Science in Christian Perspective



Toward an Applied Anthropology of Beliefs 
The Need

R. Clyde McCone
1901 Snowden Avenue
Long Beach, California 90815

From: JASA 32 (December1980): 247-249.

We are defining belief as a reality or cognitive judgment. As such, beliefs constitute knowledge in the broadest sense: that the earth revolves on its axis and orbits the sun, that the sun is a creator god, that God created the sun and the earth, that the earth and the sun developed from a dust cloud are all beliefs. The diversity of the bases of the acceptance of these beliefs suggests a useful analysis that is relevant to a number of problem areas in anthropology.

Raymond Firth held that the naturalistic truth claims of his beliefs as a scientist were superior to those of the supernatural beliefs of the primitive cultures which he studied; yet he had to act as if he believed them in order to obtain information. At the same time the anthropological doctrine of cultural relativity does not permit us in western culture to apply our reality and value judgments to the beliefs of other cultures. Is Firth then as an anthropologist above culture, or is he ethnocentric?

Some anthropologists find it difficult to differentiate among belief systems of the supernatural. Leslie White, followed by G. G. Simpson, the biologist, distinguished Christianity from the spiritual beliefs of the primitives as the higher and the lower superstitions. Simpson claimed that since his faith in the unknown ruled out the supernatural and the spiritual, his beliefs were therefore not superstitions. He held that evolution is an enormous stride from superstition to a rational universe. White's own commitment to a philosophy of materialism and naturalism constituted for him a superior cultural world view that was the goal toward which the determinant process of evolution was leading mankind. Obviously there is some conflict between the beliefs of cultural relativism and those of cultural evolution in anthropology.

Not always aware of these cultural problems among themselves, anthropologists often point with professional disapproval at the missionaries who take the message of divine revelation to primitive peoples who already have their own spiritual and supernatural beliefs. Does the missionary ethnocentrically judge his beliefs to be good and those of the peoples of New Guinea to be bad? But, is

the anthropologist also ethnocentric when he judges all beliefs in therein." For each individual believer God's Word alone is the the supernatural to be superstitions in contrast to his own that are authority rational and true?

Briefly we outline a distinction in the objects of belief and make an analysis of the bases of belief that will remove us, at least one step, from the conflicts regarding the contents of belief. In so doing, we may be able to think more objectively rather than emotionally taking up cudgels of attack or defense.

If all beliefs are included within culture, then no critical approach is possible; we are all locked in to our own respective groups. Then science is not possible; anthropology is not possible; there are no absolute absolutes; the claims of Christianity are limited to the minds of its adherents. But, it can be rationally, and I think empirically, demonstrated that all beliefs are not cultural.

In both science and in revelation the objects of belief lie outside of culture.. Science assumes a nature out there that exists apart from man's observation of it and knowledge about it. Divine revelation gives to us a God who created man and who is in no wise dependent upon human belief in him.

Since the Bible reveals to the mind of man the Spirit who is creator of the heavens and the earth, and since science proceeds by observation through the senses and by organization through the mind of man of the existing material order which is the heavens and the earth, there is no necessary conflict between the content of their respective belief systems. Yet, conflict does exist between some who claim intellectual and/or scientific superiority and some who claim the authority of God for their beliefs.

The Analytical Plan

First, an important distinction must be made between the kind of beliefs and knowledge that come from divine revelation and the kind that comes from science and other intellectual disciplines. The beliefs of all these disciplines are knowledge about things. Revelation results in the knowledge of One who knows me. In our complex modern civilization there has been a tremendous advance in the amount and extent of knowledge about things. Those things may be of the heavens as in astronomy, of the physical world as in physics and chemistry, of life as in various branches of biology, of man as in history, anthropology, and the social sciences, of God as in theology, and of knowledge itself as in philosophy. The depth and extent of learning in each of these areas, and even in subfields and subfields of subfields, requires concentrated specialization that is reached only by scholars. To the general lay public these scholars become authorities in their respective fields.

In sharp contrast are the beliefs based on revelation. "God has spoken to us in these last days by his Son whom he has appointed heir of all things and by whom he made the worlds." He has not chosen to speak by ecclesiastical specialists such as priests, nor by intellectual specialists such as scholar theologians. What he has said does not call first for interpretation, but for obedience. And the obedience of the believer is the essence of its interpretation to the world. This does not negate the sovereignly chosen positions in the body of Christ which includes teaching pastors having gifts of wisdom and knowledge. But they are no more the head than any of the other members of the body. Christ alone is the head, he by whom God has spoken.

Christ said to the school of scholarly Sadducees, "Do ye not therefore err, because you know not the Scriptures neither the power of God?" But Isaiah said that the highway of holiness should be for those "wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein." For each individual believer God's word alone is the authority:

I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a god and they shall be to me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbor and every man his brother saying know the Lord for all shall know me from the least to the greatest.

A current controversy among Christians centers around beliefs about inerrancy and inspiration and is therefore theological. In the realm of revelation the issue is not interpretation but obedience. Jesus said, "He who hears these sayings of mine and does them." On numbers of occasions he said, "He that has ears to hear let him hear." In the book of Revelation it says, "Blessed is he that reads, and they that hear the words of this prophecy and keep (observe or obey) those things that are written therein." For the purposes of this essay it is important to distinguish revelation from theology.

Application to Problems in Christian Beliefs

In a number of ways the cultural bases of belief may produce unresolvable issues regarding divine revelation and science. Western man's concern with history and the future has called for prophetic theologies that treat the Bible as a divine crystal ball in which it becomes history prewritten. Conflicting beliefs about the future take the forms of premillenialism, postmillenialism, and amillenialism, also in a rapture that is pretribulation, midtribulation, or post-tribulation. All these belief systems are attempts to find biblical answers to questions that have cultural assumptions and motivations hidden within them. Assumptions are those beliefs that constitute models around which scientists and historians order their observations. In this case it is the assumption that Bible prophecy is a prewritten history of world sociopolitical events surrounding the second coming of Christ as an event in time. The uncritical acceptance of this assumption results in the development of cultural systems of beliefs. These beliefs then become institutionalized in the structures of religious groups. Since the second century dominance by Greek cultural influence, the history of the Christian church has been a history of conflicting beliefs: prophecy, baptism, Calvinism versus Arminianism, Pentecostalism, etc. Not only do these issues have cultural roots, the plants that grow from them are distinctly cultural. When diverse biblical (?) answers develop to culturally rooted questions, then communities of belief as schools of thought or as religious groups spring up around these scholars and/or religious leaders. Membership requires consensus around the uncritical acceptance of the developing traditions. As small groups gain acceptance and recognition in the society at large, their differences are justified as denominational distinctives which then become sacred traditions. In the cultural dynamics of this process authority moves subtly to specialists as God's representatives, ecclesiastical and/or intellectual. The authority of God diminishes as an every day personal dynamic in the individual's behavior. "Born again" becomes a shibboleth of identity with the right group. The right group then protects its membership from apostacy by lining up and signing up its constituents according to their beliefs about spiritual things. The seriousness of this situation is compounded when the revelation is taken to peoples of other cultures and with it the embedded cultural roots that have been justified and sanctified.

Application to Evolution Versus Creation Controversy

Culture controls the beliefs of science as well as those based on revelation. The scientist in studying the existing order of nature develops models that are beliefs in the form of assumptions. These he uses to order his observations and to explain behavior in nature. When those models square with the observations and predict results in laboratory tests, they are accepted as useful and scientific. However, when he makes a grand assumption about the origin of that order, he no longer has a scientific model to be used and tested in the laboratory. Instead, he has a cultural worldview. The sacred quality of the world view is evidenced when any scientific questioning requiring proof is dismissed by categorizing it in negative outgroup terms such as ignorant, fundamentalist, higher superstition, or Judeo-Christian bias. The authoritative word of tradition and specialists combine to form the basis of credibility as in G. G. Simpson's article "The World into Which Darwin Led Us." After claiming that this is a worldview, it is then propped up by the proof of Darwinian tradition: "No evolutionist has since (Darwin) seriously questioned that man did originate by evolution." The fact of evolution was not established by observation, but by a "single step that was taken a hundred years ago and is not a matter of simple rational acceptance or superstitious rejection." Consensus plays a frequent role in establishing credibility: "almost all biologists agree that the problem (the origin of life) can be attacked scientifically." Consensus is buttressed by the authority of the specialists as when "a highly distinguished international panel of experts was polled. . . . all considered the experimental production of life in the laboratory imminent." In a similar manner the humanist statement sought to culturally establish evolutionary beliefs by the consensus of a long list of signatures of specialists. The ingroup/outgroup dynamics are also very explicit when we are assured that evolution is accepted by "scientists and other reasonable persons." Statement of tradition is given in lieu of specific historical or experimental proofs: "For many years it has been established scientifically that all forms of life, including human beings, have developed by a lengthy process of evolution."

The prestige with which science is held in our modern culture has been a social pressure for almost all beliefs to seek some basis in its supports. When the revelation of the Creator is made to serve the role of an assumption in a model alternate to and competing with "evolutionary pseudo-scientific model", then along with evolution it becomes cultural in its basis. This is done by attempting to explain creation as a process in time and in dating it as an event in time. The result is a time perspective that is characteristic of all cultural world views. When this happens creationism and evolutionism become two conflicting belief systems which are distinctively cultural in character. Neither include the logico-empirical authority of science or the divine authority of revelation. These authorities are socially transformed into pseudo authorities in the service of those who would dominate the thinking and beliefs of others.

Application to Western Civilization

To conceptually distinguish between culture, science, and revelation in terms of their bases of belief does not imply that a scientist and/or Bible believer can or does live in total independence from his culture. It does, however, point to two important areas in which an individual is not necessarily imprisoned by his culture. At the same time it points to the unique cultural character of western civilization.

The fact that anthropologists for almost a century focused their attention on kinship-based societies led to a concept of culture as a system of beliefs within which socially and intellectually there are no conceivable radical alternatives. For the Dakota Indian to deny the all-powerful, impersonal Wakan or to become anti-kinship would be to commit cultural suicide-but it is culturally impossible. In contrast, the door in the cultures of western civilization is open to extreme challenge. So much so that philosophies and/or movements may arise around such beliefs as anarchism, atheism, anti-family, and nudism.

The other side of the coin of this characteristic of cultural openness is the opportunity that it presents for the acceptance of divine revelation and the development of science. Because of this distinctiveness of western culture, at least three applications of our analysis of concepts may be made.

First, in the fulness of time, with the rise of western civilization, God took on human flesh and entered the world of culture through Jesus of Nazareth. The message of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension in response to Paul's Macedonian call was taken specifically to the western world. Missionary anthropology has consistently insisted that the gospel message of divine revelation be distinguished from western culture. The conquest of the Great Commission is not to become the tool of or an aspect of the conquest of western civilization. However, missionary anthropologists seem to have given little attention to the fact that there are characteristics of western culture that make it and it alone the potential bearer or medium that can serve the goal of world evangelization.

Second, we must observe that it is only in western civilization that science has risen in its conquest of the mysteries of nature. However, science cannot establish the basis for the absolute good or even the ultimate reality. Only in revelation, the Bible, is the absolute good made known in the Creator- Redeemer God.

Third, and finally, western civilization with its openness to challenge does not have an absolute as a basis for its morality. Because of this vacuum the Christian message took over this role from the residue of polytheism that was so much in evidence as Paul observed at Athens. With the conversion of Constantine, Christian revelation was converted politically to a cultural position and as a result both the development of science and the expression of the revelation suffered. In the Renaissance and the Reformation the progress of science and of revelation has continued within western culture to our day. The potential of cultural suicide in the west has recently found expression in such movements as "the death of God ... .. the new morality," and in the turning to various forms of eastern mysticism. However, the fact still remains that in the west we are uniquely dependent upon the Judeo Christian revelation for the necessary moral foundations for social order. Nations rise and fall in terms of their people's response to the revelation of Jesus Christ. Christians need not apologize for imposing "their" moral convictions upon society. Our society has no enduring morality that does not have its roots in the Christian witness. Without the responsible participation of Christians as the salt of the earth the national result is social disorganization and moral degeneration.

The potential suicidal protest of the cultural west: "you cannot legislate morality" must be met by the Christian redemptive corollary: "morality must legislate."

Firth, Raymond, 1959 "Problem and Assumption in an Anthropological Study ofReligion" Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 89, July-Dec.

Simpson, George Gaylord, 1960 "The World Into Which Darwin Led Us" Science, Vol. 131, April.

White, L. A., 1949 The Science of Culture New York: Grove Press Inc.