Religious Practice, Scientific Inquiry and Human Suffering

I thought I would make my first post on this blog an introduction in how I approach scientific material as a practicing Christian. I think it is always best to acknowledge worldviews at the beginning of any scientific discussion. I have argued that the social sciences in particular are negligent in this regard, implying that they are value free and scientific in their collection, organization and interpretation of data. I understand that this is a worthy goal, but I think the very nature of the things under study make this goal very elusive and implying objectivity in the social sciences ultimately misleads the public.

So I hope to be brief here but sufficiently illuminating so that further posts are placed in the frame of my worldview. I further hope that this will help readers ferret through the material presented and extract useful bits even if they are in conflict with my worldview.

Scientific Inquiry and Scripture:

There are many verses in scripture which guide and reinforce thoughtful scientific inquiry. The earliest and the first is part of God’s first command to Adam and Eve:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” Genesis 1:26

I think it is self-evident that you cannot be responsible for the supervision of creation and not understand it at the same time. Simply put, for the scientific Christian, curiosity is an act of worship. It is expressing wonder, admiration and respect for what God has created and the scientific Christian can worship better when he sees the intricacies and nuances of God’s creation.

The obligation is to have fidelity to the truth. Scientific inquiry for the Christian demands that the truth be sought like a workman, or a craftsman. Lazy scientific inquiry is implied as shameful (e.g., picking and choosing my research not to reveal the truth, but to reinforce my biases).

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15.

Being eager to teach, or enter the foray of blogging on faith, culture and science, is not a virtue in itself. Rather it implies a great responsibility that has eternal consequences:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1

Scientific inquiry should be guided by humility and collaboration. It is unlikely that pure anger or outrage will guide us to the truth:

My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. James 1: 19, 20

Beware the scientific discovery that makes you feel morally superior. This encourages a two-fold deception: I magnify the moral inferiority of the one I study and I minimize my own moral failings.

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:2-5

This is in no way a comprehensive list of useful scriptures to guide scientific inquiry, you may know and recommend others.

Christ and Culture:

I read Niebuhr’s book (Christ and Culture) while in college and again in graduate school and quickly fit myself into the “conversion” model of Christ Transforming Culture. In this model, culture is corrupt (inherently sinful) and needs to be converted to Christian thought. This inherently antagonistic model became less useful to me over the years for two reasons. The first is my exposure to non-Christians who were working deeply and morally in the culture to have a positive impact in their marriages, with their kids, at their work and with their friends. The second was my exposure to some Christians who were so preoccupied with transformation that they had become interpersonally irrelevant to the culture or so offensive (morally superior) that there was no hope that they would ever interact honestly with the culture.

In the years that have followed I have changed my view and see myself working more synthetically with the culture and my Christian faith (Christ Above Culture). In this model I view culture as part of God’s creation, a necessary social structure meant to provide a sense of connection with other people and a sense of purpose and place in the world. In that regard, a healthy culture provides for the safety, wellbeing, purpose and place for it’s people. This has tremendous overlap with Christian faith, but is not, in and of itself, Christian faith. Christian faith is always a “subculture” of every culture. For me, ideally, my goal is to create a safer, healthier culture for all of its members and in so doing model Christian charity. If I am successful as a Christian, I model Christ in such a way that my neighbors benefit from my faith even without converting to my faith (see here).

Sin and Mental Illness:

This is where this discussion gets a little fun. I view mental illness as a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve: part of living in a broken world. It deserves as much compassion, curiosity and care as any other consequence of the fall (pain in childbirth, for example).

However, I do not share, with many of my humanist colleagues, a view that mental illness is morally neutral. Compassion and curiousity about mental illness does not require that I abandon a moral compass or obscure personal responsibility. In 1959 Mowrer wrote of this difficulty, and tried, in vain, to resurrect a tried and true moral compass within psychology:

…Hell is still very much with us in those states of mind and being we call neurosis and psychosis: and I have come increasingly, at least in my own mind, to identify anything that carries us toward these forms of perdition as sin (Mowrer 301).

You can find a brief article in Time Magazine summarizing this issue as it was raised in 1959 and quoting both Mowrer and Ellis here .

How does this impact scientific inquiry for me? First, I should not expect that every moral behavior will lead to positive mental health. Neither should I seek to distort the scientific literature to “demonstrate” that sinful behavior results in mental illness, or is mental illness. The most obvious result for this blog is to not get caught up in “proving” that homosexual behavior is a mental illness as a means of emphasizing it’s sinfulness.

The Christian, in following the moral imperative to be holy, may endure suffering. In fact it is expected. Suffering is part of being conformed to the person of Christ. It is part of the theological doctrine of sanctification. Some mental health professionals may considering this suffering a manifestation of mental illness. They may seek to alleviate it by arguing for the irrational nature of spiritual practice.

So an odd set of circumstances arises around morality and mental illness:

1. Science may demonstrate that certain immoral behaviors result in mental illness.

2. Science may demonstrate that certain immoral behaviors do not result in mental illness.

3. Science may demonstrate that certain moral behaviors improve adaptive functioning.

4. Science may demonstrate that certain moral behaviors decrease adaptive functioning and may indeed create mental illness.

There is much more to say here, but that is another topic altogether. I hope this is a good beginning for those who share my faith and those who disagree with it to discuss how our worldviews effect how we look at Scientific Inquiry and Human Suffering.

Mowrer, O. Hobart (1960). Sin, the Lesser of Two Evils. American Psychologist 15: 301-304.