Science in Christian Perspective



From: JASA 19 (June 1967): 35-39.

Though space exploration is usually considered to reflect only scientific values, other values may include social, economic and spiritual benefits. Both the inter-dependency as well as separation of science and religion is shown in this paper to be the product of changing emphases
in each discipline as well as changing cultural and environmental conditions at each stage of history. Assuming a favorable climate it is demonstrated that science and religion in the space age should become more compatible as space discoveries and scientific knowledge increase. It is suggested that compatibility can be fostered through constitution of an international committee on space science and theology whose function would be to
explore questions related to the impact of space discoveries on theology and the relationship of man's spiritual goals to space exploration goals.


Reconciliation of differences and comparison of similarities between science and religion, a popular activity of both scientists and theologians a decade or two ago, was not difficult to achieve at that time since neither discipline could be considered very advanced, as witnessed from the present age. Conversely, current literature on this subject is rather more restricted in quantity which may be indicative of either extreme journalistic caution; a rather improbable possibility or of lack of ability to define the advancements in each field sufficiently well to permit evaluation and assessment. The rapid advances in both science and religion

* Rodney W. Johnson is with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Manned Space Flight, Washington, D.C.

in the age of space are eclipsing the most, optimistic predictions of former years. While the accomplishments of science are dutifully recorded, faithfully documented and apparently quite widely disseminated, the same cannot be said of the changes and advancements taking place in the religious world. This may be another reason why comparisons are more restrictive. To the majority of thinking individuals it would thus appear that the divergence between science and religion is increasing. The literally "astronomical" achievements of science in the past few years have not only caught the imagination of scientists and laymen alike but also have tended to obscure the progress, if any, of the theological profession to articulate the message of God to a world whose god has become the power of the human mind.

The compatibility between science and religion, so earnestly sought by both groups should, perforce, be less difficult to define in the age of space since the achievements of this era in all areas of science should tend either toward or away from greater religious understanding. It should be expected that increased understanding of scientific phenomena would result in a parallel, improved and stabilized theological posture.

The title suggests that both science and religion are greatly changed from what might be considered as more fundamental or conservative disciplines of former years. We ask then, if science is adequate to explain religious experience and discovery, and can religion be compatible with scientific truth derived from space exploration discoveries? Contemporary man is driven by a desire to not only understand the imponderable, but also to define abstract ideas and philosophies in finite and analytical terms. This characteristic supports a look at this question.

Science and Theology

The distinguishing mark of a good mind might be defined as the ability to retain two conflicting ideas or ideals at the same time, yet be dominated by neither. This is very difficult to do, even with simple propositions. With such complex topics as science and theology it becomes even more difficult; almost impossible many believe. Perhaps this is the reason so many scientists reject religion - and so many theologians reject science.

Yet rejection need not be the ultimate attitude of either scientist or theologian. Arthur H. Compton has expressed the inter-relationship of science and religion in a very positive statement, "There can be no conflict between science and religion. Science is a reliable method of finding truth. Religion is the search for a satisfying way of life. Science is growing; yet a world that has science needs, as never before, the inspiration that religion offers." (1) To discover truth is not to invent it, nor is discovery of matter the creation of it.

The age of space has thrust upon mankind the unwelcome proposition that he may be capable of exploration of not only our Solar System, but the Universe itself. Whole new realms of scientific endeavor are visible which afford new challenges and opportunities for scientific discovery; only to be confronted by the theological viewpoint that man has no purpose in space. Small wonder that a conflict exists between the scientist and the theologian.

There is increasing evidence to support the conclusion that scientific discovery resulting from space oriented programs may in the final analysis be of lesser significance than the spiritual revelation accompanying these activities. (2) This evidence takes the form of increased awareness of man's purpose and function both on Earth and in the Universe in relation to his space exploration goals and with respect to his own capabilities and limitations. His confidence in technological solutions to space flight problems has been shaken by new understanding of psychological phenomena. Those elements comprising man's behavioral structure which relate to his inter-relation ship with his fellow men are being revealed in greater clarity than ever before. The result may well be that an understanding of these behavioral traits and characteristics is not so much a revelation of scientific research as it is of spiritual insight, nor quite so capable of scientific correction or modification as spiritual rehabilitation.

