Nature, Nurture, and Destiny

From several corners of Western culture, the rallying cry entering the twenty-first century has been to be “true to oneself,” emphasizing “self-actualization”: a casting-off of traditional authorities and a rush to realize one’s own potential. But how are we to understand that potential, and the “self,” in view of modern genetics?

When considering the role of genetics in human behaviour, it’s not long before one runs up against the question of “nature or nurture,” and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the West is rather confused about the matter. While some use genetics as a way to justify and explain their behaviour–being true to themselves in this way–others seem to perceive their nature as just one more “authority” to be overthrown: they want to actualize themselves in spite of their biology, insisting that humans are more than the sum of their parts. However, these same lines of reason may be heard with respect to one’s nurture. As often as one’s upbringing is used to explain why they act one way or another, the familiar urge to overthrow one’s upbringing, or tradition, is heard with comparable volume: people are more than the sum of their experiences, it is said. Questions of human freedom, identity abound–not to mention those of a spiritual nature.

In his upcoming talk at McMaster University,Are We Slaves to Our Genes?” (January 30), Dr. Denis Alexander will address the nature-or-nurture dichotomy from a scientific and Christian perspective. Among other things, he will discuss the theological implications of recent developments in developmental biology, genomics, epigenetics, and neural plasticity. Don’t miss this opportunity to hear a first-rate Science and Religion scholar address these pressing issues of our time!

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Attend our Annual Meeting (July 25-28)

Randy Isaac

Randy Isaac, Executive Director of the American Scientific Affiliation

The following was contributed by Randy Isaac, Executive Director of ASA (first published under “The Director’s Corner” in the Summer 2014 edition of the ASA/CSCA Newsletter). Republished with permission.

“All things hold together in Christ,” the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colosse. His profound insight into the universality of God’s creative and sustaining power through Christ continues to bring us awe and wonder as we study the world of nature. Exploring that comprehensive perspective is the challenge for the ASA/CSCA/CiS* annual meeting this summer. The theme “From Cosmos to Psyche” reflects the entire spectrum of the universe. From the origin of the cosmos to the ability of our minds to have consciousness and to be able to reason, the unifying factor is Christ. As Christians in the sciences, we study nature not only to quell our deep curiosity to understand the world in which we live, but also to glorify and worship our God who created it.

Five outstanding plenary speakers, from Australia, UK, Canada, and the USA, who were profiled in our previous issue, will be addressing topics such as bioethics, cosmology, neuroscience, and biology. In addition, there will be a record number of contributed papers from our members, nearly 90 talks in four parallel sessions. There will be symposia on the physical sciences, life sciences, mind sciences, and environmental sciences, as well as a focus on emergence, theology, and on the application of science and technology in service to the poor. Some of these are discussed in more detail in this issue of the Summer 2014 ASA/CSCA Newsletter.

In addition, we are featuring two workshops by highly regarded leaders in the field. John Walton will teach a workshop on Genesis while Stephen Freeland will lead one on the origins of life. There are fascinating field trips to Niagara, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and a McMaster Campus Tour visiting the Nuclear Research Reactor and the Origins Institute. Our new affiliate, Christian Women in Science, will get together and have a special session. Finally, we are coordinating with “Academy Regained,” a special symposium by the contributors of a forthcoming book by that title. The science chapters will be covered in our meeting on Monday morning while the other chapters will be discussed at Redeemer College on Monday afternoon.

While the intellectual discourse at these meetings is a major attraction, I’d like to emphasize the human interaction factor. In today’s world, we are flooded with audio and video material of all types. It is often difficult to ascertain the quality and credibility of these materials. Furthermore, the only human interaction is the endless stream of comments that are usually unhelpful. In contrast, in our meetings, there are opportunities for personal interaction with other attendees as well as with the speakers themselves. Most attendees of past meetings report that this is the most valuable part of the meeting. During meals and in between sessions, there is time for discussion and sharing our personal perspectives.

We are interactive human beings with a capability and a need to connect with others. Those connections can be through electronic or written means but nothing can replace the need for direct personal engagement. Our annual meetings continue to provide that interaction in an environment of open discussion and often vigorous debates. Differences of intellectual opinion are respected throughout the meeting. A highlight of our time together is the awesome opportunity to worship God together, singing hymns and giving praise to our Creator.

We invite you to come experience one of our meetings for yourselves. Act now to register online here. We look forward to seeing you!

