Science in Christian Perspective



Admonitions of a Physician *

From: JASA 13 (December 1961): 103-106.

We have been concerned at this conference with approaches that should allow science and theology to become mutually respecting and mutually reinforcing partners.

Why does science command the prestige which it obviously possesses?
What are some of the limitations of science today?
Has the work of science undermined in a more profound way the once dominant position of religion?

Scientists and non-scientists have been deluded by external appearances and by partial understanding into thinking of science as a relentless all-conquering intellectual force, armed with finality and perfection. We are, in the modem world, completely surrounded by science and by the technological achievements which science makes possible. By this powerful partnership we are warmed and cooled, clothed and fed, protected, cured, transported, and entertained.

Science has never really been blocked, it seems, no matter in what direction it seeks to move into the wilderness of ignorance. Its remarkable success in dealing with inanimate nature-the physical universe-and the promising advances it has already made in controlling vital phenomena have brought science great prestige and respect. Often this prestige and respect rest on quite wrong evidence--on relatively trivial matters, or on advances which are essentially technological rather than basically scientific in character.

Scientists belong seemingly to an undefeated, presumably all-powerful group of wise and clever men. No wonder the non-scientist resents, fears, and opposes this so-called superbreed. Perhaps we should turn the world over to them. Perhaps they could, if properly supported, really liberated and put in charge-perhaps they could solve all problems of human relations, of economic stability, of international peace, of the good life. Perhaps they should design not only the churches, but the creeds also. Perhaps the best music and poetry will, in a short time, come out of a machine.

The sad fact is that some scientists themselves appear to believe precisely this. This attitude has tended to separate scientific thought from general learning. Thirty years ago the literary intellectuals and the scientists "had long ceased to speak to each other; but at least they managed a kind of frozen smile across the gulf. Now the politeness is gone, and they just make faces." (C. P. Snow)

*Paper presented at the Fourth Biennial joint Meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation and the Evangelical Theological Society held at Goshen, Indiana, June 1961.

**Dr. Hyde is a Practicing Physician in Oak Park, Illinois.

The favorable part of the present reputation of science is often significantly misunderstood and the unfavorable part is largely, if not wholly, false. Is there a more balanced view of science which puts its power and its limitations into a clearer focus?

When scientific man confronts any object, any natural phenomenon, what does he wish to do? He does not elect to disregard, he dislikes being mystified, he is not willing to fear. On the contrary, he has a deep craving to understand. The difference between the state of not understanding and of understanding takes a depth and subtlety which deserves a far more competent summary than I can give.

Scientists and non-scientists use a sort of understanding known as the useful analogy. For example, a person doesn't understand genetics at all. He is told, "Well, a chromosome is sort of like a string of beads (in every cell of your body). Each bead is a gene. Each gene determines, or helps determine, one of your characteristics, such as your blue eyes, hair color, or your sex." The person may like this curiously comfortable and useful description of the unfamiliar phenomenon in terms of its similarity to a familiar phenomenon. This p rocedure is misleading because, if one examines the situation honestly and in detail, the familiar is itself simply not understood. It has been familiar long enough so that curiosity concerning it has disappeared; but that is all.

The modern scientist likes a good theory. It might be a small and neat black box which works for a wide range of problems, which has external dials which can be set. It is a theory which is general and elegant or compact, which puts us in control of the phenomena in question, and which can predict. This abstract procedure makes no pretense of explaining phenomena. The triumph for a theory is that it deals successfully with phenomena.

Science does not furnish any really ultimate or satisfying explanation. There are four other imperfections of science, or rather imperfections in the views that are held by some concerning science.

Scientists do not, and apparently cannot, agree about certain of the deepest and most central aspects of science. Instead of a monolithic enterprise, science exhibits the same lively diversity which one finds in nonscientific fields.

Further, there is a statistical limitation. The ultimate individual decisions of a person are not predictable although large-scale phenomena are nevertheless dependable. Does this make one admire science the less? Can you conceive of wanting to marry a woman who is completely perfect and totally predictable?

Science is more strictly logical than any other field of intellectual activity. Deductive logic has vital and built-in limitations based as it is on assumptions and its essential incompleteness. Inductive reasoning cannot lead invariably to distinctions between lawlike and unlawlike conclusions. Dr. Charles F. Kettering characteristically warned, "Beware of logic. It is an organized way of going wrong with confidence."

