Transcribed from the sermon preached August 21, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Mark 6:1 to 6, Luke 13:10-17
Many of you have probably heard of Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and computer scientist genius who was hired by Google to head up their engineering department. As a kid in the 60s he wrote a computer program that could compose music, and has developed the scanner, and several generations of word to voice software which, among other things, is a great aid to the blind.
Kurzwell is an optimist and runs around proclaiming all the awesome stuff that will change our lives forever.
“By the 2020s” says Kurzwell, “we’ll start using nanobots to complete the job of the immune system,” he said. “Our immune system is great, but it evolved thousands of years ago when conditions were different.”
He believes that nanobots — microscopic, self-propelled robots — will act as T cells, which are blood cells involved in our immune responses…
“We could have one programmed to deal with all pathogens and could download new software from the internet if a new type of enemy such as a new biological virus emerged.” http://thescienceexplorer.com/brain-and-body/google-s-leading-futurist-predicts-humans-will-start-living-forever-2029
It is exciting to see the rapid progress in science and technology and how it can help improve life. It is disconcerting to me, and dumbfounding to see how our culture and media assumes and promotes a war between Christianity and science. It is conventional wisdom in our culture that Christianity is in a war against science. Perhaps there should be a battle now and then, but not over what usually comes to mind. The simple argument is that the middle ages were the dark ages, brought on by the collapse of Rome and the rise of Christianity which shut out the light of reason. Then with the renaissance of Aristotle and other Greek thought, science sprang forth, threatening the Church’s dark hold on European minds. But the Church won’t give up and continues to deny scientific, empirical truth especially if it threatens our faith and biblical claims.
Yet the science and religion war myth hasn’t always been prominent. My goal today is not to argue for the existence of God or a certain definition of God despite science, or even to give much time to a post-modern Christian theological understanding of science. I am also not concerning myself with Jewish, Muslim or other cultural contributions toward the progress of knowledge. I give little input on whether I agree with the theological point of view of those I present. I intend to address the conventional wisdom and selective history that science was the product of Greek renaissance, while Christians, Christian theology, and the Church hierarchy fought it all along the way.
Most of the early scientists were also Christian if not priests or monks. It is often argued that they were closet atheists, and anecdotal evidence is given from bits of letters. Some of them may have been closet atheists, but most were not. As letters were so often a personal interchange between educated friends, an honest expression of doubts and disagreements with traditional doctrine should not be a surprise, or entirely disqualify the faith of the one expressing doubt or contention. Neither, I hope, would one be disqualified as a Christian if they shared criticism of the Church, Church injustice or Church bureaucratic close-mindedness. Even being persecuted by the Church shouldn’t disqualify one from being considered a Christian. It may have from the point of view of the Church hierarchy, but not necessarily for the persecuted themselves. I would remind us that Jesus was considered a heretic. But perhaps more importantly for our understanding of history, even the Catholic Church went through both times of repression and times of promoting scientific thought and logic.
It is no coincidence that the scientific revolution and the Protestant Reformation evolved at the same time. Obviously, the invention of the printing press and the Protestant idea that everyone should be able to read the bible, a notion that the Jews held for a very long time, led to the expansion of the pool of minds capable of sharing and building on knowledge.
It should be noted that the idea that the Middle Ages were also the dark ages, that there is no connection between the thought and technology of monks and scholars of the Middle Ages and modern science and philosophy, was promoted by Protestants as much as humanists, in their attempt to discredit Catholicism.
Historian Mark Noll talks of the contribution of Aquinas who united Aristotelian logic and theology in the Thirteenth Century:
“The fact that God created the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) was a crucial part of Aquinas’s argument, because it meant that, while human minds could understand communication from God (i.e., revelation in nature, in Scripture, in Jesus Christ), yet human minds in principle could never grasp the essence of God. An interesting by-product of this position, which has taken on surprising relevance in contemporary debates, was Aquinas’s understanding of randomness or contingency. Everything in the world, he insisted, happened because of God’s direction. But some things happen contingently, or with the appearance of randomness. The logic of their contingency was perfectly clear to God, but because God in his essence is hidden to humans, humans may not be able to grasp how what they perceive as random could be part of God’s direction of the universe.
“The opposing view was maintained by the Franciscan priest and philosopher, Duns Scotus, who was a younger contemporary of Thomas Aquinas living from 1266 to 1308. His position argued for the univocity of being. The only way to know the essence of anything is through its existence. Although God is much greater and much wiser than humans, his being and the being of all other things share a common essence. God is the creator and redeemer of humans, but his actions toward humans can (at least potentially) be understood reasonably well because the same laws of being apply to God as to everything else; the same way that we explain causation in every other sphere explains how God causes things to act and to be. Essentially Scotus says the laws of nature are how God operates.
