Christianity and Scientific Concerns
Christianity and Scientific Concerns
This conversation originally appeared in Christianity Today's May 25, 1973, issue. We're republishing it today because it was our magazine's first significant interview with C. Everett Koop, who would later become Surgeon General of the United States. (Koop died today at age 96.) But the issues discussed here—including the environment, abortion, euthanasia, the dehumanizing effects of technology, genetic testing, and other concerns—remain highly relevant 40 years later.
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Meeting in Philadelphia for a semi-annual board meeting, directors of the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies gathered in Tenth Presbyterian Church for an informal discussion on "Christianity and Scientific Concerns." Taking part were V. Elving Anderson, professor of genetics and cell biology, University of Minnesota; Martin Buerger, institute professor emeritus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and university professor, University of Connecticut; C. Everett Koop, professor of pediatric surgery, School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania; Gordon Van Wylen, formerly dean of the School of Engineering, University of Michigan, and now president of Hope College; and Orville S. Walters, professor of health science and lecturer in psychology, University of Illinois. The moderator was Carl F. H. Henry, professor-at-large at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, president of the IFACS directors, and CT's first editor.
Dr. Henry: No shift of mood in our lifetime has been more remarkable than the change from a trust that science would inaugurate a worldly millennium to fear that it might implement a massive destruction of mankind or of our planet. If an earlier generation replaced the Christian hope by faith in science, the youth culture now rejects scientism as the myopic mythology of the Western intellectual. Some persons even suggest that perhaps the time has come to call a moratorium on science. Quite surely no member of this panel thinks that either Christianity or science would be well served by the suppression of science. But the eclipse of Christianity in a scientific age has had more devastating consequences than our generation dreams.
Gordon Van Wylen has touched the frontiers of our technocratic and technological age as longtime dean at the University of Michigan's School of Engineering, attended by all three Apollo 15 astronauts. His broad perspective will be helpful in formulating an evangelical overview.
Dr. Van Wylen: As Dr. Henry mentioned, there has been a radical change of position in regard to science and technology and what they can really do for us. There was a time when men really pinned their hopes for the golden age on technology, while the developments of science are now a source of many of the major problems of our day. Among these are the problems of the city and the over-emphasis on materialism.
The question of what position to take toward technology in contemporary society is, of course, raised primarily by those who already have many of the benefits of technology. A few years ago we had two visiting scholars with us for a semester, one from West Germany and the other from the Soviet Union. I asked them if there was an anti-technology attitude in their countries. The scholar from West Germany, where there is an abundance of technology, conceded the presence of an anti-technology attitude, but the scholar from the Soviet Union said, "Such tremendous areas in our country do not have electricity, do not have adequate transportation, that technology still promises the golden era we are looking for." But an article in the Saturday Review recently suggested that even in Russia there is developing an anti-technology mood, a feeling that it is necessary to retain old values rather than simply putting hope in technology. It does seem that technology and the materialism that it brings have turned out to be false gods and that we need to recognize that there are many things technology by itself really cannot do for us.
Henry: Others say that the real problem facing us is not solely technology: man himself is the problem. The thought of the population explosion provides an opportunity to invite Dr. Koop to speak.
Dr. Koop: The population explosion is certainly an overwhelming problem and a Christian concern; we cannot turn our backs on it. I am convinced that abortion is not the answer. I have spent more than twenty-five years of my life preserving the lives of newborn babies, many of whom are defective, and since I have found this to be a rewarding scientific and Christian endeavor, I am not likely to succumb easily to propaganda that the way to stop producing too many people is to kill some just before they are born. From cover to cover the Word of God seems to me to say that life is precious to God. Now, we can argue about when life begins; I do not think it can be settled. Neither a sperm nor an egg can reproduce itself, but once an egg and a sperm have united and there is the proper number of chromosomes, it seems to me that there will be a human being with God-consciousness unless somebody interferes with that developing zygote. Now, I would not think of killing a baby that was born horribly defective, because it is murder, even if it is but one minute old. If I were to go back just one minute, to the actual moment of birth, I would not kill it then. If I were to go back one minute before that, I would not kill it then or one minute before that, or before that, or before that, right on back to the fertilized egg. Looking at life as though it were a cheap commodity will infiltrate other aspects of our attitude toward people, and eventually we might get to the point where we try to evaluate life on the basis of quality. There are a number of people in this audience who have a quality of life that other people would not consider up to their standard. If the day comes when we do not have enough food, you might be eliminated. If abortion had been practiced when your mothers were pregnant the way it is advocated now, at least 25 percent of you would not be here.