The supposed objectivity of science may not be so sacrosanct. In his book, Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi totally rejects the ideal of scientific detachment. He does not believe that knowledge is, or can be impersonal, universally established, objective. Even in the exact science "knowing" is an art, of which the skill of the knower, guided by his passionate sense of increasing contact with reality, is a logically necessary part.

We have spoken thus far of five imperfect aspects of science. The view necessitated by these points has been summarized by Warren Weaver. "Science has, as a tool for dealing with nature, proved to be superbly successful. With respect to physical nature, and to all moderate scales of space and time-say larger than an atom and smaller than a galaxy, say more persistent than 10-10 seconds and less than a billion years-science has a difficult time. It is by no means clear that our present concepts or even our existing language is suitable for these ranges. In the realm of animate matter, science has made wonderful, but more limited, progress. This adds up to a very great intellectual achievement." (Weaver, W.: The Imperfections of Science, Proc. Amer. Philosop. Soc. 104: No. 5, 1960.)

We must, however, bring science back into life as a human and spiritual enterprise, an enterprise that has at its core the uncertainty, the flexibility, the subjectivity, the dependence upon creativity and faith which permit it, when properly understood, to take its place as a friendly and understanding companion to the rest of life.

Why does modern man look increasingly to science while organized religion is pushed steadily to the periphery of his concern?

I believe that it is wherever religion is satisfied to hold out to man the comfort and security of a static set of answers to all our questions about life and wherever its chief concern i; to provide a set of rules by which to regulate our living. Where religious faith consists only of an intellectual belief in a set of doctrines or teachings, science soon exposes error. )Where religious faith is conceived of as a lead from insufficient evidence into the security of a closed system to the security of mental and social conformity, the scientific attitude challenges us to dare to question. For by questioning and testing we prove that which is true, we overthrow that which is false. And this challenge to the church is healthy for it is a mighty flood that shakes the very foundations. And whatsoever house is built upon the sand must perish, but whatsoever house is built upon a rock will stand.

The challenge of science is an opportunity for true religion. For it is not the challenge of evil but the relentless quest for truth that dares to question its most cherished notions in order to insure that they are rock and not sand. It is important to distinguish between the questioning of a scientist-this is the legitimate and necessary questioning of every inquiring mind-and the questioning of the skeptic and the cynic. The ske tic or cynic has been disillusioned, has experienced t e shattering of an idol to which he once looked for security and he is no longer capable of faith. The scientist like the Christian, dares to question precisely because he has a deep abiding faith. He questions in order to build, whereas the cynic questions in order to destroy. The scientist like the Christian questions that his house may be built on God's rock and not on the sand of some false idol.

What then are the characteristics of Christian faith, of scientific faith? There are two sides of this faith. There is the call and the response.

The call is an inner voice. It is an inner vision. Now here are many voices that speak to a man's soul. There are the clamoring voices of the self-life, the whimper of fear, the trumpets of prejudice, the whisper of pride, the shout of lust, the command of ambition.

And there are voices from the outside: there are the threats of the powerful, the bribing promises of privilege, the chances for security. How many are the voices that drown out the still small voice of God! Yet creative faith cannot be born without the discernment in your soul of the voice of God.

Now, the voice of God has an unmistakable quality. Even if we dare not to believe that it is of God, the secret recesses of our being confirm its origin. Since the dawn of recorded history man has been witnessing to a divine voice that speaks to him. Therefore, search not for the voice of God to speak to you out of lightning and thunder. The spectacle, the novelty, is never His mouth. He speaks in the stillness of a quiet soul. That declares Him. That is His mouth which fulfills His promises of old. Jesus has been criticized because He brought no new doctrine. But His uniqueness lies not in His teaching but in the fact that He fulfills the old; that He fulfills the law and the prophets. It is for this reason that we encounter the voice of God supremely in the person of Jesus Christ.

John says, "No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten son which is in the bosom of the father, He hath declared Him." The voice of God never bribes the self-life within us. Rather, its very quality commands our allegiance and creates a desire within us to follow Him. And the knowledge of this truth changes us so that we can never be the same again, whether we honor this knowledge with the love and devotion of our hearts, or whether we trample it under our feet. And so it is symbolized as a two-ledged sword for it brings with it both mercy and judgment. It brings mercy to those who receive it gladly. "But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God." To those who reject Him, it brings judgment. "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."

