Guest Post: Greg Richards on Science Class and Modernity

Abstract Cathedral is proud to host a book except from this month’s guest contributor:

Greg Richards is a writer and College Minister who lives in San Antonio, TX with his wife and four children. This is an except from his forthcoming book tentatively titled “Napkins: Interruptions towards Christian Identity”

My Seventh Grade Science Teacher Might Be Wrong

Whenever possible, I intentionally avoid talking about junior high. For me junior high was one of those really, strange uncomfortable periods that was just way less fun than the Disney channel would make you believe (I have since discovered that Jr. High was uncomfortable for almost everyone, but still, let me feel special for a while). I remember vividly the first day of gym class with the short gym shorts uniforms and reversible t-shirts. I remember breaking into a sweat trying to open my combination locker, assuming I found it. I remember the halls crowded with students, all of whom seemed to have a better sense of what was going on than me. One of my most distinct memories, though, is of a class called Physical Science.

Walking into this first floor classroom was like walking into another world. This was an alternative reality where old men wore pocket protectors and normal personal, individual desk were simply too restrictive. “Out with the desks! We must have oversized tables!” shouted an odd cross between one of the Mythbusters and Dwight from The Office. I remember this class so well, because I had always thought of myself as a bit of a scientist. I loved science growing up. I was always reading books about bugs and trees and “nature.” It turns out, that the kind of science I was reading was not the sort of science we would be studying. Physical Science was about how things worked. It was about the laws that lay previously undiscovered to my junior high mind. It was in Physical Science that I began to learn some important truths, that up until this point, I had managed to miss. Take for example the scientific process. In physical science I learned that you could figure out the world through this system of tests, beginning with a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, verifying the results and comparing data. The fundamental reason this class made any sense, and the reason we all had to take it was because there was a certain cause and effect at play in the world.  This cause and effect was the given, that made sense of the whole world. In junior high it was as simple as “If this copper penny hits the receptor, it will close a current of electricity, and that electricity will cause the light bulb to light up.” (This series of cause and effects was my seventh grade science fair project which prompted another observation- I am awful at Science Fair projects.) This key principle of cause and effect would eventually stretch into all areas of my life, and would become the very breath of most of the culture around me. Physical Science was the first place where I really understood that there was no such thing as magic or mystery. Everything could be explained through cause and effect.

The second major development was discovering that I was the center of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I had always suspected as much, but it was in junior high that I began to understand how powerful I was. I got to make judgments. I got to experiment. What I tested was true. I knew this wasn’t true of only me, of course, but it was true. Anyone could count as long as they agreed to play the game the right way. Essentially, science had figured out the way to truth, and as long as I could follow their system, then I had to be listened too. The best part of all of this was that it was provable. Unlike all the novels I had been reading, and really even some of the things I had been learning in church, with science’s system firmly in place, I would never have to doubt. I could know for sure. Magic and mystery were small sacrifices to make in exchange for certainty.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was being told a story that philosophers call modernity. Modernity has some basic tenets which have been around for at least a few hundred years. To begin with, modernity believes that truth is empirical; it can be tested, retested, verified and confirmed in a lab somewhere. Truth of course is the most important of things. As you may have guessed already, truth being as significant as it is leads to valuing something called the mind. The mind, as you may already know, is where truth lives and checks her Facebook status. The mind is the central thing that makes humans, well, humans. As humans we are thinking things primarily. This idea that humans were thinking things was not a modern revelation; people had known and believed this for some time.  What people had not believed, the truly unique contribution of modernity, was that people were basically, fundamentally, primarily, thinking beings. Once it was established by some very famous and important philosophers that thinking was at the center of what it means to be human, a few important things happened. The first of these important things was a novel emphasis on the individual. As we have all been taught, no one else can do your thinking for you. In the church we are very fond of saying well meaning things like “You must believe this for yourself” or “You have to make your faith your own.” These are things we have been told to believe as participants in the story of modernity, but our early church predecessors would have thought of these as lies. The notion of important knowledge and truth that was only known by the individual would have been inconceivable by even the world’s greatest minds before modernity.