Henry: This distinguished panel has no need of me as a midwife to help deliver its contributions, but I shall prod it a little more. We may win the battle for human values over against technology, and perhaps win the battle for the survival of the fetus in the face of threats against human life in its earliest hours, and yet find ourselves on a planet—the only planet we know capable of supporting human life—in which man may gasp out his last hours amid poisonous environmental pollution. That is a strategic point at which to involve Dr. Anderson in a discussion of environmental concerns.
Dr. Anderson: Our concern over the environment and over environmental pollution flows in part from population growth. In this country we might feel that no population problem exists were it not for the environmental crisis. But there are two other dimensions. A second is affluence, and a third is the misuse of technology. I think that Christians should be concerned about all three. It is charged that a Christian point of view is the cause of the environmental crisis. I consider that a misreading of the evidence. God did command that man should be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth on two occasions—at the beginning and after the flood. I am inclined to wonder if we may not already have fulfilled that command. The Scriptures speak very much about affluence, and affluence should be subject to Christian concern. We must somehow learn to hold back our demands for energy and for things that we call a part of "the good life." Then, too, it has been pointed out that our faith in technology leads to a misuse. To illustrate, Minnesota, the land of snow—where this morning the temperature reading was -25—is also the land of snowmobiles. I fear a "population explosion" of snowmobiles that, if misused, will do a lot of harm to the environment. This illustrates, then, why population, affluence, and the misuse of technology are legitimate concerns for Christians and others alike.
Henry: What about the problems that are posed for man as a distinctive creature, as a specifically human being?
Dr. Walters: Sigmund Freud launched what he announced would be the third great revolution. The first, he said, was cosmological: man discovered how large the universe is and how small and insignificant the earth really is. The second was the Darwinian revolution, which taught that all species are derived from lower forms of life. Now, Freud, the third great revolution established that man, because of his unconscious, is not even master in his own house. With Freud began the great impact upon the present age of the emphasis upon the unconscious in psychology and psychiatry. But we have seen a turn, a revolt against the determinism inherent in the Freudian concept of human personality. I believe that psychoanalysis has passed its peak in this country. We are seeing a return to the idea that, in the absence of psychopathology, man does know in great measure what is going on in his own life. There has been a return to the preeminence of the conscious and a diminution of the idea that man is basically irrational and does not know what is going on in his own house. What is most lacking in the series of revolutions of which Freud spoke is, from the Christian point of view, a still more significant dynamism, that of spiritual regeneration.
Henry: Since a clinical psychiatrist has spoken of spiritual regeneration, I should like to ask Dr. Buerger whether he thinks it desirable that a scientist should be a Christian.
Dr. Buerger: Well, I suppose that I am addressing Christians, who believe with me that God made the universe—this world and the stars in the firmament and the planets. And whoever believes this, whether a scientist or not, has the opportunity of going directly to God and asking for wisdom. I think it is James 1:5 that says, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him." We who are Christians, who accept Jesus as our Saviour, have access to God through prayer. Personally, I like to start out the day by reading my Bible. This puts me in the mood to ask God for what I really need. And as a Christian, as a professor, and as a scientist I do not hesitate to ask God for anything that I think I really need. I ask him to help me in my work as I lecture to my students, that I may put my ideas across effectively to them. If my research strikes a snag—mine certainly does many times, and whose does not?—I have no hesitancy in asking God to help me over this. You may remember what the Bible says, "While you are yet asking, I will answer." It is a marvelous thing when God answers while you are yet asking him. This is one of the greatest thrills on earth. There is such a thing as a jag that one gets as the research comes to its fruition. But there is nothing like the jag of having God answer one's prayers.
