A Christian View of Scientific Research

A reconsideration of man's ultimate purpose results in a new understanding of the Christian scientist's use of his particular gifts.

Brian S. Bull, M.D., is chairman of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda, California.

Until recently the consensus of Western civilization has been that science can do almost everything, religion is unnecessary, and that man is the arbiter of his own destiny. This deification of man goes under the more pleasant designation of humanism, but it amounts to the same thing. An outwardly religious out look on the part of a scientist, as op posed to a "humanistic" outlook, was considered definitely detrimental. A truly humanistic scientist could and would accept a co-worker who acknowledged and worshiped a Creator God, but the humanist felt that it was a credit to his humanism and to his tolerance that such a state of affairs was even work able!

All this is in the process of changing. The recent developments in cosmology, particularly in the area of beginnings, have changed the prevailing attitude. The big-bang theory now reigns supreme, whereas ten years ago it was strictly a secondary, fall-back position.* From a position where science can, in theory, know and explain everything in the material universe, the leaders of scientific thought, in cosmology at least, have come up against barriers that are impenetrable on theological grounds. All that happened before the supposed big bang is inaccessible to science: all that occurs at the opposite end of the uni verse, the black holes of the universe, is likewise inaccessible. For the first time in several hundred years the scientists, as one writer colorfully put it, have scaled what they hoped was the final range of mountains, only to find the theologians already sitting there!

Science's religious background

Science and religion were once inseparable; all scientists worked within a religious framework. In fact, there is good reason to believe that without religion (the Judeo-Christian religious heritage in particular), science would never have gotten off the ground. The concept of Providence—a kind and benevolent Father God interested in all His creation and particularly in man—is virtually unique to the Old and New Testaments and religious faiths based on these writings. Accepting this concept gave Western man the freedom in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to "think God's thoughts" after Him, believing that those thoughts would be logical and in some measure comprehensible to man.

It is perhaps in the medical sciences that this belief in a rational God, concerned about the suffering of His creatures, was of greatest value. The first known description of the circulation of the blood, written by Servetus in 1553, arose out of speculations concerning the Trinity.

We owe the popular and widespread use of salicylates to a belief in the providence of God. In 1763 Edward Stone proposed the use of willow bark as a cure for fever. Although the efficacy of such extracts in breaking a fever had been known to primitive peoples the world over, the popularization and sub sequent widespread use in Western Eu rope was largely on the basis that if a provident God had made such medicine available, then mankind should use it with gratitude. Approximately 100 years later MacLagan, believing again that Providence would have provided a remedy for most ills in nature, was able to extract salicin, the active ingredient of the willow-bark infusions.

The Adventist Christian and scientific research

Western scientific thought arose out of a religious background and perhaps was made possible by the generally accepted views of God implicit within the Christian religion. Now there is at least some evidence that, after a few score years of separation, at least a partial reuniting of science and religion may be taking place in Western thought. What about the situation within the Adventist Church? Superficially, there is every encouragement for the young Adventist scholar to pursue a scientific career. I say superficially because that encouragement frequently stops at the level of medicine or dentistry. If science can produce better dentists or more effective physicians, it is wonderful. Eyebrows are raised, however, if a young scholar gets carried away with his studies and begins talking about a career in "pure science." Questions about the dedication of that scholar are raised. This attitude, its underpinnings, and its effect on our program of higher education in general are what I would like to consider further.

A terrifying shadow rests over the world and blots out the future for those who care enough or have courage enough to concern themselves with any thing further removed than next week's problems. That shadow is, of course, "the bomb." For the first time in history, mankind has the capacity to decide whether civilization itself will continue.

What business, then, do we have concerning ourselves with such trivialities as the names of the muscles that move the ossicles of the middle ear? What earthly use are studies of the biochemistry of gastric secretion when, in a moment of anger (owing, perhaps, to an excess of that same gastric juice), one man could destroy the world?

For the Christian, there is the firm conviction that the world will not end that way. The second coming of Christ is a truth that forms part of the very foundation of revelation. We believe this to be so important that the very name of our denomination expresses our conviction.

In our early history, the belief that there were actions more suited to the times than scholastic pursuits led to a disdain for higher education. However, with growth in size arid sophistication, the church has encouraged the pursuit of higher education on the part of its youth to the extent of founding and supporting two universities. How can we justify this with the end so near? It will make little difference if all our feeble efforts are vaporized by a bomb or swept away by the brightness of His appearing—they will perish with equal dispatch and with equal finality. How can we, on the very doorstep of such momentous change, concern ourselves with anything other than the great and awful questions of existence here and in the hereafter?

Pragmatism and research

An answer is implicit in the fact that our two universities are strongly oriented to the ministry and the healing arts. We have thus said that intellectual pursuits can be justified on pragmatic grounds. Since preaching the Word and healing the sick are effective means of fulfilling the gospel commission, they therefore justify the support of the church. If it is good to train ministers and if the health work is the right arm of the message, then universities that facilitate these tasks have a right to the sup port of the church. (The unvoiced caveat is, of course, they have a right to support only to the extent that they contribute in a direct and clear-cut manner.)

