Science in Christian Perspective
DAVID 0. MOBERG
Department of Social and Cultural Sciences
Milwaukee, W1 53233
From: PSCF 38
(September 1986): 186-194.
Paper presented at the conference "Christian Faith and Science in Society," a joint meeting of the American Scientific Affiliation, Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation and the Research Scientists' Christian Fellowship, held July 26-29,1985, at St. Catherine's College in Oxford, England.
Numerous recent developments have attracted attention to "spiritual" phenomena. Yet in the scientific study of religion it is typically neglected, although aspects of it are as amenable to research as many other subjects which are investigated in the human sciences. Growing awareness of the need for such work has led to the development of research instruments, and many relationships have been discovered between spirituality and other variables. Opportunities for further research on the subject are increasing. The biases of investigators, the danger of reductionism, the diversity of ideological orientations, and potential abuses of measurements are among the problems confronted in such work.
Most social and behavioral scientists avoid attention to the spiritual nature of humanity. Some deny that such a dimension exists, assuming the concept is merely a reification. They reduce evidence for it to the level of sociocultural factors and treat it as a dependent variable. Many who believe that it may or does exist are convinced that it cannot be studied scientifically; they feel that the spiritual is ethereal, unobservable, supernatural, and thus ineffable and supra-empirical, transcending the boundaries of scientific methods.
The growing interest in eastern and "new" religions, holistic health, the human potential movement, and numerous occult and pseudo-religious phenomena has attracted attention to various "spiritual" phenomena. The sense of alienation, lack of purpose for life, and related feelings of non-identity often experienced in modern society have stimulated a search for enduring values. These have contributed to the rise of a third group of scientists who have begun to probe the domain of the spiritual, believing that it may be as susceptible to scientific research as many other intangible concepts in their disciplines.
The Bible uses many words to characterize the human being. The Hebrew nepes, usually translated 11 soul," appears 754 times and ruah for spirit 378 times in the Old Testament, while the New Testament refers to the Greek pneuma for "spirit" 146 times and psyche for "soul" 11 times (McDonald, 1984). Concepts like .1 heart," 11 mind," inner and outer nature, natural man ' and spiritual man also relate to the human spirit. Yet there is no metaphysical dichotomy between body and spirit. "By God's inbreathing the man formed from dust became a living soul, a unified being in the interrelation of the terrestrial and the transcendental" (McDonald, 1984:677).
As among the ancient Hebrews, a wbolistic emphasis characterizes most Christian thought today. In contrast to Greek dualism separating body from spirit and its trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit, "Present theological and psychological emphasis is almost altogether upon the fundamental wholeness or unity of man's being as against all philosophical attempts to divide it" (Ward, 1984:1112). Yet analytically both distinctive and overlapping concepts of "soul" and "spirit" and their relationships to the body, mind, and God receive attention in theology (Osterhaven, 1984). Similarly, most scientific work artificially breaks down its subject matter into component parts and processes. Within the context of human wholeness, it is appropriate to analyze spirituality by scientific methodology. We already have seen considerable success in moving toward the goal of including spirituality in the human sciences.
Glock (1962) alleged his five "dimensions of religiosity" cover all manifestations prescribed by all religions of the world, but my check against biblical values revealed that a spiritual component infusing and cutting across all five dimensions is missing. The evidence of this spiritual component is circumstantial, philosophical, and theological, "although it is susceptible to scientific testing" (Moberg, 1967a:29). It rests upon the Bible, ancient traditions, the autonomous nature of people' the analogy to life in which its whole is more than the sum of its parts, the self-consciousness that transcends material matter, the other minds phenomenon, the fact that knowing a person goes far beyond knowing about that person, the probably universal (though often unconscious) desire of people to have an ultimate commitment or focus of loyalty, internal subjective experiences in decision-making, and the "proofs" of theological apologetics for belief in the existence of God. Most of the evidence is not "hard data" directly susceptible to conventional scientific tests, yet the same can be said of numerous other intangible and subjective concepts that are widely used in the human sciences-alienation, anomie, depression, catharsis, empathy, intelligence, loneliness, space, and time, to mention but a few.
The susceptibility of spirituality to scientific investigation is indicated by the fact that many religious
groups have tests for the validity of people's relation-
*My topic for the International Conference on Science and Christian Faith in Oxford, England, July 17-23, 1965, was "Science and the Spiritual Nature of Man." The other participants made me aware of numerous problems and components of the subject, and two presentations that August compelled me to summarize results of my studies (Moberg, 1967a, 1967b). Those papers still provide a foundation for systematic study of the subject, so I'll summarize a few highlights here. They indicated that everyone has biases, and this is especially true when dealing with topics related to religion. Sociology of religion inevitably gets involved in "science-religion conflicts;- problems related to human spiritual nature are nowhere more obvious than in the study of personal religiosity.
David 0. Moberg is presently Professor of Sociology at Marquette University. Prior to joining that faculty, he taught at Bethel College in St. Paul from 1949 to 1968, during which time he held Fulbright Lectureships in The Netherlands and West Germany. He has served as president of the Wisconsin Sociological Association, the Religious Research Association, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion. In addition, he has participated in numerous other professional societies, and has been a member of the American Scientific Affiliation for more than thirty years. His most recent books are the revised edition of The Church as a Social Institution (Baker, 1984) and Wholistic Christianity (Brethren Press, 1985).
Sociology of religion inevitably gets involved in "science-religion conflicts"; problems related to human spiritual nature are nowhere more obvious -than in the study of personal religiosity.
To assume that there is no God and nothing supernatural is just as much a metaphysical faith as assuming that there is... . While it is currently impossible to prove conclusively by science that man's religiosity has a spiritual component, neither can the opponents of this proposition disprove it.... the situation pertinent to science and man's spiritual nature is not a battle between "pure science" and "religious bias." Rather it
is ... a case of science plus biases versus science plus different biases. (Moberg, 1967a:32-33)
It is entirely possible that the spiritual component of religion is transcendental, so far above and beyond objective experience that it cannot be studied scientifically.... But even if this is so, the correlates and effects of the man-God relationship may be measurable and hence as proper a subject of scientific study as numerous other phenomena that can be investigated only indirectly.... Scientific scepticism and scientific humility are needed on both sides of this subject. To "explain" scientifically is not to "explain away," for the phenomena explained remain (if they were there in the first place) unless they were mere reifications, creations of men's imaginations. (Moberg, 1967b:16)
Agnostic scholars for at least two centuries have predicted that advancing modernization, scientific research, and education would gradually erode all but vestiges of traditional Christianity. Few in the mid 1960's foresaw the tremendous growth of interest in 11 spiritual" phenomena that has occurred in the 1970's and 1980's. Popular culture has often focused upon prominent gurus, Eastern religions, occult groups, introspective meditation, witchcraft, astrological horoscopes, human potential movements, holistic health groups, self-actualization, parapsychology, and "new religious movements" that emphasize a non-material spiritual domain. Yet in terms of numbers the converts to evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity far exceed those to the religious and pseudoreligious cults. At least in the U.S. and Canada, groups which have clung to the central traditions of Christian faith have been growing while those which capitulated to agnostic presuppositions of modern scholarship have tended to decline in membership strength (Kelley, 1977; cf. Hoge and Roozen, 1979).
Rising popular interest in spiritual and religious concerns was paralleled by growing attention in many professions that serve human needs. Much pastoral care in the mid-twentieth century had shifted toward increased stress upon material and psychological problems and diminished concern for explicit God-person relationships. Meanwhile, chaplaincy services were established in numerous hospitals, convalescent homes, health services, retirement communities, institutions for the mentally ill, and other locations. Clinical pastoral education programs trained thousands of clergy. As they became team members in the "helping professions," Pruyser (1976) warned them of the danger of trying to be mere mini-psycbologists or pseudopsychiatrists. He emphasized that the clergy ought instead to emphasize their unique role, that of spiritual diagnostician, drawing upon resources of Scripture and faith to make contributions no other profession can make.
In the field of health care, growing recognition of the unity of all components of the total person contributed to the development of multi-professional teams in many hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Physicians remained dominant, but nurses, rehabilitation therapists, psychologists, social workers, and clergy all worked together to establish protocols for patients' therapy. Wholistic Health Care Centers under Granger Westberg's leadership emphasized the importance of preventive as well as curative health care using services of a team including a nurse, psychologist, pastoral counselor, and physician to care for the whole person, not just the body or the mind (Tubesing, 1979; Peterson, 198 1).
Reed's (1979) "surgery of the soul" developed into an emphasis upon logo-psychosomatic healing that ministers to the spirit, soul, and body. Christian faith, prayer, and the work of the Holy Spirit are part of its therapeutic process alongside of conventional medical and surgical treatment. The newsletter and annual conferences of the Christian Medical Foundation International he heads are building a network of medical professionals who are ministering explicitly to spiritual as well as physiological and psychiatric needs. The Christian Medical Society also has gained strength and influence.
A notable new ministry to those in trouble is Prison Fellowship, which is ten years old in 1986. By 1984 it had 16,000 inmates participating in discipleship and training programs and nearly 20,000 volunteers in the U.S. plus thousands more in 15 other nations (Colson, 1984). Its services include evangelism and spiritual nurture, one-on-one visitation to prisoners by volunteers, help with employment after release, integration into a Christian community of faith, and family restoration. Thousands of lives have been transformed, disciplinary problems in prisons reduced, and recidivism rates cut sharply among its alumni.
Alcoholics Anonymous emphasizes spiritual concerns in several of its twelve steps to overcoming alcoholism. It appears to have been more effective than other programs which treat that human ailment, but it does not keep records of members. In the religiously pluralistic context of American society, it cannot be explicitly Christian, so concepts like belief in "a Power greater than ourselves" and "God as we understood Him" have numerous interpretations. indeed, some of its publicity states that "the word 'God' is not necessarily used here in a religious sense. It may be interpreted to mean any power greater than your own" ((Minnesota Council on Alcohol Problems, n.d.:3).
Sensitivity to the autonomy of the person, the pluralism of society, the consequences of religious liberty, and the separation of church and state in America, make it difficult to apply explicitly Christian values in social work even in church-related agencies (Moberg, 1978b). Yet Renetzky's (1979) work has demonstrated how "the Fourth Dimension," a spiritual component added to the biological, psychological, and sociological dimensions, can be used in nonsectarian counseling of people with problems.
The section on spiritual well-being and its booklength "background paper" (Moberg, 1971) at the 1971 White House Conference on Aging pointed to the significance of spiritual needs, goals, and services in the later years of life. They led to creation of the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging (NICA) in 1972, an agency remarkably successful in drawing together Catholics, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox people with Protestant liberals and evangelicals. In its conferences, publications, research, and services to "the religious sector," it has consistently kept spiritual well-being at the forefront, reminding religious groups not to overlook that important human need which other agencies ignore.
A highly significant development of the past decade has been incorporation of "spiritual distress" into the diagnostic classification used in the nursing profession (Kim et al., 1984). This has increased the awareness of nurses that people have spiritual needs, and it has stimulated a growing body of research. Closely related is the work of the Nurses Christian Fellowship, an association providing support for Christians in the profession. Its workshops help nurses to understand the spiritual needs of patients and cultivate resources to meet them. Books sponsored by NCF (e.g., Fish and Shelly, 1978; Shelly et al., 1983) include insights and guidelines useful to persons in any profession oriented toward human needs.
These and many other clinical and service-oriented developments related to spiritual well-being are typically accompanied by strong faith in the effectiveness of the services provided, especially on the part of Christians who offer them. Anecdotes and "case studies" of persons and families whose lives were changed are abundant, especially in church-related ministries. Yet very few of the services and programs have received systematic scrutiny to determine whether or not their claims are "scientifically" justified. Instances of constructive change eclipse other cases in which, conceivably, less good than harm resulted.
