Justin Tomkins looks at how we can help future generations celebrate technology and science without being ruled by it
This article was published in the January to April 2019 issue of Rapport magazine.
As we look back over the last 20 years, we get a sense of some of the ways in which technology has already changed our lives and our world. Towards the end of the 1990s mobile phones were simply for making phone calls, the idea of the American President spending his time tweeting would have been absurd, self-driving cars were still a fantasy and the hole in the ozone layer was still expanding. It seems that our world is changing more rapidly now than it ever has, and although we don’t know what changes lie ahead, we can be sure there will be change!
The changes raise questions. How will the world change in the next 20 years? In what sort of world will our children and grandchildren grow up? Will robotics lead to new jobs or increased unemployment? Will medical advances lead to significant changes in life span? Can we avoid a major rise in sea levels? Will technology bring us together, or leave us feeling more alone? How does our Christian faith illuminate our understanding of our technological context? How can the church engage with these issues?
We still find ourselves too often surrounded by the unhelpful myth that science and faith don’t go together. Many scientists with a deep personal Christian faith prove that doesn’t need to be the case. Francis Collins, who headed up the Human Genome Project, is just one example. I enjoy the words of Werner Heisenberg, ‘The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you’.
My background is in science, working on the borders of chemistry, biology and medicine. During my ordination training I spent a year researching the ways that some people want to use medicine not only to make sick people well, but also to make us ‘better than human’. That set me to thinking about how much wisdom the church has to offer about what it means to be human. I am convinced that the world needs the church to be part of these conversations.
For me, the most important of the above questions is about how the church engages with our technological and scientific world. Following Jesus’ call to be ‘salt and light’ in society involves being aware of some of the key issues that face the world and helping society to prepare well for the changes which lie ahead. That doesn’t mean we need to know all the answers, we can’t do that, but we can be part of the conversation. We can also seek to honour God through the way we live in our technological context.
Each of us faces questions about how much time we spend on screens. We see the climate of our world changing; we see plastics in our oceans, seas and rivers. We know that new medical treatments are available along with questions about how to pay for them. We know that robotics create new possibilities but may leave us out of a job. Technology affects our lives whether or not we think about it. But, if we consider technology, it allows us the opportunity makes choices about how we live in light of it. Faith gives us a way of doing that which takes into account who we are, and who God is.
Part of that is about joyfully celebrating God’s awesome creativity. His creativity is mind-blowing. Did you know that if you count the molecules in a single bubble of gas on the side of a glass of champagne and you count fairly fast, counting 300 molecules each minute, and you carry on counting for 12 hours each day, it would take you not a thousand, not a million but one billion years to count every molecule in that single bubble of gas in the champagne!
If we look carefully, wherever we look in our technological, scientific and medical world, God reveals Himself to us. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans: ‘For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made’.
We have an awesome Creator and He calls us and equips us to engage with our technological context. The Bible may not talk about the internet, cloning or social media, but it does offer wisdom with which the church can speak into these areas. That wisdom involves an understanding of what it means to be human. It involves perspective and hope. Offering hope is a massive gift. The Bible assures us that Jesus is working for good, reconciling all things to himself, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth. Despite the mistakes that humans make, and the problems we cause in the world, Jesus has already secured the future and He’s bringing it about, so we can live in hope and in peace. We don’t need to be ruled by fear.
That can liberate us to think with freedom about our health care. How wonderful it’s been to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS. What fantastic new treatments have become available during that time due to the gifts of science, medicine and technology. Yet the church can also help society explore how to face our own mortality. We can speak to the fact that our future hope lies not in new medical treatments and technologies but in the One whose love is stronger than death.
As we seek to live holy and hope-filled lives, biblical commands such as those to love God and to love our neighbour illuminate our contemporary contexts every bit as much as they ever have. Loving our neighbour can shape the way we think about the effect of climate change on the most vulnerable. Loving God can challenge us to think about our own identity as human beings, in relation to the fact that He is God and we are not. We can use technology for good or ill, but it is not the key to our salvation. Jesus has already achieved that.