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The Pursuit of Science for God and Neighbor

How the story of church-science interaction supports Christians in the sciences today.

Have you heard about a "war" between faith and science? Not true. In reality, Christians were some of the earliest pioneers in the sciences.

No theological concept is more important to Christians’ daily experience of connection between our faith and our work than the Reformation doctrine of vocation. But how can we find Christian vocation in a sector as modern, fast-moving, and, well, secular as science and technology?

In Luther’s formulation, our vocations are as
multiple as our relationships with others for whom we have some responsibility. As we work on behalf of bosses, colleagues, customers, family members, neighbors, and our larger community and society, these vocations incarnate our responses to the greatest commandment: to love God and neighbor through our work.  

So far, this sounds good. But where it often runs aground is when we try to find resonance between this high Christian concept of vocation and the very modern sectors in our contemporary capitalist “information economy.” This raises an important question for Christian workers in the 21st century: What does vocation look like in fields of work that Luther and Calvin could not have even imagined — let alone the Apostle Paul or the Evangelists?

In the science and technology sector, the vocational problem seems at least twofold. First, we may struggle with a fundamental question about the very “brainy” nature of the work that often takes place in these fields: Such work can seem so distant from the more obvious kinds of person-to-person service that Luther knew in his 16th-century reality. And some of our modern American church traditions don’t offer much guidance toward a “Christian life of the mind.” I know this at a personal level, because as a young adult convert in a typically pragmatic evangelical culture, I struggled to find some Christian rationale for the academic life to which I was attracted. And for the lack of such a rationale, for years I put off going to graduate school.

Second, Christians’ struggles with questions of vocation in science and technology fields are often intensified by something many of us are taught both in school and in the wider society, something scholars call “the warfare thesis.” The thesis suggests a longstanding and essential enmity between the Christian faith and the scientific enterprise; its current cultural power is reflected in such popular media portrayals of scientific topics as the 2014 update of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series, hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson (seeing its third season this year).

But, no matter its influence, this idea ignores the actual history of Christian thought and action in scientific and technological innovation. In fact, the scientific revolution — the seedbed of all modern scientific disciplines — immediately throws a wrench into the warfare thesis.

The scientific revolution happened before the secularizing Enlightenment, and in that pre-Enlightenment era, almost all of the great scientists were themselves Christians. Though a few colored outside the lines of historic orthodoxy, all were people of faith who pursued scientific and technological innovation out of Christian motives and understandings, because the “warfare” between faith and science, in reality, is nonexistent.

So, on what theological and historical grounds did the Christian scientific revolutionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries write their story of science, not in warfare, but in harmony with faith?

Creation is a gift for human flourishing.

From the earliest years of the church, creation (the natural world) was taken to be a gift, given to us by a good God to support human flourishing. This is the meaning of such biblical terms as the Hebrew shalom and ashre, and their Greek analogues eirene and makarios — all of which appear in many places in Scripture, and all of which, as New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington has argued, point to creational aspects of human flourishing. And this is why Miroslav Volf has recently, in his book For the Life of the World, called the guild of theologians back to the central place of human flourishing in the task of theology because God’s intention for us was and is that each of us flourish and cause others to flourish through making ourselves fruitful in this created world.

The central term in God’s Genesis command to “be fruitful,” parah, means not just “have babies,” but really “create culture,” as Tom Nelson reminds us. Parah points to all the marvelous ways God’s human image-bearers have since the Creation sustained themselves materially; developed social institutions; pursued truth, goodness, and beauty; and built cultures and civilizations. His intention for us, captured in Genesis, is that we cultivate and care for the earth he has given us, and creatively draw out its potentialities. In the resonant phrase sometimes attributed to the 16th-century spiritual master Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) and grounded in words of the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 4:7), “all is gift.” From the very earliest church, Christians have understood this to be true, and have affirmed — just as Genesis does — the goodness of the creation that supports us.

Reason is a gift, an important part of God’s image in us.

Also from the earliest years of the movement, Christians have understood reason as an important part  — even the most important part — of the image of God in humans. As church historian Jaroslav Pelikan puts it in volume three of his magisterial series, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, “When the Christian gospel came into the world, it succeeded in converting the most rational of men, the Greek philosophers, to its message; this was proof that the gospel was not to be dismissed as irrationality and ‘insanity.’”

Among those converted philosophers were such key early Christian leaders as Athenagoras of Athens, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. Such thinkers led the way toward systematic Christian understanding of God, humanity, and the world, a tradition of Christian thought that continues today.

If I had understood this pro-reason Christian heritage as a young adult, it would have saved me some misery as I struggled with the question of whether the disciplines of the mind can be of any service whatsoever to the church. Little did I know then that not only the early but also the medieval church — contrary to the Enlightenment caricatures that still hang around today — concentrated much thought and effort on the question of how best to employ this surpassing gift of reason. For them, applying human reason to understanding and ordering creation was a matter of Christian obedience to the Genesis mandate.

