Science in Christian Perspective
A New Look at Liberal-Conservative Tensions
The Struggle of the Christian Immersed in a Scientific Culture
DAVID J. LUDWIG
Department of Psychology
Hickory, North Carolina
From: JASA 29 (March 1977): 8-13.
This article takes a look at the struggle Christianity faces with the
of our culture into a scientific, naturalistic way of thinking and perceiving.
Special emphasis is given to the liberal-conservative tensions so
much in evidence
in all denominations with the suggestion that this conflict is the wrong battle
for the Christian to fight.
What is going on? Within the last decades, something has happened to
Its authority and the certainty of its message is called into question by the
profound changes that have taken place within our culture. Both the church and
our culture are in the midst of a struggle to reevaluate what is important in
life. Basic to the struggle is the overwhelming effect a scientific
way of thinking
has had on the minds and lives of all of us!
It began a long time ago, but its main effects are relatively recent. The scientific method has provided natural explanation for events that were previously seen as God's hand at work among us. This gradual erosion of our faith leaves us all with a sense of anxiety. How can we see God in our daily lives when there is a natural explanation for everything? It is difficult to relate to a God who has been pushed into a corner called our "spiritual lives" and is given an hour or two on Sunday in our busy schedule! The anxiety we all have in our personal faith prompts us to look for those who are responsible for shaking our faith. Thus there is a natural tendency to blame "liberal influences" or "conservative blindness" for the problems of our faith instead of realizing the crisis we all face as we try to retain a living Christianity in our highly scientific age!
As far hack as the 17th century, Western man started turning his attention to the physical world for explanations of the mysteries of the universe. The "Copernican" revolution wiped away many previous beliefs about our world and its relation to other planets. Bacteria were seen for the first time, making it easier to conceive of sickness in physical terms. The human body was subjected to minute scrutiny and the resulting discoveries changed man's view of himself.
Gradually most of the questions that required "supernatural answers were given "natural" explanations. One by one, the movements of planets, the coming of spring, thunder, rain, and earthquakes were taken out of the realm of the supernatural. Mother nature moved in where God and his angels had reigned before.
With the discoveries of bacteria, the nervous system of the body, movement of blood through the body, and the complex chemical changes that take place within the body, sickness and even death gained a more "natural" character. Instead of witchcraft, it became the virus; instead of voodoo, it became a heart attack. Cancerous tumors replaced visitation by the Spirit of Death. The passing of a curse from generation to generation gave way to genetics and the DNA molecule. Sickness no longer called for a magic potion or exorcism, but for an operation removing diseased tissue or a drug that would kill the virus.
Now, in 1977, the "natural way" of looking at our world is deeply ingrained in our daily lives. We thank vitamins for our health; we praise new forms of fertilizer and weed control chemicals for our good crops; we shake our heads knowingly when it rains because our TV has just shown us that a low pressure center has moved in. Natural explanation is so much a part of our thinking that our Christian faith-a faith rooted in the hope of God's Acts among us-is implicitly
There is a natural tendency to blame "liberal influences" or "conservative blindness" for the problems of our faith instead of realizing the crisis we all face as we try to retain a living Christianity in our highly scientific age.
called into question. The anxiety is the same for all
of us-conservative, moderate, or liberal alike. Even though methods of dealing
with expressing this anxiety is different, it is important to realize that the
root problem is the same for all of us-the struggle to witness a supernatural
faith to a natural world!
Even though it is hazardous to use these labels, for the sake of becoming very pointed, I will try to show the special struggle of both liberal and conservative thinking to express the Christian faith while remaining immersed in scientific perception and thought.
The Liberal Is Sensitive To Our Modem Culture
The more "liberal" thinker has usually had to confront our modern culture (e.g., the professor, large city pastor, campus pastor, or missionary) in situations that demand understanding of the thinking and ways of our age. Demons, angels, heaven and hell are concepts that do not readily fit into the life of a business man or a college student. Today's college student, for example, can find meaning in the human struggles of the psalmist and of Christ Himself (e.g., Jesus Christ, Superstar), but finds it hard to identify with the miraculous events of Scripture or to the traditional lofty characteristics of Biblical stories and characters.
