Biological science, cultural history and biblical scholarship: Christian theology of academic disciplines in the 21st century

A theological stance on universities in the UK

God’s book of creation

The so-called secularisation of British universities is better understood, my paper for the 2005 C-A-N- Conference argued (q.v.), as God’s exposure to unbelievers of much more of the culture and biology of humanity that he has created and upholds. Nature, society and individual human lives are so rich that many specialised academic disciplines (and professions directly serving the public) are needed in order to understand (and to use) the creation as God intended and came to earth to re-inaugurate in Jesus.

These developments in our universities are also a rebuke to British Christians, both from work within the disciplines pursued in academic theology and also in the relationships of scholarly study of the text of the Bible and of systematic theology to other university disciplines. The churches’ now largely graduate members are untutored in either literary scholarship on canonical Scripture or the history and philosophy of theology built on the Bible, because many leaders do not introduce these disciplines while teaching nor indeed seek to draw the distinctions between them. Equally faithless, there is almost no exchange between biblical scholarship and doctrine and the other disciplines and professions, in the universities, in the churches, in the workplace or in the dialogues between scholars and the general public.

Christian academics as a community should be demonstrating and living out the synergies between God’s two books – the book of divine revelation and the book of divine creation – as scholarly Fathers and Mothers of the Church have done for two millenia. The 2000s could be God’s century for multidisciplinary academic discovery and full teamwork among the professions, whether paid from taxes, commerce or donations. Theological scholars, local church leaders and Christians in degree teaching, original research and university-based enterprise had better not be found wanting.

Principles of multidisciplinary work

The most basic principle of work across the academic disciplines is that every statement in each discipline – whoever makes it – is open to reasoned evaluation by doctoral-level (i.e. peer-review published) experts in that discipline. This includes criticism of those experts from inside or outside their own discipline.

Just as for a new contribution to a discipline, a criticism is not valid until it has been made fully explicit and publicly available. Illegitimate criticisms include mere dismissal (e.g., “rubbish”, “ill informed”, “logically flawed”), ad hominem comments such as on the author’s origin or qualifications, or a score or categorisation as poor work without explicit justification in accord with a stated criterion.

The only approving or disapproving evaluation that should count in the arts or the sciences is identification of a new point or a specified error in terms that are themselves open to reasoned evaluation. This how peer reviewers for the editors of journals or readers for the publishers of scholarly books are meant to work, and also the referees of applicants for entry to courses or appointment to posts. Feedback to students and comments on the work of amateurs should meet the same standards of probity.

Of course the whole current body of experts in a particular discipline is fallible. Yet this is all the more reason for scholarly discussion to be fully open, explicit and specific. Then fully informed newcomers and indeed eccentric old-timers can challenge the consensus with evidence and argument, instead of with mere polemic and power-plays. A major source of such challenges has long been people who originated from another scholarly discipline. Thus an increase in competent multidisciplinary work should increase the correctives to any misguided consensus.

It is sometimes claimed that an indication of a rational God is that the creation works on principles open to the human mind. This argument has always seemed to me to be epistemologically flawed. Let me be explicit (but non-technical) in this philosophical criticism!  Human communities have the capacity to survive on this planet by discovering how to create habitats for groups of mortals from existing resources. Therefore the formulation of realistic principles is a capacity of groups of inventive beings with language, not something in the physics or mathematics they (pro)create that reflects the mind of God.   Whether or not such human ‘rationality’ is (part of) our likeness to God is a separate issue (to which I allude later).

Christian faith and academic disciplines

Much of the academic work most obviously related to biblical faith is multidisciplinary, e.g. at various borderlines such as between political theory and economics, archeology and historiography, physics and biology, law and ethics, pastoral theology and applied psychology, astronomy and historical reading of Biblical text, and so on.

The arts-science divide in the 20th century did no good to Christian belief and practice. Perhaps one of the important roles of a network of academic Christians is to cultivate work across those disciplines that address the current theoretical and practical issues of outworkings of the Christian faith.  Some of the most directly relevant multidisciplinary work would be between the sciences of human societies, bodies and individual lives on the one hand and, on the other hand, theological developments based on literary scholarship of the canonical texts, set in the context of extrabiblical literature and archeology, against the historical background of systematic theology in its dynamic between biblical orthodoxy and heresy.

