If my goal as a blogger were to produce a steady stream of blog posts, then I suppose the past two months without a post would render me a failure — not least because of the beauty and power of the last one, a guest-post from a friend of mine.
The last three posts explored a biblical psalm as a rich text for thinking theologically and scientifically about human life. In Part 1, we worked through Psalm 139 as a whole to understand the flow of the author’s theology and prayers. In Part 2, we examined verses 13-16 in greater detail to consider the interrelationship of theological and natural views of human origins and development. In Part 3, a friend mine, and neonatal nurse practitioner, invited us into her way of thinking about embryonic and fetal development as someone who holds together faith, science, and professional care.
As the final post in this series, Part 4 will respond to Part 3, and in a way that draws together the whole series into a suggestion for how Bible readers approach scientific discovery and knowledge.
In Part 3, Sarah did a monumental job of thinking through Psalm 139:13-16, given what she understands through her scientific education and professional practice. What a gift for us as readers to be invited into the sensitive and compassionate thoughts of one who is on the front lines of care for developing and new-born human life!
Lessons on Science and Faith from Sarah
Practical science. The science that informs Sarah’s work is practical. It enables her and her coworkers to understand more (but certainly not everything) about what is going on during development, pregnancy, and birth. As a result, Sarah and others are able to care for human life in highly specialized ways. These practical fruits of science did not arise through studying the Bible. God did not use biblical writings (including Psalm 139) to tell people everything they might want or need to know. A proper respect for the Bible admits what its passages cannot do. If God values and supports the kind of care that Sarah and others give, then perhaps God values scientific inquiries that enable such care. A necessary corollary of scientific inquiry is that people will learn things they did not know, things that are different than what they previously thought.
A proper respect for the Bible admits what its passages cannot do.
Limits to our knowledge. As Sarah indicated throughout her post, she and her fellow caregivers do not always understand what is going on with pregnancies, nor why some things happen the way they do. There are limits to our knowledge. If I am right about Sarah and her line of work, I think she and her colleagues would welcome more scientific knowledge, especially if such knowledge would help them give better care and treatments and save more lives.
Shifting from Sarah to my experience with many other Christians, some Christians and Christian groups look to the limits of our knowledge as evidence of God’s role in the world. A word of caution here! Do not use God as a convenient “explanation” when you cannot otherwise explain something. First, this cheapens God and turns God into little more than a rescue for our ignorance. It is better to think of God more holistically, the God who is sovereign over all things, whether we can explain them or not. Second, science continues to gain more knowledge, advancing beyond previous limits. Science in 2017 knows more than science knew in 1917. The limits of our knowledge in 1917 did not all continue to be limits after that time. Perhaps some limits are common to 1917 and 2017, but even those limits might someday be transgressed. Believers in God and Bible readers should not bank on the limits of our knowledge as some sort of proof that God is doing something.
Using God as a convenient “explanation” when you cannot otherwise explain something cheapens God and turns God into little more than a rescue for our ignorance.
Faith within our limitations. Sarah concluded her article by affirming her faith in God despite the limitations of her knowledge. Hers is a mature faith: she recognizes that she will never have enough answers to satisfy her most troubling questions. From Sarah, we can learn about the nature of faith. If answers to all of our questions is a necessary precondition for believing in God, then, to be logical at this point, we would never believe in God. Indeed, some people choose non-belief precisely for this reason. And, let me say, I understand and respect many people who are atheists because they find their troubling questions unanswered. Some more militant atheists consider believers cowards, incapable of facing the truth of our unanswered questions.
In response, I say: Unanswered questions about God do not by necessity serve as evidence against God. (There are logical reasons not to equate unanswered questions with evidence against the existence of something.) Now, are some believers naive in their faith? Sure. But choosing faith within limitations is not necessarily naive or cowardly. And, to return to Sarah’s situation, her faith is not something she dons in order to stop the progress of science or compensate for ignorance. No, hers is a faith that changes with her knowledge, a commitment to the belief that God exists despite the troubling questions. An, in the spirit of many biblical passages, her faith expresses itself in active caregiving.
