Prof. Nancy Howell, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion
Saint Paul School of Theology
Kansas City, MO
Thoughts on Human Origins
Christian scripture encourages believers to worship God with heart, mind, soul, and strength. My education included both science and theology because of my deep longing to worship God with my mind. In my twenties, I studied science and contributed to university research because my faith inspired wonder at the natural world. As a theologian, I now reflect in amazement on the diverse historical and contemporary ways of engaging science from the perspective of faith. My faith grows because both Christian thought and science nurture my belief.
The theory of evolution helps me to understand the natural world in relation to God’s love. Authentic love requires freedom, and evolution describes the way that nature is free to love God. As humans, animals, and plants make their way through the processes of nature, a loving God does not control nature, but God is present in creative natural processes and with creatures. Evolution not only opens my eyes to the complexities of nature, but opens my heart to the depth of God’s love, wisdom, and creativity. Deep appreciation of the beauty of nature generates a deep and intense knowledge of God, which is the mind’s worship.
Reflections on The Age of Humans (the Anthropocene)
The “Anthropocene” inspires both regret and hope. On one hand, the term stands as an acknowledgment that both the accomplishments and self-centeredness of privileged humans have tragic consequences for the planetary community. On the other hand, Anthropocene could be attributed a different and more positive meaning. What if the Anthropocene signals a transformative age born out of lament, but also promising a new humanity committed to more responsible relationship with the planet and all creatures?
While no individual can speak for an entire tradition or even a subset of a religious tradition, my connection with The United Methodist Church gives me a resource that speaks to the transformation of humanity and certain values that assure care for nature and other humans. The 2012 Book of Resolutions records the consensus of the church that the Earth is not a human possession, but God’s creation, and humans are to love and care for the planet rather than to abuse the Earth.
The Book of Resolutions affirms scientific findings that human activity has had a massive impact on climate, including global warming. The scientific evidence for the church’s stance evokes a confession of our human responsibility for effects on the environment, which compromise the flourishing of plant and animal species. Confession of sin (as a breach of God’s intention for human relationship with nature) is incomplete, however, without action that reflects behavioral change.
United Methodists call Christians to be change agents, to be humans transformed in relation to the global community. The Book of Resolutions issues a call: “As disciples of Christ, we are called to be good stewards of God’s creation. Accordingly, we call upon The United Methodist Church to adopt fresh ways to respond to the perils that now threaten the integrity of God’s creation and the future of God’s children.” The social principles of the denomination encourage changes in individual habits and congregational practices, efforts to educate congregations and communities, and cooperation with and support of global projects to modify negative human impact on the Earth’s ecology.
From the lament about climate change and responsibility for environmental destruction arises the promise of a new way of living as humans that is rooted in biblical and historical theological traditions. The evolution of humans need not be limited physical modifications, but must be moral and relational (in a more figurative sense of evolution). The human of the Anthropocene in this theological vision must be scientifically informed and contrite. Humanity, transformed by confession of sin against God and the natural world, is born into the humanity God intended at creation—to be those creatures who tenderly and thoughtfully respect and care for nature.
Suggested further online reading:
The United Methodist Church and Evolution
Websites about science and religion:
Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences
Zygon Center for Religion and Science
Transcripts and Specifics about the Dover Trial
National Center for Science Education
Evolution as Friend of Religion?