Review: The Genealogical Adam and Eve

genealogical adam and eve

The Genealogical Adam and Eve, S. Joshua Swamidass. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A physician/scientist who studies genomics argues on the basis of genealogical science that the existence of a historic Adam and Eve, specially created by God, who are universal ancestors of us all, is not contradicted by evolutionary science.

I have always been troubled by wooden attempts to find a concord between the biblical accounts of origins and what the sciences of cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology tell us about planetary and human origins. At the same time, I have been troubled at times by biblical scholars whose acceptance of evolution leads them to deny a historical Adam (and Eve). Both Jesus and Paul speak of the first couple as historical beings, with Romans 5:12-21 being a key text (in addition to Genesis 2:2ff). I find I am not alone in my concerns. On The Gospel Coalition website, respected pastor, Tim Keller, wrote of his own acceptance of evolution, and yet also his belief in a historical, specially created Adam and Eve and a historical fall. In response, Keller was sadly attacked by both those who take a theistic evolution stance and young earth creationists.

S. Joshua Swamidass, a physician and professor of laboratory and genomic medicine at Washington University, witnessed this discourse, and as part of an effort to foster what he calls “peaceful science” has advanced a hypothesis, which he elaborates in this book, that provides what he calls a “narrative” that would undergird Keller’s assertions. He takes an approach that denies neither evolution nor a historical Adam and Eve, but is not another concordist proposal.

There are several things Swamidass assumes. He assumes a standard evolutionary account of the rise of life and evolution of homo sapiens. He assumes that genetically, we arise from a population, not a single couple. Yet he also assumes the possibility of the special creation of Adam and Eve, in the special setting of the garden, even as recent as 6,000 to 10,000 years ago although a greater time is also possible. Critically, they existed alongside a human population outside the garden and were genetically and reproductively compatible with that population (one of the first questions that arises when one reads Genesis is “who did Cain marry?”).

From this he argues that by 1 AD it is possible genealogically (not genetically) that all human beings can trace their ancestry back to Adam and Eve, and that we can all be claimed to be universal descendents of Adam and Eve. A friend of mine researching genealogy mused in a recent Christmas letter how many ancestors we might have if we went back a thousand years. He was assuming 20 generations or 50 years to a generation. He figured it would have equaled the world population at that time. So that got me curious. Using the same assumption and a geometric progression, it appears that it would take approximately 33 generations to equal the current world population or roughly 1650 years. From a mathematical perspective, it appears to me, as well as to a number of scientists who reviewed Swamidass’s work, including Nathan H. Lents, an admitted atheist, that if one accepts the premises of Swamidass argument, there is nothing in evolutionary theory to controvert the possibility of what he proposes.

One of the keys to this argument is the existence of a human population outside the garden. When most evolutionary scientists argued against universal descent from Adam and Eve, what they argued, on the basis of genetic evidence, that there is no support for common genetic descent from Adam and Eve. That is not what Swamidass argues. He simply argues for the possibility of Adam and Eve as common genealogical ancestors of us all. While he accepts the possibility that his hypothesis may not be true, he also contends that it shows there is no compelling scientific reason that one must deny a historic Adam and Eve as an impossibility, either for scientists or biblical scholars.

The second half of the book explored scientific and theological implications for this idea. He explores intriguing questions about what it means to be human both in science and theology. He discusses the problematic nature of theories of polygenesis in both science and theology, and how this has often been used in racist ways. He explores intriguing implications of why Adam and Eve were specially created in the garden when there were other human beings outside (a question this hypothesis especially raises). He also explores theories of the fall and human sinfulness, which raises the question of whether common genealogical descent from Adam is necessary for pervasive human sinfulness.

There are some unusual elements in the theological section. One was his use of the “periscope of scripture” language, by which he means different tunnel vision views of reality. This may be confusing to some because of the common use of “pericope” in biblical scholarship, a narrative or thought unit. He also takes a view of Genesis 1 and 2 as consecutive accounts (first the earth and its creatures including humans, then Adam and Eve), rather than the second being an expansion of the first. He also raises an interesting question about what the status of humans outside the garden was. Are they also in the image of God? Plainly, there is more theological discussion to be had and this seems to be something Swamidass welcomes and even has facilitated (cf. online responses from theologians).

