Podcast S1E7 - Bethany Sollereder

The latest episode of “Language of God” is available here (or through your favorite podcast provider). On this one I have a conversation with theologian Bethany Sollereder primarily about her new book, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering. Conceding the fact that none of our attempts to explain the evil we find in the world will ultimately be completely satisfying, do you think her views have merit?

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I really enjoyed this discussion with Dr. Sollereder.

This (among other things) caught my attention. Dr. Sollereder mentions that in the 1800s, Christianity was in danger of becoming much more deistic in its general outlooks. I.e. In the increasingly mechanized understandings of creation, God’s activity was seen more and more as limited only to sporadic miraculous incidents. In that context, Bethany gives us this: “Darwinism came in the guise of a foe, but did the work of a friend.” She goes on to explain that this opening up of our view of how God acts in His good world has been a good counter-measure against the deistic tendencies that were becoming so prevalent. At least that’s my take-away from what she said.

Also, she put me on to the ant-attacking cordyceps viral fungus that I had never heard of before. If you want your conception of some pristine suffering-free world challenged (along the lines of the wasp parasites that eat the wasp from within), then this would interest you too. Except that this goes on to make the more nuanced connection between horrific phenomena and an ultimate good of balance. Stuff to think about anyway.

Great podcast. Thanks, Jim!

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Of all the podcasts so far this is my favorite, for here is a speaker after my own heart. THIS is why I came to Biologos!!! Tired of the inane debates over creationism versus evolution, I wanted to see us moving on to the next step where we accept evolution and start exploring and understanding the theological implications of it.

Dr. Sollereder is a theologian largely motivated by her love for animals. At first she was wary of taking any look at science and then she found much to her surprise that the science/evolution could bring the Bible alive in understanding many details that have been overlooked.

Her book, “God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering: Theodicy without a fall,” examines the question of “natural evil,” i.e suffering and death which science makes quite clear is a reality long before the fall of man. From the first chapter, “Leaving the courtroom,” she dispenses with the debate over how the goodness of God can be justified in the face of all this suffering and death, to make the goodness of God our basic assumption and instead focus on how we can how a good God create a world with all this suffering in it. She also dispenses with the questions of human evil and human responsibility for suffering in nature. Then she considers the suggestion made for Satanic influences in nature and finds two problems with that: 1) it gives Satan too much credit, for competition and even violence is too much a part of the beauty in nature, and 2) scripture seems to praise and God boasts of beauty of his predatory creatures. So again the focus is upon understanding how could God do things this way?

Then Bethany says something that really intrigued me and got me thinking: science and theology are how we interpret God’s two books/revelations in nature and scripture. Both are dynamic and neither can be described as simply the “plain truth” of how things are, but rather how we understand them. She says she has tried to listen to science, culture, and scripture in the effort to learn better. The mention of culture surprised me at first but the more I thought about this the more it made sense that not only is this a valid source for apprehending the truth but that this is something I have always been doing whether I have fully acknowledged it or not. This goes hand and hand with my belief/claim that the inspiration of God rains down upon us in a torrent in the majority of books, films and other things which inform out perception of everything.

Bethany argues that the Bible doesn’t claim the human fall is responsible for death and natural disaster in the world, pointing as I often do to the promise of God at the end of Genesis chapter 8. Then going to the NT, she points to the fact that Paul talks about death in many ways so that the claim in 1 Cor 15:21 and Romans 5:12 that death came through one man could easily be talking about a spiritual death. Then in dealing with Romans 8:19-24 she points out that the reference to birth pains suggest that rather than suffering being something unnatural as a result of human evil, that like birth this is part of how love creates something new and wonderful and thus all creation participates in the work of God to complete our being conformed to the image of God and Christ. There is a small discussion of the pain in childbirth from the “curse” in Genesis 3, where she tries to explain this away, but I would simply point out that it does not say the pain in childbirth is entirely a result of the fall but only that it is increased because of it.

