FOREWORD


“Dr. Justin Barrett: On Thriving with Stone Age Minds”

10.19.2021  |  Season 3  |  Episode 5




SHOW NOTES

This week, the Foreword Podcast returns with an interview of cognitive psychologist of religion Dr. Justin Barrett, president and co-founder of Blueprint 1543, an organization working at the intersection of Christian theology and the sciences. Justin is also Honorary Professor of Theology and the Sciences at the University of St. Andrews, and has served at Calvin University, the University of Michigan and the University of Oxford. He is interviewed by Drs. James Arcadi and Fellipe do Vale.

Justin begins by describing the path that brought him to doing what he does now, a path that winds through multiple states and countries and involves writing a book as a stay-at-home Dad and serving with YoungLife. On this path, Justin developed a passion for integrating his scientific work with his Christian faith, which eventually led to his work in the cognitive psychology of religion, a discipline he had a significant hand in shaping. Justin reflects on how to integrate science and theology well, which occupies so much of his work today. He also discusses his recent book, Thriving with Stone Age Minds, where he explores what it means to thrive as human beings living in an ever shifting environment always placing new demands on our natures.

Along the way, listeners will discover…

  • Why it is not a good idea to wear a necktie with batteries
  • Why cities just might be bad for us
  • Why donuts are so amazing (from a scientific point of view)

To learn more about Dr. Justin Barrett, you can explore the rich resources he and his team provide at Blueprint 1543 including videos, free courses curated for theologians and ministers (through the TheoPsych program), as well as articles on the integration of science and theology. Consider also his most recent book and the series of interviews he did with Closer to Truth.

Listen On Apple Podcasts Listen On Google Podcasts
Transcript

[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]

Fellipe do Vale
[00:00:00] What’s the most novel tie you have?

Justin Barrett
Uh, wow…how do you say “most novel”?—

do Vale
Anything that lights up; that moves, or…? [LAUGHTER]

Barrett
You know… [LAUGHS]

James Arcadi
[LAUGHS] Those bowties that spin around?

do Vale
Or squirts water…yeah! [LAUGHS]

Barrett
You know, I have a few that used to be light-up Christmas ties, but I took the lights out of them—because then you also have to have batteries and that’s just going too far.

do Vale
Yeah, the potential for catching on fire is high there. [LAUGHTER]

Barrett
Exactly. I mean this is—

Arcadi
Electricity around your neck, maybe, is bad.

Barrett
I know. There’s something very strange about ties to begin with, but then to electrify them…[ARCADI LAUGHS] I’ve got some great Christmas ties that, yeah—those are pretty good; Spider Man; I have a lot of Disney ties—Mickey Mouse, Jungle Book, Donald Duck. My very angry Donald Duck tie I would sometimes—

do Vale
Finals week?

Barrett
Yeah! [LAUGHTER] That kind of thing. I’ve got a grumpy Donald Duck tie for when I’m reviewing proposals or reading student essays.

do Vale
That’s magnificent.

Barrett
Yeah, that kind of thing.

Arcadi
You do kind of pair them, right, with—I remember this from Fuller. At least then, you attempted to kind of—

Barrett
—If there is some kind of tie-in that I can make.

All

OHHH! [LAUGHTER]

do Vale
Oh man. Alright!

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

Arcadi
Welcome to Foreword: A TEDS Faculty Podcast. I’m James Arcadi.

do Vale
And I’m Fellipe do Vale.

Arcadi
Today, we have the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Justin Barrett with us today. He’s a psychologist; he also is President and Founder—Co-Founder—of Blueprint 1543, which is an organization that is attempting to integrate Christian theology and the sciences to answer life’s biggest questions, as I understand it, which is a great, and cool, and exciting thing. He’s also an honorary professor of theology and the sciences at St. Andrew’s University. And prior to these endeavors, he was at Fuller Seminary—and we overlapped with one another there. Justin was there for much longer than I was—I was only there for about three years or so. But he was a professor of psychology, as well as the Thrive Professor of Developmental Science at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California. It’s a great place. [LAUGHS] But before that, he also served at Calvin College—Calvin University—as well as the University of Oxford. And we’re delighted to have you with us today, Justin.

