Chapter 1:<I> </I>The New Source of Knowledge

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 1:<I> </I>The New Source of Knowledge

As soon as one begins to think about the basic issues of human existence, one is faced with the question of where to turn to find a trustworthy guide. What is the source of true knowledge? How do we go about increasing our knowledge and finding the answers to our basic questions? Through most of Christian history the Christian has for this purpose turned to the authoritative teaching of the church, and this included the Bible. It was confidently claimed by the church that Christian doctrine provided clear and final answers to the basic questions of life, and by the time of the Middle Ages these had been built into an impressive and unified body of knowledge.

The church’s confidence in her teaching rested upon the belief that the body of knowledge, of which she was the appointed guardian, had been revealed by God through the chosen prophets and apostles of ancient times and especially through Jesus, the Son of God. Because this knowledge came from God, it was absolute and final. Nothing could ever contradict it, and man by himself had no way of finding it out for himself. All men were thus dependent upon the heritage of divine revelation which the church preserved from generation to generation.

This understanding of the source of true knowledge was the Christian version of an almost universal attitude in the ancient world. Man has a strong conservative element in him, for it is his ability to conserve and hand on the heritage from the past that has made possible the evolution of man. The ancient human civilizations gradually developed by the conserving and handing on of the knowledge and practices which had proved themselves in the past.

Man’s sense of security was closely bound up with the knowledge and patterns of behaviour he inherited from the past. The known way, however unsatisfactory, was always safer than the unknown way. Of course, even in ancient society there was a small amount of change and development going on all the time, but it was so slow that to man himself it was almost imperceptible. If there was any rapid change, it was due to a calamity of a destructive kind, such as war or plague. So change was commonly thought of as evil, and something to be feared.

This in turn led to the commonly-held belief that the golden age of human society lay in the past, and hence true knowledge was to be gained by searching for the best that past ages had bequeathed. That knowledge which had been inherited from time immemorial was readily reverenced as being of divine origin, and was incomparable with anything that could be discovered in the present. Ancient man did not expect any of his contemporaries to surpass the great teachers of the past, and he was greatly suspicious of anything that was new. He expected to find truth in that which was already stamped with the authority of the ages.

While this veneration of the past and suspicion of the new is by no means absent in our world today, it is no longer the dominant attitude of modern man concerning the source of true knowledge. We live in a period of rapid changes of all kinds, and we have come to accept change, development and progress as part of the order of things. We are used to seeing the ‘old’ being quickly superseded by the ‘new’, whether it is the automobile, the text-book, the clothing fashion or the scientific theory.

Admittedly, in the area of religious faith and morals we have been rather slower to discard the old in favour of the new, for this is the aspect of human life in which conservatism has always been most strongly entrenched, for the very good reason that man looks to this area of life more than any other for his stability and security. But only small groups of religious devotees try to be consistent in their conservatism, by rigidly adhering say, to the horse and cart, Sabbath observance, the castor-oil cure and the Authorized Version. The large majority of Christians have been ready to welcome the new knowledge in such things as medical science, agriculture etc., even if they have preferred to retain the orthodox religious doctrines.

This modern reversal of the relative values of the old and the new is itself quite new in man’s cultural history, and that which has brought it about is the success which has attended the rise of the scientific method in the last few centuries. Our world today does not expect to find the answers to its basic questions by poring over the books of the ancient past. It looks rather to painstaking research and the assiduous application of scientific principles as the way to reach sound knowledge. We shall look briefly at some of the steps which have led to this situation, slowly at first, and in the last hundred years with breathtaking acceleration.

Perhaps Roger Bacon (1214-94) may be named as the morning-star of that adventurous questioning and experimentation which forms the basis of modern science. He was a monk, educated in the two great universities of Oxford and Paris. He undertook study and research over a wide range of subjects and is said to have spent over two thousand pounds (a large fortune in those days) on books, instruments and apparatus. He wrote that "the surest method of extirpating all heresies, and of destroying the Kingdom of Antichrist, and of establishing true religion in the hearts of men, is by perfecting a true system of natural philosophy". For this reason he freely criticized the ignorance of his fellow clerics, and went so far as to write to the Pope urging the desirability of a reformation in the church. It is not surprising that the church authorities found his presence far from comfortable, and so, for two periods totaling twenty-four years in all, he was held in close confinement in a Franciscan monastery. To appreciate the full worth of Bacon we must remember the relative ignorance which prevailed at this time. After his death his books were suppressed, though not destroyed. He is to be seen as a courageous pioneer of the attitude of free inquiry, experiment and observation.

