Science in Christian Perspective



Christian Faith and Higher Education
Department of Geography
California State University
Northridge, California 91330

From: JASA 31 (March 1979): 33-36.


While many of us talk about evangelizing the world, the process of de-vangelization is often more evident, especially in the universities. The point scarcely needs laboring, for the instances are too numerous and too painful. Not a few who come to the campus as Christians leave with their faith blunted if not replaced by atheism or agnosticism. Why?

Much of this de-vangelization process, of course, has little to do with the university. In or out of college, young people have a habit of growing up, and as they move beyond adolescence they are bound to experience a whole range of stresses that challenge their previously-accepted beliefs. But the natural strains of this inevitable drive towards maturity and independence are intensified by university experience, particularly at the intellectual level. During early homelife the lines of influence may well have converged to favor faith, but there is no such focus, even ideally, within the secular university. The ideas and influences that pour in come in parallel rather than converging lines. Whatever may or may not be the beliefs of individual professors, there can be no weighting in favor of Judaism or Christianity, Islam or Zen Buddhism, agnosticism or atheism-for that is simply not the job of a secular university. Almost of necessity an attitude of clinical objectivity rather than of commitment is favored, the shrewd scepticism of science is contraposed to faith, and if the pros and cons of different viewpoints are spelled out they are stated (ideally) by a neutral. The results may not be intended, but all too often the exclusion of spiritual levels of interpretation seems to indicate their elimination or insignificance, and quite apart from this some confusion and unsettlement is bound to follow.

Something of this may be all to the good-after all, a major function of a true education is to open up the mind and disclose alternatives-and not all portions of the university are equally involved. There is no single process that applies to the engineering and the history student, to the biologist, geographer, psychologist and school-teacher. And there are professors and professors. Not a few have been drawn from ethnic or religious groups which feel little sympathy for Christian faith, others have renounced (not without bitterness) the "fundamentalism" that they deemed obstructive to personal or scientific growth, and some have retained or gained Christian faith. But almost certainly the Christian professor will have thought his way through to a somewhat different interpretation of the issues of faith and science than those that may prevail in both the pew and campus-Christian groups, and even a careful lecturer may inadvertently strengthen negative attitudes among his students.

As Malcolm Jeeves remarks in his Psychology and Christianity, in the typically-crowded schedule of the course "there is not enough time to qualify every statement and discuss all the evidence . . . . A student may understandably misinterpret some (to the lecturer) innocent statement and see it conflicting with what he believes as a Christian." (p. 7). And even if the lecturer does become aware of some miscomprehension he will rarely have classroom time to tease out implications that are peripheral to the course, modify the tone of a critical textbook, or point out different levels of interpretation. This lecturer, for instance, after teaching a firmly-geographical course on the "Historical Geography of the Holy Land" to a very mixed audience, received an appreciative letter to the effect that "I know a lot of people, including myself, came into this class with the expectation . . that the class would [offer] proof of Old Testament writings . . . not realizing that when speaking of the historical geography of other regions no religious implications enter our minds." Hopefully the informational rather than apologetic nature of the course (which did touch on some sticky questions) as well as the necessary limitations of its framework were generally appreciated. But how often (for instance) are such issues as "the four corners of the earth" and "Bible teachings on earth-sun relationships"-let alone Darwinism!-touched on with damaging effect in courses that sweep across the surface of the centuries? And how often have young Christians recoiled as they read, for the first time, of the grim history of religious conflicts and the intolerance that has so often been the accompaniment of strong conviction?

Furthermore, even a Christian student tends to breathe in a "worldview" from his educational atmosphere, a setting which, even when claiming neutrality, is frequently far from neutral to Christian faith. That woridview tends to he secular and scientific (if not seientistie), naturalistic and humanistic, neutral and relativistic. Of course, all those terms need to he put into "quotes" and qualified, but the point that we must stress is that in very considerable measure these not only cut across the grain of Christian conviction on campus but diffuse outwards and downwards into the broader community.

