Science in Christian Perspective



Karl Heim and The Transformation of
The Scientific World View*

581 Haas Ave.
San Leandro, California.

From JASA 8 (June 1956): 10-15.                   Response by William Paul     Rejoinder by Knudsen

Karl Heim is one of the most important of the continental theologians, though he is one who has been eclipsed in our attention by others, such as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. He is especially interesting for the Christian scientist because he is one of the few who combine with their theological knowledge a deep understanding of the contemporary progress of scientific research.

Heim is convinced that recent advances in natural science, especially physics, have effected a transformation in its world view and have made it again imperative to ask the question of God. In an impressive passage he summarizes the earlier positions of science, which worked upon the human mind to such an extent as to make men feel completely emancipated from the theological context.1 Heim is interested in establishing contact with this secular mind, in many cases so secular that the theological question has not become so much wrong as simply meaningless.

The world view which the scientific transformation has affected is the causal-mechanical view of classical physics-which held that there were fixed and absolute magnitudes, parts in a mechanical whole, where each event was determined by prior events, and where, if one could understand all the factors at any one moment, he could predict with absolute certainty the outcome of future events.

The tenets of the causal-mechanical view of nature, Heim says, have fallen one by one in the advance of physical research. Science has brought about: 1) the destruction of faith in the absolute object; 2) the destruction of faith in absolute time and absolute space; 3) the destruction of the idea of absolute determination in natural events.

Physics long considered the object of experience to be an entity existing independently, absolutely, apart from the observing subject. "The absolute object stands . . . as that which is conditioned by no subject at all."2 An example of this belief is materialism, whose fundamental dogma is the eternity of matter (TSWV, 30). This eternal, fixed matter is the absolute object, something given, completely independent of ourselves (TSWV, 31). This belief in the eternity

*Presented at the Tenth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affiliation, Colorado Springs, August, 1955.

of matter gave materialism the nature of a religious doctrine (TSWV, 30, 28), capable of grasping the whole person and exciting religious enthusiasm. Matter was set in the place of God.

But when physics moved from the question of the configurations of matter to the question of matter itself, profound changes came about in its world view. It brought about the liquidation of materialism (TSWV, 34). The atom was broken down. Then as theory progressed the atom was no longer thought of, in the fashion of a perceptual, mechanical model, as being particles of matter in motion. "The material carriers of electrical energy had dissolved away. These elementary particles no longer exist as substances in solid continuity of being with an enduring self-identity; rather their existence takes place through forms where physical characteristics are not only unknown but actually undetermined, the characteristics persisting only in the recurrent determinations through an interchange of energy with other patterns and systems. Matter has itself become energy. It is no longer the case that there is a substratum at rest, to which something happens. All that remains is the happening itself" (TSWV, 38-39).

The picture was also disturbed by the discovery that energy is not given off in a steady stream but is always radiated in spurts which are multiplies of a fundamental action-quantum (h). This discovery about the nature of energy radiation revived the corpuscle theory of light, which had given way to the wave theory. The road back was partially blocked, however, because the original corpuscle theory could not explain, e.g., the phenomenon of interference, that waves reinforce and cancel each other out. But, on the other hand, there were new observations, among them the so-called photo-electric effect, that could be explained only in terms of a quantum theory of light.

For Heim this indicates a complementarity of aspects. There are both a wave and a corpuscle. But these cancel each other out and cannot appear at the same time to the observing subject. As Heim puts it, "The corpuscle is only at a particular point when it betrays its presence at that point to an observing subject by some specific effect" (TSWV, 46). The wave effect, in turn, is ". . . the wave which expresses the variation in the probability of a corpuscle betraying its presence by some specific effect to an observing subject at any point in space" (TSWV, 46). As soon as the corpuscle reveals itself, the probability of its appearing (the wave) is extinguished. There is either a corpuscle or a wave. They are complementary, but they limit each other (TSWV, 48). Heim continues, "All these modes of expression used by contemporary physicists have meaning obviously only when the description of natural events contains a reference to an observing subject who is himself included in the event. For an absolute object, existing over and above any awareness, cannot be 'extinguished'. An objective entity cannot collapse into nothingness from moment to moment" (TSWV, 48).