Barrett
Great to be here! Thanks for having me!

do Vale
Yeah! And so, Justin has also just recently given a lecture at the Henry Center, and it was fantastic. And some of the things we’re going to cover today he spoke about, and he also spoke about in his book: Thriving with Stone Age Minds. We’re also going to get into that. But first, Justin, what we’d love to hear about is your journey into where you’ve been, or where you’ve gotten to now. It sounds like you’ve had a fairly interesting academic career—you know, you’ve been in multiple countries and states. Could you give us a little picture of how you got to be where you are today, what motivated each—

Barrett
[LAUGHS] I wish I knew!

do Vale
[LAUGHS] I mean, how did you get interested in psychology? And how did you, you know, yeah—any direction you’d like to take that.

Barrett
Sure, sure! Growing up, I was sort of a science-y kid. I loved the outdoors, I loved nature, I was fascinated by…especially biological systems. I was really—I remember having one of these moments in junior year of high school just staring at my hand and marveling at the complexity of this “thing” that was on my body. And I thought that after I shook off the idea of being an overseas missionary, I thought, “You know, I want to study biology and go into the sciences.” I went to Calvin—then Calvin College—as an undergraduate, and started the…was actually in the pre-med sequence, but then had to take some “core courses,” as they called it, in psychology or sociology—I picked psychology. And until that moment of taking that class, I did not realize that there was the science of psychology. And one of the things that attracted me to biology was just the complexity and wonder of the natural world. But then, here’s an organism, or a thing, that’s even more complex, because it’s at once biological, but then something else—it’s psychological; it’s social—and that’s the human mind. And the idea that I could actually do science on this just captivated me. So I got excited about that—I changed majors; I did all of that—and, you know, eventually decided I’d go to grad school and become an academic. That felt like the direction that God was calling me to do. So I started looking at research projects and things, and one—I was fascinated by the psychology of religion. You know, I grew up in a faith family, and I knew how important thinking about God is—what an important role God had played in my life and the lives of people around me; the importance of religious experiences for people and so forth. And so I started reading as an undergraduate in the psychology of religion, and I just wanted to know more about “God-concepts” and get into that area of study. But, I had this weird idea that to study “concepts”—which is a cognitive construct—I should go into cognitive psychology, but cognitive psychologists weren’t studying “God-concepts” at that time (social psychologists were to a certain extent, and personality and clinical psychologists, but not cognitive psychologists). So I tried to study from a cognitive psychology perspective “God-concepts,” and I didn’t really find anybody who was enthusiastic about that. But, I did get into a graduate program with a guy that humored me—Frank Keil was my doctoral advisor. And he admitted to me, when I was finishing, that he accepted me to work for him because he thought my project would fail and he could put me on something else— [LAUGHTER] which was very generous of him. And it’s kind of a back-handed compliment, but I’ll take it! It was sincere. What he was trying to say was, “Wow, I really wasn’t hopeful that there was something interesting here, but you proved me wrong, and it was really fun working on this.” And so he helped me connect with some other folks who were starting to use these cognitive science-y approaches to study religion, and so I got to be on the ground floor of what has now become known as “Cognitive Science of Religion.” But all of these other people, they from were outside of psychology—they were anthropologists, religious studies scholars, and so forth. I was “the scientist.” And we tried to…we just figured out this field together and what the initial studies would look like. So that’s kind of how I got into the subject matter, but that makes everything sound a lot more linear than it turned out to be, because I taught at Calvin for a while; I went from there to the University of Michigan. And then I left the academy.

do Vale
Oh, really? Okay.