Mission to the Educated

Do Christians in general realize the strategic significance of that fact? Perhaps the rhetoric of democracy and equality blurs the importance of the fact that there are culture-creators and culture-recipients in any society, that there are people who write hooks with potent ideas and people who read honks and absorb ideas, and that concepts formulated at the culture-makers' level ultimately seep-often in distorted form-to all but the most resistant areas of society. And while the church has often felt at ease in a "downward" mission relationship with the "underprivileged" of its own or other societies, it has seldom felt at ease in an "upward" relationship with the more sophisticated levels of the educated. Today, as J. Nederhood has pointed out in 1960 in The Church's Mission to the Educated American, there is a thickening layer of society with strong educational conditioning, and "if the Church fails to enter into a mission relationship with the educated it will actually fail to touch the nerve of American life" (p. 27). With local variations of time and place, this is indeed true throughout Western Civilization at least. And Nederhood is also basically right when he affirms that the educated must be challenged by a Church which is aware of and sensitive to the points of contact and planes of division.

The Church will only he able to enter into a decisive mission relationship with the educated if it is continually conscious of educated individuals' wonder at the limpersonal] magnitude of the universe; their general acceptance of evolution; their consciousness of psychological phenomena; their uncritical, indiscriminate reading of popularized, scientific studies of religious data.

Each of these elements significantly qualifies the relation of the educated to the Christian message (p. 94).
Perhaps each of these elements calls for at least brief comment, for they impinge separately as well as together on the attitudes of quite a few. The tendency is to view whatever god may he as a "Cud of the galaxies" who is somehow much ton big to be a "personal" God, who is somehow incompatible with a Man who died on a cross at a remote place nearly 2000 years ago. In fact, a subtle undercurrent of intellectual snobbery enters in, and blends with social and political viewpoints that are prone to appeal to campus communities. The prevailing attitude, wisely or otherwisely, tends to he liberal and sometimes leftist, Marxist thought is likely to he credited with more intellectual respectability than Christianity (especially conservative Christianity), and there is a good deal of well articulated feeling that Church members are liable to be "just plain folks" who inherit a residual rural tradition, whose views are archaic and irrelevant if not downright racist and obscurantist. Christians, in short, are likely to be viewed as antiintellectual and anti-scientific.

This attitude is sharpened by the quite widespread acceptance of Evolution (with a capital E) as the ultimate explanation of the universe. A scientist may be aware that as C. K. Chesterton put it, "nobody has ever seen it happen," and of course many a scientist who is a Christian insists that the concepts of creation and evolution, properly understood, neither clash or cancel each other out. There is no intention here to debate that issue. But it is necessary to affirm that that is not how it seems to be coming through. In practice, creation and evolution often appear as mutually exclusive, biblical Christianity appears as the villain of the piece in obscurantist conflict with triumphant Darwinism, and Evolution is expanded into an all-encompassing worldview which somehow explains the whole cosmos without residue or complementary levels of explanation. All that exists is engendered by and encompassed within Nature, and Danvin is assumed to have put the Bible out of business. Furthermore, throughout all this-and especially from Galileo to Darwin-Christianity and its dogmas may well be presented as the obstacle to understanding. Add to this the recent charge that the Judaeo-Christian ethic and the command to multiply and fill the earth lies at the runt of the ecological crisis, and our students have a problem.

Side by side with this is a complex of ideas purportedly derived from such social sciences as psychology and sociology. These interpretations may not so much challenge Christian beliefs as simply appear to "explain" them-and even explain them away. For they provide data which may be viewed "objectively" at the psychological or societal levels, and that is precisely where many seem disposed to place all religions. So viewed, the crucial issues of truth of content, revelation and the validity of the New Testament documents (for instance) are simply passed over, and the student may be left with the impression that Christianity is simply a social or psychological phenomenon, that that is all there is to the story, and that any religion is as good (or as had) as any other. In addition, it may well be at least implied that such beliefs lie at the root of many a psychological problem, and that they characteristically impede the social and political progress so strongly espoused in the tradition of secular humanism.

