Home > Various Subjects > THE MODERN PREDICAMENT

Word Magazine June 1968 Page 16-17


By John L. Boojamra

All of us, as twentieth-century men, live in an era when science is our continual companion, champion, and benefactor. This is our age — we are the so-called modern men about whom the sociologists and scientists speak and write. We cannot deny this nor, for that matter, should we want to do so. It is no easier to ignore the influence of science on our lives and ways of thinking than it is to ignore our Hotpoint kitchens, American Standard bathrooms, or the frightening weapons of death developed for Vietnam.

This then is one aspect of our common situation. This is our age; we are twentieth-century men. At the same time, we are also Christians and children of two thousand years of Christian thought and sacramental reality. It is this two-fold influence on our lives and our culture that is at the basis of the predicament which many Western Christians have been facing for the last four hundred years and especially since the last century. The predicament has been called the “conflict between science and religion.” It exists within most of us whether we are conscious of it or not. We allow two categories of reality, scientific and Christian, to exist in our minds. Each is in a well-sealed compartment; we open the appropriate compartment at the appropriate time. Somehow, unfortunately, we never allow the two areas to get together and we remain intellectually and demotionally, in a state of tension.

Much of the tragedy of the Western conflict between science and religion was due to the fact that Western Christianity (represented by the Roman Catholic Church) accepted almost wholesale not only the philosophical categories of Aristotle, but also his natural history or science. Thus, to a large extent, Western theology, including the Holy Scriptures, was intimately tied up with Aristotelian science. When Galileo contradicted Aristotle, it was taken as an attack on the Roman Church, which unfortunately expressed itself in Aristotelian terms. Happily, the Orthodox Church consistently refused to commit itself to any one system of theological or philosophical thought.

In the nineteenth century the battle between science and Christianity was precipitated in the West by the sheer force of the success of the scientific enterprise and its off­spring, technology. A Christian civilization was suddenly confronted with theories based on newly discovered facts, which seemingly contradicted the content of the Christian faith, particularly the Bible. One can get some feeling for the panic and reaction among Christians by considering the so-called Monkey Trial in which a Tennessee biology teacher was tried and convicted for teaching the theory of evolution in high school. In attempting to understand this conflict, we must admit that much of it was based on the ignorance of many Christians as to the nature of what they believed. On the part of the men of science, there was often a misunderstanding of Christianity and simple ill will. Nineteenth century science was particularly infected with a certain arrogance. It was infatuated with its own power and exhibited a boundless optimism which it derived from a mistaken philosophy of unlimited progress.

Now in the mid-twentieth century, this conflict is no longer as evident or as vocal as it was in the last century. In fact, we are given the happy assurance that the traditional battle between the men of science and the men of God is over and the whole affair was based on a misunderstanding. Whatever the reason for the calming of the battle, it is reduced. Yet we are not without tension be­tween the two modes of thought — the scientific and the theological. Our present conflict has its source not in the content of the discoveries of science, but rather in the overwhelming power of the scientific enterprise. Its omnipresence in our lives and the seeming omniscience of its method. The essential content of the challenge with which modern science confronts Christianity is based on authority and methodology.

This challenge can be seen embodied in what might be called, to distinguish it from science, scientism. This is an approach to the world which has grown up in the climate of the overwhelming influence and authority of science in our daily lives. It can be characterized as a misuse of the scientific empirical method. It essentially attempts to apply this method, ideally applicable to the world of physical phenomena, to areas of reality with which it is not functionally able to deal. In short, an effective way of knowing, the empirical method, becomes in scientism the only way of knowing; a positive assumption of science, that it deals only with a limited area of reality, becomes the assumption that that with which it deals is the only reality. We should not underestimate the influence of scientism. To a great extent, the thinking of the so-called secular or God-is-dead theologians is based on its assumptions.

It is not difficult to understand the rise of this scientific secularism. The twentieth century is dominated by the achievements and outlook of science. Madison Avenue, for instance, sells its products with labels such as “scientifically tested” or “favored by nine out of ten scientists.” The scientist is seen as the “wonder man” and, in effect, the new priest. His method, the empirical approach, is seen as the ideal means of knowing, controlling, and exploiting the universe. Thus, since our lives on almost every level are conditioned by this scientific milieu, it is not difficult to see that this situation transforms itself in practical terms to an unconscious belief that the scientific method is the only effective and practical way of knowing. Within this context Christian categories — grace, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, sacraments — become suspect. These Christian realities are seen not so much in terms of their being true or false, but rather as being simply meaningless to “modern man.” Many people do not know how to deal with concepts and realities that do not relate immediately and directly to the physical world of matter and energy.

