Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 19 (March 1967): 12-17.

There is a pronounced tendency in the behavioral sciences to depreciate or eliminate supernatural and spiritual phenomena by reducing them to "natural relationships, forces, and processes or by explaining them in naturalistic terms. Yet if man has a spiritual side to his nature and relates himself to a God who is and who reveals Himself to man, it seem reasonable to believe that there are scientifically-observable evidences of man's spiritual nature. The development in the sociology of religion of five "core dimensions of -religiosity" is a significant improvement on previous analytical classifications, but it seems to omit the man-God relationship which is at the core of Christian spirituality. It is postulated that there is a sixth aspect of personal religiosity, at least in Christendom, which is tentatively labeled the "spiritual." This is what Sturzo labeled "the true life" in his "sociology of the supernatural." Various theological, philosophical, and existential evidences support the hypothesis that man has a spiritual nature. Scientific evidences of the s-piritual component of religiosity can come from sel-reports of inner experiences, case studies of believers, the possibly universal grasping of men for some kind of ultimate commitment or concern, and the tests of the validity of religious expersence religious groups use in screening members. The Verstehende research approach is subject to many limitations, and the other evidence is circumstantial, hence not conclusive, although it may be as "solid" as much of the data used in socio-psychological research. As better techniques and instruments of research are developed, the spiritual component of man's nature may become a direct subject of empirical research in the future.

The emphasis in the sciences upon empirical evidence necessitates a neglect of that which is difficult to observe with the senses as well as a denial on the part of some scientists that unobservable phenomena are real or ontological. In its extreme form in the social sciences this is related, to the position called "sociologism" which insists that all of man's behavior is collectively determined by his group associations. Hence even the deepest aspects of man's spirituality are attributed to the direct and indirect influences of the clan, tribe, people, culture, or society upon its members.1 This approach does not leave room for supernatural beings and forces, although it does allow for belief in the supernatural. The supernatural is either reduced to the natural or eliminated.

Some scholars hold that the social sciences qua sciences are just as "natural" as the biological and phys ical sciences.2 All sciences use the same basic logical and empirical method, seek natural cause-effect relationships, and are concerned with repetitive rather than unique events of the universe. Man is hence studied from a naturalistic perspective that either leaves all supernatural elements to disciplines like theology, or else, as in the case of logical positivism, denies that there are any supernatural factors at all.

The empiricist of this latter type can be convinced of the "reality" of phenomena only by evidence that is empirically produced through a "natural science" approach. Intuition, sympathetic understanding, and deduction are denounced as inadequate or invalid sources of evidence even in the study of man. To the Christian assertion that man is a spiritual being, such scientists scoffingly attach labels like "speculative metaphysics", "folklore, and "outmoded superstition."

If God is, if He reveals Himself to man, if man has a spiritual side to his personality, if there indeed are supernatural -forces in the universe, and if men (or at least some men) have a personal relationship with the Deity, does it not seem reasonable to believe that these spiritual phenomena are accompanied by evidences which are objective and hence can be observed empirically, ergo scientifically?

Scientific Dimensions of Religiosity

The critical analyst of most social science studies which include data on "religion" will find them to have significant weaknesses. Crude "measures" of religion like church membership, attendance at religious services, self-identification as Protestant, Catholic or Jew, acceptance of certain elementary religious beliefs, and the like, have been used to classify people religiously in order to observe the possible effects of religion on

*David 0. Moberg is Professor of Sociology and Chairman of the Department of Social Sciences, Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota. Formerly Editor, Journal of The American Scientific Affiliation.
Slightly revised version of a paper presented at the 20th annual Convention of the ASA, The King's College, Briarcliff, New York, August 25, 1965. Adapted from a working paper at the International Conference on Science and Christian Faith, July 17-25, 1965, Oxford, England.

various aspects of personal and group behavior. Even the most sophisticated of scales used in the study of specific religious phenomena have significant limitations.