And even if there is an increasing awareness of the value of 'values and even if courses in Comparative Religion are taken, there may still remain a complex of scientific or humanistic assumptions. So far as courses in Religious Studies are concerned, a neutral, nonproselytizing approach is a necessary pre-condition of acceptance on a secular campus, but the issues may go deeper than that. If the levelling process of relativism is carried far enough, the concept of a proselytizing missionary faith that is to "go into all the world and
make disciples of all nations" will appear positively repugnant, an arrogant assumption by one group (usually Western) that it can impose its values upon others, cut the tap-roots of indigenous cultures, and manifest a religious exelusivissn which is the opposite of the cosmopolitan "tolerance" which is so cherished in many educational circles. Exposed to these concepts, students are bound to feel tensions, for Christianity affirms without equivocation that the Old Covenant law came by revelation to one chosen people and flowed outwards-not without particularities of time and place -to other peoples in accordance with the will of a Sovereign God. This carries with it the consciousness that not all religions, not all values, not all culture complexes, not all lifestyles, can be deemed as equally legitimate options. Thus popular campus views about cultural and religious "pluralism," "equality" and "democracy" come to be contraposed to the particularity which is inherent in Christianity.

Other tensions arise from the ongoing reassessment of past events which is so characteristic of historical studies. Not unnaturally, many a young person has grown up with a somewhat simplistic view of national and religious history, a view which seldom coincides with the views of balanced scholarship, let alone the touch of contempt that may he injected by the "debunker." It is a disquieting experience to be forced into realization of the multi-sidedness of many an issue, and it is a rare student who does not become painfully (or gleefully) aware of the seamy side of even Christian history, of hitter persecutions and wars waged by more sides than one, of stubborn opposition to initially unpalatable scientific discoveries.

Add to this the fact that so many of the educated are really uneducated when it comes to a real understanding of Christianity. In part, this reflects their sheet busy-ness-for the professor who takes his research amid writing seriously is apt to be immersed in a very demanding taskbut part of it derives from the ideas about the nature of religion that they have themselves absorbed. Virtually all are conscious of the well-advertised conflict of science and religion, many view religious

"The Church will he able to enter into a decisive mission relationship with the educated only if it is conscious of their wonder at the impersonal magnitude of the universe, their acceptance of evolution, their consciousness of psychological phenomena, and their uncritical, indiscriminate reading of popularized, scientific studies of religious data."

 doctrine as simply psychological escapism at best and an obstacle to progress at worst, and if a tolerant open-mindedness is the essential virtue, "dogma" is hound to appear as the villain of the piece. "Any stigma" of course, "will do to beat a dogma," and carefully formulated Christian doctrine, hammered out in response to historical challenge and miscomprchension, is all too apt to be confused with pigheaded personal opinion. Furthermore, many fail to check their sources: it is not uncommon to hear the assertion that Genesis affirms creation in 4004 B.C. And, as Nederhood points out, a good deal of miscomprehension is reinforced by the readingpatterns of the educated, the tendency to rely on the type of articles that find their way into print in semi-popular journals rather than less popular but penetrating analyses that might provoke second thoughts. But how many of us find time for that, anyway? And do some popular Christian viewpoints that verge perilously close to pseudo-science and pseudoeschatology really help? Darwin, Freud and leftish economic theory are more likely to carry weight.

The Church and Social Action

In particular, they may be deemed more relevant to the "over-riding issues of the day," issues on which many of the campuses, rightly or wrongly, find the churches to be wanting. The natural tendency of youth to espouse liberal causes is oft-times accentuated by university life, and churches (along with many another institution) are liable to he judged accordingly. There is a good deal of genuine feeling that "the Church," if indeed it has any human usefulness let alone divine mandate, should he taking the lead in protest against racial and social inequality and discrimination, segregation, injustice and war. Efforts to point sip the past role of Christians in such matters as the fight against slavery tend to provoke the retort "then why aren't you doing more now?

