Science as an Instrument of Worship, Part 3
Today's entry was taken from an article written by Jennifer Wiseman for the 2009 Theology of Celebration conference and published originally on our website in 2010; we are reposting it here. Here she shared her personal Christian perspectives on how churches can better incorporate science as a positive element of worship, service, and celebration.
Jennifer Wiseman’s 2009 white-paper explained how a renewed engagement with science can enrich the church’s life of worship. Part 1 of our series taken from that paper discussed stumbling blocks to such a renewal. Part 2 began to describe how the Creation itself reflects the nature of God by displaying his power, creativity, beauty, patience, and faithfulness, all tied up in his character of love. This series concludes by connecting the knowledge of the world we get through scientific investigation with humanity’s Biblical mandate to exercise stewardship of God’s Creation.
Science can inform us of what we need to do, as stewards of God’s Creation.
Humanity faces tremendous moral dilemmas today, and science has relevance to most of them. As followers of Christ, we understand that our lives are entrusted to us for a short time, and that we will give an account for the things we do. So as stewards of our lives, and as disciples entrusted to build God’s Kingdom on Earth, it is essential to have knowledge and wisdom to shape the impact of our lives. Are we polluting the environment by our lifestyles? Clear studies of the relationship of how we live and the environmental impact on others are vital for God’s people. What about service? A well-intended project to provide irrigation or livestock for one needy people group may well end up polluting and destroying an ecosystem downstream.
Scientific understanding can foster wisdom for the best choices of lifestyles and service. And informed Christians can lead the pack in helping “science to inform science” when it comes to difficult ethical dilemmas. For example, farming systems that intensively confine animals may offer a promise from agricultural science of more food production to feed more people. But informed Christians can rightly cry foul, because the sciences of animal behavior and medicine clearly show that such confinement is inhumane and thwarts even minimal natural social and physical needs of animals, and environmental science shows that pollutants from such “factory farms” are devastating. The Biblical mandate for compassion for both people and animals is violated. Thus by combining compassion and prayer with broad scientific understanding, wisdom and clearer discernment will equip the Church for effective discipleship and social leadership.
There may be strong differences of opinion, between equally committed believers, as to the right use of science and technology. Should we genetically modify plants and animals, to provide a more abundant food supply? Should we design sophisticated weapons that can unintentionally destroy innocent lives? Should we use medical technology to prolong life at all costs? Such challenging issues can be an exercise in teaching God’s people how to be informed, how to articulate a viewpoint, and how to weigh respectfully the opinions and concerns of others, without necessarily condemning alternative points of view. In this way the Church can also set an example to the nation and the world of how healthy, respectful dialogue can foster productive progress in addressing difficult public issues. But how important are these issues, if the return of Christ is eminent? This is a realm of theological understanding that can affect whether some churches consider stewardship of technology and environmental protection as an important mandate of God, or even relevant to the future, if in fact there may be no long-term future of the present Earth. This requires careful teaching on the balance between embracing Godly stewardship principles with the intent to bless the world now and for many, many generations to come, while at the same time becoming spiritually ready to join the Lord however soon that may take place.
There is yet another realm of Christian discipleship in science, and that is simply the joy of exploration for its own sake, or rather, as a means of discovering and sharing what God has done. Sharing the wonders of Creation, as scientific discovery reveals them, is a great service to others.
(Earthrise: our beautiful, fragile planet, as seen from lunar orbit. Credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center)
Since I am an astronomer studying distant star-forming regions, and I work for our nation’s space exploration agency, I am sometimes asked by citizens of the public why we should spend any time or money on studies of outer space while there is so much human suffering on Earth: shouldn’t we solve the world’s problems first, before we spend money and effort exploring the oceans or the forests or distant galaxies? I have seen good people get very angry over what can appear to be completely unethical priorities; for instance should we send a probe to study Saturn when we could instead feed hungry children here on Earth? These dilemmas will always be present, and they are not simple. But I believe that God has called us to do BOTH: that is, to serve the poor and the suffering, AND to explore and study his Cosmos. In fact, it is those moments of great discovery and exploration, such as the first moon landing, or the Voyager images of Jupiter’s moons, or the historic first images from the Arctic explorers, that lift the human spirit and give us pause to contemplate the larger context and meaning of our lives. I have found kindred spirits, excited to learn about space, in both the western academic world and amongst the youngsters in impoverished, developing nations. Curiosity and wonder bring us together. We get a Biblical glimpse of this in Genesis, when God asks Adam to name all the animals. The text gives the sense of God’s pleasure as Adam sees the wondrous variety of creatures, and descriptively names each one.
And how should Christians view science and scientists? Since science is a systematic search for truth, and Christians believe that all truth is God’s truth, then there should be true appreciation for these “messengers” who devote their lives to understanding the details of God’s creation and who share their discoveries of scientific truth. Of course as human beings, scientists are sinful and fallible like everyone else. But the portrayal of science and scientists in the church should be a positive one. In fact, historically a great many leading scientists have done their work as explicit service to God (e.g., Blaise Pascal and Johannes Kepler). It should be no different today. Our congregations should encourage young people to go into science, and to see this (and all noble careers) as service to God. Imagine the difference it could make to the whole world if Christians would lead the use of science in a path compelled by love, compassion, and service!
Dr. Wiseman is an astronomer, author, and speaker. She holds a B.S. in physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard. Active in science and faith dialogue, she enjoys giving talks to congregations, youth groups, civic groups, and science enthusiasts on the excitement of science