Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University from 1896-1898, was no dummy. He had taken academic prizes in Latin and mathematics. He was also part of an extended family that included a Supreme Court Justice and famous preachers. Still, even with all that brilliance, he joined the initial outcry against the development of vaccines—something both Catholics and Protestants initially opposed. He is reported to have said:
“If God had decreed from all eternity that a certain person should die of smallpox, it would be a frightful sin to avoid and annul the decree by the trick of vaccination.”
Religious people have such a reputation for this sort of thing—opposing innovations and our dabblings in science and then later coming round to see the benefit. We move from not opposing the will of God to participating as co-creators with God as each new wave of scientific discovery changes society and eases suffering and the benefits can no longer be denied.
This is not to say that all scientific work is noble and contributes to our well-being. Let’s not forget Nazi attempts to genetically engineer the human race. And let’s not forget some of the clinical trials perpetrated on unsuspecting people in the good ‘ol US of A. Even the initial development of the small pox vaccine by the British Doctor Edward Jenner in 1796 had a few ethical problems with it. As the story goes, he forcibly injected an eight year old boy with both cow pox and then small pox. No medical consent form anywhere in sight.
But how shall we know when a line has been crossed and benefit to society is no longer the end pursued by scientific research, rather knowledge for the mere sake of acquiring knowledge, or worse, just keeping the grants rolling in? I think this question supplies part of the answer–keeping the right end front and center and focused. What we do must attempt to bless generations beyond our own lifetime and not just provide benefit for the moment.
This is what has kept our family going through more than nine years in my wife’s cancer battle–through surgery, endless doctor appointments, experimental protocols and our current six month harsh chemotherapy regimen. We battle this disease, not because God wills it, but because with God we oppose what takes life, cheapens it, shortens it, reduces it or crushes it.
-mark l vincent