The vital task of education, the vital task of the church, is to help bring to pass that mysterious event whereby we suddenly stand still to discern the still, small voice and know that it is God. The essential authority of the Scriptures, the essential authority of the person of Jesus Christ, the essential authority of the fellowship of the saints lies in this: they each partake of the spirit of God and therefore may at any moment become transparent to the light of God. If we want to develop a scientist we bring the aspirant into first-hand contact with science in the making. He thus captures the secret spirit of science by participating in the scientific process, by exposure to the minds that are seeing and creating, rather than predigested treatises about science. Even so, we bring the aspirant of the Christian experience into participation of the Christian life through worship, the sacrament, through the fellowship of saints, through sharing in the struggle to relate the principles of our Christian experience to our daily living.

It is my conviction that at the center of every creative life stands a divine call and that the measure of a man's greatness is the totality of a man's response to that call. In this age of propaganda it is necessary to distinguish between the great and the notorious, between the great and the famous. Greatness has nothing to do with publicity. It is the fruit of a profound relationship with a divine call.

Dr. John Goodenough, Research Physicist at M.I.T. states, "I fear that our universities sometimes fail to communicate to the students the centrality of an inner ca 1. Great scholars, who have been awakened by some inner voice, whose lives are motivated by it, and dedicated to it, are usually reluctant to share the fact of its existence, beckoning them ever onward they know not whither. This is their private affair. They prefer only to expose their preoccupation with the essential tasks of obtaining information and developing their analytical skills to the purpose of finding pattern and order within this information although facts and analysis are not the only aspects of scholarly judgment. They bow before that shrine of that elusive concept: objectivity. And they pretend that this is so. For it is the final formulation of an idea not the tortuous route to its conception which alone can be thrown out to ones' peers for judgment."

When we leave the restricted realm of quantitative relationship of numbers to concern ourselves with relationships of quality, with relationships in ethics, in form and in beauty, we walk not only by the light of our intellect but also by the light of our spiritual apprehension. judgments of quality are made in terms of the illumination within us and illumination that emanates from inner voices. It is no wonder Jesus warned us, "If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"

I repeat, therefore, that the vital task of the church, the vital task of education is not accomplished whenever opinions and solutions are given without first confronting the inquirer with the great problems and questions to which they are addressed. For the formulation of the problem may of itself be the avenue of a divine illumination. The ferment of intellectual and spiritual life comes from the probing questions that echo and re-echo down the corridors of our souls.

The shield of faith is f o r g e d and tempered in a knowledge of love that cannot be assailed by reason. The battleground of faith is our whole person: will, intellect, and emotions. First there is the battle of the will to put forth the effort to wait upon God-to struggle for understanding with both mind and spirit until illumination is given. Then there is the struggle to remain faithful to the illumination that is givenwhen the cost involves being misunderstood by our friends, even by our families, and the risk of a new way of life. If faith is born of a voice, it is created only as we commit ourselves, our soul and bodies to that voice. That is why the quality of a man's life is the only mark of his relationship to the inner voices, and the fruit of our life is nourished by what we honor, by what we cherish.

Therefore, victorious faith depends upon our response as well as upon the call. The vision, the call of God, is a precious gift that must be held sacred and inviolate if we are to maintain our essential integrity. Whatever else a man does he must be true to this. To betray this gift is to do violence to our soul. Such a betrayal is, I believe, what Jesus referred to as the sin against the Holy Ghost. Every man: scientist, scholar, Christian, who follows his inner voice is led out into a lonely road. Though struggling and suffering may attend his steps, so also creativity follows a faith that ventures into the unknown. Our faith is not a static stronghold of security. It is a dynamic force through which the grace of God transforms the world.

Yet how often we are paralyzed, either through laziness or by fear, into inaction. There are many who are drawn to Christ precisely because they discern within Him, the call of holiness, yet they fail to follow, they fail to grow in knowledge because they are bound- bound to habit, to a relationship, to an ambition, to a pretense with which they cannot part. They stand at the threshold of salvation, but they will not let go of their securities in this world. Therefore, they know not true freedom, freedom to serve that which they see to be holy, freedom to do their duty as their conscience dictates without catering either to threats from outside or to fear within.

Surely, we all stood on this threshold and cried out as did Moses of old: "Who am I that I should go?" It is just here that the triumphal song of the saints should swell the heavens with the joyous testimony of the faithfulness of God's reply: "Certainly, I will be with thee." "Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily b e s e t us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and the finisher of our faith.' 

And so, brothers of mine, stand firm! Let nothing move you as you busy yourselves in the Lord~s work. Be sure that nothing you do for Him is ever lost or ever wasted.