The theologian, like the scientist, reflects an inquiring mind, searching for truth, according to Tillich. He asks the question of who God is, how he manifests himself and how man can respond to Him, Thus his "truth" becomes knowledge as God reveals himself to the theologian. This knowledge must be received before it can be imparted to others, it must be experienced before it can be described. For this reason the theologian must be capable of discerning spiritual truth, of receiving spiritual knowledge and of interpreting it to others, or he is not a theologian. He provides a vital link between God a theologian. He provides a vital link between God and man and as such must know his own strength and weaknesses, his own abilities and lack of abilities as well as mankind needs for theological expression. The theologian provides answers to questions which often cannot be expressed, to uncertainties requiring certainty, to experiences requiring validation. The scientist reflects a similar inquiring attitude in his sphere of activity, and for this reason the relationship between scientist and theologian has its roots in close associations and communion based on common attitudes towards his work. Historically the roles of scientist and theologian were complementary, not competitive.

Historic Position

Historically the roles of theologian and scientist were nearly synonomous. Indeed, the theologian was often the most articulate of individuals with respect to scientific thought and much of what is considered to reflect the scientific store of knowledge was in the era of Aristotle considered to be the product of theological discovery. Typical of this thinking is the Aristotelian concept of physical philosophy and creation.

Down through the centuries of time the paths of the scientist and theologian became more divergent and eventually became quite incompatible. Theologians attempted to relate God to a society which largely rejected God, primarily because the concept of God and belief in God did not serve the needs of that society. With the advent of the Dark Ages, man not only sank into an intellectual marsh, but so did his yearnings after theological understanding and spiritual expression. The fires of the Reformation not only burned away the false and misleading theological concepts, but also served to stimulate man's intellect toward scientific pursuits.

Systematization of knowledge probably did not reach any level of development to 500 B.C. though it is quite certain that its beginnings originated with both the Greeks and the Egyptians. Certainly by the era of Plato and Aristotle, systems of thought had begun to appear such as Plato's "Doctrine of Ideas," in which the relation of scientific thought to religion and philosophy bad its foundations. Breaking from the teachings of Plato, Aristotle held that matter could exist either with or without a soul, but that matter having a soul was related to living things, and in this case the soul governed the state conditions of the object. This concept was rejected by the early Christians, who borrowing much from Plato, insisted on the separateness of soul and body. Thus the relationship between early science of the Aristotelian biological form had deep roots in early theological and religious thinking.

Early Trends

These roots naturally fed the growth of Christian thinking and nourished the expansion of scientific discovery well into the first several centuries after Christ. Further they supported the emergence of what might be described as a God-centered theology as opposed to paganism and spiritism so prevalent at that time. With the advent of Christ, the concept of a personal relationship to God was introduced, a concept which served to separate the scientist and theologian for the first time. Evidence of this separation; its character and magnitude became apparent with the teachings of the Stoics and Epicurians. During this period the theologian began to emerge, reflecting an emphasis on philosophical thought rather than scientific discovery.

Stoicism assumed that man's life in all its details is controlled by the interplay of forces which are coextensive with matter, pervading and permeating it and together with matter, occupying and filling space. Stoic philosophy assumed that these forces were knowable and that man's fate could thus be controlled through this knowledge. The best life according to the .Stoics was one lived in harmony with nature, that is, God. Thus God was corporeal and had form and substance. The naturistic form of God was thus capable of acting and being acted upon, if the governing forces were known.

Epicurean philosophy was quite similar except that different forces were thought to control man's fate. Instead of a doctrine based on harmony with nature, the Epicureans taught that good and evil were based man's sensibilities by developing peace and of quiet of mind. Happiness could be produced by eliminating every disturbance to the soul, disturbances which centered around fear of death and fear of the gods. Instead of a scientific philosophy based on astrology, the Epicureans invoked the play of atoms. There was no life after death since the soul dissolved into "primordial atoms" at death, consequently fear of death was avoided. By defining a philosophic theology as well, the fear of a God of the Universe could be eliminated; since God was so far off he does not trouble man and is not troubled by man.