God mandates that we use reason to understand creation.

That the church has not been afraid to exercise this mandate of applying reason to the world is illustrated in the story of the man who became pope in A.D. 999 — as told by historian James Hannam in Christian History magazine’s issue on the Christian foundations of modern science, going to press (and freely available at
www.christianhistorymagazine.org) in June 2020:

Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II, was a man of humble origins who developed through talent and education into Christendom’s foremost mathematician. A teacher of arithmetic, astronomy, and harmonics, Gerbert’s knowledge in these fields was admittedly hampered by his inability to read Greek. But his career showed that even in the so-called “dark ages” that came before the 12th- and 13th-century recovery of the scientific knowledge of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and other classical thinkers, the study of natural philosophy (the ancient word for what we have called “science” only since 1834) was no impediment to a highly successful career in the church. Early and medieval Christians borrowed that phrase from the Greek philosophers and used it to mean the study of God’s wisdom as reflected in his creation.

And nowhere in evidence was the supposedly perpetual warfare between science and theology.

A couple of hundred years after Gerbert, another Christian scholar, Hugh of St. Victor, described the natural world as a book written by God’s finger — and just as appropriate for Christians to study as the Bible. Hugh’s 12th century was seeing, along with the rediscovery of the
classical scientific works,  an explosion of Christian interest in reading that “other book” of God. (For more on the explosion of scientific investigation in the High
Middle Ages, see Hannam’s illuminating book, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.)

The sacramental principle allowed the study of ‘God’s second book.’

Two crucial building blocks toward a Christian engagement with the sciences were, first, the idea that creation is not itself God (pantheism) nor anti-God (dualism), but rather it reflects God; second, the awe and wonder with which knowledge about the world was then pursued by those who held this “God-reflecting” way of seeing the world.

Throughout history, humans have been tempted to embrace two errors about the material world. On the one hand, we have the error of the early Platonists, the Gnostics, and all other dualists. This is the error of observing the fallenness and difficulties attending life in the material world and deciding that material stuff, itself, is evil. For those caught in this way of seeing the world, the only way to human flourishing is to seek to transcend the material in search of the purely spiritual.

On the other hand we have the error of the ancient Epicureans and all modern materialists, both philosophical materialists and lifestyle materialists, who buy the Ecclesiastes embrace of the physical world as our only end: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

The Gnostic, ancient or modern, obviously devalues the material world, but in fact, the materialist effectively devalues it, too, by separating the pursuit of material goods from their origin in God. Neither provides the impetus needed for human pursuit of scientific and technological knowledge. The development of science emerged in a culture that took a third approach to the material world.

This third approach — which became another key building block toward the sciences — turns out to be one of the most central theological ideas of the Middle Ages: the idea of sacramentalism.

Sacramentalism is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, material things can be God’s love, grace, and glory made visible. We can describe sacramentalism in these convictions: first, that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality; second, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the Creator; and thus third, that God is present in and through all the world.

It should not surprise us that medieval and early modern followers of Christ, who saw the world in this way, would invest hours and days and years of their lives into meticulous experimentation and hypothesizing about the natural world. And it’s worth noting — since we’re seeking to discover Christian vocation in the secularized fields of science and technology — that many modern scientists of faith are still similarly motivated. One such was the great American agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. He once said: “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”

A correlative of these beliefs is that religion is not separated or compartmentalized from the rest of life. It’s not an overstatement to say this principle enchanted everyday life for medieval Christians.

Why should Christians today affirm sacramentalism? First and most important, because God incarnated himself in Jesus Christ. The transcendent God dug down and took on human flesh. The purely spiritual became human, two natures in one person. In late medieval Christianity, far from seeing it as a kind of one-time, bizarre aberration with no connection to the rest of salvation history, the incarnation is the paradigm, the model, for everything else that follows.

The incarnation was the linchpin of medieval theology, and sacramentalism was the extension of that in its expression of God’s mysterious presence in and through the created world. God is, at the same time, transcendent and immanent.

Just below the surface of life hovers the constant presence of the holy. God is present in more places than just the traditional sacraments of the church. Sacramentalism teaches that the material world contains in it much meaning that is not obvious to the naked eye, so to speak. The world points always to the mystery of its origins and its sustenance in God. The world “participates” in the greater reality of God the Creator, even as it points to God.

Our first step away from the warfare thesis and the myopic claim that modern science is inherently secular, then, is to reclaim a piece of wisdom well known to medieval proto-scientists such as Gerbert and Hugh of St. Victor: God’s sacramental presence may be found everywhere in his precious gift of creation. To reclaim this insight is to do science as “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”

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