Not only is self-justification a prominent human trait, but self-healing tendencies are built into every individual, family, and group, so it is possible that observed healing consequences would have occurred even without the therapy. Evaluation research hence is needed in order to discover the extent to which the services enhance or diminish the spiritual well-being of recipients and participants. Constructively effective activities would then receive increased support and encouragement, while those which are ineffective or have negative results could be eliminated or modified.
Research is a major component of "the language of science." It can attract the attention of even skeptics and agnostics. To be sure, those who are unhappy with findings will identify missing details, alternative explanations, flaws in operational connections between concepts and their alleged measures, and defects in the validity and reliability of measuring instruments and statistics. Nevertheless, their giving heed contributes to opening up the subject for further investigation.
There is a great need for research on and related to spiritual well-being in the context of both the "pure" and "applied" aspects of numerous academic disciplines (Moberg, 1978a). Among the significant subject areas for such work are the relationships of spiritual death, life adjustment, quality of life, ability to work with other people, personal morality, social ethics, child-rearing, marital success, rehabilitation of criminals and juvenile delinquents, suicide, abortion, occupational success, charitable giving, church participation, volunteer services, voting, and hundreds of other topics.
If one recognizes that ... pluralism neither denies the reality of the spiritual nor insists that one's favorite measure is the only valid one, the diversity can contribute to enriched insights and expanded perspectives.
Several instruments already have been developed to measure phenomena related to spiritual well-being. The most widely used of these is the attitude scale developed by psychologists Ellison and Paloutzian (1978). Each item is answered by checking Strongly Agree, Moderately Agree, Agree, Disagree, Moderately Disagree, or Strongly Disagree. Ten of the items com prise a Religious Well-Being Scale on the "vertical
Another psychological instrument is that developed
by Farnham (1979). It consists of a series of semantic
differential scales based on the teachings of Jesus Christ with comparisons to Maslow's definitions of psychological well-being and the self-actualized person. "Spiritual/psychological well-being is defined as a state oflife that is joyful, full, rewarding, interesting, hopeful, friendly, meaningful, free from guilt, free from worry, purposeful, trusting, exciting, enabling, and happy" (p. 2). Each of these concepts is contrasted with an opposite polar adjective to make a seven-point rating scale on which a respondent can indicate which position best represents his or her life at the present time. The technique aims to discover the connotative meanings of each pair of characteristics.
A 22-item Likert-type Spiritual Distress Scale based upon five major areas in which people can experience distress of the spirit (forgiveness, love, hope, trust, meaning and purpose) was constructed by Flesner (1981). Scores on it correlate negatively with those on - the Ellison-Paloutzian Spiritual Well-Being Scale and have very high test-retest reliability (pp.58-61).
Kauffman's (1979) Religious Life Scale measures spiritual maturity." Its fourteen items are those that
ranked highest on four dimensions of religiosity in a study of 3,591 Mennonites, so it is a composite measure
of devotionalism, associationalism (church participation), evangelism (Christian witness), and religious
experiences. It stresses the manifest expressions of religion (doing and feeling) rather than beliefs and knowledge.
Survey research in 1978-79 in the U.S.A. and Sweden identified seven indexes of spiritual well-being through factor analysis: Christian Faith, Self -Satisfaction, Personal Piety, Subjective Spiritual Well-Being, Optimism, Religious Cynicism, and Elitism. In addition, items on personal volunteer activities over the preceding twelve months were grouped into three indexes of Political, Charitable, and Religious Social Involvement (Moberg, 1981, 1984). Subsequent research still in progress indicates that these index scores correlate highly and significantly with scores on the Ellison-Paloutzian and Farnham scales.
At least three other instruments give promise of potential development into research tools. Bowman (1982; 1984) developed an interview schedule to identify measurable change in twelve areas of spiritual and religious awareness among people over age 65. Among 100 persons from five groups in Michigan the highest reported change in awareness was increased "feelings of experiencing God's closeness;" no one reported decreased awareness. Increased awareness also exceeded decreases in "recognition of own vulnerability and possible dependency, illness and death," "peaceful confidence in speaking and hearing statements of belief, doctrine, grateful memories" (especially important to Jews in her study), and "acceptance of life situations. " At the opposite extreme were decreased awareness of psychological aspects of sexuality, of personal efforts to serve community and civic needs, of "joy in simple things," and of "relationship with family, friends, neighbors," in all of which diminished awareness was reported by many more persons than increased awareness. For most people awareness in the areas explored neither increased nor diminished. Significant life experiences often triggered the changes.
