CONTEMPORARY REFLECTIONS ON SCIENCE AND RELIGION
It was most unfortunate for China as well as for a promising East-West
cultural exchange that Western science was not allowed to take root in China
during the late Ming and the early Ch’ing dynasties. Thus the worldwide
scientific revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries caught China largely
unprepared and caused tre-mendous social and cultural upheavals. Academic
discussions on the problem of modernization in China fill entire libraries.1
The importance of modern science is commonly recognized in China today. What Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall2 and their colla-borators set out to do 400 years ago now is taken for granted. Modern science is no longer "Western Science", but has become part of mankind’s fundamental equipment on its march into the future. It has become an important element with regard to cultural exchange on a worldwide scale. It is seen as a means to provide a better future for man, and should be considered a fitting instrument in humankind’s common search for truth. As such it demands radical openness on the part of humankind.
In the face of the problems of modern man, there should no longer be any talk about scientific superiority, but about cooperation between East and West towards a common horizon with regard to the concept of science, its possible applications, as well as its limita-tions.3 In the following we shall discuss these ideas in some greater detail and formulate some suggestions as to what to concentrate on in future common efforts.
SCIENCE THROUGH TIME
Modern science, which originated in Europe, has become world science. It follows that historical, philosophical, and critical studies of science are or should be of universal interest. The history and genesis of modern science still await elucidation. Fortunately, the many distorted and ideological views on the history of science and religion, so rampant during the period of Enlightenment and in the 19th and 20th centuries, are giving way to solid research into these subjects. This has made manifest three important factors.
First, more recent studies point to the fact that the new sciences emerged through the reasoning and discoveries of many brilliant scholars in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance based upon the conviction of an ordered universe based upon a wise creation. Reference can be made here only to this religious con-viction of some of the better know scientists.
Copernicus related his scientific activities and his Christian faith.
"During his 40 years as canon, Copernicus faithfully served his Church with
extraordinary commitment and courage. . . . Co-pernicus pursued his science with
the sense of `loving duty to seek the truth in all things, in so far as God has
granted that to human reason.’"4
Stanley L. Jaki reasons along similar lines when he writes: "As a
Christian, Copernicus firmly believed that the world was not a self-explaining
entity. His Christian faith told him that the ultimate explanation of the world
could only be found in the wisdom and will of the Creator."5
As a devout Christian, Kepler was convinced "that God had a master
plan when he created this orderly, beautiful and mathe-matically perfect world.
. . . God’s plan is discovered in the mathematical laws he has provided."6
His relentless search for scientific truth reflected the devotion of a committed
Christian. His sense of order and harmony was intimately linked with his theo-logical
understanding of God the Creator.7
Galileo was known to be a faithful believer and loyal member of the
Church. "Galileo himself was a devout Catholic and found no conflict
between his scientific and religious beliefs. God is the author of nature as
well as the author of Scripture, the two sources of knowledge cannot
conflict."8 Hummel maintained that
Galileo’s trial has been widely misinterpreted and used as a weapon against
the Church. He comes to the conclusion: "Galileo was both a pioneering
scientist and a practicing Christian. His experience can point the way for those
in current conflicts who wish to maintain the integrity of both science and the
Second, serious studies in the history of the sciences have brought to light the fact that the birth of modern science was a process started in the Middle Ages.10 The scientists of the Renais-sance were deeply religious and based their scientific and cosmo-logical reasoning on the rationality of a personal Creator-God, a concept which had been developed centuries before the new science took shape.
