Monthly Archives: July 2014

What Should Be the Proper Way of Understanding the Relationship between Science and the Christian Faith?

Tiffany_Education_(center)_public domain

A stained glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios, located in Linsly-Chittenden Hall at Yale University. It depicts Science (personified by Devotion, Labor, Truth, Research and Intuition) and Religion (personified by Purity, Faith, Hope, Reverence and Inspiration) in harmony, presided over by the central personification of “Light•Love•Life”. Public Domain

Although significant progress is being made in the interaction between science and Christianity in this century, there remains a residual hostility between them that can be traced to the nineteenth century. When modern science as we know it first appeared in seventeenth century Europe, its encounter with Christianity could be generally described as friendly. Scientists then understood that God had created the world, and see science as the means by which they could examine the handiwork of the Creator. In the eighteenth century, however, there was a gradual rift between the scientific and religious communities. Influenced by Deism, which teaches that God, having created the world, is no longer personally involved with it, scientists maintain that they could study nature without the interference of religious metaphysics. This rift soon developed into open hostility in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the rise secularism.

The hostility between science and Christianity has resulted in the conflict thesis promoted by prominent scientists in the nineteenth century like J. W. Draper in History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and A.D. White in A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology in Christendom. The scientists who hold this view argue quite simply that only science can enable us to understand reality, which according to them is the material world in which we live. But it would be a mistake to think that only scientists are responsible for the rhetoric of conflict and warfare. Theologians who take a literal approach to the interpretation of the Bible also come to this conclusion. The conflict thesis is therefore supported by materialism on the one hand, and biblical literalism on the other.

Some scientists and theologians maintain that it is misguided to speak of the conflict between science and religion because these two spheres of knowledge are totally distinct from each other. Religion, these thinkers claim, asks a totally different set of questions, work on totally different assumptions, and employ a different methodology from science. Science and religion in fact speak two different languages with totally different functions. Science is concerned with objective, public and repeatable data while religion is concerned with aesthetic experiences and the inner life. Science asks the ‘how’ questions, while religion asks the ‘why’ questions. The authority of science is the empirical study of the material world, while religion is dependent on divine revelation. Those who argue for the independence of science and religion wish to safeguard the integrity and autonomy of both.

Both these approaches, however, fail to appreciate fully the complex nature of the relationship between science and religion or theology. The conflict thesis fails to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of reality. And the independence theory, while acknowledging the fact that reality is multi-faceted fails to give an account of how these facets are related to each other. Furthermore, this latter approach will ultimately result in the privatisation of religion, treating it only as subjective experience that has no objective basis whatsoever.

The proper understanding of the relationship between science and the Christian faith is dialogue. Dialogue suggests a more constructive relationship between science and religion than both conflict and independence because it acknowledges the differences as well as similarities between the two. Dialogue requires science and theology to have a clear understanding of their own as well as each other’s presuppositions and methods. This would prevent caricatures that would inhibit fruitful conversations between them. For example, some philosophers have argued that science is objective because its theories are validated by clear-cut criteria and indisputable evidence. Theology or religion, on the other hand, is highly subjective and is based on individual or cultural assumptions. Many philosophers of science and theologians have rightly rejected this simplistic view of both science and theology. They have shown on the one hand that science is theory-laden, and on the other that although theological statements are not amendable to strict empirical testing they can nevertheless be taken to be objective.

There are indeed many areas of possible dialogue between science and theology. One such area is the intelligibility of the cosmos. Physicists and astronomers have long been seeking for a unified theory of the cosmos based on the conviction that the latter is simple, orderly and rationally intelligible. Theologians can account for the intelligibility of the world that scientists assume because they believe that the God who ordered the world is rational. In creating the world, God has given it an independent reality distinct from himself, which implies that the creation has its own integrity. Theologians like Thomas Torrance and John Polkinghorne discuss the intelligibility of the world within the theistic framework thereby bringing science and theology into serious and creative dialogue with each other.

Taking this dialogue seriously implies that consonance between theology and science is to be actively sought. But it also implies that all hasty attempts to achieve a happy but superficial synthesis between the two must be resisted. Failure to arrive at a synthesis, however, should not discourage further dialogue because the dialogical process itself is beneficial for both science and theology. As Pope John Paul II has so insightfully put it, ‘Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

 

The Evil of Eugenics

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Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921. Public Domain

On July 14, 1933, the German parliament passed a legislation that allowed persons with hereditary diseases to be sterilised without their consent and against their wishes. From 1934 to 1939, an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 people with schizophrenia, manic-depressive syndrome, hereditary epilepsy and other conditions were sterilized.

