down too quickly. They want to set firm perimeters perhaps before the appropriate conversations have been authentically held. There’s a pressure to assert a position, set up a fortification, and lay out firm boundaries. Is there a place to be willing to take risks and step out? One of our goals as a group was to take risks – not for the sake of it [the risks], but to recognize that creating barriers means others can’t get in and we can’t get out. Sometimes you need boundaries [in conversations like these], but rarely do we need those fortifications as much as we think we do.
Michael Lloyd: One of our key motivations was thinking about Christian people around the world who are studying science and have been brought up in church traditions that make them think that, to be faithful Christians, they have to reject evolution entirely. We wanted to offer other narratives that show there is a huge amount of space to relate creatively between the different disciplines of orthodox faith and creative science. We want those who are struggling with these issues to know that people have been there before. They’ve thought these things through, and they’ve not found it necessary to reject either the faith or the science. We want them to know that they don’t need to pick one and reject the other. So [the book] was written with a pastoral motivation as much as anything.
Stan Rosenberg: Related to that is each of the doctrines we deal with [in the book] are, in some ways, scripturally ill-defined. With doctrine, there are nuggets at the core that we all hold. All of us are convinced we’re made in the image of God. All of us are convinced there’s a problem of evil to solve and that God is good. But what does it mean to be made in the image of God? For example, some theological traditions would include biological formation in the image of God – they think our human form is part of the imago dei. But that’s not in scripture, or in the initial expression of the doctrine, but rather is a consensus some have come to over time. If you decide that, that automatically shapes the way you respond to evolution. But that’s a decision and that’s one part of the tradition – scripture is more vague. Biblical scholars – scholars of good will and merit – disagree. So what we’ve said is that for us, the non-negotiable is that we’re all made in the image of God. What’s highly negotiable is what that looks like, and so we included essays from people who took different positions and argued it different ways to try and give a sense of the range [of possibilities]. Some of those might even work together – it’s not necessarily an either-or.
Michael Lloyd: What we’ve tried to do is to distinguish, both in theological theory and in scientific theory, between the ideas and the way in which those ideas have been interpreted. So both in science and in theology, there’s an original theory that has then been interpreted and has built up layers of interpretation upon it. We said, “Okay, we’re not too worried about the layers of interpretation; let’s get back to nuggets at the center of both and see how those relate.” That may mean shedding a few of the interpretive layers of both, and that’s fine. We are committed to scripture, not to particular interpretive traditions.
The book covers three topics: the image of God, original sin, and the problem of evil. Why these three? Why are they such a key bridge between the studies of science and faith?
Michael Lloyd: These are the topics that, in a sense, have been brought under question by the findings of biological science, and they are utterly basic to understanding ourselves as human beings. First, the image of God – who are we? What is it to be human? That is shaped by knowing where we come from. Secondly, original sin – what’s gone wrong? That also impacts the understanding of grace and redemption. How does that understanding impact upon the Gospel? There are those who say that if you don’t have Adam, you can’t have Christ. You can’t have the putting right of all things if you don’t know what’s gone wrong with it. Thirdly, the problem of evil – the goodness of God is pretty fundamental to anything any believing person might want to ground themselves upon, and it seems to be challenged by the assertion that there’s been pain, suffering, death, killing, and disease in the world long before human beings even emerged. So, did God set it up that way? If so, why? If so, how is he good?
Stan Rosenberg: When you look at the debates that have gone on over science and religion more broadly, or, in particular, over creation and evolution, these are the big questions that both sides are really dealing with. When you read and hear the Neo Darwinists, the Neo Atheists, they regularly delve into metaphysical reflections. Look at Richard Dawkins putting up his signs on the London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” That absolutely touches on this problem. It is presented as science, but it’s not. It’s metaphysics. So, we’re all touched by those [questions].
How does this book explore these questions? What’s the framing behind each issue?