The liberal approaches Holy Scripture with an honest attempt to emphasize the humanity of God's people, thus making easier the application of His Word to our modern situation. The Christian message is thus communicated in terms of helping the struggles a person faces in his life. The Gospel can be presented as giving a person an "0. K." feeling about himself which can affect his present life relationships.
In the effort to make God's Word "come alive" to our "natural" age, however, there is the tendency to de-emphasize the supernatural elements of Scripture so that its message will fit better with the climate of our time. Demon possession is translated into a more "natural" term, mental illness. Jonah's miraculous 3-day stay in the belly of the whale is better seen as an allegory in which God expresses the truth of His control of our lives. Thus in the effort to communicate God's Word to our scientific culture, the liberal stands in danger of explaining away the supernatural elements of Scripture-to take away the mystery of the Bible to fit its message into the 20th Century world view.
The Conservative is Sensitive to our Tradition
The more "conservative" thinker faces the constant need to re-affirm faith shaken by the questioning of the modem age. Sensing the anxiety of persons who are puzzled and upset with the changes within the church, the "conservative" stresses the comforting message that God's Word does not change. In the face of the naturalism in our culture, there is a necessary and deliberate focus on the truth of God's miraculous acts as recorded in scripture.
The conservative approaches Holy Scripture in an honest attempt to affirm the supernatural elements of God's Word. Such a person rejects "natural" explanations of the miracles recorded in the Bible and affirms the historicity of such "unnatural" events as the parting of the Red Sea and Jonah's life in the whale.
But in the necessary struggle to defend the factual character of miraculous events recorded in the Bible, there is the temptation to divorce God's Word from our 20th century life. The conservative also lives in a scientific world and constantly relies on "natural" explanation for the events of his daily life. With this comes the danger of seeing miracles as something that happened only in the Bible times, making the events of Scripture somewhat "unreal" to our age. Too often this makes it necessary to separate one's life into two schizophrenic parts-the spiritual (Sunday Morning) and the secular (the rest of the week).
We can believe that Christ's resurrection from the dead was a factual, historical event, but then find it difficult to see Him rise again, daily, in our own lives. Such a faith is in danger of becoming a lifeless doctrine with its expression limited to carefully worded documents and Sunday morning rituals.
We are constantly faced with opposing viewpoints in our life, and we often must make decisions in the face of contradictory opinions. How does one decide what car or tractor to buy? Years ago, before we became so immersed in scientific thought, "common sense" answers were passed on by parents.
But now there is a different basis for common sense. How does one decide which hybrid is best? Common sense now tells us to examine the "facts". Scientifically controlled tests by "experts" provide the data that a certain hybrid will produce a 15% greater yield per acre. These are convincing data! TV ads play on this aspect of our "common sense" every day. How can we decide which toothpaste to use? The advertisement proclaims: "Laboratory tests show that Crest reduces tooth decay 37%." These are objective data, and we are convinced by these "facts". The scientific method with its formulation of hypotheses and performing controlled experiments is so much a part of us that we do not think twice as we "look at the facts" to determine what is true.
The scientific method is a part of our decision-making as we all, liberals, moderates, and conservatives alike are caught up in "looking at the facts" to determine what is true. Here again I will become more pointed by referring to the struggle the "liberal" and "conservative" face as both utilize unwittingly the scientific method in their search for the truth of the the Bible.
The Liberal Struggles To Understand Biblical Culture
The historical-critical method of approaching the Bible is based on the scientific method of hypothesis testing via data collection. Using this method is a valid way to better understand the meaning of God's Message to the Israelites and other people of Biblical times. Certainly their culture is different from our own. Also, the Hebrew and Greek words and phrases can become much richer in their meaning by looking at theft Sitz im Leben. To develop and test hypotheses about the cultural setting of the events recorded in the Bible is important for the on-going study of the Word of God.