One reality appears under two forms that can never be held together in human experience (TSWV, 49). But that the two aspects of experience are in a higher unity can be seen by a, non-pictorial, purely abstract mathematical equation (TSWV, 62).

Because of a religious need for something stable man established the idea that the world had a fixed center, or a ". . . system of coordinates embracing absolute space and absolute time,' whose origin is the middle of the cosmos" (TSWV, 66). But the Copernican revolution began the destruction of this idea, and the gradual realization of the meaning of this revolution has come to destroy the picture altogether. The classical relativity principle recognized a number of equivalent coordinate systems, and knew that we can translate from one to the other (TSWV, 68). The recent theories of relativity have done an even more thorough job of destroying the idea of absolute space and time. The absolutes have fallen one after the other: the earth as the center, the sun as the center, the idea of absolute space (Newton), the idea of ether as an absolute medium for motion.

The special relativity theory has shown the equal validity of various reference systems, and not only within the spatial dimensions. Even time measurements has become a matter of relativity (TSWV, 86). Time is now seen as a fourth dimension so that instead of absolute space and time we have ". . . the fourdimensional world of Minkowski, the unobservable space-time continuum, within which space and time are simply axes of coordinates whose configuration depends on the state of motion of the observing subject . . ." (TSWV, 94).

Absolute space and time dissolved into relative coordinates. It is possible to work out the mathematics of all space-time measurements in the various systems and show their relationship, and so a unity is seen between the systems (TSWV, 89). But it is impossible to think of things as moving in an absolute three dimensional space.

Again we see that the subject of experience has been brought into connection with the object. Spacetime relations vary with the perspective of the observer. "In general relativity theory, the space-time systems which arise within different reference systems are relativized and turned into world-aspects belonging to subjects who see reality under different perspectives" (TSWV, 108). The unity of these spaces can be seen only by purely mathematical means.

Most destructive of all has been the effect of the new developments on the idea of the absolute de termination of all events. In various forms the view was held that all happenings could be subsumed under one equation and that future events. could be pre dicted merely by tracing forward along the causal chain. Heim sees this causal-mechanical idea to be a religious one (TSWV, 127 ), a bold attempt to erect a bridge of certainty out over the void of the future.

But Heim says, that physics have moved ". . . from the causal-mechanical picture beloved of a technical age which believed in magnitudes fixed and absolute in themselyes, to a mode of thought from which all these absolute fundamentals have been relativized" (TSWV, 129). No longer could it think of matter as being points in objective space, moving according to fixed laws (TSWV, 129).

. Especially the uncertainty principle of Heisenberg has upset the mechanical world picture. Heisenberg concluded from his investigations that a particle can have a position or a velocity but not both (TSWV, 131), The more exact one is in measuring the one, the less exact he must be with the other. Speaking in terms of Planck's action-quantum, Heim puts Heisenberg's position thus, "The product of the two unknowns is always an integral multiple of an elementary quantum of action. We can distribute the uncertainty as we wish, but we can never get away from it" (TSWV, 131).

It might be said that no exactness is possible because of observer interference. Bohr claims, however, that it is more exact to say that the physical interaction of the observer and object is a necessary condition of knowledge (TSWV, 132).

Here again i's complementarity.of aspects, and here again it is seen that the object cannot exist apart from the subject. The complementarity of position and velocity is understandable only if the subject is included in the picture of the object (TSWV, 133).

Quantum mechanics has by its mathematical investigations ruled out the possibility of a deterministic sub-structure to the world (TSWV, 135-136). Natural laws must be seen in terms of probability, and their firmness must be seen in terms of statistical regularity (TSWV, 136). When there are a great number of individuals involved, exact prediction is possible, be cause of what is called the law of large numbers. That regularity exists, however, on the background of a micro-physical world where there is only indeterminate activity.

It is of considerable interest to note some of the theological and philosophical implications which Heim draws from his investigations. Indeed I have ventured into the foregoing material only as a preparation for these observations.

Heim sees a religious background to the drama in physical science. In man there is a religious need for a central point of reference, an absolute fulcrum, for a haven in which he can feel secure. The search for and vital concern in the absolute object, absolute space and time, and absolute determinism are indications of this fundamental need.