In 1934, Adolf Hitler issued a secret order that initiated a national euthanasia programme to end the lives of the institutionalised, which he disparagingly described as ‘useless eaters’. This programme was introduced with the explicit aim of freeing up as many as 800,000 beds for expected war casualties. At around the same period, Hitler launched an anti-Semitic programme that sanctioned the state-sponsored mass murder or genocide of six million European Jews throughout German-occupied territory.

These horrific events have led the West, especially Europe and America, not only to reject eugenic ideas, but also to regard them as taboo. But in what is known as the Biotech Age (which began in the latter half of the 20th century), when the human imagination is bedazzled by the potentials of genetic research, eugenics has again begun to raise its ugly head, albeit in a different guise.

In the wake of the brave new world of bio- technology and medicine, the profound injunctions that were issued in the form of the Nuremberg Code in response to the atrocities of the recent past have become especially relevant and pressing, sixty years after they were originally formulated.

It was Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, who first coined the term ‘eugenics’ in the 1880. The modern eugenics movement received its inspiration from the social implications of Darwinism. For almost a century (1880 to 1945), eugenics sought to improve the human race through selective breeding based on the evolutionary theory broadly gleaned from Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Eugenicists in Europe and America have accordingly proposed to direct human evolution by increasing the frequency of ‘socially good genes’ in the population (‘positive eugenics’) and decreasing the proliferation of ‘bad genes’ (‘negative eugenics’). Some believe that utopia can be achieved if more biologically and intellectually superior people are produced and inferior ones are slowly eliminated from the population.

From its inception, the eugenics movement has wedded its vision of the future with the remarkable advances in the natural sciences. According to them, science (by which is meant the pseudo-science of ‘hereditarian biology’) has allegedly enlightened society on the genetic basis for social ills like poverty and criminality. And science has provided a method to rid society of the problem, in the form of eugenics sterilisation.

Christians, of course, should have no truck with eugenic ideas and programmes because the Bible provides us with a different vision of humanity. In the first chapter of Genesis, human beings are distinguished from the rest of God’s creatures because they alone are created in the ‘image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:27). This means that human life is a gift from God and the human being – regardless his age or health – must be valued and treated with respect.

As the gift of God, human life is sacred, and must be received with gratitude, cherished and protected. The individual is not only responsible for his own life, but also for the lives of others. That is why it is always wrong to take one’s own life or the life of another human being (Exodus 20:13).

It is in respecting one another in this way, and learning what it means to live in covenantal fellowship and solidarity with each other that we find meaning in our existence and flourish as a society. As the Roman Catholic moral theologian Bernard Häring has put it: ‘We find the truth of our life by respecting everyone’s life and caring for each other. In this we find the supreme meaning and value of bodily life’.

Unfortunately, Christians have not always understood this in relation to eugenics. In the heady decades following the genesis of the movement, a number of Christians embraced its philosophy and practice with enthusiasm for various reasons.

Some supported the movement because of its connection with Darwinism, which was seen as a scientific account of the development of living organisms. To reject Darwinism is to reject science, and to reject science is to be anti-progress – a charge which these Christians tried hard to avoid. Others were sincerely longing for a better society and believed that the eugenic method is the way in which this reality can be achieved.

That is why some churches even invited eugenics advocates to preach in their pulpits. For example, the Baptist Tabernacle in Raleigh, North Carolina, invited professor William Lovis Poteat to speak at their services. Poteat described evolution as the ‘divine method of creation’ and postulated that Paul may have been a theistic evolutionist. It was reported that his sermons were accepted with ‘enthusiasm equal to that which greeted his scientific ideas at college’.

In her study of the Christian reception of eugenics in the early years of the movement, Christian Rosen observes that ‘Protestants proved the most enthusiastic and numerically powerful group of religious participants’.

There were, however, distinct Christian voices that opposed the eugenics movement. One of the most eloquent was that of the Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton, who offered perhaps one of the most scathing assessments of the movement. Chesterton argued that contrary to the claims of its proponents, eugenics was not really supported by solid scientific evidence. He questioned the role that eugenicists gave to hereditary in shaping human societies and determining their future.

But the true evil of eugenics lies in its distorted understanding of what it means to be a human community. It fails to appreciate the value of human life and the responsibility that members of society have for each other. Eugenics signals the utter failure to see that the moral substance of any society can be acutely gauged by its attitude towards its members, especially the most vulnerable: the unborn, the very young, the aged, the disabled and the very sick. And this distortion has in turn led to the perversion of the very society that eugenics hopes to improve.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

 

Should Christians Condone Euthanasia?