Koop: Dr. Buerger's comment about wisdom brings up the dilemma of what might be called biological schizophrenia that a surgical specialist often faces, with respect to not only the right to life, which has already been mentioned, but also the right to die. There comes a place in my kind of a physician's life where strict adherence to the sanctity of life conflicts with Christian compassion. Here the spiritually sensitive person who has to make decisions, is driven to seek answers in prayer. Life magazine recently published four case histories of people who would rather be dead than alive, or whose families would rather have them dead than alive; I think one now is dead because he chose to shut off his kidney dialysis machine. Just as some people are talking about the right of the newborn to live and the family's right to condemn him to die, so some people are looking at the other end of the human lifespan and are discussing euthanasia. This word means different things to different people; to me euthanasia means terminating the life of someone whose quality of life does not come up to your standard of life. I do think that there is an area in Christian medicine where the withholding of extraordinary care is an act of Christian compassion. For example, if someone under my care lay dying of a malignant tumor and in great pain, yet could have his life preserved by the heroic measures of blood transfusion and X-ray therapy but without any hope of the preservation of productive or even half-productive life, I think the Christian physician has the right to withhold that kind of therapy. If I might classify it this way, I think there are several ways that you can approach the care of a medical patient. If I get appendicitis tonight, I hope that someone takes me to a good hospital and that I have a good anesthesiologist and a good surgeon and that my appendix is removed and that I recover. Now, if under anesthesia something were to go wrong, and I were deprived of oxygen for sufficient time to render me anoxic, so that when I recovered from anesthesia I would have to look forward to a life as a vegetable, then I would not want anyone to take the extraordinary measure of keeping my carcass artificially alive with a respirator and with blood transfusions just to say, "Koop did not die on the table or within thirty days of the operative procedure and therefore is not an 'operative mortality.'" I do not think that is good medicine; it certainly is not Christian medicine.
Anderson: Let me pick that up from the side of human genetics. People are somewhat apprehensive about discussions of genetic control. For the most part, means of genetic intervention are genuinely helpful and can be used without fear. Yet modifying the diet or adding enzymes or some other product does present some problems. A family may learn that husband and wife both carry a gene for a harmful disease. They have had one child with this disorder. Another pregnancy will carry a 25 per cent risk. At that point, they have to decide if it is right to gamble on the outcome of an additional pregnancy. Occasionally the family prefers not to have a pregnancy, and yet one starts. I have talked with a Christian couple who knew that the wife carried a fetus destined to have a serious problem. In that instance, with prayer, the family decided on a termination as the lesser of two evils. Now that is the kind of problem that advances in technology force upon us. Some people are claiming rather astonishing things for the future—for example, the possibility of cloning, or the possibility of taking a human zygote and subdividing it so that it will form a hundred or more fetuses. That sort of thing seems to .me to disturb our view of family, for it means that some laboratory must carry out essential steps, Although it cannot now be done, and perhaps will never be done, cloning would present a real problem. It does not really solve a problem, and it grossly disturbs the view of family. To me, future advances in genetics can be tolerated only if we can preserve the essential features of a Christian view concerning family.
Henry: This discussion in our day of the possibilities of human cloning and also the increasing talk of a significant extension of longevity reflect a sort of para-Christian or pseudo-spiritual longing for new selfhood and for physical immortality. One senses the growing hope that organ transplants and spare parts built into man might significantly extend human life. In a day that has lost authentically biblical compass bearings, all this mirrors a longing for physical immortality of sorts, it seems to me, and the secret conviction that man has some sort of destiny beyond threescore years and ten. The contemplation of cloning may reflect an inner longing for the reformation of personality, a realization that there is available to unregenerate man authentic being or new selfhood beyond anything he has experienced. And yet the Bible correlates man's ongoing significance and the larger possibilities of selfhood not solely with physical potentialities but with moral and spiritual realities. It will take more than science can offer us to mass-produce Christians, for that requires moral renewal and spiritual decision. From the biblical point of view, the permanently valid image that God has in view for ideal man is the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. The one image in which man might be spiritually cloned—if life is not to become monotonous for the rest of us (I cannot imagine what sort of world it would be like if we were all Billy Grahams or Carl Henrys or anybody else you might care to name)—is the image of Jesus Christ, the image that God intended for man on the basis of creation.
Van Wylen: There is a lot of popular literature these days along the line that the machine has conquered us and that man has lost his humanity because of the machine, so to speak. The tendency to believe this is encouraged when we try to communicate with the publisher of a magazine and all we get is a computer-written letter that, while very intelligible, does not respond to our questions. However, I do really accept this view, because I think that the ultimate decisions are really made by men. It is men who decide how to use the computer. I think one of the real problems we face is that the techniques of science and technology that were developed to apply to the material world have been used in large measure in relation to the social structure and to human endeavor. For example, a big thing in political science these days is the use of computers to gather lots of data about voter habits so you can analyze trends. There are people in the universities—all the universities have them—who think the real hope for the future is to apply the techniques of science and technology to social systems. Here we face one of the fundamental problems of our day, the great tendency to apply techniques that were developed by physical science and technology to social systems, and thereby to lose the humanity of man. When this happens there is a great counter-tendency to reject the whole of technology because it is dehumanizing. I believe that the crux of this is not the technique itself but rather its use in respect to social systems without an understanding of the fundamental nature of man, who was created in God's image and has an eternal destiny.