Examples of multidisciplinary issues spanning humanities and sciences

Across history and biology

These first examples are entirely amateur, since I am not even a graduate in history or in organismic biology.  Nevertheless, as a biblical Christian – and as (semi-jokily) a nationalist (of England) – I have long loved historiography (and archeology).  Also, as a doctoral biochemist who started towards doctoral psychology in work on its physiological and animal sides, I have had to catch up with the biology that I dropped in school at the age of 14.

At the interface of history and biology, this is the year (of celebrating the work of Wilberforce) to acknowledge that many Christian abolitionists in Britain believed that the Africans they freed were racially inferior, to be treated as ineducable peasants or even like farm animals. As far as I can find out, there is no expertly recognised evidence for a substantial genetic basis to any personally major difference between ethnic groups. Societies where average IQ or socioeconomic category differs between skin colours, for example, on careful examination prove to be deeply racist in the cultural assumptions among those with a disadvantaged colour and those of other colourings.

Another example is the invocation of Darwin’s name by genocidal elaborators of 19th-century progressivism. Contrary to some imputations, this does nothing to undermine Darwin’s evidence that God creates species by mechanisms that yield reproductive fitness.

Across philosophy and politics

Indeed, the concept of “scientific racism” is a contradiction in terms. No scientific (or historical) facts can by themselves imply a value, whether of peoples differing in ethnic origin (or differing in shape of skull, IQ or proportion of fast muscle fibres) or in any other way.  These issues sometimes bubble up within academic psychology but the (sub)discipline having the relevant academic expertise is philosophical ethics and I comment as a graduate in philosophy, not a psychologist.

My philosophy lecturer in ethics was A. Phillips Griffiths (later prof. at Warwick).  He argued a conceptual-analytic version of Kant’s categorical imperative: for reasoning about a practical decision to count as ethical, it has to justify making a distinction between people by identifying relevant differences between them. Why should lower IQ justify educational neglect rather than extra teaching to help compensate? Why should skin colour affect a decision to offer a job?

However, Griffiths emphasised that this was a formal principle and so a substantive system of values was needed to weight logically relevant differences into practical distinctions.  Bringing about one’s own death by peaceful self-starvation, by killing enemies of God or by offering life with God to cannibals has each the highest value for a Buddhist, a Muslim and a Christian but is abhorrent to the other two.

Darwin proposed the biologically highly productive tautology that the surviving species are those that have survived. Newton proposed the physically highly productive tautology that what is moving remains in motion. Being a survivor is no more relevant to progress than being in movement. Being in power implies no more personal rights than being powerless.

Across neuroscience and cultural studies

Neurogenomics and family culture interact to give rise to the personal achievements studied by my discipline of psychology. That statement has always been my answer to reductionists, either from brain research and structural genetics or from historicism and economics, from my ‘Hebraic’ view of the unity of our embodied and acculturated human nature, e.g. Genesis 1-4, Isaiah 40-42 and their focus in Christ in the New Testament. This approach also points a way towards consistency between responsible (‘free’) choice and psychological (sic) determinism.

My short talk at the 2007 Conference (title below) focused on a particular bio-socially developed psychological mechanism. This is a capacity for unselfish sharing.  It differentiates us from the most similar existing species, as Genesis teaches that the image of God does. It is remarkably close to whom the whole Bible teaches that God is, as a Trinity of love. [The slides presented in my talk come from files now mounted in C-A-N- Perspectives (Biology) and ]

This last introductory example begins to add substance to the possibility that straight applied psychology and biblical theology could interact, importantly for the pastoral context (see BACiP Annual Conference, 2011). We may one day find usable psychological evidence on the natural workings of the Holy Spirit in the created life of the believer.

The image of God, the Fall and inheritance of capacity for love and of sin

A bio-social psychology of the image of God

Chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Genesis teach that we are made like God and unlike the animals. However, Genesis 1:26-27 does not say how we are like God. From the context of our rulership of creation (Gen 1:28b-30, 2:19b-20a), the likeness is widely assumed to be kingly (J. Richard Middleton, 1994, 1997). Yet that does not show what sort of divine Monarch we are like: is it warrior, despot, judge, parent of the nation, or what?  So, we can only speculate on the likeness.

We might be able to get onto biblically solid ground, though, if the relevant scientific specialisms could identify how human individuals differ at the most fundamental level from members of any other species. It is clearly implicit in Genesis 1:26 that humanity is ruler and all other moving creatures are ruled because we differ from them, and this difference between ruler and ruled is in being in God’s image or not. It is explicit in Genesis 2:20b that there is at least one set of radical differences between human beings and wild or even domesticated animals, to which I turn below.