Again Bethany had me cheering with her comment about how love cannot coerce, which echoes my repeated refrain that the “power of love” is a contradiction in terms. And she likewise echoes my repeated explanations that the metaphors in the Bible for creation are the organic ones from the examples of farmer, shepherd, and parents in which creation is not about design and control but about participation and sharing in the lives of living things. And this is of course her answer to the charge of Deism, that this is nothing like the scientist and engineer sitting back and simply watching a machine or experiment run its course. This is a God who employs His power not for control but for empowerment in an intimate relationship which shares in the suffering of His creatures.

I am going to stop there because I don’t want to make this too much of a spoiler. But I will say that there were other intriguing topics such as the challenges we are confronted by in the behavior of pelicans, lions, and mountain sheep, exploring not only what they tell us about God but in deciding whether to intervene which interestingly enough seems to put us in the position of God in understanding how suffering may be a necessity.

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A post was split to a new topic: What Easter is about

@mitchellmckain, I have been looking forward to your astute analysis, and this does not disappoint. I agree that this is a great example of trying to apply science and theology, similar to @DOL–thank you to both you and @Bethany.Sollereder.

Great discussion. Interesting how she integrated the concerns with genetic editing of mosquitoes to control malaria into the conversation, something that has been discussed here on the forum.

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**Let us accept evolution and try to fit it with theology""strong text

I do not get it. Either we accept evolution or the Bible because there is serious contradiction. Evolution is a theory developed to explain the origins and the continuation of the development of various species withut any supernatural involvement.

This is in direct conflict with Genesis where all species came into existence all at one. this is also logical.

well … it’s in direct conflict with your way of understanding Genesis, rather.

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The non-aggression pacts between opposite extremes is an interesting phenomenon. It goes to show that they really have more in common that they would like people to think.

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Mr M. S., thanks for your note. I feel your struggle. I still do struggle over it.

I am taking refuge in the fact that there is no orthodoxy like the truth–if our understanding isn’t right, then we have to be open to adjusting it. I do not think that Genesis precludes an old earth because it wasn’t intended to say that, any more than I mean to tell my 5 year old daughter that God is the source of the sun rising, when the sun doesn’t actually rise. I’m using her paradigm to explain an eternal truth. Genesis is man’s experience of God through the lenses of the science of the day. God doesn’t care if we get the science right. He cares that we care about Him, and that we know He cares about us. Does that make sense? Thanks

Even if we are wrong, God knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. He is the one who made us and doesn’t expect us to believe against our senses; he is the source of all truth and light. If we don’t know the answer, he would not blame us, any more than an earthly father would. If Jesus was loving and called the little children to Him, could God be any worse? Jesus said He was the image of the Father, and a better revelation than all we had understood till then.

That is wonderful to think!

Randy

Thank you for the post. I listened to this podcast twice before writing anything to make sure I did not miss anything because my daughter’s story is much like Job’s and I am always interested to see how theologians explain why a good person should suffer. Unfortunately is was disappointed.

I liked the imagery that Nature is one witness to God and the Bible a second, and for me, the two should not contradict each other. During the discussion, there are two concepts that were confused though and these are sin and death. Both of these words have materialistic meanings, but also multiple spiritual meanings, and they are often confused in theology.

When Jesus says: Let the dead bury the dead, he is pointing these multiple meanings. The concept that Sin is responsible for the suffering in the world is well accepted, but Jim refers to “human sin” that cannot explain the suffering in the world before the dawn of humans. So, for me, the Sin responsible for suffer is the Sin that created Death the one Sin of Lucifer that caused spiritual Death, and the fall of Heaven. For me, this is explains Romans 8 and “all of creation groaning to be redeemed.”

It closes the loop for me with my daughter and allows me to walk beside her in her suffering. To support her as she carries her cross and not to try to carry it for her.