Walters: Behavioral science, a common expression in our time, implies that the most important thing about man is the way he behaves. Gordon Allport in his little book Becoming tells about the great divide in psychology. It goes back to the time of Locke, who enunciated the principle, "Nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses." This statement drew from Liebnitz the rejoinder, "Nothing but the mind itself." Some look upon man as a reactor, responding to stimuli that act upon him from the outside. Out of this idea has grown the behavioral science about which we hear so much today. The other stream of thought in psychology emphasized man as an actor who has within himself the capacity for personal choice. These two great parallel streams compete in psychology today. One of them assumes, of course, determinism; someone has said that it has mechanomorphized man, looking upon him as a machine. The other emphasizes that man has the capacity for autonomous choice, for initiating action rather than simply responding to what happens to him. The first stream is represented by psychoanalysis, and a very fashionable type of treatment in psychiatry called behavioral therapy, based primarily upon the conditioned-reflex theory of Pavlov and its variations. But the other stream of psychological thought has been kept alive in Europe and has gradually found its way into this country into both psychology and psychiatry. It recognizes that there is more than a capacity to react, that man has within himself the capacity for creative thought and autonomous action.
Henry: The question thrusting itself upon us is whether there is an irreconcilable conflict between Christianity and science. The youth counter-culture today has opted out of the prevailing scientific world-view, insofar as technocratic scientism implies that the externally real world—the reality on which you can bank your life—is held to be reducible to impersonal events that are mathematically connectable. There is no room in the ultimately real world, thus defined, for personal thought, personal decision, personal action of any kind, whether divine or human. The youth culture stands on its conviction that human values somehow belong to the ultimately real world. Now, if all that we know is knowable solely by the empirical scientific method and our enlarging experience, then everything is up for grabs and subject to change—nothing is fixed and final in the realm of truth, and there are no permanently valid distinctions of good and evil. In that methodology is the only way of knowing reality and truth, nobody can give us any permanently valid norms whatever, even in the realm of ethics, about which the Bible claims to say something final and unchangeable.
Buerger: Modern man has advanced so far in technology that he thinks everything is under his control and no divine control is really needed. Man has everything he wants and thinks he can do anything he wants. He can even stand on the moon these days, and not only stand on it but come back. But one of the things we need to get around is the idea that the Bible is inconsistent with science and that science is inconsistent with the Bible. I don't think that is so at all. According to the first chapter of Genesis, the first thing that God created was light. If you listen to the modern physicists, you find out that light is one of the things that has been bandying about for a long, long time. One of the first occurrences was the creation of light. If you go on in Genesis you find that the water of the firmament was separated from the water that was on the earth, and that the earth brought forth vegetable life. That is exactly what geological science has found, that the first thing that was living on earth was vegetable life. And then animal life developed, first as fish in the water and then birds over the water. We exactly that sequence in the paleontological evidence. And then finally the next part of the record is animal life as it lived on land, and that is exactly what Genesis says. Finally man appeared. I can't see any conflict there at all. There are indeed artificial conflicts that may develop. I remember being told as a small boy that the Bible certainly can't be true because it talked about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, and that Jonah couldn't possibly be swallowed by a whale because a whale's throat isn't big enough. But the fact is that lots of whales have been found with giant squid within them. Now if you have ever seen a giant squid, and I have, you know that they are as big as the biggest man you can imagine. Lately I have read that a curious catastrophe occurred about eleven thousand years ago. That is really not very long ago. But what happened at that time was that the giant sheet of our north ice cap melted. It always seemed to me that this could have accounted for the flood. And now I read some modern information presented in a colloquium to the effect that the Mediterranean basin was empty until about eleven thousand years ago and then suddenly flooded. This sounds to me a great deal like the flood. It seems to me that no real conflict exists between the Bible and what science has found—that they are quite consistent unless one is nitpicking. It is a little like getting two friends and telling one something about the other that isn't quite true, and telling the other about the first what isn't quite true; if you do this enough you will get enemies from them. But I think there is no enmity actually between science and the Bible. The Bible doesn't pretend to be a book on science, but it is nonetheless a reliable record of God's dealings with man.
Henry: I'd like to ask Dr. Buerger whether, in his experience, many or few scholars in the scientific community are Christians.
