Science in Christian Perspective



Battelle Seattle Research Center
Seattle, Washington 98105

From: JASA 26 (March 1974): 3-6.

Some Views about the Future of Society

From an overall perspective, it is obvious that there is no general agreement on what the shape of the future will he. It is less obvious, but more important, that there is no adequate understanding of the assumptions that various groups of people make about the shape of the future.

Dr. Philip M. Hauser of the Club of Rome is quoted as saying,

Given the present outlook, only the faithful who believe in miracles from heaven, the optimistic who anticipate superpowers from science, the parochial fortunate who think they can continue to exist on islands of affluence in a sea of world poverty and the naive who anticipate nothing, can look to the future with equanimity.1

Dr. Robert Theobald, editor of Futures Conditional, says,

One group expects the future to be like the past. Another group spends its time proving that the future will be disastrous. A third group announces that a new future is automatically coining into existence and that it will be far more attractive than our existing local, national and international patterns.

His stance accepts as fully proven that, "fundamental changes in trends are required if this planet is to survive... man's power has made it possible to create a favorable world..." It also assumes that "the creation of this new world is going to require significantly more imagination and perseverence from man than he has yet shown himself to possess."2

Dr. Willis Harman, Director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy at Stanford Research Institute, having made a number of systematic and historical analyses of conditions in the United States, argues that,

Among the future alternatives to be considered is one that comprises a rapid and drastic break with trends of the recent past, characterized essentially by a change in that basic vision of manin-the-universe in which the operative values of the society have their origins.

In this view, contemporary political, military, economic, ecological, and social crises are reflections of an underlying moral and spiritual crisis of civilization, and their resolution depends on the resolution of that deeper crisis.3

The first set of views on the global level leaves one uncertain as to whether it is a complete set. If one decides it is, one is left with the question, "Where do I belong?" If one decides it is not, what view seems to be missing? The second categorization asks one to make a similar selection. Neither categorization is adequate for me although elements of both have merit. As I view the conditions of society and its future, I believe the third scenario which Willis Harman describes. As I see it, Harman's considered view speaks directly to Robert Theobald's stance that "fundamental changes in trends are required if this planet is to survive;" e.g., a most critical trend is the continually increasing gap between the "haves and have-nots," both nationally and internationally, to which Hanser alludes. Personally, it is my conviction that what Harman describes as the necessary resolution of "an underlying moral and spiritual crisis of civilization" is a theological issue, one that may even require what might be considered miracles.

My personal conviction notwithstanding, and in the absence of superpowers from science, I recognize that there are significant roles for science and technology to play in helping to cope with present and future complex societal problems. To introduce some vital concepts relevant to such research, I would like to express first some theological beliefs and how they relate to my view of "complexity". First, there are at least two relevant philosophical approaches or cosmic views of the situation. The cosmic view on which the rational-empirical approaches of science are based is one of natural cause and effect of situations in a closed system. Another view, which I hold, is one of natural cause and effect of situations in an open system with divine interventions. As Francis Schaeffer expresses it:

Putting it into twentieth-century terminology, we can say this: The universe does not display a uniformity of cause and effect in a closed system; God speaks and something changes.4

With such a cosmic view, I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the future; I remain hopeful because of my Christian faith, not because of the "superpowers of science" or "man's power ... to create a favorable world." In fact, I am concerned that man's diagnosis of his situation as he seeks to create a favorable world is inadequate. Francis Schaeffer, in speaking of the moral and spiritual crisis of civilization, expresses this mutual concern:

If man attributes a wrong cause to the dilemma and divisions of men, he will never come up with the right answer no matter how good a will he has. Man as he stands since the Fall is not normal, and consequently the solution must be appropriate to what we know to be the cause of his problems and his dilemma. A mere physical solution is inadequate, because man's dilemma is not physical Nor can it be metaphysical, because the. problem of man, as we know it in Genesis 111, is not primarily metaphysical. The problem of man is moral, for by choice he stands in rebellion against God. And any appropriate solution must fill this moral need.5

For my credo about man's condition and the future of society, I hold the views discussed in this section, recognizing a dependence upon God and the interdependence of man. In such a hopeful spirit, I can be open to the possibilities of human potential and devote my efforts to its growth. Expressed in the words of Paul Gertmenian, I believe that:

If I were forced to choose between these two views [pessimism or affirmation of possibilities] as alternative ways of looking at human potential, I would support a view which affirmed human potential . . . . But it is not necessary to choose between these two views as though they were alternative ways of looking at life. The church's teaching on original sin and the dimension of sin in all human actions is not meant to be a counterbalance to that spirit which affirms human potential. Rather, it is a realistic assessment of the human situation which prevents us from mythologizing life. In terms of human potential, it is not meant to restrict creativity and spontaneity or imagination, but to remind us that with the realization of every new human potential comes also the possibility of subverting what has been realized-to an end which rather than enhancing life, can destroy or distort it.

