On July 20, 1969, man landed on the moon, symbolizing the triumph of modern science. That exciting event added new and compelling evidence for the faith in science that prevails in our world. But the space adventure offers also an opportunity to reflect on another faith, one that nourished science in its infancy and helped it to its present maturity. One of the most magnificent expressions of this faith is found in Psalm 8, the text placed on the moon during man’s first landing:

O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who has set thy glory above the heavens.… When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.… O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!

This psalm suggests three essential contributions of biblical faith to the success of modern science: an affirmative attitude toward the material world, a conviction that the universe is ordered, and a recognition of man’s responsibility to exercise dominion over creation.

1. The first of these contributions to a scientific outlook involves a new evaluation of matter growing out of the faith that the material world is good and is worthy of detailed and devoted study. The psalmist declares, “How excellent is thy name in all the earth,” and elsewhere affirms that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Without this faith there is no basis for belief in the essential goodness of nature. It is a necessary ingredient of the experimental tradition in science.

The lack of experimentation was one of the weaknesses in Greek science, which often viewed the material level of reality with disdain and concentrated on the realm of ideas. A similar attitude exists in Hindu thought: matter is an illusion obscuring a deeper level of reality.

By contrast, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is that God revealed himself in flesh in the person of Jesus, and thus affirmed the essential goodness of the material world. St. Paul acknowledges that God has given us all things richly to enjoy and that by Christ all things consist. Although medieval thinking was hindered by the Greek tendency to view matter as evil, it eventually began to recognize and even celebrate the goodness of the created world, as for example in the Franciscan tradition. This affirmative attitude toward nature is a necessary prerequisite for the spread of natural science.

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2. In addition to this attitude, the scientific revolution was supported by a new emphasis on order. This conviction develops from the faith that the universe has a design in which patterns can be discovered. The psalmist recognizes this order in creation and compares it with the disorder so characteristic in the affairs of men. He confesses to God, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

The biblical doctrine of creation provides a foundation for theoretical science that was only partially understood by the Greeks. In Christian thought, regularity is immanent in the universe, while for the Greeks nature was a mere imitation of pure rational forms. Thomistic theology expanded on this idea with its emphasis on the intelligibility of nature and thus contributed to the growing faith in the possibility of science. This faith has become such an integral part of our Western culture that it is easily taken for granted. During three years of teaching in the Middle East I was surprised to observe the disordered patterns of behavior that often emerge in an Islamic culture. People there had little conception of waiting in line and would crowd together, everyone attempting to be first. Driving a car was always exciting and filled with the unexpected. In fact, a conscious effort is made in Islamic art to introduce flaws in artistic designs as a recognition that only Allah is perfect.

The fruit of this faith in an ordered universe is forcefully demonstrated by Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which is probably the single most important concept in the history of science. It immediately provided an explanation for phenomena as diverse as falling objects and orbiting planets. In fact, it is the basis for all the calculations required for the complex maneuvers of the Apollo moon mission. In the three hundred years since Newton’s original conception, only the development of adequate technology has stood between man and the moon. But technology itself is an expression of faith also.

3. Perhaps the most important factor in the growth of science and technology has been a new expectation of progress. The faith that progress is both possible and important is based on the first command given by God to man, to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.” The psalmist expresses this mandate in the words, “Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet.”

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The idea of progress inherent in applied science has its roots in the Augustinian teaching that history has a purpose culminating in the second coming of Christ. The result is a linear view of time instead of the cyclic view common to most other civilizations and cultures. If history is not just an endless process of repetition, then real progress is possible.

This idea is also supported by the Christian doctrine of vocation, which teaches that man has a responsibility to contribute toward the general welfare. The Protestant ethic explicitly endorsed the study of nature for the glory of God and the good of man. In marked contrast to this Christian emphasis on man’s responsibility is the fatalism of Islamic religion and culture. The Arabic expression “in’ shallah,” meaning “if Allah wills,” is the usual response to problem situations. Most of the hospitals, universities, and other charitable institutions in the Middle East are products of Christian missionary efforts over the last one hundred years. In fact, current technological progress in non-Western countries appears to be dependent on a process of secularization that also can be traced to biblical roots. Perhaps one of the most urgent questions of our day is whether this progress can continue unabated without the faith that initiated it.

The growth of science that has resulted from these new attitudes toward nature has given man an unprecedented control over his environment, with many salutary effects. However, his ability to control has often exceeded his wisdom, and the results have been exploitation, pollution, and destruction. Man’s dominion over nature must be exercised with a sense of Christian responsibility guided by the moral and ethical concerns of his biblical heritage.

Whether or not science continues to draw support and guidance from its Christian sources, it is at least clear that such resources are available from biblical faith. In this faith is light to see that the world is good and beautiful. Here too is the conviction that the Creator has ordered his creation as a revelation of himself. And here is motivation and energy to seek the good of man and the glory of God.

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