Buerger: My general feeling is that rather few are, but some are true Christians. I can't speak very well for disciplines other than my own, but in my own discipline some of the very best scientists in the world are Christian. Let me tell you some of these in detail. Start with Russia. The greatest Russian crystallographer is a Christian, Belov by name. The greatest crystallographer of Spain, who eventually migrated to the United States, Amorós, is a Catholic. I have been to his church with him and he has been to my church with me; we find no real distinct differences in our beliefs. There is Professor Novache, the greatest crystallographer in Switzerland. There is Kathleen Lonsdale, one of the great crystallographers of England, so great that she was the first woman member of the Royal Society, and also made Dame Kathleen Lonsdale. In my opinion, some of the very greats are Christians. I think the reason so few are Christians is that man is so proud of having done so many technological things and making so many advances that he feels everything is at his feet now. Those who are Christians realize that this is a very small thing with God. I do not think that the scientists who are not Christians have, by and large, canvassed the evidences for Christianity or even looked at them. I had a conference with a friend of mine, a very great scientist, and I found that he just did not know anything about the Bible. I gave him my Bible, hoping that he would read it.
Henry: We have time for just a few closing statements. What in your opinion does the Christian world-life view specifically offer by way of illumination of the contemporary scientific crisis?
Walters: My answer is that it is not possible to understand man without recognizing the transcendental dimension of life. The behaviorist looks upon man as an animal. As Christians we recognize that man does stand in a relationship to nature, but he is more than an animal. Sociologists look upon man as a social creature. As Christians we recognize that man does stand in relationships to his fellow man, but there is more to man than his social relationships and his biological relationships. Man also stands in relationship to God. As a psychiatrist I believe and recognize in my daily work that the deepest conflicts in human life are traceable to this transcendental dimension of life. To ignore this or to deny it is to fail completely to understand man.
Van Wylen: Today's paper carried a story that some of the leading scientists of Great Britain have analyzed the present technological and environmental crisis and have recommended that the population of Great Britain be cut in half, and that each remaining person greatly reduce his use of the natural resources. This is a very significant indicator of what some of the best human minds consider a solution of some of these problems. If we go this way in our collective wisdom as countries and social organizations, we face fantastic questions of how to really enforce such proposals. I also live in snowmobile country, and one wonders if this is the way to use our natural resources in view of the limited supplies of petroleum and natural gas. Some of the most optimistic estimates take these supplies to the year 2000 or perhaps 2150. As men created in the image of God, we have a responsibility to preserve and to use wisely the resources that were given to us. The real question we face from a Christian perspective and view is, how are we going to do this? At the same time, the Christian's ultimate hope is not simply to develop resources and to preserve this society as we know it to the year.2000 or 2100 or whatever it might be; our ultimate hope is in the New Heaven and the New Earth. As a Christian, therefore, I have two dimensions to my life. One is responsibility in the present world, and yet there is assurance of a future hope; these are the two concerns that I try to hold on to.
Anderson: I believe that God made a perfect creation. It is pretty obvious to all of us that it no longer appears that way. And the reason is that man in the form of Adam sinned. Some scientists see a world that is no longer perfect and tend to blame God for it, or to ask, if it is this bad, how could any God have ever existed? The great advantage that the Christian has over the scientist who will not look at the Word of God is that the Christian believes in the sovereignty of God; he can live in this world with thanksgiving and with some degree of wonder. Several prominent writers now say, and I agree, that the solution to the environmental problem will not come from technology alone. There must first be the step of admitting the seriousness of the problem. The second step is repentance, a change of heart. This is central to really getting at environmental problems and environmental change. But then as a third step we need a sense of hope to replace the discouragement that sometimes sets in. We need to point out that in God there is hope, in this as in other areas. One further comment about genetics. Some people appear to believe that it would be possible to breed out human sinfulness. Wouldn't it be nice if we could breed out war? I doubt that it can be done. I accept the evidence for genetic differences in behavior, but sinfulness resides not so much in human frailty as in deliberate disobedience toward God. So here again, technology alone is not enough. What we need is a renewed faith in God as Creator and a new realization of man as steward of all that God has given him.
Buerger: I can only speak with regard to crystallography, a very small field. I feel very confident not in the entire field but in most parts of it. Generally speaking, this is the fate of any scientist. He knows his field, he is an authority in it, but he does not see the entire picture. You many scientists sounding off about things that they really have no right to say anything about. Many of us as scientists tend to bite off more than we can chew, more than we can deal with authoritatively. We must understand that the whole universe is created by God, and that even our reasoning process has been devised by God, our mathematics has been devised by God. I would say, with Amos, to all who are students and all who are scientists, "Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion. … The Lord is his name."