As is true of any secular institution, the Adventist Church has a right to sup port only those activities it deems desirable. Furthermore, for a church that feels itself called to a prophetic role just prior to the end, some activities are clearly more relevant than are others. It is only when the church's support for particular programs becomes confused in the mind of the believer with God's will for that believer's life that major damage may occur. The notion that intellectual pursuits are generally not approved of God and should hence be sup ported by the church only insofar as they contribute to the training of doctors and ministers is a very subtle and damaging heresy. It is as devastating as the notion that intellectual pursuits inherently justify themselves. The latter idea deifies man, inferring that an activity that can be pursued by man is ipso facto an activity worth pursuing. This is pure humanism. The opposite notion, that a search for truth is justifiable only if it increases our output of doctors and ministers, is seldom clearly enunciated, but has already permeated deeply and damaged us.

There is nothing wrong in academic pursuits having a practical outcome. Since our world was created by a wise and loving God, it would be most unusual if further understanding of God's creation did not at some point make our sojourn more bearable here below. As we have already noted, the whole scientific enterprise sprang from a religious world view that included a "provident" God. I do not believe it is wrong to use all available knowledge to make our ministers more effective witnesses and our doctors more effective healers. Still, to undertake as a career the pursuit of knowledge in an academic environment with this as a primary motivation will, I submit, lead to a flawed and unsatisfying life. It is to confuse means with ends.

To please God

It is not the ultimate goal of man to heal the sick, nor even to preach the gospel. Man's appointed end is to please God (John 8:29, Rom. 8:8, 1 Thess. 4:1, Heb. 11:6, Rev. 4:11). To fulfill the Creator's intentions would perhaps be a slightly more accurate rendition in modern speech. While it is true that Christ pleased God (Matt. 3:17) by preaching the Word and healing the sick, He made it clear that others were appointed to please God in other ways, to "clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the prisoners." The gifts of the Spirit are given so that the body of Christ may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works. But all gifts are not given to all believers. To fill our appointed place in the divine scheme, each of us is to use his talents to the glory of God.

It is necessary for those who are called to the ministry to preach the gospel to please God. The preaching is the means, and the pleasing of God the end. While the medical work may well be the right arm of the message, physicians are to heal the sick as the means by which they with their talents achieve the purpose in their creation—the pleasing of God. To justify the medical work because it con tributes to the effectiveness of the preaching ministry is to confuse means with ends. To justify the academic life and its pursuits solely because it con tributes to the ministry is to miss the point. As Christians our end is to please God—to fulfill the Creator's intentions.

One of the means by which a Christian physician achieves that end is the healing ministry. Other means exist. The drafting of health-related legislation, the formulation and execution of public-health policy, the administration of health-care institutions, teaching, and the pursuit of research interests in an academic setting are all ways in which a Christian physician may, because of his native talents and the educational opportunities afforded him, please God. He should not take pride in the fact that these are all, in society's estimation, higher callings. God appoints the mole to dig and the cock to crow to His glory. Whatever our lot in life, it is equally acceptable to Him if done with an eye to His glory rather than to our own. The obverse is also true: the saving of souls by the most eloquent description of His graciousness is repugnant to Him if undertaken for the greater glory of the preacher.

Institutional goals

Granted that any talent exercised with an eye single to the glory of God is equally acceptable to Him, does not the present critical state of the world place a premium upon the more active forms of warning a dying generation? Surely, if this is the last hour of earth's history, those who feel that God has called them to a career of research or of teaching must be mistaken. Not so! It is right and proper to devote institutional resources to institutional goals. To carry the gospel to the world is a most fitting goal for a religious institution—especially one that exists in the closing days of earth's history. But these are institutional goals, and God is at work in the world to save people, not institutions. It is the institutions that are facing nuclear annihilation. Persons are by God's grace potentially immortal.

As we please God, the activities in which each of us spends our days may apparently be coextensive with the goals of our church and hence may appear to be directed toward the preservation of an institution—but that, from the view point of eternity, is inconsequential. The tasks we are called upon to perform are the means of fitting us for the presence of God or eternally disqualifying us for that privilege. If God has called us to research, then in His eternal wisdom that for us is the most effective means by which our ultimate end is to be achieved. To undertake an academic career for any lesser reason is to give hostage to success both here and hereafter.

To refuse God's appointed means of our perfection and attempt to assume some other role in the body of Christ because it is a "higher" calling or be cause the times demand it or because it is traditionally more acceptable for an Adventist young person is likewise to elevate means to the status of ends.

In the final analysis, research, broadly defined, is what the hereafter is all about. It is the one activity common to this life that can be carried almost unchanged into the world to come. As we cross the portals of that new existence sickness will vanish and the need for healers will disappear. The preacher will no longer carry the message to the unconverted: the pastor will no longer bind up the brokenhearted. The researcher and the teacher, however, will have "new heights to surmount, new wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend, fresh objects to call forth the powers of body and mind and soul. All the treasures of the universe will be open to the study of God's children." —Education, p. 307.

* The big-bang theory implies that at some time in the past all the matter in the universe was condensed into an unimaginably dense and hot primordial mass, which shortly exploded. The material that was flung outward became the galaxies, suns, and planetary systems we know today.
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Brian S. Bull, M.D., is chairman of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda, California.

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