Both in the introductory chapter and in the concluding materials, we may discern some of what motivates this proposal. Swamidass sees a sad fracturing or splintering that has occurred between Christian and scientific understandings of beginnings that assumes no place where Christians and scientists may meet. Furthermore, there is significant splintering among young earthers, old earthers, and theistic evolution camps. Most would not be fully sympathetic with what Swamidass proposes, but he writes respectfully of all. He advocates for courage, curiosity, empathy, tolerance, humility, and patience among scientists and theologians.

I believe this book is a good faith effort that exemplifies these qualities. It involves professional courage to write, he exemplifies curiosity in the questions he both explores and opens up, empathy for points of tension, tolerance of different views, humility in his interactions with scientists like Jerry Coyne, an outspoken atheist. I pray for the grace of patience he will need to carry forth this conversation over time in an often contentious climate.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance galley of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Faith and Science at Notre Dame

Notre Dame.jpg

Faith and Science at Notre DameJohn P. Slattery. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2019..

Summary: A study of the life of Catholic priest and science professor at Notre Dame, and his clash with the Vatican over his writing on evolution.

Many of us are far more familiar with the clashes between fundamentalists and scientists over evolution beginning with the Scopes trial and continuing to the present day. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, even as this conflict was developing in fundamentalist circles, there was a parallel conflict within the Roman Catholic Church.

One of those on whom the conflict centered was Fr. John Zahm, a Catholic priest from Ohio, educated at Notre Dame, ordained to the priesthood and recruited to teach chemistry and physics at Notre Dame. Highly esteemed, he was named a vice president of the university, speaking widely representing the university, and publishing works ranging from Sound and Music to Evolution and Dogma, an outgrowth of popular lectures on “Science and Revealed Religion.” He was granted a pontifical doctorate, a recognition of his distinguished accomplishments.

His contention throughout was that an embrace of evolutionary theory, if not joined to metaphysical naturalism, need not be seen in conflict with either the biblical account of origins or of God as creator. Zahm went so far as conceding the descent of human beings from the apes, while affirming the divinely bestowed soul that made humans distinct.

And then came the notice from the Congregation of the Index that he was to submit and retract his work and that his publication would be publicly censured. Even as this is unfolding he was appointed provincial of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, vigorously advocating for Notre Dame and for a grand vision for the university.

Friends advocated for the reversal of these efforts but were only partially successful. Zahm agreed to retract French and Italian translations of his work and no longer teach on evolution. Sadly, this spelled the end to a promising career in Caholic higher education. He lost re-election as provincial, and never taught or occupied an administrative post again at Notre Dame. He continued to research, write, and travel, including accompanying Teddy Roosevelt on one of his expeditions.

John P. Slattery’s new book recounts Zahm’s biography and explores the dynamics that set up the clash between Zahm and the Church. He attributes to the very different intellectual cultures that formed Zahm and those in the Congregation of the Index, and particularly Fr. Otto Zardetti. For Zahm, the influences, while reflecting traditional theological formation, centered in his training as a scientist in the empirical tradition spanning the tradition from Francis Bacon to Charles Darwin. He drew on a tradition in reading the Church Fathers from Augustine through Aquinas that did not set faith against observational study of the physical world.

Father Otto Zardetti and key figures like the Jesuit Kleutgen, in the Congregation of the Index, were shaped by a Neo-Scholasticism that arose as a response to modernism that advocated for a return to an Aristotelian approach to science that reached conclusions about the world from first principles rather than empirical observation. The Congregation promulgated the Syllabus of Errors and laid the basis for the doctrine of papal infallibilty.

Slattery draws upon archives of both Fr. Zahm’s work and the Vatican to analyze the clash in which Fr. Zahm found himself caught up. He also includes translations of the Syllabus of Errors and Zardetti’s correspondence. In doing so, he helps us understand how such a distinguished scholar and university leader ended up sidelined as the Church wrestled with its response to modernism and scientific advances. Much like the fundamentalists, they engaged in a form of intellectual retreat rather than the intellectual engagement advocated by Zahm. Unlike the fundamentalists, they used ecclesiastical power to suppress a line of scientific inquiry, and sadly, the career of Fr. John Zahm.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Science & Faith

science and faith

Science & Faith: Student Questions Explored, Hannah Eagleson, editor. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of essays addressing various questions on the relationship of science and Christian faith, incorporating groups discussion questions for use with small discussion groups.