Barrett
I became a little disillusioned with higher ed. I didn’t like how students were being treated in some ways, that I’d seen, that it was a little too economic a system: “Okay, we need students to pay the bills.” [LAUGHS] I didn’t like that we seemed to be doing a lot of writing grants to pay the bills and not to answer big questions. So it was, “How can we sort of contort ourselves a bit to get the money?” And so it just didn’t feel good to me. Right around that time, 9/11 happened, which for a lot of us was kind of a gut check: “Are you on the right path? Are you doing something that matters?” And so my wife and I started talking about that, and we decided it was time for her to get back into the job force, and she applied for and got a position working at one of Young Life’s properties: Rockbridge Alum Springs. And so I resigned my post at Michigan and we moved to rural Virginia. And I was a stay-at-home dad, homeschooled my kids, and volunteered out at the Young Life camp. We did that for about three years and then shifted from that to Young Life Field Staff, where we did direct ministry in Lawrence, Kansas, and supervised a bunch of volunteers and did the “Young Life thing,” which was great, but in hindsight, it’s easy to see that I was still I think shaking off my Evangelical heritage that said, “The best thing you can do with your life is go into professional ministry, and anything else is sort of ‘lesser-than,’” which is a message we unfortunately give our young people pretty quickly through the churches and stuff. Who do we introduce as, “Oh, this fantastic, inspirational guest speaker”?—A missionary or a pastor. And when people are sharing their testimony, “Oh, this is Elder So-And-So, and this is how he went from a street person to an elder.” So it’s all about the church life—church-y kinds of categories. So it’s been a struggle to shake that off and realize that my calling could be—as a nerd, as an academic, working on ideas and things like that. So, did the Young Life thing; strangely got asked at one point—at the same time that, for various reasons, we were needing to leave that position…actually, it was one week after hearing that we were done with Young Life in that area—nobody knew, but I got… a colleague who I’d known for awhile had just been appointed the new head of the school of anthropology at Oxford—Oxford University—and he reached out and said—you know, he didn’t know I was out of a job at that point—and he asked if I could come to Oxford and start a new center there. So, I’m like, “Oxford? Unemployment? I’ll take Oxford.” [DO VALE LAUGHS] So I moved to England, started the Center for Anthropology and Mind, it was called, where we’re trying to bring cognitive science perspectives, thinking about how minds think to the study of anthropology—and especially religion. And then we also started the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology there at Oxford. Did that for five years, and then it was about time to start looking at possibilities in the States. My kids were getting older and knew they wanted to go to college in the United States. So, I had started putting out feelers and I guess the people at Fuller got wind of it, because they were starting a new center there—The Thrive Center for Human Development. And they reached out to me and asked me if I would be the director of that. So that took me to Fuller where I was for ten years!

Arcadi
[00:11:54] And along the way, it seems as though there’s been kind of—one of these motivations is to…kind of an integrative sort of motivation—integrating various scientific disciplines; integrating theology and science as well. I guess, how do you…why do you see it as being important for Chrisitans to do that kind of integrative work between sciences and theology or psychology and theological studies?

Barrett
Yeah, I think there are sort of two levels of integration at play here: one is a personal integration. Are you an integrated person? Are you really bringing all of yourself together into one piece? Is your faith motivating your vocation—how you think and so forth? So I’ve always tried to be that kind of integrated person, and even when it’s scary, try to really take seriously; “Look, if I’m putting God and His kingdom first, I don’t have to worry about the rest.” So, some people hearing what I just described would say, “Oh, you committed career suicide multiple times.” Which, I really…I mean, even leaving Cornell University with my Doctorate and then starting to teach at Calvin College, I had people saying, “What are you doing? Our graduates don’t teach at places like Calvin. You’re better than that.” Like, “What are you talking about, better than Calvin? Come on!” [LAUGHTER]

