From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Episcopalians: Colorado conference explores 'What Makes Us Human?'
Sat, 24 May 2003 11:30:08 -0400
May 23, 2003
Episcopalians: Colorado conference explores 'What Makes Us
by Deborah McCanne
(ENS) Scientists, philosophers, and theologians challenged
assumptions and explored possibilities together at What Makes Us
Human? Engaging Faith and Science, a conference jointly
sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and the
University of Colorado, held May 15-16, 2003. The conference
featured as keynote speakers the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne and
Dr. Norman Pace, who stimulated a wide-ranging conversation with
panelists and participants.
Polkinghorne, a noted British physicist and theologian,
described the soul in scientific language. After the fourteenth
day of human embryonic development, the undifferentiated cells
of the embryo begin to assume a specific pattern established by
the divine creator for eternity, he explained, and this
definition of "soul" opens the door for the use of embryos of
less then 14 days in stem cell research.
Polkinghorne spoke on Thursday evening about the place of humans
in evolution as a "stunningly novel" development. He delineated
several attributes which make humans uniquely different from any
other species: a sense of the future, moral beings, language,
exploration of mathematical truths, creativity, culture, god
consciousness, distortion of perception, and altruism.
On Friday, Pace spoke from the scientific perspective stressing
the dangers of human overpopulation of the earth and arguing
that humans had a responsibility to solve the problems of
ecology and overpopulation. He put humans in their place in the
process of evolution--not a ladder, but a great spreading tree
overwhelmingly composed of microbial life. Humans are on a
"twig" at the end of the one branch containing all of animal
life, Pace said. He argued that humans are "nothing special" and
that all organisms are unique.
A panel of theologians and philosophers then explored the
question of what is unique about human beings, what it means to
be "created in the image of God," and whether morality is
universal or cultural.
More than biology
Lively discussion ranged from the esoteric (the nature of a
soul) to the practical (genetic testing), and from scientific
possibility (such as cloning) to compassion (care at the end of
life). Most of the discussion centered around how to make
ethical and moral decisions about the uses of scientific
advances, and whether scientific discoveries are changing how we
think about God and the place of humanity in the universe.
The scientists and the theologians clearly came from different
perspectives. While the concept that a human is "more than
biology" recurred in both the scientific and theological
presentations, the scientists tended to talk about the effect
environment and experiences have on people, while the
theologians tended to think in terms of the eternal pattern of
unique individuality and the mystery of the soul.
However, as Dr. Cynthia Cohen observed during the response to
Polkinghorne, the "benighted myth" of conflict did not appear.
Theology asks, "Why?" or "What does it mean?" Science asks,
"How?" and "What?"
Halfway through the second day of the conference, Pace presented
a model where science and religion both overlapped a circle
labeled spirituality. Physician David Manchester commented that
in clinical practice, he had noticed that the more patients
understood the possibilities and limits of science and the moral
choices they faced, the more they moved to a middle ground of
thoughtful decision making rather than an automatic adoption of
a preconceived view.
Beginning a dialogue
In convening the groundbreaking conference to explore
relationships between religion and science, Colorado bishop
William J. "Jerry" Winterrowd said he hoped to raise fundamental
questions and begin a dialogue.
Winterrowd said that society must avoid either the automatic
rejection of new scientific thought based on an outdated
religious perspective and morality or the thoughtless acceptance
of the possibilities of science regardless of the consequences.
At the end of the day, the panelists called for more
opportunities for open discussions with the goal of encouraging
questions and thoughtful response, not implementing an immediate
Pace, professor of molecular, cellular and developments biology
at the University of Colorado-Boulder, is a 2001 MacArthur
Fellow. His research continues to identify biochemical and
genetic threads that link all organisms. A graduate of Indiana
University, he received his doctorate from the University of
The panel of theologians responding to Pace's presentation on
Friday morning was moderated by the Rev. William Pounds, adjunct
professor at Denver's Iliff School of Theology. The panelists
were Dr. Ira Churnus, professor of religious studies at the
University of Colorado-Boulder; Dr. Robert Pasnau, professor of
philosophy, University of Colorado-Boulder; and the Rev. Julie
Swaney, chaplain at University Hospital in Denver.
Polkinghorne, who is canon theologian at Liverpool Cathedral in
England, is the recipient of the 2002 Templeton Prize for
Religion and Science, a Knight of the British Empire and Fellow
of the Royal Society. He earned his doctorate in quantum field
theory at Cambridge. He is the author of several books including
The God of Hope and the End of the World and Quantum Theory: A
Very Short Introduction.
The panel of scientists responding to Polkinghorne's
presentation on Friday afternoon was moderated by Dr. Cynthia B.
Cohen of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University.
The panelists were Dr. Gregory Carey, professor of psychology,
University of Colorado-Boulder; Dr. Leslie Leinward, department
chair and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental
biology, University of Colorado-Boulder; and Dr. David
Manchester, pediatrician and geneticist at Children's Hospital,
--Deborah McCanne is editor of the Colorado Episcopalian.
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