The Spiritual Checkup by Castle (1985), a Quaker psychologist, was developed as a tool for self-evaluation of one's "spiritual pulse," preferably with the help of a spiritual guide. Most of its items on beliefs, actions, and personal maturity are in the form of semantic differential scales and closed-end questions readily amenable to quantitative analysis. Castle's discussions of the nature of the human spirit, fruit of the spirit, phases or styles in spiritual life, and methods for looking at one's personal history and for "birthing and orchestrating one's future" can stimulate theoretical, methodological and pragmatic thinking on this subject.
Five leading factors emerged in Marcum's
study of the spiritual well-being of religious women
who remained in and those who departed from their
communities. They could be used as indexes of a
flexible person-centered orientation, working and sharing together, dependence on others, prayer in spiritual
life, and quality of religious community life, all of
which are related to spirituality.
Using a variety of methodological approaches, researchers have discovered many relationships between spirituality and other variables, including the following:1. Spiritual well-being is associated significantly and positively with self-esteem, perceived level of social
Another [danger] is a common tendency in the social and behavioral sciences to think that whenever one has attained a satisfactory 61C explanation" of a phenomenon, one has explained it away.
2. Among clergymen who had in-patient therapy for alcoholism, "super-saints" with high levels of spirituality were much more likely than "mini-saints" with low levels to have experienced a spiritual awakening during therapy, to have high levels of compassion for others, to believe their quality of ministry had improved since treatment, to hold strong theological beliefs, and to have improved ties to their church and fellow clergy (Fichter, 1979).
3. Roman Catholic sisters who remained in their religious communities, in contrast to nuns who departed, were characterized "by prayer and having one's thinking and meditating directly inspired by Scripture" (Marcum, 1979:274).
4. Secondary analysis of data from a large survey in Taiwan suggests that the social integration of individuals is higher among Protestants and Catholics than among Buddhists, Taoists, and Pai Pai members; it is highest of all among the Christians with high levels of spiritual well-being (Hynson, 1979).
5. Although few Americans can define "spiritual well-being," most have clear beliefs about its characteristics when confronted with explicit questions (Moberg, 1979a).
6. Evangelical Christians (including fundamentalists) in both the United States and Sweden have higher levels of spiritual well-being than other Christians, who in turn have higher levels than those who profess to be atheists, agnostics, or skeptics (Moberg, 1981, 1983).
7. An inverse relationship between levels of depression and of spiritual well-being was found in research on 435 university students (Fehring, Brennan, and Keller, 1982).
Just as there is evidence that a general sense of well-being results from a different and wider combination of causes than a negative sense of ill-being ... spiritual wellness may be a broader and more complex concept than spiritual illness.
8. A study of 67 Catholic Sisters aged 70 to 92 years found a relationship between their faith life and how they were aging. The majority of those with integrated personalities expressed a satisfying and deepening relationship with God and frequently described God as having a significant effect on their lives, while the others tended not to say much about spiritual relationships even when asked (Carmichael, 1984).
9. When explicit attention was given to spiritual well-being through the "anchor points" of symbols and rituals from their religious heritage, elderly mentally ill patients in a state hospital who were Jewish and Roman Catholic showed clear improvement in memory, interaction patterns, improved appetite, reduced depression, and fewer somatic complaints. A comparison with other patients who had similar religious preferences, medication, and therapy but were without the religious culture group showed that patients with religious therapy were in the hospital two to three months less, had more contact with reality, and had fewer somatic and depressive elements upon leaving the hospital (Gonzales-Singh, 1977).
