How should humans understand their relation to nature?  Are we or are we not a part of that nature?  How should our understanding of this relationship influence our behavior in the world?  How does God relate to the world?  What does God intend the relationship to be between humans and the rest of nature?

These are the questions that begin Ch. 4 of the book we have been discussing: Phil Hefner’s The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, Religion.  In my last two posts, I outlined the theory that Hefner posits to answer these questions, and began to unpack this theory (Part 1) using the auxilliary hypotheses he provides for experimentation, verification, and discussion.

In the most recent post, we looked at how humans are embedded within and inseparable from nature (Part 2). We are a part of its history, have arisen from natural evolutionary processes, and possess the same structures and mechanisms that other natural creatures do. We are thoroughly natural. I shared some of my concerns with this of this, but acknowledged that judgment should be reserved until we proceed further into the book.

So let’s proceed.

In today’s post, we will continue with Part 2 (Nature) and look at Chapters 4 and 5 of the book. As a reminder, in this part we are specifically examining Hefner’s examination of the “four auxiliary hypotheses that focus on the determinative impact of nature for our attempts to understand who and what we are as humans,” which can be found here.

In Ch. 4, Hefner discusses the metaphors that have been constructed for the relationship between humans and nature. From a scientific perspective, there are two primary metaphors: those of genetic kinship and ecological interrelatedness. In the genetic kinship metaphor, we are other creatures’ brethren. In the great cosmological story, we are yet another actor and we are constructed in the same way as our fellow actors. Our blueprints (our DNA), our habitats, our spirit, is one with our fellow creatures. In the ecological interrelatedness model, we live in community with other creatures within an ecosystem, each with a role and a need to respect the other.

Both of these models place humans deeply embedded within nature. This contrasts greatly with that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which we are seen as stewards that should do good unto nature, even if we’re not sure what that means. In this model, we are above or at least alongside nature, but not within it. Hefner mentions briefly that other ancient spiritual traditions may cohere better with the scientific metaphors, but that they themselves are flawed as well. I would have loved it if Hefner had flushed this out more, but one can only write so much in one book. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued. Anyone got a good reference for me?

Whatever your model, Hefner says that secular reason and religious traditions tell us that our fit with nature is lacking severely. Some go so far as to say that we are alienated from the rest of nature and that this constitutes sin. It would appear that Hefner falls into this camp. I don’t agree as I think sin is an ultimately theological concept and either explains our relationship with God or is useless as a term. I suppose one could say our treatment of nature is sinful because it disobeys God, but we are not sinning against nature by mistreating it. Don’t get me wrong, we do not treat nature as we should, but this behavior is not sin.

That being said, our relationship with nature does seem off-kilter. And, as Hefner says, not only that but we don’t feel as though nature is our true home. We are here and thoroughly natural and yet we dream of a different home. We see nature as beauty and study it to comprehend its complexity, yet separate ourselves from it. How do we change that? Can we? And if we do so, will this help to bridge science and religion? That’s got to be where Hefner is headed.

In Ch. 5, Hefner introduces God to the equation and starts with a brief historical look at the views of nature, God, and how we’ve gotten to where we are now: that science dominates all views of nature and has made speaking of God and nature together seemingly irrelevant for many. Hefner links views of nature to views of God because, in his words, “I can hardly overemphasize how significant our views of nature are for the possibilities of talking about God.”

Alright, you’re bringing God into a discussion for the first time. You’re speaking to naturalists and you’re sympathetic to their cause. But you’re a Christian. Where do you begin without being discredited immediately? Hefner chooses Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and he’s not the first to do so. Within this sermon, Hefner finds three significant themes that relate to our experience of the the world (and thus, nature). They are: 1) the personal quality of the experience of the world; 2) coherence as a characteristic of that experience; 3) the belief that persons count for something and what they do with their lives counts.

But why even talk about God? Is there even a need for that hypothesis? For those that are religious, the answer is “of course”! But for those that are not, there is severe disagreement. In their minds, everything can be explained by science, so there is not need to invoke a God. That’s not true now and seems like a highly optimistic view for the future, even for someone like me who is a self-proclaimed scientific apologist.

Hefner says that his reason for believing “God-talk” (his words) is worthwhile is because it is engrained within us (it is a part of our lives that for many if removed would be utterly crippling), there is still belief in God in the current age of science, and God-talk is rooted in experience of the world. He’s NOT saying this means it is true, but that it must be acknowledged. And tested. And that’s what he is doing in this book.

Alright, that’s where we’ll wrap it up for this post. There is so much in this book that it is difficult to summarize briefly, and I feel that I am doing a disservice by leaving portions out. But that’s a requirement when blogging, I suppose.

I’ll leave you with two questions to ponder… 1) How would you describe the relationship between humans and nature? Do you like the genetic kinship or ecological interrelatedness models? Or do you prefer the religious metaphors? Why? 2) Someone tells you there is no reason to invoke God in a discussion of human nature, purpose, and meaning in the context of nature. How do you respond? If you’re an atheist and agree with the previous statement, why do you? And what you say in return that bring God into the discussion?