Science and theology explore fundamental questions about what it means to be human, and dialogue between the two, albeit challenging, enriches both.
This was the argument made during a March 29 presentation by Celia Deane-Drummond, director of the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. The professor with doctorates in plant physiology and systematic theology spoke at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, as part of the school’s yearlong reflection on reason.
“Theology is impoverished without reflecting on some of the claims of science and the other way around as well,” said Deane-Drummond.
Speaking to students, faculty and religious at the Benedictine-founded university, she pointed out theology and evolutionary anthropology ask some of the same questions, including why humans behave the way they do and what makes for a successful human community.
One challenge in bridging the paradigm gap between the disciplines is the idea of human exceptionalism, “that only humans count,” which has pervaded theological and philosophical literature, said Deane-Drummond. “We are made in the image of God, and have dominion,” she said, but theology has long focused solely on humans while overlooking their integral relationship with animals. “This leaves a problem,” she said. “How does this link up with our evolutionary understanding?”
An additional hindrance to dialogue is evolutionary psychologists’ inclination to describe religious belief as merely an adaptive advantage, a way of being in the world “that controlled those who were not performing in a cooperative mode,” said Deane-Drummond.
To show the common resonance between the fields and a point of entry for dialogue, she turned to evolutionary science and the work of 20th-century Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Deane-Drummond used the basic idea of theological dramatics articulated by Balthasar to described how humans are agents, and God is part of the dramatic landscape — involved in human history “in the light of future hope.”
She made an analogy between theo-drama and niche construction — a more complex way of thinking about evolution than genetic determinism. It is the idea that along with genetics, what humans and other animals do and how we act modifies our niche, which in turn shapes our evolution.
“If we think about it in theo-dramatic terms, it means that God is involved in a conscience way in our evolution.”
She added that if we affect our niches, or environments, that in turn become part of our evolutionary history, that offers another reason to take care of our natural environment and the animals within it. “Because they are part of our inheritance, and they shape who we are as humans.”
Deane-Drummond said theologians need to retain a sense of God’s purpose while adapting their account in light of evolutionary biology. And if evolutionary anthropologists take theologians’ narratives and stories into account, it may “trigger new ways of thinking for them about what it means to be human.”