Ralph Stearley placed his trust in Jesus Christ during the mid-1970s, in the midst of his college years at University of Missouri and his studies in biological anthropology.
Stearley, Professor of Geology at Calvin College, is the first natural scientist to be awarded the Henry Resident Fellowship. Like many of Christians in the sciences, his trust in Jesus Christ was tested alongside his trust in empirical evidence in the natural world, and reciprocally, his trust in evidence was tested alongside his Christian convictions. “As a Christian, I believe that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all,” Stearley says with conviction. “He does not deceive us and we can therefore be confidently pragmatic in our approach to evidences, both in the rocks and in Scripture.” It is one thing to be guided by such a conviction, and quite another to make sound judgments in the complex terrain at the intersection of theology and science.
His project, “Assessing Evidences for Cognitive Abilities in Ancient Hominins, with Reference to Their Perception of God,” applies developments in cognitive psychology and reflection on the nature of theological language to his assessment of the cognitive abilities of ancient humans. “Humans are animals but we are animals equipped with cognitive capacities which enable a conscious relationship to God and one another,” says Stearley.
Stearley’s secure confidence in Scripture and theology, and his ability to bring those convictions into his scientific inquiry, is also part of his own interdisciplinary pilgrimage.
A God-Shaped Life: A Scientist’s Turn toward Christianity
In the mid-1970s, when Stearley’s Christian pilgrimage began, he recalls the popularity of John Witcomb’s The Genesis Flood, a book important for the creation science movement and widely read among his college peers. It also left an impression on Stearley. “I had begun to study paleoanthropology, but becoming influenced by the notion that earth might be but a few thousand years old, I put my anthropological studies on hold.” FollowingThis saturation in Christian worldview granted them extraordinary perceptive ability to discern where non-negotiable doctrinal points needed to be asserted. his college years, Stearley worked as an epidemiologist for a few years and his studies shifted to geology.
His disciplinary pilgrimage also led him to the history of science and to Christian theologians like B. B. Warfield and Herman Bavinck. “This saturation in Christian worldview granted them extraordinary perceptive ability to discern where non-negotiable doctrinal points needed to be asserted,” Stearley comments. It also helped him draw those distinctions. After coming to the conclusion that the earth is much older than he previously believed and that this conviction is not theologically problematic, Stearley found himself returning to paleontology, earning his PhD in vertebrate paleontology in 1990.
His own journey also left a mark on him. Reflecting on his disciplinary pilgrimage, Stearley comments, “It is my hope that my own struggles to come to grips with the data of the historical sciences are reflected in some humility toward others in my conversation, public speaking, and in my publications.” His research, his teaching, and his involvement with various interdisciplinary projects have all traversed the middle ground between theology and science, revelation and evidence.
A Longer Story: A Christian’s Return to Paleontology
For over 40 years, Stearley has been studying human prehistory and life on earth, and for the last 25 years, he has been teaching geology and paleontology at Calvin College. Part of Stearley’s confidence in scientific inquiry has emerged from his wider recognition of the history of science, including Christianity’s important role in that history. “Historically, science flourished in a Christian culture,” Stearley comments. “Christian theological themes such as the reliability of our senses and a reality to this world undergird much of what we think of as ‘science.’” It has also emerged from his theological convictions. “As a geologist and paleontologist, I have been intensely interested in the trajectory of life’s diversification on Earth, and Earth’s correlative history,” says Stearley. “As a Christian, I understand that God’s creation is good.”
Perhaps the most crucial development for integrating paleontology and Christian theology happened in the 1980s with the rise of cognitive psychology. Stearley calls it a “game-changer.” It freed many scientists from diverse disciplines to reject classical Skinnerian behaviorism. “People really have minds, and these can be studied in various ways, if we are clever,” says Stearley. Within the last generation, several subfields of cognitive psychology have emerged, and one of those is religion. Christians like Justin Barrett, Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary, have influenced the field, and traditional theological themes are being deployed to illumine and correct older theories about the deep history of human religion.
Stearley remains convinced that human persons are endowed with and characterized by a soul separate from but holistically joined to the body. His own research is focused on what he has previously called “soulish behavior.”“Assessing evidences for the evolution of a human cognitive platform for ‘soulish behaviors’,” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 61.3 (2009), 152–174. In his project at the Henry Center, Stearley will be working on several projects, all intended to “tighten the boundaries” of what we can be confidently asserted regarding cognitive abilities of ancient ancestors—including abilities correlated to religious capacity and religious language.
A Pilgrim’s Journey: Searching for God among the Ancients
Stearley’s own research takes a unique tact within the young field of cognitive psychology. His interdisciplinary engagement not only brings cognitive psychology to bear on paleontology, but also theological engagement on the nature of religious language—Thomas Aquinas being his most recent interlocutor.
However much the church may be tempted to pretend that theological questions are settled and secure, its own history tells a different story. Should it be any surprise, then, that it is a task of the church to grapple with the claims of modernThe indeterminacy of any particular field of study is not a weakness to be overcome but an opportunity for conversation and thoughtful engagement of Christian good will. science in the midst of Scripture’s crevices and the church’s mixed judgments? Stearley approaches the claims of science with a similar humility. While affirming that God does not deceive us, Stearley also comments, “Because the evidences from the rocks are not as complete as we would like, we have to continually assess how accurate our judgement calls on what they are telling us really are.” He continues, “The further back in the paleontological and archaeological record we peer, the more fuzzy the picture becomes.”
While God does not deceive us, nor has he completely revealed himself, either in revelation (cf. Ex. 32–34) or in rocks and fossils. This opening allows for the body of Christ to share in the labors of the church—not least of which through the interdisciplinary projects such as Stearley’s. For his part, the indeterminacy of any particular field of study is not a weakness to be overcome but an opportunity for conversation and thoughtful engagement of Christian good will, and one with a sense of urgency. “A real need exists for evaluation of the diverse kinds of evidences from the natural world that are relevant for ongoing discussions surrounding the history of humankind, biblical accounts of human origin and human nature.”
Next spring, Stearley will take another pilgrimage—this time from Grand Rapids to Deerfield—to address this need, joining the resident community and its shared labor here at the Henry Center.
2018–19 Henry Resident Fellows
2018–19 Henry Fellows Announced | Learn More
James Hoffmeier, “Why We Believe in Creation & Evolution: A Discussion between an Evolutionary Biologist & an Old Testament Scholar” | Learn More
Fred Sanders, “The Doctrine of Humanity in Systematic Perspective” | Learn More
Dru Johnson, “Man Made: If Biblical Texts Could Speak to Modern Origins Stories” | Learn More
Ryan Peterson, “Human Identity in Theological Anthropology” | Learn More
Mary VandenBerg, “Retrieving a Substantialist Understanding of the Image of God” | Learn More
Ralph Stearley, “Assessing Evidences for Cognitive Capacities in Ancient Hominins, with Reference to their Perception of God”
Joshua Farris, “The Soul of Science and Religion: Theological Anthropology, Substance Dualism, and Origins” | Learn More