Some Implications of Genetic Mutation: Toward a More Natural Theology

By Heller, Jan C. | Anglican Theological Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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Some Implications of Genetic Mutation: Toward a More Natural Theology


Heller, Jan C., Anglican Theological Review


The Problem

Following the theologian and physicist Ian Barbour, David H. Smith characterizes the ideal relationship between theology and the natural sciences in terms of dialogue.1 With this characterization, Smith suggests (among other things) that each field has sufficient integrity on its own to warrant a respectful treatment by participants in the other, but not enough to justify compartmentalizing or isolating one from the other. Said differently, Smith claims that each field has its own contribution to make to the dialogue, but that each ought to be open to input and critique from the other.

I accept this characterization, but want to explore some implications of it for Christian theology and ethics that Smith does not pursue. For when Christians engage in a genuine dialogue with the natural sciences in the sense that Barbour and Smith understand it, questions can be raised concerning whether and, if so, how and to what extent, the findings of these sciences affect our fundamental conceptions of God and God's purposes for creation and humankind. My motivation for raising such questions arises from observing how Christians too often evaluate developments in the natural sciencesthey do so exactly as Barbour and Smith suggest we ought not. That is, Christians too often evaluate the findings in the natural sciences solely in terms of their own, prior faith-commitments, holding these normatively constant as it were, and appropriating only those scientific findings that do not directly challenge these prior commitments. However, if a genuine dialogue is to take place between participants in these fields, Christians must be willing to consider how the findings of the natural sciences might lead them to re-evaluate their commitments, perhaps even to the point of reconceptualizing or relinquishing some of their most fundamental and cherished beliefs.

Given the limitations of space for this article, I will here simply try to illustrate how such questions arise as a problem internal to Christian theology, and then sketch some implications of them for theology and ethics. To do this, I will utilize one of several possible issues arising with our current understanding of evolutionary theory, namely, the mechanism of genetic mutation. In the end, I suggest that such implications drive us to reconsider what has traditionally been called "natural theology."

How the Problem Arises

Smith correctly points outs that the three traditional sources of authority for Christians generally, and Anglicans particularly, are scripture, tradition, and what he calls the "standards of rational or coherent thought." The third source is often characterized in terms of human experience understood in its broadest sense. It can thus include not only the widely accepted standards of rationality that Smith discusses, but also the widely accepted empirical and theoretical findings of the natural sciences as well .2 In this way, then, the findings of the natural sciences can be viewed as one authoritative source (among others) for Christian theology, and this because knowledge of the natural or "created" world presumably permits us to infer something about God as Creator and about God's purposes as Creator and Sustainer for creation and humankind.

Of course, just what substantively the natural sciences permit us to infer about God and God's purposes have been and continue to be matters of much debate. I take up this issue momentarily. Here, I want to suggest that we not overlook the importance of this claim. For the claim that the findings of the natural sciences permit us to infer something about God and God's purposes for creation and humankind suggests (in principle, at least) that the findings of these sciences can be viewed as a concern internal to Christian theology. This view is in contrast (perhaps since Copernicus) to the way the sciences have too often been viewed by Christians, namely, as a concern external to theology and one that raises questions from which Christian beliefs must be insulated.

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