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SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
ROGER L. SHINN
In 1926 the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described science and religion* as “the two strongest general forces” that influence human life. Inevitably, then, the ecumenical movement has had an interest in science.
Historians frequently make the case that the development of science owes something to the biblical tradition. Polytheism and animism discourage efforts at unified explanations of nature,* and religions that teach the unreality of the physical world devalue scientific exploration. Belief in divine creation implies a unity and authentic reality to all nature, the presuppositions for most scientific inquiry. Even so, scientific discoveries have often clashed with traditional beliefs and have threatened ecclesiastical authority,* leading to sporadic, sometimes dramatic conflicts between science and theology.
In the ancient and medieval church the clashes were usually not severe. Christians understood that no human language was adequate to the mystery of God and that much of the Bible was to be read symbolically.
Scientists were a small elite, and scientific methods had not come to dominate culture.* Platonism diverted human attention from nature (a shadow-world) to the
eternal “real” world, and Aristotelianism
assumed a teleology in nature that theologians could relate to their understanding of divine creation. So it was not until the great modern advances of science that the problems of relating science and theology be-came critical for society at large.
Catholicism met the challenge of new scientific cosmologies by condemning Galileo (1633), a condemnation that was revoked by Pope John Paul II in 1992. Learning from that experience, the Vatican did not make a similar mistake with the scientific theory of evolution. Protestantism sometimes rejected evolution, insisting that Gen. 1-3 gave a literal and accurate account of creation* – a belief that still causes conflicts in public education in some parts of the world (see creationism). A quite different Protestant response, typical of some liberal theology, was to make a theology of development and progress out of evolution. Today theologians are engaged in new efforts to relate contemporary scientific cosmologies and evolutionary concepts to Christian belief.
Technology has often been a quite different enterprise from science. Science seeks understanding. Its motivation is both intellectual and aesthetic; it loves a comprehensive and “elegant” theory. It is a work of imagination joined with realism. It traces connections of cause and effect; its methods include observation, development of theories that explain the evidence, and verification of those theories by further observation and experimentation, thus expanding the boundaries of knowledge. Technology seeks to cope with and sometimes control physical nature and society. Its motivation is practical. It is less concerned with grand theories, more concerned with effectiveness. In some cases technology is the application of science; thus the scientific theories of Albert Einstein led to the technology of nuclear energy and weapons. But technology has also preceded science; the lever, the wheel, the first ancient steam engine and the magnifying glass probably came long before the theories that explain them.
In some societies, including the ancient Greek, science was mainly an interest of intellectuals, who disdained physical labour and therefore technology. Both class structure and metaphysics separated theory from practice, science from technology. Christian faith,* remembering the carpenter of Nazareth, drew the two closer. Monasteries, though often unsophisticated intellectually, became the centres for the preservation of scientific knowledge and the development of crafts and technologies. The Benedictine monks have been called the first intellectuals to get dirt under their fingernails.
In the modern world science and technology are interdependent, sometimes almost indistinguishable. Ever since Francis Bacon (1561-1626) declared that “knowledge is power”, the sharp separation between science and technology has been blunted. In pragmatic theories of knowledge, in which all inquiry is problem solving, science and technology are closely akin. Contemporary science often leads to technological innovations; just as often its experimentation depends upon elaborate technological apparatus. Frequently it is funded by government and industry interested in military and economic pay-offs.
Even so, the distinction between science and technology remains important. Science with its understanding of the world presents issues to theology concerning the truth claims of Christian faith. Technology presents issues to ethics,* as its new powers require human direction and evaluation.
Ecumenical attention in the 20th century
The WCC from its beginnings has taken an interest in the social impact of scientific technologies. The first assembly, meeting in Amsterdam in the aftermath of the second world war (1948), called attention to the relation between technology and modern secularism and to the ways in which technology acquires a momentum of its own that has a powerful effect on society (see secularization). It warned against the technological depersonalization of life and its wasteful exploitation of natural resources. However, delegates from Asia and Africa (a very small minority in the WCC at that time) saw the potential of technology to “lessen the burden of toil and alleviate poverty”. They thought the Europeans and North Americans were overly pessimistic about technology.
The second assembly (Evanston 1954) launched a study project on the “Christian Responsibility towards Areas of Rapid Social Change”, with special attention to Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The discussions emphasized political, economic and cultural change, but with constant awareness of the impact of technology on all these. The climax of the project was a conference in Salonika (1959) on “Christian Action in Rapid Social Change: Dilemmas and Opportunities”.
