International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Alone in the World? Human Uniqueness in Science and Theology (Gifford Lectures)

by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen

Introductory Essay by Willem B. Drees

As in the Greek myth of Narcissus, we humans can be self-absorbed: Who are we? Where do we come from? Fascination with these questions is widespread with finds of new fossils of earlier hominids attracting media attention and speculations on our ancestors making for good popular science books. Paleontology, archeology, and biology have contributed to our knowledge of other primates and the evolution of hominids. But what can we learn from such scientific research? How does it relate to our self-understanding as shaped by the great religious traditions, such as the view found in Christianity and elsewhere that humans are in some way ‘in the image of God’?

In his Gifford Lectures (Edinburgh 2004), Wentzel van Huyssteen, professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, addressed the question of what defines humanity. What is distinctive for humanness? This is not just an empirical question; it also rests on how we establish the very criteria by which humanness is measured. Van Huyssteen explores the empirical sciences, investigating cognitive evolution, imagination and Paleolithic rock art (as shown in beautiful photographic plates), and symbolization and language. He sees continuity between humans and earlier hominids, as well as discontinuity. As evoluting hominids passed thresholds of self-reflective thinking and symbolization, new possibilities have become real. Religion is a part of this qualitative change: ‘the evolution of those characteristics that made humans unique from even their closest sister species, i.e., characteristics like consciousness, language, symbolic minds and symbolic behavior, is directly related to religious awareness and religious behavior.’ (213).

Van Huyssteen opts for interdisciplinarity with analyses across disciplinary boundaries; his preferred term is ‘transversality’. Science may inform religious thought, while choices that are made within the scientific enterprise, such as criteria for humanness, are informed by religious, philosophical and political preferences. The idea that humans are in God’s image (imago Dei) is interpreted in light of the available knowledge as referring to our embodied moral and religious sensibility and cognitive abilities. Religious meanings have to be worked out in relation to what else we have discovered, as there is no place for a modern universal rationality or for a pre-modern treatment of tradition as a repository of revealed data. We must live without a privileged foundation, intertwining ideas as far as possible.

Van Huyssteen’s theological engagement with modern knowledge is valuable and well done. His information on science draws on first rate scientists who have invested in communicating their ideas to a broader public. He could have interwoven their contributions somewhat more in a thematically-driven account. For more discussion, based on an AAR session, see responses by Barbara J. King, Gregory R. Peterson, Wesley J. Wildman, and Nancy R. Howell, with a response by Van Huyssteen, in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 43 (2, June 2008), 451-526. For more on Van Huyssteen, see also F. LeRon Shults (ed.), The Evolution of Rationality: Interdisciplinary Essays in Honor of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2006).