do Vale
I’m a Calvin grad as well, so—

Barrett
You know what I’m saying, then! “You’d better stop. Just stop.” [LAUGHTER] But, then there’s that—you’re right, there’s sort of a…you might think disciplinary integration. And James, I think it’s really important to think integratively, because the world isn’t carved up into disciplines. That’s just not how the world works. So if you want to make an impact in the real world on real problems, it’s not carved at its joints by academic disciplines. That’s an artificial kind of system. That’s historical anachronism in some ways—it’s been imposed on the world. So we need to be really problem oriented and think about, “What are the right tools for this job—for this question—to make a difference here?” And odds are, they’re going to draw from a diversity of intellectual resources in order to have the biggest impact. Now, that’s the high-minded version of the answer. The low-minded version is—you know, true confession, when I started as an academic, I didn’t have the gift of…I didn’t have two gifts that are really important for an academic, and that is the joy of reading and the joy of writing. I loved to do scientific research—I liked to gather the data, I liked to crunch the numbers and stuff, but I didn’t really much like writing. And I certainly didn’t like reading. And the nice thing about finding these intersection points, where it’s not really owned by a particular discipline, is there’s just not a lot written there, so you don’t have to read so much. [LAUGHTER]

Arcadi
[LAUGHS] Just make it up as you go along!

Barrett
Exactly!

do Vale
That might be encouraging to some of our listeners who might be considering academics—you don’t have to read or write! That’s just a [LAUGHS]—

Arcadi
Find something new!

do Vale
Just find something new! [LAUGHS]

Barrett
Well, I did say initially I didn’t have that, and really, I mean interestingly, because I really didn’t feel like—I felt like that was my weakness and I had to sort of make do with my weakness. And I think, partly, that helped precipitate me leaving the academy, because I didn’t feel like I had all of the tools to do the job well. But for some reason, when I was a stay-at-home dad living in a farmhouse in rural Virginia, homeschooling my kids, I suddenly had the freedom to start writing my first book. Why I was writing a book, I don’t know, other than it just seemed like a good thing to do—and then I had the availability to do it. And I really do feel like God gave me the gift of enjoying writing—I could always write, but I never really enjoyed it. But suddenly, I enjoyed it for the first time.

do Vale
Wonderful.

Barrett
And subsequently, I’ve also learned I actually kind of enjoy reading more than I used to. So He’s given me the gifts that I think that I’ve needed in time for what He’s called me to be doing.

do Vale
[00:16:00] Wonderful. Well on the subject of writing, you’ve just written this lovely book—once again, if you need to see it, it’s called Thriving with Stone Age Minds: Evolutionary Psychology, Christian Faith, and the Quest for Human Flourishing, Congratulations on writing it!

Barrett
Thanks!

do Vale
It’s a lovely book. For those who might be  listening who are unfamiliar with the book, maybe you could give a little bit of an introduction to it—and what you were hoping to accomplish by writing it. Who are the main audiences that you had in mind and what did you want them to learn?

