Science and the Demands of Virtue

A new commentary by Fr. Jensen (Source: Acton Institute, Dec. 15, 2009)
Science and the Demands of Virtue

by Rev. Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jenson

Fr. Gregory Jenson

Contrary to the popular understanding, the natural sciences are not morally neutral. Not only do the findings of science have moral implications, the actual work of scientific research presupposes that the researcher himself is a man of virtue. When scientific research is divorced from, or worse opposed to, the life of virtue it is not simply the research or the researcher that suffers but the whole human family.

Take for example, the scandal surrounding the conduct of researchers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University in the UK. Whether or not the recently revealed emails and computer programs undermine the theory of anthropological global warning (AGW), it is clear that current public policy debate is based at least in part on the research of scientists of questionable virtue who sacrificed not only honesty and fair play but potentially the well being of us all in the service of their own political agenda.

All of this came to mind recently when a friend sent me a talk on the environment (Through Creation to the Creator) by the Orthodox theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Ware argues that all creation is “a symbol pointing beyond itself, a sacrament that embodies some deep secret at the heart of the universe.” Unlike the Gnosticism that hold sway in many areas of life (including scientific research) the Christian Church argues that the secret of creation is both knowable and known. Creation, Ware says, points beyond itself to “the Second Person of the Trinity, the Wisdom and Providence of God” Who is Himself both “the source and end” of all created being. Insofar as the Christian tradition has an environmental teaching at all it is this: Jesus Christ is the “all-embracing and unifying” Principal of creation.

At its best natural science research is a means of exploring and deepening our appreciation and gratitude to God for “the variety and particularity of creation—what St Paul calls the ‘glory’ of each thing (1 Cor 15:41).” But appreciation and gratitude are not the fruit of technical competence but an ascetical effort. We must learn to “love the world for itself.” According to Ware, we do this not simply for what the natural world can do for us but “in terms of its own consistency and integrity.” And again, at its best scientific research has a positive role to play here. This is what makes Climategate so tragic; once again science is being twisted to serve selfish ends.

C.S. Lewis reminds us of the danger here when he observes that, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” While our scientific advances have made us stronger in some ways, they have made us weaker in others. While not without copious benefits, science represents a real and substantial risk for both our relationship to creation and to ourselves. Giving in, Lewis points out, means that we no longer seek to “conform the soul to reality” through “knowledge, self-discipline and virtue.” As with magic in an earlier age, modern science tempts us to “subdue reality to the wishes of men.”

Language such as that used by both Lewis and Ware is foreign not only to scientific research but even most Christian scholarship outside of theology departments (and sometimes even there). Contemporary scientific researchers would have us imagine that they are able to bracket questions of personal virtue as they examine creation. Climategate demonstrates the folly of this.

To further their own agenda the CRU scientists imagined that they could manipulate not only the data but the peer review process as well. While both are unacceptable, the latter represents an assault on the human community. To borrow again from Lewis, it is an attempt by some to assert their will over others.

Metropolitan Kallistos reminds us that the “ascent through the creation to the Creator is [not] easily accomplished, in a casual and automatic way.” It requires not only the theological virtues of faith, hope and love but more ordinary moral and intellectual virtues such as “persistence, courage, imagination.” While the cultivation of these and the other virtues will not guarantee success in research (or public policy for that matter), their absence will guarantee failure.

Likewise, a sacramental vision of creation will guarantee neither sound science nor virtuous scientists. But given the major social and political changes being proposed in the name of the environment, it seems to me that we would do well to reflect more deeply on not only the practical implications of public policy but our own motivations and the means we are willing to employ to reach our goals. As Climategate demonstrates, if only on a relatively small scale, we can perpetrate great injustice with even the noblest motives.

Rev. Gregory Jensen is psychologist of religion and a priest of the Diocese of Chicago and the Midwest (Orthodox Church in America). He blogs at Koinonia.


  1. Harry on behalf of a priest :

    December 16, 2009

    I will not sign the Manhattan Declaration. It is not an Orthodox document. The theology behind it is not Orthodox. The approach to pastoral ministry it represents is not Orthodox. The fear, arrogance, and lack of compassion are not Orthodox. I am tired of hatred disguised as fidelity. I am tired of simple-mindedness and naiveté masquerading as wisdom. I am tired of politics being shoved down our throats by those who do not know the difference between political conservatism and Christianity. I am tired of Orthodox Christians who cannot differentiate between Calvinism and Orthodoxy, of being co-opted by the Christian Right, the Family, Focus on the Family, the Republican Party, and the myriad evangelical converts to our Faith who have yet to unpack their religious baggage and whom we allow to cajole the Church into an alliance with extremists.

    The signature of an Orthodox prelate appears between that of James Dobson and Tony Perkins! It is scandalous. that the only thing we share in common is (in some cases) vocabulary (sic).

    I am tired of the voices of Orthodox Christians who do not know what the word oikonomia means! Oikonomia is the heart of the Orthodox pastoral approach. It is the way of Christ who died for all, the way of love and compassion, the way that sees things (and people) as they are not as we want them to be. It is not the way of fundamentalist, cookie-cutter dogmatism which we are being asked to support.