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Your care for your daughter is inspiring and a good example.

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I loved the format of this episode. It was my favorite up to this point from that perspective, but I can’t quite agree with everything from the podcast.

I do agree with her assertion that the “natural” world is not completely corrupt- I don’t think scripture ever makes that strong of an assertion. In fact, I think the book used to claim complete corruption of the natural world, Romans, says the opposite in chapter 1. If Paul says that no one is without excuse because creation itself reveals God, then it would be completely contradictory to say that creation is both completely corrupt and also evidence of the Creator, in Whom corruption and evil will never be found.

What I have trouble reconciling, however, is the idea of God having such strong compassion toward animals. I personally believe that idea elevates them to a degree that is theologically inconsistent with Scripture. I have nothing to support (nor will I ever try to support) the idea that God is ambivalent toward nature and animals, but I think that it is dangerous to give such weight to animals because it devalues the importance of being human. Psalm 8 says that God has made humankind a little lower than the angels. And wow, that is an amazing statement. That is something to not be taken lightly. Additionally, God deemed us so important that he sent his Son, in Whom His own fullness dwelt, to die for us that we may have life with Him. And to assign that level of divine compassion (or any level comparable) to animals seems extreme. Additionally, if God held such compassion for these beings, then why would he call for animal sacrifices? Wouldn’t vegetation, like was offered by Abel, be preferable so that the life of an innocent would be spared?

I will also admit my bias- as someone in the medical field, I deem the sanctity and preservation of a human life as drastically more important than the life of any other animal.

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Welcome to the forum! Thanks for chiming in here. :slight_smile:

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Hi Belli3, thanks for your thoughts. I’m curious if you accept common ancestry of humans and animals? The uniqueness of humans is often a stumbling block for people in that regard too. But I don’t think it is inconsistent to have a strong commitment to human uniqueness while at the same time accepting that we share common ancestry with other life forms, nor with God caring about those other life forms. We are very different kinds of creatures (none of them, for example, seem to care very much about whether they are different!). Also, God said his creation was “good” – not “very good” like humans, but still good.

We might wonder about the sacrifice of God’s own son in this regard…

Hi @jstump,
Thanks for the response. I do accept the probable common ancestry of humans and animals. There is too much genetic similarity and too much evidence to really dispute that topic, in my opinion.
Perhaps it also useful to say that I shape my theology and worldview by the following order: Scripture, science, and philosophy/rational thought. I believe that the Holy Bible is inspired by God but written by people from a particular culture. I do not think the Bible is meant to be a science book, and therefore do not give much weight to scientific discrepancies of Genesis and human anatomy (i.e. referring to the human kidney as the center of emotion) throughout the Bible. I think we start to get in dangerous territory, however, when we begin to let what seems right dictate our theology rather than letting Scripture challenge what seems right to us. After all, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly corrupt” (Jer. 17:9). This is a bit of a side track, but I think that the problem of evil is pretty applicable to this as well. People ask how the world can have so much suffering if God is good, omnipotent, and omnipresent. The problem with that argument is that we subject God’s goodness to our interpretation of good- namely, the alleviation of suffering. But as can be seen throughout Scripture and in everyday life, oftentimes suffering is what brings us into a deeper awareness of and dependence on God. In those cases, what seems wrong to us is actually good. A fatal diagnosis is objectively a terrible thing, but if that diagnosis leads to salvation, it is the best thing to happen in that individual’s life.

I suppose I am wary of assigning attributes to God that are not already self-evident in Scripture. That is my main problem with this talk. As my earlier comment stated, I am not saying that God does not care at all for nature or animals, but I think focusing on this unsupported attribute of God has two negative effects on theology.

