Godís Purpose: A Contradiction in Terms?

Science & Spirit 10(2) 1999

Though Reiss and Havercampís proposal awaits further research, the way ahead is clear. "Using established research designs in behavior genetics, it should be possible to estimate the extent to which fundamental goals and sensitivities have genetic components," they explain. Behavioral geneticists have already uncovered genetic components for many personality traits Ė happiness, thrill seeking, anxiety, aggression, addiction, and shyness, for example. Other research indicates a biochemical basis for love, family nurturing, and social attachment. We can expect similar results to emerge for the remaining fundamental motives [purposes]. Religious thinkers need to acquaint themselves with this work, since it cuts deep into many orthodox beliefs. A challenge awaits, but that challenge is positive. It can pave the way toward a renewed dialogue between science and religion. And it can initiate more rigorous thought about the nature of God and of Godís relationship with the universe. Kevin Sharpe and Rebecca Bryant

Nearly everything important a human being wants can be reduced to one or more of these 15 core desires, most of which have a genetic basis. These desires are what guide our actions. In a sense, we are studying the meaning of life.

This is how Ohio State University psychologists Steven Reiss and Susan M. Havercamp sum up their research on fundamental motivation. Fundamental motives induce drives in almost all of us and these drives encourage us to engage in purposive activities for their own sakes. Food is a good example of a fundamental motive. Everyone feels hunger and this feeling pushes us to acquire, prepare, and eat food. We pay a great deal of attention to food Ė we worry about the healthfulness and balance of our diets, we suffer from eating disorders, we invite close friends to dine with us, and we imbue the breaking of bread with religious symbolism. Food plays a fundamental role in our lives.

Variations in genes cause individuals to inherit different set points (or saturation levels) for each fundamental motive, Reiss and Havercamp suggest. A motiveís set point, in turn, influences the individualís desire for, or aversion to, that motive. Someone with a high set point for social contact requires more social stimulation to feel satisfied than does someone with a low set point for social contact.

Religion also involves the notion of purposive activity, with God as the primary purposive agent. Scripture tells us, for example, that:

∑ God determines apparently chance events: "The lots may be cast into the lap, but the issue depends wholly on the Lord" (Proverbs 16:33).

Scattered biblical passages like these become formally united in the doctrine of providence, which the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy defines as "Godís care, provision, foresight and direction of the universe in such a way that the universe as a whole and individual creatures within it fulfil Godís purposes." The idea of providence springs from the popular notion of a divine figure who cares about and influences nature, the activities of humankind, and the course of history. Providence rests on a number of other theological ideas as well, all of which convey the image of a benevolent, purposeful, personal being.

A conflict arises at this point. Purposes are genetically rooted, according to recent scientific thought. They originate with human biology and motivate us to act. Yet God also acts according to purposes, theologians and believers insist. Divine purposes motivate God to create and sustain, to consummate and redeem. Does this mean, then, that God, like us, possesses a biology? Do divine purposes originate in divine genes? Theologians protest. Of course God doesnít possess genes Ė any more than God possesses bones, lungs, kidneys, or neural circuitry. God, after all, is spiritual, not physical. Our attempts at describing divine hopes, motives, and actions amount to no more than analogies. In a bid to understand, we project human qualities onto God.

If we claim that God entertains and acts on purposes in a way similar to humans, we need to justify that claim, not just assume it without question. We must take on board new scientific proposals Ė like Reiss and Havercampís Ė and use them to modify our claims.

These kinds of questions are important. Though Reiss and Havercampís proposal awaits further research, the way ahead is clear. "Using established research designs in behavior genetics, it should be possible to estimate the extent to which fundamental goals and sensitivities have genetic components," they explain. Behavioral geneticists have already uncovered genetic components for many personality traits Ė happiness, thrill seeking, anxiety, aggression, addiction, and shyness, for example. Other research indicates a biochemical basis for love, family nurturing, and social attachment. We can expect similar results to emerge for the remaining fundamental motives.