Volume Thirty-Nine — Article 3 Volume 39 | Home

Christianity and Naturalism
D. R. G. Owen

Editorial Note: We are here reprinting by permission part of Dr. Owen's Introduction to his book called Body and Soul (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956). While we do not subscribe to everything Dr. Owen says in his book, we think his comments on "science" and "religion" in relation to man are very challenging and worthy of our readers' consideration. The book is well worth reading.

We have been speaking of a possible synthesis between scientific naturalism and the Christian faith, instead of between science and religion. The reason for this is that the body of knowledge we call science does not belong to the same level of thought or realm of discourse as the Christian faith. The Christian faith consists of beliefs that make up a general world-view. Science is a collection of particular theories about particular aspects of the world. There is, however, a world-view that is based on science; it is this that we refer to as scientific naturalism. It belongs to the same level of discourse as the Christian intellectual scheme and can be compared with it. No doubt it is this scientific naturalism that is usually the referent of the word "science" in the phrase "science and religion." If we use it in this sense, as we shall for the sake of convenience, we shall write it "science" and not science.

The only one of the great world religions about which it is even possible to raise the question of a synthesis with this scientific naturalism is Christianity. For not only is science a child of a Christian culture, but it is also perfectly proper, as we shall see, to speak of Christian naturalism—whereas, of course, it would be absurd to speak of Hindu or Buddhist naturalism. Indeed, the main difficulty in the way of any reconciliation between "science" and "religion" is that "science" is preoccupied with nature, matter, and this world, while religion is supposed to be entirely concerned with the supernatural, the spiritual, and the next world.

Now while this may be true of religion in general, it amounts to little short of a caricature of the Christian faith. We recall William Temple's famous saying that Christianity is "the most avowedly materialist" of all the great religions. He was drawing attention to the same features of Christianity to which Albert Schweitzer refers in his distinction between the Christian faith as "world-affirming" and the religions of India as "world-denying." Oriental religion in general tends to treat the whole realm of nature as maya, as illusion, as a sphere of unreality from which the human soul must by all means escape; it is antiphysical and antinatural. Christianity, on the contrary, teaches that the whole natural, physical order is God's creation and, as such, is both real and good. It is not something from which man is destined one day to escape, but something that he is meant to control and use, and his relationship to it has eternal significance. And it is not only the Christian doctrine of creation but also the Christian doctrines of the incarnation, the resurrection of the body, and Christ's return to the earth at the end, that make us take the physical order seriously, recognizing that it has an eternal place in God's purposes.

It is this Christian naturalism in the realm of doctrine that lies behind the Christian concern for this world in practice. It is in the Western world, therefore, with its Christian background, and not in the East, where other religions have prevailed, that we find the beginnings of various humanitarian movements and a general preoccupation with man's material well-being, unknown in cultures built on different religious foundations.

This Christian naturalism, both in theory and in practice, indicates that it is with Christianity and not with any other religion that scientific naturalism can be reconciled. The other religions are preoccupied with the supernatural and "the things of the spirit"; they are so uniformly world-denying and world-escaping that these features are almost the defining characteristics of "religion" as such. It is for this reason that we have refrained from speaking of the Christian "religion." For Christianity is not a religion in this sense at all. Yet this is the sense in which the word is usually used in the phrase, "science and religion." As in the case of "science," so in the case of "religion," when we use the word in this sense, we shall write it "religion" and not religion. And there can be no synthesis between "science" and "religion," for they stand in direct opposition to one another. The most that could be hoped for would be a division of labor in which the things that belong to nature and to this world are altogether surrendered to "science," while "religion" continues to restrict itself to the things that belong to the spirit and to the next world. Fortunately, however, we are not driven to this desperate solution as far as Christianity is concerned, for Christianity is not a "religion."

If Christianity is thus naturalistic and materialistic, our former question recurs in a slightly different form. Why did the concern for man's material welfare and for the things of this world have to wait, like the appearance of science, for the beginning of the modern period of Western history when the Christian Middle Ages had come to an end and the Christian faith was becoming a waning influence? The answer again is that medieval Christianity was influenced not only by Biblical naturalism but also by Greek metaphysical dualism. The influence of Greek thought created a Christian version of "religion" in which the natural and the supernatural were ranked in a two-story structure, with the main honors going to the supernatural to the disparagement of the earthly and the natural. Medieval Christianity to this extent corrupted the Biblical worldview and turned men's minds away from this world to the "higher" heavenly places. Christianity thus tended to become a "religion" like other "religions."