Sociologists of religion have been increasingly aware of these difficulties and weaknesses and have taken significant strides toward overcoming them, especially during the past decade. The most significant systematic solution to the problems connected with inconsistent, even conflicting perspectives in research on religion, which is presumed to be one phenomenon, is the five-fold classification of types of religious commitment developed by Charles Y. Glock.3 Noting the confusion that results from the failure of investigators who study a narrow aspect of religious belief or practice to recognize its broader context of relationships to other expressions or manifestations of religion, he distinguished between five "core dimensions of reiigiosity" in which he believes the religious commitment of any person in any religion may be manifested:

1. The ritualistic dimension is that of religious practices - what people who are religious do in the external expression of their religion. It includes church attending, praying, confessing, tithing, fasting, working for the church, and the like.

2. The ideological dimension deals with what religious people believe. These beliefs are of several kinds (warranting, purposive, and implementing). Unbelief also appears in several forms and is a valid subject for religious research.

3. The intellectual dimension is concerned with what people knou; about their religion, church, sacred scriptures, etc.

4. The experiential dimension focuses around what people feel. Religious emotions, sensations, and perceptions related to God, to ultimate reality, to participation in religious activities, and to personal or group religious experiences belong in this category.

5. The consequential dimension pertains to the effects of the religious rituals, beliefs, knowledge, and experiences and is hence on a different conceptual level of abstraction. It is the area of "works" in contrast to "faith" in the Christian theological sense.

Clock elaborates each of these, pointing out how various aspects of each dimension are researchable and stressing the interaction of each dimension with all the others. His work is stimulating significant research, for the basic purpose of his analysis was to promote empirical sophistication in religious research. I think, however, that his belief that "within one or another of these dimensions all of the many and diverse manifestations of religiosity prescribed by the different religions of the world can be ordered"4 is too Optimistic.

Indeed, this typology probably falls short for Christianity itself. If the word "all" really applies in this statement, then, since all of the five dimensions are researchable, the totality of the manifestations of Christianity, including any and all observable spiritual or supernatural elements it contains, is eventually subject to scientific analysis, and science can either "reveal" them or profess to prove their non-existence, except as ideas or myths in the minds of people.

Are These Dimensions Adequate?

If Clock's dimensions are presented as a summary of the totality of the Christian religion, the devout believer in Jesus Christ will feel that something is missing. This "something" will be difficult for him to identify. The theologian might label the missing part as the realm of faith, revelation, illumination, and insight which some have labelled as "the sacred", "the holy", "the supernatural", or "the spiritual."

Various Bible references help to make clear the inadequacy of each of these dimensions from the perspective5 of satisfying the demands of the Christian ideal.5

With regard to religious deeds (the ritualistic dimension), the testimony of Jesus and the Apostles is quite clear about their spiritual inadequacy. For example, Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees for their failure to live up to their own teachings and their close attention to the fine details of religious rituals while neglecting the basic principles or spirit that lay behind the legal structure out of which their rituals had evolved (Matthew 15:1-9; 23:1-39; etc.). He emphatically said that those who worship God " must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). Works are insufficient for man's salvation (Matthew 7:22-23; Romans 3:1-5:21; Galatians 2:14-21; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:4-7; etc.). Yet works are important indicators of what is within the "heart" of man, the very essence of the self or personality (Matthew 15:16-20).

It is evident from several passages of the Bible that beliefs (the ideological dimension) are also insufficient for a proper relationship with God. This is clearly expressed in James' famous expression that "faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone" (James 2:17), as well as in his statement, "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (James 2:19). The object of faith (Christ) is as important as the act of faith, believing (Acts 4:12; John 8:24; 1 Cor. 3:10-11; etc.). True belief in the saving sense of that concept in John's Gospel (1:12, 3:1618; etc.) involves the total commitment of a person to Jesus Christ. To believe on the Son of God is to commit one's self to Him in the same manner and degree to which a seed is "believed into" or committed to the

The scribes knew a great deal about their religion (the intellectual dimension), yet Jesus called them "blind leaders of the blind" (Matthew 15:14; Luke 6:39) and condemned them along with the hypocritical Pharisees. (Matthew 23). The knowledge of man is imperfect, incomplete, and insufficient at its best for salvation (I Corinthians 1:17-2:16; 8:1-2; 13:8-10).

