Lost and found

When we returned last year to our winter retreat in Arizona after absence due to COVID-19 and other matters, I got into books I’d put in storage there. One I’d forgotten was a collection of Robert Oppenheimer’s post-war essays titled The Open Mind.1Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1955).I can’t recall where I picked it up, but I’m a sucker for used book sales. In any event, I decided to read the essays.

Oppenheimer was the scientific director of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. One of his essays, “Physics in the Contemporary World”, includes this sentence: “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose”.2Ibid., p.88. A number of people have discussed, used, and/or criticized that statement — google “physicists have known sin”. But there doesn’t seem to have been much discussion of it by theologians.

Why did Oppenheimer use the religiously loaded word “sin” in connection with nuclear research. His parents were secular Jews and his choice of the code name “Trinity” (from John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”)3https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44106/holy-sonnets-batter-my-heart-three-persond-god for the first bomb test shows some acquaintance with Christianity. But he was more attuned philosophically with Hinduism. He had learned Sanskrit, and what came to his mind with the success of the Trinity test was from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”4https://www.openculture.com/2020/09/j-robert-oppenheimer-explains-how-he-recited-a-line-from-bhagavad-gita.html

Pondering what a man meant by a brief remark three quarters of a century ago would have limited value. But the development of nuclear weapons isn’t the only thing that has raised ethical questions for scientists, so it’s worth devoting some attention to the relevance of the concept of sin to scientific work.

We returned to Ohio shortly after I’d read Oppenheimer’s essays. Looking into a compartment in my study here, I discovered a book for which I’d previously searched in vain. (Misplacing things is my super power.) Sin is a major topic in this little book, Mark Ellingsen’s Sin Bravely.5Mark Ellingsen: Sin Bravely: A Joyful Alternative to a Purpose Driven Life (Continuum, 2009). The title is one translation of Luther’s controversial pecce fortiter: “Be a sinner and sin bravely, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more bravely.”6Ibid., pp.74-75. As its subtitle says, the book sets out Luther’s view of the human situation as “a joyful alternative” to other views in American Christianity.

Sin, forgiveness, and sinning bravely

I won’t try to pinpoint what Oppenheimer meant in the sentence that I quoted, but will take the opportunity to think about how the concept of sin may have particular relevance for scientists. First, we need to know what we mean by “sin”, and people, including Christians have varying ideas about that.

For those who believe in God, however understood, a basic definition of sin is straightforward: thought or action inconsistent with God’s will. A functional equivalent for atheists is thought or action contrary to an accepted moral code. People debate the specifics of God’s will or a moral code for life in the world, but there is wide agreement about essentials. The basic biblical code is the Ten Commandments. The “second table of the law” (mandates 4 through 10 for Lutherans), commands respect for human life, parents, marriage, property, and truth. Those principles are recognized not just by Jews and Christians, but by many with no commitment to a religious tradition.

The second table of the law isn’t distinctively religious. It can be summarized as “Don’t do bad things.” But the beginning of the commandments is different.             

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the      

house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-2)

The God before whom you are to have no other is whoever or whatever got a group of escaped slaves out of Egypt. For those who believe in the resurrection of the crucified Christ, that view of God became the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

The First Commandment is that that God is to be had before all others.  Luther then asks, “What does it mean ‘to have a god’?” and his answer is straightforward.  “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.”7Robert Kolb & Timothy J. Wengert (ed.), The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Evangelical Lutheran Church (Fortress, 2000), p.386.

So the brief explanation of the First Commandment in the Small Catechism is, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Those words are echoed in the explanations of commandments 2 through 10. “We are to fear and love God so that” we honor our parents, don’t harm our neighbors, etc.8Ibid., pp.351-353. Fearing, loving, and trusting in God should be part of our adherence to each of those commandments.  Refraining from theft just so you won’t get caught and go to prison isn’t enough.

Our problem is that we don’t “fear, love, and trust God above all things.” The doctrine of original sin says that we begin life not trusting in our creator. The issue for us now isn’t how that condition began long ago (“original  sin originating”) but the fact that each of our lives today began in that state (“original sin originated”). A recent article sketches the idea of original sin, with references to more detailed treatments.9George L. Murphy, “The Twofold Character of Original Sin in the Real World,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 73.3 (2021): 158.

The heart of Lutheran theology is the belief that in spite of our sin, we are justified, forgiven, and accepted as children of God for Christ’s sake, through faith alone, sola fide. And in spite of the fact that we are forgiven and accepted, we continue to sin and will until the day of our death! Every day we are called to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We are, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator, at the same time justified and sinner.

The idea that a Christian might be without sin in this life can lead to a search for perfection in which one focuses on oneself instead of on God and the neighbor. It’s likely to lead to excessive introspection and dishonesty in thinking about our motives.

