Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 19 (September 1967): 71-77.

Ours is a rapidly changing culture characterized by scientific advances, technologic changes, urbanization and a suspicion of authority in any of its forms. This paper was presented to Christian physicians (C.M.S.) gathered to consider the society in which they live, to note its impact on them and how they in turn may exert a Christian witness in this society. Harvey Cox suggests that evangelism is social involvement "where the action is". The presuppositions of secular theology as demonstrated in "The Secular City" by Cox are examined.

Few would deny that we live in a secular society. In our more honest moments we will all admit that we are strongly tainted with many of the aspects of secularization. We should ask ourselves in what ways is this good-in what ways is this potentially dangerous? The backdrop of our thinking has been "The Secular City" by Harvey Cox.' This best-selling, religious paperback printed in 1965, went into its 10th printing in 1966. Here the "secular society" is described as "a society delivered from religious and metaphysical views," concerned more with the here and now, than with the out-there and the future. The secular man is a mobile, tolerant man, who enjoys his anonymity in the modem "technopolis". The secular man is a part of the modem urban community, which is characterized by increased diversity of opinion which tends to downgrade tradition and increase tolerance to different ideas. In this pluralistic society the secular man is mobile, affluent and pragmatic, more inclined to ask "does it work?" than "what does it all mean?"

Eve is reported to have said to Adam as they left the garden of Eden, "Adam, I believe we are living in a period of rapid transition." While change is not new, the speed of change in society has probably never been more rapid than at the present and in the immediate future. It is an exciting time to be alive and to look ahead. Few of us know what the next 15 years holds. I am like Charlie Brown,2 when his friend was reading

*M. 0. Vincent, B.A., M.D., C.M., F.R.C.P.(C) is Assistant Medical Superintendent at the Homewood Sanitarium of Guelph, Ontario.

Hi Diddle Diddle to him and editorialized as follows, "The way I see it, 'the cow jumped over the moon' indicates a rise in farm prices. The part about the dish running away with the spoon must refer to the consumer. Do you agree with me Charlie Brown?" With a rather superior look on his face, Charlie Brown replied, "I can't say-I don't pretend to be a student of prophetic literature."

However, medical and scientific research seems to be moving away from concern just with controlling and manipulating man's environment, to increased concern about controlling man himself. Our revolution of the future may be in the degree to which we can control human behavior, thoughts, feelings and will. This will raise many questions of . . . what is good? what is deviant? . . . what is to be preserved? what is to be discarded? . . . who is to decide and how? What if we unlock the genetic code? Who can have babies, and what kind of genes are to be considered worthy of perpetuation? If babies can be grown as easily outside the uterus as within, what effect will this have on the family, fatherhood, motherhood, let alone the obstetrician?

We now have cardiac pacemakers. It would appear as if "mood pacemakers" whether electrical or chemical may not be far behind. Will these replace the psychiartist, the psychoanalyst, and if so, why not the clergy?

First tools, and then the Industrial Revolution increased greatly what man could do physically. The computer is at present changing our society. The computer is extending our mental capacities beyond ourselves as the Industrial Revolution extended our phyical capacities. It is enabling us to answer questions and make correlations that were previously impossible. Machines are revolutionizing the whole diagnostic process in medicine in the large centers. It is not unreasonable to suspect that in a few years some difficult diagnostic problems will be solved in seconds by physicians aided by computers. Will this create a kind of cold, impersonal type of medical practice, or can we use such things to our advantage that we may have a closer, more meaningful, less rushed relationship with some of our patients? We are always looking back to the good old days of doctor-patient relationship, perhaps we should look ahead.

Perhaps both as Christians and Physicians we spend too much time looking back instead of ahead. Let me quote from the Presidential address to the Illinois State Medical Society:3

The amenities of professional intercourse, and the obligations of medical men toward each other and the public, were perhaps better observed in 1850 than now. Then the Doctor, next to the Minister, was the trusted friend and counsellor of every family to whom he ministered. He shared the joys, soothed their sorrows, and every passing year added to and cemented the attachment and affection between them. Now the doctor is regarded more in the light of a tradesman or mechanic, and is employed from the same consideration that a grocer, tailor or shoemaker is. The strong ties of gratitude and affection have almost ceased to exist. Relationship is now placed upon a mere commercial basis, and for this the profession is more to blame than the public!