The third assembly (New Delhi 1961) brought major changes in the WCC. The merger of the WCC and the International Missionary Council, along with the entrance of the Russian Orthodox and other churches from Africa, Asia and Latin America, changed the predominantly Western European-North American character of the WCC’s earlier years. The Asian setting influenced the assembly’s concern for the responsible uses of technology.
The years 1962-65 were the years of the Second Vatican Council.* Pope John XXIII, who had authorized the presence of Roman Catholic observers at New Delhi, invited Protestant and Orthodox observers to Vatican II. Roman Catholicism had a strong legacy of papal encyclicals* and addresses dealing with the modern political-economic world, including its technologies. These usually endorsed the benefits of technologies, urged believers to use them in accord with Catholic moral teachings, and warned against the depersonalizing effects of modern social change. If these documents sometimes showed nostalgia for medieval Christendom, Vatican II changed that – above all, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes.
This influential document recognized the importance of industrialization and urbanization in shaping the modern world. It acknowledged the impact of the physical and human sciences upon the understanding of the world and upon human self-knowledge, and it took account of the technology that it saw “transforming the face of the earth”. It addressed issues of marriage* and family,* culture, economic organization, political life, world peace and the community of nations – seeking to understand all these in their scientific as well as their moral aspects. It welcomed science and technology when these are directed towards human dignity and equality, while warning against their dehumanizing effects when ethical issues are neglected.
During Vatican II, the WCC was making plans for a world conference on “Christians in the Technical and Social Revolutions of Our Time” (Geneva 1966). This was the first major WCC conference devoted solely to issues of social ethics. It was in many respects an heir of the Oxford conference of the Life and Work movement (1937), prior to the organization of the WCC. But Oxford had been a conference of church leaders, mostly clergy and mostly from Western Europe and North America. At Geneva a majority of the 420 delegates were laypeople, and a majority came from outside the old geographical nexus. Roman Catholics had prominent roles as speakers and observers.
The conference had a wide impact. Its four preparatory volumes of essays were studied around the world. It was the first global platform for emerging Latin American and African theologies of liberation. Its findings won major attention among member churches and among critics of the WCC.
The delegates, when they addressed the topic of the conference, were more adept at talking about social than technological revolutions. Despite some major addresses on technology, the conference centred its attention on political, social and cultural issues, and it considered technology primarily as a form of power with social impact. Some of the participating scientists objected that their concerns had been neglected, and the report of the conference contained recommendations that the WCC find ways for continuing work involving scientists and technologists.
Following Geneva, the WCC and the Vatican cooperated in the founding of the committee on Society, Development and Peace (Sodepax*), which for a few years pursued vigorously some of the concerns shared by Vatican II and Geneva. Within the WCC, the department of Church and Society carried out the recommendations for continued work involving cooperation of scientists and technologists with theologians.
This process took an unexpected direction when the issues of ecology leapt into prominence in several parts of the world. The Geneva reports had stated: “The churches should welcome the development of science and technology as an expression of God’s creative work. They should also welcome the economic growth and social development which it makes possible.” That confidence was balanced by warnings that technological power can be an instrument of injustice. But the new accent, neglected at Geneva, was on the destructive consequences of present technologies and economic development, as they consume unrenewable resources, pollute the environment and endanger human life and ecosystems. Some scientists involved in the programme of the WCC made this point with great power. The fifth assembly of the WCC (Nairobi 1975) endorsed continuing work on the theme, and the central committee adopted a programme emphasis on the struggle for a “Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society”.*
Within the WCC there was some resistance to the new theme. To nations suffering poverty, a warning against economic growth seemed to be a message of despair. Others feared that well-intentioned people, weary of strenuous conflicts for justice,* welcomed a turn to a gentler environmental interest. Ecologists answered that if the dream of overcoming the gap between rich and poor by making everybody rich was illusory, the concern for distributive justice was all the more urgent. They also pointed out that existing patterns of economic growth usually widen the gap between rich and poor and that pollution harms the poor far more than the rich. The department of Church and Society, often gaining the cooperation of eminent scientists, sought to define the kinds of economic growth and distribution that are not destructive. It sponsored regional conferences in Africa, Asia and Europe. It gave special attention to problems of energy and justice in a world in which the poor societies that lack fossil fuels are especially disadvantaged. On another front, it arranged international conversations on the new genetics and the ethical issues it presents (see bio-ethics).