Once the modern story begins to value thinking, and individual, empirical, thinking above all other forms of thinking, the increased roll of science is ironically a no-brainer. Science had already begun to set itself up as a purveyor of unassailable truths. The sort of truths my junior high physical science teacher would teach me how to discover and value. Once we begin to see our world through the lens of this modern story, we begin to realize other things about our world, chiefly that our world is getting better. We know more truths. I am typing this on a computer. I just ate a micro waved hot dog removed out of an electric refrigerator. This is progress, and this is the great selling point of the modern story. When the modern story is told well, in broad strokes, it essentials produces individual, autonomous, thinking, beings who value self over community, empirical truth over any other kind, certainty over mystery, technology over tradition and any tomorrows over any yesterdays. The modern story has a beginning, a middle, and we are living in the end. The modern story has reached is climax, and it was the bloodiest century in the history of the world.

I know, that sounds really over the top and dramatic, but it is also true. The same modern story that brought us penicillin also brought us methamphetamines. The story that brought us electric light bulbs also brought us atomic weapons. The story that brought a miraculous rise in birthrates also brought war upon war. Of course the modern story can account for this sort of problem, I mean after all it is very difficult to progress, if everything is perfect already. It seems to me that this explanation is lacking.

I did not invent the idea that the modern story is incomplete. More famous philosophers in the last century began to ask questions that the modern story simply did not have good answers to. The critique of modernity that began in the last century really focuses on the pieces we have already talked about. This group of thinkers, known as post-moderns, began to wonder if there might be other stories. Maybe the story of progress wasn’t the best story to use to tell the history of the world. Does progress really account for all the brokenness, poverty, genocide, violence and evil in our world? And what about the story that science tells us? Is this really the best story about truth? What about the truths that can’t be replicated in a lab, things like love and grief and hope? Also, what if thinking is not the center of who we are? What if there are other attributes that better define us?

So what does it mean if my science teacher was wrong about the world? One of the most far reaching, and least explored, ramifications of questioning the modern story is that the simple principle of cause and effect has to be reexamined. This is particularly good news for followers of Jesus, because we should of known better than to believe in something as impersonal and deistic as cause and effect.  No matter what the modern story told us, it should always have seemed silly for us to believe that God would set up the world to work as if God did not need to be involved. It should have seemed odd for Jesus followers to believe that the world was some sort of giant puzzle, that if we could just put all the right pieces in the right places everything would work out. This simply does not sound like the sort of God who was willing to become human, live a perfect life, die on a cross and rise from the dead to save the world. None of the story of Jesus sounds like cause and effect. If my science teacher was wrong about the world, where do we turn now? I think the answer is found in the story of Jesus. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we find an alternative to the cause and effect of the modern story.

Cross and resurrection are the heartbeat of Christian living. This is the paradigm that shapes how we determine good and bad decisions. The entire matrix for our decisions and our actions is different than cross and resurrection, but is now shaped by the cross and resurrection. Unlike the absent, law making, puzzle producing, God necessary in the cause and effect world, we are fully reliant on our God who takes death and makes new life. This new way of living is not bound by universal, natural laws that simply need to be uncovered by our brightest minds, but rather is a constant searching for where God brings life. We are not meant to live afraid and fearful, constantly calculating the effects of all our causes. We are meant to choose life everywhere we can find it- even in the midst of death. This is finally the starkest difference between the modern story of individual, empirical, cause and effect truth and the cross and resurrection world Jesus followers are called to inhabit- for the modern story death is simply the worst effect. Nothing can be greater than death. Death becomes the ultimate modern truth, and surprisingly the truth that springs us from the grip of modernity. For while the modern story cannot account for God raising someone from the dead, Christ followers know otherwise. We are exactly the sort of people who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that God can and will do it again. Specifically because God is not done resurrecting us from death, we can live in a world where the most important question is no longer, “Can I prove it? Is it true?” but we can now be shaped by different questions that engage all of who we are, “Is it beautiful? Is it good? And yes, even, is it true?”