Guest post: Thanking the Lord for Vaccines

This is a guest post by Andrew King. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

No single medical advance has saved more lives than the discovery of the possibility of vaccination. Indeed, you could argue that the explosion in global population has vaccination at its root as much as any other single factor.

Edward Jenner, the father of vaccination, put together observations that had been around for centuries. As so often, science, even when it appears to advance in great leaps, is very often about the small increments and the joining of a few dots. Jenner put some final pieces into a jigsaw – but the new picture that emerged changed the whole world.

Jenner’s testing regime would really make your hair curl: scraping pus from the cowpox on a milkmaid’s hands and running it straight into the veins of the gardener’s 8-year-old makes me want to heave. We have come a very long way!

Although Jenner’s work was not universally or easily welcomed by the very conservative medical community, acceptance occurred in his lifetime, and sometimes by non-medical but intelligent leaders who recognised the brilliance and benefit, despite the barriers of intense political and diplomatic tension. Britain was at war with France at the time; nevertheless, Napoleon saw the breakthrough, and had the whole French army vaccinated. Jenner was even instrumental in negotiating the return home of some prisoners of war – as the French Emperor said, how could he “refuse anything to one of the greatest benefactors of mankind”.

Back home in the UK, not all were as thankful. As a committed Christian, Jenner both understood that and struggled with it. Some days before his death, he stated to a friend: “I am not surprised that men are not grateful to me; but I wonder that they are not grateful to God for the good which He has made me the instrument of conveying to my fellow creatures”.

One of the tragedies of this pandemic – or one of the tragedies it exposed – is the distance that has opened up between science and ordinary people. The teaching of science in schools (perhaps the teaching of anything in schools) has increasingly become a matter of passing exams and getting qualifications rather than actually understanding the world. Simple observation of the natural world, basic curiosity about its processes seem to have been lost. We live in a world where a “celebrity” can say, “… I thought the sun and the moon was the same thing. Turns out they’re not!” The depth of disassociation from straightforward scientific observation in that statement takes the breath away. It would appear that we either never look at the sky any more, or, if we do, the logical consequence of both bodies being visible at once is no longer seen.

Unfortunately, recent government rhetoric has not helped. “The science” is spoken of as if it were a mystical quantity, a magical substance. The government refers to scientists as if they are from some special planet. We might as well call them alchemists or necromancers. The playing off of “the economy” versus “the science” exacerbates the problem.

In the church, we also seem to have lost touch with science. The ferocious debates about evolution have soured the relationship between the chapel and the lab. We need to remember how many of the great advances in science – and especially in medicine – came through believers. Pasteurisation, antiseptic methods in surgery, the use of anaesthetics – all from Christians. Whenever I am in my car in a thunderstorm and think “I’m glad to be in a Faraday cage”, I also remember that Michael Faraday was an (albeit somewhat quirky – aren’t we all!) independent evangelical.

As Kepler said, science is about thinking God’s thoughts after him. The science of medicine (and other technologies) is about approaching a universe of pain, one beset with problems, knowing that it is pregnant with possible remedies placed there by our kind and gracious God. There is an eccentric streak in some streams of Christianity that wants to deny pain relief or medical remedies to the suffering. But this has, thankfully, always been confined to a small minority. Recognition of God’s grace in and through scientific brilliance has been the wise and biblical mainstream.

But it would appear that Covid-19 has catalysed, or revealed, a whole new stratum of of cynicism about science amongst Christians, together with a new tendency to espouse conspiracy theories. This has to do in part with the source of the virus research (“Big government”, Bill Gates, the WHO, “Big Pharma”, etc) and in part with what is perceived as the dramatic speed with which we see possible vaccines coming through.

It is true that Big Pharma is a dirty word. Like all global industries with vast markets, enormous sums of money and huge political implications, there is greed, corruption, exploitation and murder. The same is undoubtedly true of oil, motor vehicles, agricultural land and the rag trade. But at the heart of the quest for vaccines that deal with novel viruses remains nuts and bolts science and the immense excitement of discovery. As ever, the process is about the careful application of prior knowledge and is incremental, not quantum leap. The immense effort going on in so many labs around the world to “crack” the latest Coronavirus should be a source of joy and prayerfulness for an effective and safe vaccine to be found. The process in itself does not warrant a knee-jerk cynicism that belongs more to the world of “I thought the sun and the moon was the same thing” than it does to the hopeful faith of a Kepler, Faraday or Jenner.