The development of physics has destroyed all these absolutes. It has shown everything to be relative. It has discovered complementarity, where the subject confronts two complementary but exclusive appearances of the same event. The higher unity of these aspects is understandable only in terms of non-perceptual dimensions which can be expressed only in mathematical terms (CFNS, 149). The real behind the appearances is otherwise an X, which remains hidden behind the duality of aspects. This complementarity shows that the object of experience is relative to the observing subject. Our experience within objective space can get us no farther than this X, this unknown beyond the subject-object relation.

This objective space is polar. By this term Heim refers to the oft-mentioned fact that everything is relative and that while remaining within objective space it is impossible to escape relativity and find an absolute starting point or end point. It also denotes a continual opposition of life to life, where the weaker is crushed. In this diversity no one perspective can claim any superior right to any other. The law of the stronger prevails.

A like polarity exists in the realm of the self, in the space of the encounter between the "I" and the "thou". This is a realm which is separate from the objective. Considered objectively any person might be subsituted for any other. For instance, just any workman might be able to do a given amount of work in one day. On a deeper level, as the subject of every objective experience, the self is unique.

It is possible for one to miss seeing his true self by thinking of the self objectively, after the fashion of a thing. He sees himself as essentially interchangeable with any other (CFNS, 199). He is immersed in the mass, the crowd. He thinks what "one" thinks; he does what "one" does. He is the typical mass-man (CFNS, 199).

The person can escape this objectification and can "come to himself" only by a discovery that comes to him as a shock. It is that he is an essentially unique self, placed in a particular location, and that neither his selfhood nor his location are interchangeable. It is a discovery that his true selfhood is beyond the objective and that personal encounter is a non-objective event. But it is also seen that no one self has any priority over the other. The space of personal encounter is also polar.

When a person comes to himself, he is faced with two inescapable questions: 1) why he has been placed in just this particular place, with his particular gifts, his particular perspective, etc.; 2) what he is going to do with himself, for the future lies open before him.

In answering the second question, Heim says there are only two alternatives open to a person: relativism or positivism. If one decides to take some established value as his lifeguide, he must come to realize that all values are relative, beca ' use all are transitory (CFNS, 181). One is lost in a polar space, in which no perspective has any preeminence over any other. The only other alternative is positivism, while one remains in polar space. By this Heim does not refer to positivism as ordinarily understood, but to the act of making a starting point by an arbitrary fiat- i.e., positing one. In neither case, relativism or positivism, can one find the absolute starting point upon which he can throw his entire weight, upon which he can base his life. A relative, transitory value cannot suff ice. On the other hand, if one posits a value by an act of will, he could also remove it by another act of will. Either one continues hopelessly to seek an abso lute in polar space, or he turns to seek it in a trans polar space, the space of confrontation with the per sonal God. Within polar space nothing exists which might be capable of sustaining itself (CFNS, 182).
One is then led to ask the question of God.

In his analysis of physics Heim found man with his mooring cut, threatened with being thrown into the void. His existential analysis also discovered man to be in a dilemma unless he sought something higher than the polar spaces of objective and 1-thou experience. Objectively it is impossible to make one see that a trans-polar space exists; such a realization comes only as a shock, an experience which jolts and transforms the foundations of one's being (CFNS, 110).

Heim sees a religious significance in physic's des truction of the absolutes. It shows that God is the only absolute. "Thou shalt have no other go ds before me." All the other absolutes are idols, taking the place of the living God. These false absolutes are con structed by man in response to a religious need, but they are demonic. There are spiritual powers, some of which are for God and some of which are against God. The progress of physics has destroyed some of the false absolutes, and has opened up once again the way to ask the question of the true God. For a contemporary theologian of format Karl Heim has some remarkable approximations to evangelical faith of an orthodox type. Among other things he stands for the infinity and personality of God (CFNS, 202ff.), miracles (TSWV, 169ff.), demons (TCWV, 174), and even the travail of creation waiting for redemption. The belief in demons and in the expectation of creation appears to be on the background of a paripsychism.

