Science in Christian Perspective




Russell Heddendorf


From: JASA 15 (December 1963): 116-117.

In March 1963 Eggenberger observed that the great increase of sociology papers in the JASA could probably be attributed to increased interest in the social responsibility of Christians. In the Analytical Index for Vol. 14, 1962, more articles appear under the general category of "Ethics" than any other. If we were to add the additional articles and letters written on questions of the Christian's responsibility in the areas of increasing population, cultural relativity, and capital punishment, the emphasis on social questions is formidable. Indeed, one listens for a clarion call summoning the physical scientist to do battle on the ramparts.

The statement of such a concern for social problems by the Christian is at once appropriate and threatening. The tendency is to view each problem as a unique case requiring appropriate treatment. Such an approach is inconsistent with science and Christianity and leads to a concern for piecemeal social action. It ignores the possibility that basic principles, which are repetitive in their functioning, are the cause of social problems. Science and Christianity transcend time and space, while policies of social action are limited to the specific environment.

That dean of sociologists, Pitirim Sorokin, has stated that sociology is a generalizing rather than an individ ualizing discipline (3). By this he means that the social scientist should not be concerned with a particular social phenomenon in a particular time and place unless, by so doing, he is able to point to those attributes which are characteristic of such phenomena in a more general range of time and place. If the Christian is to study social responsibility, he should do so with the expecta tion that his observation will be appropriate for all stages of the cultural time-space continuum.

Simply, then, the responsibility an individual feels toward others is based upon generalized norms. Such a view does not deny the possibility of cultural relativism. Societies must be expected to differ in the values and norms which they hold. The significant question here deals with die means used to arrive at the decision as to which norms are appropriate for them. If generalized principles are ignored in determining what one's ends are to be, then the justification of one's actions is seriously questioned.

There seems to be convergence in Christian and sociological literature on two guiding points of reference upon which ethical decisions should be made. These are value and exchange. In the economic sense, these terms refer to commodities which have value for the individual as a basis of exchange. These commodities may be of various types, but need not be of a material nature; thus a particular skill or social grace may have value. Once a person perceives the value of a commodity, its owner is similarly valued. To share the valued commodity he must enter into a relationship with the owner. Hence, relationships are based on the exchange of these valued articles, thereby building a mutual interdependence.

At the very root of Christian ethics lies the fact that what God has created is valuable. This value extends to men and things and is based upon the concept of scarcity. One need only note the way the original model of the world based upon abundance provided by God and maintained by man (Gen. 2:15-16) was changed by God to a world of scarcity in which man had to provide for his own needs (Gen. 3:19). Such an emphasis upon the scarcity of commodities can be found in classical economics.

From the viewpoint of cultural relativism, one could defend such a practice as cannibalism when there is a true scarcity of food. In such cases the human being is valued as a tasty morsel simply because other food is not available. The cannibal, however, does not usually eat his own kin because they have more value than an enemy, who has little value except as food. The principle of scarcity is, therefore, inadequate without an understanding of the principles of exchange involved. The cannibal views his kin differently from his enemy because group membership provides a different basis for exchange.

In a recent sociology text a section entitled "The Mechanisms of Exchange" includes the following passage:

Any given member of a group gets what he needs by giving to someone else what the latter needs and the former possesses. Interaction within the group consists of exchange among its members. If one needs love, he must love in return. If he needs inviolability, he must not violate others. If he needs goods and services, he must provide them for others. These exchanges are part of the rights and obligations of his status in the group (1, p. 48).

Surely this statement is the essence of the Golden Rule. The authors go further by stating the methods used to attain such a balanced relationship. Such means of exchange vary from the least institutionalized form of mutual cathexis (a sentiment of positive and emotional mutual attachment between people), duty or obligation, and bargaining as the most institutionalized form (2, pp. 48-49). Hence people exchange either because they want to or feel that they have to.

Obviously, the means of exchange most appropriate for the Christian falls into the category of mutual cathexis. When one employs methods at the bargaining end of the continuum, there is a need for contracts and the legal protection characteristically found in a secular society. The responsibility of a social relationship is threatened by the precarious nature of legal interpretation.

Our friend the cannibal, therefore, kills an enemy and eats him because he has a greater love for, and responsibility to, his family. Further, since his enemy lives in the same harsh environment, he expects his enemy similarly to "serve" him if the opportunity should arise. The practice of leaving the aged and infirm behind the band to die in order to provide better for the young also underlines the primitive's understanding of the concepts of value and exchange. The living similarly expect such a fate when they are older and accept it in deference to the superior value of the group.

Apparently the value principle takes precedence over the exchange principle. (The cannibal may kill his enemy because he sees him as food.) It is important for the Christian, however, to note that the basis for definition of value can differ. The Christian "cannibal" loves his enemy because he sees him as a human soul. Such a perception is difficult to make, however, unless there is a more abundant food supply.

Recently an observer criticized the sociologist for his refusal to justify norms which are used (2). It has been suggested in this article that the bases for norms are implied in that interpretation of the social world which recognizes the relative scarcity and exchange of goods as fundamental to social interaction. Further, these norms are rooted in Christianity. A more significant question at this point would be whether the sociologist is cognizant of his normative bases and employs them. The model of our present world stresses abundance. As a result, much of human relations loses its values, causing exchange to develop a bargaining rather than a cathectic nature. The sociologist is too often a product of our world and reflects this model in his thought. As the Christian, thv sociologist has the same problem of being in the world and yet not of it. This duality makes it difficult for him to perceive his norms and abide by them.

1. Bredemeier, Harry G., and Stephenson, Richard M., The Analysis of Social Systems, N.Y.: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1962.

2. Clark, Gordon H., "Observation", journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 15:7, March 1963.

3. Sorokin, Pitirim, "Sociology," Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 25, 1954.