The speaker was Dr. Robert Boal; the shocker to the modem physician is that this speech was delivered in 1882.

To go back ever further in our beloved physician-patient relationship, we note that Chaucer in his "Canterbury Tales" accuses physicians of loving money, splitting fees with pharmacists and failing to read the Bible. That is, he accused us of being mercenary, dishonest and narrowly trained technicians. Physicians have lost some of their unique status. We represent an ever-decreasing percentage of those holding University degrees. In Canada in 1926 for every M.D. granted there were only 6.5 Bachelor degrees granted.4 In 1962 for every M.D. granted there were 26.2 Bachelor degrees. In the U.S.A., comparable figures in 1926 were I to 24.5; and in 1962 1 to 72. (Statisticians should note that this also proves that Bachelor degrees are more easily obtained in the U.S.A. than in Canada.)

The increase in degree holders increases the number of persons who can challenge the ancient authorities of minister, teacher, and doctor, as well as challenging the businessman, engineer and even the scientist (the last blasphemy in a secular society).4

DuWors notes the marked mobility of the present North American society and that mobility undermines orthodox authorities. The result is that the physician faces a secular society (mobile, educated, suspicious of authority and pragmatic) that knows his irritable colon is not being treated the same way by you that it was in Winnipeg or Minneapolis.

The secular man knows from the daily paper that psychiatrists in Court cannot even agree whether a man is insane or not. And yet you suggest he spend $20.00 an hour to see one of the "headshrinkers" about his problems? He knows we differ in public about cholesterol, anticoagulants, L.S.D. and the pill. We have books by physicians saying that "Calories Don't Count" and that "mental illness is a myth". Law suits, well publicized, suggest to the secular man that there is such a thing as medical incompetence. It is little wonder that the public is ambivalent about its "Doctor-Father figures".

Even our degrees, licenses and diplomas on our office walls are a reflection of our being part of a mobile, highly organized society. These are to make the mobile patient comfortable with the thought that we are technologically competent. The immobile town society did not need such "accreditation".

It is important for us to realize that a training in science, biology, chemistry, anatomy, pathology, is not necessarily a training in scientific attitudes. This is a problem we may share with the non-Christian secular man. if We put more emphasis on what we know than what we don't know, or in what we know rather than how we get to know it, then our scientific attitude is deficient. I think this is true of many secular physicians who tend to regard science as a body of facts rather than a process. Said another way, science is a methodology or attitude, rather than a body of truth. Then it follows that the truth of science is tentative and changing. Here we can concur with the relativity and probabilistic approach to truth of our secular friends.

Behind the scientific "facts" is faith, faith in the scientific method and in the uniformity of nature, But it is dangerous to be dogmatic, some of the assumed uniformities have been dropped already. We must be clear that the assumption of the secular man that all truth can be reached by the scientific method is just that, an assumption, and is a narrow, intolerant one at that.

Almost as dangerous and more subtle an approach to truth is the position of accepting other approaches apart from the scientific, but to make scientific findings too central. They become so central that for example Christian revelation becomes peripheral and controlled by science. This view is apparent in Cox's "The Secular City".

Harvey Cox is concerned with communicating to the secular man. We too must be concerned with communicating Jesus Christ to secular man. To do this we must be clear on what it is we wish to communicate and we must know something about our Mission Field. That is we must know the attitudes and assumptions of the secular man around us. For this reason I think it is worthwhile to review the presuppositions of Harvey Cox as demonstrated in "The Secular City". While we are inclined to think of him as a secular "theologian", I think his presuppositions tell us clearly the presuppositions of the secular "man". He qualifies as a truly secular man by his own definition, namely that he has been "delivered from religious and metaphysical views" as a good secular man should. However, he has not been delivered from presuppositions. Some presuppositions apparent in "The Secular City" are:

1. Man Has Come of Age.

This carries the connotation of maturity. It means man no longer needs mythical props such as God. It means he realizes this world is more important than any relationship with God, the Creator and sustainer of the Universe. Man is described as God, with knowledge of good and evil-the race is mature and needs no guideposts.