In this connection scientific naturalism, by recalling us from Greek and Oriental otherworldliness to a proper and Biblical concern with this world, can render a great service to genuine Christianity. The scientific naturalism that has become characteristic of modern Western thought has, in George McLeod's words, "brought man down to earth." From the Christian point of view, this is sheer gain, since it sheds new, or forgotten, light on the old Biblical proclamation that God has come down to earth. It cannot be right for the Christian, who believes in this earthward movement of God, to oppose or disparage this modern earthward movement of man. As C. S. Lewis says, "There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God." We must recognize that this naturalistic development in the Western world has taken place within, and not outside, the purposes of God. In George McLeod's words:

"Gerald Heard may write with some truth that 'Newton banished God from nature, Darwin banished him from life, and Freud drove him from his last stronghold: the soul.' But is that to finish the matter? Man's honesty in pursuit of truth—whatever the first apparent results of such pursuit—cannot really be a flight from God. Surely it is more sensible to suppose that God had a mighty purpose in bringing man 'down to earth.' Whatever chaos man's pride has created along the roadside of this journey, we believe that this journey was also of God. Just as Christendom [medieval culture] was necessary to the fashioning of one stage of man's journey, so also, in the purpose of God, this 'earthing' of man has been necessary."

The naturalism of a scientific age can help to purify the Christian faith of its "religious" accretions. Genuine Christianity is not "spiritual" and otherworldly; it is naturalistic and this—worldly. There is, therefore, no irreconcilable opposition between the Christian and the "scientific" world-view.

It is not only Christianity, however, that tends to be corrupted. Scientific naturalism, on its side, very often deteriorates into "scientism." Preoccupation with nature can easily lead to the dogma that nature is a closed and self-explanatory system, that matter as we know it is the ultimate reality, and that explanation in terms of natural cause and effect gives the final truth. This kind of crude materialism carries with it a denial of the reality of spirit and freedom in any sense. And science is invariably invoked to support these conclusions. Such dogmas distort science into "science" or "scientism," just as the Greek and Oriental doctrines, on the other side, pervert Christianity into "religion." And just as "religion" can lead to otherworldliness and escapism, in which the values of this life tend to be dismissed as worthless, so "science" can easily result in some kind of "scientific" mass society, in which the true values of human existence tend to be destroyed.

If there is to be a reconciliation between scientific naturalism and the Christian faith, then both sides must begin by mending their own fences. The genuine truths of scientific naturalism, based on scientific evidence, have to be carefully distinguished from the illegitimate conclusions of "scientism." On the other side, Christians must distinguish just as clearly between the authentic truths of the Christian faith, based on Biblical sources, and the alien accretions of "religion." It is to this latter task that the present work is mainly devoted.

The Nature of Man

In attempting to make a contribution to the reconciliation of Christianity and modern naturalism, we are confining ourselves to a preliminary clearing of the ground. But our contribution is still more circumscribed. For we shall restrict ourselves to one part of the vast field. Our main intention is to elucidate the real nature of the Biblical-Christian view of man. This is, therefore, an essay in Christian anthropology. We shall use the word "anthropology" here, not in the usual contemporary sense in which it stands for one of the social sciences, but in its broader etymological meaning, where it stands for a general theory or doctrine of man.

It is in the field of anthropology, in this general sense, that the conflict between "science" and "religion" is sharpest at the present time. In fact, the two views of man are hopelessly antithetical. The irreconcilable nature of this opposition would not be a matter of any great concern were it not for the fact that it is regularly mistaken for a conflict between the actual scientific evidence and the genuine Christian estimate of human nature.

We hope to expose this mistake by showing that the "religious" anthropology is not Christian but Greek and Eastern both in origin and in nature, and that it is this view of man, and not the Christian, that the scientific evidence refutes. In the course of the argument the authentic Christian doctrine will be elicited, and it will then be obvious that this view is perfectly consistent with the evidence collected by the various sciences. At the same time, we shall have to distinguish between the scientific evidence proper and the "scientific" materialism to which the evidence, in some quarters, is supposed to lead.

The points at issue revolve around the concepts of "body" and "soul." The "religious" anthropology adopts an extreme dualism, asserting that the body and the soul are two different and distinct substances. It claims that the soul is divine in origin and immortal by nature and that the corruptible body is the source of all sin and wickedness. It recommends the cultivation of the soul in detachment from the body, and advocates the suppression of all physical appetites and natural impulses. It regards the body as the tomb or prison of the soul from which it longs to get free. Finally, it tends to suppose that the soul, even in its earthbound existence, is entirely independent of the body and so enjoys a freedom of choice and action untrammeled by the laws that reign in the physical realm.