The value of human life. Sarah’s article has a magnificent way of stressing the value of human life. Sarah sees God amid defects and disabilities. Her God is not just the god of “normal,” the god of a fully-functioning and self-sufficient humans. Her God is not a god whose character is seen only when things go right. Sarah’s thoughts invite us to think more carefully and critically about humans as “the image of God” (Genesis 1:26-27). Just what does it mean for a human life to resemble God in this world? Does any human life successfully and equally make God evident and visible? Might instances of defect and disability rightly challenge our assumptions about what it means to be human and what it means to display God’s character?
Might instances of defect and disability rightly challenge our assumptions about what it means to be human and what it means to display God’s character?
Ethics. If Sarah’s insights challenge our assumptions about what it means to be human, then they also challenge our ethics, our actions toward each other as fellow humans. Sarah has written about the choices that biological parents make that influence how their baby is “knit together” (Psalm 139:13). If God has chosen to make more humans through the willful actions of humans, then God has chosen to knit those babies through the choices their parents make. Human parents are acting by God’s sanction and with responsibility to God for how their actions impact their developing child. In addition, and as just intimated, the way in which we view and value human life will influence how we act for those lives that need special care.
God as creator. Sarah’s job puts her on the front lines of what it means for God to create humans by letting humans make more of themselves. It is conceivable that God could have created a world in which God made each new human himself. That is not our world. God has made a world that can make more of itself. God has made humans such that humans can make more of themselves. This means, among other things, that it is, technically, God’s will that it be possible for defects and death to occur in developing babies. I hope this statement does not sound too sharp or insensitive. Indeed, my stomach churns a little as I write it. Even biblical passages that speak about curses on human existence (Genesis 3:14-19) or the groanings of human life (Romans 8:19-23) do not address explicitly the issue of defects, abnormalities, and death in developing babies. I would advise against simplistic readings of biblical texts here, especially if motivated by a need to rescue ourselves from the discomfort of thinking that God willfully allows creating to include these risks.
It is conceivable that God could have created a world in which God made each new human himself. That is not our world.
The flip side of these troubling experiences is the beauty of two humans being able to create life together. This is an experience with which I am, thankfully, personally acquainted. To look at my daughter, I am moved quite often at the thought that I helped create her. I do not think I would want to live in a world where it was not possible to do so. To appreciate living in a world where we can truly create new life, where we can be “created co-creators” with God, we accept also the risks that go along with that privilege and joy.
Psalm 139: Thinking Theologically, Thinking Scientifically
Psalm 139 gives us rich space within which we can think about God and science. In particular, the psalmist’s focus on his development in the womb (139:13-16) invites us to think about the relationship between scientific understandings of this process and theological belief. Many people describe humans as “fearfully and wonderfully made,” a statement from this psalm (139:14). The psalm itself invites us into deeper reflection on being fearfully and wonderfully made. Scientific understanding clarifies and purifies this belief, as well as beliefs people have about God’s role in human life. In addition, neonatal critical care brings a powerful and practical perspective on how we apply science to real life, including real-life theology.
I propose that devout Bible readers see in science an ally and friend who can help them read the Bible better, believe in God more clearly, and serve the world more actively and compassionately. Yes, science may learn things about us and about our world that pushes against previously-held beliefs, but even as some insights push us in uncomfortable ways, other insights that are gained through the very same scientific processes clearly enable us to act more coherently and in tune with the way our world actually works. This, it turns out, is exactly what the biblical pursuit of wisdom includes: human life and choices conform to the way the world, as created by God, actually works, and not as we think it should work. There thus emerges a consonance between the life of the person of faith and the world in which that person lives and acts.
I propose that devout Bible readers see in science an ally and friend who can help them read the Bible better, believe in God more clearly, and serve the world more actively and compassionately.