This post is the text of a sermon on the Beatitudes and Science, preached at St Paul’s, Wokingham, 20th May 2018. The Bible readings on which it is based are Job 38.4-7 & 12-18 and Matthew 5.1-10.
When I was first asked if I would come and give a sermon about science as part of a series on the Beatitudes, I was very honoured to be asked, and happy to say ‘yes.’ And then I thought, science and the Beatitudes. How am I going to do that?! There are, it’s true, passages in the Bible with which one can make a direct connection to science in one way or another. The Beatitudes isn’t one of them. But then I realised that in our age of science and rapidly evolving technology, the Beatitudes actually have something very important to say. And that’s why I’ve titled this sermon, “Meek, merciful and pure: what the Beatitudes have to teach us in an age of science and technology.”
I think it’s fair to say that our society values knowledge highly. We talk about having a ‘knowledge-based economy’, for example, an economy which is driven by knowledge, information and technology. Scientific knowledge, not surprisingly, is an important part of that, not least because scientific knowledge underpins technology and technological advances.
As Science Missioner, it would be very odd, indeed, for me to stand here and decry scientific knowledge. Science, whether it be intended to produce some sort of technological application, or just research for the sake of gaining information and adding to the sum total of human knowledge, is a useful and wonderful thing. But I would say that in emphasising the importance of knowledge, we are at risk of losing sight of the importance of wisdom.
Knowledge tells us how to do something. Wisdom tells us whether or not we should do it. Knowledge without wisdom can be dangerous.
The Beatitudes are, of course, a form of wisdom. They are presented as a series of facts – blessed is this group of people because they will get this good thing – but underlying those facts is deep wisdom about our relationship with God and how that relationship is linked to our relationships with one another. As my sermon title indicates, I’m mainly going to focus on three of the Beatitudes, but I think what I’m saying applies to them as a whole, as well.
The first of the Beatitudes I’d like us to consider is, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” I’ve heard it suggested that in this context, “meek” refers to the poorest in society, the downtrodden, dispossessed and disregarded. I think that a pretty compelling argument can be made in favour of that interpretation. If we think about other Gospel passages, such as the Magnificat, in which we’re told that God has, “cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty,” it makes perfect sense. There is another possibility, though, that I’d like us also to consider. The Greek word translated as “meek”, can also mean “gentle.” Personally, I love that translation, “The gentle shall inherit the earth.” This, too, makes perfect sense. Why would God give the earth to anyone other than those who have shown they will treat it gently? Now, these two interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive. The world’s poorest people are by default those who live gently on the earth. They haven’t the resources to exploit and vandalise it in the way that the rich and powerful do. But I’m hopeful that those of us who have been born into the First World and so are, by definition, rich, also have a chance of inheriting the earth if we can learn to live gently upon it.
But what has any of this got to do with science? Well, science has given us the means to not live gently on the earth. Science was behind the innovations of the industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels to provide energy – first coal, then oil. Even today, science and technology allow us to indulge ourselves to the point of forcing other species to the brink of extinction. Fishing fleets, to give one example, can pinpoint with incredible accuracy where fish stocks are, and can gather in so many as to completely denude an area of an entire species (with deadly consequences for non-target species, or bycatch, as well). I’m not here to pick on fishermen – this is just a conveniently clear example. We might also think of the science and technology that gave us plastics, and what that has led to in terms of pollution, useful though they are. But just as science might inadvertently enable us to harm the earth, it also allows us to see and understand the harm that we’re doing, and to find means of undoing some of the damage. New technologies in different areas, most notably energy, also provide us with ways to live more gently on the earth.
The second Beatitude I want to think about is “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” This one probably doesn’t need much explanation: if we are merciful towards others, we will receive mercy from God. It’s not unlike what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As we give, so we receive. But again, where’s the link with science and technology? I’d like to suggest that this beatitude reminds us that science has to benefit everyone, particularly those who need those benefits the most, not just those of us who can pay for them, or those who have invested in the research. If we think about medical science, this becomes abundantly clear. If we are merciful, we will find ways to ensure that the benefits of medical science are used to promote the health and welfare of all. This also means that investment in, for example, drug development won’t just be in areas offering a high return, but in the more mundane medicines that are needed, but that don’t generate huge profits.