Nearly every Christian college student has at some time confronted the question of the relation between what their faith teaches and what we might learn about the world through science. The question is more acute for science students. In some settings, students are taught both in church and in the science classroom that one has to choose between science and faith. One would think these are in a war in which only one side can win.

The contributors to this volume write from a different conviction. Most are actively engaged in scientific research and teaching as well as whole-heartedly embracing the Christian faith. The work is organized in four parts:

Part One focuses on preliminary considerations. Joshua Ho, a graduate student in Developmental Biology discusses the questions he brings to a science-faith questions: questions of personal identity, mission, and approaching questions of origins. Two scholars, one a theologian, one a scientist discuss how the Bible supports the use of the scientific method to study God’s world. The section concludes with a reflection on our ways of understanding God and understanding his world.

Part Two is about building good conversations among scientists about faith. Ruth Bancewicz opens with a delightful account of how science enhances her faith. Andy Walsh discusses the relevance of God in a scientific age. Neil Shenvi responds to the challenge that Christians face when scientists describe Christian faith as irrational. He points out both that powerful emotions do not disprove the rationality of any belief, scientific or religious. Furthermore he points out the resources available to demonstrate the rational basis for Christian belief. Finally, plasma physicist speaks of using God-given creativity (including his involvement in his church’s Vacation Bible School) to speak of his faith with colleagues.

Part Three tackles the perennial issue of how we engage origins questions. David Vosburg, a chemistry professor, sets out good principles for fruitful conversations: praying about when to engage, cultivating grace in community, start with the Bible, and not just Genesis, and that disagreements are not always rooted in science or theology. Gerald Rau then devotes a couple chapters to different views of origins Christians who believe in creation hold.

Part Four explores broader issues. Royce Francis addresses the unique opportunity scientists have to foster science literacy among fellow believers. James Stump offers a pithy chapter on epistemology, or the question of how we know. Then James C. Ungureanu contributes three chapters on the history of the relationship between science and the church. One of the most intriguing observations he makes is that the approach of the two books of revelation, scripture and nature, often in the modern area collapsed into one book, that of nature. He attributes this to the autonomy granted to natural revelation that ended up competing with or superseding special revelation.

Each chapter includes discussion questions that can be used either for personal reflection, or even better, for group discussion. It should also be noted that the selection of articles came out of preliminary surveys with students and ministry leaders and were field-tested before publication.

The book is edited by the Emerging Scholars Network’s Associate Director Hannah Eagleson, who offers guidance in using the book, and helpful chapter introductions, linking the content to the overall theme of the book. It can be used by everyone from undergraduate students in the sciences, to graduate researchers, and university faculty. While designed for Christians, I could see this being useful for those exploring faith who wonder whether Christianity is anti-science. The good news of this guide is the relationship of faith and science is not one of war, but peace, of each enhancing our grasp of the other.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. In the interest of full disclosure, while the above represents my honest assessment of the book, I have a personal connection with this publication. On July 1, I was appointed the new Director of the Emerging Scholars Network. When this occurred the book was already at the printers. However, it represents well the work of the Emerging Scholars Network to connect faith and scholarship, the love of God and the love of learning, work I am both proud of and to which I am deeply committed.

Guest Review: Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation-Evolution Divide

Laying Dowh

Laying Down Arms to Heal the Creation Evolution DivideGary N. Fugle (foreword Darrell R. Falk).  Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015.

Summary:  Christians can be comfortable with the revelations of both Scripture and scientific study

This book is based on the author’s personal experiences as a Christian who taught biological evolution at the college level for 30 years. He writes with the authority of someone who has dealt with creation-evolution issues regularly throughout his career. Throughout the book he emphasizes and gives his reasons for his Christian faith. His goal is for Christians to be comfortable with the revelations of both Scripture and scientific study.

The author is an evolutionary creationist and points out numerous problems with young-earth creationism and the intelligent design movement. He is “enthusiastically interested in a dialogue among individuals who are softened to the possibility of reconciliation in which the powerful message of Christian faith and the fascinating scientific understanding of evolution are integrated together.” (p. 8)

In his introductory Part I, the author suggests that “the voices of six-day, young-earth creationists and intelligent design (ID) advocates have not been widely suppressed or ignored by mainstream scientists; rather, they have been evaluated and deemed incomparable and incompatible with the scientific validity and value of evolutionary theory.” (p. 14)

He also suggests that “one of the changes that will bring healing and an end to the creation-evolution wars is an understanding within the Christian church that most scientists are simply pursuing their professions and are not the enemy of biblical Christian faith.” (p. 14)

In Part II the author discusses real issues for Christians: how did God go about his creative activities, which comes first-the Bible or science, and presuppositions on both sides. It also includes the obligatory brief history of young-earth creationism. He suggests that as believers in a sovereign God of creation, Christians should fully expect that nature and the Bible will complement and inform one another, which does not elevate the former over the latter, but can, and should, be elevated above any person’s interpretation of the Bible if there are major conflicts between the two.

In Part III, he discusses the collision of ideas, in which he argues for the separation of science and religion in our public education system, and notes that Christians are as wrong as scientists in their attacks on each other. Along the way he briefly discusses miracles, divine action, and the problems that the intelligent design movement has caused. He discusses how ID has no explanatory power, as opposed to biological evolution, which has an abundance of it.

Part IV is a survey of a sample of the evidence for biological evolution and illustrations of its explanatory power. The author has two goals in this part: (1) to communicate an understanding of the biological foundation behind evolutionary theory, and (2) “to continue to express how someone may accept that the biological world is both the product of evolutionary processes and the intended creation of a sovereign God.”

He accomplishes this by presenting example of homologous structures, vestigial structures, embryology, the fossil record, biogeography, possible mechanisms of evolutionary modification, and various aspects of molecular genetics, within which he emphasizes that molecular data has been found to be consistent with evolutionary predictions and makes little sense if God specialty created various organisms.

In Part V the author discusses reading the Bible with evolution in mind. He begins with a brief discussion of biblical interpretation, emphasizing that the book of Genesis was written for the ancient Israelites. He discusses creation over six days, the framework interpretation, and John Walton’s cosmic temple interpretation. He also argues that the biblical flood was not a global flood.

He clearly agrees that suffering and death entered the world long before the actions of Adam and Eve, and admits that the “Fall” of humanity through the actions of Adam and Eve is the most critical challenge from evolutionary biology for many Christians. While acknowledging that some Christians understand the Fall as a metaphor for our inherent human condition, he focuses on the difficulties with reading the Fall as a metaphor.

In his final chapter, the author discusses how to move forward, including a rejection of unjustified propositions on both sides, particularly metaphysical naturalism and strict young-earth creationism. He suggests that scientists could show more respect for belief systems and Christians could “incorporate legitimate scientific discoveries into a reasoned God-centered worldview.”

The author recommends this book for Christians who wonder how biological evolution can be accepted along with a Christian worldview and for non-Christians who don’t understand how a personal Christian faith can be embraced along with evolutionary ideas. I would also highly recommend it for anyone who wants a refresher course in biological evolution and its theological implications. The author did not intend this book for staunch proponents of young-earth creationism who hold unswervingly to their position or for committed atheists.


This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Guest Review: God’s Good Earth

God's Good Earth

God’s Good Earth: The Case for an Unfallen Creation, Jon Garvey. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019.

Summary: A biblical, theological, and scientific case for no fall of nature.

In this book, Jon Garvey, a retired medical doctor, challenges “some of the underlying assumptions now made in the discussion of natural evil, particularly within the evangelical Christian tradition, about what Christianity itself has taught on it, both from within its biblical foundation, and in its theological history.” (p. xvii) He presents “the true position of biblical and historic church teaching as clearly as possible.” (p. xviii) “It has to be a worthwhile goal to take an authentic view both of what science and Christian doctrine actually reveal about the world.” (p xix) “[T]he aim of this study is to point out that what happened to humankind in the garden did not spread to the rest of the world”. (p. 4)

In section one, Garvey surveys the relevant biblical material and showed that the Bible’s position is that the natural creation remains God’s servant, and has not become corrupted or evil because of human sin. This section included some interesting and new (at least to me) observations from Scripture supporting the case for an unfallen world by pointing out how good God’s creation actually is. Garvey concludes that neither the sin of humanity nor the corruption of the angelic powers is associated in Scripture with any major changes in nature.

