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An Interview with Sarah Coakley: Evolutionary Biology, Apologetics, and the Training of Theologians

April 04, 2019
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Is there a possibility that contemplative practice actually sharpens my vision into reality itself?

In this interview, theologian Sarah Coakley gives her take on the relationship between Christian faith and evolutionary biology. She also shares the story of her first encounter with biological sciences, and suggests approaches to better equip pastors and theologians to tackle today’s pressing issues of theology and science. The interview was conducted by Dr. David Robinson, Regent’s Post-Doctoral Fellow in Theology and Science.

Dr. Coakley is Emeritus Norris-Hulse Professor at the University of Cambridge, and visited Regent in the autumn of 2018 to deliver a lecture as part of the Interface Theology and Science Lecture Series. Her lecture was entitled, “Is There a Future for ‘Natural Theology’? Evolution, Cooperation, and the Question of God,” and may be streamed for free here.

Below is an edited version of Part 1 of this interview. Part 2 is available at the Interface website.

The Interface Theology and Science Lecture Series and related publications and events are made possible through the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation.



David Robinson: How is it that you came to first engage with the biological sciences? Were they a component of your early theological training, or did the opportunity come later in your career?

Sarah Coakley: It came much later, to my shame. I went to a very rigorous girls’ high school where, I’m afraid, the natural sciences were taught very unimaginatively. If they had been taught as excitingly as I found my engagement with evolutionary biology in recent years, I think my academic career might have gone very differently. But as it was, I was mainly entranced by mathematics on the one hand, and classical languages on the other, whilst at school; music was the final avocation.

In England we can specialize very early, which I think is overall not a good educational strategy. My last two years of high school, I was only doing the classical languages of Latin and Greek, and Music (as “A Level” subjects). So I shared in the disadvantages of many of my generation of young theologians in having no introduction to science-and-religion questions. It wasn’t until the opportunity was dangled before me—in about 2004—by the Templeton Foundation to do a collaboration with Martin A. Nowak (who at that point was moving from Princeton to Harvard, where I was already teaching), that the prospect of an in-depth collaboration across the divide came up. I felt very insecure in it initially. I had very little background in evolutionary biology and had to start from scratch.

Can you give us a sense for the kinds of exchange that took place as you connected with Martin Nowak and his team at the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics? What would be an example of the kind of interdisciplinary translation that was required there?

What first happens when there is any new kind of interdisciplinary exchange is that you tend to hit the problem of the shorthand ways that people talk in their different disciplines—their favoured semantics—which are often technical, or if not technical, then mediated via the colloquial narratives that they weave around the more technical theories and concepts. You have to figure out from scratch what these key concepts might mean, and how you can translate them into terms that you understand. For scientists it’s just natural to talk in particular ways. But as an outsider you need six months to a year in a laboratory, if you’re starting from scratch, to work out how the people in that laboratory are using their key concepts, and according to what paradigms and methodologies. What’s even more confusing is that I rapidly discovered (because I was also doing forays into the history and philosophy of science at Harvard) that those scholars had nothing to do with Nowak and his team, astonishingly, and that they weren’t always using the same terms in the same way. So there was actually no precise consistency in the use of the key terms “cooperation” and “altruism” across the discourses of evolutionary biology, mathematical biology, and the philosophy of biology.

When I challenged Nowak and his brilliant young post-doctoral scholars with this problem, they looked at me askance for a minute and then said, “but we know perfectly well what cooperation means when we put it into mathematical terms.” I said, “Okay fine, I get that as I could look at the mathematical paradigms and see what is happening”; but I then said, “so why do you translate it into this way of talking when you talk in English about it?” They said they had never thought about that as a problem. I said, “Are you aware of how absolutely ambiguous your English speaking about this is? Are you also aware of how you are smuggling certain philosophical presumptions into your discussion which strike me as rather questionable?” For instance, because this mathematical modelling of evolutionary processes was based on game theoretical calculuses, which had originally been applied to human economics, [terms] like “payoffs,” “strategies,” and “outcomes” were regularly used. But then these would be applied to bacteria, for instance, as if bacteria were capable of having “strategies.” So on the one hand, bacteria could have “strategies”; but on the other end of the spectrum, because the presumption was that the utilitarian calculus applied equally to bacteria and humans, humans could then be perceived as behaving in ways that were simply controlled by genetic propulsions.