The Apostle Paul was "caught up to the third heaven" and had other mystical or ecstatic experiences (II Corinthians 12:1-12), yet he said that all things are but as dung in contrast to being found in Christ (Philippians 3:8). The experiential dimension of religious feelings falls short.

Furthermore, in his great chapter on agape love, the Apostle Paul emphasized that the best of words and deeds (religious consequences?) are worthless without a sincere and active love (I Cor. 13). Other portions of the Bible make clear that agape love is not merely an outward act easily put on but instead flows from the very innermost being, the deepest existential springs of a person's self, in response to the love of God.

So all five of these dimensions of religiousness are inadequate according to the Christian Scriptures. What is the missing factor? Is it a combination or blend of all five together? Perhaps. Yet even then I suspect that something else could be missing, namely, the total man-God relationship which is referred to in such varied concepts as regeneration, being "born again,"' being "hid with Christ in God," and being "written in the book of life." All of the other dimensions are related to this. For a "healthy" or "sound" relationship with God, traditional Christian values hold that there must be at least a minimum of knowledge (knowing God via Christ and the Scriptures), beliefs (faith in Christ as Savior), feelings (emotions are involved in all that men experience and know), ritual (worshipping, praying, etc., in whatever form or manner may be specified by the religious group), and consequences (the "works" without which faith is nonexistent or "dead"). Yet the outer forms of any of these may be present without the transcendent spiritual relationship with God that is at the core of Christian commitment. Measuring each of these dimensions of religiosity and all of their numerous subdimensions is not fully identical with measuring religious faith, ultimate concern, or existential commitment. The scientific study of these dimensions can lead to invalid implications if it fails to recognize its limitations in this area of religious research.

The Spiritual Component of Religiosity

It therefore may be postulated that there is a sixth aspect of personal religiosity, at least in Christendom. This may be labeled the "spiritual" or "supernatural".7 It involves the man-to-God and God-to-man relationships. It does not exist alongside the other dimensions of the religious life but runs completely through them and colors them all. It is on a different level of abstraction and conceptualization.

This sixth component of religiousness is the very essence of religious life, that which Sturzo labeled "the true life." He said, "The supernatural is not made a separate section of social life, something juxtaposed to the natural, which individuals may accept or reject at will. In studying society in its complex wholeness, in the concrete, it is found to exist within the atmosphere of the supernatural . . ."8 The natural and the supernatural order meet in man. Even he who denies the supernatural root and branch of the religious life in his search for purely natural explanations of religion is involved with "a sociology of the supernatural" in a negative sense.9

To some degree the question of the identification, study, and nature of the spiritual dimension of man may be analogous to the question of what life is. It is something more than merely the sum of the identifiable or observable processes and parts of a biological organism. The whole of man also is more than the sum of his parts; the parts are abstracted artificially from reality for analytical purposes. just as man is seen as a total person in the Bible and in the best of the social philosophies that undergird the sciences of man, we -must try to retain a holistic perspective, keeping the total person in mind and not thinking of him as consisting of discrete, separable parts, like body, soul, spirit, and mind. Yet because man is so finite that the whole is too complex for analysis in most scientific and other work, it is necessary to look at the parts.

Through self-consciousness man's spirit transcends the matter of the world. It is man's mind that imparts a kind of "reality" to space and time. Similarly, is it his mind that imparts "reality" to, spiritual phenomena? Is the spiritual aspect of man merely a reification? Are men led to believe in it even if it has no ontological basis? How can one isolate the spiritual component of religion from the other dimensions if it cuts across them all? Since man is a unit, not a collection of parts, his religious behavior also is woven into the fabric of the total person. This problem therefore involves man as an existential being.

There are various belief-systems about how man may attain a life-giving relationship with God. Some of these focus upon the act of faith or the faith-commitment of the person, while others stress the sacramental treasures of a church from which grace is dispensed through institutionalized rites and ceremonies ("sacraments"). The study of the different beliefs about man's relationships with God is a proper area for research in the ideological dimension. But the relationship with God is not fully covered by beliefs about that relationship.