First, I believe it cheapens the meaning of being human, as previously stated. Even if we have common ancestry with all life, it is clear that, just as Israel was God’s chosen people, humanity is God’s chosen species. Even though God calls humans “very good”, still not all are called children of God. There is a difference in God’s relationship with his children and with other humans. That is not to say that God hates other humans, but there are plenty of promises in scripture that apply only “to those who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). And the difference between God’s affection for his children and for the rest of humanity is likely not a small difference. It is likely a huge difference. Just as there is a major relational difference these two groups, so I believe there is a major difference between humans and animals.

Second, I believe it distracts from the ministry of the Church. The primary purpose of the church is to win more for Christ. We are called to be servants and “disciplers” of people. Elevating the importance of animals to this extent can tempt us to spend too much time, energy, thought, and prayer on these lesser beings at the expense of humans whose eternal lives are at stake. Note: I am not saying that it is worthless to care for animals. What I am saying it is essential to theology to maintain a vast difference between the worth of a human and the worth of an animal.

Regarding your last comment about God’s own Son being sacrificed, remember that God’s own Son was both fully God and fully man. The Word was with God and the Word was God. Thus, even though His Son was innocent, God was sacrificing himself, not the life of another. God would not have demanded human sacrifice for sin offerings because that is completely contrary to his character in and throughout Scripture. Likewise, if animals were close to the importance of humans in God’s eyes, would he not have the same mindset toward them?

Let me know what your thoughts are.

Good comments and I largely agree, especially with your position that humans are uniquely created to be in relationship with God, but do not see that in conflict with God’s care for nature and other animals of his creation.
I too come from a medical background, and also from an agricultural background where animals were often seen as utilitarian, but were still loved and cared for. Cats were kept around as mousers but were still pets, dogs for security and herding but still companions. In fact, I strongly feel that there is a natural order that has become twisted with the anthropomorphism given animals in our culture.
A major conflict in that “ordered” thought process is in the creation of man through evolution as well as just level of consciousness in animals . Is becoming human a gradual process? Did it occur at a point in time with Adam and all before were “pre-human?” What does that mean for animals today who may be more conscious like higher primates and dolphins and whales? It is certainly easier if we see it as black and white, but not sure that is correct. Is it more compassionate to eat a fried cricket than a hamburger? ( I started to say moral, but feel it is really not a moral issue,)

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Yes, so far this was my favourite of the podcasts…though I have enjoyed all of them.

It’s good to take these issues head on. I really appreciated that about this particular podcast.

maybe we should have a Biologos medical forum too :slight_smile: GI, ortho surgery, family medicine…but it seems great to have this all together, as everyone can communicate a medical or non-medical insight.

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Thanks for the response, jpm. Loved your insight and thoughts as well. The last part of your post brings up a really good question. If (macro)evolutionary theory is correct and the formation of humanity was the culmination of a very long process, how does that impact our relationship with them, particularly from a food-chain perspective?

I have a couple thoughts I’m sorting through. First and foremost, while I personally will lean toward evolutionary theory as correct until science begins to support an alternative theory, I do not think that humanity came about by result of random mutations while God relaxed in heaven. I like to think that it was an intricately designed process with full, hands-on direction with humanity being the predetermined goal, the culmination of this grand process. From the perspective of a predetermined species being chosen to achieve a specific level of consciousness, intellect, and understanding that is impossible for any other creature, one’s argument that genetically similar species deserve grand levels of respect begins to lose steam (for me, at least).

Second, I believe the answer to that question cannot be an easy one partly because it depends on the mindset of the individuals in the scenario. Jesus liked to emphasize that sins aren’t just specific “dos and don’ts”, but rather products of our hearts/minds. Thus, having lustful thoughts about a non-spouse is sin even though there is no observable event that occurred. Eating is sin if you are purposely eating in a gluttonous and idolatrous manner, but eating itself is not sin. Killings animals can be sin if done in an unnecessarily abusive and cruel manner, but it is not in itself sin.

So, I would say that, assuming a humane slaughter and the lack of sinful intent behind the slaughter, there is no difference between eating a grasshopper and eating beef.

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