Agricultural science and technology is another area in which science can be used to show mercy. Sharing technologies with developing countries to promote better farming practice that reduces the need for inputs, like water and fertilizer, is one example. And whatever you think about GM crops, the fact is, if they are needed in the poorest areas of the world to provide higher yields, drought resistance, resistance to disease, and so on, then showing mercy would mean making these crops available to those who most need them, without inflicting crippling debt to do so.
Finally, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” God is Holy. It could be that Jesus is here reminding us that for the impure of heart to encounter God is dangerous at best. Or it could be that we are being reminded that only the pure of heart have eyes to see God. “You must become like little children to enter the Kingdom,” Jesus said. Very young children, at least, have very pure hearts. The science of psychology has actually demonstrated this. To quote psychologist Michael Tomasello on the findings of his research with toddlers, “They empathize with those they sense have been wronged. They have an almost reflexive desire to help, inform and share. And they do so without expectation or desire for reward.” It doesn’t get much purer than that. And that should be the goal of science. To help, inform and share. To work from a place of empathy with others. It’s probably too much, given the cost of doing scientific research, both in terms of time and money, to ask people to do it without expectation or desire for reward, however. But the point is that our drive to do science, in whatever form, should come from a pure heart – a desire to gain knowledge, not in order to gain power over others, but so that all can benefit.
These beatitudes, and the others that I’ve not discussed in detail, are linked together by one concept, and it’s a concept found throughout the Bible: justice. The wisdom of the Beatitudes is a wisdom rooted in God’s justice. And if we are to be on the right side of God’s justice, we need to work for justice, in our own lives and in society as a whole. Science and technology can help us to do that.
Thinking about justice, especially in the context of being gentle, merciful and pure of heart, there is one other aspect of science that I feel I must mention. That’s how we use other creatures in our scientific research. This is a controversial issue, so perhaps I should apologise for including it. But the truth is that human beings have come to think of ourselves in many ways as the owners, not the caretakers, of the earth and its creatures, with the right to use other species however we see fit. It’s a form of arrogance that says, so long as we benefit, it doesn’t matter if non-humans are harmed. It is also an arrogance that presumes that we are substantially different from the rest of life on earth. But as well as being an avenue for exploiting, often terribly cruelly, our fellow creatures, science has also shown us that they are in many ways not very different from us. Most animal species can feel pain and pleasure, and can remember past events and anticipate future ones. Many species are capable of forming emotional bonds with others. It is through science – animal biology and ethology (studies of animal behaviour) – that we know these things. From that knowledge, we also know that our fellow creatures deserve to be treated gently and mercifully.
Human arrogance is what prompted God’s rebuke of Job. Job presumed to know more than he did. There is a tendency to think that scientific knowledge is the only ‘true’ knowledge, and that science will one day provide the answer to everything. We will know it all. I’d like to suggest that both of those assumptions are wrong (and many scientists agree). There are many ways of knowing – intuitive knowing that comes through art and music, for example. We come to know others, not by learning a lot of scientifically demonstrable facts about them, but through relationship. And it is through relationship that we know God. Science can never prove nor disprove God’s existence. God can only be known through encounter and wonder. But science can be the start of wonder, as we discover just how complex and beautiful the universe is, from the microscopic to the infinite.
Science is incredible, and creates an avenue of wonder that can help us to see and marvel at the greatness of God who created this universe. But if science is coupled with human arrogance untempered by wisdom and the virtues of the Beatitudes: gentleness, mercy, a pure heart, peacefulness and a thirst for righteousness, it can become dehumanising and potentially dangerous.
Christians have a guide to wise living that Jesus provided in the Beatitudes, and that we can bring to society’s conversations about the use of science and technology. Just as science can give us a clearer vision of God by making known the wonders of the universe, so too faith can give science a clearer vision of what is acceptable in our scientific pursuits, and what is a right and good use of the knowledge science provides.