The second section documents the history of “the doctrine of nature, with reference to the fall, through the past 2,000 years, to show how the balance shifted from a strongly positive view of the goodness of creation to a seriously negative one” (p. xix), including possible reasons why the traditional view rose to prominence around the sixteenth century. He includes a little more than I wanted to know about that history, but obviously believed it was important in order to make his point. Chapter 7, aptly titled “Creation Fell in 1517,” describes a profound reversal in the writings of the reformers. Garvey attributes at least some of this to the Greek Prometheus cycle, particular Pandora’s jar (aka Box), suggesting that natural evil flew out of a jar in a Greek myth, and not primarily from Christian Scripture at all. (p. 112) This section was well worth getting through for what came next.

In the third section, Garvey looks at natural evil as evidenced within the world itself and why nature is now so widely perceived as cruel and malevolent, when once it wasn’t. Garvey makes good use of his medical training and practice to frequently provide a fresh perspective on the usual arguments for “nature red in tooth and claw,” suggesting that they have been somewhat exaggerated. For instance, he completely discredits the claim that most animals suffer an agonizing death. Garvey proposes that “since evolution and the living world generally are found on close examination not to be steeped in selfishness at all, but overwhelmingly founded on cooperation and interdependence, human sin and selfishness may be seen for what they truly are—an aberration within God’s good creation.” (p. 146)

In the final section, he sketches out the differences it makes to Christian life and hope to accept either the traditional view that creation is tainted by the fall, or the view that it is not fallen. For instance, “one is much more likely to wish to preserve what one loves because it is God’s good handiwork, than if one views it as irretrievably corrupted by evil” (p. 199) There is also “the Christian hope engendered by the resurrection of Christ [in] the renewal of all things in heaven and earth, not their complete replacement . . .” (p. 199)

Finally, “This understanding will demand, for many of us, some fundamental readjustments of beliefs and attitudes, but we may take comfort in the fact that we are not, by making those changes, moving away from the faith of the Bible and the church of Christ, but closed back towards both.” (p. 202)

This book was written by a Christian layman, and it is suited for Christian laymen as well as anyone else interested in a fresh perspective on the fall of nature. I highly recommend it.

This guest review was contributed by Paul Bruggink, a retired technical specialist whose review interest is in the area of science and faith.

Review: The Lost World of Genesis One

the lost world of genesis one

The Lost World of Genesis OneJohn H. Walton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Summary: Walton argues from our knowledge of the ancient cultures in Israel’s context that Genesis 1 is a functional account of how the cosmos is being set up as God’s temple rather than an account of material origins.

Some time back, I reviewed The Lost World of Adam and Eve, which is the sequel to this book. I thought it did one of the best jobs I’ve seen of showing how we must try to understand the book of Genesis as its recipients would have in their own cultural context, rather than trying to make it answer questions about origins in the light of the theories of Darwin and the evolutionary science that has developed over the last 150 years. I’ve always had the sense that we’ve been asking of the text of Genesis questions that neither the writer nor the inspiring Holy Spirit never intended to address. The question that remains is what does the early chapters of Genesis affirm? John H. Walton offers a strong argument that these were written out of a very different world view that was considering the cosmos not in terms of the causative factors in their material origins (although Walton is clear to attribute ultimate causation of and sustenance of the creation to God), but rather as an account of how God establishes the functions and places the functionaries in his cosmic temple over which he rules.

Several insights were particularly helpful. One was his demonstration that the cultures of Israel’s day looked at the world in terms of functional rather than material origins. With the rise of modern science we see the world very differently and this results in some of our difficulties in reading the Genesis texts. Also, he explains the seventh day rest of God, which always has seemed anti-climactic to me as in fact the climax of this account as God enters and sits down, as it were, on the throne of his cosmic temple and begins his rule over what he has set in place. Finally, there is the important implication that because this is not an account of material origins their need be no conflict between Genesis 1 (and indeed the chapters that follow as he argues in his sequel) and scientific accounts of origins as long as science does not try to address teleological questions and conclude there is no God.

