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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

What is 'Nature' Today in Science and Theology?


On October 22nd, the Boisi Center hosted a panel discussion entitled, “What Is ‘Nature’ Today in Science and Theology?” Panelists included chair of Boston College’s biology department, Welkin Johnson; the director of the Boisi Center, Mark Massa, S.J.; professor at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, Julie Hanlon Rubio; and professor of bioethics and moral theology at Boston College, Andrea Vicini, S.J. The chair of Boston College’s theology department, Richard Gaillardetz, moderated.

Gaillardetz opened the conversation by presenting several understandings of ‘nature’ and ‘the natural’ as conceived in the spheres of discourse today. He then asked each panelist to present how these concepts are used in their respective disciplines.

Julie Hanlon Rubio, speaking from the field of Christian ethics, emphasized the significance of natural law in determin- ing how we should formulate moral norms. She suggested that the development of norms is complicated by humanity’s inherent fallibility and the church’s own incorrect conceptions of morality historically. She also emphasized that humanity’s creation in the image of God implies a universal dignity that must be recognized more consistently.

Welkin Johnson spoke from a scientific perspective, explaining that science does not use the terms “nature” or “natural” to distinguish human life. He also emphasized that “nature,” in science, precisely defines the limitations of the field—science does not address anything outside the bounds of nature.

Andrea Vicini, S.J., speaking as a theological ethicist who focuses on bioethics and a trained medical doctor and pediatrician, discussed the importance of interaction between disciplines when making efforts to understand nature. He described theology and science as different “lenses” through which one observes human nature’s complexity. Vicini defined “naturalistic essentialism” as the error of thinking you can know all about human nature by looking through one lens, which misses the complexity of the human experience.

Finally, Mark Massa S.J. defined nature as a conceptual construct—the best human attempt to define what constitutes the rationality of the world. But just as institutions and beliefs have evolved, he argued, so has human nature and it is important to allow for this development instead of resisting or rejecting it.

Gaillardetz then asked panelists to address the problems that emerge when there are disputed appeals to nature.

Rubio invoked the recent document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, released in June, entitled “Male and Female, He Created Them,” and emphasized that many who are critical of gender fluidity fear that such fluidity will extend to other realms which they regard as fundamental to Christianity—a slippery slope argument. Rubio suggested that engaging gender theory in Christian theology will require us to explain why this area can be considered fluid and if or how such fluidity applies to those other categories.

Johnson outlined the long history of human attempts to scientifically define what it means to be human. Viewing these attempts as problematic, he argued there are many cases in which humans did not reflect the theory’s definition, for example, instances when no one exists that resembles what the mean or average might render as the “norm,” yet applications of the normativity sparked controversy. He considers this problematic particularly in conceptions of evolution.

Vicini’s response addressed four large concepts central to an understanding of human nature: diversity, variation, healing and medicalization of human nature, and culture and colonization of human nature. He suggested that diversity and variation should be embraced, not feared, and that we should be wary of extreme efforts to make normative certain elements of human nature or medicalize it to the point that we lose the import of natural aspects of human life, such as death. Reflecting on human nature, he noted, must entail reflecting on the diversity of cultures that form us.

Massa criticized this summer’s Vatican document through appeals to the problematic concept of “human realism.” Human realism asserts that we can come up with principles and ideas about human nature by observing the real world “out there.” Massa argued that the problem with such an assertion is that it calls for an understanding of human nature as set and objective. Instead, Massa proposed that essential to human nature is its fluidity and evolution. It should not be considered apart from us, but internal to us, and changing as we do.

An interesting Q&A followed, during which a number of interesting questions raised concerns ranging from, among other things, the way human nature should be discussed in educational institutions, particularly with regard to childhood development and transgenderism, to the psychological relevance of biological conceptions of nature, as well as how biological or scientific concepts of nature could inform Christian moral thought.