But what if he's wrong? What if the race has not come of age, and if it hasn't, maybe God knew this in His divine foreknowledge and gave us guideposts, even some absolutes?

Does the assumption that man has come of age stand the pragmatic test? If man has come of age, he must have been a mess in his adolescence, let alone when he was being toilet trained. Are wars, concentration camps, organized crime, segregation, cheating on campus, crooked politics, signs of man's maturity? As a psychiatrist I am not too impressed with my maturity, let alone yours. Do mature people spend more money for alcohol and tobacco and color T.V. than for the world's starving millions? We as a people do! The writer of 1st John 3:17, seems closer to the concept of maturity when he says: "But if any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" Our generation is so mature that it has buried God and resurrected Batman! In spite of Cox's insistence that man has come of age, he too documents man's immaturity and need for authority and absolutes as he seeks these sources of security by carefully reading "Playboy" to see what is currently in vogue. He brilliantly documents this new form of legalism.

2. Man and Christianity Can Be Understood by an Exclusively Sociological Approach.

His approach to man and Christianity is not a holistic approach. He assumes therefore that the Church is just a sociological phenomenon and nothing more, an assumption that runs contrary to Biblical Christianity. The Church is influenced by its cultural environment, and in some places at some times seems to be captive of its culture. But the Church is always more than just a cultural phenomenon that evolved as men sought to find God. The Church should and must be at odds with its culture. When it is, it will be criticized. However, when it is not, it is derided as a mere upholder of the status quo. We must therefore choose carefully those things with which we will concur and those things with which we will be at odds. Mark Van Doren is reported to have said in a class at Columbia University,5 "Jesus was far different from the ministers of today who try to be one of the crowd and take a drink at a cocktail party to prove it, or tell an off-color joke," Van Doren paused and added, "Maybe that's why we hate them so much". So secular man is watching and drawing conclusions. So the Beatles were not the first to say that, "Jesus Christ was okay but his followers are a bit square".

Cox assumes that religion is only a sociological phenomenon, and to be religious is to be active in society, so logically he states, "The starting point for any theology of the Church today must be a theology of social change".6 Hence it follows that Christ is a sociological saviour, not a personal saviour. The "good news" is not that Christ came to reconcile man to God. The "good news" was Jesus came to announce the arrival of a "new regime".7

The purpose of Cox's Church is to reconcile man to man, "The Church has no purpose other than to make known to the world what God has done and is doing in history to break down the hostilities between peoples and to RECONCILE MEN TO EACH OTHER."8 The same theme is reiterated in the context of how we speak of God in a secular fashion.9 He says, "Jesus Christ comes to his people not primarily through ecclesiastical traditions but through social change."10 I feel he would be quite content to say not through a personal relationship but through social change also. This is an impersonal salvation, impersonal like Harvey Cox's own sociological orientation and "The Secular City" itself.

To be interested in the individual does not imply that we must be disinterested in the larger society. We as physicians work primarily with the individual but are deeply committed to and indebted to the area and principles of public health. A primary concern of the individual does not deny the importance of social action whether in the context of Christian social action or context of preventive medicine.

Cox's emphasis on changing society without changing individuals has hazards apparent clearly in one area of social change with which Harvey Cox has identified himself. This is the problem of equality for the negro. Bringing social change without personal change shows us that the negro like his white brothers has not come of age. Rather what we are seeing is non-violence evolving to "Black Power" to we knownot-what. The gospel of racial equality is an important Christian message, but how different things might be if the leaders of the social change had been even equally as busy getting across the concept that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that the reconciled man loves his neighbour as himself and therefore is active in society.

Perhaps historic Christianity is reaping something of what it has sown in emphasizing personal conversion while turning a blind eye to the negro and his problems. Cannot pragmatic man see that social change such as making the poor rich, the slave free, the segregated integrated, the ignorant educated does not really solve man's problems? A pig is still a pig even when transplanted from a pigpen to a castle.

