Lutherans have always been great about arguing the fine points of theological minutiae. This is important, as painful as it may sometimes sound. The gift that God has given us in His revelation of Himself in Christ is the most precious one we have in the world. Without it we have no true wisdom, no true knowledge. To safeguard that revelation is worth considerable time and effort.
You may ask, then, why a blog about science? Why not let the scientists be scientists, and let the theologians be theologians? Many confessional Lutherans are happy to “agree to disagree” when it comes to research and technology. Others don’t understand it, and who wants to talk about what they don’t understand? Still others are happy to see study of nature and study of the Scriptures as “non-overlapping magisteria” to use the phrase coined by the late Stephen Jay Gould.
But as in all other areas of life, there is only one appropriate Christian response to research in science and technology: engagement. After all, our God did not leave the world to run its own course, watching from a distance as sin unraveled what had been a very good creation. Our Lord literally got his hands dirty, taking human flesh and walking among us that we might be saved. He dealt with the difficult topics of the day: “Who is my neighbor?” “Tell my brother to divide his inheritance with me!” “Shouldn’t this have been sold and the money given to the poor?” “Who sinned: this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” I believe he continues to speak through the Scriptures on the difficult subjects of our day. That includes difficult issues raised in scientific research and development.
The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod should have much to say about the significant ethical and moral issues arising from our growing but still limited understanding of our Lord’s creation. Yet too often we would rather argue ad nauseum over who has told more people about Jesus, rather than discussing in thoughtful ways how the world to which we have been sent to preach is being changed before our very eyes.
Consider these words from a Jewish physician as recorded in Joel Garreau’s book, Radical Evolution:
You religious people, instead of sitting on your duffs and watching us and then critiquing, you should be the ones figuring out where the dignity comes from for all this. Why is it that when medicine changed and we started to have operations, that the religious people weren’t there with new rituals to try to lend some sense of comfort, dignity, meaning and community connection when somebody has an operation? Why is it still only the same old birth, marriage and death? Why are you guys sitting on the sidelines? (p.263)
And how, exactly, are scientific research and technological developments changing our world, and challenging our understanding of what it means to be human? Consider this:
- Oscar Pistorius, a double –amputee, was banned from the 2008 Summer Olympics for having an “unfair advantage” over those with natural legs. He was later allowed to compete in this year’s Olympics in London.
- Wal-Mart is currently pioneering the idea of placing an almost-microscopic chip on every object it sells. Special transceivers can now identify where those products are located. Imagine every piece of clothing you wear, every article you own, containing a microscopic chip that identifies its manufacturer, store of purchase, and cost to any nearby detector.
- In 2001 it cost over 100 million dollars to sequence someone’s genome, identifying what genes they possess. By 2011, the cost had been reduced to less than 10 thousand dollars. If you choose to have your DNA sequenced, you may be able to head off dangerous diseases down the road. On the other hand, you may lose your health insurance if your provider finds you have a genetic disorder, even if you have no symptoms of a disease.
- It is estimated that by 2030 a $1000 computer will have the hardware capacity of 1,000 humans brains.
But what do any of these changes have to do with the timeless message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Amputee or not, you still need the forgiveness of sins. Whether you have health insurance or not, you still need to be born anew in baptism. Where does the Church come in?
Consider this. There is a group of people in the world dedicated to advancing “strategies for engineering negligible senescence,” or SENS. In English, that means they are working on technologies that will increase human life spans by decades, if not centuries. The National Institute of Health believes that “the first person who will gracefully make it to the age of 150 is already alive today.” (Radical Evolution, p.244) Imagine then a world in which technological intervention can extend your life almost indefinitely. How might a late 21st century congregation reflect that kind of a reality? Could it happen, theologically? And if so, how would be address congregants of people for whom death is rare? How much more difficult will it be to explain “giving up your life for the sake of your friends” to a group for whom death is a quaint artifact of the distant past? Noted historian Frances Fukuyama contemplated such a world and said,
“[In such a world, could] people conceive of dying for a cause higher than themselves and their own little petty lives? I mean, can they think of dying for God or for their country or for their community or anything beyond themselves? I think that the very aspiration is wrong – this aspiration to live forever – because your own petty life trumps all other values, and I think that any traditional notion of transcendence began with the notion that the continuation of your personal human life is not the highest of all goods. No animal is capable of formulating an abstract cause to die for.” (Radical Evolution, p.163)
The time for us to apply our robust Christian theology to these issues is now. The time to apply our Scriptural doctrines to scientific and technological advances is now. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, but our fallen world is not. As research challenges many of the things we thought to be true about being human, it is time for the Church to speak. That’s what “Steadfast in Science” will be about.
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