On the other side of the ledger, Heim does not maintain the exclusiveness of Christ. The volumes I have used do not treat this side of theology systematically; but I judge from the nature of certain references to non-Christian religion that Heim regards Christianity as being only a type of true religion, and not the true religion. This is due partly, I believe, to his idea of polarity. If everything objective is relative, how could Christianity, which is an objective, historical phenomenon, be anything but relative?

We can see this relativism in a broader context when we realize that Heim is an existentialist. Among other things this movement is characterized by contrasting sharply the objective and the inner. personal, existential. In true existentialist fashion Heim says that the issue for Christianity cannot be whether there is a particular objective content that is true. The issue is not this or that content or position, but is freeing the self from the objective mass-manhood (the One), and coming to oneself. Heim indeed goes farther in saying, that one must then escape the Void by making an existential decision for the living God. Yet the test cannot be the acceptance of this or that, as one might try the spirits in tern-is of the belief in the resurrection of Christ or the Godhead of Christ. The test must be whether one has come to himself, has taken the responsibility of his existence upon himself, and then, declaring all else to be relative, has accepted his existence from the transcendent God, knowing that he is held by Him. The pleasure at hearing such words is dampened when one realizes that the existentialist dichotomy between the objective and the existential-though there may be an absolute Godmakes it impossible for God to speak absolutely to man. Everything in the objective is completely relative, including a fortiori the Scriptures and any historical phenomenon. The issue is the existential attitude to this relative, the existential qualification by which the relative is seen in a new light, a transforming light, as Heim says, from a higher dimension, a suprapolar space. We can see, therefore, how Christianity, when reinterpreted by the existentialist, tends to be divorced from its objective, factual side.

It is not surprising that Heim and other existentialists, e.g., Barth and Niebuhr, are not interested in a Christian philosophy. It is rather irrelevant what position one takes objectively. Existentialism must insist on the relative character of the objective, however, even though this relativism is arched over by an absolute. The absolute appears for Heim in the relative when one accepts his existence as having been given by the divine. Even though one is a particular being at a particular place with only a relative standpoint objectively speaking, he has confidence that what be does is the will of God for him hic et nunc. (CFNS, 210). The objective standard of the Scriptures is replaced by an irrationalistic idea of divine leading, which transforms the movement.

Such traits are common in existentialism, and they should give us pause before we, with some orthodox believers, begin to toy with the idea of a Christian existential philosophy or theology. We can admit that existentialism has enriched philosophical thought, bringing up ignored questions and returning philosophy from a preoccupation with minutiae of analysis to the broad questions of man, the meaning of life, and human destiny.3 But the dichotomy between the objective and the existential, the objective and the I-thou relationship, certainly contribute to making a synthesis of Christianity and existentialism questionable and bring up difficult problems within the existentalist position itself.

I must say, however, of all the existentialist theologians I have read, Heim comes the closest to breaking through some positions I have considered inimical to orthodoxy. May I illustrate by returning to his idea of the two religious directions, divine and demonic? The distinction is not strange to existentialist thought. It appears strongly, for instance, in the theology of Paul Tillich. But when Heim appears to say that there is actually a, realm of spirit beings separate from man, that there are such beings striving against God, when he says that there are actual miracles, which can be either divine or demonic, he breaks through what I have experienced before of existentialist theology. I believe he uses an existentialistic criterion of the validity of miracles, for instance; but still I wonder whether Heim has been inconsistently existcntialist or whether be has a synthesis of a type I had not seen before.

Finally, I wish to ask whether the acceptance of a relativity theory in the physical dimension means that we must relativize everything objective, e.g., morals, law. Heim vigorously rejects any use of an idea of natural law (Catholic positions) or creation orders (Brunner, e.g.), for these mean to him again an attempt to gain a handhold in polar space. But does a relativity theory in physics imply a general relativization? Certainly not by reason of any physical phenomena, could it do so, but only in terms of a general philosophical position, which is alone capable of setting forth the relation of the physical side of reality to the other sides.

