Kenneth Reynhout, co-director of the Science for Ministry Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary, was a teenager when he first confronted the issue of whether science and theology are compatible. His father brought his family to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he taught biology for over 25 years at Bethel University, a Baptist, evangelical institution. “As long as I can remember, the question of evolution was like dinner table conversation for my family,” says Reynhout. “My father was interested in evolution, which made him a bit of a problem for his evangelical colleagues and students who thought that made you somehow not fully Christian.
“My father’s career was marked by this ongoing challenge of believing in and teaching evolutionary theory in spite of his Christian faith and his conservative Christian context, both at the church he attended and the school where he taught,” Reynhout continues.
For his own career Reynhout at first chose to study mathematics and computer science, also at Bethel University. Then he moved to the University of Michigan for a doctoral program in operations research, but quit after finishing his coursework. “I decided that I really enjoyed math but didn’t want to teach it for the rest of my life,” he says. “I had other interests and questions that seemed more pressing to me, that were more philosophical in nature: Why is the world the way it is? Why should there be something like mathematics, and why would it work as well as it does?”
After leaving academia, he took a 10-year hiatus and worked in the corporate world as a project manager and consultant, using his math and consumer science background. But he always maintained a desire to teach at the university level and eventually stumbled upon the field of theology and science, a belated echo of those early dinner table conversations with his family. Reynhout is now most of the way through a doctoral program in this field at Princeton Theological Seminary. His advisor and co-director of the Science for Ministry Institute is J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, one of the most prominent people in his field who was honored to give the prestigious Gifford lectures in Edinburgh in 2005.
The Science for Ministry Institute is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, whose own program of the same name attempts to move substantive dialogue on religion and science from academia out into the public sphere. The Princeton Theological Seminary’s program, which started in fall, 2009, is a little different, comprising an intensive core course, electives, and a lecture series. Applicants apply to the course in pairs, one from a scientific and the other from a ministry background.
The focus of the institute, says Reynhout, is to train scientists and pastors to engage together in dialogue about theology and science by giving participants access to information, materials, and resources that have largely been isolated in an academic context. Participants are strongly encouraged to create programs that explore theology and science in their home communities.
In September Reynhout will teach the core course, “Questions in Theology and Science,” and Jeffrey Schloss will offer an elective, “Evolution in Cosmology. All program courses are “intensive”-style courses held over a space of one to five days. Elective courses are either three days or one day. While these courses are for institute students Celia Dean-Drummond, professor of theology and biological science at Chester College in the United Kingdom, will give a public lecture on “Evolutionary Biology and Theology” on Wednesday, September 22.
One question that Reynhout will cover in the core course is “If we accept that fact that human beings have evolved over many thousands of years from some other primate species, how does this potentially change the way we think about what it means to be human in a theological context?” Theologically, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, humans are said to be made in the image of God. Yet, suggests Reynhout, the characteristics that are claimed to distinguish between human beings and animals — a moral sense, rationality, empathy, and self-awareness — are different more in degree than in kind. “Although all of these are clearly advanced, they are not categorically different than animal species like primates, dolphins, or whales,” he says. The theological challenge, therefore, is to unravel what it means to be made in the image of God if we accept that human beings have evolved.
What the core course is not, says Reynhout, is a forum for debating whether or not the theory of evolution is true. “In this program, we are going to accept that science offers a more or less correct and coherent picture of the world, while acknowledging at the same time that there is more diversity in science than people realize,” he says.
Another given is that diversity exists within the theological realm, with many potential understandings beyond those that fuel the wars between religion and science that make headlines, says Reynhout. As an example, he describes three positive ways to rethink the theological tradition that human beings are created in the image of God, given what science tells us.
The first is called the substantialist approach, which claims, says Reynhout, that “there is some substance, some part of us as humans that is different in kind from what we see in the rest of nature. That substance is somehow miraculously implanted in a human person.” This substance, which is called variously the soul, reason, moral sense, or the ability to relate to God, is something uniquely given to human beings and implanted in them, either primordially through Adam and Eve and then passed down genetically or to each individual, either in vitro or in the act of conception. This understanding is probably the most popular one among traditional Christians, at least in the United States, says Reynhout.
The second is the functionalist approach, which holds that human beings’ role in creation distinguishes them from animals. “In the Genesis account, the talk of being made in the image of God happens in the same context as God giving human beings dominion over or responsibility for naming and caring for creation,” says Reynhout. What makes us unique as human beings is that we have a special role to play in creation, with either the negative connotation of dominion — “that we get to do whatever we want, because we’re in charge” — or the more positive one that we have the responsibility to care for the created world — “we are stewards, or caretakers, of the garden.”
A third approach is the relational concept: what makes us unique is that we have capacities to relate to one another, to ourselves, to creation, and to God in ways that are different from other animal species. “This isn’t based on some special substance implanted within us, but part of the way we happen to have evolved,” says Reynhout. “We have evolved into being made in the image of God. Rather than being mandated from above, it comes from below.”
From the relational perspective, therefore, what makes human beings unique is an awareness of God’s spirit in the created world. “The evolution of self-awareness, consciousness, empathy, and the moral sense can be rooted in natural evolution,” says Reynhout. “What comes out of the evolutionary process is a species capable of sensing the divine in all things, becoming aware of the holy spirit.”
The core class will present these and other perspectives, some more friendly to the evolutionary perspective than others. The three mentioned, says Reynhout, are all acceptable options in the Christian tradition, and good Christians do not need to accept the substantialist view. All three have precedence in the tradition and are still within orthodox boundaries.
The core course also offers a way to approach these questions within a religious community. “We demonstrate an attitude and ethos of openness, sincerity, and taking the questions seriously,” says Reynhout, “not coming to a knee jerk impulse to reject things out of hand, from the science or theology sides.”
The second aspect of the course model is to recognize that some issues raised by science are theologically very difficult. Acknowledging that science changes over time and scientists often do not agree with one another, the course nonetheless struggles to deal honestly with the challenges science brings to theology.
The course would also be open to Jewish and Muslim pairs, says Reynhout but any who apply would need to recognize that although some theological issues would be shared by all three traditions, others, like how to understand the divinity of Christ, would be entirely Christian in nature.
The purpose of the public lecture series, says Reynhout, is to make people in the community aware of the core and elective courses as well as to expose participants in these courses to cutting-edge research in the field. The lecture given last spring, for example, by Michael Spezio, addressed correlations between brain activities and moral behavior.
Celia Deane-Drummond, who is giving the September 22 lecture on evolutionary biology and science, was a trained scientist with a doctorate in plant physiology before she went into the ministry. Much of her past work explored genetics and resulted in the book “Genetics and Christian Ethics.” Her more recent book “Christ and Evolution: Wonder and Wisdom (Theology and the Sciences)” looks at what it means for Jesus to be fully divine and fully human if we take seriously the fact that Jesus is part of the evolutionary process. She has a special interest in the ethics of biotechnology.
The spring lecture, on March 23, 2011, will feature Kirk Wegter-McNelly speaking on some aspect of physical cosmology and theology.
Science and Theology Institute, Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Center, 20 Library Place. Wednesday, September 22, 7 p.m. “Evolutionary Biology and Theology,” a lecture by Celia Deane-Drummond, a professor of theology and biological sciences at Chester University in England. Open to the public. For details about the course program and how to apply, go to www.ptsem.edu/cvm or www.ptsem.edu/scienceforministry. 609-497-7990 or www.ptsem.edu.