This kind of realism prevents us from putting our hope in illusions. For example, the notion that the young will somehow miraculously solve the problems that the older generation has failed to solve is one such illusion. Or the belief that changing structures of institutions or even abolishing institutions will solve the human problem is another. What the doctrine of original sin insists upon is that whatever the human configuration may be, there will be a need to struggle against distortions, that there is no unmixed triumph of good over evil, and that those who believe in an unmixed good are living in a world of self-deception .6

Hopefully, the above discussions have presented some comprehension of where I come from. In addition, they seek to add two factors in my cosmic view of the universe-an open system with divine interventions and a statement of man's condition-to my view of the complexity of societal problems.

Realizing well that my personal views cannot and ought not to be imposed on others, I ask what are some views that can he commonly shared? John Gardner, speaking about moral decay and renewal, suggests some:

In a pluralistic society the consensus must necessarily be at what one might call a middle level of values. Obviously it cannot deal with the surface trivialities of manners and daily customs; neither can it sound the depths. It can deal with fairly fundamental values governing man's behavior and with concepts such as freedom and justice. But those values float over stilldeeper reaches of philosophic and religious beliefs. They gain their strength from man's deepest views concerning his own nature. When we reach these depths, however, we are in the presence of matters which concern the individual so profoundly that he must not be asked to compromise them.

To force consensus in the depths of belief would be intolerable. To remain preoccupied with the whitecaps on the surface would he meaningless. So a pluralistic society wisely seeks to establish its consensus in the middle depths.

At that level, in our own case, one finds the ideals of freedom, equality of opportunity, the conception of the worth and dignity of the individual, the idea of justice, the dream of brotherhood. The fact that we are not always faithful to these shared values does not indicate confusion nor a failure of the consensus, We know the values to which we are being unfaithful. One might ask, 'What difference does it make that we agree on our values if we aren't faithful to them?' The answer is that if one is concerned about therapy, it always makes a difference what the patient is suffering from. This society is suffering not from confusion but from infidelity.7

Some Vital Concepts Relevant to Scientific Research on Complex Societal Problems

1. Problems are not problems until perceived as such by experts or populace, and perceptions change with time, The "Issue-Attention Cycle"8 of many social problems moves through five stages.
(a) Pre-problem stage-experts alarmed.
(b) Alarmed discovery and euphoric enthusiasm-public jolted.
(c) Realization of the cost of significant progress" Most pressing social problems involve either deliberate or unconscious exploitation of one group by another, or the prevention of one group from enjoying something that others want to keep for themselves . . , . The increasing recognition that a sacrifice is required in order to solve the problem constitutes a key part of the third stage."
(d) Gradual decline of intense public interest - public discouraged.
(e) The post-problem stage-prolonged limbo, new problem.

2. Major social problems that pass through the "IssueAttention Cycle" demonstrate three conditions present.8
(a) The majority of people are not suffering from the problem as much as some minority (usually less than 15% of the entire population).
(b) The sufferings caused by the problem are a result of social arrangements that provide significant benefits to a majority or a powerful minority of the population.
(c) The problem has no intrinsically exciting qualities which remain.

3.Mass media play a major role in problem perceptions and subsequent impact, frequently without depth of consideration. Potentially, mass media can be an inherent part of ameliorations of societal problems, appropriately informed and utilized.

4. Social theories abound, differing on various perceptions and value systems. Value-free applied social science research is not possible. There is a need to develop and apply the discipline of "social humanities."9

5."Solutions" to societal problems, if they ever exist, do not remain long. The processes of both research and change are important.

6. "Solutions" to societal problems are not necessarily transferable. Even at one location robust, not optimum, "solutions" are necessary to accommodate various interest groups.

