Science in Christian Perspective
A Personal Integration of Scientific and Biblical Perspectives Part 5
Pseudo-Science and Pseudo-Theology:
(13) Scientific Theology
RICHARD H. BUBE
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford, California 94305
Over the last few centuries science has developed into the major "religious" worldview in many parts of the world. This worldview based on empirical knowledge has been perceived by both non-scientists and scientists alike to be inadequate for the full description of human life. Modem disenchantment with traditional science as an ultimate worldview leads to increasing emphasis on alternative worldviews; in which elements of science and religion are blended, which appear to offer new dimensions of personal influence and freedom. Such an emphasis might be interpreted optimistically since it opens the way for scientists to consider more favorably the contributions of religion, and for a scientifically-oriented culture to reach beyond the empirical to a context suitable for the whole person. The nature of these alternative worldviews, however, is often such that they are simultaneously more appealing to the scientific mindset than conventional religion, and at the same time are equally as inimical to biblical religion as were the former views of scientism. They offer a subtle blend of science with pseudo-science, and of religion with pseudo-religion, with a sophistication that may mislead the unwary into believing that a major breakthrough beyond empirical science and historical Christianity is about to be achieved.
Two examples of such alternatives, namely that of "scientific theology" and that of "cosmic consciousness," display common characteristics which reveal them to be not breakthroughs at all, but rather modern versions of ancient worldviews that are more compatible with monistic pantheism than with biblical Christianity. It is the purpose of this installment and the next to sketch the outlines of these two alternatives in an attempt to describe the subtle shading of the authentic and the counterfeit that characterizes them.
It is essential for Christians, and particularly Christian men and women of science, to understand these alternative worldviews as thoroughly as possible that they are able to serve as ides, both to scientists who for the first time are considering religion, and Christians who for the first time are considering scientific inputs to their theology. The consensus that may become generally accepted, namely that finally a harmony has been achieved between science and religion, is likely to be held only at the expense o the integrity of both authentic science and authentic Christian theology.
Futurology is an uncertain art and its practitioners disagree widely on suitable scenarios for the future lif of human beings on earth. A particularly useful reference point, however, is a book by Robert L. Heilbrone An Inquiry into the Human Prospect,1 which paints pessimistic picture of future earthly life. The special utility of this book is that a symposium on its contents was held by the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science in October 1974, with results published in Zygon magazine.2 This issue of Zygon is a good reference, therefore, both to the nature of the disenchantment with traditional empirical science and to the efforts to respond to this unhappy prospect of the
This continuing series of articles is based an courses given in the Undergraduate Special Seminar Program at Stanford University, at Fuller Theological Seminary, and at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. Part 1, "Science Isn't Everything" appeared in March ( 1976), p. 33-37. Part. 2, "Science Isn't Nothing" appeared in June (1976), p. 82-87. Part 3, "The Philosophy and Practice of Science" appeared in September (1976), p. 127-132. Part 4, "Pseudo-Science and Pseudo-Theology. (A) Cult and Occult" appeared in March (1977), p. 22-28.
The ultimate breakdown of present society, according to Heilbroner, finds its roots in a number of well-defined phenomena. (1) There is a growing universal sense that human beings have lost control over our major problems, and that instead of being the masters of our technological development, we are the victims of a technological explosion. (2) The quality of life seems to be constantly decreasing in such a way that life today already shows marked deterioration from a generation or two ago, and every indication is that this trend will continue. (3) Materialistic affluence has proven unable to provide the needs of the whole human being, with the consequence that there is a general spiritual sickness.3 (4) The population problem, hopelessly aggravated by successes in modem medicine and 'agriculture, will lead inevitably either to unprecedented strife or to strict authoritarian control, either to worldwide violence instigated by the poor against the rich or to worldwide violence instigated by the rich to hold back the poor, which only rigid authoritarianism can hold in check. (5) The depletion of the earth's resources must lead sooner or later to a limiting of industrial expansion, which has been until now the very hallmark of our success. (6) If depletion of resources does not limit expansion, then the absolutely rigid limit on thermal energy utilization will, if we are not to melt the polar icecaps and invite flood disaster along every coastline in a manner difficult to even imagine.
