Editor’s note: Portions of this article appeared previously in Lutheran Partners: A magazine of the ELCA for ordained and lay leaders, March / April 2000 — Volume 16, Number 2.

“I have a very strong feeling that science exists to serve human welfare. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity given us by society to do basic research, but in return, we have a very important moral responsibility to apply that research to benefiting humanity.” (Walter Orr Roberts, 1915-1990)

Orr Roberts: Awareness and conversation

Orr Roberts

Dr. Walter Orr Roberts** was a scientific pioneer and statesman in the field of atmospheric and environmental sciences who presided over the founding of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), located in Boulder, Colorado. Among his many tributes, Dr. Roberts was the first scientist to receive the North American Leadership Award of the United Nations Environment Programme. The citation reads in part that it is given in honor of his “placing so generously his wisdom and talents in the service of the Earth.”

In the 5th grade, I did a report on “The Weather,” which had a lasting impact upon me and my career choice. I still have the notebook that I compiled; one of the yellowed Weekly Reader news articles from the mid-1960’s describes the new NCAR building being built in the Colorado foothills. As a meteorologist working in public service today, I appreciate the contributions of Dr. Roberts to the discussion about stewardship of the Earth.

Dr. Roberts is an example of a scientist whose example of service to benefit society that is carried forth today in NCAR’s activities regarding scientific policy and the societal applications of scientific research­ and are in sharp contrast with a stereotypical view (popularized in film and in literature) of a scientist as “a [mad]man [sic] in a white coat” working in a laboratory away from people and painstakingly collecting data and making observations.

At times, this view is more prevalent than one might think. One of the elementary school science projects I judged a number of years ago involved the analysis of drawings of scientists done by 4th graders. Most of them depicted males in lab coats holding a beaker, and not many of the scientists were smiling. (The hypothesis of the young woman who conducted this experiment was that more of her colleagues would draw men rather than women.)

Scientists and technologists come in “all shapes and sizes and colors” and both genders, and very few of us wear white coats or work in isolated laboratories. Many scientists and technologists are also people of faith who are active members of parishes. They are also involved with campus ministries, teach in church colleges and in secular institutions, and serve as volunteers in synodical and churchwide leadership positions on a variety of boards, committees, task forces, and councils.

Scientists and technologists are living out their baptism in their daily calling, just as other members of the body of Christ do. What seems to be too frequently the case, though, is that scientists and technologists find little in the liturgy, hymnody, or educational activities of the church that affirm and encourage our vocation in the world. While there are many hymns in Evangelical Lutheran Worship dealing with fair meadows filled with grazing sheep, or angels dancing around the throne of God, I can count on one hand the hymns that contain scientific images or metaphors. Some scientists and technologists report that they’ve often found they have to “check their brains” at the door of the church, because the preaching or teaching is based upon an outdated “Sunday School faith” model that does little to challenge faith or call forth new understanding. In the apparent clash of “culture” between religion and science and technology, what opportunities are there for cross-cultural exchange that benefit both?

First, and foremost, the church can offer and model hospitality, enabling safe “space and time” for such conversations to take place. Forty-five young scientists, technologists, and theologians from five continents and 17 countries gathered in Larnaca, Cyprus in 1987 for a consultation entitled, “The New Scientific/Technological World: What Differences Does It Make for the Church?” The consultation was organized by the late John Mangum, director for planning, Division for Global Missions of the Lutheran Church in America. This meeting was the genesis of the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science, and Technology, as well as similar groups in other denominations.

Out of the Cyprus meeting, the Ecumenical Roundtable on Science, Technology and the Church was formed. The Roundtable meets annually with faith and science groups from the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to discuss faith and science issues and to share resources. Representatives and observers from other denominations have also been present throughout the years at various gatherings.

The Lutheran Alliance is dedicated to expanding awareness, encouraging conversation, and promoting action regarding the implications of science and technology for Christian faith and life. The Alliance formalized its relationship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 1991 through the Division for Ministry.