I have friends who are part of trials on the vaccine. I wish they had asked me! I would love to be involved – even at some personal risk – if the goal of beating this disease could be brought closer. Science is exciting! God gave us the possibilities of lab and experiment. Science is for Christians!

I do recognise that not all scientific methods are equally morally justified. I am unhappy with the use of embryos in vaccine and other research. I am unhappy with the use of gardeners’ boys, for that matter. I fully understand and commend a desire to avoid treatments that have been developed by unethical means. I simply do not know what has been involved in the Pfizer research. Given the incremental nature of scientific and technological progress, it is likely that all of us, every day, gain some benefits from technology which has some ethical dubiousness in its development. Each of us must operate with a clear conscience as best we can.

The other issue that is brought up has less to do with the source of the vaccine and more with the speed of its development. It seems to me that complaining that this is all so fast misses the transforming power of urgency. Tests and trials are taking place apace. Why? Because of the scale and pressing urgency of the problem! But tests are happening – the urgency has brought far more willing volunteers forward than usual and the acceleration seems to be not by skipping tests but by getting through them faster. We need to remember that, though Covid-19 seems to the layperson to have come out of the blue, the technology being applied to deal with it is pre-existing. As with all science, the fundamentally incremental nature of the vaccine that is under test is a huge encouragement.

When does technology advance fast? When it’s urgent to do so! Compare the development of aeroplanes from 1918-39 and then from 39-45. Six years saw ten times the advances of twenty-one! I’m not surprised that rapid progress has been made – and I am purely and simply thankful for it. Yes – big money is involved, but at the grass roots this breakthrough is down to people in white coats pushing their minds to the limit, long nights in the lab, huge dedication and a desire to help. Hallelujah!

This is not to say that the Pfizer vaccine is necessarily the solution. Tests ARE running – that’s science! And the temperature issue is going to be a big challenge. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but we should be thankful.

What is immensely frustrating and sad is the rising tide of Christians who, on the back of the supposed war between faith and science that evolution has provoked, are willing to share in and promote the wider public cynicism about science. In particular, sharing the views of a wicked man like Andrew Wakefield ought to be beyond the pale for us. Anti-vax dogma is as potentially lethal as Nazi antisemitism – in fact, it is far more generally lethal. If the anti-vaccine movement reaches a critical mass, as it is threatening to do, then it may turn out that Wakefield and his acolytes are the greatest ever mass-murderers, surpassing Hitler and Stalin by a factor of tens or even hundreds. I’ll put it more bluntly – spreading lies about vaccines is a more effective way of killing human beings than the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Sharing anti-vaccine stuff on social media may make you complicit in an appalling slide back to a world dominated by the fear of the great common diseases.

The absurdity of the anti-vaxxer movement is that there is not one of us who can say with any confidence that we, our parents or our grandparents would ever have existed if it weren’t for vaccines. A more perfect example of chopping off the branch that we ourselves are sitting on would be hard to find! We live because of God’s providential care; for generations his providential care has made massive use of vaccines!

That doesn’t constitute a blanket commendation of any particular vaccine, treatment or research method, of course. But it is a plea to turn back the tide of shallow reading, rapid sharing, disrespect for serious science, and deep cynicism about every action of those with money and power. Be assured: the cynicism about this one possible vaccine for Covid-19 is part of a cynicism about ALL vaccines and ultimately all science. We Christians must do better than that!

The great challenge of the moment is to present Jesus to a world in panic. Leaderless, rudderless, with no belief in any truth, estranged from science, disenfranchised from politics, believing in nothing precisely because they believe in everything, and believing in everything because they believe in nothing, our generation has the most pressing need of a new centre, a new lodestar, a new calibration through the proclamation of the Christ who is truth. Science, art, music, economics and politics – all belong to Jesus. All truth is his. He rules this world with truth and grace and our task is to explore the dimensions of his grace in this life, embracing it as our only hope for the life to come. Vaccines are gifts of God through gifted people; but vaccines will not save us from a lost eternity. Only Jesus and his work can do that.

That is where we must come together and find unity and purpose. Joining the widespread rejection of science is to side with untruth. To place all our hope in science is to miss out on the largest dimension of grace. We have a bigger perspective on the truth – for time and eternity. We have Jesus Christ! Our task is not to get caught up in fruitless controversies about conspiracy theories, but to tell the world about him, the official Saviour of the world and the only Healer for us all.