Van Ens: Be thankful for key benefits scripture and science give us
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson referred to “Nature’s God.” He believed God was bilingual. This creator of our world and source of our lives speaks through science’s medical discoveries and the biblical morality Jesus practiced. God speaks to us through science and scripture, which work side-by-side to illuminate what is true.
Jefferson believed nature and the Bible reveal who God is and how God works in the world. Science and scripture are not contradictory. They run parallel to each other as complementary revelations from God. If nature and the Bible are pitted against each other, look for a faulty interpretation of what science teaches or what the Bible tells us.
Family and friends who gather at our Thanksgiving table put confidence in science and scripture. They shall link hearts in a prayer of gratitude to God whose healing power flows through vaccines that protect us from COVID-19. Moreover, this communal prayer is shared with God who is not a fair-weather friend. The God we meet in the Bible wants us healthy, even when the pandemic heightens anxiety and deepens exhaustion.
Without hesitation, each invited guest on Thanksgiving Day has received both vaccine shots and a booster or have scheduled to get this additional shot in the arm soon. Nor have they put off getting a flu shot, either.
Our vaccinated guests perceive no conflict between how God speaks to them in scripture and how God works through medical science’s healing agents that inoculate us.
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Unfortunately, not all Americans accept God’s benefits gained from vaccines and biblical teaching about health. Either they side with science and reject biblical creation stories about the Earth’s origins as ancient superstitions, or they side with Christians who interpret the Bible’s accounts of creation as literally true.
History reveals how naïve it is to turn your back on vaccines, justifying your actions by saying all you need is strong faith for protection against COVID-19. Only fearful people get vaccinated as a substitute for faith in God, confess some Christians who pit science against the Bible.
This Thanksgiving season research the historical record of how such nonsense intensified a smallpox plague in Boston during the early 18th century. The famous Puritan preacher Cotton Mather created a stir among parishioners. He endorsed a medical breakthrough which was unfamiliar to most Bostonians who were not familiar with a new procedure to immunize them against smallpox. Reverend Mather aimed to save his Boston parish from becoming a huge smallpox death pit.
Some Christians maligned Mather for promoting vaccinations, calling him the Devil’s tool. They could not fathom their God working on the side of a risky, bloody, controversial treatment for smallpox. These skeptics did not understand why Pastor Mather had faith in this untested procedure.
The Rev. Mather trusted an unlikely source to control smallpox’s spread. A slave with the biblical name of Onesimus told of how his West African people checkmated smallpox. They inoculated themselves by taking a small dose of the germ from a person infected with smallpox and inserted it into their healthy bodies. Mather called this procedure “variolation,” a primitive immunization technique that scientists improved in stages years later.
Mather had not prepared himself for the blow-back from Christians who refused getting vaccinated. They resisted, their rage burning hotly. Critics of Preacher Mather hissed. Sounding like a “horrid Clamour” against him, Bostonians drowned out his reasonable voice for giving the medical experiment a chance. Christians argued that this crazy remedy for smallpox would quickly spread the disease, not stop it.
Christian dissenters co-opted God on their side, claiming God commissioned them to violently deter vaccinations. Like a band of rowdies on a crusade, these insurrectionists hurled a grenade into Mather’s home. He barely escaped their wrath. Mather tried to reason with antivaxxers, writing how he saw little difference between using Onesimus’s remedy for smallpox and the Native Americans’ antidote for snake venom, drawn from serpents’ poison.
Mather gained a convert. Physician Zabdiel Boylson placed faith in God and medicine by inoculating his son. A light dose of smallpox’s toxin did not kill this boy but saved him from a grisly death. Before the epidemic subsided, smallpox decimated more than 14 percent of Boston’s population, including Christians who regarded their religious faith and scientific experimentation as mutually exclusive.
Results in the Boston epidemic exposed anti-vaxxers stupidity. Doctor Boylson inoculated 240 people. Only six died. Percentages showed the positive effect of science and faith teaming up to score a victory against smallpox. One in forty inoculated Bostonians survived, in contrast to one in seven people who died because their gullible faith led them to believe God wraps protective “spiritual cellophane” around them.
On Thanksgiving 2021, the cries of Reverend Cotton Mather — to get vaccinated — resonate at our turkey-ladened Thanksgiving tables. The New York Times reports on vaccination controversies, which may wreck holiday revelry. “The age-old wisdom about dinner conversation ‘is to avoid sex, death, and politics,” said Noel Brewer, a professor specializing in health behaviors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Vaccinations have moved onto that list.”
“People who get vaccinated can also be self-righteous, and some people who haven’t been vaccinated can be belligerent,” Brewer said, adding, “That could really be a combustible mix.”
“Be sure to bring up whether to vaccinate at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s going to save you money on Christmas gifts” is a wisecrack on the web that’s on target. Vaccinated and anti-vax relatives and friends may boycott each other arguing this Thanksgiving.
In contrast, guests at our Thanksgiving table will not fight over shots in their arms. Our guests trust the biblical poet who sang of God’s majesty and God’s down-to-earth handiwork producing healthy lives. “The heavens are telling the majesty of God, and the firmament—the good Earth — proclaims His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).
On Thanksgiving Day, our guests will raise a toast to a gem of wisdom: Do not trust science instead of God, but trust science as God’s gift to us, such as vaccines for COVID-19.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (TheLivingHistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.