Barrett
My primary audience is really kind of clever, educated, advanced undergraduates who—maybe they’re studying psychology, maybe they’re studying theology, maybe they think they’re going to go into a ministry area, or maybe they’re just generally educated people. But this sort of “advanced undergraduate” is the primary audience I had in mind, and maybe especially those who are coming with some kind of Christian background—now that’s the majority of Americans who are coming with some kind of Christian background. And what I really wanted to do with the book initially was introduce Christians to this evolutionary psychology thing—“What is evolutionary psychology?” It’s a controversial area in the academy, let alone among people of faith in the academy—there, it’s even more controversial of an area. So I wanted to introduce it, but not in the usual kind of “Do an apologetic for..,” because I’m sympathetic to…this is kind of an uncomfortable area. When people talk about evolutionary psychology, it’s often about, I don’t know, “The selfishness of humans and how that’s adaptive,” or about “Our mating behaviors.” And it starts sounding pretty sexist pretty quickly, or just sort of unwholesome in various ways. [LAUGHS] Or just a little uncomfortable. And I don’t want to ignore those features of evolutionary psychology, but that’s not all of evolutionary psychology as I came to learn about it sort of accidentally through that very long and winding career pathway. So I wanted people to see it for what it was, and to recognize that in it, there were some resources that in spite of its blemishes, that it might be useful for some of these big theological questions. So I wanted to do a “show,” not “tell.” And the show is around this topic of “thriving,” as we termed it—or “flourishing,” is another term that’s used for this idea. When I started this project with Pam King and some of my colleagues in the Thrive Center at Fuller—well, “thriving” is in our title, so we wanted it to be about thriving. But partly, Pam especially sold us on the term “thriving” instead of “flourishing” because she’s written—she and her collaborators have written that thriving is not just about the individuals’ well-being or good life, but how the individual is in a reciprocal relationship with the communities around them—these sort of social rings. And for me to be thriving, my family needs to be thriving, but I can’t thrive at the expense of my family, and I don’t have a thriving family if its members aren’t thriving. My church needs to thrive with thriving members—it can’t thrive unless your members are thriving. But likewise, thriving members of a church body need to be contributing to the church body or they’re not thriving. There’s something reciprocal at every stage and that word “thriving” tries to remind us that we’re not just talking about “I’m doing pretty well here,” but that there’s something reciprocal going on. So we used “thriving” as our case study for, “Can evolutionary psychology be something that—well, what is it, and can it be useful for theological inquiry?”

do Vale
Yeah. I have to confess that when I approached your book, I was one of those people who was a bit more skeptical about evolutionary psychology. My only exposure to it, however, was through Steven Pinker’s work, and so I was like, “I don’t know.” So how would you approach somebody like me? Or a former version of myself now that I’ve heard your talk and read your book—you know, I’m much more convinced, but I would love for other people to have the benefit of being convinced of its benefits. What’s your sales pitch for the people who are like, “Eh, evolutionary psychology; I don’t know about that.” What would you say to somebody like that? And maybe you could tie it into thriving as well, because that’s…you know, if it has payoff there, that would be really beneficial too.

Barrett
[00:20:44] I would probably ask the person who was concerned to tell me more about what their concerns are, because usually, if there’s an area of science or philosophy or theology that we feel uncomfortable with, there’s a “why” behind it and we want to figure out what that is. I named a couple of the reasons why I think it’s common for people to be uncomfortable with it: “It’s all focused on sex and repoduction;” well, it turns out it’s not. “Well, it’s still all about individual success or fitness;” no, actually, recent work in evolutionary psychology is much more likely to stress things like altruism and cooperation—how it is we get along with each other because it looks like that’s the kind of animal we are, is we actually…our fitness is dependent on the groups that we live in and getting along with each other. And so then, it starts… so I suppose part of my pitch is, “This isn’t your grandparents’ evolutionary psychology.” This is the new and improved version that has kind of outgrown that awkward adolescent stage that was so fixated on sex. It’s moved onto things like, “Well what does it mean to build strong communities?” “Why do we have the moral intuitions that we have?” “Why do our minds categorize and make sense of the world in the way that we do?” And for people who are coming from a Christian perspective, you might see some really interesting points of resonance in evolutionary psychology that you wouldn’t expect to find, like—well, we read in Romans, chapter one, Paul talks about these sort of moral intuitions, you might say, that humanity just shares by virtue of being human. Well, evolutionary psychologists talk about that too! We have in Christian theology this notion that within all of us, there’s sort of a—well, the Reformed tradition calls it this a “sensus divinitatis”—we need to hear about the “God-shaped vacuum,” or this sort of yearning for the divine and so forth. Well the cognitive science of religion, which is really informed by evolutionary psychology, says “We’ve got evidence that—yeah! Humans do have this sort of natural receptivity to the divine. It looks like that comes really easily, or naturally, to us.” So there are more common touchpoints, I think, with evolutionary psychology than most believers realize.

