The long and rich tradition of the Gifford Lectures challenges the feasibility and credibility of modern dialogues between theology and the sciences. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen rejects the idea that religious faith and scientific thought inhabit opposing domains of rationality. He argues that these seemingly incompatible reasoning strategies actually share in the resources of human rationality and should, therefore, be able to be linked in interdisciplinary dialogue. Van Huyssteen sets the stage in his opening chapter for developing themes strongly implicit in Lord Gifford’s charge: first, an integrative and interdisciplinary praxis for theology and the sciences; and second, the basic conviction that there is something uniquely human, constituted by the way we relate to ourselves, to the world and to God. Van Huyssteeen finds an adequate vehicle for a concrete case study like ‘Science and Theology on Human Uniqueness’ in a transversal, interdisciplinary dialogue.
The second chapter authenticates van Huyssteen’s argument for a multi-dimensional interdisciplinary discourse, where the different voices of theology, epistemology and the sciences can link the question of human uniqueness to evolutionary epistemology. He argues that Charles Darwin’s understanding of human nature and identity still functions as the center of human evolution, and that the powerful meaning of such Darwinism is shaping our views on the evolution of human cognition. The epistemic implications of these views on reason, imagination, consciousness, language ability and moral awareness are most clearly represented in evolutionary epistemology. Arguments from evolutionary epistemology demonstrate the plausibility that the problem of human uniqueness is directly related to the problem of human origins. Furthermore, van Huyssteen argues that evolutionary epistemology shows that a propensity for metaphysical beliefs should be seen as the result of interactions between early humans and their environment.
Against the backdrop of arguments for human distinctiveness in evolutionary epistemology, van Huyssteen’s focus in the third chapter shifts to the doctrine of the imago Dei, and the religious belief that humans are unique because they were created in the image of God. To argue for the elusive point where theology and the various sciences may intersect on the issue of human uniqueness, van Huyssteen provides a brief theory of traditions as a methodological link to his increasingly interdisciplinary discourse. This facilitates important questions like: is there an intrinsic biblical meaning that can be attributed to the idea that humans were created in the image of God, or has the meaning of this crucial term shifted dramatically through history? Van Huyssteen argues that these questions represent the flexibility of the boundaries between theology and science that allow for a creative rethinking of the imago Dei in Christian theology. The convergence of theological and scientific arguments on the issues of human uniqueness may provide an argument for the plausibility and comprehensive nature of explanations for a phenomenon as complex as Homo sapiens.
Van Huyssteen attempts, in the fourth chapter, to compliment the very diverse lines of reasoning for human uniqueness from evolutionary epistemology and from the history of theology by weaving a third argument into the pattern of his emerging discourse: cognition. The evolution of human cognition clearly is embedded in the question of human origins, and naturally leads to the question of human uniqueness. Van Huyssteen argues that the most obvious and plausible voice on this issue is found in contemporary paleoanthropology. This field shows 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 earliest evidence of symbolic behaviour in humans can be found in the Palaeolithic cave art in France and Basque Country. These prehistoric images might not tell us much about our human origins, but as examples of symbolic representation van Huyssteen finds that they reveal much of what it means to be human, and as such, dramatically reveal the complexity of human cognition. He takes the position that it is this cognitive fluidity that generates imagination, the capacity for symbolic thought, and the creative ability to generate and manipulate complex mental symbols.
The preceding chapters interwove the epistemological argument from evolutionary biology, the diverse argument from the history of theology, and the complex arguments from contemporary paleoanthropology. In the fifth chapter, van Huyssteen integrates new and radically interdisciplinary proposals on the origins of the human mind with these convergent arguments. He contends that these proposals add additional arguments for a theory of human cognitive evolution, drawing from linguistics, cognitive science and neuropsychology. The primary focus is on how symbolic representation is grounded in our remarkable mimetic and linguistic abilities. In language we find our unique capacity to communicate symbolically. What it means to be uniquely human clearly to van Huyssteen includes biologically unprecedented ways of experiencing and understanding the world, from aesthetic experience to spiritual contemplation. The symbolic nature of man is used by van Huyssteen to explain why the propensity for religion and religious experience can be regarded as a universal human attribute. At the same time, a postfoundationalist approach to human uniqueness as an interdisciplinary problem alerts the audience to the fact that religious imagination cannot be discussed abstractly, but can only be discussed and evaluated within the concrete context of specific religions and theologies.
In the final chapter, van Huyssteen concludes that a serious interdisciplinary conversation with the sciences should inspire the theologian to revisit the way they construct notions of the imago Dei. Van Huyssteen points out that theologians are challenged to rethink what human uniqueness might mean for the human person, a being that has emerged biologically as a system of self-awareness, identity and moral responsibility. Personhood, when reconceived in terms of imagination, symbolic propensities and cognition, may enable theology to revise its notion of the imago Dei as a concept acknowledging our close ties to the animal world, while also focusing on what our minds might tell us about the emergence of the human propensity for religious awareness and experience. Van Huyssteen posits that the emergence of this kind of mental complexity resonates with theology’s deepest convictions about human uniqueness, and he argues for the plausibility of a 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 human uniqueness, the notion of the imago Dei may be revised as emerging from nature itself. Van Huyssteen leaves us with the final questions: what does this mean for our notions of God, and would our images of God find a proper semantic matrix within this interdisciplinary conversation?