iceland

The Heart of Discovery: An Overture

August 2008*

The rift valley at Þingvellir is a dark gash in the moors of Iceland. Some forty feet deep, the chasm stretches as wide as two miles in some places, but its most famous corridor is the narrow ravine through which the Oxará, or Axe River, flows out of a massive lake, an ancient spring trapped by hardened magma. A few years ago our family spent a summer morning walking through the narrow passage. We leapt between fallen rocks and hunted up the small waterfalls that tumble over the steep, charcoal-colored basalt of the canyon walls. The surrounding terrain is vast and unpopulated, unbroken grassy slopes and black soil climbing toward volcanic ridges. It is an open and unnerving landscape, frightful and strangely beautiful. I have never been anyplace where I was so conscious of living on a molten rock hurling through space.
 
Given the stark contours of Þingvellir, it is no surprise that when Iceland’s tribal chiefs needed to forge peace they assembled on this ominous site. In 930 A.D., Þingvellir became home to the Alþingi, often considered the world’s first parliament. For eight centuries this small gorge housed Iceland’s legislature and judiciary. Here criminals were sentenced, Christianity adopted, and independence movements launched. Few churches or democracies can trace their beginnings to such fierce scenes of geologic power.
 
Strange as it may seem, I often recalled that visit to Iceland as I watched the Ken Olsen Science Center emerge out of the frozen ground on the edge of the quad. This fall, as the corridors fill with faculty, students and guests, we will have new opportunities to think about the alliance of faith, science and democracy in our own culture.
 
It’s an uneasy bond. The United States can reasonably claim to be the most scientifically advanced and one of the most pervasively Christian nations, but fault lines between the lab and the sanctuary still spread. Today, the academy often dismisses faith as an obstacle to knowledge, even as many Christians still succumb to reactionary rants about science. But increasingly believers cannot speak of shalom—the Hebraic idea of human flourishing or right order—without considering the extraordinary possibilities and hazards of modern scientific inquiry. 
 
If science and faith are still often at odds, there are also concerns about the rapport between science and democracy. At risk is the health of the American “social contract with science”—the will of the republic to invest in research and grant the investigator broad freedom, confident that the scholarly community will insist on professional rigor, ethical protocols and intellectual generosity. The social contract presumes that the nation’s investment in discovery belongs to the public and the worldwide scholarly community. Yet, with the rise of proprietary science, as well as some fearful prospects for reengineering the species, that presumption is increasingly fragile.
 
As the day for the Olsen Center’s opening nears, I have tried to reflect on how Gordon College might help do its part to invigorate social contract. With our new building, all of us, whether we map genomes or (like me) merely struggle to decipher spreadsheets, should consider how a community of faith could contribute to a more robust future for the relationship between science and democracy. Here, as a starting place, are five themes for that task.
 
1. Science Graduates

First, a simple claim: Gordon can enrich democratic life by graduating scientists. More of them.
 
Two years ago the National Science Board once again sent alarms about the failure of the United States to prepare enough scientists for the future. Actually, the percentage of students at American colleges and universities pursuing undergraduate science degrees has remained relatively stable over the past twenty years. In 2006 roughly 12% of collegians enrolled in non-engineering science majors—the physical, life, environmental, mathematics and computer sciences—in the U.S., virtually the same as in 1980. On this score, Gordon mirrored the nation: 12.4% of our students in 2006 belonged to the Natural Science division, only a slight drop from 13.4% in 1999. Yet this steady state has not kept pace with the recent 4-to-5% annual increases in new science and engineering jobs. And the shrillest warning is that the science labor force is rapidly aging, as the baby boomers educated during the Sputnik and the Apollo years close in on retirement. More than half of American scientists with doctorates are now older than 50.
 
Over the next decade, we can envision science majors rising to at least a fifth of our student body. That is, of course, a response to the market: few sectors of the populace have as little unemployment as science. The revival of our 3-2 physics-and-engineering program, for instance, should help students blend a Christian liberal arts degree with entry to the engineering fields, now vastly underfed by American colleges. But, above all, it can be a moral and a global response. For a new generation of our alums to thrive as advocates for democratic reforms and international justice—and to partner with indigenous churches and agencies—it will increasingly need to address critical questions on energy, public health, environmental care, and bioethics.
 