Species-comparative psychology and behavioural zoology might therefore be able to identify a mental capacity in human beings that members of even the most similar contemporary species do not possess – great apes, huge-brained dolphins and elephants, tool-making crows or clever colonies of bees or ants.

Greater ‘intelligence’ won’t do, partly because quantitative differences are hard to nail down as qualitative distinctions and partly because any specified aspect of intelligence could be peculiar to a species’ past niches.

The proposal that we have a unique capacity to relate symbolic concepts is being revived (Penn, Holyoak & Povinelli, 2009).  The Bible is not much interested in such ‘intellectual’ intelligence: even Wisdom is treasured for her moral qualities (and was stated by Paul to be rare in the churches).

Michael Tomasello (2005, 2009) has proposed that a fundamental mechanism of social intelligence – flexible sharing in joint tasks – distinguishes even infants as young as 1 year from chimpanzees brought up with them. This sort of delight in selfless joining with others in their own aims is mundanely (sic) but remarkably like the love shown by God in Christ.

Furthermore, a close reading of Genesis 1-3 and the creation passages of Isaiah 40-42 uncovers strong hints that humanity was made a mortal image of the love among the Father, Son and Spirit, with a biological foundation of reproducing couples and a social foundation of educating youngsters to politically just adulthood. Among the human sciences, a developmental science of what I call ‘autogony’ (CiS 2006) is just beginning to emerge.  In the coming decades this is likely to begin to give a plausible account of the interactions from before birth between the human body and brain and the family and wider culture that each individual inherits. The biology and the culture interact to generate a person having sufficient autonomy to be responsible to some degree for hir actions and indeed hir dispositions. Such are the determinate mental mechanisms of responsible freedom.

The Fall and our inheritance of sin

Thus God made us to be independent and indeed to turn away from some who love us in order to be loving to one other (Genesis 2:24). So God was not surprised when we turned away.  God had ready a plan for taking the love within the Trinity to its extreme in order to turn us back to loving God and hence each other.

Biblical Christians have long believed that our abuse of our freedom to love and to withhold love is inherited (the doctrine of ‘original sin’). The scientific question arises, how is this capacity inherited?

Perhaps in reaction against a liberal tendency to attribute sin to society (poverty, inappropriate upbringing etc.), the conservative tradition has tended towards a genetic inheritance. As indicated above, a bio-social ontogenesis is nowadays the only plausible option for any psychological capacity. So my understanding of the science turned me back to the ‘proof text’ in Psalm 51 for what 20th-century discoveries have taught us is inheritance through genes: “in sin my mother conceived me” (verse 5). I then realised that the whole passage Psalm 51:4-6 consists of four parallels with Genesis 3, the Fall and the Curses, and that each of these cross-references implies a cultural component of the inheritance of the consequences of the Fall.

Debate rumbles on among biologically or culturally oriented social scientists about genes for criminality – furthermore, about crime from lack of genes for religiosity. Such genes are unlikely to be expressed that way without upbringing or induction in a criminal fraternity or a church community, respectively(!). Either way, the biblical doctrine of ‘original’ sin counters the Panglossian, or at least unrealistically progressivist, fashion currently in some quarters of academic psychology for a “Positive Psychology” – happiness without distress.

Middleton, J.R. (1994). The liberating image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in context. Christian Scholars Review 24(1), 8-25.

Middleton, J.R. (1997). The liberating image: the Imago Dei in Genesis 1. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Penn, D.C., Holyoak, J.J., & Povinelli, D.J. (2009). Universal grammar and mental continuity: two modern myths. Brain and Behavioral Sciences 32, 429-492.

Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Brain and Behavioral Sciences 28, 675-691.

Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. Boston MA: Boston Reviews Books.

This briefing paper was provided as background to a short talk at the CAN / WYSOCS Conference in Leeds in 2007. Some further details of a bio-social psychologist’s holistic slant on biblical teaching about human nature are in .ppt slides shown at conferences of Christians in Science in November 2006 and August 2007 on, C-A-N- Perspectives (Biology) and and also in several pieces since 1998 in the journal Science & Christian Belief (Paternoster Press).

David A Booth

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“(of celebrating the work of Wilberforc