3. He Presupposes That Man's Problem is Man.

That is to say, he underestimates the forces involved in man's struggles, on the one hand the Triune God and on the other hand the power of evil. For the Bible writers, "principalities and powers" refer to Satanic influences. He says, "we must get behind this pre-scientific language." Interestingly he is very much aware of the problem of evil in the world. He sees it as clearly as any of us. It is only the Biblical explanation of the evil we all see that he rejects. Here his preference is for current psychological theories (probably transient) over Biblical Revelation. So be speaks of evil originating in the individual and equates this with the Freudian concept of the Id or the Collective Unconscious of Carl Jung. But these are really just words. Cox would call it "naming" things. This is not an explanatory concept. There are many people who reject either the concept of the Id or the Collective

Unconscious, or both. No one has ever seen an Id or a Collective Unconscious. They are as undemonstrable to modern, secular, skeptical man, apart from faith, as is Satan.

So there is no Satan, but there is an Id for Cox. Does it matter how or what we name this evil? Is this just a semantic problem?

Yes it matters because it effects our whole approach. He believes that man has the power and responsibility to rule over his Id, that is to he mature and come of age. If man's only problem is his Id, Cox might be right. But if Satan exists the power for evil is greater than just man's immaturity. Paul believed in Satan as the source of evil and tells us that our choice is to be a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness." If Paul is right, Harvey Cox is dead wrong about man being able to rule over evil in his life by himself.

He also underestimates God's power. Christ can come only in social change and the power of the Holy Spirit is not mentioned, nor is the Holy Spirit necessary if man's only problem is one of immaturity. In short, his God is too small. The Father has become "the ground of our being", the Son "the man for others", while the Holy Spirit is totally eclipsed.

4. He Asssumes There Is No Closed Metaphysical World View Possible.

He says there can never again be any "closed system" approach to reality, yet his own system is so closed that God cannot reach the individual until social change occurs.12 Instead of saying "God is Dead" he says, "Metaphysics is Dead". This is a mild form of the same thing, like being "a little bit pregnant." This assumption is shaky and explains less than traditional Christian theism. It can be accepted only if Cox knows so much about the Universe that he is in the position to make such an absolute statement and also only if the Biblical view of the Universe is totally in error.

Traditional Christian theism sees God as Creator and Sustainer. His relationship with man is influenced by his love so that be has been seeking man's redemption throughout history. In this world view, exploitation of personality is as taboo as in Cox's humanistic world view. We must face that modem, secular man is NOT interested in a world view that is concerned only with his life after he leaves the present world. But, neither is Jesus Christ interested in such a view. Interest in a man's soul does not decrease but heighten concern for his social and economic problems.

5. He Presupposes That All Values and Standards Are Relative.

This is of course a very absolute statement for one who believes that all things are relative. However, it is in keeping with his presupposition that Christianity itself is an evolved social institution. He believes that all value systems, "are the products of human decision, so they can be altered."13 Not only is there no ethical certainty, but he goes further and says, "it is idolatrous to think your values are ultimate". This combination of pragmatism and relativism is true if we are products of chance evolution as Nietzsche pointed out. These views are essentially a rehash of John Dewey's views expressed earlier this century.

But if Jesus is God, if he said, "If you love me, keep my commandments", then everything is not relative. We are back to the basic question Jesus asked Peter, "But who do you say that I am?" If we answer with Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God", then we are faced with some absolutes. We must then search for the absolutes and for the principles that will guide us in contextual or situational problems for which there are not absolutes. Conservative Christianity must guard against making relatives into absolutes. On the other hand, Harvey Cox has made the "absolutes" all "relative". Situation ethics without any guidelines opens up many interesting possibilities. The story is told of the man being asked what he would do if he found a million dollars and his reply was, "I'm basically honest, if a poor man lost it, I'd return it".

6. He Assumes People Are Not Asking Religious Questions.

I believe they are but it is up to us to let them know that their questions do have religious significance. In fact Cox himself pointed out the religious significance of the Miss America pageant, which presents a Goddess for the American people and of Playboy the deity of the insecure, secular young man. He rightly points out that we sometimes miss the "religious significance of cultural phenomena outside the formal religious system itself." The significance of this is illustrated by the concerns of our popular magazines. Time recently described the "Life Extension Society" with its Newsletter, "freeze-wait-reanimate, the Frozen Way to Immortality."14 Here we learn that people are buying nitrogen capsules at $4,000 with maintenance costs of $150 per year. Time reports a modem, secular lady said, "with bad luck, I'll stay simply dead. With good luck, I may live again. It's worth trying."

