Science in Christian Perspective
Robert D. Knudsen, Th.M.
From: JASA 7 (December 1956): 31-32.
Especially in times when there has been a disturbance of tradition or a moral confusion of tongues the philosophic search has been intensified for a universal principle of justice that would arch over the multiplicity of standpoints and offer a criterion for judging between them. Taking the term broadly, this search is for a natural law doctrine.
Greek philosophy was urged on to its greatest accomplishments in the attempt to overcome the position of the Sophists, for whom rules meant the technical means for the control of human opinion. Plato sought untiringly to rise above the variety of human opinions through a knowledge (episteme) of the transcendent and universal ideas, central among which were the ideas of the true, good, and beautiful. The high Middle Ages found Thoinas Aquinas adapting Aristotle to the Christian faith and developing a natural law doctrine that has dominated Catholic thought to the present time.
At the beginning of the modern era' the direction of humanism was established in no small way by the reaction to the terror and fatigue of the religious wars and the seemingly endless strife of the confessions. Because the belief arose that the religious made for division, the fateful attempt was made to find a new ground on which humanity could be unified. This brought a humanistic natural law idea, where the basis for unity was not sought in some particular doctrine, like the Christian faith, but in what was thought to be common to all, a universal human reason. Though he did not intend to destroy the idea of God, Hugo Grotius, an early advocate of this position, said that natural law would be valid even if God did not exist. That was to say that natural law did not require a religious foundation and justificiation. The basis for natural law was humanized and secularized. We are now living in the crisis period of this humanistic idea of universality.
This crisis can be surnmed tip to a great extent by referring to a constellation of spiritual movements: positivisin, historism, relativism, and scepticism. These are by no means identical in meaning; but they are related, and together they contribute to the crisis of the humanistic ideal. Positivism proceeds from the given, the factual, the positive, as opposed to the normative. It tends to exclude everything that is not amenable to the methods used in natural science. Norms are regarded by the thoroughgoing positivist as being mere expressions of feeling. without cognitive meaning. They are neither true nor false, but are emotional exclamations, like the word. "Oh." L&gal positivism discovers the ultimate source and ground of law in the will of the state. Positive law, written law, is the only law and is the expression of the will of the lawmakers. Historism, in the meaning relevant here, holds that all human values and institutions are historically conditioned and changeable. They are all relative. Relativism, in turn, holds that all knowledge is only relative, valid only from a certain standpoint. One can see how these positions lead to the denial of universal, objective, unconditioned truth, which denial is scepticism.
As illustrations of ethical scepticism Hill (Contemporary Ethical Theories, New York: Macmillan, 1950) refers to two thinkers familiar to us in the field of sociology: William Graham Sumner (pp. 50f.) and Karl Mannheim (pp. 52f.). Sumner believes that all human values arise as folkways,, as customary usages. Philosophy and ethics are products of the folkways of a people. All ethical judgments are but the expression of customs of a specially forceful kind which vary from period to period and which have no special meaning beyond the fact that they are customs at a particular tim e. A thing is right if it is in line with the stronger customs of a time; it is wrong if it is not. To attempt to fight these strong customs, or even to attempt to judge them objectively, is vain. Karl Mannheim believes that even logic and mathematics are dependent on the socio-economic conditions of a time. Patterns of thought are always conditioned by their social origin. They are ideologies. It is clear that such positions make ideals the reflection of real situations and thus rob them of their ability to actively criticize the real.
Parenthetically we might observe that students in many of our Christian colleges are busy lapping up such theories, especially those of Sumner, for want of a Christian interpretation.
The constellation of skeptical positions has broken the ideas of a universal human nature, a universal human reason, and universal truth. The humanistic basis for unity is here dissolved. This destruction of the rationalistic, humanistic ideal has made a crisis in our Western culture. It has uprooted standards. It has contributed to a moral nihilism and has opened the wav to a critical use of power. It allowed power to be set against power, without anv transcendent standpoint from which to judge. As Heinz Horst Schrey ("Die Weiedergeburt des Naturrechts," Theologische Rundschau, XLX (1951), pp2lff.) says, one of the most pressing problems after the collapse following the second world war was how to attain a new enduring feeling for law, which would define the nature and boundaries of the state, avoid the justification of tyranny and force, and erect a bulwark aga inst anarchistic freedom.
Legal positivism absolutizes the will of the lawmaker and destroys the possibility of criticizing positive law. Against this the attempt is again being made to find a criterion above positive law. The question of the just law is again being asked. This attempt has provoked some of the deepest contemporary philosophical and theological thinking. It of fers a splendid opportunity for Christians to show the relevance of their Biblical faith.