In 1979 the WCC convened a world conference on “Faith, Science and the Future” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see ecumenical conferences). About half of the 405 delegates (including 91 students) were physical scientists and technologists; the other half were church leaders, theologians, social scientists, people from government and industry. In recognition of the worldwide nature of the issues, the conference heard Buddhists and Muslims, as well as Christian theologians, speak out of the insights of their faith. Other speakers, chosen for their technical competence, included Christians, Jews and agnostics. Two of the ten sections dealt specifically with themes of science and faith, one with science and education, seven with various aspects of technology and Christian ethics.
The major surprise of the conference came when some of the physical scientists asked to change the agenda in order to give more attention to the issue of war and nuclear weapons. Original plans had not given adequate importance to the topic, only because of another WCC programme on militarism.* The scientists argued persuasively that any understanding of contemporary technology is radically incomplete without attention to weapons. One recommendation of the conference was that the WCC sponsor an international hearing on nuclear weapons. That took place in Amsterdam in 1981.
The preparatory book and the two volumes coming out of the MIT conference had wide distribution and influenced theological education and programmes of churches in various nations. Spin-offs from the conference include further programmes in many parts of the world. Some of the themes of the conference entered into the programme of the sixth assembly of the WCC (Vancouver 1983) and the world convocation on justice, peace and the integrity of creation* (Seoul 1990).
Out of this ecumenical history have emerged several issues that continue to engage the churches. Five of them are listed here. In keeping with the historical record, these centre more directly on technology and ethics than on science and theology. The reason is that the issues of science-theology permit extended discussion; the issues of technology-ethics often require urgent decisions. Ecumenical Christianity can choose to move slowly on some theological issues rather than foreclose discussion by premature decisions, but on many ethical issues it must throw its weight into the struggle or stand by and watch others direct the course of history. Even so, all the ethical issues mentioned here have theological grounding and implications.
Humanity within God’s creation
The report of Geneva 1966 includes these words: “Christians believe God expects man to exercise dominion over the earth, to name the creatures and to cultivate the garden of the world... Man is both the master and the steward of nature. His dominion over nature, considered as God’s creation, is that of a keeper and transformer, not of a conqueror.”
The delegates who formulated and adopted those sentences could not guess how great a controversy would soon arise over the concept of human dominion. A few months later medieval historian Lynn White, Jr, delivered an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”. White, himself a Christian and later a participant in the programme of the WCC, charged that Christianity, especially in its Western form, had destroyed the sacral quality of nature and encouraged its predatory exploitation to a degree that now threatened the integrity of nature and of humankind. A little later Arnold Toynbee made similar accusations. But whereas Toynbee advocated a return to a pre-Christian pantheism, White asked for a recovery of the insights of Franciscan Christianity. Others found resources in Eastern Orthodoxy.
At New Delhi in 1961, Joseph Sittler had urged a theological concern for “the realm of nature as a theatre of grace”. But other Christian writers were exulting in Christianity’s “desacralization” of nature and the secularization of society. There was even bold talk of the “humanization” or “hominization” of the universe. White, without mentioning these writers, took up their challenge and condemned exactly those elements in the Christian tradition that they had acclaimed.
The growth of ecological consciousness has made humanity more aware of its dependence on a nature that it did not create. Geneva 1966 emphasized both dominion and stewardship. Human beings survive and build civilizations by modifying the course of nature; they immobilize or eradicate some forms of life (the polio virus and smallpox bacillus) for the sake of human values. But in stewardship they are caretakers of an earth that was created before them. Furthermore, the mystery of creation extends far beyond human dominion or stewardship, as Job and some of the prophets knew well. The Pleiades and Orion were surely not created for human convenience.
At what point does the human use of nature become both irreverent and destructive to human aims? At what point do new biological sciences including genetic engineering become irreverent intrusions? When does a God-given “dominion” become an arrogant exercise in “playing God”? The ecumenical discussion continues.
Evaluations of technology. A closely related issue is the contrasting evaluations of technology. Some welcome technology as a product of human creativity, a force that liberates people from poverty and drudgery. Others, notably Jacques Ellul, the French lawyer-sociologist-theologian, see it as a dehumanizing power that subjects persons to an impersonal fate that is remarkably similar in all social systems. A third group see it as a neutral force that can be used for good or evil, depending on the purposes of its users or the social system in which it functions. The telephone, for example, is quite indifferent to the good or bad messages it transmits. A fourth group see it as inherently ambivalent, as all power is ambivalent. Power* is not evil; the purpose of much Christian action is the empowerment of people. Yet in a sinful world power is almost inevitably misused (see sin).
