In Carl Henry’s classic work and magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority, Henry describes modern society’s relationship to science as something of a contemporary, modernist religion — “scientism.”
Now, let’s be clear at the outset in case there be any temptation towards a skewed misunderstanding of what he (or I) am saying: Christianity is not opposed to science or modern medicine. In fact, Christianity is the only proper epistemic basis for science. A naturalistic, materialistic worldview has to borrow assumptions from Christianity in order to even make sense and provide a proper epistemological basis for science—in effect, materialistic modernity “colonizes” what is properly Christianity’s, what belongs (epistemologically) to Christianity as sourced in its worldview and belief in a personal God with his orderly creation. Furthermore, Christianity provides a basis for the sort of medical concern for others that a raw evolutionary “natural selection” on its own cannot justify and actually seems to run against (Mother Nature would actually say, “Just let the weak ones die”). But we digress. The point being—we, Christians, of all people should care about science; we care about medicine; and we should care about the best and most responsible ways of addressing this virus. So to be clear, none of what I’m about to say goes against that.
But as Carl Henry described it, “scientism” is a religion of modernity, which seeks “salvation” by attempting to gain absolute mastery over the natural order (the assumed limits of reality), with scientists as the new order of “priests” who mediate this soteriology (salvation) to us in the form of scientific and medical advancements. “If we can control the natural order, we can control our destiny. We can save ourselves from sickness and demise” (let alone the fact that scientific advancements have also made us better at developing ways to more efficiently destroy each other, like atomic bombs). In short, we put our hope in science and medical advancements. Again, not that we deny the benefits of scientific and medical advancement, but on its own, it falls woefully short. And as an ultimate (in effect, “religious”) hope, it proves to be an idolatry that serves our desire to replace God, another iteration of humanism, we might say, that in fact seeks to make us God.
If Carl Henry were alive today then, I imagine he would say something like this: if nothing else, when this Coronavirus is all said and done, and we’re able to look back and see (1) how much we weren’t able to control the material world as we might want, or at least in correspondence to the degree of hope we put in our science and medical knowledge (i.e., a lot, a lot), and (2) how conflicting our understanding of the data inevitably proved to be (just wait), or how wrong some of our methods showed (again, just wait), may it at least go to show us the bankruptcy of science as the “messiah” our society has held it up to be. May this season deconstruct our modernistic idolatries, show them for what they are, that we may more clearly see Christ for who he is, and put our hope (properly) in him.