Dr. Philip Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center for Religion and Science from 1988 to 2003 and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.
Earliest known human footprints (Australopithecus afarensis) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Earliest known human footprints (Australopithecus afarensis) at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Credit: Tim Evanson)

Religion-and-science must be about the human journey, about the struggle to arrive at the meaning of being human today. It is a journey searching for new symbols by which to interpret an experience that is formative for our times. This journey is also a journey of becoming human. Here we want to examine religion-and-science in this larger context of what it means to become human in our time.

The image of ourselves as creators stands out as a centerpiece of our reflections here. There is an emerging image of who we are that is coming from our human experiences, particularly our scientific endeavors and technology. Who we are is not firmly fixed in our minds, is still much debated and has yet to find a consensus. At the same time, the image is very real. This image is scientific in that it is provoked and undergirded by scientific evolutionary views of human development, but the image is also a matter of common human experience throughout much of the world. However, the scientific understanding and the common experience are brought into the spotlight because of an intense crisis of creativity in which we find ourselves. It often happens this way, that when we are in crisis, in danger of losing what is familiar and valuable to us and also feeling the lure toward unexplored territory, we gain a clarity about ourselves that is lacking in more tranquil times.

Common experience

Our experience is that we are able to do things that are novel: that we are able to change the world around us and the world within us in ways that seem new. We can test a pregnant woman, determine the condition and genetic development of the life she is carrying within her and contemplate a number of interventions for the sake of mother or unborn child. We can rearrange the molecules of the earth’s natural resources, to develop new substances, such as nylon, plastics, or synthetic skin and bone. We regularly fabricate life-sustaining environments that enable men and women to travel and work in outer space. We rearrange genetic structures so as to enable goats to give milk that is especially beneficial to humans, or pigs to grow organs that are friendly for transplant to humans. We have created a cyber world.

Such experiences are not all brand new; some have been available for decades. They point to our experience of imagining and actually creating alternative worlds. We rearrange matter; we can put the pieces of nature’s jigsaw puzzle together in unusual ways in order to create new combinations and realities. These experiences reveal our complex and intimate interrelationships with technology – a key part of the story of human becoming we shall explore later. Just as striking as these technological marvels are our imagining and creating of alternative social and political worlds. In my lifetime, for example, I have witnessed the emerging alternative world in which gender roles have been rearranged, as well as the relations between the races. The social world called “family” has undergone transformation, so much so that it is simply no longer possible to impose the older norm of the nuclear family in which a father comes home from work to greet two children who have spent the day under the nurturing care of a stay-at-home mother—that is now one form of family, not the norm.  And, of course, I have lived through the era when the socialist and communist movements attempted to reshape entire societies in dramatic ways—and, as in the case of China, have not failed.

At the core of these examples is the experience of ourselves as “creators.” These examples flesh out the conviction with which I began telling the human story. Everything I cover here is intended to clarify and interpret this experience. This experience is not tangential to our lives today, not a secondary element, but rather it is central. I believe it is an essential component of becoming human in our present times.

Scientific perspectives

Scientific understandings throw light on this experience of ourselves as creators; they underscore its essential character. We have evolved as creatures of genes and cultures. I am not suggesting a dualism, as if one could draw a line down our middle and say to one side we are genes, to the other, culture. Furthermore, adaptation to the physical and social environment is a third member of any equation that includes genes and cultures. These are only categories of analysis; in actuality, they are so integral to one another that it is a serious error to think of them in terms of dualism.

To say that we are genes is to acknowledge our physical-chemical-biological constitution as one pathway by which we become human. Physically and chemically, we reveal our ancestry in the galaxies and stars in which the elements of our planet and our bodies originated. We are creatures of stardust, some like to say. Biologically, we declare our kinship with all life forms that emerge in the primal soup, or the primal steam vents, or whatever original conditions are denoted by the various theories of life’s origins. In recent years, we have been reminded how much of our DNA we share with chimpanzees, or even with earthworms. Genes speak not only of our constitution and our journey to the position of Homo sapiens, they also speak of the present programs that govern so much of our development. In my childhood, I learned that genes programmed eye color; now we know that predisposition to certain illnesses and defects, even moods and personality have an element of genetic programming. Even our mortality, our growing old and dying, is written into our genetic composition.

