Science in Christian Perspective


Richard H. Bube


From: JASA 32 (June1980): 65-69.
Presented at the 1979 Annual Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation at Stanford University, Stanford. California.

How common it is for all human beings to seek simple solutions to life's problems. Conservative Christians and engineers are two classes of people who probably find the simple solution particularly attractive. Many conservative Christians have been handed the "answers" to all of life's problems in a complete systematic theology. They seek security in the assurance that they hold absolute knowledge. Life max' look complicated, but it really is not: Jesus is the answer. It is the liberals and time confused humanists of time world who try to complicate the situation and insist that the biblical message of salvation through faith in Christ is theologically simplistic. It is the simple wisdom of Cod that puts to nothing the foolishness of men. And in this certainly the conservative Christian is basically right.

Many engineers are trained for years in curricula that prepare them to seek the single correct answer following the single correct set of procedures until they arrive at a final result, which by being quantitative-is essentially simple. A couple of summers ago I held an informal seminar called, "What's A Nice Person Like You Doing in Engineering?" It proved to be fairly traumatic for the trained engineering student to conic to grips with the world of paradox and complementaritv, of uncertainty and unknown roads. Within the context of the known-or the mostly known-the engineer is basically right in his approach.

But the living of life demands far more than this of both Christian and engineer. The Christian immay know that Christ is the answer, but find it much more difficult to determine what the question is. By assuming that justification and glorification cm one together, he forgets that long and painful process of sanctification: the task of applying Christian faith and principles to the very real problems of a very upset world, in which the specific issues are not themselves dealt with biblically. The engineer may be on sore ground when he interpolates frojn experience and empirical data, but lie is on less sure ground when he tries to extrapolate to phenomena in the future within the context of personal, political and econonmlc reality. By assuming that technical problems can be dealt with independently of our whole human interrelated responsibilities, he is often led to insist that solutions are relatively simple after all. Perhaps the most afflicted of all is the conservative Christian engineer or scientist-and, I presume, that this is one reason why we are attending this Annual Meeting.

The simple answer is epitomised by the political slogan, and the general belief that all that is needed is to choose 'the right side" and their chant it into success. We have seen the placards held high: "Nuclear energy is as natural as sex." "No more Nukes!" "More Nukes and Less Kukes!" "We Can Live Without Nuclear Energy!" I'm waiting for "Make love, riot nuclear energy to surface. A newspaper report quoted a young loan's solution to the gas crisis:

Since this gas thing is a big hoax. I think we should just take the OPEC nationss and just blowmthem up and take their oil. That will solve  the gas crisis.1

It is amazing how difficult it is for people to realize that the problems we face are not simple and that they are riot, In oand large, simply due to someone else being tt1tstv to us. 1 low difficult to realize that the most brilliant of its is often ignorant-as ste11 as possibly uialieious. Ailother Letter to the Editor made an incredible statement along this line.
I am shocked at the a1iatltn of all Out' upturned faces %% aitirtV for
Skylah to lull I nun the sk5 nest week.. It is hard for ne to hi'
lieve that, in a count0 as advanced as the U.S., our scientific and technical knoss--hoss can't at least detect a tess hours it) alhallce
sshere Skvlah will fail ..... And this in a countrs that can send men
into space and bring them hack safety.'
We face the very grave danger of believing that science is omnipotent, and therefore attributing any failure to human malevolence. Having rejected the possibility of ignorance or impotence, the author above then continues with his solution:
NASA is right on our hack door. I think we should let our ''research" neighbor know how we feel. We picket spots like Diablo Canyon, but turn our eyes away from the fact that the odds given for someone to he hit and killed next week are 152 to 1, and that's not infinitesimal. Let's shout out our objections to NASA, the City Council, Civil Defense, and anyone else who should help us!
Simple answers, simple causes, simple motivations, simple solutions are almost always false and illusory when we are dealing with the problems of the biological, sociological and spiritual organism known as hssmoan life on this planet.