And we may be faced with situations in which demands of two commandments are contradictory. Can I use lethal violence to save innocent people from a terrorist?10https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/double-effect/ You can appeal to a “doctrine of double effect” but thinking that you can be sure that you don’t “intend” the terrorist’s death is kind of like Pilate “washing his hands” of Jesus’ death. While you’re playing games, the terrorist may tire of waiting. It’s more honest to take your shot with assurance of God’s forgiveness.  “Sin bravely.”

The sins of scientists

God’s message of law and gospel is addressed to those doing scientific work as it is to everyone else. The second table of the law has to do with our relationships with our “neighbor”, which means anyone with which we have to deal. (See, e.g., Jesus’ answer to the question “And who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10:29-37.) Those with a scientific calling can think about the Eighth Commandment, “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” in the broadest way possible. The whole world, and any part of it under study at the moment, can be thought of as the scientist’s neighbor. Truthfulness about the world is, of course, essential for scientific work. 

Not surprisingly the distinctive ethical challenges for scientists involved with different kinds of work vary. I’ll take brief looks at three of them here.        

Weapons and War

Oppenheimer said that the physicists who had developed the atomic bomb had “known sin,” and any work related to weapons development or the conduct of war will raise ethical questions for scientists who take “Thou shalt not kill” seriously. The novelty of nuclear weapons in 1945 didn’t mean that a new ethical principle was needed. More civilians were killed in the “conventional” firebombing of Tokyo in April of that year than in Hiroshima a few months later.

A decision to use any weapon probably isn’t going to be made by scientists who worked on its development. Shortly before the Trinity test, a poll of Manhattan Project scientists in Chicago offered five choices for the way the bomb should be used if the test were to be successful.11https://www.atomicarchive.com/resources/documents/manhattan-project/chicago-poll.htmlOnly 15% of the respondents believed that it should be used in a way that was most effective militarily. Nearly 75% thought that there should be a demonstration for both American and Japanese observers before military use was considered.But the decision to use the bombs on Japanese cities was made by President Truman, with the advice of military and political figures.

Many people hold some variation of the “just war” (or better, “justifiable war”) doctrine.12George L. Murphy, The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross (Trinity Press International, 2003, 142-143).That asks if war is justified in response to a particular threat and, if it is, what means may be used in waging the war. Both come down to questions about the least deadly of a range of possible actions — i.e., the least sinful response.Again, final decisions about those matters will be made by military and political people, though we can hope that they take scientific views seriously. We should realize though that a weapon developed during a justified war will be available later for different situations.

The Environment

It’s no secret that the impact of modern science-based technology on the natural environment has created serious problems. Global warming and associated climate change, increasing extinction of species, disruption of ecological relations, and toxic waste are some of the features of the ecological crisis. What demands attention most urgently is greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that cause climate change.

Scientists who study climate and the human impact on it are in a position quite different from those who developed the atomic bomb. In that case the decision was made on military and political grounds and the general public knew nothing about it until the bombs were dropped. The effects of climate change and related matters can be addressed through economic and political means. Scientists can, and in my opinion should, make use of their knowledge to try to influence public opinion and political action.  We need to remember that there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission.

Public Health

The COVID pandemic, now going into its third year, presented infectious disease experts and medical professionals with scientific and political challenges. When the virus started having an impact, there were uncertainties about what precautions were needed to prevent its transmission. The phrase “social distancing” became part of our vocabulary. What kinds of masks might be effective, and in what venues should they be required? If churches had in-person worship, should singing be allowed? Were there medications to cure the disease? And when a vaccine was developed, questions about who should get it arose.            

Responses to those problems were hampered by the reactions of some political leaders and a large segment of the public. Some people who may have done an hour of “research” about viruses on the internet thought that crying “Freedom!” was a sufficient rebuttal of attempts to impose mask or vaccination mandates. This of course posed problems for scientifically informed people in positions of authority at various levels of government. Lacking dictatorial authority, they generally did the best they could to minimize illnesses and deaths for their neighbors without provoking those neighbors to armed resistance. 

In the course of doing pure science, in theorizing, observing, and experimenting, scientists can be guilty of “secret sins” like undue pride in their accomplishments or envy of more successful coworkers. Repentance and return to forgiveness for Christ’s sake is the appropriate remedy. But it’s in applied science, when scientific work is going to affect the lives of other people and the rest of creation, that scientists will be most troubled by the need to make difficult choices. For many of those cases, all of the realistic courses of action that can be chosen involve some amount of danger or harm for others and some degree of sin. Even though such “best of bad choices” situations wasn’t what Luther had in mind, his pecce fortiter is excellent advice. “Be a sinner and sin bravely, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more bravely.”

George L. Murphy
George L. Murphy

George Murphy received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins for work on general relativity in 1972. He taught at Westminster College (PA), The University of Western Australia and Luther College and did research for eleven years before entering Wartburg seminary. Ordained in 1983, he has served as a pastor in Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. His first article on theology and science was published in 1977 and he has since published six books and numerous articles and continues to speak and lead workshops in this area. His most recent book, Models of Atonement: Speaking about Salvation in a Scientific World (Lutheran University Press, 2013), discusses ways of understanding the saving work of Christ in an evolving world.

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