Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 18 (March 1966): 19-21.

When 37 men from 16 different disciplines and 12 different countries meet together morning, afternoon, and evening for nine days there are bound to be some results. Speaking personally, this was an experience of learning, leveling, broadening, and blessing.

There were disagreements and criticism, more problem raising than problem solving, much good humour and fellowship testimonies and prayers; moments of deep thought, even tears, brought by a sharing of a moving experience or by the dawning of a new understanding; and always the continuing intellectual stimulation of conversations, formal and informal, before the tape recorder or around the tea table, between two or three walking on the lawn, between groups of four or five at dinner or at the close of an evening session. Here an elder scientist had the rapt attention of the whole conference; there a physicist received instruction from a philosopher and vice versa; or here a British geologist was roasted by a Dutch historian; or there an American anthropologist had his terminology overhauled by an American geneticist! And always the common effort to achieve meaningful communication by a consensus of presuppositions and precision of vocabulary.

The definition of terms and concepts occupied considerable time. Australian psychologist, Malcolm Jeeves, had written in his contributed paper:

Failure to define exactly how a particular term Is to be used not only leads to confusion between psychologists of different viewpoints but more important for the present discussion it may well lead a Christian to think that the psychologist Is saying something which he has no intention of saying, or that by omitting to talk about certain things or use certain words he Is thereby denying something else. ("Scientific Psychology and Christian Belief", p. 6.)

For "psychologists,, we could read "scientists" and it would apply to us all. As an example consider the following: Upon attempting to establish the distinction between a naturalist and a supernaturalist, some of us were rather shocked to hear one speak up and claim, "Well, I certainly am not a supernaturalist!" And another "That goes for me, too!" There was immediate confusion. Those who had taken a supernaturalistic position completely for granted were at a loss to grasp

*James 0. Buswell III is Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation. Report read before the Twentieth Annual Convention of the American Scientific Affillation, meeting jointly with the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at The King's College, Briarcliff Manor, New York, August 25, 1965. One of seven reports given by American participants in the International Conference on Science and Christian Faith sponsored by the Research Scientists' Christian Fellowship, Regents Park College, Oxford University, July 17-26, 1965.

the premises for such a claim. 1, for one, was bewildered. Was this really a denial of belief in God? Were we, after all, to be split at this basic issue for the remainder of the conference? After another session or two and several conversations, it became clear that there were at least three different ways in which certain of our colleagues were disclaiming supernaturalism while believing wholeheartedly in the existence of God. In the first place, some were very eager to avoid saying, "I believe that God is the only necessary explanation for all natural phenomena." And they wanted it clearly understood that they operated within the realm of the laws of nature, in addition to which they believed in God's role as the creator and sustainer of all of nature.

In the second place it was argued that for the Christian, God's existence is perfectly "natural" in the sense of the normalcy and acceptability of Christian belief. "God is certainly not super-natural" it was stated, and the premise was held that, in terms of Himself and of our belief in Him as the author of all that is, this is to be conceived of as perfectly "natural."

In the third place, we learned that in Britain, perhaps, more than elsewhere, the spiritualists-those who deal in haunted houses, poltergeists and communication with the dead-had in a measure appropriated the designation of "supernaturalists" and Christians in legitimate science didn't want any part of it!

Thus from a particular background of being misunderstood in certain circles as theists, and of particular connotations and associations of the term, they were able to claim without paradox, "I am not a supernaturalist. "Similar difficulties surrounded the terms "instinct", "evolutionist", "creation", "literal", "man", and others. The spectrum of evolutionary position represented at the conference was fairly wide with regard to how much or how little God had interfered in the process. One extreme, that of the thoroughgoing theistic evolutionist was represented by a British professor of geology who stated in his contributed paper that:

Evolution may be defined as the derivation of species from pre-existing species by a process of descent with modification This descent is a fact, and runs through the whole organic world, including man himself. The fossil record supplies abundant examples which establish beyond reasonable doubt continuity at all taxonomic levels. (F. H. T. Rhodes, "Evolutionary Theory and Its Broader Implications: A Historical Review", p. 12).

And again:

Now there can be no reasonable doubt that man's brain evolved by natural selection from those of pre-existing "animal" (non-human) species. (p. 35)

Others held that this was greatly overstated in view of the discontinuous appearances of fossils which is particularly marked in the case of even the earliest human remains; that more than a little "reasonable doubt" exists if one limits one's appeal to the fossil record.

When the session on Man drew near it was decided that a definition of man should be attempted rather than to address ourselves to the problem of his origin or evolution as such. This proved to be sufficient to yield at least some indications of the relation of man's origin to his nature. The spectrum of opinion present included those who would deny that man's nature has anything to do with his origin.

The following definition of man was drawn up for the consideration of the conference: It is frankly based upon the terminology and conceptualization of American anthropological literature on the subject over the past 40 to 50 years.

There are three parts to the definition. A. morphological B. cultural and C. spiritual.