In his article, "Celestial Perfection from the Middle Ages to the
Late Seventeenth Century," Edward Grant takes up important aspects of
cosmology and astronomy that were vividly discussed by such scholars as Thomas
Aquinas (1225-1274), John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), John Buridan (1295-1358) and
Nicolas of Oresme (ca. 1320-1382), the Coimbra Jesuits and many others. Grant
suggests that "despite the general acceptance of Aristotle’s cosmology by
natural philosophers in the Middle Ages, they would eventually cha-llenge all of
these claims. Indeed, the divinity of the heavens never formed part of medieval
cosmology because it was incompatible with the Christian faith."11
Thomas Aquinas, though a genius in philosophy, made hardly any memorable steps along the road of science. Yet, Jaki argues,
It was no small matter to lead, as a new Moses, the
mind out of its Averroist enslavement to Aristotle by correcting the Stagirite
on at least three crucial issues, the existence of a transcendent God, the
creation out of nothing, and the freedom of man rooted in the immortality of his
soul." Jaki then suggests that the work of Newton and Einstein was steeped
in an epistemology akin to the one applied in Aquinas’ natural philosophy.12
Third, studies on the history and genesis of our modern sciences must be accompanied by serious efforts to understand the scientific enterprise from all possible viewpoints. We need a philo-sophy of science which should itself be scientific, hypothetical as well as self-consciously critical, human as well as rational, skeptical and undogmatic, while also receptive to discussion of first principles. All serious academic disciplines need each other in philosophical studies of the sciences. Not only can we find help across disciplinary boundaries of content (physics, chemistry, biology, ethics, etc.), of approach (history of science and logic of science), and of presu-ppositions (metaphysical, antimetaphysical and dialectical), but also across decades, centuries, even epochs and civilizations.
In the West interdisciplinary research is done on such topics as, e.g., science and theology in medieval Islam and the Latin West. It is expected that these studies will be helpful to late 20th and early 21st century specialists in scientific methods and concepts. Another ambitious research project deals with historical and philosophical studies of Japanese science. Needham’s published results of his very intensive research on the great scientific and technological achievements in China are now well known and appreciated.
In recent years an excellent dictionary on "Bioethics"13 has been compiled which not only discusses the problems of bioethics in relation to the fields of biology and ethics, but also from such points of view as philosophy, psychology, linguistics, religion and others. In addition, historical aspects of these problems are taken into consideration: questions of bioethics (as e.g. the relationship of body and soul, the meaning of life and death, genetic and environmental influences on the behavior of man, the relationship between the two sexes, abortion, etc.) are traced back to thinking and practices in such classical periods as Egyptian, Babylonian, Judean, Greek and Roman, as well as the Eastern classical traditions: Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, etc.
All three points offer new perspectives on modern problems and may be of great help in modern man’s search for possible solu-tions to his problems. But a number of challenges remain.
It has been stated that modern philosophy of science has turned out to be a Pandora’s box. Once the box was opened by inde-pendent critical minds puzzling monsters appeared. Not only was the neat structure of classical physics changed (partly by philosophical analysis within physics), but a variety of wide-ranging questions were let loose. The philosophy of science could not help but become epistemological and historical. It could no longer avoid metaphysical questions, even when they were posed in disguise. Once the identi-fication of scientific method with that of physics had been queried not only did biology and psychology come under scrutiny as major modes of scientific inquiry, but so did history and the social sciences, particularly economics, sociology and anthropology.
This trend raises anew a much older question, whether the conception of science is to be distinguished from the wider concep-tion of learning and inquiry. Is modern science to be seen as matured reason, or is it simply one historically adopted and limited species of reasoning -- of Western reasoning at that?
This latter question brings us to a host of questions. What does history reveal about the conception of science not only in the West, but also in the East? When and where did man begin to reflect on his cultural activities? When and how has the concept of science de-veloped and how was it refined throughout the history of humankind? Why is the term "science" in its strict sense applied only to the search for knowledge during the last centuries, and particularly in the West? Is scientific knowledge in this particular sense the most important knowledge of and for man, or are there other equally im-portant types of knowledge as well as different avenues for gaining such knowledge? What are the philosophical presuppositions for the classical sciences and what are the philosophical presuppositions for human knowledge as exhibited in the great ancient cultures?
A question that has occupied the minds of many people interested in the
history of civilization is why classical science was developed in the West and
not in the East with its long cultural traditions and great civilizations? In
particular, why did the Chinese fail to develop modern science? Jaki feels that
Needham comes close to an answer to this question when he indicates that for the
Chinese there was certainly order in Nature, but that it was not an order
ordained by a rational being. Hence that there was no con-viction that rational
personal beings would be able to spell out in their lesser earthly languages the
divine code of laws which had been decreed aforetime.14
Jaki himself suggests that the predicament of China, both ancient and modern, is
an eloquent though tragic witness to the need for natural theology if science is
In several of his publications. Liu Xiaofeng takes up the cha-llenge of
this "predicament" or "dead end" in the cultural history of
China and comes to results that go far beyond mere cultural issues. Lack of
belief in a personal rational God is blamed for many prob-lems China encountered
in the process of modernization.16
We could continue to raise questions of a similar nature. The foregoing discussion makes one thing crystal clear: 400 years after Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall, East and West can no longer afford to go their own ways; scientific cooperation in the sense discussed is a simple must.
