Steve Gehrke, our featured guest on RenMus the last several days, offers some further food for thought on this topic that we've taken up of late, the sciences and the Wittenberg way.
JB: Following are some of the questions that, at first blush, seem to be basic and preliminary to any further consideration: Has so much scientific water flowed under the bridge since the 16th century that it is impossible today to make the sciences at home in a Lutheran curriculum?
SG: This seems to presume that either science and theology are by nature hostile toward each other as disciplines, or else that scientists and theologians are. Since the Lutheran view would be that science and theology both are creations of God, I don’t think the former can be true. If the latter is true, then I think the two sides must be reconciled to each other and learn to communicate. If that occurred in 16th-century Wittenberg, why not among the heirs of that tradition?
JB: Is there such a thing as a Lutheran approach to science? And if so, how does it differ from, how does it complement other views? How might it be regarded as better or deficient?
SG: This I think is a most intriguing question. I have read it argued that science itself is a product of the Christian world view, because Christianity described the world as being purposefully designed for humanity, and this led to the idea that there were rules that underlay the universe that could be discovered and understood. It is empirically proven that great scientists and engineers need not be Lutheran nor even Christian. However, I don’t know how I would argue that Lutheranism would make better scientists (to answer that, one would have to define “better”). I have long thought that Lutheranism is especially compatible with engineering, a somewhat different question for another post.
JB: What need does the Church have of the sciences, if any? Put the other way around, what would be missing for the Church without the sciences? And are all sciences equal? Which are necessary, which are not?
SG: If science is understood as the discovery of the laws of nature as created by God, I think the church clearly would be missing something not to be interested in studying God’s handiwork. Exactly what would BE that missing something I’m not exactly sure. Would it be heretical to suggest that the Mind of God would be reflected in the workings of his creation? As noted above, the idea that It would be, informed the development of science in the Western world. The relationship between the Reformation and rise of modern science has been explored by scholars but I’m not well enough informed to try to describe it myself here.
I think the Church IS missing something by its general lack of involvement or appreciation of the sciences and technology. I can argue that the high view of science by modern society is less that people are impressed by esoteric scientific discoveries than they are by iPhones and medicines made possible by those discoveries. Because the Church is frequently reactive to technological developments rather than proactive it therefore does not have the influence on people that it could have, and in any case tends to promote the view that it is archaic and irrelevant (see my 2000 Logia essay on this point).[editor's note: Our friends at Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology assure us they'll be happy to send you a paper or electronic copy of this issue for a modest price.]
The usual hierarchy in the sciences is math>physics>chemistry>biology. I don’t know if any other science would be considered fundamental. Subjects like astronomy are simply a branch of physics, and geology of chemistry. Even biology can be viewed as a specialized subset of chemistry. But there are no distinct boundaries between any of the disciplines. For example, there are chemical physicists and physical chemists.
JB: What sort of philosophical or theological Weltanschauung is necessary to work under in order to have a healthy scientific community on a Lutheran campus?
SG: I think it understands that science is the study of God’s creation, but that this study and its application (technology) are clouded by sin.
JB: Will 16th-century guide-posts be helpful or harmful in this discussion? If helpful, how can they be enlisted?
I’ve read a little bit of the work of theologians of this era (mostly as presented by RD Preus in The Theology of Post-Reformation Vol. II God and His Creation) and find it very helpful. Lutherans and were already developing theological differences in the area of theology and science. Quenstedt in 1683 in debating Calvinists found it necessary to assert “We must distinguish between the book of Scripture and the book of nature,” by way of asserting that we must let Scripture speak for itself (Preus p. 186). Doesn’t this sound familiar? But because these theological discussions occurred prior to Darwin, it provides different perspective on the relationship between God and His creation without getting trapped in the well-worn ruts of the creation-evolution debates. Maybe with this fresh perspective we can learn something new in considering post-Darwinian questions.
JB: Can a science-less curriculum offer a responsible Wittenberg education?
SG: This is the only question you’ve raised that is easily answered: No.
JB: Do the big quarrels, such as that between evolution and intelligent design, materialism and non-materialist views, matter? Do they drown out the healthy discussions, or do they create a context in which a healthy discussion may occur? Are they the only “going paradigms” that may be adopted?
SG: Yes, I think they unquestionably DO drown and HAVE drowned out healthy discussions. Otherwise, from does what your opening paragraph derive? (“Perhaps no more vexatious question, no question passed over in more silence, no question more [unpersuasively] pontificated upon, is that of the relationship between science and theology. The two don’t make easy bed-fellows.”) Part of the challenge of putting science into the Wittenberg curriculum is in fact figuring out how to keep this from happening. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of these debates, but this is far from the totality of science-theology interaction. Simply consider all of the bioethical questions raised by advances in modern medicine such as end-of-life issues. Simply look for anything written by Glibert Meilaender on the subject to see why every family must understand these issues, and why confessional Lutheranism may suggest different answers to those moral quandaries than the consensus of modern society (generally strictly utilitarian).
[Graphic above: The shields of arms of the Faculty of Law (left) and the Faculty of Medicine (right) of the University of Wittenberg; Melanchthonhaus, Bretten, Germany. The shield of the Faculty of Medicine depicts its patron saints Cosmas and Damian.]