Epicurianism and Stoicism held sway over contemporary thought in the first two centuries after Christ, dominating both theologic and scientific thinking. The common factor in these and other philosophic sects, including remnants of the schools of Plato and Aristotle was a contempt for science. This attitude was not difficult to understand since science in those days had not influenced man's life in any obvious way, not operated to ameliorate man's state conditions. Science was a failure. Conditions were favorable for the advent of a new faith. This was Neoplatonism which was developed by Philo, expanded greatly by Plotinus, and ultimately absorbed all existing philosophical sects. Attracted to Neoplatonism, the educated men of the day introduced mysticism and logos into the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. As a demonstration of their thinking, the Neoplatonist would have said the Universe was made for man, whereas the Stoic would have said that man was made for the Universe. In any case, the rejection of science developed more from an inability to apprehend scientific truth and apply it to the problems of the day than from an inability to make scientific discoveries. The roots of this difficulty were embedded in the conflict with theology and philosophy; the separation of these disciplines from each other was impossible to reconcile.

Thus the fact that Neoplatonism flourished during the third and fourth century reflected both its serious rivalry with Christianity and also the gropings of man toward a faith compatible with both scientific and philosophical expression.

The decline of Neoplatonic doctrine and its subsequent orientation into Christianity has been attributed in large measure to St. Augustine (354-430). His conversion to Christianity in 386 marked the end of the attempt to define a concept of belief which reconciled both science and scientific thought with a philosophic theology. With the fall of Rome in 400 A.D. civilization decayed into the so-called dark ages, a period which presented no coherent philosophical system. Theologic belief held that science and study of the stars led to indifference to God, a view shared even by St. Augustine after his conversion. This period has been described as a pagan culture responsive to the teachings of Christ, although the religious practices were more nearly a marriage of both pagan and Christian ideas, reflected by decadent orgies and eccentric influences. In this atmosphere religious experiences were easily perverted into intense persecution and cruelty. Though this period saw the emergence of theology as the queen of sciences, theology did not speak to the condition of man as much as it did to the place and function of man in the Universe. The dominant system was ecclesiastical and exercised firm control over man's thought and action. Any real attempt at scientific investigation was suppressed, though it must be recognized that isolated work did take place such as the mathematics of Herman the Cripple (1013-1054). This is not to say that high quality intellectual work was not done because it was. The emphasis, however, was on theology, astrology and related disciplines.

Later Growth

The end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance during the 15th and 16th centuries marked the point in time at which an upheaval in political, social and artistic life occurred. During this period man endeavored to reconstitute himself as a free being rather than a slave of the theological system of the day. Here again, as in the first few centuries after Christ, his attempts at self-expression were thwarted by the failure of scientific knowledge to make an impact on his everyday life. Physics, mathematics and chemistry were mainly the product of monastic and theologic thinkers whose way of life did not concern itself with the common man.

Agrarian pursuits and commerce were the principle activities and industry as such did not exist. Even in countries which escaped Roman domination, such as the Germanic peoples, the emergence of science was stunted. The university professors were too satisfied with mediocrity, too bound to archaic methods, too proud of titles and degrees and too anxious to preserve ecclesiastical discipline to permit a true spirit of humanism to spread freely. The doctrine of the humanists asserting the intrinsic value of man's life before death, the magnitude of his potentialities, and the dignity of his aspirations were at variance with the theological viewpoint 'that man was the victim of a merciless God.

It was logical that the humanists would dominate the thinking of the Renaissance, that an attitude of primacy of man over the state, of the primacy of the affairs of man over his surroundings and the importance of his temporal aspiration and well-being should dominate his world view. That this philosophy should evolve during the Renaissance is not unexpected since the retrospective habit, strong in man by nature and reinforced by Christian teaching, saw nothing in the past to recommend the future. The intrinsic value of man's life and the magnitude of his potentialities had been largely ignored, and as a result any commonality or basis of relationship between the natural and the supernatural had been stifled. An atmosphere of experimentation, of inquiry and exploration was at hand. In other words, a merger of the existential with the orthodox was developing with the result that the climate was ripe for new spiritual discovery to accompany the revival of learning. Certainly this spirit dominated the desire of early Christian believers who sought free expression of their faith in the New World. The ability to find the climate to nurture this developing religious expression led inexorably to both freedom and bondage, new doctrine and old orthodoxy and finally a new religious posture of tolerance toward science and society supported by firm convictions regarding man's position on the Earth and in the Universe. The spirit of inquiry which had dominated the Renaissance had crystallized to the degree that a position of authority regarding questions of spiritual life and faith had evolved. It remained essential only that the theologian defend his authority and position; indeed this has been his historic position in the two centuries following the rise of humanism. Into the 19th and 20th century religion has continued to be on the defensive and a weak defensive at that. A period of tremendous intellectual, scientific, and technological progress was accompanied by a parallel period of religious stalemate. Instead of stimulating the spiritual pulse of the religious world, this period was earmarked rather, by feeling the pulse and apologizing for the unhealthy condition that prevailed.

