Lent 3 B: Use Science, Don’t “Trust” It

The Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent:

Old Testament       Exodus 20:1–17

Psalm                    Psalm 19

New Testament      1 Corinthians 1:18–25

Gospel                   John 2:13–22

Because our last President made such a mess of our nation’s pandemic response by promoting quack cures and undermining sound advice and the governors who were trying their best to adhere to it, the slogan “Follow the Science” first became a favorite of the anti-Trumpers who insist mask-wearing is civic duty. But now that phrase has become a meaningless meme, and is even thrown back in our faces by a certain congresswoman who insists if we “trust the science” we will conclude human sexual identity is a simple and binary matter. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/02/25/greene-newman-transgender-equality-act/

Whenever I’m urged to just trust science, and when I hear that more science, or more education, or more rationality is the answer to all our woes, I remember the Nazis. Shortly before I was born these guys almost succeeded in blitzing the world and killing all the Jews, homosexuals, union members, gypsies, and everyone else who didn’t fit their “scientific” picture of a master race. And it just so happened very many card carrying Nazis were smart enough and well educated enough to be doctors, and, yes, you guessed it, rocket scientists.

Science is using the five senses. It’s putting things out there to be tested and shown to be so. But science has no way of getting beyond the universe or beyond time to see where it all came from and where it’s going. Science has no way of helping us sort fundamental human values.

We will never solve our problems simply with more science and better schooling. We will always rely on better families, better houses of worship, better art, a healthy and whole society—better souls as well as better minds—better values as well as better algorithms.  

An astute physician named Vinay Prasad has penned a timely article that explains a crucial distinction: “Science is a tool, not a prescription for policy on Covid-19 (see the article at https://www.medpagetoday.com/blogs/vinay-prasad/89856).”

All we have to do is wake up and be honest and we will understand that this pandemic has knocked us all for a loop and demanded that we reach for more than science can give us. It doesn’t matter how many or what kind of degrees one might have, one can still find much to scratch one’s  head about, and argue with other experts about. And we are learning every day that we won’t lick any pandemic unless we work better together. We can be smarter than a virus, but the real problem is that it’s united and we as a society, are terribly divided.

Science is really a set of tools, and we humans continue to be notoriously imperfect at using our tools.

Here is where our New Testament lesson comes in handy. The Apostle Paul writes,

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

In the process of his argument Paul makes use of an array of words for what we might call “ways of knowing and deciding.” He speaks of wisdom and discernment, scribes and debaters (The Greek word for which indicates those skilled at marshalling rock solid proofs and persuasive rhetoric.). He writes of religious Judeans looking for signs from heaven, as well as worldly, skeptical Greek philosophers.

None of them, Paul argues, can handle the deeper kind of Truth that has overpowered him and all believers. God has undone strength through weakness. God has overwhelmed limited and fickle human reasoning through the transcendent wisdom of sacrificial love.

If you read on in 1 Corinthians you will see that Paul goes on to bring this abstraction down to earth. He calls on these fresh Greek believers to “consider you call.” They had not come to faith because they were convinced by flawless argument. Nor were they touched by God because they were exceptional, noble, powerful, or closer to God to begin with. But something had happened to them free of charge or merit. A gift of love–they had been overwhelmed by the “source of life.”

In the rest of the letter Paul addresses a great many policy issues for the Corinthian congregation, all of them just as crucial as the problems we need to solve facing our pandemic. At one point Paul says “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” And in chapter 13 he brings it all to a climax by describing the love of God that is at the very heart of this superior wisdom of God. He says there that we apply this love and this wisdom only imperfectly now, but we are kept moving forward not because we know, but because we are known by that loving God we do not know.

            12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Science is a set of tools—essential ones. But love for one another must be our prescription for policy, with Covid-19, and with everything else. Knowing we are known frees us to keep knowing better. Knowing we are loved is the only thing that frees us to keep asking the questions, to admit when we are wrong, to share the answers we do find, to forgive ourselves and others, to give and to correct and cooperate, as we all feel our way through these troubled times.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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