"Teach us to number our days," prays the psalmist in Psalm 90, "that we may gain a wise heart." But what does it mean "to number our days"? And how do we do that wisely in this age of medical science?
Those are questions addressed in this week's Day1 radio program--the 7th in our "Faith & Science in the 21st Century" series. The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long focuses on issues of life, health, and death in the light of biblical insight and medical advances.
In his Day1 sermon Tom says:
What does it mean "to number our days"? One answer to that question comes to us from modern medicine. For scientific medicine, what it means to number our days is essentially to count them, and then to make that number as large as possible--to postpone aging and death and to extend the length of life as far as we can. Historians tell us that the average citizen of the Roman Empire could expect to live a little less than 30 years. But today, medical science--through antibiotics and surgical breakthroughs, improved hygiene and nutrition--has made it possible for the average North American to live almost three times that long. And there is no reason to think, as we move into the future, that modern medicine will not be able to "number our days" with higher and higher numbers, longer and longer lives.
While we should be grateful for these advances in medicine, and pray that someday the ravages of heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and other diseases will be eradicated, Tom says there's another way to consider the psalmist's request:
Notice that the psalmist prays to God to "teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart," not simply that the number will get bigger, but rather "that we may gain a wise heart." In other words, the psalmist reminds us that when we look at life through the eyes of faith, the goal is not simply the quantity of life, but the quality of life--the depth and breadth and height of life, not just its length. What makes life good is not just longevity, not just living more and more days, but becoming a certain kind of person, a person whose heart is wise before God.
And it is right at this point that our faith must raise a provocative challenge to modern medicine. While people of faith join with all others in giving thanks for the many ways that medicine gives us strength and health and freedom from unrelenting pain, what must be challenged is the false idea that the only way to seek a good life is the never-ending quest for more of it, for more and more days, for longer and longer lives. And lying just beneath the surface of this medical quest for unending life is the false promise, the science fiction dream, even the idolatrous claim, that science and medicine will one day give us immortality, that someday medicine will genetically engineer death out of the human equation--the dream that human beings on biological grounds can live forever and that living forever would be a good thing.
A nationally acclaimed preacher, Tom is the Bandy professor of preaching emeritus at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The author of 21 books and counting, he is a graduate of Erskine College and earned his master of divinity from Erskine Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
The "Faith & Science" series is presenting eight accomplished clergy and scientists who explore major issues of science with a goal of facilitating meaningful conversation around these issues particularly among people of faith. The programs are airing weekly through November 15 on more than 200 radio stations and via podcasts at Day1.org. I'm honored to produce and host the weekly program, which celebrates 70 years of weekly broadcasts this year (formerly known as The Protestant Hour).
In my follow up interview with Tom, I asked him, "We should be grateful for the advances in medicine, but should people of faith--theologians, preachers--be thinking and talking about this from a biblical or ethical point of view?" Tom answered:
I think we should. I think it's quite a natural thing for a physician, to think of her task or his task as adding to the span of life. That's the job of a doctor to heal us and to let us live for another day. I think it's the wisdom of the faith, however, that however good that might be, there does come a time when life comes to an end; and this is not the destruction of all we are. It's the preservation of all we are in the life of God.
For the complete podcast and transcript of Tom Long's Day1 program, you can visit the Day1.org website.
The Day1 Faith & Science series launched Sept. 27 by the Rev. Scott Hoezee--you can read more about that here. On Oct. 4 the Rev. Dr. Ted Peters spoke on "God and Cosmos," and you'll find a summary here.
On Oct. 11, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, spoke on "What Matters Eternally?" You can read about that here. On Oct. 18, the Rt. Rev. Nicholas Knisely, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island, addressed the topic "Quantum Physics and Eternity," about which you can read here.
On Oct. 25, the Rev. David Wood focused on "The Image of God and the Secret of Life," and you can read about it here. And last week, the Rev. Dr. Nancy J. Duff addressed the issue of genetics and the Bible, focusing on our relationships with animals in a sermon entitled "Hear the Animals Singing" - read more about that here.
On Nov. 15 the final speaker in the series will be the Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, who speaks on keeping the conversation going in churches in his sermon "Continuing Education." He is dean of Duke University Chapel and associate professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC. Ordained by the Progressive National Baptist Convention, "The African-American Pulpit" named him one of two outstanding black ministers under the age of 40 who are helping to shape the future direction of the church.
In addition to the radio program sermons, brief videos featuring the speakers on topics related to their messages will soon be available on YouTube and at Day1.org.
The first video, featuring Scott Hoezee on how faith and science can relate, can be watched here.
Day1 has been broadcast every week for 70 years, formerly as "The Protestant Hour." Featuring outstanding preachers from the mainline denominations, Day1 is currently distributed to more than 200 radio stations across America and overseas. For more information about the program or the "Faith & Values" series, visit Day1.org.
The Day1 Faith & Science Series project is made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in these programs and resources are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.