This is akin to other philosophical problems pertinent to man. The social scientist can study man's decision-making process, for example, but he is in a somewhat different position when he must make a crucial decision himself. Man the object and man the subject are not fully identicall Objective reality is not directly the same as the subjective significance of the person himself. "For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God . . . But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:11, 14).

Science and Man's Spiritual Nature

What non-biblical and scientifically researchable evidences support the hypothesis that there is a sixth dimension to religiosity? Personal experiences are subjective and can be reduced analytically to the experiential dimension, so they can be accepted only as secondary and circumstantial evidence, not as conclusive "proof." Yet the testimonies of thousands of believers must be given some weight. People's self-reports are used to study a wide range of social science phenomena, ranging from studies of sexual behavior and participation in social organizations to research on marital happiness and adjustment in old age. just as the statements of people are used in "attitude" studies and other research to get at beliefs, opinions, self-conceptions, feelings, and other internalized phenomena, reports of self-experiences should be useful in the analysis of the inner experiences of people who have religious commitments. The responses to questions and other overt phenomena which are studied are not the basic subject matter, but they are indicators of it.

We may never reach absolute rational finality about religious beliefs, and feelings, to say nothing of the transcendental man-God relationship. As long as no man has seen God, it is impossible to have reports of direct observations of Him. But this is something other than saying that He is non-existent. If men's reports about other behavior, feelings, beliefs, experiences, and relationships are at least partly reliable, we should be willing also to accept, at least tentatively, their reports about relationships with a God whom they believe to be transcendental. Yet these reports are in the ideological and experiential dimensions more than in that of the transcendental per se.

Many religious groups have "tests" of the validity of a prospective member's spiritual relationships with God. They may ask for a "personal testimony" of his faith and experience, or they may look carefully at his life to discover evidences of the consequences of his religious commitment. Since they have criteria for a presumably "objective" as well as "spiritual" evaluation of the transcendental dimension, it should not be totally beyond the bounds of scientific research. But these also fit into the other five dimensions.

All men seem to grope consciously or unconsciously for some kind of ultimate commitment or all-enfolding concern to which they can give loyalty. Is this grasping only a cultural survival from a primitive stage in the evolution of man? Or is there an ontological basis for it that science eventually will be able to study? If God is, and if He is omnipotent, then influences and processes that seem to be purely "natural" may be infused with "spiritual" values, meanings, influence, and significance. Finite men could either understand these spiritual factors, understand them only in part, or completely fail to comprehend them or even to recognize their possibility.

What at first glance appears to be an "anti-Christian bias" that reduces all evidence of "the spiritual," the sacred, the holy, or the supernatural to natural sociological and psychological processes may not be basically anti-Christian at all. It is necessary in any science to focus upon concepts and phenomena pertinent to that science and to use the methods of science in seeking sequences of events, causal connections, etc. which are "natural." This process becomes truly anti-Christian only when accompanying interpretations of the observed data go beyond the observations by making negativistic inferences or implications about the absence of supernatural elements in human experience, about God as a figment of the collective imagination, and the like. (Stating that these are unobservable is a different matter.)

There can be no conclusive scientific proof of the spiritual nature of man, for other (non-religious) explanations or interpretations of the alleged evidence are possible and always may be viable alternatives. This lack of provability can be,a service to the Christian cause. We Christians believe that God is involved in all events in the universe, but we may be too quick to label as "miraculous" certain phenomena which are presently or potentially explicable in terms of natural processes related to human interaction, emotions, beliefs, feelings, and experiences. Knowing the ways in which God naturally and normally works among men - even in their "hearts," "souls," or "spirits" - can be of great help to those who serve Him. Unconsciously, if not consciously, we recognize this. For this reason, in spite of all that we as Christians say about the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit, we pragmatically operate our church programs and Christian associational activities on a primarily natural, behavioral, or sociological level of "planning."

