Preaching the Gospel with Science and Technology
Jesus engaged the science and technology of his day, preaching seeds to farmers and sheep to shepherds. How can we do the same in our modern world?
Recently, I attended a reception for the opening of the new Anglican Communion Science Commission (ACSC). Connecting Christian leaders with leading scientists and theologians from around the world, the Commission aims to help the Church speak clearly, faithfully, and knowledgeably on topics such as vaccines, climate, and land use. The event drew bishops from over 20 countries as well as theologians and practicing scientists.
As we imagined a future of deeper understanding, better communication, and more effective mission, three themes stood out for me. First, the importance of prayer in everything we do. As Christians, we are always turning toward God; we pray without ceasing. Commissioners spoke about lifting up and empowering the vocation of Christians who are scientists. Second, the importance of clear and definite witness. In the words of 1 Peter, “prepare your minds for action.” We are beset by pestilence, famine, and war, exacerbated by changing climate and the COVID pandemic. Third, the variety of contexts and approaches to science around the world. Scientific ideas and scientific institutions come entwined with a history of racism, colonialism, and secularism. Christians are called to “test everything and hold fast to what is good.” But, to what shall we hold fast?
All of this led me to think more carefully about what is meant by “science-engaged theology,” a topic near and dear to my heart. How can I talk about science-engaged spirituality, preaching, and mission? What does it mean to use the tools of science prayerfully, concretely, and justly in the service of God?
Science shapes our belief, technology shapes our world
When you read the words “science-engaged theology,” what do you think of? Quantum entanglement and the duality of God? The ethics of gene editing? Space travel and salvation? It is easy to jump to extreme examples, but most theological engagement with science occurs much closer to home.
At its core, science deals with understanding the world around us through observation and critical thinking. The scientific method is social as well as intellectual; it involves collaboration and follows rules set down by a community. (For more on this, see my book, Thinking Fair) It is not, however, reserved for expert scientists. We all observe, and we all reason. And we all do both when we think about our place in the world—who we are, what we want, and where we’re headed.
Science shapes what we believe. That includes quantum mechanics but also basic insights like “when I let go of the pen, it falls.” The latter, a folk physics of gravity, bends our beliefs as much as real gravity bends the path of a projectile. It is not the only force at play, but it is a very important one, and it is worth thinking about what that means.
Science-engaged theology pays attention to how science and technology help (and hinder) our encounter with God. It notices the forces that pull us and the lenses we use when reading scripture.
Similarly, technology covers more than just the latest developments in Artificial Intelligence. Smartphones are a familiar and increasingly common example, as are indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and electric lights. We take these tools for granted, but they have radically reshaped the world we inhabit. They separate our experience from that of Jesus and his disciples two thousand years ago. The Bible, in turn, speaks of plows and lamps and trees with grafted branches. Those, too, are technologies— human-made tools for shaping the world.
A millennial might read the Bible on an iPhone or e-reader. Their parents read printed books by electric light. One thousand years ago, monks were hand-crafting the earliest codices (books with pages bound along one edge) by candlelight, but most Christians heard scripture instead of reading it. Two thousand years ago, Israelites listened to memorized texts, recorded in closely guarded scrolls. Each of us encounters the same Bible through technology.
Science-engaged theology pays attention to how science and technology help (and hinder) our encounter with God. It notices the forces that pull us and the lenses we use when reading scripture. It appears in the daily life and work of every Christian.
Speaking about God in a world of science
Science and technology are integral to preaching as well. Whenever someone shares the gospel of Jesus Christ, they do so by building on common knowledge. They use what is known to explain something unknown. It could be as straightforward as a definition, using familiar words to reveal a difficult concept: “Love is patient. Love is kind….” I Cor 13:1. It may be a metaphor or analogy:“How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” Lk 13:34. It could even be an extended parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” Mt 13:31. Preaching moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar.
In the twenty-first century science and technology are very familiar. We have domesticated our world, eliminating many of the threats and discomforts of earlier ages. Rarely do we encounter true wilderness. Our ways have been prepared and our paths straightened—cleared, graded, and paved. Our seas have been calmed and our houses secured. Where is the dark forest, the endless sky, and the fathomless deep that once bore witness of the transcendent power and beauty of their creator? What familiar wonders aid us in imagining the unimaginable God?
We can regain some of that wonder through scientific exploration. NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope can help us see distant galaxies and worlds without number. Robots allow us to visit alien worlds from the deep sea to the surface of Mars and Titan. Meanwhile, genetics and microbiology reveal strange and wonderful forms of life living all around us. But let us return to the science and technology of daily life.
It can be easy to miss that Jesus preached seeds to farmers and sheep to shepherds. He invoked the visceral processes of humanity to humans: blood and breath, eating and drinking, birth and death. His words built on the familiar biology of the day.
Many Christians today (at least in places like the US and UK) encounter crops and livestock in scripture more often than in person. It can be easy to miss that Jesus preached seeds to farmers and sheep to shepherds. He invoked the visceral processes of humanity to humans: blood and breath, eating and drinking, birth and death. His words built on the familiar biology of the day. Today we might call it physiology, nutrition, agriculture, and horticulture. At the time, it was just life. It was deeply scientific. How do seeds grow? Why do some plants thrive, while others die? Why is a child like their father? (A child is also like their mother, but this was not broadly appreciated until the Renaissance and demonstrates how the science of the day, Aristotelian biology, shaped theology) It was also thoroughly technological. Jesus used the oil in lamps, the foundations of towers, and lending at interest to reveal the kingdom of God.
Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, light was a popular metaphor for Divinity, from concrete prisms and stained glass windows to more obscure discussions of optics in the writings of Robert Grosseteste, Dante, and Newton. In modern fiction, heroes travel to heaven (and hell) by means of technology. Harry Potter encounters a train to heaven, while Quentin Coldwater (The Magicians) sees a subway. The popular trope of an afterlife train reflects ideas about death as a difficult, one-track journey to a distant land. Other vehicles appear in other stories, each with their own message about death. Frodo and Gandalf board a ship (Return of the King by JRR Tolkien). C.S. Lewis rides a bus (The Great Divorce). Characters in Battlestar Galactica travel by spaceship. We may or may not agree with their message, but all of these stories use familiar technology to teach us about an as yet unknown God.
We need not ask if science appears in sermons, only how. Augustine reminds us that we must get the familiar right if we are to speak of something new:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world…If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well…how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven…? (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis)
The hope that is in you
Science-engaged preaching takes the science and technology of our day-to-day world and uses it to share the story of Jesus Christ. It speaks in the vernacular of a science-soaked, technology-laden world. For good and ill, subways and soda pop are as familiar as sheep and seeds, for some more so. There is a time and a place for preaching stars and planets and the heights of heaven, but there is also a time for nutrition and daily bread.
The Anglican Communion Science Commission met as part of a larger meeting—the Lambeth Conference—where our days were ordered around the first letter of Peter. In the end, I come back to this. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15-16). How can I speak the good news? By seeing and sharing God in the common experiences of life, in the day-to-day biology and engineering of existence.
Science-engaged preaching takes the science and technology of our day-to-day world and uses it to share the story of Jesus Christ. It speaks in the vernacular of a science-soaked, technology-laden world.
Science and technology, like the very dust of the earth, can be moved by the breath of God. They have become part of our world and part of the Body of Christ. They are not, in themselves, good news, but they will be a key part of living and loving and spreading the gospel.
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