Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 16 (September 1964): 68-72.

When a person says that he "knows" something to be true, what does he mean? It is not, as frequently assumed, a mere matter of describing commonly sensed experience. The development of knowledge is never the exclusive procedure of "ticking off" a series of denoted references. Rather it presupposes a set of theoretical constructs whereby certain experiences are "explained" in the light of a total schematic system. This essay traces some aspects of the knowing procedure in science and theology. It begins with some suggestions as to why communication between theology and science has always proved difficult. It then maintains that this divergence between science and theology should be expected, and that, rather than trying to eliminate the differences, we should accept them and recognize that they are the necessary result of different modal "sets." The final paragraphs consider some important values that pertain to both of these interpretations of experience.

In the last several years there has been happily a renewal of the dialogue between the theologian and the scientist. If, however, this dialogue is to prove fruitful, it is important that certain methodological precautions be exercised. The restoration of communication does not necessarily mean that some synthetic intellectual solution is imminent or will be in the near future. Two basic problems tend to make this dialogue difficult and any solution perhaps inaccessible.

The first is not unique to science and theology but is common to any inter-disciplinary communication. It is the psychological matrix within which each must operate. The second problem pertains specifically to the process of knowing. Speaking philosophically, we may say that a significant epistemological puzzle arises in discussions between theology and science. This paper discusses these two problems and offers a method whereby each discipline may continue to operate as it always has and still maintain "intellectual tolerance" for the other side. Let us consider each of these issues separately.


The scientist and the theologian, of course, wear different hats; they use different words, have different meanings, and draw different conclusions-all of which makes communication with one another difficult. Our early scientific predecessors assumed that their rational-empirical inquiries (to the degree that they were motivated by such questions) demonstrated God's creative genius. They implicitly-and on some occasions explicitly-accepted the classical Platonic dictum that men think God's thoughts after Him. They were quite accustomed to sanctifying their discoveries by attaching them, however remotely, to the divine order. And yet composing religious "proofs" has never been, in any age, the scientist's primary concern. The

Dr. Donald R. Burrill Is Assistant Professor of Philosophy, California State College at Los Angeles.

relationship between scientific concepts and religious ones is often no more than a socio-cultural response; only infrequently is it a determined pious intention. The primary objective of science from Archimedes to Einstein has been a descriptive and explanatory analysis of phenomena, not a defense of religious beliefs.1

In contrast to the scientist's attitude, the Christian theologian never seeks analytic descriptions per se; his aim is to explain a previously established conception of the universe. The explication of the truth preciously acquired is his foremost concern. The Christian theologian does not solicit evidence in order to confirm the truth of Christian dogma. His commitment is complete and his conviction secure. It is hard for me to conceive of any evidence that the antagonist might offer which could dissuade the theologian from holding the convictions that he holdS4. The theologian believes not just as a man gathering data in a disinterested fashion but as one who believes with his whole "self," with a passion. It is the theologian's intention to save the appearances religiously and only secondarily in a scientific sense; i.e., the theologian wishes to square his hypothesis with the "facts" religiously, not scientifically.

It is this passion of belief, from which the Christian theologian will not detach himself, that has fostered the constant and recurring conflict with science. The result has been that both theology and science have developed their own particular categories of understanding and developed them in separation from one another, in the rarefied monastic community requisite to any productive discipline. The French notion of the defornwtion professionelle underscores this constant estrangement between theology and science. And yet, while the psychological separation has made communication particularly difficult, there is an even more severe conflict.


This conflict I conceive to be substantially epistemological. That is to say, the procedure for knowing and what is considered knowable are vastly different because the methods for arriving at what are interpreted to be explanations or solutions are so dissimilar in religion and science. I cannot think of a better analysis of this methodological dissimilarity than the one Professor John Wisdom offers in his remarkable little article, "Gods" (3:187 ff.). Suppose, Wisdom suggests, two people return to their long-neglected garden surprised to find some of the plants amazingly vigorous. One of them concludes that there must have been a gardener who has concerned himself with the garden in their absence. The second decides that no gardener was present. "But look at the arrangement apparent here," the first man offers. The second shakes his head in disagreement. "What we see is an accident of nature," he replies. To confirm his opinion the second man inquires of the neighbors. Have they seen a gardener? None has seen one. "Ah, then," the first man counters, "he must have come at night or be invisible." With this strategic suggestion the first man has taken the argument beyond the legitimate canons of evidence acceptable to the second man. Nevertheless both remain desirous of establishing their position as the correct one, and each continues to amass evidence which he is convinced will substantiate his assertions. Finally, however, there comes a time when a vast amount of evidence has been collected, and each individual remains tenaciously committed to his original opinion. Little evidence can be added which will measurably affect the basic question-the existence of a gardner-but each feels his interpretation more honestly assesses the data. The evidence is the same, but the conclusions drawn differ greatly. However, now the difference is not in the least evidential-it is attitudinal and emotional.

Let us draw the strands of this analogical tale together and notice a significant point that is being made. When one asserts he knows something, he may not necessarily appeal to the same verifying roots as someone else. That is to say, there is a plural' quality to the knowing process that frequently makes a difference. Sometimes the world and the phenomena of the world can be seen in a certain manner only when we have committed ourselves to interpreting the phenomena in such and such a way. When we say that we know, we are frequently at a loss to define just how we are using the word know. The word know is like the word truth. It is a difficult term to define, and it is often easier to define within a context of meaning or use than it is to separate out as a pure definition. To claim that we know something need not restrict us to a single methodological procedure, be it scientific or religious.

