I just finished reading Sarah Coakley and Martin A. Nowak on defining a “theology of cooperation,” which is explored as an interdisciplinary project in their book Evolution, Games, and God (2013).
Sarah Coakley and Martin A. Nowak argue for the philosophical necessity of incorporating ethics and theology when discussing the implications of evolutionary cooperation. To facilitate such a conversation, the authors work toward an agreement of meaning for the terms “cooperation” and “altruism.” These words are used in science and theology but often carry different qualities. In aligning these terms, a more direct conversation can be had between the two fields.
This point is such an important one! For anyone who has ever attempted to have a conversation coming from different perspectives, they know how a simple thing like holding different definitions of the same word can severely throw that discussion, of course. I am inclined to believe that this has been a major hindrance to open dialogues between S.T.E.M. fields and Theology or Biblical Ethics.
This edited volume contained several articles by scientists and theologians seeking to make progress in a dialogue that bridges the two disparate disciplines. The most interesting discussion raised sussed out the relationship between religion and cooperation in human history. In one article, “The Uniqueness of Human Cooperation,” Dominic D.P. Johnson proposed that religion necessarily evolved alongside human selfishness so that “religious beliefs can be adaptive for individual fitness and may thus have evolved (or have been co-opted) by natural selection.”1 A response to this in “The Moral Organ” proposed a different explanation for moral reasoning. Marc D. Hauser argued that cooperation is the natural outcome of “long-term interactions between individuals with similar moral and psychological dispositions.”2 Hauser’s approach negated the need for moral consciousness rooted in religion. In contrast, Johnson argued that religious beliefs are at the root of cooperation. These views, which attempt to describe ethics in terms of scientific theory and theology, demonstrate room for further discussion that invites biblical ethics into view.
Biblical ethics is the study of biblical texts as scripture that directs how we think about moral behavior and how morality is lived out. In Jewish custom, this is called Haggadah (thinking on) and Halakah (walking out). Discovering biblical ethics can be done in many ways. One is by reading narratives and observing the moral behavior of the agents involved, both human and divine. Another way is by identifying legal codes and instructional texts. Ethics can also be communicated by implicit means through mythopoeic texts and poetry. I have done substantial work researching biblical ethics in the Psalter and ethics in ancient Near Eastern mythological texts. Ethics is a field that interacts with other disciplines, like economics, social life, and scientific theories of evolution and technology. I
I am excited to see newly forming programs that encourage interdisciplinary study between these fields, like the fellowship, offered at St. Andrews in Scotland, New Visions in Theological Anthropology (NViTA) Fellowship in Science-Engaged Theology. Even though my application to explore biblical ethics of altruism in evolutionary biology theory in the Patriarchal narratives was rejected for 2021, I believe such programs will be so helpful in ushering in a future of collaborative academic work that encourages participation and diverse quality of thinking. Interdisciplinary research that invites diverse views, orientations, and perspectives will bring us closer to understanding the world, its meaning, and humanity’s purpose under God.
1 Dominic D. P. Johnson, “The Uniqueness of Human Cooperation: Cognition, Cooperation, and Religion,” in Evolution, Games, and God, ed. Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 168.
2 Marc D. Hauser, “The Moral Organ: A Prophylaxis admins the Whims of Culture,” in Evolution, Games, and God, ed. Martin A. Nowak and Sarah Coakley (Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 253.