The influence of the philosophical is also apparent in the rejection of the idea of causality by certain thinkers, a position which has apparently influenced Heim to a great extent. Dooyeweerd writes, "B. Bavinck pointed out that the modern trend in physics, which, following Heisenberg and Jordan, declared itself to be in favor of a fundamental abandonment of the concept of causality in physics, did so on the basis of philosophical considerations which it owed to Mach and Avenarius."4

Whatever may be the answer to the questions we have raised we must say that Heim has presented us with a delightfully written and logically powerful work, and that he offers a challenge to us who as Christian scientists and philosophers perhaps have reckoned too little with the changes in the world view of contemporary physics.


1. Karl Heim, Chtistian Faith and Natural Science, pp, llff. Hereafter called CFNS.

2. Karl Heim, The Transformation of the Scientific World View, p. 32. Hereafter called TSWV.

3. Cf. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, p. 6.


1. Dooyeweerd, Herman. A New Critique
of Theoretical rhought, 1. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953.

2. Heim, Karl. Christian Faith and Natural Science. New New York: Harper and Bros., 1953.

3. Heim, Karl. Transformation of the Scientific World View. New York: Harper and Bros., 1943.

4. Heinemann, F. H. Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. New York: Harper and Bros., 1953.

Comments On Knudsen's Review of Karl Heim
Shelton College, Ringwood, N. J.

We are grateful to Robert Knudsen for his informative summary and analysis of Karl Heim's Christian Faith and Natural Science, and The Transformation of the Scientific World View. These are volumes four and five of the six which have appeared in German in this Tubingen professor's series on Evangelical Belief and Contemporary Thought, beginning with Glaube und Denken in 1931.1 For this gathering Professor Knudsen has wisely focused our attention on the two volumes which; touch on science.

As has been pointed out in the paper, Heim's Christian philosophy is not subject to easy classification. Heim. has been referred to as a Barthian who is "closer than Barth is to the older Evangelical tradition."2 Any who have read the sermons which he preached after the First World War3 or his 1935 Sprunt Lectures4 given at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia, can easily feel the evangelistic spirit of this popular teacher. The rational, higher critical emphasis of the University of Tubingen of an earlier generation is by-passed by this professor of theology. Heim's emphasis is on "the faith of the New Testament."5 The essential saving truths are there, including the exclusiveness of Christ for salvation-though Knudsen may be right in questioning this in Heim's more recent and more philosophical writings. The decision to accept this core of.the gospel does not seem to impel Heim to affirm the inspiration and authority of all Scripture.

Professor Knudsen rightly calls Heim an existentialist. He shows the influence of Heidegger and Buber as well as Barth. According to Heim, "a proposition or a truth is said to be existential when I cannot apprehend it or assent to it from the standpoint of a mere spectator, but only on the ground of my total existence."6 This definition may be interpreted in two ways. First it may be an affirmation that no tall truth is susceptible to the type of analysis and investigation employed ideally in the empirical sciences where the technician is not unduly influenced by personal desires and commitments in arriving at decisions. There are truths-sociological, theological-in which one's own understanding of and involvement in existence may be not only unavoidable but desirable. Outside of the Logical Positivists, I believe that in one way or another these two approaches to truth-"detached" and the "existential"-are recognized. This aspect of existentialism is not peculiar to this philosophy.

But on a second interpretation of Heim's definition one stresses the words "mere" and "only". By a rational and scientific approach to experience we become "mere" spectators, whereas the "only" way fo get real or ultimate truth is through a non-rational (if not irrational) participation in existence. One cannot decide whether one likes this or not until he is told by the existentialist what it means to "participate in" or to "be grasped by" reality. This is not easy to determine since by definition it is beyond rational expression. I believe there are both psychological and epistemological weaknesses in this approach to experience and knowledge, though space does not permit their elaboration here. These weaknesses plague Heim's philosophy, though he is not as staunch an advocate of the paradoxical as Barth. For this reason, and here I am in partial disagreement with Knudsen's evaluation, I find Heim's existentialism often more confusing than enriching. I do not always find his works to be "delightfully written and logically powerful."

Let me mention two outstanding obscurities important to the books under review.

