Science, Theology, and Truth

Saturday's Boston Globe had an article profiling the Rev. Amy McCreath, the Episcopal chaplain at MIT who also is the coordinator of the Technology and Culture Forum at MIT. I've had the privilege of talking with Amy a few times, and know her more from the bf. She's a very good pastor in my experience, and also, IMHO, has a great combination of gentleness and intellectual assertiveness that must help her work with students in the "galactic headquarters of scientism," as she describes MIT. In other words, from my little experience of her and from what I know of her from others, she exemplifies the Christian tradition at its best: although the events around the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth in the first century, as Christianity describes them, may not be normal, there's at least a concern that the Christian witness to those events be true. Even the fact that the earliest Christians used the language of "witnessing" (the Greek leads to the term "martyr") and "testifying", all derived from the language of the courtroom, points to the fact that a root concern of what Christians thought they were doing in telling the story of Jesus was describing something true, not something mythical; Jesus was, in their opinion, not a sort of mythical "everyman" pointing to the nature of human destiny, but a distinct, historical person about whom his disciples were telling a true story in their descriptions of his life and this strange experience called resurrection. (Incidentally, this concern to tell the Jesus story as true has been suggested as an explanation for why Pontius Pilate ends up being mentioned in the early creeds -- it locates Jesus of Nazareth historically in a certain time and place.)

So what does any of this have to do with Amy, MIT, or science? Well, it has to do with the idea of trying to tell the truth. At its best, and (to psychologize the church), in its less neurotic or insecure moments, the Christian community has been a community committed to truth, whether or not that truth is convenient. Admittedly, we haven't always done a very good job of it. And its particularly around the modern physical sciences, in large and in small ways, that we've been freaked out enough to forget that base commitment to truth.

One can immediately point to high-profile events like the Galileo affair or contemporary "creationists" who base their knowledge of the history of the world not on what humans can know as true through science (in a limited way, to be sure, but not having complete understanding doesn't mean that one's partial understandings are absolutely false...the red herring of "evolution is only a theory"...). But this works itself out in smaller, more ordinary ways. For example, in many circles outside of MIT, if one admits never having read Shakespeare or heard Mozart, one is instantly dismissed as less than intellectually fulfilled. But by contrast, an admission that one just doesn't bother trying to understand math or physics, or doesn't really remember anymore what DNA does beyond providing a common crossword puzzle answer, one more often meets smiles of sympathy rather than dismissal. For all of Larry Summers's other issues, his suggestion last year that Harvard's core curriculum be revised to include basic scientific literacy as a required set of knowledge comparable to knowledge of literature or history makes a lot of sense.

I see this even in my own family; my older brother and his wife both have doctorates in polymer chemistry (and both walked two weeks ago, congrats!). It's often culturally expected that one should know a little bit of theology or philosophy, from however long ago, to begin talking to a theology doctoral student, but the opposite has often been true for my brother. I usually have no idea where to begin asking him about his work, and I'm more and more convinced that this is due less to the obvious complexity of his research than to my basic ignorance. Unlike my brother with his very solid general humanities background, I lack the basic scientific background to even meet him halfway in his attempt to simplify his work to an accessible level.

So lately, as in so many other areas of knowledge, I've been playing catch-up lately, and not only out of an attempt to impress my brother. Rather, as someone doing theology, I'm increasingly convinced that if I'm going to expect other people to be able to meet me halfway when I discuss my field, then part of being an intellectual, or even a slightly aware human being, might mean turning off the Seinfeld re-run and learning (re-learning?) some terms and concepts that are central to modern science. Right now I'm plowing through some of the works of Richard Feynman; any other suggestions would be most welcome. And, from the perspective of theology, while we can't all be theologians and we can't all be experimental scientists, those of us who think that Christianity has something true to say seem to have a responsibility to listen humbly to what other members of the search party have found out about reality.


Nate said...

People of faith have a remarkably hard time having faith that the God of the universe can work through science and inspire us to science. If you fear science, there is a very real and pressing way in whcih you fear God (and not in the good sense of "fear").

Nate said...

You can turn off Seinfeld, but you have to watch the Simpsons.

Caelius said...

Speaking from the MIT for the humanities (The University of Chicago), I can say what you say is true to some extent. The scientists (and the mathematicians, who all consider themselves philosophers) know more about the humanities than the humanists know about the natural sciences. But when I had the opportunity to work with very brilliant people in my field from other institutions, I discovered that the Two Cultures divide of C.P. Snow is quite alive and well.