Arcadi
I think that might be one of the objections, or “nervousness-es,” about an approach like this, is that it can somehow replace theology or replace the bible, or operate within a purely naturalistic kind of a framework. But it seemed to me as I was reading the text, you were articulating evolutionary psychology as more of this descriptive project—“Here’s kind of how things have gone.” But in order to get any traction on that—where that goes towards that kind of thriving—you need to have some kind of prescription from theology or philosophy as well. So it’s not just a replacement kind of a theory, but do you see it more as a—I know there are instances of this kind of integration that you’ve got to do the descriptive and prescriptive work in order to get a full-fledged, or a fully orbed picture, of what it is humans are supposed to be doing.

Barrett
Yeah, I think that’s a nice way to put it. In many domains, I mean, the sciences are not terribly good at telling us what we ought to do. We need something else. We need a broader value system to tell us what we ought to do. This has been one of my irritations over the last year—we get all of these…it doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum they’re on, but there are all of these different politicians in different countries that say, “We’re just following the science. We do what the science says. It’s all about the science.” And you’re like, “Stop.” First of all, false. Second, impossible. I mean, that’s not what science is, and I don’t want a political leader who thinks that all they’re doing is following the science, because they better be taking into account more than the science. We need values that orient us. The science describes, as you say, but we need something that prescribes or proscribes. So I think that’s right. And it’s also the case that…I don’t want to say there is no role for the sciences in informing those normative types of things beyond just the nuts and bolts of, “Okay, we’ve decided to do this. Here we go! How do we do that best?” It’s not technology in that sense. But it can help us see things like, well, what are the likely consequences of this course of actions? Does that help us reevaluate? Are we thinking clearly about—especially in the human sciences—say, these particular feelings or way of thinking? Have we carved up the space in the right way? But you’re quite right—they don’t tell us, then, on that basis what we should or ought to do about this. We need theology to fill that in. So it is an integration moment.

do Vale
[00:26:12] Yeah. I think it makes me think of a quote that I heard from a scientist within the last year regarding COVID. He said, “Science can’t tell you to love your neighbor.” And the idea was that we need some external motivation in order to follow the things that are being said here. I thought that was particularly poignant. But your emphasis has been on “thriving,” which I find absolutely stimulating. And it has to do with our capacities as people with human natures and how those capacities match up to the world in which we live—you call them niches, right? And maybe…could you unpack that a little bit and say how is it that thriving is obtained in the life of a human community? What are the things in place? How do we respond to our environment? That kind of thing. I find that to be really…that’s a lot, isn’t it?

Barrett
That’s a lot. I’ll tell you what. I’ll start with what seem to be the challenges for us thriving. So suppose we’ve got a nice theological vision of thriving: so we know that we should be conformed to the image of Christ, we should be good stewards of the creation, we should love our neighbor and love God, right? These are things we should be doing. We should be manifesting the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit. These are all theological concepts of what we should do. And I take it that a lot of us hope that that will happen in our lives—we try to do that, and, well, things happen and they don’t go the way we hope. So what are those obstacles? What are those bumps that get in the way? Or, what are the barriers for human thriving? And one of the things we develop in the book is this notion of this friction between our nature and our niche, so that from an evolutionary perspective, we have become the animals we are in part of what’s been successful—what have been successful strategies in dealing with these challenges in our ancestral past? And so who we are now is a product of what worked then. And that goes back maybe 200,000 years—maybe more, and in some cases, certainly more. Some of the traits we have we share with all kinds of social animals—primates and so forth. So we have this endowment that is from what you might think a “bygone age,” at least for a lot of us in the world today. So does that package of skills, of learning tendencies, of emotions—does it still work in today’s society? And sometimes the answer is, “Well, not as well as we’d hope.” And maybe this is just my introversion talking, but cities are really scary places. We have reason to think that most of human evolutionary history was living in groups of probably no bigger than about 150 people—occasionally pushing up to 300, maybe 500—but that’s most of humanity’s existence. In fact, it’s only within the last ten years that the majority of the world has been urbanized; that the majority of the world now live in urban centers. That’s only in recent history. But urban centers add a tremendous amount of pressure on us socially—our population density is much greater, the noise level is much greater, density of pollutants is higher—all of these things that are actually not good for us. So there are some reports…World Health Organization, I believe, released a report recently suggesting that noise pollution is becoming a major cause of stressors—and we know anxiety and stress-related kinds of psychological conditions are really on the rise. And they put their finger on noise. And we’re talking about just cars, as well as the planes and helicopters and things like that that we see in urban centers. We are constantly bombarded, which means we’re physiologically aroused all the time at levels that our physiology isn’t accustomed to accommodating. We are pretty flexible animals. We can accommodate a lot. But it weighs on us. Interacting with lots of strangers all the time—well that’s not a natural condition for humans. Most of our ancestral history, we would have run into people that we’d recognize. That’s… in fact, we’d almost never see strangers. If we did, everybody would know about it and we’d all be talking about it. We’d figure these people out as quickly as possible, because strangers are threats. Well now, we interact with strangers in urban centers all the time. And so what do we learn to do? Ignore other people. So imagine that. Does that sound like what we are called to do from a Christian perspective, is to ignore your neighbor as yourself? But that’s what we’ve learned to do and that’s what this kind of social pressure has done to us.