Do we Christians have anything to say to people so obviously concerned with immortality? Isn't this an open invitation to be pointed to the message of John 17, verse 3, "And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent."

But what does Time say the modem, sociologically-oriented theologian says? Well John Maquarrie, Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York is quoted in Time as explaining philosophical errors of those buying nitrogen capsules, apparently they had listened too much to Plato. Then Time says, "what concerns Macquarrie are the moral problems that reanimation poses, such as the overpopulation of the world." One gets the feeling that it has been a long time since Macquarrie has been at the bedside of a dying patient. I have never seen a dying individual who was unduly concerned about the over-population of the world, but I have seen them concerned about immortality. Aren't some modem theologians missing the question?

In the same issue of Time, there was an article on "The Necropolis". It describes how Hubert Eaton became a millionaire in Glendale, California with his famous "Forest Lawn Memorial Park" dedicated to burying the dead while denying the fact of death. This man was able to make a million dollars largely because of people's concern about dying. Ironically the article appeared in Time because the man who had spent his life making death less real was dead. A psychiatrist recently characterized an estimated 10% of students in large Universities using Marijuana as "in a fruitless search for 'inner truth' and 'inner peace'; students who share the common denominator of being dissatisfied, bored, curious and in desperate need of finding something 'different' to experience". He pointed out that the next step for the intellectual student is to go on L.S.D. as an escape while the less-intellectuaI escapes into heroin.16 Aren't these people asking questions about meaning, value and purpose? Is this not a search for spiritual meaning? I think young people are disillusioned about the reality they see round about them and in many ways are rebelling against society as hypocrisy. Sometimes this is expressed aggressively or more passively as in beatnik-withdrawal. I think many of these young people are not finding answers to their questions about genuine meaning.

Somehow we must communicate Christianity to the secular world around us. As much as I learned and benefited by Harvey Cox I do not think be is communicating Christianity to the secular world that he understands so well. He does not call secular man to repentance and faith in Christ, but calls them to use social and political action to change the institutions of society. Cox himself points out that modem preaching is often powerless because it does not confront people specifically with a challenge, that the summons is issued in general rather than specific terms. There seems to be an excessive concern about what modem man 11 can believe" or "can swallow". Martin Thornton stated it concisely thus, 15

Like William Temple, and unlike the modem pastoral apologist, I am not asking how much Jones will swallow; I am Jones asking what there is to eat. I am deaf to the parrot cry that the Church can survive only by coming to terms with the modem world because, with Harry Blamires, I am extremely doubtful about the survival of the modern world, while remaining certain that the Mystical Body of Christ is the one thing that can never be destroyed.


1. "The Secular City"-Cox, Harvey, The MacMillan Co., N.Y. 1965.
2. "The Gospel According to Peanuts", Robert L. Short. P. 29. John Knox Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1964.
3. "The Canadian Medical Association Journal" , April 30, 1966, p. 955.
4. "New Patients, New Doctors?"-Richard E. DuWors, C.M.A.J. p. 958, April 30, 1966.
5. "Christianity Today", Aug. 19, 1966, Editorial, p. 13.
6. Op. cit-p. 105.
7. Op. cit-127.
8. Op. cit.-p. 227.
9. Op. cit.-p. 256. 
10. Op. cit.-p. 148. 
11. Romans, Chapter 6. 
12. Op. cit.-p. 120 & 121. 
13. Op. cit.-p. 184.
14. Time Magazine-Sept. 30, 1966, p. 83.
15. "The Rock and the River", Martin Thornton, Hodder and Staughton. (Quoted in "The Christian and Christianity Today" Aug. 26, 1966.)
16. Newsletter-Frank W. Horner Ltd., Montreal. Vol. 3, No. 20, Oct. 17/66. Dr. Edward R. Bloomquist, Associate Clinical Professor, University of Southern California School of Medicine.