Friday, May 09, 2014

Ye shall know them by their "outstandingly good social and moral fruits"

My current research project deals with some British Christian responses to the European crises of the 1930s and 1940s, particularly the confrontation with 'totalitarianism'. The interactions between faith and 'secularism' was one of the central issues in the group on which I'm concentrating, and, here, 'science' was a recurring topic.

To make a long story short, the particular Christians I'm looking at tended to be quite enthusiastic about science (and sociology), and criticised their fellow believers for ignoring the value of the knowledge thereby produced. The position they reached is complicated, but it resembles what Stephen Jay Gould much later referred to as 'non-overlapping magisteria': i.e., the view that science and religion concern themselves with different (and separate) realms of experience, and within those respective realms each approach is appropriate and generates legitimate knowledge. (Like some people, I'm sceptical about how well this actually works, but that's another topic for another day.)

More specifically, within my group the tendency was to ascribe to science a justified predominance with regard to understanding natural phenomena while reserving for religion authority over things like ethics and morality.

But looking through the pages of the predominantly Anglican journal Theology from the period of the Second World War, I ran across this interesting statement from W. G. Symons in an article titled 'A Forgotten Frontier', which takes the religious praise of science much further than it usually went, even giving it a positive moral value.

(Symons was a Methodist and active in the British Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, the Student Christian Movement and other Christian organisations.)

After noting what he saw as the increasing engagement of scientists in social and moral issues of the day (often, he pointed out, from a Marxist perspective, citing figures such as Bernal and Haldane), he observed:
The outlook on the theological side is not encouraging. A great many of our Christian writers and thinkers seem almost unaware of what is going on in the world around. The vital schools of theology (and I mean by that the orthodox schools, Catholic and Reformed, rather than the Liberals) are just not interested in scientific affairs, and maintain an attitude of cultured and dogmatic aloofness. Those who do refer to science do so without adequate equipment....


Finally, can we have an examination of the positive contribution of science to our moral and social thinking? Science may form an inadequate basis for a complete morality, and it is patently obvious to-day that it does not provide a solvent for all our social ills; yet it is a simple historical fact that the scientific outlook has yielded outstandingly good social and moral fruits well outside the limits of the applied sciences.

Professor Whitehead has written: “The common sense of the eighteenth century, its grasp of the obvious facts of human suffering, and of the obvious demand of human nature, acted on the world like a bath of moral cleansing.” Science has not merely told us how to relieve suffering (by improved knowledge of medicine, hygiene and so on); intertwined with it has been an attitude of mind which has recognized cruelty and oppression and social shams, and has exerted a disinfectant influence in our whole social life.

The Church, in some periods of its history, has woefully lacked such disinfectant. Yet in Church circles there are frequent attempts to belittle the moral fruits of science, to dismiss it as “mere technicality.” Such an attitude betrays invincible ignorance, or still worse, the mortal sin of “calling good evil” in the unconscious interest of ecclesiastical self-conceit. (Surely, Matt. xii, 24-31 is relevant here.)

(W. G. Symons, 'A Forgotten Frontier', Theology, XLV, No. 269, November 1942, 225. Paragraph breaks added.) 
The biblical verses Symons cites are (as ever) open to interpretation, but involve Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees and contains the well known verse 'Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.'

The rest, though, seems clear enough.

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