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Stewardship, Wisdom, Faith and Science

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The overwhelming flood of information in which we find ourselves calls more than ever in history for the four things in the title of this post – stewardship, wisdom, faith and science.  Think about it.  Everyday we are confronted with far more information than anyone can actually reasonably consume; we need stewardship of our attention.  How do we know what to read and what not to read?  We need wisdom to make such decisions.  How do we develop wisdom?  Wisdom springs from a deep understanding of first principles, principles founded in faith.  But faith is more than a simple “belief” in something.  Faith is a reliance on the idea that there is more than just us involved in things – a fact revealed by deep study of creation; that is to say science.

This chain, faith and science working together to build wisdom and wisdom informing our decisions about the allocation of resources, applies to far more than just the consumption of information.  Most environmental concerns are about the allocation and use of resources.  Non-carbon emitting sources of power provide power far, far more expensively than burning something simply due to lack of efficiency.  Medical decisions are really about the allocation of resources as well.  Consider:

Worse, medical ethicists like Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, 59, insist the elderly are unfairly hoarding resources better spent on the young.

It should be noted that most of us think about stewardship in terms of charitable donations.  That’s when we usually hear about it, when church is asking us for money.  But notice that in both of these cases, money is a measure, not the end to itself.  Money is not even the resource we are distributing – the resources are power and medical attention- money is simply how we measure how we are allocating those things.  When government allocates money for something, it is making a value statement saying “this thing matters more than this other thing to which we could have allocated the money.”  Virtually every decision we make is about stewardship.  It behooves us to make such decisions wisely and wisdom is built on both faith and science.

In medical thinking, stewardship applies as much to micro-level decisions as to macro-ones.  The dietary supplement business is predicted to hit almost $300 billion in the next seven years.  Have you priced some of this stuff lately?  In my household the monthly budget for multivitamins and a couple of doctor recommended supplements runs in the hundreds of dollars range.  Does it really work? What about those joint support compression garments we see constantly advertised?  Are they really worth the money?  Are such things a wise and prudent allocation of resources?  As individuals we have to be smart about the decisions we make regarding such things.

The answer to specific questions on these matters can be very complex, so I just want to make a few points.

Faith and science are complimentary, not contradictory.  Science began as the study of God’s creation as a means of learning more about the Creator.  We have come to think of science as a means of gaining control over nature, and truly the insights we gain do often give us such control.  But here’s the thing – such control is an illusion.  We are a part of nature and can therefore never gain sufficient perspective to control it completely.  Such is the source of the unintended consequences we encounter daily.  Bright ideas like banning DDT to save bird eggs results in malarial outbreaks.  Faith, at a minimum, reminds us that we are a part of nature, not its masters.  Faith can inform science much more than that, but at a minimum it gives the scientist a proper perspective on his or her own activity.

Wisdom is most important when there are no straightforward answers.  Particularly in fields like medicine and ecology, where the systems being study are so multi-variant that all models must contain presumptions and likely exclude some factor, the data and conclusions just cannot be relied upon to have the certainty associated with them that we see in simple physics like a baseball or a rocket.  Sometimes we have to rely on other things.  My favorite science joke – A farmer’s hens are not laying, so he calls the smartest guy he knows in to help with the problem.  The guy goes into the coop for three days studying things and emerges a mess.  He looks at the farmer and says, “I have a solution but it requires a perfectly spherical chicken in a vacuum.” – Science is like that, it often looks really good on paper, but is not worth much practically.  Wisdom helps us judge when the science just is not strong enough.

Wisdom is often about people, not facts.  The way that wisdom informs those difficult data decisions is often by informing us about the people.  If you read the greatest book on wisdom ever written – Proverbs – you will read a lot about character and motive.  When you are making decisions about how to allocate resources and the science is inconclusive, sometimes you have to ask about who you are giving your resources to.  Proverbs, with all that advice about character, makes it plan that if you have competing science claims and one comes from someone of notable character and the other from someone whose character you do not know, or of lesser character, go with the notable character.  The bottom line is this – even if their science ends up wrong, they’re going to do their best to make things right – the other will just take the money and run.

The biggest key to wisdom is learning from our mistakes.  Proverbs 28:13 (Living Bible)

A man who refuses to admit his mistakes can never be successful. But if he confesses and forsakes them, he gets another chance.

In this self-image obsessed age we too often double-down on our mistakes as a means of saving face.  When I see really big messes, especially the ones I have made myself – this lies at the heart of them.

We have to train our reason, and related wisdom, to be stronger than our emotion.  Let’s be honest – in this time and place our material needs are essentially covered.  Even the homeless in America can find a meal and a place to sleep if they are willing.  That fact has caused our emotional needs to hold much more sway in our lives than they did in times past.  When we had to struggle to survive we suppressed our emotions for the sake of that survival.  Hence we learned from our mistakes because the next one could be fatal.  But when we know survival is not at stake that shame associated with the mistake is much more powerful.  It is a matter of training and self-discipline to balance those emotions with what the data and wisdom tell us.

The more complicated our decisions get, the more we have to rely on basic principles.

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