2.   Science Educators

The most painful shortages in the sciences may not be in the labs but in elementary and secondary classrooms. Between 17% and 28% of science teachers each year in American public schools do not have sufficient science credentials to teach their subjects, especially in the least and the most densely populated areas. Recently, when Greg Groover, Gordon trustee and pastor of the Historic Charles Street A.M.E. Church, joined the Boston school board he noted that disparities between our urban, rural and suburban schools may be the “civil rights” issue of our time.
 
How can Gordon make a difference? Certainly more science majors could produce more science educators, some with interest in urban and rural communities. And, with an innovative spirit in the graduate program, Gordon can tailor the curriculum of our Master’s degree cohorts for the needs of specific school districts. Collaborating with districts, in Lynn and elsewhere, on education degrees that enrich science programs will equip local educators as they address gaps in science literacy.
 
We can also make the Science Center a beacon for pre-college students, especially from less prosperous communities. Bringing urban young people into the Olsen Center for stimulating programs may help instill confidence about higher education in the sciences. We can design more pre-baccalaureate service programs, like Bryan Auday’s neuroscience adventure “Igniting the Mind.” The Olsen Center, with its labs and display spaces, can host school science fairs. At present, there is excitement among some younger Gordon faculty about a natural history museum in the center, and I can envision Gordon granting awards to regional science students or allowing some local science classes to help curate displays.
 
3. Philanthropy and Privatization

The Christian community can also nourish the social contract through its heritage of philanthropy and service. Although the US government invests less of its GNP in humanitarian science than most other industrialized nations do, the American people continue to be generous with time and resources. Christian principles, as well as philanthropic and missionary networks, can be resources to scholars concerned about threats to social justice kindled by the privatization of knowledge. With shrinking state funding and higher costs, research depends more on private investors, and the results are increasingly seen more as marketable products for the entrepreneur rather the common possessions of citizens. Admittedly, there are benefits to privatization: some accelerated rates of innovation, reduced taxes, and lower overhead costs to support entrenched bureaucracies. But there are also liabilities. Privatization can obstruct the dissemination of key discoveries to those in need; research can be disproportionately focused on the global marketing of biotechnology products to the world’s wealthiest consumers. Some measure of scholarly independence—and, on too many occasions, truth-telling—can be lost when the scholar works primarily in service of a sponsor’s competitive advantage.
 
At present, many of the sharpest gaps between the supply and demand are in the humanitarian science fields: infectious diseases and hunger relief, water control and contamination, nursing and gerontology. Recently the Peace Corps, like other relief organizations, noted that their most critical need is not for volunteers, but rather for scientists with cross-cultural experience, knowledge of languages, as well as reasoning, writing and listening abilities.   That sounds like an opportunity for Gordon: to partner with organizations especially eager for graduates with liberal arts skills, moral alertness, and a heart for service. 
 
 
4. Green Neighbors

Recently several Gordon initiatives, quite admirably, have urged us to “go green”—among them, Irv Levy’s push for green chemistry, Leo Cleary’s biodiesel, Dorothy Boorse’s environmental science, and Mark Stowell’s “Restore Creation.” In an era of globalization, we are becoming more aware of how poor stewardship harms the welfare of peoples worldwide. Now questions about justice often focus on environmental concerns. Links between global democratization and environmental health are actually mixed: while autocratic regimes are usually major polluters, democratization has led at times to more soil erosion, carbon emissions, and deforestation. 
 
A vigorous social contract asks us to understand the threats to the global environment, including those in our own democratic neighborhoods. When I came to Gordon in 1996 I was drawn to the beauty of the locale—the woodlands, orchards, marshlands and coastal estuaries. What I did not know was that Essex County was one of the most polluted regions of the nation. According to the EPA scorecard, Essex was the third most polluted county in Massachusetts in 2002 and among the worst 10% of the nation. Several problems stemmed from industrial discharge—the Salem smoke towers were major culprits—as well as diesel soot from trucks and power plants. Fortunately, there has been considerable progress in the last several years: industrial toxic releases in the county are now one-fourth of what they were in 1988. But traffic has risen, wetlands are threatened, and carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from highway traffic still exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards nearly half the days of the year.
 
The Olsen Center will be one of the premier science facilities on the North Shore, and can be a prompt for environmental discipline and discovery. Can we champion everyday disciplines that model stewardship? Can research by students and faculty help assess local water, air and land conditions and recommend strategies for use and conservation? What if the Olsen Center became seen as the one of the region’s vital think tanks for environmental care?  
 
