After posting briefly about how I was enjoying Phil Hefner’s The Human Factor, I decided the book was well worthy of a handful of posts. This book, fully titled The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, Religion, was published in 1993 and is widely considered to he Hefner’s best work, receiving the Templeton Foundation’s Best Books in Religion and Science Award. Hefner is a leading figure in the field of science and religion with many contributions highlighted by his co-creation and leadership of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science (formerly Chicago Center for Religion and Science), his service as editor of the Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, not to mention his own scholarship, research, and teaching at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

He’s also an engaging, warm, and thoughtful speaker, whom I had the pleasure of hosting for a lecture and dinner this past fall, and someone I consider as a friend.

The Human Factor is a grand book that aims to grapple with the issue of who we are as human beings and what we’re here for. Hefner takes the claims of science very seriously, to an extent that even the strictest scientific materialist should appreciate. However, he believes that ultimate meaning, which we all search for, must involve dialogue with religion (for him, the “Hebrew-Jewish-Christian stream”) In Hefner’s words:

    “This book rests on the conviction that large frameworks of meaning, like those proposed by religion and metaphysics, are unavoidable and required if the human quest for meaning is to be fulfilled. At the same time, those frameworks are useless and empty if they are not brought into conjunction in a credible manner with the concrete data of our scientific and social experience.”

This book, to be blunt, is a difficult read. This is likely due to a combination of two factors: first… the breadth and depth of the treatment he is giving the subject matter; second… well, I’ll let him explain in his usual humble, but full manner:

    “My writing habits may have their roots in the work of Lydia Martha Hof Mittelstadt, my maternal grandmother… A few years ago, I ran across several of her personal recipes, written in her own hand for relatives and friends. I find her style of cooking to be similar to my style of writing, particularly at the level of methodology. Her cherry soup recipe, for example, advises, “Add quite a bit more water than you would for sauce. Thicken if desired. We had some yesterday with bing cherries, only kind we see. Added lemon juice as they are rather flat without cherries’ juice.” The recipe closes with the words, “My recipe is a joke. Realize that.” Perhaps the recipe is a joke, but the soup is a rare treat for anyone.

    For borscht, she suggested, “Lima beans are nice, and if you have stock, a few string beans, tomato juice. Beets either cooked or pickled can be diced and used instead of fresh and and a little of juice. You may not have whey, so a little cream may do. You can have only beets and tomato juice, but then the two beans make it better.” She closed with, “This may work out.” Her borscht always worked out.

    In the jargon of the philosophy of science, we would say that Lydia Mittelstadt wrote her recipes out of the context of discovery rather than from the context of justification. It takes considerable ego strength to present one’s work to the public in that form. Perhaps she wrote that way because her experience demanded it, and she did not have the time or inclination to recast her work in a Joy of Cooking format. At many times in the preparation of is book, I have followed the method of “You may not have whey, so a little cream may do,” and I have vacillated between the two conclusions: “This is a joke, realize that” and “This may work out.” I have read and thought and written a great detail about how one should proceed in doing theology and in relating it to the sciences, but as I worked through the present manuscript, often it seemed to me that too much methodological reflection would either inhibit me from saying what I wanted to say or else simply be an effort to justify what I wanted to anyway.”

Furthermore, the book was not written in a linear fashion and Hefner’s recommendation is to not necessarily read the book in order! All of this being said, it seems to me that he is on to something, something quite grand, and I am plowing through to see if I like the cherry soup.

The Human Factor is broken into five sections, with each getting a future blog post. Section 1 coming on Monday…

1) The theoretical perspective (Ch. 1-2)
2) Nature (Ch. 3-5)
3) Freedom (Ch. 6-8)
4) Culture (Ch. 9-12)
5) Theological connections (Ch. 13-15)

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