Genes are essential, but genes alone do not a human being make. Our evolution has given rise also to a fully biological organ called the brain or central nervous system. The brain is the seat of learned and taught behaviors and the symbols by which we interpret our learning and teaching – that is what we mean here by the term culture. Culture is as essential to us as genes are. If you have watched a calf being born in the barnyard, you may be impressed, as I am, at how quickly, in a matter of minutes and hours, the calf gets to its feet, walks, finds its mother’s milk, and gets a start in life. In our contemporary agricultural system, there is, to be sure, some cultural involvement in that calf’s birth – the learning and teaching involved in artificial insemination, enhanced feeding, and the like. How different, however, from the birth of my granddaughter a number of years ago. Not only was prenatal medical care necessary for the mother, but father and mother together also took classes in birthing and caring for infants. At each well-baby visit, the doctor not only gives a verdict of “fine” or “needs some special attention,” but also a report on the percentile of height and weight into which the baby fits for her age group. A modicum of child development theory is conveyed, so that baby Rory received the optimum stimulation for her developing brain and psyche. If human babies received no more cultural attention than the calf, they would die at an early age. Many babies today are sick and dying because they do receive so little cultural attention. Without the culture, their genes would give out.

Medical centers are a symbol of the intense cultural intervention we exercise through our practice of medicine, aimed at keeping our biology functioning, so that our culture can maintain its quality. What goes on at our hospitals is culture intervening in our biology. And since culture has emerged from biology, the practice of medicine is actually a stage of biology intervening in itself. The calf is a mature adult in little more than a year, whereas human development specialists would say that it takes nearly thirty years today to produce a well-functioning adult human being. It does not take our biology thirty years to grow up; our culture requires the three decades in order to acculturate the person for competent, mature living, which accounts for the importance of universities.

Think back to the experience of ourselves as creators. The popular scientific sketch I have just drawn adds to our experience, in that it clarifies that the component of creativity, of being creators, is written in our biology. Our genes, to be sure, exhibit flexibility and unpredictability, but it is our brains and the development of our culture that is shaped by creativity just as surely as our biology is shaped by prior programming and environment. Our culture, learning and teaching, is as fundamental to us as our genes, but with a far smaller element of prior programming. For instance, I marvel when I read about prehistoric humans. How did they learn which plants and animals were suitable for eating? How did the Maya, for example, come to know that corn is an imperfect food unless it is prepared with the introduction of lime, whereupon it becomes fully nutritional?

Culture evolves, of course, just as biology does, although according to different, non-Darwinian laws. Some years ago, I visited the magnificent Museum of Mining at Bochum in the Ruhr region of Germany. Half of this museum is devoted to the history of mining and the other half to the technology of mining. In the historical exhibits, the cultural evolution is set forth vividly from the prehistoric scraping of the earth to the digging of shafts in the earth to the industrialized mining procedures of the last 200-300 years. The climax comes in the depiction of entire villages being relocated so that the ground beneath them can be mined, only to be replaced when the extraction is completed. The huge machines for these operations not only extract the ore, but also carry out several steps of processing before the ore is loaded on trains for the final manufacture. Our experiences of being creators today may be enabled by our primordial genetic-cultural constitution, but it takes the form that we know today because we stand where we do in the evolutionary development of our cultural capabilities. The exhibits of this museum set forth in striking panorama–from prehistoric scraping to contemporary village-replacement–the capability of our brains to imagine the alternative worlds that we then create by means of our cultures.

Examining models of human and proto-human skulls at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Examining models of human and proto-human skulls at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Credit: Edenpictures)

The crisis of technological civilization

This leads us directly to the element of crisis, which is the third strand that contributes to the awareness of ourselves as creators. I use the term, crisis of technological civilization. In our contemporary experience, technology is central to what I have referred to as culture. Learned and taught patterns of behavior and the symbols that interpret them are nowhere more prominent and powerful than in our technology. Technology has always been with us, from the times of crude stone tools, to the present. But today we live in a new technological situation that can be described this way: Through technology we have superimposed our culture over nearly all the natural systems of our planet. Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, following Bronislaw Malinowski, spoke of culture as an “artificial, secondary environment, which we superimpose on the natural. It comprises language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values”. The word “artificial” is misleading, but Niebuhr’s idea is to the point.

