The long and rich tradition of the Gifford Lectures has always, in one sense or another, challenged the way religious faith relates to culture, or more specifically, how religion and theology critically respond to the remarkable success of contemporary science. It is this specific challenge that finally gave me the opportunity to contextualize, as it were, my own recent work in philosophical theology. In my work The Shaping of Rationality: Toward Interdisciplinarity in Theology and Science (1999), I focused on how the fragile but uniquely human ability to be rational infuses our everyday lives as well as our deep involvement with religious faith, theology, and the spectacular achievements of the sciences of our time. The development of a postfoundationalist notion of rationality helped me move beyond any position that would want to regard either science or theology as a superior form of rational thinking. Moreover, I argued that if human rationality is alive and well in all the various facets of our lives, then this uniquely human ability should also be able to help us successfully bridge the many domains of our intellectual lives.
This lecture series gave me the special opportunity to develop further this interdisciplinary approach. More importantly, though, it challenged me for the first time to apply this methodology to a highly concrete interdisciplinary case study by focusing specifically on the notion of “human uniqueness” in science and theology. Quite concretely it afforded me the exciting opportunity to explore the uncharted waters of the interdisciplinary relationship between theological anthropology and paleoanthropology, if such exists. This very specific interdisciplinary problem would not only resonate well with some of Lord Gifford’s original intentions for this lecture series, but would give me the opportunity to argue that theological anthropology has much to learn from human origins, from the dimension of meaning in which Homo sapiens have always existed, and from our close relationship to other animals. Moreover, theology might suggest to science the interdisciplinary relevance of those elusive but distinctly human characteristics that do not fossilize but are crucial for defining the human condition. Most importantly, though, this interdisciplinary case study has revealed some of the most challenging opportunities, but also important limitations, of interdisciplinary work.
In chapter 1, I reject the idea that the domain of religious faith and the domain of scientific thought are exemplified by rival and opposing notions of rationality. I argue instead that these different and seemingly incompatible reasoning strategies actually share in the resources of human rationality and are therefore able to be linked in interdisciplinary dialogue. This will set the stage for developing both themes that are strongly implicit in Lord Gifford’s original charge: that of an integrative and interdisciplinary praxis for theology and the sciences, and the basic conviction that there is something about being human, something perhaps uniquely human, that is constituted by the way we relate to ourselves, to the world, and even to God. I argue that it is precisely in interdisciplinary dialogue that we find an adequate vehicle for a concrete case study like science and theology on human uniqueness. I also argue for the idea of transversality as a heuristic device that opens up new ways for crossing boundaries between disciplines, and for identifying those interdisciplinary spaces where the relevance of scientific knowledge can be translated into the domain of Christian theology, and vice versa.
In chapter 2 a multidimensional interdisciplinary discourse, where perspectives from theology, epistemology, and the sciences can unfold along diversely intersecting lines, is authenticated by linking the question of human uniqueness to evolutionary epistemology, with a special focus on the prehistory of the human mind. I argue that Charles Darwin’s understanding of human identity and of human nature still functions as the canonical core of the ongoing discourse on human evolution, and that the powerful galaxy of meaning of these Darwinian views, now maybe more than ever, shapes our views on the evolution of human cognition. The epistemic implications of these views on reason, imagination, consciousness, linguistic ability, and moral awareness are represented in a most challenging way in contemporary evolutionary epistemology. Evolutionary epistemology, with its focus on the embodied human mind, not only embraces the core of Darwin’s ideas on human cognition, but also reveals the evolution of human cognition as a bridge between biology and culture. Moreover, arguments from evolutionary epistemology demonstrate the plausibility of distinctions between biological and cultural evolution and, importantly, that the problem of human uniqueness is directly related to the problem of human origins. Evolutionary epistemology also clearly shows that a human propensity for metaphysical and religious beliefs should be seen as the result of specific interactions between early humans and their lifeworlds. The question for any theology would be whether this tells us anything about the integrity of religion, and about the rationality or meaningfulness of religious belief.
In chapter 3, against the backdrop of arguments for human distinctiveness in evolutionary epistemology, the focus shifts to one of the core traditions of the Christian faith, the doctrine of the imago Dei, and the deep-seated religious belief that humans are different and distinct because they were created in the image of God. To argue for the elusive point where theology and the various sciences may intersect transversally on the issue of human uniqueness, a theory of traditions will be applied as a methodological link to this increasingly interdisciplinary discourse. This will facilitate important questions like: Is there an intrinsic biblical meaning that can be ascribed to the idea that humans were created in the image of God, or has the meaning of this crucial term shifted dramatically through history? Is the theological notion of the imago Dei helped or hindered by the diverse interpretations of human uniqueness revealed by various sciences, and what does that tell us about our relations to earlier hominids, and to the uniqueness of our sister species in the animal world? It will be argued that the porousness of the boundaries between theology and the sciences allows for a creative rethinking of the notion of the imago Dei in Christian theology. The relative convergence of theological and scientific arguments on the issue of human uniqueness may give us an argument for the plausibility and comprehensive nature of religious and theological explanations for a phenomenon as complex as Homo sapiens. At the same time, scientific notions of human uniqueness may help us ground theological notions of human distinctiveness in the reality of flesh-and-blood, real-life, embodied experiences, and thus protect theological reflection from overly complex abstractions when trying to revision the notion of the imago Dei.