Daniel Moynihan had wise words in his farewell address to the President's Cabinet in 1970:
A century ago the Swiss historian Jacob ltorckhardt foresaw that ours would be the age of 'the great simplifiers,' and that the essence of tyranny was the denial of complexity, Ite was eight. This is the single great teuiptatioit at our tune. It is the great cocruptuir, and must he resisted with purpose and energy. What we need arm' great comoplexitiers, men who will not only seek to understand what it is they are about, but who will also dare to share that understanding with those for whom they act.3
The contention that the right course of action can always be easily known is a delusion. Situation ethics, for example, betrays us when it portrays "doing the loving thing" as the answer to our difficult choices. "Doing the loving thing" is the problem-not the answer. What does it mean to do the loving thing in the real world in which we live? We could well adopt Moynihan's words as a motto on which to meditate: "The Essence of Tyranny is the Denial of Complexity." There is no substitute for hard work, sound scholarship, authentic science, and biblical theology-if we are even to begin to rise to the challenge.
I was impressed by the advice of James F. Allcock, Purchasing Manager for the British Gas Corporation:
I believe that a Christian can he persuasive quite' hevoorl his station in life. lIe should be diligent above the rest and 1 believe that he should he clear headed above the rest because he dare face the truth and tell the truth and face xx ith courage the conflicts Of opinion which are the stuff 0t the business life. But I do not think
that either prayer or flair will sue you through. ]'here is no substi-tute for a profound competence at your job and this will he the
source of your persuasiveness 4
Neither "prayer nor flair" alone, but hard work and "profound competence.
Before someone points it out, let me confess that even m. urging you to avoid the simple approach is itself in some ways too simple! For we are faced with the paradox that although a simple solution does not exist for a coinplex problem, the only way to start any kind of solution in the context of human society is to produce a simplified analysis of the problem! We in the ASA know this truth only too well. Our position that the question of evolution, for example, is a complex one and should be faced slowly and carefully with all possible inputs from science and the Bible, has not-at least as far as numbers influenced are concerned-had the same degree of appeal and apparent success as the approach of others of our brethren who see the issue simply and can give at a moment's notice the whole and complete answer. Every four years we see the presidential campaign degenerate from the meaningful to the simple to the simplistic to the absurd; yet how else does the democratic system work?
There is one simple truth that appears to he almost inescapable: we are living on a finite earth with finite resources and finite capabilities for being changer! front its natural state. When the finite capabilities of the earth are pressed to their limit, something drastic must change in the way that human beings view their relationship to the earth and to one another.
Although we are now daily being forced to change our perspective, we have-one might say front the beginning of the human race until the last ten years-lived as if the earth were not finite, as if it were so big that it remnained constant and unaffected by our presence and our activity. We have thought of ourselves as living on the earth, but we have not reckoned with the fact that this kind of separation is to a large extent a fiction: our lives and the life of the earth are bound together. Francis Schaeffer has emphasized for us that although from the perspective of redemption mankind is unique and separated from the rest of creation, from the perspective of creation mankind is one with all the other creatures and ereaturely things that Cod created.5
Some Foolish Thoughts
Bear with me for a few moments of foolish thought. Consider that until 100 years ago the world's supply of energy came only from burning wood. Then came the use of coal, followed by nil, and natural gas. We have used the fossil fuels in a sequence in which their desirability has increased but their availability has decreased. We all know the benefits to society that accrued because
of this succession-although there are still some oldfashioned minds who might question whether the actual extent of these benefits are as great as we think they are. But we have not paid much attention to the cost of these developments. We have lost sight of the fact that the very process of energy production is and always has been destructive in some way of human life and values.
We have not paid much attention to the shattered lives of our coal miners and the price they have paid in blacklung disease. When we think about stepping up coal production by orders of magnitude, we should think about these things.
We have not paid much attention to the men who have spent years underground mining for precious metals, frequently at the cost of their health or their lives. We forget that in ancient times metal mining was usually the fate of condemned criminals or slaves.