There are numerous academic and research efforts in the science and religion dialogue through organizations such as the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, California. Opportunities for dialogue are not just being undertaken by theological institutions. In 1995, the nation’s largest professional science society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), instituted a Program of Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (http://www.aaas.org/spp/dser/). This program is part of the AAAS’s long-standing commitment to relate scientific knowledge and technological development to the purposes and concerns of society at large.

The scientific method that we learned in elementary or middle school for doing a science project involves the steps of (1) making a hypothesis, (2) designing an experiment to test the hypothesis, (3) performing the experiment, making and collecting observations, and (4) analyzing the results. The final part of the science project was to summarize one’s findings at a science fair or in class to those persons who were not specialists, i.e., those who didn’t have knowledge about or familiarity with our project.

Scientists and technologists tend to be methodical in their approach to their work, and in many ways, in their approach to the world. They frequently look for evidence to back up one’s assertions. Consequently, scientists have often been called “skeptics.” But scientists also delight in the discovery of new information and often are exceedingly passionate about their work, which often involves a lifetime of study in a given area of a discipline. (The process of talking about God is also often what methodical ­seminarians study in systematic theology in their first year of studies.)

Being methodical, however, does not mean being slow. In fact, the last century has experienced a rapid revolution in science and technology. What began with human-powered flight on the beach at Kitty Hawk evolved to the landing of earthlings on the moon and their safe return. Mechanical adding machines gave way to room-sized computing machines with numerous vacuum tubes, followed by the development of the transistor and the integrated circuit that brought miniaturized components which deliver supercomputer power on a desktop. Astronomy textbooks on the solar system were updated after findings from the Hubble Telescope observations.

Advances in biotechnology and medicine have revolutionized treatments for many diseases and conditions. Bioengineers and physicians at Cornell University reported in February 2013 they have been able to create an artificial ear that looks and acts like a real human ear, using three-dimensional printing techniques. In March 2013, the consortium leading the Collaborative Oncological Gene-Environment Study (a worldwide study which involved 160 institutions studying the DNA of 200,000 people) announced the discovery of markers in DNA that can further reveal an individual’s risk for breast, ovarian or prostate cancer. With this knowledge, researchers can now develop advanced screening tests to target those most at risk, as well as specialized treatments.

Gene research and the creation of artificial organs gets to the central core of one of the questions about which the church has much to say: “What does it mean to be human?” We have an incarnational theology­—Jesus lived, died, and rose again because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

What becomes of the authenticity of self in a world where one can be many “selves” online that often bear little resemblance to the “real” (i.e., offline) self? As face transplants become more common, what are the characteristics that define a human person and his/her unique identity? Ethical situations never dreamed of in either the Old Testament or New Testament worlds present themselves almost daily to baptized Christians living in the 21st century.

Many scientists and technologists share the “strong feeling” of Walter Orr Roberts that “science exists to serve human welfare.” They live out their baptismal calling in an environment in which the data and information are arriving at such a rapid rate that processing and discernment are often difficult.

The mission and ministry of the church in the 21st century will take place in a world profoundly shaped by science and technology. What are the implications for such a world on Christian faith and life? The time is ripe for conversations in confirmation classes, on college campuses, at campus ministry gatherings, and in your own congregation. Invite a scientist or technologist from your parish to lunch, and plan a strategy for engaging the people of God in your community in an issue that impacts them and the people around them to and with whom they minister. The pervasiveness of science and technology in our world will mean that whatever issue you choose, there will be a connection. In what ways is technology helpful? In what ways is it harmful? What are the ethical questions to be faced? What does scientific research indicate? What insights can Scripture provide?

Jesus Christ has redeemed our future; and we should not be afraid of asking the difficult questions facing our time. In the conversation, we will nourish one another. Let us begin the new millennium with openness to the amazing and wondrous frontier that God has placed before us to explore.

**The picture of Walter Orr Roberts is used through the courtesy of the National Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

Ida Hakkarinen

Ida Hakkarinen

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