RELIGION FOR TODAY
Looking at humankind in its historical evolution and its march towards
the future, we are inclined to suggest that two revolutionary forces have shaped
mankind more than any other forces: science and religion. A.N. Whitehead seems
to voice his support of these when he writes: "When we consider what
religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that
the future course of history depends upon the decision of these general forces
(apart from the mere impulses of the various senses) which influence man."17
Hardly anyone will deny that modern science has changed the world: this is patent to our senses. One must look deeper to see how religion shapes or could shape modern man’s worldview. Religion has to do with man in his totality as he searches for meaningful and assuring answers to the most fundamental questions of his existence:
Men look to the various religions for answers to
those profound mysteries of the human condition which, today as in olden times,
deeply stir the human heart: What is man? What is the meaning and the purpose of
our life? What is goodness and what is sin? What gives rise to our sorrows and
to what intent? Where lies the path to happiness? What is the truth about death,
judgement, and retribution beyond the grave? What, finally, is that ultimate and
unutterable mystery which engulfs our beings, and whence we take our rise and
whither our journey leads us?18
Confronted with today’s worldwide problems, modern man in his anxiety poses anew and in a rather radical way all the age-old questions raised above. However, he is no longer content with prefa-bricated answers. Modern man has tasted all kinds of food offered to him by a variety of rational and irrational philosophies and by various humanisms, but his appetite for spiritual values has not been satisfied. Modern man is searching for answers that will restore his human and personal dignity and provide meaning for his entire existence in a technological, inhuman world:
The question is: How will the content of our cultural heritage be preserved under the conditions of the age of Technology and the reorganization of the whole human community? How shall we pre-serve the infinite value of the individual, the dignity and rights of man, the freedom of the spirit, the metaphysical experiences of the millennia?
The specific question of the future, however, which
conditions and includes everything, is how and what man will believe. Man cannot
live without faith. For even nihilism as the opposite pole to faith, exists only
in relation to a possible, but denied, faith.19
There is a new interest in religious issues, a new search for God. In fact, it is our belief that in view of the great problems and dangers of our age, religious questions promise to be the most burning issues for decades to come.
In his book Does God Exist? Hans Küng deals with our problem in a
rather extensive and convincing way. He raises man’s perennial question: Where
can I find the certainty upon which I can build all human certainty? He checks
critically into the major thought streams and thought systems of our modern age
and comes to the conclusion that only a knowing, personal God could be the
absolutely trustworthy being, the One who could give meaning to the totality of
human existence. He winds up his thoughtful discussion with the statement that
man is fully justified in believing in the existence of God.20
We saw that scientific cooperation, based on radical openness of all partners, has become a matter of course in our time. What should be said of religious issues, especially if seen from the point of view of common worldwide problems? All genuine human, ethical and especially religious values should be highly appreciated and available to the modern mind. In the spirit of true openness, Chris-tians should try to understand in what way and to what extent Eastern religions and humanistic ethical systems serve to answer the fundamental human questions. Correlatively Eastern cultures should search out the important role the religion of a personal God has played through many centuries in the West and will continue to play in the future.
So-called philosophical and/or theological systems in the West never had claim to be complete for too long. Who would still claim in our days that for instance the Christian World View of the Middle Ages, the great rationalistic movement of the Enlightenment,21 Kant’s global treatment of scientific and ethical problems,22 scien-tific, technological or materialist could solve all modern problems? Generally speaking, all fall short of understanding the depth of modern man’s spiritual anxiety, his loneliness, and his yearning for security. Today, one feels compelled to draw upon all these systems and to move ahead in facing anew the most fundamental questions concerning human life and existence; one transcends the systems of the past.