Only with the "eyes of faith" do men recognize that it is God who works in and through them, their organizations, and all scientifically-observable and -unobservable natural social and psychological processes. Yet in conducting research on these Christian organizations and activities to discover the latent disfunctions as well as manifest functions of their structures and activities, the Christian social scientist will keep his "eyes of faith" open, aware that there probably is a sixth aspect of religious life not included in Glock's five dimensions.

To leave church work on its present basis of haphazard planning is unrealistic in our complex society in which research and development is a major department of most other social institutions. It also may be a form of blasphemy - attributing to the Holy Spirit that which occurs when we carelessly let the pressures of worldly circumstances and winds of chance determine church-related conduct. Instead, churches ought to capitalize upon the resources, methods, and tools of social science research which are available to help in their planning. Doing so, their leaders and members will be moving in the direction of serving and loving God with all their minds as well as with all their hearts and strength. But to analyze the structures and programs of religious institutions scientifically is not the same as scientifically studying personal religious commitment.

Perhaps man's spiritual nature can be studied scientifically only, if at all, through the Verstehende approach of sympathetic understanding and intuitive insight. But this carries with it various dangers. It is easy to accept as "fact" various assumptions which are not consistent with the empiricism of science. Ideological biases easily enter, and they are just as serious when they come from the irreligious, the "religiously neutral," or the anti-religious as when they come from the religious person. It is easy to assume that evidence based solely upon one's faith ("faith" includes the antireligious stance of unbelievers) is an empirically observable part of scientific evidence. Yet this Verstehende approach is in some way related to biblical concepts of "spirit bearing witness with spirit" (Romans 8:16) and of self-conceptions - the spirit of man perceiving what is within himself (I Cor. 2:12).


It is entirely possible that the spiritual component of religion is transcendental, so far above and beyond objective experience that it cannot be studied scientifically. It may be totally extra-scientific, seen only by the "eyes of faith." Others who see its evidence see not, nor do they understand (Matt. 13:13-17; 1 Cor. 2:14; II Cor. 4:4; Ephesians 4:18). But even if this is so, the correlates and effects of the man-God relationship may be measurable and hence as proper a subject of scientific study as numerous other phenomena that can be investigated only indirectly.

Even if the spiritual dimension is beyond the realm of scientific research, scholars of religion ought not to lapse into a dangerous philosophy of sociologism, that reduces the totality of religion to social forces, nor into a logical positivism that insists that nothing science cannot study is real, nor into a naturalism which arbitrarily holds that everything is totally explicable in terms of "natural," non-supematural concepts.

But we who believe that man has a "real" spiritual nature must also take care lest we assume a metaphysical tenet of our faith to be a scientific fact before there are adequate scientific grounds to support our assumption. Scientific scepticism and scientific humility are needed on both sides of this subject. To "explain" scientifically is not to "explain away," for the phenomena explained remain (if they were there in the first place) unless they were mere reifications, creations of men's imaginations.

". . . no ultimate conception of real ity is intellectually self-validating, but always rests in circular fashion upon postulates and convictions which are not selfevident. At the foundation of every total view of the world, there is a point analogous to that of God's revelation for Christians upon which the whole rests. We may call this man's theological predicament, to which others are no less subject than are Christians.... The theologicg predicament is common to all men."10

This problem is linked with communication difficulties as well. Is it possible to "translate" the "language of the spirit" into the language of science?

It is easy to locate statements expressing the opinion that man's transcendental dimension or spiritual nature is not a concern of social scientists, at least in their scientific role. I have written earlier that "Ultimate causation and supernatural significance are outside the realm of social science," but the sentence that follows reminds the reader that "To understand the social processes in conversion is not to demonstrate that  no supernatural elements are involved."11 Dr. Osmund  Schreuder of the University of Nijmegen in The Netherlands holds that "Sociology of Religion has as its object religion in its empirical manifestations. God, the supernatural, grace, and so on, have no place in this science . . . . 12 He warns that religionists and secularists hence must be careful not to make statements about the validity, truth, and value of religion, for "empirical objects are in principle not approachable by empirical methods."13 But although the spiritual component of man is not now an empirical subject for research, it may become so in the future.14 Meanwhile the following questions are worthy of our attention.