do Vale
Interesting.

Arcadi
Well you’ve got to do that, because you can’t walk down the street in downtown Chicago and intimately care for every single individual you’re walking by. That seems overwhelming and exhausting.

Barrett
That’s right. It’s absolutely overwhelming and exhausting.

do Vale
Buddy the Elf? [LAUGHS]

Barrett
A little bit like Buddy the Elf, that’s right! But each time you do that, what are you doing to—I mean, I don’t want to sound too grandiose, but it’s almost like little tears in your soul, that you are ignoring your fellow human—out of necessity. So we’ve constructed these niches that not only from an evolutionary perspective don’t quite fit our nature, but from a theological perspective seem to damage our nature; seem to kind of tamp it down and sell us short. So am I a big fan of cities? No. And I actually think they’re not good for us. I think there are a lot of data that show…I mean, you get higher violent crime, you get all kinds of social ills associated with big city living. And so of course, I’ve come to Chicago to tell you this. [LAUGHTER] Because that’s just being a good guest. But…

Arcadi
[00:32:27] But it seems like that is one of the points I got from the book is that physiologically, or what have you, in terms of our “Stone Age minds,” there is a certain point that our use of technology—and we can say “technology” in a very broad sense, from the car or to the tablet and the cell phone and what have you—has just ramped up exponentially. And it’s sort of the social dilemma picture there, where now, we’re getting these endorphin shots every couple of seconds because people are hitting our inboxes or they’re hitting our likes or something like that. And we just can’t handle that, or it’s just too much for us to take even on a very visceral bodily level. But I guess my question is, what do we do with that? Do we pump the brakes on modern life in order to let our minds catch up with things, or do we need think, “You know what, we’ve orchestrated our “niche” in a way that is not healthy anymore,” and so we’ve got to reorganize things in a way that more lines up with some of our present, natural endowments…?