7. Public participation (at least representative if not popular) is vital for real acceptance of societal problem ameliorative programs or experiments. Adequate means for public participation do not now exist; future use of Cable TV is one opportunity which needs to be addressed by the research community. (Implicit in this view is that we assume a free society.)

8. Development of methods (e.g, simulation gaming) for recognizing and minimizing conflictscognitive differences as well as ideological differencesbetween individuals and groups is worthy of scientific effort, even if complete resolution may be out of reach, Rappoport and Summers address this issue (albeit over-confidently, I believe) as follows:

Heretofore, it has been customary to attribute the generally dismal state of international relations to ineradicable defects in the character of man-his malicious greed, his thirst for power, all clearly found in the character of the Other and equally clearly disavowed by the Self. This view, which has led to one disaster after another, can be replaced by a more scientific one. Instead of the denigration of one man by another, or the endless pleading and wringing of hands, it is now possible for science to develop a technology that can remove the ambiguities of traditional discourse and clarify cognition in ways never before open to us.10

9. Capable and sensitive leadership of research teams is necessary for successful research on societal problems. A relevant insight was expressed by Keith Miller, a former industrial executive, a psychologist and theologian, as he wrote about Maslow's hierarchy of man's needs:

Any prophet who hopes to be effective in dealing with the social structures of our time has got to be aware of the personal sense of isolation ann the needs for love and esteem which motivate the people in those structures including himself.11

This insight is valid for relationships within the research teams, too.

10. Complexity is evident in all of a class of problems (e.g., societal problems, technology assessment, planning and forecasting) and is increased by the considerations presented in the initial discussion section. In order to supplement intuitive judgments with understanding from scientific research, many simplifying assumptions must be made. Even so, our abilities are limited in applying logical reasoning to complex issues, and communicating this reasoning fully to others.


As I have studied and thought about research on complex societal problems, I have realized that almost any view of the causes and solutions of societal problems can be found discussed in the literature, duly cited with references to other erudite literature. The views one accepts are dependent significantly on one's perceptions of oneself, others and society, holistically, in the light of a personal philosophy of life. In stating my personal credo above, I have elected to include selected quotations from statements made by numerous writers; this was done not to try to "prove" my credo but to illuminate it through interesting articulations of others.

Consistent with these personal beliefs, and some implied values, expressed in the above discussions, I also believe that amelioration of many societal problems can and should be aided through use of scientific approaches and knowledge and resources, and that worthwhile changes can he accomplished through people working cooperatively and openly together even though some of their fundamental beliefs and values differ, but that resolution of an underlying moral and spiritual crisis of civilization is not amenable to scientific (or educational) treatment.

The challenge before scientists, who are also committed Christians, is to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to the tasks to which we are called with intelligence and integrity. As we do so, we need to recognize the potential of scientific research for making significant and worthwhile contributions to the amelioration of some of humankind's critical problems. However, we also need to consider thoughtfully the internal consistency of the presuppositions on which our colleagues and we base our research efforts and acknowledge the limitations of science. Final resolution comes through the political proeess, hopefully with altruistic and enlightened leaders having adequate information supplied, in part, through use of scientific research methods by knowledgeable people.


1New York Times, February 18, 1971. 
2Theobald, Robert, "How Can We Plan for the Future?" Futures Conditional, Vol. 1, No. 2, February 1973, p. 1.
3 Harman, W. W., "Key Choices of the Next Two Decades," A Look at Business in 1990. U. S. Government Printing Office, November 1972, pp. 35-36.
4Schaeffer, Francis A., Genesis in Space and Time, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, November 1972, p. 95.
5lbid., p. 160.
6Gertmenian, Paul, "Education in Transition; Education and Human Potential," Synthesis, The Church and the University, University of Washington Campus Christian Ministry, Seattle, 1971.
7Gardner, John, Self-Renewal, The Individual and the Innovative Society, Harper and Row, New York, 1963, pp.
8Downs, Anthony, "Up and Down with Ecology-the 'Issue Attention Cycle'," The Public Interest, Summer 1972.
9Gastil, R. D., "Social Humanities," Policy Sciences, 4, 1973.
10Rappoport, Leon, and Summers, David A., (eds.), Human Judgment and Social Interaction, Halt, Rinehart and
Winston, Inc., New York, 1973, p. 387.
11Millcr, Keith, The Becomers, Word, Inc., Waco, Texas, 1973, p. 179.