The scientific evidence, on the contrary, indicates that "body" and "soul" are simply the names of two inseparable aspects of a unified psychosomatic whole. It follows, therefore, that there can be no detachable part of man that survives physical death. The sciences of man have also taught us that the rigorous suppression of natural instincts and desires can do incalculable injury to the human personality. The same investigations have further revealed the extent to which the beliefs, conduct, and character of the individual are shaped by material forces operating in accordance with general laws. In other words, the evidence appears to refute the fundamental doctrines of the "religious" anthropology.

The faults, however, are not all on one side. The "scientific" anthropology supposes that the same evidence that refutes the "religious" view leads inevitably to a crudely materialistic interpretation of man, to a free self-expression ethics, and to some form of absolute determinism. Against these extreme doctrines we can see that the "religious" anthropology, in spite of its mistakes, stands for and protects certain important truths about man's status, especially the reality of the human spirit and of human freedom.

Nevertheless, our main concern must be to set our own house in order. If scientific naturalism tends to deteriorate into scientism, the Christian faith seems even more prone to degenerate into "religion." And nowhere does this happen more often or with more disastrous results than in the field of Christian anthropology.

We are frequently surprised and shocked by the theological illiteracy and naive misunderstandings of Christian beliefs that turn up repeatedly in otherwise well-informed writers, especially on popular scientific subjects. In commenting on Fred Hoyle's The Nature of the Universe, Professor J. V. Lang mead Casserley cites a typical example:

    "The problem of whether or not it is possible for man to transcend and conquer death he confuses with the question whether a part of man, called his 'mind,' has within it some inherent property which gives it the power to survive the dissolution of the body. He doubts whether it has, and so,l venture to think, would any competent Christian theologian. The Christian belief is certainly a belief in the full mortality of man—and, equally certainly, not a belief that some one part of human nature is inherently immortal."
Casserley is right in his statement of the genuine Christian position in this matter. Unfortunately, however, his historical generalization about Christian theologians is more questionable. The fact is that many Christian teachers and preachers have undoubtedly presented, as Christian, precisely the view that Hoyle is opposing. He probably learned it at Sunday school, and, in the unlikely event of his attending church, he would certainly hear it preached in any one of a great many pulpits on almost any Sunday. The point is that we cannot lightly dismiss, as culpable ignorance, the misinterpretations of Christian doctrine that are so common on the part of its opponents. Erroneous teaching, on the part of Christians themselves, must bear a large share of the blame.

It is not only in preaching and teaching that we encounter traces of the "religious" anthropology. It turns up, even more often and more objectionably, in many so-called Christian hymns, prayers, and poems. The opening sentence of the prayer of committal in the Burial Office of The Book of Common Prayer is starkly dualistic: "Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto Himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground." A phrase in another prayer in the same Office betrays not only dualism but also a Greeklike, "spiritual" contempt for physical existence: "With whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity." The Orphic notion that the body is the tomb from which the soul longs to get free is clearly set forth in the lines of the Christian poet, John Donne: "When bodies to their graves, souls from their graves remove."

Many of our hymns are nothing but thinly disguised Orphic poems. How frequently we are asked to lament this present life as a "weary pilgrimage" and "transient dream," and to hate the physical aspects of our being as shackles binding us to earth, and to look for an eventual release and an escape to heaven, "up above the sky."
    "Here in the body pent,
    Absent from Him I roam,
    Yet nightly pitch my moving tent
    A day's march nearer home."
Examples in allegedly Christian hymns of "religious" escapism, hostility to this life, and other-worldliness could be multiplied indefinitely. It is beyond question that the "religious" view of human life frequently turns up disguised in Christian clothes.

If we turn to the Bible, however, as we shall later, we find that a quite different view of man is assumed throughout. Here there is no dualism and scarcely any idea of the immortality of a detached and independent soul. There is no tendency to ascribe unrestricted freedom of choice to the soul, nor is there the slightest inclination to vilify the body and its appetites. On the contrary, the Bible assumes that human nature is a unity; in the New Testament it teaches that man's ultimate destiny involves the "resurrection of the body," that in actual fact the human will is not free but in "bondage," and that a repressive and legalistic system of ethics is an intolerable burden that authority "binds" upon men's shoulders.

One of the most important contributions that Christians can make to the eventual reconciliation of Christianity and scientific naturalism is to rid their thinking of the spurious intrusions of "religion." It is an essential prolegomenon (prerequisite introductory discussion) to the main task.