Playing God or Godly Play?

Scientists can play like children. They can use their innate curiosity to take things apart and put them back together, using tools like mathematics and theory development to construct ideas about how the world works. Their play can give birth to great new insights.

The opposite is true as well. “Children are little scientists—they hypothesize on the basis of observations, test their hypotheses experimentally, and then revise their views in light of the evidence they gather,” according to a historian writing on the scientific method.

That is to say, whether a toddler making discoveries in a sandbox or a scientist running a lab, we all share a wonderful curiosity about how the world works. And we apply our innate creativity—often in a playful manner—to understand it.

We call it science.

Playing God

But there are limits—and lines that shouldn’t be crossed. One line, and it’s often a fuzzy one, has on one side our innate curiosity to understand how it all works, and on the other, the urge to meddle with nature in irreversible ways. Overstepping that line is one of the main sources of resistance to science. And people of faith are often the most resistant when scientists try to play God.

New research has found a strong link between this perception of “playing God” and resistance to science. The key issue appears to be our moral sense. When scientists undertake research that the public finds morally unacceptable, there is indeed a causal link to negative attitudes regarding science.

However, the research did not suggest a simple link between belief in God and the aversion to playing God. Nearly half of the non-believers in this study show some or strong agreement with the claim that “human beings should respect nature because it was created by God.” That suggests that “playing God” may cross a line—whether or not one believes in God.

Godly Play

My daughters have grown up in Christian churches that use a Montessori-styled curriculum called Godly Play. Bible stories are presented as opportunities to wonder, to ask questions, and to freely respond to the story in the context of worship. Teachers lead discussions with phrases like, “I wonder what …,” “I wonder why …,” and “I wonder how …”

This has been a very effective way to teach children to believe. They not only learn the stories that make up the Christian tradition, but they also take some ownership of those stories and what they mean. It allows kids—at least those inclined in this way—to be “little scientists,” weighing experience and evidence against the biblical stories.

Many Christian research scientists describe their work as using the gifts of God to understand the works of God. They wonder what and why and how—and apply scientific tools to pursue answers. Many refer to the experience of doing science as a form of worship, allowing them to glimpse and understand things previously known only to God. For them, the practice of science is “godly play.”

Uniquely created

Creativity, argues anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, is indeed something that sets humans apart from other species. We are not alone in having creativity, but we create at levels above all others. We create art and technology and science. We create relationships and moments of profound love and joy. We also create messes that require further creativity to overcome.

For a Christian, that creativity originates with the One who created, endowing nature with the capacity to make creatures who themselves can also create.

That’s what Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner says makes us uniquely human: our ability to create. Paired with the belief that we are created by God, he describes his theological anthropology as created co-creators.

Hefner’s theological proposal raises the tension of that fine line between playing God and godly play.  Playful scientists applying their creativity to solve real-world problems have all too often caused new, unforeseen problems. And further creativity is then needed to solve them.

Perhaps we should not have so boldly used carbon-based fuels that have so dramatically warmed the Earth, or antibiotics that are creating super bugs. Perhaps it was a failure to find past acts of playing God morally unacceptable. But now, it just might be the godly play of today’s scientists that will rescue us.

How do we navigate that fine line between godly play and playing God? The answer is not simple. It’s not a matter of either simply trusting science or just adhering to religious beliefs. But it is one of those places where it is essential for believers and non-believers, religionists and scientists, to apply their God-given and evolved creativity to rescue us from the problems of our age.

That is to say, all of the created co-creators need to play together, be it in the sandbox or the lab.

Contributing Editor, ORBITER magazine