As in the sequel, Walton develops his treatment of Genesis 1 as a series of propositions. The chapter titles will give you a sense of the flow of his argument:

Proposition 1: Genesis One Is Ancient Cosmology
Proposition 2: Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented
Proposition 3: “Create” (Hebrew bara’) Concerns Functions
Proposition 4: The Beginning State in Genesis One is Non-Functional
Proposition 5: Days One Through Three in Genesis 1 Establish Functions
Proposition 6: Days Four Through Six in Genesis 1 Install Functionaries
Proposition 7: Divine Rest Is In a Temple
Proposition 8: The Cosmos Is a Temple
Proposition 9: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Relate to the Cosmic Temple Inauguration
Proposition 10: The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins
Proposition 11: “Functional Cosmic Temple” Offers Face-Value Exegesis
Proposition 12: Other Theories of Genesis 1 Either Go Too Far or Not Far Enough
Proposition 13: The Difference Between Origin Accounts in Science and Scripture is Metaphysical in Nature
Proposition 14: God’s Roles as Creator and Sustainer are Less Different Than We Have Thought
Proposition 15: Current Debate About Intelligent Design Ultimately Concerns Purpose
Proposition 16: Scientific Explanations of Origins Can Be Viewed in Light of Purpose, and If So, Are Unobjectionable
Proposition 17: Resulting Theology in This View of Genesis 1 Is Stronger, Not Weaker
Proposition 18: Public Science Education Should Be Neutral Regarding Purpose
Summary and Conclusions

Walton, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton, contends that this reading of scripture that takes the cultural-historical context of Genesis seriously is in fact the most faithful to an evangelical doctrine of scripture. It does not start from the questions we want to ask, but asks what truths the text was affirming, first for its original readers, and only then for us. He argues that his approach can take the text at face value rather than needing to apply the hermeneutical gymnastics of those who try to reconcile Genesis and scientific accounts. The result is one that explains away neither scripture nor science.

I also think he makes wise recommendations about public science teaching needing to be neutral about metaphysical questions, excluding both atheist and creationist agendas from the classroom. Whether scholars agree with Walton in all the particulars (and some consider his denial of ancient near east culture interest in material origins in the Genesis text over-emphasized) Walton offers a proposal that defuses, at least from the Christian side, the perceived warfare between science and faith. It seems that there are many concerns from the care of creation to the alleviation of suffering in which both Christians and all thoughtful scientists may make common cause rather than be adversaries. Would that it were so.

Review: Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods

Minds, BrainsSummary: A discussion, cast in the form of a conversation, of the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience, and their implications for what it means to be human and for what it means to believe in God. Written for the thoughtful undergraduate, it is helpful for students in these fields and others concerned about the implications of neuroscience research for faith.

Is there such a thing as free will or are all our thoughts and actions determined by chemical reactions within our neural networks? Do studies showing activity in specific centers of the brain when one is engaged in religious activity demonstrate that the quest for God is simply a genetically, physically determined activity. Given the increasingly close linkages between physical structures and processes in the brain, and our thoughts and actions, is there anything that makes me me apart from those structures? What about the soul?

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology raises all of these questions. In this book, Malcolm Jeeves discusses these as both a scientist and believing Christian. The book is cast as a conversation, an exchange of emails between Malcolm and a student named “Ben”, discussing a succession of questions that arise for Ben in the course of his studies in psychology. I found this a helpful form for presenting the latest research and exploring the Christian implications of that research. He explains the latest research findings in terms educated lay persons can grasp.

He begins with a discussion of how one should think of the field of psychology and notes that the Freudianism and behaviorism of prior generations (what I learned in my own psych courses) has given way to cognitive psychology heavily influenced by neuroscience research. He goes on to explore the question of the connection of mind and brain, arguing for the mind and consciousness as an emergent property of the brain that cannot simply be reduced to brain processes, allowing for “top down” influences. This leads to a discussion of free will, where he argues against the kind of determinism that makes all our actions, including writing books and proposing theories, as simply the “chattering of neurons.” He then discusses social influences on cognitive processes and this contributes to Jeeves contention that there are multiple levels of explanation for psychological processes.

Jeeves turns to a discussion of the soul and argues that the best understanding of this is to translate nefesh, the Hebrew for soul, as “living creature”. In Genesis, this is used of animals as well as humans.  What Jeeves would argue for, and where others, particularly dualists, will differ (and he acknowledges this) is for what he calls “dual aspect monism”–that mind or soul and body are two aspects of one being–we do not have souls, we are embodied souls. But for him, this allows him to see mental states as closely connected to physical processes without denying something essential to being human.

Succeeding chapters then explore various questions around the nature of being human from near death experiences to our moral sense and altruism, and our usage of language. In a number of these areas, Jeeves notes both similarities with animals, particularly chimpanzees, and the stark differences between us and them.