The danger to the Christian lies in the scientific assumption that one can arrive at truth through this method-that one can uncover the real historical truth by getting the "facts" straight. In the struggle to get at the historical "kernel" of the event, God's message to us can get lost. Truth is defined by the validity of the evidence gathered to support the historical reality of an event recorded in Holy Scriptures. Estimates of probability, rather than the Holy Spirit, convince one of the "truth" of the events of the Bible.
The Conservative Struggles To Affirm The Truth Of Scriptures
With the pressures of this age to question all authority, the conservative struggles to keep the Bible from coming under such attack. To affirm that the Holy Scriptures are God's Word and not to be treated lightly is essential for our faith. It is very important to constantly cheek our beliefs against the teachings of God's Word.
The method of establishing a doctrine of the Bible by putting together a series of "proof texts" is also highly influenced by the scientific method of data collection. To see God's Word as page after page of "facts" to be used as data to hack up some venerable teaching of the church-as in the stance against ordination of women-is quite similar to a chemical engineer gathering evidence to back up the claims of his product!
The temptation of this approach to Holy Scripture is to make faith equivalent to carefully reasoned and documented statements. Again the Holy Spirit is not needed! It is important to affirm that Holy Scripture is the authority for our faith and life, but the source of our faith is not God's Word! The Word is a means of grace. The source is the Holy Spirit who works faith in our hearts through the Word and Sacraments.
WE ALL STRUGGLE TO BE OBJECTIVE
Perhaps the most dangerous and diabolical effect a scientifically conditioned mind-set has in undermining our faith is its effect on our values. This effect is so subtle that it is hard to see the danger. It is so pervasive that it is related to everything that touches our awareness! The mind of Western man tries to separate what is "out there" from what is "in here." One can use the term objective consciousness to describe this phenomenon, and the term can be best explained by reference to scientific thought.
In order to run an experiment the scientist must divorce his own feelings and thoughts from the conduct of the experiment. Expressions like: "Well, I feel that this product is better" or "Just trust my instinct that . . ." are taboo. The personality of the scientist or his own feelings are not important and must be carefully controlled and eliminated. What is important are the "facts" or hard data that the experiment produces. With this approach to reality we learn to value "data" and "facts", and we tend to see events as realities in and of themselves.
Our view of history in 1977, therefore, is based on our style of "objective consciousness." As with an historical probe of Watergate, events that "actually happened" are the important "data". History is reduced to re-constructing the "facts." Anything that is nonfactual (like the hopes, fears, feelings and visions of people) is judged inferior and unimportant in this view of history.
Such immersion into "objective consciousness" tends to divorce one's private feelings and personal faith from the events that happen in our lives. To go to church on Sunday (a "fact") can become more important than to have a deep trust and love for Christ (a feeling or hope). What a person writes down or what is tape recorded becomes more important than the total witness of his life and the ongoing personal statement of his faith.
Our view of the history of God's people is also affected by this objective value system. The recorded events in the Bible may be seen as important insofar as they are a record of "facts". This approach to Scripture is harmful because God's Word is reduced to objective events. Again, all of us, liberals, moderates, and conservatives, are caught up in this view of history. We all struggle to be objective.
The Liberal Responds To A Need For Good Scholarship Of The Bible
Good scholarship has contributed to our understanding of Biblical times. Its value in giving us new insight into the meaning of the Bible should not be under-estimated. The process of good scholarship, however, is also a struggle to be objective-a struggle to eliminate personal bias and pre-judgment in one's approach to a text. The Bible must be seen as a book of objective history existing apart from the scholar's personal life and experience. The Bible can then be subjected to scholarly analysis to determine the "truth" of the events recorded there and at this point ceases to be the unique "living word."
Questions of authorship and the historicity of Adam and Eve, for example, become important questions to be decided in the same manner questions about the history of Watergate are decidedly objective scholarship. The Bible is inevitably subjected to questioning. and the "reality" of its history is determined by objective analysis. The faith of the analyst becomes less important than his scholarly arguments.
