Trust, Science, and 2016
A reading from the Psalms: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Psalm 19:1-2
In at least one sense, science is the original human vocation, a call to share with God in his wonder-filled attention to his creation. In Genesis, we see that as God creates, he calls the different things he makes “good.” When creation is finished and God beholds “everything that he had made,” he declares it “very good.” Then he does something remarkable. He places his final creation—Adam—in the Garden of Eden and gives him a task: to name each creature. Thus, God not only rejoices in the goodness of his creative work, he creates beings who can share in knowing and appreciating it in its particularities. Thus, we see that the original, pure communion between God and man is focused, not in on the relationship between the two of them as individuals, but out toward all creation.
The characterization of our world as worth knowing, naming, and approaching with wonder is repeated throughout the Bible. Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God, and anyone who has slept out under the stars, far from the lights of a city, knows exactly what this means. In the book of Job, when God runs out of patience and decides to end the argument, he hammers Job with example after example of the wonders of the created order, its intricacies and its independence from the sphere of human concerns; Job is left humbled and contrite before God. The list goes on: Jesus references God’s care for the sparrows and lilies of the field. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that God’s “invisible attributes…have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” In short, though the biblical story also includes sin, error, and alienation from God, these exist always within the more basic context of a good world, which we are designed to love with God and in which we see the glory of God. A sense of profound wonder about the world around us is thus a vital aspect of a rightly ordered relationship with God, as is our drive to glimpse the mysteries of God’s character by attending to his self-expression in creation. Far from a condemnation of human reason or science, the Bible is an extended call for humans to share with God in the knowledge and love of his of very good works. Whether in loving our neighbors or beholding the behemoth, we are called to see as God sees, which is to say, to see truly.
Make no mistake: human knowledge is fallible. Our best attempts to interpret the world are often wrong. Science makes mistakes. It is justifiably commonplace to say that the lesson we should conclude from scientific exploration is that the more we know, the more we become aware of the depth of human ignorance. But we cannot skip the step of exploration; a small-minded rejection of the worth of scientific discovery at the front end is no substitute for the hard-won awe and humility that follows from it. We should, of course, never make an idol of merely human knowledge or neglect the reality of its limits, but neither should we reject the original human vocation of seeing, knowing, and naming God’s good world. I used to try to instill in my middle school science students the belief that an aspect of having faith in God is having faith that he created a world that rewards our careful and disciplined attention to it with the joy of discovery. Having faith in God means never being afraid of what we might discover in his creation, and it means never doubting that education and exploration are divine callings. While experts may err, the world does not lie to us and wrong ideas are regularly laid bare by the public tests of history and experimentation. Airplanes stay in the air, rockets reach into space, and microwaves heat our food: none of these are signs of human infallibility, but they are signs that the regularity of God’s created order means that predictable effects in the world can attest to the truth of our beliefs about it. God’s world rewards our earnest exploration with new and reliable insight into God’s glory.
We are designed, not just to know and appreciate God through his creation, but also to communicate what we know to each other. God created the world by speaking into the void. Jesus, the one in whom and through whom all things were made, is the “Word.” Adam is commanded, as I mentioned, not merely to study the differences in the animals, but to name them. The bible teaches that there is a deep connection between creation, language, and knowledge written into the very fabric of our world. We are capable, not only of learning about the world, but also of using language to represent our knowledge and to form communities in which knowledge is shared, treasured, clarified, and tested.
Our collective production and communication of knowledge is not perfect, of course, but neither is it illusory. Obviously, we must evaluate all claims to knowledge critically—especially our own—in light of the human tendency to bend the truth toward our own self-interest, to overstate our certainty, and to reject or ignore inconvenient truths (and not just the movie by that name). However, the goodness of creation (of nature, our minds, and our language) is not so distorted by the fall that we cannot create shared norms of evidence and attestation. In situations where we have to believe something, we can create and have created methods for deciding between better and worse foundations of belief.
The development of editorial standards in journalism, peer-reviews in academics, and repeatable experimental methods in the sciences were each driven by this dual reality: human knowledge is fallible, but valuable, open to error, but required for human flourishing. We have to choose to vaccinate our children or not, address climate change or not, believe a presidential candidate or not. We cannot simply refrain from acting in the absence of perfect knowledge, but must decide based on the best information available. Thus, we had to develop ways of knowing which candidate information is best. Because of sin and the limits of human beings, Christians should not trust experts blindly. However, neither should we forget that we are designed by God to know, understand, and appreciate the created order and to live in communities of discourse and accountability that refine and pass down the fruits of human exploration.
What does this all mean for us today? We are emerging from an election cycle marked by ugly cynicism about the mere possibility of appealing to shared standards of truth and about the value of expertise and experience. It seems that we cannot agree about how to learn and verify the basic facts of the world around us. We saw debates and speeches in which the majority of statements were false, leading to cynicism about where we could turn to verify what we had heard. God’s good gifts of human minds and communities to share and test their deliverances seemed overrun by falsehood, confusion, and mistrust.
Now our president-elect is considering cabinet appointees who are far from experts in their fields and who deny the consensus of actual experts. His presumptive appointee to head the EPA, Myron Ebell, for instance, is a non-scientist who runs a climate change denial institute funded, at least in large part, by energy companies. Now don’t get me wrong: any particular consensus position can be wrong. The handful of climate scientist who doubt anthropogenic climate change may turn out to be correct, against the odds. Thus, it would not necessarily be a problem to nominate a highly qualified expert who holds an outlier position, which could conceivably turn out to be right. The problem is in rejecting the value of expertise and the pursuit of objectivity in themselves (and thereby the publicly shared standards of scientific inquiry) by opting for someone who does not even aspire to such standards. Denying the value of shared norms of evidence is not just a rejection of the findings of some set of contemporary scientists; it is a denial of the regularity of God’s creation and its availability for testing and verification by human communities. If this rejection goes far enough, it can become a denial of the original vocation of human beings, that is, our participation with God in knowing and appreciating God’s very good creation.
It is in moments like these, when we are tempted to despair about the possibility of agreeing even on basic facts, that Christians must hope in the goodness of God and trust that the world he created does in fact reward our attention to it. Being “anti-establishment” is fine (depending on the establishment, of course) but Christians must be careful not to deny what God has established for our own good. I’ve heard a number of Christians remind each other after the election that our faith is in God, not in government, and this is true. However, our trust in God must not be limited to his future providence, but should include careful, critical, and real trust in the gifts he has already given, including the gift of institutions for the production, verification, and communication of knowledge.
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