(1) Heim is noted for his concept of "dimensions" or "spaces" as a mode for conceiving of different and quite distinct orders of reality. In Christian Faith and Natural Science, Heim uses a discussion of multi-dimensional space in modern geometries as a spring board for positing the possibility of "nonobjective space," space which is outside the objective world and hence cannot be mathematically formulated or approached with the methods of science. He argues that since the order of the arrangement of the entities in non-objective space may be entirely different from that which we commonly experience, it allows for the possibility of that which seems to be impossible. There are "consciousness spaces"-mine and yours-full of polarities or contradictions, while God belongs to still another dimension transcending polarity, a space which is beyond intellectual comprehension but into which we can be mystically drawn by His grace in Christ.

I must confess that I am not attracted by this speculative and paradoxical way of dividing up the universe. There certainly are a number of distinguishable categories or contexts within which it is profitable to view reality ontologically. But there must be continuities and interrelationships if we believe there is one Creator-God who is vitally related to created reality and who has made Himself known. Among other things this means that the logic of science or critical thinking has its appropriate role to play in theological investigation as elsewhere.7

(2) A second obscurity appears in Heim's interpretation of the history of physics as a religious drama. Professor Knudsen has indicated the able way in which Heim shows how science itself has been destroying its false gods-tbe absolute object or matter, absolute space and time, absolute determinism in natural events-and has paved the pay, according to Heim, for the one true Absolute (God, in super-polar space). This is The Transformation of the Scientific World View. The concluding chapters on miracles and on vitalism show that the reason why he sees a religious significance in the history of physics is because it has, in his view, opened the door for the operation of God's will and for human freedom.

This is not a new thesis nor is it, I think, a cogent one. It is dubious speculation. Heim himself is aware of the fact that these changes have not markedly altered the procedures and utility of the sciences. It can still repeat its experiments and hold to predictability as a test of truth. Precision is still its abiding ideal though masses of electrons be used and law be formulated statistically. Certainly field theory mechanics is not altered by the concept of relativity. Nor has Heisenberg's indeterminancy principle affected the question of human freedom or of what God in His providence can or cann-ot do. It just is not the case that physics "has shown everything to be relative." Logic and ethics have not been altered. In short, I suspect a fundamental confusion of two meanings of the word "relative": related, or dependent upon (as when we say an object of experience is relative to the point of view of the observing subject) and confused, or transitory (as when a skeptic or existentialist says everything is relative or in a state of flux).

I was happy to see this same criticism of Heim made by Mr. Knudsen. I hope that these remarks will underline it.


1. A translation of the third and abridged edition was published by Scribner's in 1936 under the title, God Transcendent, Foundation for a Christian Metaphysic.

2. Ibid., p. vii, "Introduction" by Edwyn Bevan.
3. The Living Fountain, Zondervan, 1936.

4. The Church of Christ and the Problems of the Day, Scribner's, 1935.

5. John Schmidt, "Translator's Preface" to The Living Fountain.

6. God Transcendent, p. 75, note 1.

7. Cf. my paper given at the Winona Lake meeting, June 21, 195S, "Bases of Scriptural and Scientific Investigation." Dr. f. Oliver Buswell has called, my attention to the influence of Heim upon Daniel Lamont, of Edinburgh. Lamont pushes Heim's dimensional philosophy to paradoxical extremes in Christ and the World of Thought, T. & T. Clark, 1934.

Comment on Dr. Paul's Review of My Paper
Robert D. Knudsen

I am grateful to Mr. Paul for the comments he has submitted. They not only criticize but they serve to give my paper perspective.

I have the impression that Mr. Paul believes that I could have been more critical of Karl Heim. That is undoubtedly true. I actually only began to open the way to criticism. I thoroughly believe that a complete survey and criticism of existentialism is needed, and I am convinced that it can he made successfully only by one who is thoroughly familiar not only with it but also with-its antecedents in German thought. As Mr. Paul indicates the idea of existentialism is not simple. Like many words that have a vogue, it has taken on a variety of meanings. We need only think of the fact that Heidegger calls his thought Existenzial philosophy, while he calls other thought Existenz philosophie.

When I said that Heim's writing was "logically powerful" I did not mean to imply that he was right. I believe that a work can have logical force and yet be wrong. But to discuss that would take us far afield!