We are only now coming to realize how heavily our national foreign policy is controlled by our thirst for energy. Art Buchwald is a political humorist, but like all such humor it is most pungent because of a core of truth. In a recent column on "Good Guys and Bad Guys," he said,
The President of Mexico, Jose Lopez Portillo, is a good guy though he has poblically scolded our president at a luncheon. Mexico has large quantities of oil and gas. President Sornoza of Nicaragua is a bad guy because he violates human rights and doesn't have any 0d or gas. Libyan leader Muammar Ithadafy is a good guy because although he violates human rights and supports terrorism he does have oil and gas. Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel is a bad guy because he won't give up the West Bank of the Jordan. President Carter has been very harsh about Begin because he knows Israel has no oil and gas.6
I atn wondering-in these foolish thoughts that you are putting up with-whether perhaps we didn't make a serious mistake in judgment some 100 years ago. I wonder if we had been able to assess the implications of our growing energy usage then, and the forms it was taking, whether we might not have been wise to develop quite differently, if we could! I am wondering in these foolish thoughts, if maybe, just maybe, the earth wasn't really intended to support the kind of living that we have imposed upon it in the last 100 years. Our energy-thirsty world, and of course I speak particularly of the Western World where, energy exploitation has been maximized, has led us to so pollute the air in centers of population that serious dangers to health grow yearly and the falling of acid rain because of sulfur dioxide in the air becomes a common and recurring danger, to so infiltrate our life with chemical additives and biologically active materials that we often don't know the effect until years and tragedies later, to so increase the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere that profound and life-upsetting changes in earth's climate and ability to produce food may well occur within the next 100 years because of the greenhouse effect, and to so rapidly use up non-renewable resources in the form of minerals and metals that drastic steps will be needed to prevent major shortages in the near future.
Proponents of nuclear energy frequently defend themselves by saying, "The modern protest against a new source of energy with some dangers is not new. Why,
JUNE 1980
when coal mining started a hundred years ago, there was the same kind of protest. And everyone knows how foolish that protest was." Sometimes, in my foolish thoughts, I wonder how foolish it really was.
How High the Cost?
One of the great ethical questions brought on by our
present situation is this: 1-low indifferent can the majority be to the suffering of the minority needed to produce o good for the majority, and how indifferent can the minority he to the deprivation of the majority needed to preserve a good for the minority?
How many coal miner's lives are we willing to shorten for the benefit of the rest of the society? How many sacrifices should the rest of society make to minimize danger to coal miners?
If any of us knew that a human being would die in order for us to have an hour's worth of electricity-and particularly if we knew that human individual involved-few if any of us would insist on having our electricity anyway. But if we are told that there is a 1% chance that a human being will die if we have one hour's worth of electricity, we stop to think. That's still too big a risk, we probably decide-for on the average one human being would still die for every 100 hours of electricity. It will be hard to do without those 100 hours of electricity, and maybe the 1% change is overestimated, so maybe ... But if we are told that there is a one in a million chance that a human being will die sometime in the next 10 years for our one hour's worth of electricity, and if that human being is someone we will never know, who lives in poverty in a strange land as part of a foreign culture, we do not hesitate for long. Give up one million hours of electricity in order to save the life of some poor wretch who would probably die anyway from some other disease-surely that is too great a price to pay! We take the electricity and hope that we will not learn of its cost.
Is one human life worth one million hours of electricity? You may still be of the opinion that one human life is worth any sacrifice. But you'll forgive me if I don't believe you! Otherwise wouldn't we live differently? Wouldn't we refuse to carelessly use energy supplies because we know that men and women have inevitably lost their lives in obtaining them for us? Wouldn't we use an energy-related basis for our purchasing priorities? Wouldn't we work for the abolition of the automobile because we know that thousands of lives are lost each week only because automobiles are being driven-not considering the indirect costs of automobile pollution but only the direct loss of life through automobile accidents? Wouldn't we accept a massive reduction in the availability of energy that would drastically change the way we live-not necessarily for the worse, howeverrather than press for the expansion of energy production by whatever means, whether fossil fuel or nuclear?
George Mavrodes has given us a penetrating parable called "The Salvation of Zachary Baumkletterer."7 Baumkletterer takes seriously the poverty, hunger and need of others in the world and refuses to eat or use more
than "his share" of the total world's resources. Many try to dissuade him, including his Pastor, when his health is affected. Finally he collapses at his desk at work and is taken to the hospital. When he is at last discharged, the Dr. in attendance says, "I can practically guarantee that
he'll be as good as new, fully cured ..... ome of the treat
ments we have now are just amazing. And when the hair grows back over his temple, you won't even be able to see the scar." Was Baumkletterer wrong? If he was, do we know why and what he should have done instead, caring the way that he did?
