HONOLULU—Science and religion do not need to quarrel, a molecular engineer and an ethicist told participants at the 20th Baptist World Congress.
Clayton Teague, director of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, and Bill Tillman, professor of Christian ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary, explored how Christians can engage the technological advances that enable scientists to re-engineer life.
“Science is seeking truth about nature and the world around us, for the most part for the good of mankind,” said Teague, a member of First Baptist Church in Gaithersburg, Md.
Through modern history, science has speeded ahead of the church in that search for truth in nature, contended Tillman, a member of First Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas.
For example, the Roman Catholic Church inquisitioned Galileo for claiming Earth was not the center of the solar system.
“Here was a case when science, in observing creation, was far ahead of the church,” he said. “And much of that dynamic is still with us. The development of science and technology is out-pacing our theological reflection.”
Teague pointed to 1990 as a landmark date for science. “That was the first time we were able to reach, touch and move atoms,” the start of nanotechnology, he said. “It changed the world of physics almost more than anything.”
Now, nanotechnology experiments are seeking repairs for severely damaged spinal cords and optic nerves. “It’s on the horizon—‘making the lame to walk and causing the blind to see,’” he reported, quoting Jesus’ accounts of his own miracles.
Teague presented a catalog of scientific advances, from economically sequencing the human genetic code, to creating a living creature, developing an inexpensive cure for malaria, providing renewable energy through light-driven water oxidation and growing new human tissue in a laboratory.
Contrary to popular perception, scientific learning does not contradict theological understanding and a relationship with God, Teague insisted.
“You cannot study nanotechnology and not see the hand of God,” he said. “The more I study science, the more I see the beauty of God’s work.”
To illustrate, he told about the human DNA strand, which is composed of 3 billion atomic “letters”—“the alphabet through which God wrote life”—and stretches six feet long. DNA could tangle easily if it were not spun around tiny spools, and it is repaired by microscopic chemical monitors.
“Nature is inordinately complex and beautiful,” he affirmed. “The more you look into it, the more you see the beauty and majesty and order of nature.”
Unfortunately, both Christians and scientists often defer to a false dichotomy that sets them against each other, Tillman observed.
Such a “dichotomy/dilemma” approach to faith and science over-simplifies the issues and “makes the gospel irrelevant” to people whose worldview begins with science, he lamented.
Baptists and other Christians need to take a more holistic, informed, integrated approach to science and religion, he added. “We must ask, ‘How much am I living an either-or life, when life is much more complex?’”
That requires building a bridge across the artificial abyss between science and religion, Tillman said.
“What (Christians) say is, ‘This is a faith world,’ and scientists say, ‘Give me concrete evidence,’” he explained. “But we are closer in our thinking about this than perhaps ever before.”
Faith and the kind of imagination scientists require to take leaps of thinking are related, he suggested. “Perhaps people are becoming more inductive. Faith and imagination come out of the same wellspring.”
Baptists should lead the way in setting aside uncritical thinking and “approach all of life with our mind,” he said.
Baptists, of all people, should clear the path between faith and science, Tillman stressed, noting the original Baptists were among the best- and broadest-educated people of their day.
“Baptists have let that slide,” he acknowledged. “We have let others do our thinking for us. We contradict a Baptist principle we say we affirm, the priesthood of the believer. … We must think clearly and balance the juxtaposition between faith and fear” of science, especially genetic engineering.
Ethical thinking about science requires analysis of the risks and benefits of specific technological advances, both Teague and Tillman said.
The values of scientific developments should be filtered through a grid that looks at the imperatives and duties of science to life, the consequences of each action and development, and the relationships between scientific/medical actions and actual people, Tillman said.
Possible benefits of genetic engineering include tools to produce medicines and vaccines faster, better methods of disease treatment, sources of renewable energy and a sustainable environment, and improved food production, Teague said.
Possible risks include bioterrorism, unintended consequences of new advances, interference with the complexity of life, and a range of ethical and theological questions affiliated with creation of “designer babies,” he said.
As Christians weigh such benefits and risks, they must look at the story of creation in Genesis, Tillman suggested.
“So much was handed off from God to humans—management, stewardship and co-creation” of the earth, he said. “It has taken until now to do things with genetic engineering and nanotechnology that it took just a touch from Jesus.
“We’re not altering God’s plan for creation. We’re finally catching up and getting in step with it. We’re taking on the responsibility of co-creating with God.”
That implies “watchfulness,” Tillman added, acknowledging Teague’s risk/benefit analysis and manipulation of science for selfish, evil or commercial purposes.
He urged congregations to conduct informed dialogue and to maintain ongoing discussion between science and religion.
“Genetic engineering is laden with good news,” he said. “Up close, we can see God’s creation still going. It didn’t stop on the sixth day of whenever.
“Yes, there are concerns, but there is good news.”
By Marv Knox, Baptist Standard