Weekend thoughts, on Advent… and on R2O.

“…long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared, and the soul felt its worth.” – John Sullivan Dwight[1]

“…Theophilus’ work on technologyunderlines an important aspect of Christianity, namely, that the application of human industry was no longer sinful or reprehensible… Technology itself served a divine purpose of demonstrating God’s wisdom and hence was a legitimate activity…” – Joel Mokyr[2]


Thanksgiving is now past, bringing us to the first Sunday of the Advent season. This is the time of year when the world’s two billion self-identified Christians look back to the first coming of Christ and Christmas, and look ahead to a second coming at some future date. It’s in the nature of our globalized, co-mingled, well-stirred society that many of the world’s remaining five billion people will be celebrating in some form as well.

Advent looms large for me this time around, because Downtown Baptist Church (212 S. Washington Street, Old Town Alexandria) is in the early stages of a pastor search. In the interim, they’re looking for the occasional pulpit supply, and I’ve been asked to fill in this coming Sunday, December 7, at the 9:30 and 11:00 services. I eagerly accepted; it provides a chance to reflect a bit on what it means for “the soul to feel its worth.”

Some context: Economists have long been willing to put a price on a value of a human life. They have a variety of ways of doing this… basing it either in terms of (present-discounted[3]) future earning power, or how much extra hazardous-duty pay people demand for dangerous work, or other risks people voluntarily accept, for example.

That’s for a life. What about the worth of a soul? And just what is the soul, anyway? Most of us would probably say it is the deepest, fullest core of our being, integrating in some way heart and mind and strength. But while some of us might see this as eternal or transcendent, extending beyond our physical death, others would differ.

You and I, and all our contemporaries, have never known a moment of our lives without the Christmas story, and it’s a safe bet we place a pretty high value on our souls, however conceived. But put yourself in the mind of a middle-Easterner prior to the time of Christ. There was (as yet) no Christ, nor was there any likely prospect of one. The God of your tradition had offered blessings for obedience but curses for disobedience. From what you knew of your own shortcomings and of Israel’s history it was clear you were living under the curse. Reality on the ground pointed to sin and brokenness at every level. Daily life and labor were exhausting, unfair, brutal. You lived under foreign oppression. If God loved anyone, that love was reserved for a few elite Pharisees, at least by their telling. And as it was in this life, so would it be in the next one. You might be forgiven for feeling your soul was worth very little.

This is the world that Christ entered, bringing a lot of good news. Some 2000 years later, we’re still basking in that glow. But that’s next Sunday’s discussion. For now, let’s turn now to another question:

What on earth does this have to do with R2O? Quite a bit, actually. Initially, that might not appear to be the case. The task of harnessing advances in research understanding to realize societal benefit would seem a matter solely for scientists at the one end collaborating with engineers at the other. The rest of us are relegated to bystander status. We’re simply waiting with hands cupped to receive the bounty. From breakthroughs in medicine. In computing. In energy and transportation technology. Improved weather forecasts and climate outlooks, etc. No apparent room for faith or spiritual matters there.

But step back a bit, and it’s easy to see that societal uptake of R&D depends a lot on social behavior at individual and group levels. How we think and act as individuals and groups – how we collaborate, our receptiveness as individuals and institutions to new ideas, how we weigh risk versus opportunity, and more – all play in.

Step back a bit further, as Joel Mokyr and others have done, and it’s possible to see that the advance of technology and innovation is not consistent across disciplines or societies and nations, but varies with cultures and values, and with the passage of time, whether over a few years or a few centuries. The Mokyr quote doesn’t do fair justice to his thoroughly researched and exhaustively documented study of what’s needed to foster R2O. Indeed his purview is far broader, and merits a thoughtful study in its entirety. He compares the vitality of medieval technology advance with the limited progress made in classical Europe; he notes that China held an early lead worldwide in both numbers and technology, but appeared to stagnate after about 1400, while the west not only caught up but sped by. He investigates the root causes for the quick British start relative to the rest of Europe at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In the course of these comparisons he and the other scholars he cites have concluded that a diverse array of factors determine whether R2O and innovation more generally thrive or languish. The list includes war, centralized political control versus competing nation states, the primacy of other interests, and much more. But religion and faith rank near the top. He cites in particular the role played by several monastic Christian orders in seeing labor not as penitence but as sacred activity. He adds that during later Medieval times and the early Renaissance this emerging monastic view helped break down the boundaries separating the literate and working classes, and notes “the importance of contact between the educated and producing classes for technological progress seems too obvious to need additional emphasis.”

We’ll be delving into this and other aspects of R2O technology transfer and innovation in following posts. Those of us who are scientists or engineers and want to see our R2O bear fruit might do well to pay attention to the aspirations and core values of our host society. Are we members of the larger public? We’re far, far more than passive bystanders to the R2O process. Our attitudes and actions will determine its effectiveness for good or ill. We might examine ourselves to see how our faith in a higher power, or lack thereof, and other cultural values are fostering or limiting the advance of science and innovation.

In the meantime, did you catch the point about those Benedictine and Cistercian monks from long ago? According to them, and many who have followed, our so-called secular work – the stupefying, relentless, exhausting, all-too-aptly-named daily grind – is sacred and meaningful, despite appearances to the contrary.

It’s Advent. This month, whatever your persuasion, let the soul feel its worth.


[1] Lyrics from the stunningly beautiful Christmas hymn O Holy Night (you can choose practically any version and not go wrong). The lyrics are not wholly due to Mr. Dwight, who provided a liberal translation (one of several extant) from the original French poem by Placide Cappeau.

[2] A footnote on a Benedictine monk who authored the treatise De Diversis Artibus, from 204 of Mr. Mokyr’ 1990 book, The Lever of Riches, Oxford University Press.

[3] Here’s an early treatment of present-discounted value idea, excerpted from Leviticus 27: The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If anyone makes a special vow to dedicate a person to the Lord by giving the equivalent value, set the value of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty at fifty shekels of silver, according to the sanctuary shekelfor a female, set her value at thirty shekels; for a person between the ages of five and twenty, set the value of a male at twenty shekels and of a female at ten shekels; for a person between one month and five years, set the value of a male at five shekels of silver and that of a female at three shekels of silver; for a person sixty years old or more, set the value of a male at fifteen shekels, and of a female at ten shekels.

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