Given these and related conditions, Heilbroner sees the only possible consequence of free, intelligent human action as the choice of authoritarian government, a modest lifestyle, and some sense of corporate community consciousness. That human beings might exhibit the social creativity to accept needed limitations voluntarily is judged to be well beyond the reasonable options to be hoped for. Commenting on this perspective, Gilkey says,
Heilbroner's analysis, whether he knows or likes it or not, comes pretty close here to the orthodox theological interpretation of man's situation, if not of ultimate reality. . . . Unintentionally, he has provided an empirical documentation of the symbol of a freedom in self-destructive bondage, of the taint of original sin.4
Survival in the future will demand a total overturning of all the values that have been held as axiomatic since the Enlightenment.
Once again, therefore, as before critical reflection and
science appeared prominently in history, will myth,
ritual, and spiritual techniques become dominant (and
probably an authoritarian clergy to enforce them) over
scientific hypothesis, laboratory process, innovative
techniques, and the freedom to question and to invent.5
In his chapter, Gilkey offers no "new theology" that
"Scientific theology" displays characteristics that reveal it to be no breakthrough at all, but rather a modern version of an ancient worldview more compatible with monistic pantheism than with biblical Christianity.
In a subsequent chapter in this issue of Zygon, Victor Ferkiss adds another biblical perspective on the human prospect when he asks whether we have any right to believe that the collapse of Western society must be contrary to the will of God. While working for a better world in spite of overwhelming odds here and now, ignorance about the future state of the world in a hundred years really makes little difference to the Christian.
If we are Christians we not only have to believe in Providence and exercise the virtue of hope but must expect that the fruits of hope may be something other than we expect. . . . What distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian may be a willingness to accept even Heilbroner's most gloomy view of the future as something which may be God's will and therefore something which we will also.9
It does not need to be argued at length that the general dimensions of Heilbroner's pessimistic picture of the future are settling into the context of our culture that shapes human thought subconsciously. There is thus a direct challenge to the pre-eminence of science and the scientific approach to life, a threat that survival may demand the overturning of those values that have exalted empirical knowledge, and a demand for ultimate rather than purely pragmatic religious views. Several of the authors in this issue of Zygon accept the basic thrust of Heilbroner's analysis, including Gilke and Ferkiss, cited above. Dunn, however, rejects HeY bronees analysis, choosing to place his hope upon mankind modelling "his social adaptive processes on a better scientific understanding of evolutionary processes and of mankind's emerging human nature."10 Burhoe joins with Dunn and sets forth his development of a "scientific theology" as a reply to Heilbroner.11
It is Burhoe's purpose to achieve a synthesis of science and religion and thereby to demonstrate that the prominence of religion in the future is not incompatible with the rationality of science or of basic freedom. He seeks to do this by developing a scientific theology with little resemblance to biblical theology.
The primary point of this paper is to show that now there seem to be dawning in the recent pictures of man and his relation to the "ultimate reality" as portrayed by the sciences a clarification and substantiation of the basic insights of the great religions, but with much more concrete detail and evidence. It is this synthesis to which I give the name "scientific theology."
Thus, scientific theology is an eclectic system, a universal and natural religion, based presumably upon the major insights available to us through modern science, essentially the insights derived from an interpretation of human evolution. The potentialities of historic Christianity are dismissed summarily with the naive acceptance that historic Christianity and a God-of-the-Gaps are essential correlatives.
The mainstream of Christian theology . . . bad to sep arate its realm of spiritual and moral values from the scientific world view and thus remove itself to a "God of the gaps" position in which it has been withering as the scientific world view proceeds to fill the gaps.13
Uppermost in Burhoe's mind is the conviction that scientifically minded moderns cannot accept or relate to the traditional categories of biblical thought.
I shall seek to address myself to the elaboration of a scientific picture of religion that will be convincing to the scientific and skeptical minds who have not yet been provided with much scientific evidence for its virtues and potential.... to show how religion may be reformulated and revalidated in the light of the sciences as salvatory for the present human predicament.14
Religion is a part of human nature with both biological and cultural significance; as biological evolution proceeds via genetic evolution, cultural evolution proceeds with religion as the prime transmitter of values. Cultural evolution transcends the individual human and focusses instead on the "sociocultural system;" information is stored in the genotype for biological evolution, in the "culture-type" for cultural evolution. Even if this model in which religion is the agent in cultural evolution, were to be accepted, Burhoe sees four main problems which scientific theology must address: (1) the effectiveness of religious beliefs for scientifically oriented people, (2) the authoritarian context in which religion is normally set, (3) the question as to whether religion can be sufficiently motivating to lead men to Plan for the future even if this means voluntary denial in the present, and (4) if a religion meeting all these requirements were to be found, would this not then be the consequence of this-worldly human efforts rather than of a "Lord of History" implied by traditional religions? The answers of scientific theology to these four questions reveal a good deal of its content and methodology.The Effectiveness of Religious Beliefs
Religious beliefs are the product of an evolutionary
development, leading from primitive ritual, to primitive beliefs or myths, to theology,
and finally to scientific theology. We are at the breakthrough between
and scientific theology at the present day. C
theology is seen as "a high step toward converting pprimmitive or 'mythical' explanations of religious ritual irft
the sophisticated, rational, scholastic, or theological
'myths' of Greek pbilosopby."15 Although old religious
systems have wisdom in them, this wisdom cannot be
utilized in a new social context until the symbols of
this wisdom in the old cognitive scheme are translated
into appropriate symbols in the new cognitive scheme.