We have "progressed" so far from the ecological balance of nature that almost every action we take to sustain life in one area threatens it in another. How safe roust an action he before it is taken? We would like to reply, "It must be absolutely safe." But then we realize that it could never be taken.
I have heard some Christians say that Christians never have to choose between the lesser of two evils, but I think they have never thought very deeply about the real problems of the imperfect and sinful world in which we live.
Are There Limits?
In spite of this situation, there are still many today who face the future with equanimity, not based on any basic Christian trust in the sovereignty of God over his creation, but based on human ability to resolve all technical problems and move on to the bigger problems of reshaping human society and nature.
I share with you just two such technical problems for your consideration. They concern the finiteness of the earth as the site for a growing human population, and the finiteness of the earth as the source of minerals and metals in the presence of a growing population. My immediate reference is a book, Consequences of Growth, by Columbia University physics professor Gerald Feinberg,' but I suspect that his suggestions would he fairly generally held by a number of others.
The solution to the finiteness of the earth with a growing population is the colonization of space. Colonization of earth characterized the day of the "infinite earth" with lots of room at the open frontier. Development of the wheel, the boat, the train and the airplane pushed back every frontier on earth so that they are all gone. But space travel is the new freedom-the freedom to push back the frontiers off earth into the universe! As in the vision of Arthur Clarke in 2001, mankind's freeing of itself from the confines of earth by rocketing into space is today's evolutionary counterpart to the first time that pre-human creatures threw their weapons into space and moved to a new cultural form. Space colonies will consist of hollow rotating shells, producing their own gravity and their own internal environment, obtaining their materials and minerals from the moon and the asteroids. Each colony will support something like 10,000 people. Such colonies are proposed to make a major difference in the number of human beings that the universe can support. But a simple consideration of the fact
that the present population of the earth is about 3 billion people, indicates that a 1/3 increase in the human population of the universe would require 100,000 such space colonies.
Now you may pigeon-hole me as being old-fashioned and without vision, but this does not seem to me to be any kind of solution to the population problem, technical or otherwise. If we can afford to do it, there may well be interesting and informative activities that we can carry on in space. But to suppose that this is a viable method to allow for a large increase in human population seems to me totally unreasonable. Forgetting for the moment the energy and resource problems in putting up a vast number of such space colonies, such speculation seems to always assume that human nature will somehow change in the process. It never seems to occur to anyone that such space colonies would probably be engaged in intercolony warfare before many generations passed. That we can export human beings into space but leave human nature behind appears to he a general fallacy of such thinking.
The solution to the finiteness of the supply of raw materials for the earth is to obtain whatever we need from the earth's crust itself. Having shown that the contents of rock in the top 100 meters of the earth's crust contain sufficient materials and minerals to meet our needs for a long time into the future, Feinberg proposes that we need only destructively treat several square miles of land each year to a depth of 100 meters to obtain all the resources of this type we will need. This would, it is true, require a capital investment equivalent to 25 years at the current rate in the metals industries, and a technology assessment far more long-range than anything successfully carried out yet. But these are, after all, only technical problems.
We have moved rapidly away from the ecological equilibrium of planet earth. In my foolish thoughts earlier I speculated that we might have chosen to avoid this by different choices in the past. I do not call it optimism to believe that further rapid divergence from ecological equilibrium is the solution for the future.
A Final Limit
There is one aspect of the finiteness of the earth that cannot be omitted, and about which there is no debate. Let us suppose that new acceptable sources of energy are developed so that we have more energy available than we know what to do with. We still cannot use this energy beyond a certain amount without drastically altering the temperature, climate and productivity of the world. When the amount of energy expended on earth (and this includes all sources of energy except terrestrially-collected solar: fossil fuels, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, even solar energy intercepted in space and beamed to earth with microwaves) becomes of the order of 1 that regularly received on earth from the son, we can expect the average temperature to rise by about 1°C. As a consequence we can expect a shifting of agricultural regions from fertile to infertile, a magnification of the C02-related temperature rise, and a melting of the polar ice caps. If, in the future, the energy usage of
the rest of the earth were brought up to that of the US, and if we in the meantime did not increase our usage by more than a factor of two over that at present, we would be already worldwide within a factor of two of this limit! In fact, in major industrialized areas of the world (e.g., New York city that survives only because of the heat sink of New Jersey) we are already at the limit. Even the greatest technological success on earth is not going to budge this limit.