One thing to be noted is that in all of this, Jeeves is responding to research being done and its implications, a very helpful process. At the same time (and perhaps this could not be done in one book) I would have liked to see some thought given to how Christian premises might uniquely influence the research questions one asks in these fields–what does Christian thought contribute to psychological and neuroscience research?

The closing chapters explore questions of neuroscience and belief and whether belief can be reduced to the physical processes at play when persons engage in religious activity and that may be more prevalent in those of a religious nature. Jeeves is careful here to acknowledge the work being done in this area and that further research will likely yield an even fuller picture of these processes. At the same time he contends that the question of the reality of a God or gods is not something that can be proven or dismissed on the basis of this evidence. As a Christian, he would contend that these are matters that rest on the historical evidence for the acts of God in history including the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This last is one of the great values of the book. Jeeves both argues for the value of neuroscience research and against the hegemony of any particular area of science (levels of explanation) or of science as a whole over and against other ways of knowing. He provides a thoughtful model of measured conversation bringing both scientific research and the best of Christian thought together, free of neither sensationalistic claims or knee-jerk responses.

Review: The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science

The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science
The God of Nature: Incarnation and Contemporary Science by Christopher C. Knight
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the challenges for anyone who is a theist is how to explain God’s interaction with the physical world. Of particular concern is explaining the “miraculous” or the “supernatural.” Classically, God’s interaction with the world has been described in terms of “general” and “special” providence. General providence is his work in and through the “laws of nature” established in his creative work. Special providence refers to his “interventions” in the miraculous, and perhaps also to God’s work through intercessory prayer.

These kinds of “breaking in” events are problematic to scientists committed to the regularity of the natural order. For some who retain a belief in God, the response has been to maintain some sort of theistic naturalism, which often seems to incorporate miracles into God’s creation instructions. The difficulty is that this is hard to distinguish from deism, the idea of a clockwork universe that God has wound up and set running.

Christopher C. Knight explores this landscape and seeks to provide a different framework that would see the miraculous as a “breaking out” or “breaking through” a fallen creation where God is working within to restore and fulfill his purposes. Key to his thinking is the Incarnation and an understanding of that which draws heavily on Eastern Orthodox theology, particularly its understanding of the logos, in and through whom creation came to exist and is sustained. God is a continuing “primary cause” of all that occurs in nature even if scientists may only have access to “secondary” causes. Because of the fall, sometimes God’s activity consists in breaking out or through the grime of the fall to restore and fulfill his purposes, supremely in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus.

This seems to me to be an intriguing proposal but one about which I have some questions. In taking this stance, Knight identifies his position of “incarnational naturalism” with panentheism, the idea that all that exists is in God (rather than pantheism, which says that all is God). While panentheism seems an attractive alternative to classical theism which emphasizes the distinction or transcendence of God vis a vis the creation, I think it means giving up some essential and distinctively Christian truths. If all the creation is in God, then in some sense evil is as well. And if God is identified with this then salvation is not a Holy God acting on behalf of a fallen world in redemption but rather God and the world striving together to attain God’s creation purposes. Furthermore, I am concerned with the reality that panentheism may collapse into eastern pantheism or into some form of universalism, which I do detect at points in Knight’s writing, particularly in his pyschological-referential account of revelatory events which seems to put other revelatory experiences on a par with Christian revelation. [I will note that for me this account was the most difficult to understand part of the book.]

What I found of value was that, classically we have spoken of God being both transcendent and immanent, but often seem to be at a loss to reconcile how God is immanent with the laws of nature. I would argue that one needn’t resort to panentheism to argue for the incarnational naturalism Knight contends for. The presence of the Logos in his creation that reaches fulfillment in Jesus, the God-man is fully consonant with the biblical narrative and an understanding of God who is both transcendent and immanent.

The book is closely written and assumes a certain familiarity with historical theology both Eastern and Western. Chapter 15, titled “A New Understanding” serves as a good recapitulation and summary of his argument that was helpful to me in pulling it all together. Before his “Afterword” he includes a chapter on intercessory prayer within the model he proposes.

While I take issue with the panentheism this author proposes, I believe his efforts to draw upon Eastern Orthodox thought, his thinking about the incarnation, and his effort to propose a “non-interventionist” explanation for miracles needs to be considered in the ongoing dialogue about faith and science and is a worthy addition to Fortress Press’s “Faith and the Sciences” series.

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