Today the failure of the symbols of Christian theology
University students and cultural leaders in the bulk of the countries of the world find little in their traditional religious beliefs that grips their hearts . . . something grander and more effective than the emergence of Christian theology is called for.16
"Scientific theology" perpetuates another ancient fallacy: that knowledge inevitably leads to wisdom, and that wisdom leads to salvation.
Scientific theology is the answer to this need.
the religious reformation now . . . will be a theological adaptation of traditional religious beliefs and rituals to the modern sciences. The new religious and theological language will be as high above that of five centuries ago as contemporary cosmology is above the Ptolemaic, as contemporary medicine, agriculture, communications and transportation concepts are above those of the fifteenth century.17
I prophesy human salvation through a reformation and revitalization of religion at a level superior to any reformation in earlier histories.18
This new religion rests upon the revelation of modem science, the insights of which will be incorporated in old belief systems to revitalize them and provide a scientific basis for moral and religious problems.
With such glowing descriptions, we are expectant to learn examples of this revitalization process. One of the first and most central of these is this; the old symbol "God" is to be identified with the new symbol, "nature." Such a revolutionary development makes it possible to say that scientists investigating nature are actually doing theology. (It is also, of course, the central theme of monistic pantheism, and the position of ancient idolatry as old as the human race.)
Prior stages of religion need not disappear in the new age of scientific theology, for this major step ahead is only for those who function in the outer cortex of brain and scientific culture.""' Apparently, then, scientific theology is only for the scientifically elite. Is not the setting up of a sophisticated inner teaching while the common person is kept happy with traditional interpretations as old as ancient Egypt?The Meaning of Human Freedom
The second problem that Burhoe faces is that of the meaning of human freedom within the kind of authoritarian framework typical of a religious perspective. Here, in keeping with his symbolism transformation described above, in which "the ultimate reality system called 'nature,' 'the natural system,' or 'the way things are' in the sciences" corresponds to that which in Christian theology is "called God or the Kingdom of God,"20 the biblical paradox of God's sovereignty vs human responsibility is translated into Nature's sovereignty vs. human responsibility. If science presents to us the picture of "an omnipotent and sovereign environment,"21 how then can we meaningfully maintain human freedom?
Within the limitations of his impoverished model, Burhoe responds to this question in a quite positive and useful way, exactly the same way, it might be added, that the problem has been treated in terms of biblical theology by Christian theologians.
In the scientific picture of man, both his freedom and his responsibility are determined or given him by his environment. Responsibility means that man has a goal or value which he wants or must attain. One meaning of freedom is that man is free to, or has the capacity to, pursue and accomplish that goal . . . A second meaning at freedom is, when man has not yet found the way or power to maintain himself in a new environment, he is forced into an open and at least partially random search for it.22
The relationship between freedom and the determining effects of the environment are brought out: man's freedom to act in the world is realized only by recognizing the constraints of nature in such a way that the foundation for freedom is laid by the determining characteristics of reality. In language much like that which I have used for the same purpose,23 Burhoe writes,
he can never violate the ultimate laws and facts of the cosmos. Man does not and cannot repeal the law of gravity when he flies. . . . If a self-centered vanity leads us to suppose we are independent of the larger realities of our environment and we choose to violate them, we are lost and disappear just as a waterfall disappears if there is no stream bed and no supply of water.24
Submission to what the ultimate reality system requires is, indeed our greatest freedom.25
"Scientific theology": nature is God, the natural system is the Kingdom of God, the supernatural is anything not covered by common sense, science is truth, evil means non-viable, and salvation is man' s quest for survival.