Timothy Dalrymple in an article entitled “Redeeming Technologies” writes that the medieval “great monastic orders organized their communities around evolving communications and agricultural technologies, and the careful employment of those technologies in physical labor was an important part of monastic life. Hugh of St. Victor, a twelfth-century Augustinian canon, reflected on the basic study of God in a work called the Didascalicon. Like Basil, Hugh made the case very directly that technological improvement of the world is part of the restoration of human life and the created order…”
The gathering of scientific knowledge and the development of the useful arts, technology, was promoted often as both a restoration of Eden and as work toward the New Creation, the new Jerusalem. Christians were taught especially by the time of the Reformation that learning, discipline, hard work, and reason were the way we could utilize the gifts we had graciously been given to help bring in the new Kingdom of God. Jesus was a prime example for Christians, as the savior was literate, studied scripture, and was known as both a carpenter and healer. Scientific knowledge was widely thought to be an avenue to discover the way God set up Creation, and a way to overcome the hardships within fallen creation.
David Noble, in his book The Religion of Technology notes that Francis Bacon framed his understanding of science and technology with reference to the millennial expectation of man’s dominion over nature. Bacon writes in his Novum Organum, the same text in which he lays out scientific method, that “Man by the Fall fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over creation,”, but “both of these losses…can even in this life be in some parts repaired, the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.” (Noble, David. The Religion of Technology. Penguin 1999.p.51) The desire and responsibility to improve the fallen state of man led Bacon to emphasize applied science or technology. Bacon wrote “Knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate. A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”
Isaac Newton was less convinced than Bacon of the need to have science be immediately useful in the form of technology and felt there was value in simply trying to understand the “knowledge of God.” For Newton, his religious beliefs encouraged him to discover the workings of the universe to understand and identify with the mind of the Creator. (Ibid p.65)
These are just a few examples among many who felt that their Christian faith encouraged them, indeed instilled in them the responsibility to use their minds to discover the mind of God and help redeem humankind from the suffering of this world and bring in a new Creation.
We now know, that this millenarian and Enlightenment notion of progress and dominion has been so successful that it threatens Creation upon which life depends. In a sense, the use and misuse of science and technology shows that knowledge and power can be used for good or ill. Arrogance and greed, exploitation and destruction are a danger today just as they have been throughout history. Indeed, the western Christian nations used their new found power from science to colonize and exploit both people and land the world over. WWII and the Atomic Bomb were the preeminent wake up call. With trepidation before God we note that the code name for the test of the atomic bomb was Trinity – attributed to Berkeley physicist Oppenheimer, who said afterwards “In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge they cannot lose.” Western science, technology and religion can serve evil as easily as good. And, as we have seen with pollution, species extinction and climate change, even our good inventions often will have unforeseen negative consequences.
Rather than the small and petty bickering over Creationism verses Evolution, the more important and relevant critique of the Church with regard to science is how theological ideas about bringing in the New Millennium and restoration of a new Adam led to an idolatry of humans, an idolatry of human knowledge and power. We are not gods, not in knowledge nor in righteousness.
Feminist theologians have rightly pointed out the notion of patriarchal dominion combined with the power of technology has run its course, and is in need of correction, repentance and humility. In a necessary review of the notion of stewardship, feminists have inserted the humility of acknowledging we are in relationship with creation, we are part of it, mutually dependent upon it, not above it to dominate.
It is abundantly clear that science and technology will not save us from sin and evil. Grace is still and finally necessary, as is the humility to accept it. We need not fear that biblical understandings of the natural world may get some help and adjustment from the knowledge God has blessed us with through science. The deeper and more fundamental importance of the biblical message stands solid: That life is preciously created and loved, that we humans have a propensity to act sinfully and do evil, and that the very being of God in human form shows us the way and offers life renewing grace, peace and love. A couple hundred years into the scientific revolution, the Gospel message just looks all the more powerful and necessary to me.
Kurzweil seems to think human knowledge and technology will reach singularity by 2045, human knowledge will exponentially increase so that we will merge with computers and become all knowing and live forever. Peace will break out, disease will end, hard labor will cease. I am much more cynical of human nature and think that there is just as likely the potential that evil, death and destruction increases at the same rate as our knowledge and power. The ability to access information does not necessarily make us spiritually healthy, happy, good or wise. Grace remains a fundamental necessity. But certainly we want to celebrate the great and real successes of science, study science, and give thanks and pray for greater knowledge to do good and help others. For 200 years we have seen a reduction in poverty. In 1980 50% of the global population lived in extreme poverty. This is now down to 14%. The UN goal to halve the population living in absolute poverty from 1990 to 2015 was achieved 5 years early Even as we recognize the necessity for humility and sustainability, we can work for and use technology to help us toward that goal. We also pray that God grant us the grace and humility to resist falling prey to our own brilliant success and arrogance. It is an old story. The apple of artificial intelligence is on the tree and ripe, and we are about to pluck it off and take a bite. God help us.