Jesus told his followers that the two greatest commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”, and to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-40). What does this have to do with science? Should a follower of Jesus—since ancient times called a “Christian”— even give much thought to science?
It helps if we consider what science is, as understood today. My online dictionary calls it “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” That’s a pretty good place to start, along with technology being likewise described as “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.”
Next we must recognize that nearly everything in modern life is affected in some way by advances in science and technology. Agriculture, entertainment, energy production, communications, and health care are just a few of the ways science and technology shape life for people around the globe, and affect all other life on the planet as well. We are all interconnected, with science and technology as the portal for many of those connections. So if we return to those “great commandments,” practically speaking, “loving your neighbor” involves technology and science. The better we understand the fundamental workings of nature, be it for medicine, food production, or environmental stewardship, the better we can use it to serve others, including people and all creatures, and uplift their lives.
One does not need to look hard to find such issues. Genetic modifications of crops may help feed a fast-growing population around the globe, yet environmental and cultural concerns are significant. Climate change is already having a significant impact, but proper predictions and responses will better serve people around the world, especially the world’s poor who are likely to suffer the most as environmental change threatens their livelihood. And fundamental advances in genetics and neuroscience will help us better understand the crucial connections between our genes, our brains, our environment, our health, and our behavior.
But what about basic research—the kinds of scientific studies that don’t seem to have any practical application, at least not in the near term? What about searching for the Higgs Boson? Refining string theory? Monitoring the outflowing jets from a black hole in another galaxy? Studying animal behavior? This kind of work sometimes conjures up everything from puzzled stares to the occasional scorn of a skeptical politician, especially since all research involves funding. But basic research and understanding form the essential platform upon which all the applied sciences are built. And we don’t usually know what kinds of practical applications will someday blossom from the root of basic research. A classic example is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, a fundamental, mind-blowing treatise on unexpected fundamental physical principles of space-time. And yet if we didn’t know about and include the effects of general relativity in technology today, none of our GPS devices would work accurately. So even basic research without an immediate practical application can be included in the rubric of “loving thy neighbor,” with the anticipation that such knowledge may someday be applied to caring for others and the stewardship of the planet.
Is there value in understanding the basic principles of the natural world, apart from any potential practical application? For the Christian, this kind of study can follow from the first great commandment, to “love the Lord your God… with all your mind.” For if God is responsible for all reality, as Scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths posit, then pondering all aspects of that reality, including the natural world that science can investigate, is a means of honoring God. Though science itself alone does not address anything beyond the principles of the physical world, it can inspire a deeper sense of awe, and for the spiritually-minded, praise. This is the case for some scientists today and throughout history, like Louis Pasteur who said, “Posterity will one day laugh at the foolishness of modern materialistic philosophers. The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator. I pray while I am engaged at my work in the laboratory.”
Indeed there is a sense that understanding the details of nature can provide believers with a deeper appreciation of the character of God, though, again, not through the science itself, but through the philosophical lenses through which they ponder the findings of science. Reflecting on the recent discoveries of billions upon billions of galaxies, for example, with potentially a plethora of planets in each one, one is reminded of the biblical Psalmist who proclaimed, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge…”.
Perhaps a child is the best vessel for a sense of wonder. I think of little Justin, first-grader at a local public school. Justin spends some special moments each day feeding wild birds outside the classroom window with my friend, his teacher. As Justin watches the birds day by day, he asks more and more questions about them: Where do birds come from? What came before birds? How did people get here? Justin’s inquiries have led to discussions of long epochs of evolution, environmental adaptations, and even the Big Bang. Justin’s enthusiastic responses to these advanced scientific revelations seem to express his sense that these are delightful details that, to him, fit perfectly into the framework of Christian faith he already holds.
There is yet another, deeper sense in which Christians should care about science, beyond the sense of finding it interesting, awe-inspiring or useful. The Christian believes in the concept of Truth, and therefore in the sense that science is a tool for discerning realities of the physical world, he or she should take great interest in the integrity of the practice of science. In keeping with both of the great commandments, the Christian who supports or practices science will want science to be conducted with right motivations, integrity of process and dissemination, and compassion.
Fleshing this out a bit, what does this look like? Right motivations would entail a desire to find out the truth through a scientific investigation, even if the conclusions are uncomfortable. It means not politicizing science. It means topics of study are chosen and supported that are genuinely helpful, meaningful and uplifting to society in advancing knowledge, including basic research. Integrity of process and dissemination means following ethical principals of data collection and honest reporting. For practicing scientists, it means giving proper credit to other researchers in the field, and students in the lab. It means sharing results with a wide and diverse audience, so that many may benefit from the work. It can also entail serving on peer review committees and other bodies that work to build and ensure good practices in the field. Integrity also means not invoking science as an arbiter of issues and conclusions outside of its bounds. Compassion can include an inclusive approach to research, involving students, postdocs, and peers in ways that uplift whole groups while maximizing the good societal impact of the work. Compassion also includes mindfulness of test subjects, for example that any animals used in research are cared for, not only to eliminate physical distress but also to provide for their complex psychological and social needs, making every effort to reduce or end the need for animal subjects wherever possible.
Thus through the vehicles of good motivations, integrity of process and dissemination, and compassion, the Christian can truly care about science in its fullest sense. While the topic of this essay is on whether Christians should care about science, nothing stated so far applies only to Christians! Nearly every principle described applies also to people of other faith traditions, and some also to those of no particular religious belief. Even the “great commandments” that framed this essay were were drawn from Jesus’ own rich Jewish faith heritage.
So is there any unique reason as to why Christians should care about science? If so, it lies in the nature of the “incarnation,” the understanding that one God responsible for all that is, including all nature and the physical principles that govern its evolving history and freedoms, also loved us enough to personally enter in to the physical universe in Jesus, even into the human experience with suffering, for good purpose. This is definitely a concept outside of the realm of science! Yet it is this sense of God’s deep personal interest in the natural universe, planet earth, and all its inhabitants that can inspire the grateful Christian to care likewise, with science as a wonderful tool for doing that.