So at both ends of the spectrum something odd was happening. There was the reading of human intentionality into non-rational entities, and there was the simultaneous and paradoxical reduction of human intentionality to genetic determinism.


Evolutionary biology has seemed especially threatening to people of faith ever since Darwin subverted early 19th-century arguments from design. What would you say to those who are suspicious of this field?

Well, I think it’s a hugely understandable reaction, on one level, to how the history of Darwinism has unfolded. Not only was Darwin’s work unfinished and to some extent highly ambiguous, for all its genius, but it’s been subject to a set of historic receptions since—and I don’t think most people in the general public know that bit, which is why the history of science is so important to our venture. People often just assume that Darwin is on a straightforward collision course with biblical revelation from the outset, so you have to explain to people why that isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, the case. Or they assume that Darwin mandates some kind of eugenics. Or they assume that Darwin’s ideas lead inexorably to sexist or racist views (which has indeed been the case at times). Or they assume, not unreasonably given the climate of popularized evolutionary science in the last generation of the genome, that Darwin leads to a kind of a genetic reductionism which is only interested in “selfishness.” Now none of these outcomes are straightforwardly true of Darwin himself, and in some cases not true at all. Darwin was one of the greatest geniuses of our modern age. But he changed his views over his lifetime, and was continuing to exercise new ideas towards the end of his life, leaving us with unfinished business. That’s why I think the latest debates about cooperation, about which he had prescient ideas in The Descent of Man, are so significant, because they point to the possibility that the way Darwin has been purveyed, or at least genetic Darwinism has been purveyed in the last 30 years or so, might not be correct.

Whether in evolutionary biology or another discipline, you have been critical of the lack of serious scientific competence in recent generations of theologians. What wisdom would you offer to a graduate school of theology, particularly one based on a public university campus, that’s trying to counter this trend?

I think it’s a hugely significant challenge for the future of the Christian churches that the people who are going to teach and preach, whether in universities or seminaries or from pulpits, are not lacking formation in this area. The idea that you can circle the wagons and retreat into a sectarian discussion of biblical and doctrinal meaning, isolated from a culture in which philosophical and scientific ideas of enormous moment tend to control the intellectual scene, is a road to nowhere. The fact is that most of us Christians, if we think about it closely and honestly, somehow manage to live our lives in both these discourses—that of contemporary science and of Christian reflection—without really ever integrating them. I think if preachers in our various denominations, or indeed non-denominational preachers, can’t say something intelligent and well informed about those aspects of contemporary science which are often purveyed as deeply inimical to Christian faith, then they are failing in their own vocation. Both knowledge and discernment are crucial factors here.

We need to provide, in our seminaries and university departments, seriously well-honed courses on key questions in contemporary science—precisely in relation to philosophy and theology. It is not possible here to cover everything, since it is fatuous to talk about “science and religion” in general; it is much better to focus on very particular elements of contemporary science which have obvious import for philosophical and theological questions in our culture. I think the most pressing questions arise in evolutionary biology, in various debates on cosmology, on artificial intelligence, and on the relationship between neuroscience and philosophy of mind in relation to the question of the “soul” or selfhood.

To follow that up, what might be done beyond those courses? Would you, for example, send theologians to laboratories, or other contexts in which scientists do their work?

I think it’s the training of the teachers for the seminaries and theological faculties that we need to develop first. And it’s going to take a while because it’s difficult to get young (theological) scholars to take that interdisciplinary risk too early in their careers. In a way they need to be well founded in one subject first. If they are people who have previously been working scientists, of course that’s one way into this. And that’s been the traditional model for a long time: you know, the scientists who later become theologians. But there’s a danger even there of what I call “naïve correlationism.” A scientist who is also a Christian gets a little bit of theological training, not too deeply, and then s/he begins to see interesting points of contact between theological doctrines and elements in recent scientific discovery. But here again it is all too easy to miss the intersection with the critical question of the (often smuggled) philosophical assumptions in the science, which needs to be probed first before one adds theological doctrine and “stirs,” so to speak.