It may well be (as this writer would maintain), that idealism divorced from a sobering sense of the engrained sinfulness of man can he dangerously simplistic, and that there are serious and legitimate doubts as to the extent to which churches as churches should he drawn into the sociopolitical maelstrom.

It may well be, as \'igeveno remarks in The Listener (p. 29) that tile main business of the church is, after all, life and death, God and man, time and eternity'not "this game of activism" which has not only been played by others "far longer than the Christians" but which threatens to drain the churches of their spiritual vitality and distinctiveness.

It may well be, as the testimonies of C. B. M. Joad and Malcolm Muggeridge suggest, that the fading of earthly expectations is an almost necessary prelude to the gaining of spiritual depth. And certain it is that there is a strong conservative strain in the affirmation that we hold a faith which was "once delivered to the saints" and are sustained by absolute truths and standards that are rooted in the nature of God rather than the changing standards of society. But it is only just to point out that these are difficult thoughts for ardent activists who compare the seemingly sluggish churches with the activism allegedly so typical of the secular humanist, and that not a few have been jarred loose from faith by the presumption that the churches should be more than competing.

How Are We to Respond?

And how are we to counter all this? I wish I knew. All too often the bright young student struggling with difficult issues seems unable to find a helpful peer group in church or on campus. All too often the supposed threat of scientific findings and hypotheses seems to be countered by a pseudo-science which is propounded with the best of intentions and the worst of results. All too often the church pastor or even campus minister seems to be faced with a painful dilemma. address the concerned and thoughtful few and risk the loss of the faithful (and giving) many, or satisfy the average layman and leave the studious and scientifically-minded dissatisfied.

The dilemma, of course, is not quite fairly stated, but it has its point. Some suggestions can be made. Firstly, the Bible is a unifying force, and a deepening awareness of the Person it presents is doubly unifying. All levels of understanding, all interest-groups within a church, can draw together with the common purpose of understanding and applying the message of the Scriptures.

Secondly, an apologetic dimension can-indeed must -be incorporated in a total Christian approach. And please remember that apologetics is not essentially negative and defensive. Bernard Bamm, (The God Who Makes a Difference, pp. 62-63), directing his attention to the churches' heavy loss of maturing youth, rightly points out that this is not caused so much by the sceptical views presented by some particular professor or textbook or even "the general anti-Christian and antireligious mood that pervades both the business and the academic world" so much as the fact that the student "received in church only bits of Christianity here and there . . . His faith resembles a patchwork quilt." But this cannot compete with the "synoptic vision" which he now formulates: he "has not so much lost his faith as he has found a new functional, operational sensible synoptic vision which he did not forge while in church. The importance of synoptic vision is then of immense pastoral concern as well as apologetic concern." Of course this is not the business of one man alone. The apologetic dimension can he introduced and deepened by a wide range of incisive and thoughtful Christian literature.

Nor is the thought-world of the skeptical necessarily cohesive or invulnerable. As often as not it involves an uneasy alliance of scientism and humanism. On the one hand there is the assumption that everything is an accidental by-product of impersonal nature, that all is explicable by "science," and that all may well perish as the sun grows cold. And on the other hand there is the humanist groping for values that science alone can never yield, a faith in the validity of human reason, the thought that individuals and people somehow have rights, the affirmation that at least humanist causes "ought" to be supported ...Small wonder that the confident rationalistic scientism of former times is now paralleled by an irrationalistie countercurrent. And it is up to us to challenge this complex of unbelief with a consistent Christian faith.


Jeeves, Malcolm: Psychology and Christianity, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1976.
Nederhood, J. H,: The Church's Mission to the Educated American, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1960.
Ramm, Bernard L.; The God Who Makes a Difference, Word Books, Waco, Texas, 1972.
Vigeveno, H. S.; The Listener, Regal Books, GIL Publications, Glendale, California, 1971.