Consider, for example, the classical "proof" for God's existence drawn from the order and design in the world, customarily referred to as the teleological argument. One of the most elevated descriptions of this argument appears in David Hume's Dialogues. Hume puts in the mouth of Cleanthes the following assertion: "Anatomize the eye, survey its structure and contrivance; and tell me, from your own feeling, if the idea of a contriver does not immediately flow in upon you with a force like that of a sensation" (2:28). Twenty-three years later, William Paley popularized the same argument in his Natural Theology5. If we observe a timepiece, he writes, and give some care to its structure and use, we are eventually led to the conclusion that there must have been a watchmaker, that is to say, an intelligent mind responsible for this precisely constructed object. And so, reasoning analogically, if we perceive in a limited sense the intricacies of the universe, may we not conclude that there is a universe-maker? Or again, a variation on that themeif we observe in the activities of minute organisms a meticulous order, are we not able to conclude that a guiding genius has so ordered them?

It has been customary to describe this dramatic role which man himself plays in the knowing process as the intuitive agent in reason. The word intuitive is suspect in our scientific age, but it is still possible to use it if we do so with care. Science itself is certainly not devoid of such intuitional excursions, since they enter freely into its creative and speculative endeavors. The evolution of science would not have been possible without them.

The scientist, however, rightly insists that all such intuitional claims be fettered by empirical verification. The empirical process becomes the method for establishing the truth or falsity of scientific propositions. But the restrictive empirical qualif ications of this method make many aspects of the individual's experience uncongenial to scientific verification.9 Ostensibly, science provides a certain modal-structure, a logical schema, which produces a set of postulates applicable to observational data. Such a system is completely appropriate for dealing with mass and motion, so that under the aegis of scientific models the concept of God and man's desire to commune with God are superfluous and indefensible. Nevertheless, the austere demands which scientific methodology exacts are accessible to science only at the cost of removing from experience its personal character and its particular application to man as a moral, aesthetic, and religious being.

The Christian theologian, on the other hand, intentionally offers a trans-temporal epistemological method. He does not concern himself with particles moving through space at varying speeds, but he begins with man's eternal quest after ultimate meaning-after God. In such a case, man as a whole being is at stake-man as an existential being, not man in the restrictive scientific sense, that is, as thin protoplasmic slime stretched between two thick layers of cosmic indifference. When the theologian talks of God, he is talking of God as a reality drawn from the most personal and sensitive source of his experience, and this experience cannot be contained with the restrictive limits of scientific verification. For the Christian to know, it is necessary for him to extend his way of knowing into the depth of mystery that is life itself.

St. Augustine referred to theology as "fencing a mystery." The Christian finds that the pictorial symbols of the scientist do not sufficiently explain the mystery of one's confrontation with the divine. On many occasions confrontation is beyond rational explanation, and the only appropriate attitude for the Christian is silence; yet he finds himself unable to remain silent. But at these moments when he attempts to utter the sometimes unutterable, he should recognize that his theological constructs become strangely contrived if he attempts to squeeze them into the space-time picture of the scientist. The evidences for God as an object of knowledge are meaningful, but man's modaI-structure for apprehending the divine must rest on a different set of postulates. As Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests, every assertion has its own logic. I shall not attempt to describe such a system here but only suggest that Christian confirmation, if free from certain institutional self-aggrandizement, can become the repository for expressions of love, mercy, and sensitivity that far excel the cold language of knowing of which philosophers and scientists speak.

Therefore, both modal systems (as well as ethical, aesthetic, and whatever others there may be) rest ultimately on a set of postulates which cannot be a part of the "facts" of that set but are rather constructs which one imposes from the "outside." It is apparent that such postulate systems-scientific or religiousmaintain their significance for us only to the degree that they are confirmable in us and not alien to the nature of the evidence as truth for us. And finally, the confirinability or verification of Christianity rests ultimately on its ability to provide salvation (healing) for man's spiritual estrangement, never on its ability to adapt itself to the structures of science's empirical verifications. Professor Wisdom has well said:

Many have tried to find ways of salvation. The reports they bring back are always incomplete and apt to mislead even when they are not in words but music or paint. But they are by no means useless; and not the worst of them are those which speak of oneness with God. But In so far as we become one with Him He becomes one with us. St. John says He Is in us as we love one another. (3:206).


1, Isaac Newton was a particularly good example of this attitude. He insisted upon keeping physical theory completely separated from his metaphysical conclusions.

2. H * D * Aiken, ed., Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, N.Y., Hafner Publishing Co., 1948.

3. Antony Flew, ed., Essays on Logic and Language, Oxford, Basil Blackwell and Mott, Ltd., 1951.

4. Antony Flew insists that there is none at all. See his New Essays in Philosophical Theology, N.Y., Macmillan Co., 1958), particularly the chapter entitled "Theology and Falsification."

5. William Paley, Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearance of Nature, ed. Frederick Ferre, Liberal Arts Library, 1963. The magnum opus of apologetic literature in the eighteenth century.

6. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Princeton University Press, 1950.

7. Erwin Schrodinger, Mind and Matter, Cambridge Press, 1958.

8. J. Z. Young, Doubt and Certainty in Science, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1951. See also the very interesting book by Sir Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature (Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955).

9. By restrictive demands, I do not wish to give the impression that I think that the scientist never reflects upon the broader questions of life-the questions which Crane Brinton has called the "Big Questions," such as Where did I come from? Where am I going? Does the Universe have a meaning? Furthermore, I do not assume that the scientist Is ever free from emotional involvement. He is not. But to the degree that he engages in such questions or allows himself to make discussion on the basis of emotional involvement, he Is not playing the scientific game, for he is straying from the canons of scientific verifiability.