Current Posture

What is the position of the theologian and scientist today? Have they developed a new maturity based on experiences of the past or have earlier lessons been forgotten? The dominant 'Characteristic of this century is progress. Unless all spheres of human activity experience progress, eventual stalemate and retrogression can only result. In this regard it is a mistake to assume that science and religion are separate realms, when in reality each is an extension of the other. What man experiences in a scientific sense is a part of his total experience in a larger sense, and his religious experiences are thus related as well. Though science dominates our society today, this does not mean that religious experience is not a vital part. Truth is progressive and whether this is uncovered in a scientific context or a spiritual context is not too important. What is important is that in seeking truth, each one finds it.

Up to now one of the biggest defects in our space program, which in reality is a seeking after truth, is the fact that it has ignored man's spiritual longings, and that theologians have ignored space. This may be one reason why few social or cultural dividends have been realized from space-related research and activities. The new vistas of space together with man's activities in space have attracted religious attention but caught religious thinkers unprepared. Something new and vital to our culture has received only a modicum of spiritual interpretation. The defensive posture of spiritual leaders, a heritage of the past, has prevented them from speaking with religious authority to the question of man's function and role in space and the impact of discoveries in space upon the destiny of man.

In the U.S. at the present time, it appears that spiritual man is looking inward at a time when scientific man is looking outward and upward. Spiritual man is on the defensive when scientific man is on the offensive. This condition is the result of modem theology.

Three main elements characterize this inward-directed look. The first of these elements is an attention to a definition of what we should believe. These definitions take the form of new and modern creeds, credos and confessions of faith. Lacking an ability to postulate in concrete terms what Christianity is and how it affects our lives, the emphasis is placed upon stressing a code of faith, in order to reinforce the backs-to-the-wall attitude of what we believe.

The second element might be termed a stress on why we believe. Here, a number of new doctrines and suggestions have been thrust upon us such as the "single God" versus the triune God and the "God is dead" concepts. The relationship of this latter to the early Renaissance is too apparent - God no longer answers the human need.

There is however a new spirit abroad in the world - a spirit of question and inquiry which dominates current religious thinking. This attitude is characterized by an emphasis on how Christianity affects men and his culture; how religious faith should fit into total man, rather than emphasis on what we believe or why we believe. This is vital to spiritual development since the same viewpoint can be expressed today as could be expressed in the early days of the church and the advent of the Dark ages - the message of Christianity has not reached modem man nor touched his life in any vital way.


If the foregoing premise is true, then the requirement now as then is to reaffirm our faith in God. Only then can man re-establish and reconstitute the God-Man relationship. What is done in space must help us find this faith. We must not seek to find God in space but seek to find Him in our daily lives. Theology and science are thus embedded, as Pollack has said, in a higher reality.3 Together they must speak to man's condition, not only his function in the Universe nor his role on Earth nor his relationship to his creator.

One way to accomplish this is to form an international committee on space science and theology. The function of this internationally constituted group would be threefold: to inquire into the implications of space science on theology, to inquire into the implications of space science on cultural development and to inquire into the implications of space science on the behavioral sciences. Such a body would serve to promote thinking in this area as well as provide a forum where the results of scientific and religious thinkers could be discussed, to the direct benefit of each group and the ultimate benefit of mankind. Ultimately the separation of science and religion will be closed and the union of these two bodies may be a significant product of space exploration and research. Certainly the theologian and scientist are coming together on the origin of life and the question of the origin of the Universe. It is not unreasonable to expect that the faith of both scientist and theologian will become stronger as each finds in his pursuit of validation of truth a growing reinforcement of belief in God and the divine order of man and the Universe.


1. Compton, A. H., "Nine Scientists Look at Religion," READ ERS' DIGEST, January, 1963.

2. Johnson, R. W., "On the Manned Lunar Landing," journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, V. 17, 4, December, 1965.

3. Pollard, W. G., "Christ and the World of Science," Address to the Science and Faith Seminar, Presidential Prayer Breakfast, Washington, D.C., February 17, 1966.