Barrett
Yeah, no this is the big question. And in some ways, the book is an invitation to others to sort of start thinking along these lines. Because once we realize that these are the challenges we are facing, then we’ve got motivation, then, to try to address those challenges. I suspect—look, there’s no going back. We can’t suddenly go all primitivist on this. And we are a flexible, adaptive species that manages to culturally scaffold all kinds of wonderful, good things. Not everything that is stretching our nature is a bad thing. In fact, our nature seems to be that we fiddle with our niche. Maybe this is part of us being…some theologians talk about us being “co-creators” with God. And so I don’t want to say it’s all bad, but what’s it centered on? Maybe that’s where we go, is…is it playing to the values, the priorities, that are at the core, at the heart, of a thriving life—loving God, loving other people, manifesting these various fruits, conforming to the image of Christ? Have we organized our cultural systems around that? Well, obviously not. Instead, what are we doing? We’re sort of super-stimulating our hedonistic center, making ourselves certain things bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. We talked about those endorphins or different kinds of chemical rushes we get from our cell phones—heck, from sugary foods, right? There’s another one of those things, where from an evolutionary perspective, it’s commonly said that we…the reason we’re so attracted to sugary-fatty kinds of things is because these were hard to get—“sweet things” indicative of things high in vitamins like berries and stuff like that—hard to get, temporary, so you’d better eat as many as you can, fast, so you need motivations. Fatty foods usually would come from animal fats, which are really important, it turns out—sorry, vegans—for building good brains. It’s even thought that actually that shift to eating lots of meat and cooking animals—it helped build our brains. But we’re attracted, then, to fats because they were hard to come by, relatively rare and very nutrient dense, and well as these sugary things. Put them together in a donut, and it’s like magic. [LAUGHTER] But then, that’s a substitute for the genuine article that we get hooked on and we’re drug addicts at a certain point, and it starts eroding our thriving—in this case our bodily health—just because it’s mimicking the right input conditions in a super-stimuli kind of way. So can we pare some of those back and can we start thinking about how do we reconstruct our priorities around thriving priorities instead of what makes us feel good, or what will generate lots of money, or whatever those other priorities are? Maybe in some cases, that will mean taking a big step backwards and saying, “You know what, megacities is not the way forward. Let’s not do this.” And I think that’s one thing that maybe, if there’s a good thing of COVID, it did start waking people up to that, that maybe, actually, when things fall apart, you don’t want to be in major urban centers. Because there are too many people and it’s a pressure cooker. Lots of people have fled from the cities, which reversed a major trend that had been going on for decades of everybody flooding to the cities. So maybe there are some minor steps backwards, but I have a feeling it more has to do with “Reorient and reprioritize” around the thriving principles.

Arcadi
Well and I appreciate that invitation—that the book does seem to be kind of an invitation to start some thinking about this: how do we sort of integrate our theological values with our scientific observation in a way that leads us to some kind of end that might be productive for our human following of Christ and our human relationships as well? We’ll need to talk about that more some other time because that’s just the Foreword. I’ve got a number of people to thank for the end of this episode. First, I want to thank Dr. Barrett for being here with us. We really appreciate this conversation. I’m grateful, also, for my co-host, Fellipe do Vale. We’re grateful to our producer, Curtis, for making us look and sound good, and our graduate assistant Lauren Januzik. I also want to thank the organizations that have helped this conversation come about, so myself, Dr. Steve Greggo, and Dr. Geoffrey Fulkerson in the Henry Center all collaborated on a grant through the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences—their DoSER Project: “The Dialogue on Science and Religion.” It’s an initiative on “Science for the Seminary.” So they gave us some funding to have some conversations about: how do we integrate science into the seminary curriculum? Dr. Barrett’s here as part of that grant. He gave a talk earlier today, is leading workshops with some of our faculty as well, and just trying to create more synergy around having hard and challenging and really enriching conversations here among the faculty, among the students too, on how we can think about science and theology and religion. So we’re grateful for that funding as well. And, as well, we are thankful to you, our listeners. I’m James Arcadi.

do Vale
I’m Fellipe do Vale. Thanks for listening and watching.

[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]

Outro
Foreword is a podcast hosted by faculty at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The views expressed by the hosts and guests of Foreword do not necessarily represent the views of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can subscribe to our newest episodes on your preferred podcast app or at forewordpodcast.com. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and Facebook @forewordpodcast to get updates and additional links to content. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School is located 25 miles north of Chicago, with extension sites across the country and online. Trinity educates men and women to engage in God’s redemptive work in the world by cultivating academic excellence, Christian faithfulness, and lifelong learning. You can find more information at teds.edu.

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

Follow @forewordpodcast.
Facebook Logo Twitter Logo

All content © 2020 Foreword Podcast.

Spacer