5. Dignity and Dialogue

Questions about democracy are vital to all disciplines but the politics of biotechnology have a fierce relevance in our region. Greater Boston now boasts more than 300 biotech firms. Today Ralph Waldo Emerson’s American Scholar would examine cells under a microscope.
 
The biotechnology debates are acid tests for democracy. At stake is human dignity—how we sustain and elongate life and who sets the limits for re-engineering the species. Yet, as the Boston Globe’s Charles Pierce observes, discussions on bioethics can be “so removed from the science of biotechnology that it becomes clear that a great deal of the future debate on the issues of biotechnology might well be composed of scientists and moral philosophers talking past each other, with politicians in the middle trying to mediate the discussion.”
 
Gordon—especially with great new public spaces in the Olsen Center—can be a vital broker of this conversation. That is one hope for the new Forum on Faith and Science that Karl Giberson will be overseeing in coming years. Recently Alan Leshner, the executive publisher of Science, underscored the importance of discussions between scientists and “church and synagogue groups” for democratic policy. He emphasized that the rift between science and faith came as much from “evangelical atheists among our science colleagues” who underestimate the education of religious people. For instance, the debate about “somatic-cell nuclear transfer,” he claimed, is a clash over values, about “when life begins, and its sanctity,” rather than a case of scientific naviete.
 
What Gordon offers is a network of relationships and good will among people of faith and a commitment to respectful dialogue, a strong theme of the Center for Christian Studies. Our challenge is to forge greater understanding among those who disagree, but at the same time to comprehend more fully how the rich heritage of Christian bioethics can contribute to the public square. Most theories of democracy warn of the dangers of unbridled freedom and the loss of a common sense of humanity. Francis Fukayama, for instance, appeals to secular governments to realize that free and unregulated experimentation can mean that “human essence will be altered over time”—that we will see “transgenetic species” and move into a “post-human future.” 
 
How does a pluralistic culture navigate concerns about biotechnological invention? It cannot simply purge the conversation of moral or metaphysical notions of human meaning. As former Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne contends, “science has achieved its very great success in its own domain at the cost of the modesty of its ambitions. We have every reason to believe that there are many questions to ask both meaningful and necessary that cannot be framed according to the narrow protocols of science.” There are indeed principles in Christian bioethical thought—prudence and subsidiarity, for instance—that have long been used to weigh medical decisions; now, more Christian bioethicists, such as Lisa Cahill, are also challenging medical organizations to view global access to health care in moral terms. As Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gringerich notes, in many scientific controversies—such as species extension and biotechnological risk—“even persons who do not identify with Christianity are being morally bankrolled by the conscience of the Christian tradition.” Our task is to know and enrich that tradition more fully. 
 
 
Our visit to Þingvellir came early, just an hour or so after arriving during an Arctic dawn at Keflavik Airport, on the bleak fringe of lava that comprises the Rekyannes Peninsula. A quick stop for a rental car and we were off toward the hills east of Reykjavik. Drenched by the midnight rains, the streets of the capital were nearly empty, and the valleys beyond seemed occupied only by the wind. It was still too early for the tour buses when we pulled up to the panoramic overview of the Þingvellir crevasse and began the short trek into the ravine. At that moment we seemed to have come to a lonely place—a curiosity on an island that was still more mythic than renown.
 
But today the smallest places of the world open windows on the great global issues. No one visits Reykjavik anymore without being reminded that Reagan and Gorbachev once tried to end the Cold War there. Just within the last decade, the massive Vatnajükull glacier in the south—which covers one-tenth of the island—has retreated nearly two miles, making Iceland a focal point in the debates about climate change. And none of those early tribal assemblies in Iceland understood that the razor-like slice in the Þingvellir terrain is actually part of an extraordinary sub-Atlantic fracture: the valley is the most visible site above sea level in the long rift that separates the continental plates of Europe and Africa from those of the western hemisphere. It is yet another reminder that even in our quiet places we can be, quite unknowingly, right in the midst of great global contours. What seems like a small, even remote place may be on the trail of things wondrous and fearful—immensely significant, but often submerged and sheltered from public view. European parliamentary democracy took root in an Icelandic valley; who knows the reverberations that will emanate in the years ahead from the discovery and discourse within the new science center on our own quad? 
 

For a few minutes on that brisk Iceland morning we noted the beauty of the small things: the colors of lichen, the blue mosses in the crags, the glacial streams, and the steam rising out of the dark rocks. Only later did we realize that our simple morning walk had taken us into a chasm that, quite literally, divides the world.

 

 

*Originally printed in Stillpoint, Fall 2009.