Simple Solutions in Other Areas
Our discussion has been concerned almost exclusively with the area of energy and materials. But concern with the danger of simple solutions and sloganeering extends to many other issues as well. Abortion, for example, lends itself admirably to sloganeering. At a petition table on Palnser Square in Princeton, we recently saw the following gem: "If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."
Pro-abortionists are "pro-choice" and "pro-women's rights"; anti-abortionists are "prolife." Pro-abortionists speak as if the developing fetus were a material attachment to the woman's body like a wart or an appendix; anti-abortionists speak as if the barely fertilized blastocyst were a whole human person.
It is only by refusing to become politicized by such sloganeering, and by being willing to step back and allow truth to he more important than our own possibly fallible perceptions, that such issues can be treated at all in the real world with real responsibility.
Disagreement Among Christians
It may well be that many of you will not agree with
some of the points I have tried to make. That is all right. I
make no claim for having a corner on the truth.
We can be sure that there is a Christian approach (or possibly several) to any problem we face. But to say that there is a Christian approach does not mean either that such an approach is uniquely Christian, or that such an approach is something that all Christians can easily agree on.
The details 'of the best Christian approach-as distinct from the motivation-to technological problems should not be expected to be uniquely Christian: a weapon to be taken up in conflict with non-Christian interests. When a child falls into a well, both the Christian and the nonChristian come up with the same solution: pull the child out. Clearly this is the best Christian approach, but there is nothing about lowering a rope and pulling that is uniquely Christian or has apologetic value in itself. I once had a paper turned down by a leading Christian magazine with the comment that it appeared to be "only practical" and not uniquely Christian. We must get past this barrier and learn to thank Cod for the practical solutions to practical problems.
We also cannot expect that all Christians are going to agree on what that solution should be in every case. As Allcock warned us in the earlier quotation, the Chris
JUNE 1980
tian cannot expect to make a meaningful contribution by prayer and flair alone, but must he prepared for lots of hard work. Christians who accept different facts will normally come to different conclusions. Lots of hard work in a complicated area may lead-at least for a timeto the honest conclusion that we do not know enough to answer the question dogmatically or conclusively; caution, concern and more hard work are the only answers for the Christian.
Climbing on either the pro- or the anti- bandwagons and carrying signs or getting petitions signed is often only an easy road; I call you to a more responsible action than that. I call upon you to know what is to be known, and to recognize what is not known. I call upon you to separate fact from culture, established demonstration from optimistic hope, and absolute condemnation from biased prejudice. I call upon you to be faithful stewards of Jesus Christ, willing and anxious to play in your personal life's example and in your social contacts the role of caretaker and deputy of Cod's world for Cod's people.
Let us not allow differences in interpretation of what it means to act in a Christian manner with respect to the problem we face, create dissensions or name-calling among us. Let its never he guilty of making our own faulty and limited technological judgments the cause of breaks in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. But let us realize that differences in Christian opinion are a call for more work, more prayer, more understanding, more patience, more humility, and more openness to new inputs.
'Peninsula Times Tribune, Pal,, Alto, California, July 1979. 'Peninsula Times Tribune, Palo Alto, California, August 1979.
5Fro,r, the farewell speech of Daniel Moynihan to the President's Cabinet
in 1970, quoted by C. C. David, Jr., Science 189, 679 (1975) in an edi
torial, "One-Armed Scientists?"
'James F. Allcoek, "A Christian in Industry," Journal ASA 29, 139 (1977)
'Francis A. Schaetter, Pollution and the Death of Man. Tyndale, wheaton (1970)
'Art B,,chwsld, Syndicated Column, "Good Cups and Bad Guys"
-George I. Mavrodes, Reformer! Journal, October (1975): InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois (1976)
'George Feinberg, Consequences of Growth, Seabmiry, New York (1977)
Richard H. Bube
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University Stanford, California 94305