Similarly, few would claim today that any humanistic, ethical or religious system in China (including Buddhism and Neo-Con-fucianism) is complete and able to answer all of modern man’s questions? At the time of Ricci and Schall, such a claim could still be made. However, in our pluralistic society humankind, which in the future will more and more have to rely on personal choices and decisions, needs more than the answers offered by past thought systems.
Today the new global awareness begins to search for answers that only a living, personal God can provide. Radical questioning suggests the dilemma that only in God will all things find fulfillment, but that God cannot be controlled by anyone through either rational or irrational means. This, in turn, suggests that only in true openness to the mystery of human existence in a world that is not of one’s own making might one hear the voice of one’s Maker speaking both from within and through the whole universe.
Does God exist? This question is an essential part of the Western heritage, strongly influencing its cultural history, including its approach to science. As East and West develop closer ties, the concept of God as a living, personal being, ultimately concerned about man will become increasingly central and the question will be asked: what would change in man’s outlook if this God existed? and likewise, what would one forfeit in rejecting such a God?23 As God of the entire Universe and of all humankind, these are questions of global breadth for every human being.
With Matteo Ricci, Adam Schall and their collaborators a movement of cultural interchange was initiated that has taken on unprecedented dimensions in our time. Looking at the work of these pioneers from our modern point of view, we may state that they were concerned largely with the most fundamental cultural issues of modern man: with science and religion. The legacy they left behind can be formulated in this way: to cooperate in matters of science and technology for the material well-being of modern man and to make available to him the richest and deepest spiritual values from the treasury of humankind.
1. Research on the life and work of such a prominent figure as Hu Shih reveals the enormous problems China was facing at the beginning of this century. A good introduction to Hu Shih and his time is offered by Jerome B. Grieder, Hu Shih and the Chinese Renai-ssance. Liberalism in the Chinese Revolution, 1917-1937 (Cam-bridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).
2. At the beginning of May (1992) an international symposium was held in Germany to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Adam Schall.
3. Some ideas on this topic have been expounded in my "Die Katholische Universität in China (Taiwan), Fu Jen Universität 1979" in NZM, 36 (1980/2), 114-135, and 36 (1980/3), 219-234.
4. Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection (Downers Grove III.: Inter Varsity Press, 1986), p. 55.
5. Charles E. Hummel, Chance or Reality (Washington, D.C.: University of America Press, 1986), p. 170.
6. Ibid., p. 63.
7. Ibid., p. 76.
8. Ian G. Barbour, Issues in Science and Religion (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), p. 29.
9. Hummel, p. 17.
10. Pioneering studies in the history of science in medieval and Renaissance centuries were made by Pierre Duhem, an eminent French scholar of the history of science. Stanley Jaki has made great efforts to bring to light and to evaluate an intellectual enterprise which signals a Copernican turn in our understanding of the religious, philosophical, and scientific sources that led to the great revolutions. See Stanley Jaki, Uneasy Genius: The Life and Work of Pierre Duham (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1987).
11. Margaret J. Osler and Paul Lawrence Farber, eds., Re-ligion, Science and Worldview (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 138-162.
12. Stanley L. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 38.
13. Warren T. Reich, ed. in chief, Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 4 vols. (New York: The Free Press/Macmillan, 1978).
14. Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God, p. 338, fn. 66.
15. Ibid., 14f.
16. Jaki, Zheng Jiu Gen Xiao Yao (Salvation and Leisure) (Shanghai: People’s Publishing Company, 1988).
17. Jaki, Science and the Modern World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), p.181.
18. "The Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et spes" in Walter M. Abbott, S.J., ed., The Documents of Vatican II (Wa-shington, D.C.: University of America Press, 1966), pp. 661f.
19. Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (Taipei: Rainbow-Bridge, 1971), pp. 214f.
20. Hans Kung, Does God Exist: An Answer for Today, E. Quinn, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1981).
21. Günther Bohrmoser speaks in definite terms about the "end of Enlightenment" in his treatise "Die Zeit der Revolutionen ist vorbei," Rheinischer Merkur/Christ und Welt, no. 12, March 19, 1982. The subject of his article is "Politik und Religion am Ende der Aufklärung".
22. See Küng’s criticism of Kant’s transcendental argu-mentation in his chapter "Kant in der Kritik " in Does God Exist?23. For an extensive discussion of these questions see Küng’s chapter "Gott existiert" in his Does God Exist?