Questions for Thought and Discussion

1. Does science by its very nature inevitably "demythologize" any and all spiritual values, beliefs, and commitments?

2. Is the author's belief in supernatural or spiritual forces, including God, based upon circular reasoning? (Feelings of awe produce a belief in holiness; holiness experiences in turn lead to the belief that there must be some real phenemenon behind the feelings, the feelings of awe then being used to validate the beliefs.)

3. Is the thesis of this paper in some way related to the psychoanalytic conception that the human mind is like an iceberg with the huge mass ("the unconscious" and by analogy "the spiritual") concealed beneath the surface of the water and ahalyzable only by indirect evidence or techniques?

4. Is the problem raised by this paper totally irrelevant in an age in which most scientists already have rejected "scientism"?

5. Can one scientifically test the hypothesis that man has a' spiritual nature? What operational definitions of basic concepts and what research instruments are necessary for such a task?

6. Is there a spiritual dimension in man which is so much a part of his nature that it eventually will be revealed by science or supported by scientific evidence as its generalizations approach the level of 11 natural law?"

7. It is commonly assumed by religious leaders that every personal and social problem has a spiritual dimension. Can this be tested scientifically, or is it an extra-scientific tenet of Christian faith?

8. What light, if any, does philosophical and theological phenomenology throw on the problems raised in this paper?

9. "Is it a tenable metaphysical supposition to maintain that the apparently random appears so only because we have not yet comprehended the underlying principle, and that God being infinite, the more perfect his master Plan, the more chaotic it is bound to appear, positive and negative entropy being both in a sense maximized?" (John W. Thompson, "Polarity and the Measurement of Values," Theoria: A Swedish Joumal of Philosophy and Psychology, vol. 30, no. 1, 1964, p. 30.)

10. Is there a spiritual component in all religions? Or is it postulated only in Christianity?


1. The most important theoretical example of this position is Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Lite, trans. by Joseph W. Swain, now in paperback (New YorkCollier Books, 1961). Guy E. Swanson, The Birth at the Gods (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960) is a recent, sympathetic effort to test some of Durkheirn's views.

2. The best exemplar of this approach is George A . Lundberg, especially in Foundations at Sociology (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1939), and Can Science Save Us? (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., rev. ed. 1961).

3. Charles Y. Glock, "On the Study of Religious Commitment," in Review of Recent Research Bearing on Religious and Character Formation ' Research Supplement, Religious Education, vol. 57, no. 4, July-Aug. 1962, pp. S-98 to S-110.

4. Ibid., p. S-98.

5. This paper should not be interpreted as a negative
criticism of Glock's significant work. His purpose was to try it? answer the "question of what is required for a comprehensive and operationally useful definition of religion" and to suggest "a research strategy for meeting these requirements. 11 My objective in this paper is different; it is that of trying to determine whether the so-called "spiritual nature" of man can be studied scientifically. Bible passages quoted are from the Authorized (King James) Version.

6. Dr. Francis Wheeler, a Greek scholar, in personal conversations.

7. In earlier versions of this paper I called this the "transcendental" dimension. That word is used in numerous ways, however, and can be misleading. Furthermore, if ever it is possible to study this component of religiosity, it will no longer be transcendent in the sense of being beyond the possibility of empirical observation. The volition or will may be art important aspect of it.

8. Luigi Sturzo, The True Lite: Sociology at the Supernatural, trans. from Italian by Barbara Barclay Carter. (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947).

9. Ibid., p. 17, passim.

10. Charles S. McCoy, The Meaning of Theological Reflection (New York: Faculty Christian Fellowship, Faith-Learning Studies, No. 1, 1964), p. 10.

11. David 0. Moberg, The Church as a Social Institution (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall; 1962), p. 439.

12. Osmund Schreuder, "Church and Sociology," Social Compass, vol. 11, no. 5, 1965, p. 11.
13. Ibid.
14. David 0. Moberg, "The Encounter of Scientific and Religious Values Pertinent to Man's Spiritual Nature," forthcoming.