Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Th.M.

From: JASA 7 (March 1955): 27-28.

One of the most influential thinkers in our country on the subject, Faith and Culture, is Reinhold Niebuhr. Since the publication of his Nature and Destinv of Man he has been counted among the foremost, if not the foremost, theologian in America. How does he see the relation of faith and culture?

Niebuhr is numbered among those theologians who have fought relentlessly against the spirit of modern man. and also against the liberal theology which they believe has made its peace with that spirit. It is sure that their attack has not meant a return to orthodoxy. But that Niebuhr's position is brave and daring no one can deny.

Niebuhr opposes the modern idea that man is able to transcend himself and his world simply and unambiguously and that history is a record of this gradual conquest. He says that the idea of linear, evolutionary progress is a delusion of the modern mind.

According to Niebuhr, man does transcend himself; but this transcendence is not unambiguous. Besides being transcending spirit, man is also enmeshed in nature. He is a being at the juncture of nature and spirit. His freedom lets him rise above nature, but it also lets him inevitably mistake the height of his transcendence over nature and its particularities. This leads to pretension, sinful pride, which is not necessary but is inevitable because of man's situation. Ultimate transcendence and universality is a possibility hovering over man's life; but it is at the same time impossible of being reached. Man must never think that he can actually reach the goal either by leaving history behind for a timeless realm of being or by entering a final and complete period of history. The goal is transcendent; it is above historical activity; it is beyond the end of history; it is eschatological.

Man transcends the world; but he must also recognize that he is always enmeshed in the relativities of history and that he is inevitably sinful because of his pretensions not to be so enmeshed. The more he tries to disentangle himself from the confines of his situation the more enmeshed he becomes. The only way of escape is through the forgiveness of grace.

In man's transcendence his reason is an important factor. Reason is not the ultimate, however. It cannot fathom the ultimate truths of man's situation. Trying for a rational ultimate explanation, we get only mutually exclusive, partial perspectives. We are torn between monism and dualism, optimism and pessimism, the world as meaningless and the world as revealing simple and good meanings. Only in terms of a super-rational, imaginative, religious view (myth) can thought come to a unity and the paradoxical, naturespirit situation of man be expressed. The ultimate transcendence and the ultimate principle of interpretation are not rational but religious.

As early as 1935 Niebuhr was placing the religious above the moral. He writes, "The dimension of depth in the consciousness of religion creates the tension between what is and what ought to be. It bends the bow from which every arrow of moral action flies" (Interpretation of Christian Ethics, p. 8).

Niebubr's ideas certainly hit some of the fondest positions of modern man. He questions the ability of reason to transcend the particularities of nature and to gain a universal standpoint. If one looks carefully he sees that Neibuhr is also seeking the same universality for which Rationalism looked; but his denial that reason can attain it is against the modern mind, to say the least. He also questions the possibility of attaining the universal community for which the modern spirit so eagerly looks, for unlike it occurs in the formation of particular historical groups here ". . . unity must be achieved in definance of the unique and particularistic forces of historical concretion" (Faith and History, p. 4). He also questions the independence of morals. Morality roots in religion. Man's release is trans-moral, a matter of grace. To bring to an end what might be a long list, Niebuhr questions that history is bettering through immanent forces. There is no unambiguous progress toward the solutions of man's problems. The end and meaning of history are beyond history.

Neibuhr claims, therefore, that culture must be understood religiously if it is to be understood at all. Neibuhr offers a critique of secular culture. But looking closely we see that reason makes room for faith only by a critical self -limitation. In Niebuhr there is no call, as there is in Kuyper, for a reformation of thought itself in the light of the Christian faith.

It is true that Neibuhr does not set an impassable gulf between the gospel and culture, as does Barth; he seeks an organic connection. But he never comes to the question of the religious foundations of reason itself. For this reason, he never asks, as did Kuyper, about the possibility of a Christian philosophy or a Christian science. He never sets a philosophy of the civitas dei over against a philosophy of the civitas terrena. To take such a contentful position in opposition to a supposedly non-Christian contentful position would be for Niebuhr a flagrant example of the hybris he is trying to avoid and which he brands as sin. The Christian shows the limits of reason and the need for a mythical approach; but he does not seek an inner reformation of thought itself.

As an example of a contribution in the line of Kuyper I would point to the article of Dr. Jellema, "Calvinism and Higher Education" (God-Centered Learning. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1951). Here Jellema, takes the position that education, culture, reason are all either in the service of the Civitas die or the civitas terrena. Religion is not only needed at their boundary; religion is constitutive of them. Here, as in Niebuhr, there is an attack on the pretension of modern culture that it can be autonomous with reference to religion. But I believe Jellema approaches the question in a better fashion than Niebuhr. Though his writing is not as elaborate or as scintillating, I believe his approach is fundamentally more fruitful, for be asks about the relation of the Christian faith and culture more radically and Biblically, and thus with a more sure hope of success.

February 10, 1955. Rockmont College Longmont, Colorado.