The Conservative Responds To The Need To Affirm The Authority Of The Bible
The Bible is a unique hook for Christians and its authority as a revelation of God is a necessary element of our faith. Any questioning of this authority is harmful to faith. The conservative responds to modern scholarship with the necessary caution that this is a Holy book.
It is, however, at this point that the argument of the conservative is bound up in modern consciousness that values objectivity. For anything to be perfect, it must not contain errors. An error, as anyone today knows, is a discrepancy in the facts! But inerrancy is
Our struggle must be with anti-Christian forces in our thinking and our way of life and not with each other.
a new term, originating within the last century, which signals the importance
of "getting the facts straight." It is a term growing out
thought and related to our modern struggle to be objective.
In scientific experiments, an error or contradiction calls the conclusion into question-its assertions are not seen as true. For those immersed in such a scientific view, truth is equated with inerrancy! To suggest that Jesus erred in ascribing authorship is to call the truth of God's word into question! The Bible is then no longer reliable to the modern "objective" mind.
But is the truth of the Bible to be judged by our modern values? Was it more important for Jesus to "get his facts straight" or to communicate His message to the non-scientific mind of that age? To suggest that the differences in Biblical records must be denied to preserve the validity of God's word is to subject the truth of Holy Scripture to our modern, objective value system. Differences in the synoptic accounts can be seen as different ways these authors had of expressing their faith with each "contradictory" account being true.
Facts in scientific experiments are unemotional, objective entities gathered to support a rational theory. Faith in Jesus is an emotional, subjective commitment based in the work of the Spirt and cannot be validated or rejected by scientific consciousness!
SIDE EFFECT - MORAL ISSUES
Even though consideration of morality is not specifically part of the theological issues involved here, the effect of scientific values shows up there also. The basic temptation facing both liberals and conservatives is to define morality in such a way that their own actions are justified!
Liberal Morality: Danger of Rationalization
The liberal approaches moral decisions with the necessary concern for the persons involved. He recognizes that each situation is different and that to operate by the principle of love requires that one understand all of the elements of the dilemma facing the person. In short, he recognizes that moral decisions are usually not simple, black and white judgments, but require careful weighing of many considerations. One's decision must relate (be relative to) the unique characteristics of the situation.
One of the side effects of scientific thought is the constant questioning of authority in the quest for truth. In other words, just because Aristotle, Galileo or Dr. Spock said something doesn't make it true. The scientific mind will accept a statement only if it is backed up by "hard data". Such relativism shows up in all thinking and is expressed in liberal thought by suggesting that statements by Luther, Aquinas or St. Paul regarding moral actions are relative to their day. Hence, for example, the view that women should not be ordained is relative to the customs of the New Testament era. Putting women into positions of authority over men truly might have caused offense and hindered the spread of the Gospel in that day, but such a view is seen as irrelevant today.
The danger of this relative way of thinking is its ability to justify any actions or life style! Extra-marital or pre-marital sexual activity can be justified as valid expressions of warmth and intimacy which are helpful to the other person. Drinking and drug usage can be "justified" as making it possible to relate better to others. Any thought or behavior can be rationalized in this manner and all of one's actions can be justified. Sin is relative and forgiveness is not necessary.
Conservative Morality: Danger of Definition
The conservative approaches moral decisions with the recognition that the basis for our Christian life is in the witness of the Bible. Its guidelines and examples are the authority for our moral judgments. The conservative realizes how easy it is to stray from the source of our morality and constantly struggles to redefine and clarify God's will for our lives.
One of the side effects of scientific thought, however, is to suggest that there is a clear line between what is true and not true, what is real and not real, what is fact and what is fiction. The reality that exists "out there" is definable in concrete terms. The I.B.M. Corporation is either in the black or in the red.
This type of objective thinking lies behind the attempt to define morality entirely in terms of "right" and "wrong" actions. Abortion and homosexuality are judged as wrong per se. These and other issues are decided by reference to "data" (sufficient numbers of proof texts). The church's task is seen in terms of upholding the "right" definition of morality.