On the theme of training, I’d like to return to the third part of your Interface lecture, where you recast the work of natural theology. You mention Origen’s three-fold practice, which includes the shaping of moral and spiritual faculties around the work of physikē—contemplative attention “to the world-as-a-whole and its distinct patternings.” How might such “practice” look in the midst of a week spent in the field, laboratory, and/or study?

I’m so glad you’ve asked me this because the way that I put that Origenistic last section onto the end of my Interface lecture could be well capable of being misconstrued. I’m not talking here about a practice that you’re meant to sneak into the classroom or the lab a little bit of “mindfulness” to spice up your other work. I don’t intend that commitment to a form of contemplative practice (which over time claims through grace to sharpen one’s sensuality, to renew one’s response to the world, to beauty, to order and so on) to be a quick fix. [Contemplative practice is not] something that in any way replaces the hard graft that I described in the earlier part of the lecture, that painstaking work of getting to know how an actual contemporary scientific method is being applied and its empirical or mathematical outcomes discerned, interrogating what the scientists themselves think it means, asking whether the metaphysical and ethical commitments are ones that might be questioned or opened up to debate, and then finally bringing to the table one’s own metaphysical commitments as a theologian and adding to the richness of the mix that’s emerging. 

That is basically the method for my “natural theology,” and out of it arises at least one new argument for God’s existence, which in the Gifford lectures I call an “ethico-teleological” argument. The sixty-four thousand dollar question when you present a new argument for God’s existence is: well, how and when, and under what conditions, might I come to see that as a convincing argument overall for my life? I can see it as a hypothesis that might have some value. I might even persuade my scientific interlocutors, if they were open-minded, that that would be one hypothesis that they might want to consider. But I think everybody knows that when we look for arguments for God’s existence, however well stated, however philosophically and cogently presented, however well based in empirical evidences, they are not going to be “knock down.” But this is where the intriguing philosophical/spiritual question of how we look at the arguments, and how we look at the “world-as-a-whole,” starts to impinge.

We know that in the twentieth century, particularly, scientific arguments in general are very rarely deductive in force, unless they are mathematically deductive; and an argument for God can’t be solely mathematically based (unless in some rather abstruse form of the “ontological argument”). So more likely such arguments for God that are empirical will be inductive, as Swinburne claims; but when he then acknowledges that the clincher for totting up the probability inductively for God’s existence finally comes from something different—and that is experience, experience of God—that is a very revealing admission in his sophisticated account.

Now in a somewhat parallel move, I’m saying in rather a new way, well, what kind of experience would that be, or might it be? It can be exemplified in the one who, as it were, puts herself regularly in the posture of openness to the possibility of belief in that-without-which-there-would-be-nothing, through practices of contemplative dispossession towards that possibility. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is my reason and my longing drawn towards the idea of the world-as-a-whole and some teleological order and purpose in it? Is this just a “seeing-as,” an imposition of my existing prejudices? Or is there a possibility that contemplative practice actually sharpens my vision into reality itself? That’s the question that, as it were, draws the contemplative on and finally aligns her longing to a perception that there might be one meaning in all this. So that’s where my reference to the Origenistic tradition fits in. I think in the Interface lecture I had to operate very fast on this point, and it maybe sounded as if I wanted that to do all the work in relation to our interactions with scientists themselves. Not so. There is the hard graft discussion with science in the first place, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that we get all “pietistic” in the laboratory! We have to understand what’s going on in the science, probe the philosophical presumptions being made, do the difficult bridging work in relation to theological concepts, and so on, as described above. No short cuts. But then come the big questions in science about the “meaning of the whole” (whether in evolution or the cosmos or the mind/brain relation); and that’s where the nuanced epistemological issue of who is best placed, philosophically and theologically, to answer such questions, comes up with such interest. And it’s my suggestion that a long term, indeed lifelong, spiritual practice of attuned and unifying attention to reality is of special importance here.

In Part 2 of this interview, Professor Coakley discusses how her pastoral experience in a hospital and jail transformed her theological vision. Visit the Interface website regularly to keep up-to-date with everything theology and science related happening around Regent.

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