*This is a joint meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, and Christians in Science (UK).

Psychology and Christianity: Friends or Foes?

One area in which the “war” between science and faith is manifest is the study of human mental processes and behaviour – commonly known as psychology. Mind or Spirit Some psychologists view Christianity as a “crutch” for weak people, or something that is obsolete given our advanced understanding of neuroscience. Some Christians view psychology as unnecessary – all we need to know about human minds is found in the Bible. And some Christians who are also psychologists compartmentalize their work and their faith. Yet, as with other areas of science, there is no need for conflict or separation. There are many areas of compatibility and much can be gained from responsible dialogue and mutual respect.

The study of psychology, although not always labelled as such, is ancient. Much wisdom about human behaviour and motivations is found in the proverbs and prophetic writings. Jesus’ admonition to love and forgive others is seldom disputed. Theological masters, like Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin, wrote about the nature of the soul and mind, and spiritual direction has long been practised in the church. It is only in the past century that psychology has developed as a science. There are two primary areas: experimental psychology, which can be viewed like other sciences in terms of describing God’s creation (and therefore little disputed, although the interpretation of the data is often disputed), and clinical or counseling psychology, which is the source of much potential conflict with Christianity, and the focus of this discussion.

The Church has sometimes either denied the findings of clinical psychological science or uncritically appropriated its beliefs. However, the past few decades have seen much helpful discussion on responsible integration of Christian theology and psychology. Both psychology and theology have an underlying metaphysic (what we are) and ethic (how we should be), and recognize that these are complex. Both seek to understand and help improve the myriad mental and emotional problems which people experience, and thus have similar aims. Integration is a difficult task, partly because there are multiple variations and interpretations within both disciplines. I suggest an approach which considers similarities between theology and psychology within the biblical drama of creation, fall and redemption.

Both psychologists and Christian theologians affirm the intrinsic value and worth of human beings (theologians believe this is because we are created in the image of God and loved by him). Both recognize that humans are innately spiritual, and more than a random collection of neurons. People are also innately relational: psychologists use the therapeutic relationship itself as a means of healing, and Christians emphasize the importance of community, especially the church. Humans are rational beings, and psychology and theology draw on this capacity for reason. People are also innately moral, with an understanding of right and wrong. Finally, theology teaches that humans have free will, and psychologists know that the ability to choose is essential to any counseling process.

However, both psychologists and Christian theologians recognize that something is very wrong with humanity, evidenced in destructive behaviours as well as tormented mental lives. There is a profound alienation from self and other. Christians would include alienation from God, and would label this as sin, whereas psychologists would label it most often as illness. They would agree that the essence of the problem is relational; wounding occurs in relationship and causes guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, disordered perceptions, and poor self-esteem, for example. Problems occur as a consequence of living in a disrupted and disordered world (due to sin according to theology; due to neurochemical disease, poor parenting, or societal trauma according to psychology).

Both psychologists and Christian theologians attempt to help people by addressing and healing what is wrong. They recognize there is good in the world – “common grace” in theological terms. They stress the importance of loving relationships (Christianity stresses loving God first) both in the process and the content of psychotherapy. Both affirm the virtues of honesty, humility, respect, self-control, patience, courage, commitment, forgiveness, mercy and compassion. The so-called Golden rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) is used by both Christian and secular counselors. Alcoholics Anonymous is an excellent example of similarities between psychology and theology: they suggest belief in a power greater than themselves, encourage taking a moral inventory, admitting wrongs and making amends. Psychology and theology also have similar goals and processes. They aim to bring the unconscious into conscious awareness, or the darkness into the light; they work towards healing and wholeness, reorientation and reconciliation; they consider therapeutic/spiritual growth as a journey.

My focus on broad similarities does not mean I am unaware of differences between psychology and theology. However, I believe these disciplines can learn from each other. Christians are right to be concerned that perhaps the therapist has replaced the confessional priest, and that group therapy has replaced Christian community. Theologians can appropriate psychological research regarding human behaviour and psychotherapeutic techniques. Psychologists can mine theology with respect to human spirituality and the relationship between body, mind, and soul. I respect both disciplines and encourage each to think broadly and carefully consider the many potential areas of dialogue.


Janet Warren is VP of the CSCA. She will be teaching a summer course on the integration of theology and psychology at McMaster Divinity College:

Also see the September 2013 issue of PSCF for helpful articles on psychology and Christianity. That special issue was triggered by this essay posted on our website.