For many years I’ve attended – and sometimes spoken at – the Acton Institute’s annual four-day June meeting, “Acton University.” The 2022 meeting will happen June 20-23 both in-person in Grand Rapids and online. I’ll be giving a talk there titled “Christian foundations of science & technology innovation: A story in ten facts.” Here it is:
I’d like to start our reflection together with a question about finding Christian vocation in this tremendously important sector of modern work: science and technology.
Christians today are often told that we must bridge the so-called “sacred-secular divide” by finding divine purpose and mission in our daily work. And that sounds good in theory. It certainly has good support in both Scripture and tradition—from the Apostle Paul to Gregory the Great to Martin Luther and beyond. But where it often runs aground is in our actual experience.
Because, truthfully, our modern work contexts, and even the nature of the work we do in those contexts, seems to many of us—for many reasons—about as secular as can be.
So here’s the vocation question: How can we discover Christian vocation in fields of work that Luther could not have even imagined—let alone the Apostle Paul? In particular, how can modern people of faith experience work in the scientific laboratory or the high-tech firm as Christian mission?
I believe there are at least two barriers to overcome here.
First, there is the highly intellectual and at times abstracted nature of the work that often takes place in these fields. Such work can seem so distant from the more obvious kinds of person-to-person service that have been provided in most people’s work through most of history. And some of our modern American church traditions don’t offer much guidance for this kind of “Christian life of the mind.” I feel this personally, because as a young adult convert nurtured in the charismatic movement, I struggled to find some Christian rationale for the academic life to which I was attracted, which has now become my vocation. Scientific work, similarly, seems largely unsupported by our current church cultures.
Second, people of faith struggling with questions of vocation in science and technology are often led astray by something scholars call “the warfare thesis.” This is the claim that Christianity and science are essentially at odds—and have been so throughout history.
This is actually quite a recent claim, dating back no farther than the period of the European Enlightenment, during which skeptics such as Voltaire and the Marquis de Condorcet insisted on the fundamental incompatibility of science and faith. The Marquis, for instance, claimed that the dominance of Christian faith in medieval Europe resulted in QUOTE, “the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences.”
The warfare thesis then jumped a century and an ocean when Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University in the late 1800s, found himself at odds with pious critics of Cornell’s natural sciences curriculum. His response seems a bit over the top: in 1896, after decades of giving lectures with titles like “The Battlefields of Science,” he poured his bitterness into the not one, but two volumes of his History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. This book has never been out of print since then. The late eminent historian of science David Lindberg told me a few years ago that still, every time he gave a lecture on some of the positive dimensions of the historical relationship between church and science, people were amazed, telling him afterwards that all they had learned in school was the warfare story.
We can gauge the warfare story’s continued cultural power by the popularity of such current media portrayals as the 2014 reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos TV series, which is seeing its third season this year. Quite frankly, I had to stop watching it, so twisted is its portrayal of the science-faith relationship.
In the face of this discouraging situation, how then are we to recapture the science and technology sectors as rich arenas for vibrant Christian vocation?
Surely one way is to seek out the actual story of modern science and technology as they emerged in Christendom. This is, in fact, what I’d like to do very briefly in the next few minutes. And I think you will find the real story much more interesting than the caricature spouted by current media personalities like Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
Continued in part II