10. A growing body of research reports relationships
of religion and spiritual nurture to physical and mental
health. Most reveal positive relationships between
spirituality and other domains of wellness or wholistic
Allen et al.,
Marty and Vaux,
Despite significant progress, many difficiulties still confront scientific research related to spirituality. One is the variety of measures used to conceptualize it. Since these apparently are highly and significantly intereorrelated, they presumably reflect aspects of a larger whole, whether that be spiritual or wholistic wellbeing. This supports my belief that the directly and indirectly observable aspects of spiritual well-being comprise a complex multidimensional phenomenon, not a simple unidimensional variable. Eventually we may have dozens of indexes reflecting various components, for composite overall measures tend to hide whatever differential effect each part may have (Kauffman, 1979:251).
The predilections, interests, and biases of each investigator may result in attention to different components and measures of spiritual well-being, and thus seemingly to different subjects. If one recognizes that such pluralism neither denies the reality of the spiritual nor insists that one's favorite measure is the only valid one, the diversity can contribute to enriched insights and expanded perspectives. It is likely that many of the differing measures of spiritual well-being in effect comprise equivalent or parallel forms of each other. Some possibly reflect a general Christianity factor while the more specific subscales reflect other dimensions of religious phenomena (see Gorsuch, 1984). Yet just as the relationship of religion to other variables is affected by the specific items chosen as its indicators (Kauffman, 1979:251-252), so one's choice of indexes and scales to reflect spirituality may influence what one finds.
Reductionism is another danger in studies of spirituality. One form it takes is to assume that whatever is measured constitutes its very essence, thus confusing the concept with its indicators. Another is a common tendency in the social and behavioral sciences to think that whenever one has attained a satisfactory "explanation" of a phenomenon, one has explained it away. MacKay (1974) has warned against such "nothing buttery" (ontological reductionism). Every explanation is of necessity partial and incomplete; it is given within a frame of reference limited by academic discipline, professional demands, pragmatic needs, value orientations, and other variables. Humility is inherent in good science; it recognizes and reflects the complexity of humanity and the universe. We must beware lest we imply that our approaches to a topic like spirituality exhaust the totality of its richness. (see Moberg, 1985).
The wide diversity of religious and ideological orientations in pluralistic societies makes it difficult to construct measures of spirituality that are consistent with the values of more than one ideology or religion. Separate indexes may be needed for each major religious faith, although it is possible that a common core of overarching values accepted by all religious groups can provide the basis for a universal instrument.
Humility is inherent in good science; it recognizes and reflects the complexity of humanity and the universe. We must beware lest we imply that our approaches to a topic like spirituality exhaust the totality Of its richness.
Measuring instruments are easily abused. We must avoid the mistake of assuming that a measure of spiritual well-being places every person inerrantly upon a scale from spiritual health to spiritual illness' then of arbitrarily treating that person in therapy or daily life as if the instrument is wiser than a skilled professional helper, providing a complete and accurate assessment of all components of spiritual well-being. Furthermore, is it ethical to compel people with low scores to receive spiritual care? Such folly can easily occur if attention to spiritual concerns increases in society and we develop ever more tools to gauge them. Potential abuse exists in every area of life; to evade it fully is to do nothing worthwhile.
Religion has gradually gained prominence in the mass media of the U.S.A. Its impact upon politics, always strong in American history, has gained increasing attention over the past decade. While much of this is not explicitly "spiritual," it may reflect underlying spiritual interests on the part of a substantial proportion of the population.
Acknowledgement of the spiritual nature and needs of people may be gradually gaining ground in sociology (McGehee, 1982; Moberg, 1979b), in medicine (Reed, 1979, Fichter, 1981; Marty and Vaux, 1982), in nursing (Kim et al., 1984; Fish and Shelly, 1978), in social psychology and physics (Schroll, 1984), in naturalistic biology (Hardy, 1979), and in other contexts. As this occurs, the needs and opportunities for research on the subject will expand. We who accept this challenge must exercise appropriate flexibility, humility, interdisciplinary cooperation, and all-around wisdom, thus retaining a wholistic balance in our attitudes, actions, and thoughts about spirituality and science.
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