A. Morphologically - Man is an animal because he is not a plant; and the distinctive features of his anatomy as a member of the Hominidae as usually indicated are principally five:

1. gross size and proportional size of brain.
2. distinctive features of skull including the mandible.
3. distinctive features of the dentition.
4. distinctive features of the foot.
5. distinctive features of the vertebral column.

B. Culturally - Culture has been lightly defined by Kroeber as "that which man has and animals lack." Culture is to be conceived of in terms of what it is, and what it is not.

In the teachings on racial differences race and culture are distinguished by pointing out that race is determined by parenthood and is a strictly physical concept while everything that one becomes after birth is learned and thus "cultural."

"Cultural" means that it is conditioned, internalized, acquired-learned, from one's environment. In human beings this environment is made up most often by the mother, and then the rest of the family and then the society at large. The "enculturation" process in human beings is remarkably subtle and is only partly encompassed in the concept of "socialization."

Another conventional way of distinguishing "cultural" uniqueness in man is to draw the contrast between the learned behavior of man and the dominance of instinctive or genetically built-in behavior of nonhuman animal . Anthropologists will forthrightly say that humans have no instincts but only biological, drives which are all satisfied differently in different cultures. So, man's behavior or social activity is seen as learned, while non-man's behavior is seen as mainly, at least, genetically fixed according to his species. This is not to say that animals do not learn. It is agreed that they do. It is only to say that the proportion of animals' learned behavior in comparison with their built-in behavior is so different from man's that although it might conceivably amount to a difference in degree, it is more often conceded that the difference is of such a magnitude that it amounts to a difference in kind. For animal species, to be sure, vary in the proportion of learning which contributes to their total behavior. But there are no tribes of peoples which have a lesser proportion of learned behavior and more instinctive or built-in behavior than others.

The sheer diversity of human culture constitutes the evidence for this opinion. There are no cultural correlations with any racial type or ethnic status which could be cited as indicating that here we had a higher proportion of human instinctive behavior evident, and there we had less. For example, there is no such thing as "primitive language." There is only the vast diversity of human language, which is different in kind from all non-human systems of communication. Those aspects of culture that do show correlations are either internal cultural correlations such as that the mother's brother usually has a prominant role in training his sister's children in a matrifteal society; or obvious environmental ones such as that agricultural peoples are more sedentary than hunting peoples, or, negatively, that igloos are never built by jungle tribes.

The diversity of human learned behavior, then, and the products of this behavior, constitute their culture and it is this concept that constitutes for the anthropologist the distinctive human quality. It is also this cultural designation that so frequently eludes those in other disciplines who address themselves to a definition of human distinctiveness. Thus Mortimer Adler in a film on evolution must employ elaborate scientific circumlocution to explain man's uniqueness without ever employing the term; and Professor Rhodes in a section on "The Uniqueness of Man" states:

Looked at biologically, man's uniqueness springs largely from his conceptual thought, resulting as it does in true speech, cumulative tradition and the manufacture of tools (Ibid., p. 29. Emphasis mine.)

Conceptual thought, true speech, cumulative tradition, and manufacture of tools-none of them biological; all of them cultural.

C. Spiritually - Now as a believer I must add the third distinctive characteristic of man and that is whatever constitutes the Imago Dei. Call it "spiritual nature" or what you will, I believe that this must be included in any complete definition of man. In the methodology of Christian anthropologists this and the theological heart of Christianity have been called the supercultural or supracultural, that level of human involvement which is above and beyond culture, e.g., noncultural. The entire rationale of Christian missions, in the face of doctrines of cultural relativism and accusations of religious imperialism by those who count all religion as merely cultural, stands forthrightly upon the legitimacy of the persuasive communication of a super-cultural message which is absolute and thus applicable to any culture, while its forms and expressions remain relative and indigenous.

In conclusion, with respect to origins, I believe that the supercultural aspect of man is co-terminous with his capacity for culture, full-blown, and not a product of development. That is, a spiritual and cultural nature are seen as distinctive of man and may be said to constitute the Imago Dei.

From this extended definition of man, it was argued that the origin of these distinctive aspects of humanity are much more important to consider than the neverending speculations upon the origin of man's body. The conceptual transition from biological, species-determined behavior to culturally determined behavior is for anthropologists and primatologists who assume that there was an evolutionary crossing of this biocultural gap, far more of an exercise in hypothetical reconstruction today than the alleged morphological transition ever was. Furthermore the problem in much the same terms has been emphasized by scientists from Alfred Russell Wallace to Teilhard De Chardin.

Two questions now face us. These were presented to the Oxford conference but their answers were not attempted. Perhaps it will be helpful to consider them here:


1. What theological imperatives are there regarding the Imago Dei and what it signifies as related to the question of man's uniqueness?
2. What theological imperatives or stakes are there in speaking about the origin of man:
a. as a sovereign act of Deity identical with continuous evolution;
h as an intervention of Deity in an organic continuity;
c. as an introduction by Deity of a unique form of life.