Speaking of Science
“Is science becoming the new theology, especially in the past year?” — Kathryn W. Windsor, theological educator and Episcopal lay leader
In 2014, Andover Newton, the seminary I serve, received a grant from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to create educational programs that connect science with the core theological curriculum. Many seminaries offer elective courses at the margins on science and theology, but AAAS was most concerned about students who might not choose to take those courses going on to purvey anti-science points of view from the pulpit after graduation. AAAS sought reassurance that all students would receive education about how theology and science could be understood as mutually enhancing, rather than mutually exclusive.
The program we created with our grant not only succeeded in the primary objective to ensure that no students graduated without some appreciative exposure to science and theology, but it reintroduced me to the wonders of science for the first time since I was a young student. The last science courses I’d taken had been “science for poets” distributional requirements in college. In my later high-school days, science types and humanities types had been set on separate paths. Although I’d previously liked and been pretty good at it, math and science had not been the direction I chose at the invisible fork in the road. Now, after my AAAS experience, when I pull up Audible to select my next listen, I go straight to the latest in science and drink in new knowledge with fascination.
My most recent read was Yale Sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis’ Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live (Oxford University Press, 2021). The book spans many different topics related to the pandemic, from economics to politics, but my favorite chapters are the ones related to the science of the virus itself. Christakis’ description of the way Covid-19 spreads, how it enters human bodies and cells, and why it’s so destructive to tissues is as captivating as it is horrifying. Christakis, who reads the audio himself, says all the right things as relates to the destruction that the virus wreaks, yet his voice becomes distressingly giddy-sounding when describing the cleverness behind Covid’s capacity to strategize, survive, and spread.
I was reminded when listening to Apollo’s Arrow of an event that was part of Andover Newton’s AAAS grant: a faculty retreat off-site where scientists interacted with faculty and gave presentations on their research. One of the scientists who spoke with our group, who presented on the catastrophic effects of global warming already underway, had the same “isn’t-this-so-cool” tone of voice that I heard in Christakis’ audio. “Look at how this glacier split! Check out this weather pattern — hurricanes everywhere!” I was entirely unaware of the disconnect between the speaker’s tone of voice, and how it contrasted with his subject matter of doom, until my colleague Nancy Nienhuis raised her hand.
Nancy is a scholar of social justice who trained as a theologian. Although she didn’t ask the question in these exact words, her basic query to this presenter was, “What the hell is wrong with you?” She challenged the way in which he claimed a critical distance, but really exhibited indifference to human suffering and the inexcusable harm we are doing our mother earth. I was stunned by her line of questioning, not because she was rude — she wasn’t — but because I couldn’t believe that I’d been drawn into that same “isn’t-this-so-cool,” mentality without employing my own values for compassion and care.
So the problem, Kathy, isn’t when science becomes a religion. It’s when religion fails to put up a fight. We really and truly need both science and religion in order to reason and lead in this particular cultural moment. Science helps us to understand, and religion helps us to interpret that understanding morally.
We live in an intellectual world where science overtook religion as the pinnacle of smartness, beginning slowly in the mid-19th century, and then all-of-a-sudden. At some point in the mid 20th century, the split became more pronounced when the religious right-wing went in one direction, and science and mainline religious types went the other. So here we sit Kathy, you and I, mainline Christians on a tree branch with science. Sometimes, science tries to push religion to the ground, and sometimes we let them.
The good news is that mainline Christianity makes room for scientific views to inform thinking about morality and leadership. The mistake we’re seeing unfold in the wider culture is a false notion that science can lead. It can’t. Leaders must interpret science, and religious frameworks can help with that interpretation. The past year has marked a growing divide between those who “trust science” and those who don’t. I believe this bifurcation to be inaccurate and unhelpful. Science is not to be trusted, as it’s inherently amoral.
Consider the example of who should be getting vaccinated first: Christakis points out that it would be most logical to vaccinate people who, by virtue of their societal roles and responsibilities, need to interact with the most people. They are the ones most likely to spread Covid-19, so conversely, they are the ones whose inoculation would most slow the spread. Those moving around a lot, however, are unlikely to fall into age and health categories where Covid might kill them. Science isn’t going to solve this one. Religion can’t “solve” it either, but it provides a language for discussion of life’s preciousness.
“Isn’t-it-cool” is not enough. The wonder we can discover when science and religion are in dialogue with one another has so much more to offer. When we blend scientific knowledge with the Good News of our faith, we correct for science’s indifference and take up our leadership responsibility with both knowledge and appropriate, humble, awe.