We must be clear, if there is a conflict or a tension between science and Christianity, it is inherent in neither of the two approaches. How then did we come to this predicament where the truth of one order or aspect of reality is considered to be in natural conflict with the truth of another?

It can be argued that certain tendencies in Western Christian thought, the environment in which empirical science arose, led to an abstract philosophical conception of God. God was placed so far above the world, isolated so to speak in His divine splendor, that it became easy for men to think of the world as apart from Him and normal and natural as such. It should be pointed out here that Orthodoxy, for all its doxological content and approach, has proclaimed, seemingly paradoxically, the absolute otherness of God and at the same time affirmed His active presence in His created universe.

Along with this notion of the isolated God, the God “up there,” there developed as a corollary the idea of the natural man. That is, a man who is autonomous, living a life fully natural and apart from God. God is isolated and man is glorified; the stage is set. Men begin to think of themselves as, and act as if they were, independent agents. The world is seen, investigated, and enjoyed without reference to God, the Creator. Thus, in the West we find a faulty notion of reality conditioning men’s thinking and their approach to the study of natural phenomena.

About four hundred years ago a new authority, empirical science, began to develop independently of any ecclesiastical establishment. This was the time when the primacy of the authority of the ancients (particularly Aristotle) was overthrown and both Copernicus and Galileo precipitated a revolution in Western thought by affirming the primacy of experimentation. The implication of the emphasis on personal experience and experiment, without the accompanying notion of the presence of God and man as His sacramental agent, is that it offers truth and verification apart from, and often in opposition to, Christianity. The great world systems of the nineteenth century, formalized, rigid, mechanistic, were an expression of the final separation of God from his world. The universe as a great machine operated efficiently without God; he was an unnecessary hypothesis. Some Christians attempted to stave off the ejection of God from the scene by relegating him to operation in those phenomena where science could offer no explanation. The difficulty with this type of “God-of-the-gaps” solution was that these gaps were inevitably filled and God was again and again forced out of the scientific picture.

Unfortunately, investigating the development of a pattern of thinking in no way enables us to overcome it. But if we are to be whole men, integrated personalities, our task is to discover a principle of unification, to unite the two areas of experience.

What then is our approach to science? Are we to develop a formal theology of science? This would be a wrong approach. Our approach must rather be based on the question, “What is God, and what is man in relation to God, and what is the value of man’s earthly effort and search for truth?” These are the questions we must answer. It is at this point that Orthodox thought, particularly anthropological, can make a great contribution to the arresting of the disintegration of the Western Christian mind.

Ideas, both scientific and theological, must be synthesized by the human personality. Fertile minds are precisely those minds which integrate and correlate diverse and important facts and values; in this way they demonstrate the unity and kinship of the entire organism or reality. It is the human personality, by virtue of the interrelationship of the processes of the human mind, which accomplishes this integration of diverse areas of knowledge and reality.

In a very real sense, man participates in the life of God; this is the gift of the Incarnation. At the same time, man is placed in the world and his life is inextricably bound to it. Yet man is not simply placed here, he is called upon to rule over creation and he accomplishes this, not by witchcrafts and magic spells, but through knowledge and understanding. Through this fact the Christian becomes the agent of reconciliation of all knowledge, by reconciling all things to God in an act of thanksgiving. It is precisely because he lives the life of God and the life of the world that the Christian, particularly the Christian scientist, is able to open the world mystically to the life of God.

The Christian person is involved in the life of the world, its search for truth and knowledge, and at the same time he is called upon to live the life of prayer and sacrament. The man who searches for the secrets of life in DNA is the same man who is called upon to participate in the mystery of the new life in the Eucharist. The man of science is to be the man of God. The material world is meant to become through the priestly activity of the Christian a new and transfigured cosmos.

This priestly function of all Christians is an enormous challenge to us. It involves, primarily, the development and transformation of our total personality into sacramental beings. We then become, through the victory of the Cross, Christ’s agents of unity in a fragmented and atomized world. It is in this way that we must approach the problem we have been considering, the crisis in human consciousness, the so-called conflict between science and Christianity.