Last week, I began a series on Phil Hefner’s interesting but demanding book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, Religion. In the introductory post , I discussed the aim and scope of the book: who we are as humans and what we’re here for. I also mentioned that while a theologian by training, Hefner is also well versed in various scientific fields and holds a deep respect for science and most important to this book, its methods.
In Part 1, The Theoretical Perspective (Ch. 1-2), Hefner outlines the grand vision of the book. First, he discusses the “contemporary” (quotes because the book was written in 1993, but it is still quite relevant) problem that science presents to the question of what it means to be human and the answer presented by prominent secular humanists/atheists. The answer is that science tells us that life is meaningless and purposeless and that the only “special” role given to humans is one that we ourselves create. Lest one think that he is setting up a straw man for theological demolition (or that he thinks this is the only alternative), Hefner is sympathetic with them from a scientific perspective, and believes that saying humans are special because of God’s revelation (i.e. God said so) is not good enough. He clearly prefers experience to revelation and this will likely turn off many.
Hefner seeks to form theories from what we can observe in nature (after all, all of what we can see and interpret is natural to Hefner) and then test them for “fruitfulness” based upon experience (this language he credits to Imre Lakatos, or better yet, Nancey Murphy’s interpretation of Lakatos). One can see early on that Hefner is a theologian that is heavily committed to using the methodological naturalism that works so well in the scientific realm. Yet, there are instances throughout where he admits, not begrudgingly, that this particular form of inquiry will come to roadblocks and we will need to acknowledge and struggle forward to the best of our abilities. Nevertheless, he remains fully endeared to this method of positing theory, testing by experience, and revising as necessary. As a scientist and now self-defined evolutionist, I must say that this commitment may be even to extreme for me I matters theological, but I’ll hold off on this judgement until I finish the book.
All that being said, what is his grand theory for who we are as humans and what we’re here for? From Hefner himself, the “core” of his theory:
“Human beings are God’s created co-creators whose purpose is to be the agency, acting in freedom, to birth the future that is most wholesome form the nature that has birthed us – the nature that is not only our own genetic heritage, but also the entire human community and the evolutionary and ecological reality in which and to which we belong. Exercising this agency is said to be God’s will for humans.”
Now that’s a mouthful! But it’s a potentially very good mouthful. As Chapter 2 draws to a close, Hefner spends a good amount of words on why he specifically chose the words “created co-creators” which I really appreciated. He then outlines 3 “basic elements” that elaborate upon the structure of the above quoted “core” and then 9 “auxiliary hypotheses”. Hefner notes that while the “core” in itself is theological, the auxiliary hypotheses are instead “scientific” in that they are subject to argument and discussion from experience and do not rely upon this or that particular revelation. The remainder of the book, then, will be focused on the testing and discussion of the auxiliary hypotheses that together form the basic elements of the core.
It should be pointed out here that Hefner is not setting up a geometric proof or airtight logical argument within this book. His stated goal was to formulate a theory and a framework that could then be “experimented upon” by others to see whether the theory is fruitful or not. I’m looking forward to hearing his reasoning for this particular framework, while remaining both excited yet skeptical of his methods. Phil… you’ve got my attention!
Part 2: Nature coming later this week…