The danger of this approach to morality is the same as the danger of liberal thinking! Since I do not engage in homosexual behavior and have not had an abortion, I am not as sinful as those who do! I can justify my own actions by defining morality in terms of acts that I do not do. I am not brought to my knees in confession, and Christ's forgiveness loses its immediacy for me. I become good at pointing out the sins of abortionists, drug users, etc., but fail to see my lack of love and my own deteriorating relationship with Christ. Forgiveness is not necessary because I am "justified" by my own good life.
STARTING POINT: ON OUR KNEES!
Our sinful human nature prompts us to define sin in such a way that we are self-justified and prompts us to see the danger facing the church in the erroneous theology of other persons. Perhaps the danger facing the church is not "out there" in the heretical or powerhungry actions of others, but is "in here" in the powerful anti-Christ forces that exist in our own minds because we live immersed in a scientific culture. The forces are subtle and pervasive, and even more diabolical because they are part of the structure of our consciousness, hence almost impossible to see.
In the face of this possibility, power politics, heresy hunting and rebellion against authority miss the root of the problem and may only serve further the Devil's purpose of splitting us apart from Christ and from each other as His children.
The starting point is the beam in our own eye! The force that constantly succeeds in moving Christ from the center of our life is real! The Devil does all in his power to keep God's Word from affecting our livesby calling its authority into question or by reducing it to a "fact book" that exists "out there." His attempt to nullify the work of the Holy Spirit is real and constant.
From this starting point and with clear recognition of our limitations, we can approach the twofold task of the Church in her on-going study of theology. The first task falls to the conservative mind: to keep strong and pure the witness and teachings of Scripture. To keep Cod's Word from becoming watered down as each new age struggles to relate to God's message takes conservative men who are not afraid to point to the dangers of new theological formulations. The conservative realizes how easily the "stumbling block" of the Gospel can be explained away by conforming Cod's Word to the theories and scholarship of the day! The church that loses the purity of her message and fails to stand in awe of the holy, transcendent, inspired Word of Cod will wake up to find that she no longer has a unique message to spread. Christianity becomes indistinguishable from other philosophies and religions. Pray for the strength and forcefulness of the conservative mind in its task to keep God's Word unique!
But there is also a second task that is essential for the Christian Church in each age, and this task falls to the liberal mind. Especially in our age of accelerated change, the words, thoughts and customs of our culture shift at an alarming rate. A church that ignores such change will find it difficult to confront the lives of people with a statement of the Law and Gospel. The task of the liberal mind is to gain an understanding of the changing world we live in and then speak God's Word to the people living in the changed age. The liberal mind must constantly test out new ways of expressing God's Word so that it can take root and bear fruit in the lives of Christians in 1977! Pray for the strength and creativity of the liberal mind in the task of keeping God's Word alive.
The education of ministerial students sharpens the need for both conservative and liberal thought. A thorough grounding in the study of God's Word, heightened by study of Creek and Hebrew, and a serious study of the Confessions and the traditions of the Church are the contribution of the conservative mind. A strong conservative thrust in his education gives the ministerial student a foundation for his faith and doctrine, making him stand in awe before the inspired Word and the Spirit-led confessions of this Word in the history of the church.
A thorough grounding in the liberal arts, with serious study of our changing culture is the contribution of the liberal mind. This thrust in his education gives the ministerial student a foundation for relating God's Word to the people of our day.
The conservative thrust by itself runs the danger of transcendence. God's Word is put into the box of pure doctrinal formulation and its truth remains "out there" apart from the lives of His people. The liberal thrust by itself runs the danger of relativism. God's Word is re-formulated in the thought and custom of the culture with the loss of its uniqueness and "holiness."
In a sense, this tension is expressed in Christ himself. He is both true God and true man. When the church stresses too strongly the divinity of Christ, his transcendence makes it difficult for people to relate to Him. Ritual and proper doctrinal formulation become the major concerns. On the other hand, when the church stresses too strongly the humanity of Christ, its message is reduced to humanism and social activism.
The Christian Church must live in this creative tension and ever seek new expression of its witness while keeping firmly rooted in the holy Word of God. Our struggle must be with the anti-Christian forces in our thinking and our way of life and not with each other!