Friday, March 6, 2015

Theology and Evolution Part 2

Van Den Brink begins his article "Are We Special? Evolution and Human Dignity" with a brief anecdote. A few years ago he was invited to exchange letters with a creationist, with the back-and-forth correspondence published in a Christian newspaper. Many letters were sent to the editor in response to this correspondence, with the overwhelming majority of them being critical of van den Brink's side of the story. Van den Brink mentions one critic in particular, a farmer from a rural area to whom van den Brink made a personal phone call. Van den Brink found his letter-to-the-editor so harsh that he was "curious to know what was behind his rage." When van den Brink got around to asking the farmer to satisfy his curiosity, the farmer replied:

"I just don’t want to stem from the apes!"

As van den Brink correctly points out, this is far from the only concern which Christians have with evolution. The issues of biblical authority and salvation history also weigh heavily on the minds of those who cannot accept evolution, to the point where its scientific credentials become irrelevant. Yet can den Brink is also correct in claiming that the issue of human dignity is a major factor in Christian rejection of evolution, one which must be addressed by those who seek to reconcile evolution with the Christian doctrine of imago dei (image of God).

Indeed, it is the precise meaning of imago dei that occupies most of van den Brink's thought in this essay. He rejects two Christian interpretations of this concept. The first is the classical interpretation, which locates the imago dei in humans in their rational capabilities. For most Christian theologians up until quite recently, these rational capabilities signify the soul, and so it is the human soul that is primarily the image of God within us. What of the body? For Gregory of Nyssa, for example, it is the "image of the image." That is to say, it is the image of the soul, which is the image of God.

Why does van den Brink reject this interpretation of the imago dei? He rejects it first of all because it is an inadequate interpretation of the biblical text, and reflects more the philosophical climate of antiquity than anything else. Second, he cites recent studies which demonstrate the humans are not as biologically unique as we once thought. Humans do not have an exclusive claim on rationality, language, morality, or emotions. Our substantial properties therefore do not set us apart from all else in creation. To look for the image of God in our unique capabilities is for this reason to look in the wrong place, for we are far less unique in this way than we would like to think.

The second interpretation of the imago dei is a reaction to the classical interpretation. Rather than limiting the image of God to "unique" humans, this interpretation breaks the boundaries between humanity and the rest of creation by attributing the image of God to all animals. One proponent of this view, David Cunningham, says that the Bible never denies the imago dei to animals, so there is room for such an interpretation. This is especially the case, argues Cunningham, when passages such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1 are considered: creation proclaims and demonstrates the glory and power of the divine.

Van den Brink, while affirming some of what this interpretation of the imago dei has to offer, ultimately rejects it. Scripture, he claims, does in fact use the concept of imago dei was a way to distinguish human beings from other animals. That being said, he does not think that denying animals the imago dei belittles them.

Having rejected these two interpretations of the image of God, van den Brink is back to his original problem: how can we think about human beings as images of God alongside the evolutionary theory?

Rather than set aside human uniqueness, van den Brink locates it elsewhere. Since it is not found in "superficial appeals to empirical characteristics", then, where is it to be found? Van den brink uses a combination of modern biblical scholarship and systematic theology to locate the imago dei in the human's God-given functions and relationships. "Understood in this way," van den Brink claims, "the image of God is not a substantial quality, but an ethical challenge; it doesn’t lie somewhere behind us, but is rather situated ahead of us." No other animal has been given such an enormous challenge, therefore human uniqueness is located within the responsibility which has been placed on human beings by God.

The relational element in the imago dei derives from our being addressed by God and from our prayer to God. (Though van den Brink doesn't mention it here, the incarnation surely plays a crucial role in defining human uniqueness: God, after all, became a human being, not a crocodile or an elephant.)

I am left with one main question after reading van den Brink's proposal: why humans? Why were human beings given the enormous ethical challenge which he invokes? Why were human beings addressed by God and established in a covenant relationship with him? It is this "why?" which makes the classical concept of the imago dei intelligible. For the ancients, there must have been some natural property belonging to humans which made them fit for the functions and relationships which van den Brink mentions. While I remain hesitant to dispense with a couple of thousand years of Christian theological tradition, I can nevertheless see the hubris which quietly lurks behind the "why humans?" question. We want to somehow merit God's election of us as his partners. Such hubris, however, was something which Israel was explicitly warned against. Why Israel? God reminds them that it was not because of any natural properties which they possessed, but because of his love alone. I cannot help but think that the "why humans?" question receives a similar answer. Indeed van den Brink closes his argument with something to that effect:

...we do not need some other, empirically based unique-making faculty or attribute to warrant human dignity - not even, I would suggest, the faculty of having a soul which was supernaturally implanted in us by God, since who we are as human beings is not circumscribed by how we emerged. If we were only special in God’s eyes and because of our God-given tasks and relationships we would still be special, and special enough to have inviolable rights.

I am aware that this article does not address all the concerns which a Christian might have in the face of evolutionary theory. But at the very least it demonstrates Christians need not fear evolution. God uses all sorts of people and things to lead us into a more faithful understanding of his character and purposes. There is no a priori reason, therefore, that he cannot so use Darwin. 

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