Science as a Christian Vocation
Published in Eastern Mirror and other newspapers. Reposted here with permission from author
“The single greatest sin any young person can commit”, said William Temple, the then Archbishop of Canterbury “is to choose a career on selfish grounds without a sense of calling. For it is the deliberate withdrawal from allegiance to God of the greatest time and strength.”
Perhaps not many Christians consciously choose science as a vocation in obedience to God’s calling. In fact, many young people, particularly in low-income countries, choose science mostly on economic grounds and social prestige and not mainly for using their talent and knowledge for the betterment of humankind or ‘out of love, care and concern for their neighbours’. Even poorer countries, such as India, pour a considerable amount of their GDP into scientific research which are closely tied to military power and commercial interests. Many adolescents are, therefore, pushed into careers that are based on science not because of a sense of vocation and responsibility but on economic grounds. On the other hand, many people who have a poorly informed knowledge of science tend to have a suspicious view of science as inherently reductionist and anti-theistic. This fear is largely promoted by popular media and science fictions, the inability of the general public to differentiate between science and scientism – the belief that science explains everything – and the ideological abuses of science. Therefore, Christians have the dual responsibility to expose the idolization of science as well as the fear of science and lead in using science for the flourishing of God’s creation.
I believe the pursuit of science as a Christian vocation is not only legitimate but also necessary at least on four grounds:
The intelligibility of the universe on which the entire scientific enterpriseis based, which puzzled many great scientists, including Albert Einstein, is perhaps not a puzzle for Christians who believe that the world is created by the creative and faithful God in an orderly manner and has put the scientific laws in place. The belief that the God who is faithful to His creation as revealed in the Bible (Genesis 8:22) and interacts through the creation (Jeremiah 10: 12-13), which is dubbed as “nature” by the current scientific jargon, gives a strong basis for Christians to have faith on the rationality of the universe and the reliability of the scientific exploration. It is no wonder then that the modern science was born and nurtured in a cultural environmentthat is shaped by these biblical convictions.
One can very well claim that the practice of science as an appropriate and redeeming activity of Christians who seek to glorify God gave the foundation to the Royal Society in the Seventeenth Century England which is evident from the fact that seven out of the ten of the founders were Puritans. Rodney Stark in his book For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery reports that of the fifty-two prominent practicing scientists born in between1543-1680, the so-called period of Scientific Revolution, more than sixty per cent of of them were devout Christians, and only two were sceptics while fifteen were clergy.Many present day Christian scientists continue to espouse that their vocation in sciences enable them to marvel at the works of God. For example, Jenifer Wiseman, a NASA Astronomer, shares her conviction that science is an instrument of worship and can inform and inspire our worship and service. Expositing on Psalm 19 “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim his handiwork” she believes ‘contemplating God’s handiwork in Creation is not an expendable “extra” but is of critical spiritual importance for all people’. Similarly,Denis Alexander, formerly Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge and (now Emeritus) Director of Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge believes that ‘[Science] is no mere human construct…but represents descriptions, albeit partial, of the realities of God’s working in the world.”
In a world where scientific research is mostly driven by selfish commercial interests or human ambitions and pride Christians can lead in developing knowledge that ‘subdue the earth’ and make it a more habitable place to live and reverse some of the ecological damages that have been done by human greed.Science should be used for the benefit of humankind was very much a Christian vision. This conviction madeFrancis Bacon, the pioneer in empiricism, advocate that “Scientific knowledge should be sought not for superiority [over] others, or for profit, or fame, or power… but for the benefit and use of life”. Christians can lead in identifying the gaps in knowledge that otherwise gives room to uninformed superstitions and provide sophisticated solutions either in prevention of deadly epidemics, famine and environmental care. If Jesus had promised“whoever gives even acupof cold water to one of these little ones … none of these will lose their reward”(Mathew 10:42)how much more blessed will a scientist be who develops scientific methods of purifying drinking water thatprevents diseases in poorer communities?
Whereas the scientific development has brought many benefits and luxuries to humankind it also has brought many miseries, wars and diseases. As VinothRamachandra pointed out, “The combination of profound creativity with moral naiveté, intellectual passion with personal and national ambition, has made science an instrument of great violence today”. Christian scientists with an authority in their respective fields can lead in making this damaged world more liveable. As scientific knowledge progresses we are faced with even bigger challenges. For example,our intricate relationship with our environment and the destruction our economic greed has done to the environment means that more and more in-depth scientific investigations are required to unravel and inform the harms we are doing to God’s beautiful creation. As Jenifer Wiseman points out, informed Christians can lead in helping “science to inform science”. While leading the scientific community to use their gifts and talents for the betterment, equity and justice for all humankind Christian scientists can also point out that science alone cannot solve all these challenges that we face today. This is, of course, never to claim that only Christians can do good science or only Christians can point out the abuse of science for the Bible says that God gives sunshine and rain to everyone. Christian scientists can work alongside their colleagues, both from the scientific community as well as other non-scientific fields,with a vision to bring social and ethical implications of their work that make science more humane and bring about equity and justice in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
(Dr Azhoni Krichena is currently a project scientist at Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)