Power and inequality
Technology increases some human powers to cope with and make use of nature. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out, the new powers that people win over nature become powers of some people over other people. There are exceptions to that generalization: the victory over smallpox has been a human victory. But most technological advances, obviously in weapons and almost as obviously in economic productivity, enhance the power of some people to dominate other people.
The unequal distribution of technologies accentuates inequality. Research is directed primarily towards the projects of the rich and powerful, only slightly towards the problems of the poor. The international transfer of technologies, even when it purports to help the poor, often serves the interests of wealthy corporations and governments.
Similarly technology enhances the power of elites who understand and control it. The participatory society, often advocated by the WCC, may be frustrated when wise decisions depend on expert skills possessed by a few, who can use those skills for their own advantage.
Technology is a contributor to globalization. The WCC, like the UN, is greatly disturbed by the concentrations of power wrought by globalism, yet – again, like the UN – puzzled by the problems of coping with such power.
High risk. Scientists sometimes estimate that the human race is living in an era of higher risk than at any time since people first established their precarious existence in the face of hostile animals and natural forces. Through the centuries of history, people have exercised new powers in a trial-and-
error method. They built upon experiments that succeeded; they abandoned experiments that failed. The new situation is that the failure of some experiments could mean disaster for humankind. The most obvious risk is the use of weapons that could destroy civilization. Less immediate is the risk of changing the climate of the earth through human interventions in the ecosystem. To cease experimentation would be to cease to be human; but rash experimentation is more portentous than in past eons.
The increase in risk comes at a time when political organizations are inadequate to cope with the issues. Acid rain, nuclear radiation, fluorocarbons, atmospheric carbon dioxide and a host of similar concerns have no respect for national boundaries. The unity of humankind,* long a matter of Christian faith, has new programmatic implications for science and technology.
Unprecedented ethical questions. In a world of high technology, individuals and societies face ethical decisions for which there are no direct precedents. The Bible, the theological tradition and the philosophical tradition have no commands: thou shalt (or shalt not) re-arrange DNA, prolong the lives of permanently comatose patients, use nuclear energy, contribute to vast climatic change by burning fossil fuels. The contemporary world must develop new ethical codes to deal with new problems and possibilities. Technology itself does not answer questions about the evaluation and direction of technology. Scientists frequently talk of problems for which there is “no technical fix”; but we must recognize there is likewise “no moral fix” in the sense of simply repeating rules from the past.
In some cases science and technology raise serious questions about the very nature of selfhood. Descartes (1596-1650) saw the human body as a mechanism, with the soul as a discrete entity lodged in the body. This dualism, in the tradition of Plato, contrasted with the Hebrew-Christian belief in the unity of body and soul. Further scientific discoveries tended to undermine it. Twentieth-century discoveries in genetics sometimes led to assertions of biological determinism. The WCC entered into studies of the theological and ethical aspects of genetics with a conference in Zurich, sponsored by Church and Society and by the Christian Medical Commission, in 1973.
Church and Society continued discussions and publications, which in some cases led to statements from the central committee and from world conferences and assemblies. Many member churches took up the subject. The chief issues included the relation of genetic determinism to freedom, warnings against racial and other prejudices in the history of eugenics, and the many ethical problems involved in the exercise of new scientific powers.
The ecumenical movement is developing methods of ethical inquiry in which people of diverse skills (technological, theological, cultural), diverse social situations and diverse ideologies can interact in assessing unprecedented ethical issues. The agenda extends far into the future.
ROGER L. SHINN
n P. Abrecht ed., Faith, Science and the Future: Preparatory Readings for the 1979 Conference of the World Council of Churches, WCC, 1978 n P. Abrecht & N. Koshy eds, Before It’s Too Late: The Complete Record of the Public Hearing on Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament Organized by the World Council of Churches, WCC, 1983 n C. Birch & P. Abrecht eds, Genetics and the Quality of Life, Oxford, Pergamon, 1975 n R. Conway, Choices at the Heart of Technology: A Christian Perspective, Harrisburg PA, Trinity Press, 1999 n R.L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect, Updated and Reconsidered for the 1980s, New York, Norton, 1980 n E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, New York, Harper & Row, 1973 n R.L. Shinn, Forced Options: Social Decisions for the 21st Century, New York, Pilgrim, 1991 n R.L. Shinn & P. Abrecht eds, Faith and Science in an Unjust World: Report of the World Council of Churches’ Conference on Faith, Science and the Future, vol. 1: Plenary Presentations, vol. 2: Reports and Recommendations, WCC, 1980.
The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)