    William Blake wrote,

    If one is to do good, it must be done in the minute particulars. General good is the plea of the hypocrite, the flatterer, and the scoundrel.

    This Declaration represents the cowardly way of hypocrites and scoundrels. The Christian Right and its allies choose this path because they have no idea how to respond with love and compassion in an historical milieu that offers new challenges and new opportunities. The Christian Right and its allies have nothing new, creative or salvific to offer trapped in an ossified worldview that is more and more irrelevant.

    And who is to decide what the general good is? Christianity? Which Christianity? Who will be its spokesman? The Evangelicals with their lust for power, sex scandals and their mega-church, financial empires? The Roman Catholics reeling under clergy sex scandals in the US and Ireland? The Orthodox jurisdictions in America, hopelessly disunited and struggling with scandals of their own both public and boiling barely under the surface? Who among us has the authority to cast the stone that will impose our “values” on the pluralistic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, democratic society that protects and defends our right to exist in this land?

    Do we practice what we preach? Why should anyone pay attention to us at all until we do? If there is a persecution of Christianity in this country it may well come not because of our fidelity to the truth, but due to our arrogance and hypocrisy.

    Conversion and humility set the soul aright.
    Compassion and gentleness make it strong.
    Evagrius of Pontus 5 (Philokalia I, 177)

    Who among us has the courage to say to the writers and signers of the Manhattan Declaration, “The way of power and fear is not our way nor is the way of legislation and the courts. Ours is the way of compassion and humility. Ours is the way of personal, interior transformation. Of sacrament. Ours is the way of minute particulars. If we must, we will suffer gladly for the truth, but we will not be the cause of suffering for others. Because we are called to love our enemies, we have no enemies, only neighbors. We reject your declaration.”

    I reject it.

    An Orthodox Priest

  2. Michael Bauman :

    Specifically, precisely, what Orthodox doctrine is compromised by the Manhattan Declaration?

    Has not the Church stood for the protection of unborn babies from her inception? Read the Didache (dated circa A.D. 100) if you think otherwise. The Church’s opposition was not merely theological and theoretical, but active and risky.

    The Church has an impressively long list of saints and martyrs who have testified against the state and its excesses under pagan Rome (a very diverse culture as long a you tolerated the worship of the emperor); the Byzantine Emperors; the Islamic Caliphate, and the Soviet barbarians. Even recently Pat. Pavale of Serbia, memory eternal. He, who personally took to the streets to protest the actions of his government and the United States.

    Also those who supported the state yet called all to repentance at the same time such as St. John of Kronstadt.

    We remember the sycophants who stood with the state without calling for repentance, like Sergius in Soviet Moscow, unfavorably.

    We are involved whether we like it or not. The wholesale slaughter of unborn children cannot go without public remarks, public censure and, if necessary public acts. The errosion of the understanding of humanity to a state of beastiality cannot be ignored. The utilitarian evaluation of the ‘worth’ of people as we age and become infirm cannot be approved of. The substitution of any ideology for the truth revealed in the Church can never be countenanced with it is the worship of the new messiah Obama or the elevation of free market economics to a matter of faith that will save us.

    Still, anonomyous Father, you seem to want the Church to be a phlegmatic eunich, purified of the world by non-involvement rather than the genuine dispassion for which we should strive. It is much more difficult to actually follow the command of our Lord to be in the world, but not of it.

    Yes, only a sacramental approach to life has any hope of restoring sanity and a semblence of health to our culture, but the scaraments are not some secret act done in private, they testify to the words of the Psalms that we sing at Christmas: “submit ye selves all ye nations for God is with us!”

    We are not to submit as people of God or as the community of the Church to the hedonistic, statist idolatry of the left nor the equally hedonistic individualism of the right. We must not submit to the lust for power no matter where we find it, least of all in the Church and in our own being, but perfect we will never be. Each and every act we take or refuse to take will have consequences for us and those around us.

    The tests for salvation that Jesus specifically reveals to us in the Bible are all active ones. The Great Commission commands us to disciple all people and all nations.

    I suspect it is not politics to which you object so much as the content of the message that offends your politics.

    Would you have our bishops kow-tow to the state if it mandates that our clergy ‘marry’ or bless same sex couples? Would you have our faithful who are health care providers forced into preforming or assiting in the willful destruction of human life we call abortion or the destruction of the elderly even if it is only from the mandated withholding of care deemed ‘too expensive’. Do you really want us to be as dhimmi here as we have been forced to be under Islam and Communism? If you do, continue to support the secular state and its power and the passivity of the Church.

    Do you support the politics of the EP that run counter to Orthodox anthropology? Do you support the anthropology of Desparate Housewives? Do you support the EP’s co-celebration of the sacraments with the Pope in violation of all kinds of cannons? Do you accept the worldly wisdom of political ideologs while condemning those who, hetrodox or not, worship Jesus Christ as fully God, fully man, one of the Holy Trinity and seek to conform their lives to His will?


  1. […] (name withheld) whose critical comments about the Manhattan Declaration were posted on by Harry […]

Care to Comment?