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Photo Credit: Elitre, Wikimedia Commons

In the modern world dying has become a problem! The extraordinary advances in science and technology have not only made it possible for doctors to alleviate pain but also to extend life. The possibility of being maintained on life support for months and sometimes years has resulted in much anxiety in both elderly and non-elderly patients. Patients and their families are increasingly involved in medical decisions concerning the end of life. As a result, patients, physicians, the public, and policy makers are faced with complex and difficult questions: Should the terminally ill patient be allowed to die? Should the medical profession have the option of helping these patients to die?

The issue of euthanasia or physician-assisted-suicide is receiving renewed attention and interest in recent years. The recent case of Terri Schiavo and the public debate it sparked shows quite clearly how clouded the question of euthanasia can become. (For my comments please see, ‘A Life Deemed Useless: The Terri Schiavo Case’, Trumpet, May 2005, pp. 2, 8). But renewed interest in this issue can also be attributed to the fact that in recent years a number of European countries have legalized the practice of euthanasia. For instance, on April 10, 2001, the Dutch government approved the ‘Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act’. And on May 28, 2002, Belgium passed an Act legalizing euthanasia, which went into effect on September 23, 2002.

What is euthanasia? Should Christians condone such a practice?

The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs has defined euthanasia as:

… the act of bringing about the death of a hopelessly ill and suffering person in a relatively quick and painless way for reasons of mercy. In this report, the term euthanasia will signify the medical administration of a lethal agent to a patient for the purpose of relieving the patient’s intolerable and incurable suffering.

The Christian faith does not condone euthanasia because it maintains that human life is a gift of God and has intrinsic and exceptional value. The Christian faith’s rejection of euthanasia is also established upon the general prohibition against murder found in the sixth commandment in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13).

According to the Christian faith, each human being is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and given a special vocation. Thus each human being has a unique role to play in the drama of salvation of the world. This emphasis has led some twentieth century theologians like Karl Barth to argue that the dignity of each individual person is profoundly related to his or her uniqueness. God has given each person a unique role to play at this time, in this place and in this manner. And although that role may not be glamorous, it is nonetheless special – it cannot be played by any other person in all of history.

Furthermore, the Christian faith sees life as a ‘gift’ or a ‘loan’ from God. The implication of this is that the individual is not simply a master but a beneficiary. More precisely, the individual is first a beneficiary before he or she is a master. This means that the individual’s life is not at his or her disposal, but he or she must treat it with due care; and due care must mean that nothing should be done to harm or destroy it. These insights have informed and shaped the Christian idea of the sacredness or the sanctity of life, and correlatively its stringent prohibition against harming and destroying human life.

Supporters of euthanasia have presented two arguments why to their mind the practice is not morally unacceptable. The first appeals to the principle of autonomy and self-determination: the person requesting to be euthanized is exercising his or her right to self-determination. This basic ‘right-to-die’ argument appears in its various permutations in pro-euthanasia literature. The problem with this argument is that if the ‘right-to-die’ is so fundamental, why restrict it only to those who are terminally ill? Why not allow those who are in good health, but who feel that their lives are not worth living, to euthanize themselves?

The second argument – to which some Christians may be more sympathetic – is that euthanasia provides compassionate relief from suffering. That is why it is sometimes called ‘mercy killing’. In response, we argue that although suffering is to be resisted because it is not the expressed will of God, human beings do not have the right to take a life in order to relief suffering. The central principle which governs medical ethics is ‘maximize care’, and not ‘minimize suffering’. If it were the latter, then the elimination of sufferers would indeed be justified. But the duty of the physician is ‘always to care, never to kill’.

This wisdom, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, is embedded in the tradition of Western medicine for many centuries and should serve as the moral compass for decisions concerning the end of life. Thus the Declaration on Euthanasia of the World Health Organisation (Madrid, 1987) states that ‘euthanasia, or the act of deliberately putting to an end to a patient’s life, either at the request of the patient himself or at the request of his relatives, is immoral’. In similar vein, the Encyclical Evangelium vitae (‘Gospel of Life’) issued by Pope John Paul II condemns euthanasia because it is a ‘grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

 

What Should be the Christian Attitude Towards Abortion?

Lifesize8weekfetus_Bill Davenport

Life Size Model of Fetus at Eight Weeks After Conception in Hand of Adult. Photo Credit: © Bill Davenport Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/322389

Without a doubt, abortion is one of the most divisive and controversial issues of our day. People have strong views about abortion because it is never merely an issue of social preferences. For some the abortion issue has to do with personal autonomy, while for others it has to do with the unconditional respect for the sanctity of human life. Before turning to the Christian response to abortion, it is good to begin with a definition. In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium vitae), Pope John Paul II defines abortion as ‘the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth. Continue reading