On Christian Science (and ants)
By Benjamin D. Blanchard
What is a Christian scientist? This question may call to mind the apocryphal Martin Luther quote about what it means to be a Christian shoemaker: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”
While Luther did not actually write this “tasty little nugget” (1), the principle it contains is rather useful in answering our question. What is a Christian scientist? I offer this answer: A person who does good science!
If you are a Christian, such a reply may strike you as much too secular. I maintain that this need not be the case – in fact, it could be quite the opposite. Consider the words of Saint Basil of Caesarea (2) who in the 4th Century C.E. penned a snarky letter passionately advocating for pursuing knowledge of Nature before daring to pontificate on the nature of God. The excerpt is a tad long, but it really crescendos at the end!
He who maintains that it is possible to arrive at the discovery of things actually existing, has no doubt by some orderly method advanced his intelligence by means of the knowledge of actually existing things. It is after first training himself by the apprehension of small and easily comprehensible objects, that he brings his apprehensive faculty to bear on what is beyond all intelligence. He makes his boast that he has really arrived at the comprehension of actual existences; let him then explain to us the nature of the least of visible beings; let him tell us all about the ant. Does its life depend on breath and breathing? Has it a skeleton? Is its body connected by sinews and ligaments? Are its sinews surrounded with muscles and glands? Does its marrow go with dorsal vertebrae; from brow to tail? Does it give impulse to its moving members by the enveloping nervous membrane? Has it a liver, with a gall bladder near the liver? Has it kidneys, heart, arteries, veins, membranes, cartilages? Is it hairy or hairless? Has it an uncloven hoof, or are its feet divided? How long does it live? What is its mode of reproduction? What is its period of gestation? How is it that ants neither all walk nor all fly, but some belong to creeping things, and some travel through the air? The man who glories in his knowledge of the really-existing ought to tell us in the meanwhile about the nature of the ant. Next let him give us a similar physiological account of the power that transcends all human intelligence. But if your knowledge has not yet been able to apprehend the nature of the insignificant ant, how can you boast yourself able to form a conception of the power of the incomprehensible God?
This letter is remarkable. Centuries before any religious believer and New Atheist took the stage to debate each other (and long before Luther’s Protestant Reformation!), here is a devout clergyman pressing the true believer to devote as much time as possible to myrmecology (the study of ants) before daring to opine on the nature of God. Crucially, Saint Basil is not advocating for a special attempt to identify some “irreducible complexity” that implies the existence of a higher Being or a mission to replace science with pseudoscience, but instead simply a basic, scientific research program on the morphological and ecological features of ants. First pursue, with Christian humility, an understanding of ant anatomy and development, and then consider the power of God!
I run a site called The Daily Ant (3), and we host a weekly series, Philosophy Phridays, in which philosophers write on the intersection between philosophy and ants. A few of the contributions have considered questions in philosophy of religion using ants, and one contribution in particular (4), by Dr. Sameer Yadav, is instructive here. Yadav suggests that to understand Creation may itself be a form of understanding the mind of God, or approaching “what God is in the integrity of God’s own life”, in the absence of an ability to study God utilizing a “bottom-up” approach. That is, because our faculties are fundamentally limited (here, even atheist scientists and young-earth creationists ought to agree!), we are unable to fully know God as an intelligence that is distinct from our own. The closest we can get to studying God’s “environment”, as we may study an ant’s environment to elucidate its own form of intelligence, is studying the environment that we take to be, in some sense, created by God. As Saint Catherine of Sienna reminded us long ago, “These tiny ants have proceeded from His thought just as much as I, it caused Him just as much trouble to create the angels as these animals and the flowers on the trees.” Nature is one window into the interests of God as a Creator, which is at least a feature of God’s intelligence (according to Judeo-Christian beliefs), if not actually the intelligence itself.
Thus, while I claim that the techniques of the good Christian scientist need not differ in any respect from those of scientists of other persuasions (contra the views of the great Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga) (5,6), a Christian scientist may nevertheless justifiably view scientific work as pursuing knowledge of God’s creation, and even pursuing knowledge of God Himself as best a mere human can. Of course, this is not to say that conducting Christian science – that is, conducting good science – is sufficient as a life for a believer in Jesus. A person of such faith ought to also pursue relational acts that are largely outside scientific work: love towards others, justice for others, study of Scripture, prayer, witnessing, and so on. As Thomas Aquinas notes, in his Summa Theologica, “the ant has a solicitude suitable to the season; and this is what is proposed to us for imitation.” To be a Christian sister or brother is to be a good disciple of Jesus with Christian love in pursuit of genuine relationships. To be a Christian scientist is to be a good scientist with Christian humility in pursuit of genuine knowledge.
Why does any of this matter? To a non-religious scientist, it likely doesn’t matter at all – as long as a scientist (regardless of personal beliefs) conducts good science, all is good! But for believers in Jesus, we ought to be invested in learning genuine truths about the world around us and also in serving as witnesses to all those around us, which of course includes agnostic and atheist scientists. There is simply no justified reason that Christians should not be fully engaged members of the scientific community. Now, on balance, I’ve likely done a very poor job at living out this ideal! But I nevertheless hope that what I’ve briefly laid out above will assist in convincing other Christians, who may be (in my view, tragically) skeptical of modern science, that being a fully committed follower of Jesus and a fully committed modern scientist is not a contradiction. In fact, remarkably, it’s a life path endorsed by various Christian theologians over the centuries. May I recommend myrmecology?
Benjamin Blanchard is a Christian (or, more specifically, Messianic Jewish) and an evolutionary biologist (or, more specifically, a myrmecologist). He received his B.S. at the University of Michigan in ecology and evolutionary biology, and is pursuing his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago.