Science in Christian Perspective

         2  Figures absent


Communication: The Leaven that Holds the Church and the Scientific Community Together
W. Jim Neidhardt 

Physics Department 
New Jersey Institute of Technology 
323 High Street Newark, New Jersey 07102

From: JASA 32 (June1980): 126-128

The theme of communication has always been a central tenet of Christian theology. The communication of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in the Christian Trinity before the universe was formed. The properly functioning church, as Figure I portrays, is held together by communication linkages. As you harmoniously communicate with God and He communicates His purposes to you, you are able to harmoniously communicate with your Family and other church members thereby establishing a working fellowship and a unity of purpose. Note that for a true unity and fellowship to develop in the church, all must maintain an ongoing dialogue with our creator-God. Remember also that even when we are not making the effort to communicate with God, God in His love, is always seeking us out for His loving purposes, even though we may not be aware of His communicating acts. Lastly, each person thinks and communicates through his or bet own matrix of personal commitments concerning the nature of reality; all communication between individuals and God is filtered through these matrices. These individual faith matrices are in turn embedded in the matrix of presuppositions of the general culture (The Metasystem of culture).

This model of the church and its relationship to God is seen to be strikingly analogous to the scientific community in its exploratory relationship to physical reality, as Figure 2 indicates. Figure 2 views scientific exploration as continual communication of scientists between themselves and reality. Michael Polanyi1 sees science as a model of a free society engaged in a collective exploration. Communication between scientists is essential so that each may know what progress others have made and accordingly may build upon and extend the work of others. Scientific understanding thereby expands due to such collective, freely communicating efforts. Each scientist chooses what particular research path to follow but by constant communication they all are aware of each other's work; thus communication between them has enabled each to utilize the insights of others and avoid unnecessary duplication. Furthermore constant communication with physical reality is the only means by which insight can be gained as to its true law-structure as contrasted to a priori speculations concerning it. To describe such behavior Polanyi uses the analogy of a group of people attempting to solve a jigsaw puzzle in a free, collective effort. Each participant is aware of what the others have done in fitting pieces together and he or she moves accordingly. Note that there is a key presupposition that all the participants tacitly hold: The jigsaw pieces really fit together so form a coherent picture. From this model Polanyi draws an important implication. Attempts to extensively

Figure1. The Church in Ongoing Communication with Triune God.

plan scientific activity will hinder rather than help scientific progress.

As Polanyi has shown, this communication model of the scientific enterprise can be extended to answer a key question often asked of the scientific community:

"How can we confidently speak of science as a systematic body of knowledge and assume that the degree of reliability and intrinsic interest of each of its branches can be judged by the same standards of scientific merit? Can we possibly be assured that the new contributions will be accepted in all areas by the same standards of plausibility and be rewarded by the same standards of accuracy and originality and interest'?"2

Figure 2. Scientific Exploration as Continual Communication of Scientists between Themselves and Reality.

The fact that contributions in science can be evaluated by the scientific community as a whole. even comparing the values of topics of marginal interest in such diverse fields as astronomy or biology, is due to a principle of mutual control in which fields of scientific specialties form chains of overlapping neighborhoods. By the principle of mutual control one means that scientists keep watch on each other's work.

"Each scientist is both subject to criticism by all other scientists and encouraged by their appreciation of him. This is how the scientific opinion is formed which enforces scientific standards and regulates the distribution of professional opportunities. It is clear that only fellow scientists working in closely related fields are competent to exercise direct authority over one another; but their personal fields will form chains of overlapping neighborhoods extending over the entire range of science. It is enough, of course, that the standards of plausibility and worthwhileness be equal at every single point at which the sciences overlap to keep them equal over all. Even those in the most widely separated branches of science will then rely on one another's results and support one another against any laymen seriously challenging their authority. Such mutual control produces a mediated consensus among scientists even when they cannot understand more than a vague outline of one another's subjects."3

Figure 3 depicts the spectrum of scientific disciplines envisioned by Polanyi. The chains of overlapping neighborhoods are formed by communication linkages between scientists in the different disciplines as the diagram indicates. All such communication linkages work through the faith-matrices of the respective individual scientists in the differing disciplines. These faith-matrices in turn are embedded in a wider matrix of general presuppositions of the metasystem of general culture. Indeed the whole structure of scientific authority as we have envisioned it would collapse if separated from such basic societial trusts as:

(a) Truth can be obtained by free discussion and free inquiry. "This manner of settling disputes and establishing consensus is a heritage common to our general democratic institutions."4
(b) Human beings have the capacity to discover truth; we can recognize and share a rational and universal standard.

A striking analogy exists between the structure of the church with its relationship to its object of study and worship the Triune God, and the structure of the scientific community with its relationship to its object of study all physical reality. Indeed both community structures reflect that which is at the very heart of the nature of the Triune God, for communicative acts are central to the relationship between the three Persons of the one Godhead. At the core of the structure of both communities is the concept of communication, both to and from the respective realities under investigation or worship and communication between members of the respective communities. Of course to study the nature of God requires communication methods and types of questioning very different from those used in the study of physical reality.

When we study inert nature we pose our questions in such a way as to manipulate and deform physical reality so that hidden features are revealed and new phenomena observed. When we study the objects of attention in the human sciences we are faced with a much more open dialogue where we often find our own motives are probed by their questions and it is only when openness prevails on both sides of the encounter that real understanding 

through communication results. And when we as church members encounter God, it is He that always initiates a true dialogue probing the very core of our rebellious nature as He sweeps away any attempt on our part to manipulate Him, also by His very nature as love refusing to manipulate us in any way but always seeking an open and truthful dialogue from which we may understand the clarity of His ultimate love toward all His creation that He continually sustains in being. To best communicate with God, we should open our hearts and minds and first listen to His revealing Word rather than attempting to question manipulatively as when dealing with inert nature.

Lastly note that communication with physical reality or the Triune God presupposes that she reality we encounter is ultimately rational in its nature and, secondly, that we as humans possess means of communication (either experimental and theoretical techniques of questioning or intelligible human languages) that are also rational in their nature.

The second main idea of the analogy is that for understanding of the Triune God or physical reality to take place communication is essential between members of the respective communities. With respect to the church, the Christian community, Jesus and Paul both pointed out many times that only when a person is in loving communication with his or her fellow believers will God accept a person's worship and petitions and reveal Himself to that particular person. To put it in another way, if a person cannot experience loving communications with his or her neighbors he or she is not capable of experiencing communication with God whose very nature is love. Communication experiences with imperfect human love prepare a person to experience communication with perfect divine love. Similarly with respect to the scientific community, if a scientist isolates himself from the rest of the scientific community he has become isolated from many creative sources of rational understanding; even if the particular scientist is a genius, this isolation will eventually deprive him of the insights and techniques necessary to successfully probe a physical reality that it ultimately rational in structure but whose rationality is at an inner level not immediately perceived from the phenomena observed in direct experience. Thus, both in theology and the other sciences communication as open dialogue among the respective communities members is essential to even the most gifted person if he or she is to gain true understanding.

It is instructive to carry this analogy further by comparing the manner in which the spectrum of scientific disciplines explore all facets of a many-sided reality to the manner in which the spectrum of denominations of the church attempt to achieve greater understanding of the nature of God and His redemptive acts toward His creation. The scientific community makes progress and upholds universal standards by maintaining constant communication with physical reality and between scientists of the spectrum of neighboring disciplines. As physical reality is manyfaceted it requires the insights and techniques of many differing points of view (the different scientific disciplines) to gain understanding of reality as a whole. In this there is a fundamental unity to all science though it is composed of many different subdivisions, Such principles as conservation of energy and the inevitable increase of disorder in isolated systems play a vital role in many different scientific specialties. The scientific subdivisions maintain progress toward greater understanding by preserving open communications between themselves; often a new development or technique in one field is found to be very useful to workers in other fields (sometimes quite different). Only by maintaining communication linkages between fields is this type of useful information flow established.

With respect to the denominations that compose one true Church: a diversity of viewpoints that are continually exploring and worshipping the many different aspects of God can be quite helpful in acquiring greater true understanding. Differing denominations have grasped differing aspects of the nature of the one God; the resulting theologies can ideally complement one another in attempting to describe the inexhaustible depths of God's nature. But a core of truth can be maintained and one-sided distorted theologies avoided only if the denominations actively attempt to understand, test, and utilize the insights of the other denominations. Accordingly communication linkages must be actively maintained between members of the spectrum of neighboring denominations for theological progress to be made. (This is analogous to what is done by the scientific community in communicating across the spectrum of scientific disciplines.) In my opinion, the church as a whole lags far behind the scientific community in maintaining communication ties between neighboring communities (denominations), thereby hindering the growth of theological understanding. By better establishing and maintaining such communication ties greater understanding and true unity of fundamental issues could be obtained in the one true Church. Note that in establishing such communication linkages the individual denominations are in no way committed to yielding their own distinctive understandings or agreeing with every thing that another denomination believes; rather the denominations together will seek to find and preserve the central core of Christian belief as C. S. Lewis so forcefully accomplished in his own work.


1Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1951, pp. 3438.
2Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1975, p. 191.
3M. Polanyi and H. Prosch, ibid., pp. 191-192.
4Richard Gelwick, The Way of Discovery, Oxford University Press, New York, 1977, pp. 4546.