Emory Report
October 17, 2005
Volume 58, Number 7


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October 17 , 2005
Natual selection

by eric rangus

Before joining the Candler School of Theology faculty this fall, Associate Professor Ian McFarland spent the last seven years teaching at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. With a surname like “McFarland,” that is perhaps not a surprise.

What is surprising is the brogue in McFarland’s voice. There isn’t one. He hails from Connecticut, earned his four degrees at a quartet of institutions in this country and, while he enjoyed his time in the United Kingdom, looked forward to returning home for a domestic faculty position.

“My aggressively Scottish name was a source of much amusement to my Scottish students,” said McFarland of his first faculty position. “They were expecting an accent, which didn’t materialize the first day of class.
Teaching in Aberdeen, though, was a nice way to start my career and experiment in a different setting.”

Though he has been at Emory for just a few months, McFarland has wasted little time adapting to his new academic home. He will lead the chapel service that begins Candler’s 18th annual Reformation Day celebration on Oct. 19.

And McFarland currently teaches two courses. One is an introductory class on systematic theology. The other is based in part on material he team-taught for a class in Aberdeen called “Science and Religion.” At Candler, the course has been rechristened with the provocative title, “Natural Science and the Doctrine of Creation.”

The debate between supporters of the theory of evolution (who include the vast majority of scientists and educators) and its creationist critics (primarily, though not exclusively, fundamentalist Christians) is one of this country’s most divisive. McFarland said that tension does not play a significant role in class because Candler has few fundamentalist Christians. However, theology students will have to address the debate in their parishes, and exploring methods of how to do that is one of the prime focuses of the course.

“I spend the first third of the course asking students to explore exactly how they think their theological language ties in with everyday language,” McFarland said. “One of the reasons you get this kind of conflict is an assumption that religious language functions in exactly the same way as natural scientific language. But this notion has been contested in the history of the church. For example, Thomas Aquinas didn’t think so.

“Contemporary fundamentalists would say the two have exactly the same logical force and, therefore, if there is any divergence, one of them is wrong,” he continued. “On the other end, some say the two function on completely different logical planes and divergence in their formulations has no real significance. Then there are people in between who have various mediating positions.”

The language discussion is a major one, but the course addresses other often-controversial aspects of the science and religion debate. They include a review of Christian doctrine about origins, a look at the Big Bang Theory and various Christian responses to it, the doctrine of divine providence (the belief that God directs history to a predetermined end), and the diversity of life. It is during discussions of this last topic when Darwinian theory is most seriously studied.

“Beyond general notions of how theological language relates to scientific language, we look at specific issues in science and religion to see the theological options people have presented as means for accounting how Christians can most responsibly talk about science,” he said.

McFarland readily admits he is not an expert in the hard sciences. His primary research interest is theological anthropology, meaning that his work is related to how Christians talk about what it means to be human. He is interested in the differences in how social scientists and theologians appropriate anthropological data.

Unlike their social scientist cousins, theologians, McFarland said, are interested in making normative judgments. (“Something Christians should or shouldn’t say,” McFarland noted.) Anthropologists who study religion abstain from such determinations.

McFarland did not begin studying theology until he finished his undergraduate studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He has been interested in Darwinian theory longer than the study of Christianity, which helps explain his leanings toward that area. A classics major as an undergraduate, McFarland was reading a lot of philosophy (much of it related to civil disobedience), including writers such as Gandhi, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King Jr., when he discovered the writings of 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoffer, who was a major opponent of Nazism in the 1930s (and a victim of Adolf Hitler’s regime, which executed him in 1945).

McFarland’s reading exposed him to new visions of theology that did not match his past church experiences. He sought to explore those visions more, and he eventually earned a master’s of divinity degree at the Union Theological Seminary (N.Y.), a master’s of theology degree at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and a doctorate at Yale.

McFarland’s Yale dissertation became his first book, and he is now ready to release his third, Divine Image: Envisioning the Invisible God (Fortress, 2005), which explores how Christians’ visions of themselves affect the way they conceive of God and their fellow human beings.

“Often what happens is that whoever is writing about theology takes images characteristic
of himself and equates that with the image of God,” he said. “The writer therefore becomes archetypically human, and people who don’t exhibit his or her characteristics tend to be graded as less human.”

This rather limiting view of humanity is something McFarland finds troubling. Rather than theology serving as a means to expand one’s view of the human, it restricts it. Ending that restriction is McFarland’s goal.

“I suggest in the book that the image of God is not internal to us,” he said. “Rather the image of God is something God reveals to us over time. We shouldn’t be secure in knowing what it means to be human, and I argue that a proper understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image causes us to ask questions and expand our understanding.

“Humanity is not some essence that can be defined and used as a means of creating hierarchies of people who are more—or less—‘human,’” McFarland continued. “Humanity, or personhood, is a gift that comes to us with content that is open ended.”