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R.S. Thomas: When Science Outstrips Our Wisdom

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You could be forgiven for thinking that the late poet R.S. Thomas was a Luddite, a hater of technology and the mechanization of life.

The machine is manufactured, and Thomas, who died in September 2000 at the age of 87, was deeply fearful of what “man” “makes” in factories, what machines do to the land and to the human soul.

Many of his poems are negative about science, ambivalent about technology, fearful and mistrusting of human knowledge applied for the purposes of mastering nature by machinery and mechanization rather than serving creation by care and stewardship.

He had lived through the years of war, of the tractor replacing the horse, the combine harvester devouring fields in half a day that would have taken men a week with scythes, twine, forks and sheaves, and further days of toil at the threshing mill.

His deeper fears focused on human applications of physics, the creation of the atomic bomb, the deploying as threat of nuclear weapons capable of destroying human life and earth as a viable home.

Picking mushrooms reminded him of the mushroom cloud, and the white domes of early warning systems.

The laboratory was a place where power and domination were exercised over matter, so that the same power could be exercised over other people, peoples and nations.

Like the late Scottish clergyman George MacLeod (1895-1991), Thomas had no hesitation in seeing the splitting of the atom and nuclear fission, harnessed to military ends, as blasphemy, the turning of the fundaments of life to the ends of mass death.

The opposite of poetry is not prose, says Thomas, quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it’s science.

Jesus was a poet, he argued, implying much that we are left to ponder. “Jesus was a poet and would have teased the scientists, as he teased Nathanael.”

Nathanael was the disciple sitting under the fig tree (see John 1:43-51), whether thinking, praying or waiting.

But the allusion to Nathanael and his waiting under the tree is Thomas’s entry point for one of his ironic and apologetic critiques of the scientific enterprise, the technological mentality, the mechanistic worldview.

His quarrel wasn’t with science, but with science as dominance, technology as efficiency, lust for knowledge unrestrained by humility.

A poem written late in his career on the theme of science as both wrong question and wrong answer shows he is not an obscurantist opposed to science, discovery and learning.

The poem considers the futility of science as an explanation of ultimate concerns (he was a well-read fan of Paul Tillich).

Science and technology are not of themselves a sufficient basis for human flourishing, or even as guarantors of a human future.

Thomas writes:

“I have waited for him
under the tree of science
and he has not come:

and no voice has said:
Behold a scientist in whom
there is no guile.

I have put my hand in my pocket
for a penny for the engaging
of the machinery of things and
it was a bent
penny, fit for nothing but for placing
on the cobbled eyeballs
of the dead.

And where do I go
from here? I have looked in
through the windows of their glass
laboratories and seen them plotting
the future, and have put a cross
there at the bottom
of the working out of their problems to
prove to them that they were wrong.”

“I have put a cross” signals that at the center of Christian faith is a truth beyond the powers of science to explain or even explore.

The cross is a symbol of all that is wrong with the world; how can the answers be right if all the working and working out are based from the start on false premises, incomplete data and skewed purposes.

The cross is also a symbol of all that is right, at least insofar as the cross is God’s way of confronting the self-destructive impulses that go back to the beginning when under another tree, the knowledge of good and evil was filched from God.

This is a poem that absolutely requires biblical literacy to be able to hear the potent theological and biblical subtexts.

As a Lenten poem, it could be a call for us to adopt a far less sanguine view of human technological ingenuity, as in its rapid advances it outstrips our moral maturity and wisdom.

And in place of intellectual hubris, a cross, that symbol of the marker that something is so wrong in the conclusion, that the questions and answers require deeper and better thought.

James Gordon is part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Living Wittily, and is used with permission.