The image that comes to mind is that of the clear plastic overlays that we frequently use. We may place a map upon a table and lay upon that map a clear sheet that depicts the river system of the area, over that a sheet that depicts the hills and mountains, and over that one that depicts the population density or the pockets of air pollution, or the like. The original map is there, underneath it all, but we access the map through the overlays. In some such manner, I see our technology in relation to the natural world. The difference is that we cannot easily remove our technological overlays and return to the original map. Cattle, hogs, turkeys, and chickens, for example, cannot revert to their pre-agricultural state. The Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers cannot be restored to their prehistoric flows. In nearly every area of the world, it would be impossible for human beings who inhabit our planet to live once again, or be once again, as they were in the 1800s.  We speak of globalization, and we must acknowledge that it is unlikely that we could turn back into a pre-globalized condition, in which the races and nations would live in isolation from one another. It is unlikely that we could ever resuscitate the identical gender roles that marked the interactions of men and women in the era in which I was growing up.

The examples I cite have become hot issues for debate. They are elements of a crisis after all. I intend no value judgments at the moment, however, just description. The critical point to be made is that sometime within the last fifty years or so, we reached the point where the domination of natural systems by human cultural systems became a necessity for human survival. For decades, our technological overlays enabled a decline in the mortality rate and the lengthening of human life—an increase in the population. Now, however, the technological overlay not only enables the human population, it is a necessity for the survival of that population If we forcibly removed our technological interaction with the rest of nature, millions, even billions, of people around the world would perish.

This describes what I mean by the term technological civilization. What is the crisis? How is it to be defined? We must pause for a moment to consider how our techno-culture works.  Technology requires continuous conscious awareness, knowledge, planning, competent operation, monitoring and evaluation—in short, as philosopher Hans Jonas has put it, it requires constant accountability. Technology does not just happen and go its way on its own, as the calf emerges from the cow’s belly and steps out into the barnyard. Every time we flip an electrical switch or turn on our faucets, we should remember how fully dependent the flow of light and water is upon massive amounts of human engineering and operational competence—we often call it infrastructure.

Furthermore our technology must not only work on its own, it must interface with millions of other systems in the natural world. Synchronizing with the environment is an inescapable requirement. The crisis of technological civilization resides in the fact that for all of our knowledge and expertise, we are not fully competent to maintain our secondary environment, nor are we able to interface adequately with the other systems of nature. An example: Because of our lack of understanding and foresight, our technological capability to enhance the growth of beef cattle with the use of antibiotics fosters resistance in bacteria that threatens human beings. Here we see the intertwining of lack of competence and the failure of our cultural systems to interface properly with other systems in nature. The bacteria are simply doing what they do very well — evolving, adapting, coping with their environment. We knew this all along, but we did not take it into account. This reminds us that other systems of nature are dynamic, constantly evolving — a characteristic that is difficult for us to engineer continuously into our cultural systems.

Technology is rooted in the intrinsic nature of Homo sapiens, it is the work of our culture, the product of our brains, as they go about doing what comes naturally to them, imagining alternative worlds and acting on that imagination. Technology is an overlay upon the other systems of nature and comes as naturally to humans as anything else. It is as natural to us as making honey is natural to bees. Technology is natural in this respect. It is not “artificial,” as Niebuhr said.  Furthermore, it is a natural expression of our nature as creators. If we are not fundamentally creators, this crisis would not exist. This is truly a civilizational crisis, because if we look carefully, we see that nearly every trouble that we experience today has its origins in our culture and our difficulty in conducting our culture adequately.

The crisis of technological civilization is thus quintessentially a crisis of culture and therefore ultimately a human crisis, the crisis of human creators. The crisis has its origins in that which is our distinctive gift, our highly developed brains and their culture. To say that we are incompetent in the exercise of our culture and inadequately synchronized with the rest of nature is to say that in a significant way we are incompetent to be human, incompetent to exercise our gifts, and that we are indeed out of sync with other systems of nature. The crisis therefore challenges us to understand who we are in the scheme of things, specifically, in the natural world. What is the purpose of culture? How are we to conduct it in accord with its purpose? The crisis presses us to gain a sense of our own identity so that we are enabled to respond to these questions.

As I suggested earlier, crisis is revelatory. When we are in danger, when we are threatened with loss, a shaft of light is thrown on what is essential to us, on what matters most to us. In this shaft of light, we encounter the ambiguity of our own human becoming. We hope as well that this light will point us toward adequate responses to that ambiguity.

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