Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Whose Canvas Are We?

Written by: on February 28, 2020

The nature versus nurture debate has taken many forms and been informed by many disciplines over the years. The political implications of this discussion  have both increased the importance and the risks associated with it. Race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, intelligence have all been among key contentious topics. Interestingly, the most controversial topics of Pinker’s book on the topic, The Blank Slate, have been the arts and parenting.[1] As a cognitive psychologist, Pinker suggests that much of our behaviour is genetically predetermined by the make up of our brain and thus subject to evolutionary processes. He highlights research that indicates that the genes that parents pass down to their children have a much greater impact on their children then parenting style which he suggest have little effect on child development.[2] He points to studies that demonstrated that “[s]iblings separated at birth end up as similar as siblings reared together.”[3] This is contra studies done by psychologist Larry Steinberg who found that “[r]egardless of gender, ethnicity, social class, or parents’ marital status, teens with warm, respectful and demanding parents earned higher grades in school, were more self-reliant, suffered from less anxiety and depression, and were less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour. The same pattern replicates in nearly every nation that’s been studied.”[4] So is it the parenting style or is it that the genetics that produce this type of parent get passed along to children who are then more resilient? The extent of brain plasticity has greater social implications.


If it holds true that genetics shape our individual natures, and that these are predetermined with limited maleability, then social response to misbehaviour is significantly altered. “The dread of a permanently wicked human nature takes two forms. One is a practical fear: that social reform is a waste of time because human nature is unchangeable.”[5]The death penalty is easily defensible if criminality is evidence of anti-social, destructive inevitabilities. Criminality is revealing of However there is a second consequence that Pinker acknowledges. “The other is a deeper concern, which grows out of the Romantic belief that what is natural is good. According to the worry, if scientists suggest it is “natural”—part of human nature—to be adulterous, violent, ethnocentric, and selfish, they would be implying that these traits are good, not just unavoidable.”[6] This is where we now encounter theological implications.


Does the Imago Dei refer to the body? The Spirit? The soul? Whatever our human make up is, Christians embrace the notion that we are made in the image of God. Whether one takes a strict Creationist view, or a divinely guided evolutionary view, the general consensus is that people carry key elements of the nature of God. “Modern religious people may not believe in the literal truth of every miracle narrated in the Bible, but they do believe that humans were designed in God’s image and placed on earth for a larger purpose—namely, to live a moral life by following God’s commandments.” [7] The ramifications of behaviour stemming exclusively from nature would indicate that some people were created by God not only with the capacity for brutality but for the inevitability that they would behave in such a way. God becomes the author of this behaviour by such an argument. It is no longer only the character of people that is being examined but the nature of God.


More pertinent to the church is where God’s hand in the creation of each of us ends and our free will begins. The debate thus becomes: Nature vs Nurture vs Free Will. What is ‘natural’ is uncontrollable by the individual and often it is celebrated as part of the diversity of the body of Christ. The discussion is simple enough when we are talking about hair colour, or musical giftedness or spiritual gifts, but it is less clear when the discussion steers towards genetic differences. Can we embrace Down Syndrome as a beautiful gift or is it an infirmity we should be proclaiming healing over? Let me be clear, the person with Down Syndrome is always a gift, but do we encourage them to thank the Lord as the author of the gift of their Down Syndrome? What about when data indicates that a condition has a genetic predisposition, but not necessarily a guaranteed expression, such as ASD?[8] Consider Patton’s perspective: “[i]ndividuals  with  ASD  are  considered  neurodiverse,  which  means  they  are “differently abled,” rather than disabled. They tend to be very honest and reliable, non-judgmental, hardworking and detail oriented. Above average intelligence is high among individuals with ASD. They tend to be experts in fields that involve specialized knowledge or skills due to their extraordinary working memory and visual thinking. They have a lot to offer our society, but these differences can be misunderstood, which can lead to them being excluded.”[9] How do we decide what is evidence of a broken sinful world and what is a gift that reflects a unique angle of the nature of God? Pinker critiques the notion of the ‘blank slate’ as “it has pretensions of celebrating our potential, it does the opposite, because our potential comes from the combinatorial interplay of wonderfully complex faculties, not from the passive blankness of an empty tablet.”[10] Thus he would affirm that if it is part of our genetic make up than it should be celebrated as potential. Might the Christian view celebrate potential as free will? Reclaiming this ‘potential’ as what might be ‘nurtured’ by parents or the church and ‘free will’ becomes the fulfillment of ‘potential’ for the purposes of God and in yielding to godly ‘nurture’? At this juncture it would become critical to Christian discipleship that we know what is naturally bestowed and what is an expression of free will. At the very least the church must be ready for the ongoing discussions that this research invites.

[1] Steven Pinker, “Human Nature and the Blank Slate,” TED, February 2003, https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_human_nature_and_the_blank_slate?language=en#t-1340072

[2] Steven Pinker, “Human Nature and the Blank Slate,” TED, February 2003, https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_human_nature_and_the_blank_slate?language=en#t-1340072

[3] Steven Pinker, “Human Nature and the Blank Slate,” TED, February 2003, https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_human_nature_and_the_blank_slate?language=en#t-1340072

[4] Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. (New York: Scribner, 2016) 213.

[5] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. (New York: Penguin Books, 2002) Kindle 159.

[6] Ibid., 159.

[7] Ibid., 128.

[8] “Autism Spectrum Disorder Fact Sheet,” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), accessed February 28, 2020, https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-Fact-Sheet#3082_6)

[9] E. Patton,  Autism,  attributions  and  accommodations:  Overcoming  barriers  and  integrating  a  neurodiverse  workforce.  (Personnel  Review, 48 (4), 2019)915-934. As quoted in Rebekah Dyer, “Successful Inclusion of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Disability Ministry Programs,” Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability, accessed February 28, 2020, https://journal.joniandfriends.org/index.php/jcid/article/view/195/179)

[10] Pinker, The Blank Slate, 421.

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

6 responses to “Whose Canvas Are We?”

  1. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Jenn, amazing blog. Love the concept of being “differently abled” . . . . such a beauty in that.

  2. Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Jenn, I appreciate your depth of thought on this topic. You are asking questions the Church must ask and not gloss over if we are going to be invited to the table. Amos Yong’s work, “Theology and Down Syndrome” gave me my first experience diving into these ideas. I highly recommend it!

  3. Hi Jenn, good stuff as usual. You bring up a lot of difficult questions, i.e., how can we tell whether something has been affected by the Fall or if it’s just divine diversity? My fear today is that we err on accepting brokenness as the norm and just call it diversity. Also, our culture has been steeped in ugliness for so long that we no longer recognize beauty for beauty’s sake.

  4. Mary Mims says:

    Great Blog, Jenn. You ask some great questions such as those with disabilities. Agreeing with what God says, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and in His image are what I unite around. Many of Pinker’s theories are things that divide, although he does not believe he is doing this. Humanities only hope is in Christ.

  5. Great post Jenn, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog and like the depth of your questions about disabilities. I have interest in the area of working with people with special needs but i must admit that I know little at this point. Your questions have triggered more interest in learning more, and I’m glad that Tammy recommends Amos Yong’s work, “Theology and Down Syndrome”, I will look for it. In my context, there’s very limited help for children/people with disabilities but we have a program that we are developing in our ministry.

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Such a thoughtful, scholarly post! Your thread of thought-leading from Pinker to ASD to potential and “free will” is most stimulating. You always teach me more and make me think, thanks so much!

Leave a Reply