Burhoe's third problem for scientific theology is whether or not man can be motivated to sacrifice his present advantages in order to provide for future ones. Once again his positive response is based to a considerable extent upon the appropriation of the biblical approach within his own truncated model of religion:
traditional religious myth and theology as well as modern scientific theology provide essentially the same answer, which is: Man has, can, and must gladly deny present satisfactions, even to the point of risking his life, to provide for the welfare of future generations far beyond his great grandchildren.27
This answer on the part of biblical theology, however, derives its entire motivating power from the work of God in the lives of individual men and women; it is only because God has acted in history and in Jesus Christ to reclaim human beings through divine forgiveness that sinful men and women can be "born again" and receive a newly motivated spirit through the newly re-established bond of fellowship unity with God in Christ. How does scientific theology provide this kind of motivating power?Burhoe's response is biological and evolutionary:
He recognizes that "animals are genetically programmed naturally to like to go about this necessary business,
oblivious of what good they are doing,"29 but he does
not hesitate to extrapolate this to human beings who
are not so genetically programmed, if indeed the claim
made for animals is as broad as Burhoe implies. It is the
input of scientific theology that will make the difference for human beings; when living in the "kingdom of
God" is successfully translated into living in the "perspective of true reality" rather than in the "limited
and hence false views of common sense," such sel-fsacrifice will also become possible for man. What is this
input? Essentially it is the realization that man's true
self has no ultimate relationship to his body.
I can be altruistic and still respect myself sufficiently ... by noting that looking out for "number one" becomes altruism when number one is reconceived in the dimensions of the larger self, sometimes called soul, which is more than the body and which extends in time and space to embrace a larger part of the domain of the reality that is "my" life system-a domain that includes my nongenetic "brothers" in society.30
This may not go all the way to an embracing of monism, but it is certainly a fundamental step upon which to build in that direction. By understanding "true reality", man, according to Burhoe, is transformed.At the level of those who 'dwell in the kingdom of God,' of those whose vision of the self is thus transformed, altruistic service becomes a responsibility to the self that comes naturally.31
The fourth and final problem raised for scientific theology by Burhoe is how such an approach can still claim to have a relationship to the 'Lord of History' of traditional religions. His reply is that in our present scientific day, there should be no problem in translating the unacceptable terms of biblical theology into the acceptable terms of scientific culture without losing their essential meaning. Thus the term "supernatural" can be seen to be synonymous with "reality or nature at higher levels of abstraction than ordinary sense perceptions" as already "penetrated by the conceptual system of physics." In other words, Burhoe would call nuclear physics supernatural. When applications of applied physics in electronics and medicine are viewed as "miraculous," then there is no difficulty in associating such phenomena with the "supernatural." And since science has already become synonymous with "truth," there should be no difficulty in linking "scientific and religious truth." It is evident that if such philosophical reductionism is permitted, then there is no problem, for the biblical terms never did have content beyond that conveyable through the sciences. As Burhoe's early dismissal of historical Christianity was based on his assumption that such a view must opt for a God-of-the-gaps, so his dismissal of extrascientific meaning is based on his assumption that scientific knowledge has shown that there is no such meaning to .1 supernatural." Both conclusions are philosopbically naive and indicate a distorted notion of just what science can and does show about the world. 32
Burhoe does effectively criticize the present forms of humanistic religion "in which man is perceived to be himself, alone, master of his fate and determiner of his destiny, whose every private wish can be fulfilled by a technological fix-which this century's history is teaching us is a kind of fool's freedom and paradise."33 It is true, then, that Burhoe's scientific theology, in its recognition of an independent ultimate reality, is closer to biblical theology than such humanistic religious forms. Such corrective influence over humanistic religion, however, should not be interpreted as meaning that scientific theology provides the answer. Instead it constructs its own reductionistic and idolatrous edifice, which again misleads man.
Burhoe's view of the "Lord of History" appears to
be amazingly earth-bound. He characterizes as a "solidly based 'theology,' one where man's meaning will
again be found grounded in a credible reality that is
transcendent to man," the identification of "the Lord
of History' with ,the real nature of the
It is not surprising that other tradationals theological categories also come in for radical Burhoe's scientific theology.