Stan Rosenberg: The conceptual framework we’re using shows up in the initial image I tried to portray in the introduction [of the book] of walking down Parks Road in Oxford. On one side, you have the Museum of Natural History, with an image over the entryway featuring an angel holding scripture in one hand and a dividing cell in the other. You get this sense that there’s a both-and. This story of the cosmos takes in both the divine and the material processes of the world, and so they aren’t in opposition – they are sometimes convoluted and confusing, but we should not be treating them as oppositional. It gets more interesting because when you look at the museum’s entry and interior, it looks like a cathedral. It consciously mimics cathedral design, and it was built by the sale of Bibles – Oxford University Press’ copyright on the King James Bible paid for the building of the museum. Then you spin around and look across the street at one of the great 19th century colleges, Keble College, and it has a lovely chapel. That chapel was built by the profits from science – by [the proceeds from] the discovery of fertilizer and the collection of bird guano, which provides the nitrates to create fertilizer.
So, you have a Christian chapel built by the profits of science, and you have a natural history museum built by profits from the Bible. What a great image that reflects the sense of being not in opposition but rather apposition. [The buildings] are across the street from each other, and that’s the sense we wanted to bring to this, that we’re working in a context where these [disciplines] can be mutually supportive. They don’t always stand on the same ground, which sometimes is confusing, but you can go from one to the other, and you can integrate the one, if you will, with the other to a certain degree. That sets up the main framework for the book. It’s not a three-ways or a four-ways book. There are many books in religion and science that lay out ways to think about this, and you have to choose A, B, or C, and you’re going to be really troubled if you don’t. We’ve very consciously stayed away from that. We have authors who disagree with each other on some things, but they were all happy to know they were writing alongside others whose positions they might disagree with. You could say that for the two of us – Michael’s position on the problem of evil actually disagrees fundamentally with some of the things I wrote about, but we are still friends and still get along – rather well, in fact!
Michael Lloyd: We do!
Stan Rosenberg: He even edited my chapter in an honest way – that is, he didn’t force me to say something different than what I wanted. Again, our goal is to be faithful to the initial doctrine. So we start with the image of God. There are different fundamental ways of understanding the image of God that then influence how you react to Darwin. The first section explores a number of those ways.
We then move on to original sin – what went wrong, how do we describe it, why did it go wrong. Again, there are different ways of thinking about it. In each of these, we present positions that would be seen as quite consistent with traditional, theological approaches with historic orthodoxy, though there are several novel appropriations attempting to make sense of the issues in light of some of our expanded body of knowledge. Some are positions that would not have been seen before. It doesn’t mean they’re unorthodox, but they’re not necessarily approaches that our readers would be familiar with. From there, we go on to the question of evil.
Michael Lloyd: And that is challenged by Darwin’s assertion that there’s been killing and pain and death and suffering in the world long before human beings ever evolved, and therefore you can’t blame it all on human beings. So the free-will argument has a challenge to it, and there are basically three ways you can respond to that. You can say, yes, God created a world that had competition and violence within it, but he was justified in doing so. Or you say, actually, he couldn’t have created any other kind of world; there were limitations upon the options that he had, and this was the only way he could have created the kind of world we have. Or you say, no, he didn’t intend to create it this way, but something went wrong, and it can’t be just human beings who are the culprits.
We’ve got people representing all those three positions, and we hope to create the space by not saying you have to follow one idea, but rather by presenting a number of ideas. It leaves people free to think for themselves, to come to their own conclusions, and hopefully to do their own creative thinking on the back of what we’ve done in a way that is respectful of each other and reflecting the kind of mutual love and acceptance that is required of us in the Gospel.
How do you see CCCU faculty using this in their classrooms or in their own work and research?
Stan Rosenberg: The initial audience this is intended for is advanced undergraduate or master’s-level students, but I think scholars and faculty, pastors, and informed lay readers will find it useful as well, and will find chapters in here that are written at a sufficient level to be valuable to them in their own work. But we wrote to contribute to serious, thoughtful conversation in an upper-division classroom that is engaged with issues of science and religion in some form. But the book is not meant to give a particular answer – it would be assigned to help readers see a range of options, see the kinds of conversations possible, see what’s possible to consider.
I would also hope that it would be a model of how we can engage with difficult questions in a winsome and loving way as part of a broader community. Life rarely reduces to a simple either-or choice; there are complexities here to engage with and difficult choices to make. So I hope that it really provides a model of scholarly engagement across difficult questions and indeed will be read as the work of a community of scholars modeling faithful, scholarly engagement.