In chapter 4 I complement the very distinct and diverse lines of reasoning for human uniqueness in both evolutionary epistemology and theology by weaving, transversally, a third argument into the pattern of this emerging discourse. The history of the evolution of human cognition is deeply embedded in the question of human origins, and quite naturally leads to the question of human distinctiveness or uniqueness. The most obvious and plausible scientific voice on this crucial issue, but much neglected in the broader theology and science dialogue, is found in contemporary paleoanthropology. The argument from paleoanthropology will show that the prehistory of the human mind, including the evolution of consciousness and self-awareness, reveals the remarkable cognitive fluidity of our mental abilities. The most spectacular evidence of symbolic behavior in humans—and some of the earliest—can be found in the Paleolithic cave art in southwestern France and the Basque Country in northern Spain. The materiality of these prehistoric images might not tell us much about our remote human or hominid origins, but the images certainly reveal much of what it means to be human, and as such, dramatically reveal the complexity of the cognitively fluid human mind. This cognitive fluidity generates imagination, the capacity for symbolic thought, and the creative ability to generate complex mental symbols and to manipulate them into new combinations. This kind of cognitive ability holds the key to our species’ exceptional creative abilities, and is therefore closely tied to the emergence of art, science, and religion. As such, the Upper Paleolithic holds an all-important and intriguing key to the naturalness of the evolution of religion, to the credibility of the earliest forms of religious faith, and to what it means for Homo sapiens to be spiritually embodied beings.
In chapter 5 I evaluate the fact that three distinct disciplinary lines of argument on human uniqueness have now transversally intersected: the epistemological argument from evolutionary biology, the historically diverse and rather fragmented argument from theology, and complex, multileveled scientific arguments from contemporary paleoanthropology. In this chapter, also, new interdisciplinary proposals on the origins of the human mind will be introduced by additional arguments for a theory of human cognitive evolution, drawing on linguistics, neuroscience, and neuropsychology. The primary focus will be on how symbolic representation, as the principal cognitive signature of humans, is grounded in our remarkable mimetic and linguistic abilities. In language, in fact, we find our most unique capacity for symbolic communication. What it means to be uniquely human, then, clearly includes biologically unprecedented ways of experiencing and understanding the world, from aesthetic experience to spiritual contemplation. In fact, both the special adaptations for language and language itself have played important roles in the origins of human moral and spiritual capacities. In this sense it will be argued that the capacity for spirituality can be understood as an emergent consequence of the symbolic transformation of cognition and emotions. This symbolic nature of Homo sapiens will also explain why the propensity for religion and religious experience can be regarded as an essentially universal human attribute. At the same time, a postfoundationalist approach to human uniqueness as an interdisciplinary problem should alert us to the fact that religious imagination cannot be discussed abstractly or treated as a generic given, but can be discussed and evaluated only within the concrete context of specific religions and concrete theologies.
Finally, in chapter 6 the question can be asked: What can theologians learn from the insights the sciences have provided about the evolution of human uniqueness? At the very least a serious interdisciplinary conversation with the sciences should inspire theologians to revisit the way notions of the imago Dei are constructed. Interpretations of the imago Dei have indeed varied dramatically throughout the long history of Christianity. Theologians are thus challenged to rethink what human uniqueness might mean for the human person, an embodied being that has emerged biologically and sexually as a center of self-awareness, identity, and moral responsibility. Personhood, when richly reconceived in terms of imagination, symbolic propensities, and cognitive fluidity, may enable theologians also to revision the notion of the imago Dei in a way that acknowledges our close ties to the animal world, challenging us to rethink our own species specificity, while focusing on what our symbolic minds might tell us about the emergence of the uniquely human propensity for religious awareness and religious experience. The emergence of this kind of mental complexity does resonate with theology’s deepest convictions about human uniqueness, and does argue for the plausibility of a distinctly theological explanation of a phenomenon like the emergence of the human mind. After all, our ability to respond religiously to ultimate questions in worship and prayer is deeply embedded in our species’ symbolic, imaginative nature. However, if the sciences are taken seriously on what is unique about humans, the theological notion of the imago Dei will have to be revisioned as emerging from nature itself. Thus, in this interdisciplinary case study our vital connection with nature is honored precisely by focusing on our species specificity, and by rethinking, theologically, the “image of God” as having emerged from nature by natural evolutionary processes.