Evil is the name for what man' consciousness presents to him as an existing or potential pattern of the life system ... that has or will become destructive of with whatever it is that is good. As a first approximation, good is usually identified with what is conducive to life and evil with death.34
man is never separate from God. In the scientific picture, man is a creature of nature, a phenomenon of dynamic flow completely dependent upon the boundary conditions set up by an ecosystem's evolution over billions of years of the natural dynamics of the earth.35
The particular imagery or formulation-such as the resurrection of the body, transition of a soul to another realm or world, or transmigration of soul to another body-is not important except for purposes of coherence and credibility within a particular culture.36
In due course all wicked and evil (nonviable) ways will be selected out of the picture of the omnipotent God (nature's requirements for viability or being).37
It is no surprise that here there is no mention at all of Jesus Christ. There is also no mention of-love or prayer. The symbol "God" has become the impersonal forces of the universe, and Jesus must have been wrong when he used the symbol of 'lather" to refer to God. There is no moral rebellion, no personal fellowship with God, no Body of Christ. Relief to present ecological failures of man is sought in a pantheistic emphasis.
Too much emphasis on and pride in the human aspects of God, incarnate in man, and too little regard for man's continuing need to adapt to, or reverence, the ultimate reqirements of the total reality system are what is bringing Christendom and Western civilization to their knees.38
Finally salvation and eternal life must also be reinterpreted in scientific theology.
Salvation is in the end man's continuing search and discovery of the next steps in the unending staircase of the "preferred configurations" in the "hidden strata of stability," one above another . . . in our universe (which) the evolutionary process climbs ... one by one.... The evolutionary process of billions of years of discovering (by chance or design), internalizing (remembering), and acting out (expressing) this truth of nature's design for life is salvation or eternal life in God's kingdom.39
The individual man is submerged in mankind as a species; salvation and eternal life are not applicable to individuals who live here and now, but only to the total human race.
What hope does scientific theology provide that mankind will indeed learn and respond?
It is my view that the omnipotent processes of the cosmos will continue and that men will be brought to their senses, will reform their ways and adapt themselves to the requirements for life and ever more advanced life to which the Lord of History on earth has destined them.40
At his best, what Burhoe has done is to take biblical truths, reduce them to a natural level, and then choose such scientific descriptions as seem suitable to him. He may be enumerating scientific descriptions of the ways in which men describe the activity of God in the world; he is not producing a scientific theology. Without the foundation of biblical theology, he would have
The God who calls, empowers, forgives, acts is no longer there; only the impersonal silence of the total ecosystem remains.
nothing to reinterpret. By supposing that the scientific
description is the only possible description, that it
excludes other parallel descriptions, and that it removes
the significance of the transcendent personal God of
the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Burhoe commits the usual error of reductionists.
When it is assumed that a fundamental conflict exists between modem scientific understanding and the doctrine of the biblical record, there are two ways to respond. In the first, it is supposed that the scientific understanding takes precedence and that the task is to reinterpret the essence of the Biblical doctrine under the categories of modem science.41 This is the choice made by "scientific theology." In the second, it is supposed that the difficulty lies with the traditionally limited approach and categories of science; the solution is to reinterpret science in such a way that operungs are left for a wide variety of phenomena not describable by traditional science. This is the choice made by variations on "cosmic consciousness" that are described in the next installment. There is of course a third response, in which the conflict between science and biblical teaching is seen to be apparent, and not actual; the resolution in this case is to view scientific descriptions and theological descriptions as different kinds of descriptions of the same one reality. This is the choice that I would make and have discussed at some length elsewhere.42
We may summarize "scientific theology" as follows. It is based on the presuppositions (independent subjectively chosen faith assumptions) that the modem scientific mind cannot accept truth in the form of the biblical categories, that religious beliefs are wholly human products, that in the final analysis it is knowledge and understanding that save, that adherence to the traditional biblical position inevitably leads to a defense of a God-of-the-Gaps, and that individual life will not be preserved as individual life beyond this world. In view of these presuppositions, the attempt to reinterpret biblical categories into scientific ones results in an eclectic universalistic religion in which nature is God, the natural system is the Kingdom of God, the supernatural is anything not covered by common sense, science is truth, evil means non-viable, and salvation is man's quest for survival. By maintaining a category of sovereign nature within which man must live, thus an understanding of freedom' that is not as far from the mark as other contemporary views such as .cosmic consciousness", such a "scientific theology" does manage to preserve a small portion of the biblical teaching. But mi giving away everything else and essentially converting biblical religion into a variation of monistic pantheism, "scientific theology" falls far short of its goal. Finally, optimism in the future must rest on the frail hope that increasing knowledge will lead men to do what they must to save themselves. The God who calls, empowers, forgives, loves and acts is no longer there; only the impersonal silence of the total ecosystem remains.