Oliver Putz


Statement for the Application for a CTNS Charles H. Townes Graduate Student Fellowship 2008 (Comprehensive Exams)


         Recent insights from ethology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology challenge the way humans have traditionally understood themselves and their existence in an evolving universe.  Until about 40 years ago, humans thought of themselves as the superior species, exclusively capable of self-conscious reflection and rational thought.  According to this narrative, humans alone use tools, have culture, engage in politics and possess medical knowledge.  Not even our direct evolutionary predecessors or those hominids that lived alongside modern humans came close in regards to cognitive and affective abilities.  Humans alone were the Homos sapiens, the “wise” or “knowing” man.  Since then, however, archaeological findings suggest that early hominids like Homo erectus already had self-consciousness, possibly language, religious sentiments, and thus moral agency.  Observations from the field as well as the laboratory have clearly demonstrated that numerous non-human animals use tools and culturally pass on this knowledge to others.  Moreover, at least some cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and great apes are capable of symbolic representation and possibly self-consciousness.  Apparently, the insight that differences between human and non-human animals are differences in degrees rather than kind also applies to cognitive and affective abilities.  Needles to say, this bears ramifications not only for science, but also for theology.

         A central notion in all three Semitic religions of the Abrahamic tradition is the special creation of human beings in the image of God.  Much has been said about what it means to be created in the image of God, but in the end all interpretations assume that human beings are endowed with capabilities that elevate them above the animals.  Regardless of whether the divine image is understood as the ability to think rationally, to have relationships with God and others, or to act as stewards of God, all models of the imago Dei view humans alone as the pinnacle of creation, wanted and loved for their own sake by God.  From such a perspective, notions of self-conscious non-human animals, possibly capable of moral reflection, obviously contest traditional interpretations.  If nothing else, the scientific data raises the issue of the way the Abrahamic tradition views – and treats – animals.

         My research in theology and science addresses precisely these questions.  As a trained biologist who has studied animal behavior and evolution, I am interested in how the biological data can inform a theological anthropology, particularly the question of moral agency.  The underlying assumption of my PhD project is that indeed self-consciousness, and with it the ability to make moral decisions, has evolved in some non-human animals and in all hominids from Homo erectus onwards.  Consequently, the idea of special creation has to be reinterpreted in a larger context that includes other species than our own.  The core-hypothesis of my thesis is therefore that the imago Dei applies not exclusively to Homo sapiens, but to all species capable of moral decision-making.  I want to propose that it is not humanity alone that is wanted by God for its own sake, but rather the diversity of self-conscious expressions that emerge from an evolutionary process, and in which the universe, to say it with Karl Rahner, comes to itself while God’s self-communication becomes realized.  To share with other species in the imago Dei is neither removing humanity from its special relationship with God, nor releasing us from our special responsibility towards the earth as a highly technological species, but an expression of the abundant presence and richness of God’s self-communication in the world.



       I view my theological project as first and foremost a hermeneutic undertaking.  To be exact, my thesis employs principles of a cosmological hermeneutics as an integrative approach to theology and science as I have described them in my Master’s Thesis.[1]  Briefly, this integrative approach sees the endeavor of theology and science through the eyes of philosophical hermeneutics, the philosophy of interpretation introduced by Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur.[2]  Like philosophical hermeneutics, a hermeneutics of theology and science assumes that in the end all human existence is interpretation of experience, and thus, ultimately, understanding.  Here, theological doctrines and scientific theories are two indispensable parts of one and the same interpretative movement with new understanding emerging from their dialectic conversation.  Accordingly, integration occurs on the level of interpretation leading to new understanding rather than in the methodical integration of the content of theological doctrines and scientific theories.  Hermeneutics of theology and science is thus neither natural theology nor theology of nature, nor a systematic synthesis of concepts, to use Ian Barbour’s sub-categories of integration.  Rather, it is an interpretative integration of the concepts of the two disciplines into one new understanding.

         In case of the current project of animal morality and the imago Dei this means that the theological doctrine of special creation will be brought into a dialectic conversation with the scientific data as the explanatory aspect of the interpretative circle.  This includes on the one hand an exegetical reading of the relevant Scriptural passages, especially of Gn 1:26-31, as well as a review of the tradition of the doctrine of special creation.  For the exegesis of the Genesis text, historical but also reader-response criticisms will be used. 

         On the other hand, the scientific data from such diverse fields like primatology, cetology, psychology, behavioral biology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology will be reviewed and analyzed.  Here, the two essential philosophical precepts underlying my argument are the assumption of a phylogenetic continuum and with it, of evolutionary parsimony.  The first merely states that life on earth is a continuum extending from the earliest organisms through diverse phylogenetic branches to the great variety of species alive today.  This also includes human beings.  Evolutionary parsimony posits that the underlying mental processes of the same behaviors are the same in closely related species.  Accordingly, it is difficult to imagine that a bonobo embracing another who was the victim of an attack is motivated by something else than the same empathy that would motivate a human under functionally similar circumstances. 

         In a final move of the interpretation circle, I will apply the philosophy of metaphor as developed among others by Paul Ricoeur and Sallie McFague in order to offer a new interpretation of the doctrine of special creation.  According to Paul Ricoeur, what characterizes a metaphor is its intrinsic tension of two opposing interpretations.  In an attempt to interpret a metaphorical utterance literally, its absurdity is revealed, from which the metaphor obtains its result.  In bringing together things that do not go together, metaphors reveal a previously unnoticed relation of meaning, and ultimately new understanding.  Sallie McFague applies this notion of metaphor to theology and draws a close connection between metaphor and theological model.  Models are thus “sustained and systematic metaphors,” and religious language consists of barely anything else.  Central to all theological models is the biblical root-metaphor of a personal deity who is in relationship with creation as its source and sustainer.  To McFague, the objective of all theology is to provide new insightful metaphors and models that express and explicate this relationship with the divine in a meaningful way. 



         The relationship of humans to animals and of the divine to all creation is of central importance to all theology that understands itself as fides quaerens intellectum.  The results of the proposed research will have a direct affect on how we discern the meaning of our existence in an evolving universe and for how we formulate religious concepts of the supernatural cause of the world.  As such, it addresses one of the most pressing issues of theology and science today.  


Return to

[1] O. Putz, Cosmological Hermeneutics: Integration of Theology and Science (Berkeley, CA: Master’s Thesis, Graduate Theological Union, 2006). 

[2] Hans-Georg Gadamer [1960], Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1990); Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University, 1976).