Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, Ph.D.
A Question of World View

From: JASA 14 (March 1962): 28-29.

Words, like old clothes, are in the habit of being thrown around. In the process both are likely to be pulled out of shape. Any word in ordinary usage will acquire certain emotional overtones, which lend it a meaning over and above its strict dictionary definition. Philosophical words also attain a wide variety of meanings, especially when they have come into vogue. We can think, for instance, of the words, "objective" and existential." Closer to home, we as evangelical Christians can turn the spotlight of criticism on our own much used word, "spiritual."

The occasion for writing on this word, "spiritual," is a statement by the former president of the General Electric Company, Ralph J. Cordiner, "Business is not only the source of those material goods and physical services that can make lives richer and happier, but an instrument also of a rising level of rewarding spiritual living. A housewife freed by a machine from the drudgery of hand washing of dishes or laundry can reach out for more humanly constructive things to do for others and for greater spiritual satisfaction from her own life."

Mr. Cordiner uses the word "spiritual" in an accepted way. There is nothing unusual about his usage. The fact is, however, that the bulk of Christians today fail to distinguish this usage from what I believe is a different one in the Christian faith. This is reason for some concern.

The common usage distinguishes spirit and matter. Things are catalogued vaguely as being spiritual or material, and often the spiritual is equated with the eternal and the material is equated with the temporal. I have very often heard Christians commend thinkers because they paid attention to spiritual, non-tangible "values" instead of being interested only in "material things." By material things they mean physical things, such as houses, furniture, cars-things that money can buy.

Obviously there is a distinction between the spiritual and the material, the tangible and the intangible. There is reason to believe, however, that we should draw the line of distinction more carefully than we have in the past.

Let us take the example of money, since we have said that it will buy the tangible things. Money in the way we ordinarily think of it is physical. It is the quite necessary, cold, hard cash that we carry in our wallets and in our purses. This money is certainly hard physically; but a little thought convinces us that to have purchasing power money must be "hard" not only physically but economically.

Recently I heard the story about a man who inherited a fortune of thousands of dollars. Since he was living in Germany at the time, he exchanged his dollars for German marks. Then came the horrible postwar inflation. His fortune of thousands was suddenly turned into a paltry few dollars' worth. The money was tangibly the same; but economically it had become almost worthless.

Economic worth is something quite different and more intangible than physical bills and coins. To express this fact it is often said that the value of money is not its face value but the amount of goods and services it will buy. Be that as it may, it is clear that money is first of all an economic thing, its value as money on economic relations. that these economic relations are intangible in nature, not being material in the sense that we the word.

Another line of thought leads us also into complications. If we say hyperbolically with the love of money is the root of all evil, we cannot refer to the mere possession of physical pieces of money. This statement does not refer to money as such but to the love of money. The latter includes the accompanying non-tangible factors of inordinate desire for luxury, lust for power, etc. These are things that often accompany the possession of economic power.

A question now arises. How can we so blithely use the contrast of spiritual and material, thinking o the spiritual as good and of the material as indifferent or bad, when economic power cannot be equated with material things and w hen the sin of one who loves money and material things is at bottom not tangible at all.

Love for money simply as metal might be satisfied in the accumulation of scrap. Love for money because of the beauty of the inscriptions or out of historical interest might be the start of a profitable hobby. The evil occasioned by money does not arise because it is physical and material. Heavy coins may wear holes in our pockets, but pockets are easily mended. The sinful love of money, an intangible, is not easily rooted out.

My purpose is to show that the thing that we are most ready to call material is valuable only because of certain non-material relations and that the source of sin with respect to money (as all sin) is also of a non-material, intangible nature. The purpose of this writing will be accomplished if we become more careful in our use of the words "material" and "spiritual."

If we look at the Scriptures, we discover that the word "spiritual" does not refer simply to non-material, intangible things. It means primarily that which is of the Spirit, that which is motivated by the Spirit. In this sense, spiritual things are always good. Material things in themselves, however, are neither good nor bad; their moral value depends on the relationships they sustain to man I s moral life. Furthermore, the source and the dynamic of sin is non-tangible, and in this sense "spiritual." Hatred of God is intangible; is it then "spiritual" ?

Freeing the housewife from household chores is a fine thing; but that does not automatically free her for spiritual pursuits in the biblical sense. According to biblical standards, she can be spiritual even while she is washing dishes and scrubbing clothes without modem conveniences, if she does so cheerfully and unto God, She can be much more spiritual than the housewife who is free from drudgery but who then uses her free time in frivolous pursuits. It is to be hoped that housewives will retain their automatic dishwashers and combination washers and dryers; but being free from drudgery is not the equivalent of being free for spiritual occupations. Ultimately that freedom is only given by the Spirit, as he converts the heart.

Westminster Theological Seminary
February 7, 1962