Scripture on Science
So far I have talked mostly about the impact science makes on the reading of scripture. Now I want to talk about what scripture might have to say about science. To use Gould’s term, science and religion are different magisteria but they do overlap because they cover the same world, albeit different aspects of it, which sometimes intersect. It is quite hard for many people to imagine the Bible can say anything useful about science. Science is not only a set of interrelated methodologies. As Thomas Khun and others have shown, it is a social activity as well. While scripture may not be able to contribute to the scientific method, its results or peer review, it does have something to say about the humans who do science. Scientists, unlike the way they are portrayed in popular imagination, are not unfeeling automatons.
One of the most obvious things scripture could possibly have to say about science and technology is about ethics. Science may help inform or influence ethical choices but science cannot generate ethics. In other words science says nothing about how humans ought to behave. In fact, science often has very little to say about the most important things to us, the things that make us human. While scripture has important things to say about ethics it is clearly not an ethical manual. A lot has been written and said about the Christian perspective on controversial and difficult ethical questions in science. I’m way out of my depth when it comes to such complex conversations. What I do have to say is we need to be careful not to reduce the Bible to an ethical programme in promoting Christian ethics. Perhaps a far more helpful paradigm is to think in terms of vocation, that is, “according to scripture what has God called humans to do in the world?” which is actually a central thrust of scripture.
The pursuit of science is in the Christian worldview a God-given task for humans. It brings honour to the Creator by further uncovering the majesty of his creation. As others have said, it can therefore be seen as an act of worship. It is also an order bringing activity that can promote flourishing, which as his image bearers reflects what the creator does. Unfortunately, there have been horrible consequences of science. From the great horrors of modern warfare, the planetary threat of global warming through human industrial activity, to the psychologically damaging effects of social media, science can be a force for great good and great evil.
J. Richard Middleton in his book The Liberating Image discusses how a poor understanding of the divine mandate to humans in Genesis may have contributed to the human exploitation of the planet as well as other humans. I have wondered, if Christians had a biblically responsible view of creation, how would it have affected the way the industrial revolution would have proceeded? We plundered the world’s resource for fuel without ever thinking there might be consequences. When we properly read Genesis and other parts of scripture, they tell us that God has called humans, as Christians like to put it, to be “good stewards” of his creation. The faithful servant is meant to manage what his master has given him not squander it. In the biblical worldview the earth is not just the place we happen to live, it is our God-given home so we are called to be good tenants. Scripture provides a potent vision of the environment within which to do science and technology responsibly.
At the height of the Enlightenment, people thought science would would result in a future utopia, then the 20th century happened. The post-Enlightenment world, which is in many ways much better, is less naive and recognizes we have the terrible power to bring about a dystopian tomorrow. The biblical account of human origins has a much more measured view of human innovation and development. It recognizes that humans do both immense good and horrifying evil, and this potential resides within even the most ordinary people. The biblical perspective on human nature remarkably anticipates how humans do and use science. Human progress in the biblical narrative is always compromised. Our good always comes with evil, no matter how well intentioned we are. Take antibiotics for example which have revolutionised healthcare. Right now we have misused them to a point where many are becoming useless and there are emerging microbial strains that are not affected by our most potent antibiotics.
The aetiology of our paradoxical nature in scripture is that humans wish to have godlike power and be accountable to only themselves. That narrative has been repeated through out human history to disastrous results. While science and technology are not clearly the preserve of Christians, the Christian perspective has something very wise to say about them both, based on its realistic take on human nature and activity. Since scripture explains what our fundamental temptations are it can offers us help not to succumb to them. If this prophetic wisdom had been heard at the height of the scientific revolution, maybe the world could have been a different place? Scripture speaks wise truth to scientific power, as with all forms of power, that needs to be heard now and for future generations. To do this the church needs to have a better grasp on science and where it is heading.
When I started thinking about this approach I have dubbed “accordism”, it was to answer very specific questions about the dialogue between science and scripture. I am not certainly not the only one thinking about this kind of approach. (Dennis Alexander over at BioLogos has quite similar views.) However, after developing it a bit further and seeing its broad scope, I realize it could be a guiding ethos for how the church engages science and technology in the real world. While respecting their differences, as the name implies, accordism means the church and science have a certain friendship between them. They are not only conversation partners but partners in acting for human and creational flourishing. I fully acknowledge the church’s calling is not to do science and science is not for doing church. Without abandoning what it is called to do, the church needs to develop a more sophisticated and nuanced relationship with the scientific enterprise from within the biblical perspective. Apart from the hot button issues, there are many areas of science that have or could have an impact on the church yet we have not realized it. If not for anything these things need to be done because science is done by and affects humans made in God’s image, some of whom are Christians.