The rise of modern science is chiefly to be seen in the Renaissance, which revived the study of the culture of ancient Greece and Rome. This in itself was an example of the ancient attitude of looking to the past for the apprehension of true knowledge, and we must freely admit that the legacy of the ancient world had a great deal to offer to fifteenth-century Europe, so much so that classical studies have remained the core of a liberal cultural education until the twentieth century.

Along with the Greek and Latin classics, the study of the Bible was revived and this contributed largely to the Reformation. It must be frankly recognized that the Bible is such a remarkable collection of books that it could more than hold its own with any set of books that had appeared up until the sixteenth century. It is not at all surprising that its rediscovery, and the acceleration of popular interest in it, made possible by the invention of printing and the growth of literacy, should have come to Europe like a fresh and powerful wind. The Bible is of such a quality that a sixteenth-century person had good reason to assume it to be thoroughly reliable upon every aspect of human existence with which it dealt.

The revival of the study of the classics of the ancient world was destined to lead to the emergence of the modern world by reawakening that inquiring mind that marked at least some of the early Greeks. Their passion for asking questions had found no place in the dogmatic theological system into which Christianity had developed, and their concern with the natural forces of the physical world found little encouragement in a Christianity which had increasingly turned men’s attention away from this tangible world, towards an unseen supernatural world.

Within two centuries, men of the caliber of Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci, Kepler, Galileo, Gilbert, Newton and Boyle all arose to cut a path which enabled the modern world to emerge from the ancient one. Some words of Gilbert will serve to pin-point the essential new element in the pursuit of knowledge that was destined to bring increasing success. William Gilbert had a brilliant career at Cambridge in mathematics, and followed this by the study of medicine. He became personal physician to Queen Elizabeth. His most famous treatise is on the magnet, and here he sets out the experimental basis to scientific inquiry, "In the discovery of secrets and in the investigation of the hidden causes of things, clear proofs are afforded by trustworthy experiments rather than by probable guesses and opinions of ordinary professors and philosophers."

What is commonly referred to as ‘modern science’, heralded by Bacon in the thirteenth century, came to birth in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It questioned traditional statements and beliefs and it established the experimental method. Such arguments as "the Church teaches -- " were destined to become less and less sufficient to win immediate acceptance for the ideas they prefaced The validity of traditions was questioned; general beliefs about physical phenomena were subjected to various tests.

In studying any particular field the scientist theoretically commences by accepting nothing as known with certainty. For convenience the scientific method can be set out as four basic steps, although the degree to which they can be applied in this over-simple form depends very much on the field of study. They are:

  1. the observing, measuring and gathering of all relevant data;

(ii) the ordering of the data according to whatever plan or system the data lead to most naturally, and the examination of the relationships linking them together;

(iii) the seeking of the simplest hypothesis to explain the causal relationships in the data and associated phenomena.

(iv) the testing of the hypothesis by such experiments as the data may readily lend themselves to.

With Gilbert these steps led to some remarkable results in the examination of the magnet. In the case of Galileo, the telescope was the very instrument which made experimentation possible in a way which could confirm or upset his theories of the heavenly bodies.

This method of testing traditional knowledge and of extending the content of human knowledge seems all very obvious to us today for we have become adjusted to it. We witness the marvels of technology which have been made possible through the advances of science, and we wait hopefully for the results of continuing research, for example in the cancer field. But in the sixteenth century this was a novel method of finding new knowledge. It was regarded with great suspicion, particularly when it dared to question established truth, and in the popular mind it could not be clearly distinguished from the practices of the magician, which were rightly frowned upon by the church. After all, the science of chemistry did evolve out of alchemy, i.e. the attempt to turn simple metals into gold; and the science of astronomy developed out of astrology, i.e. the attempt to read human destiny from the movement of the stars.

Only slowly did the scientific approach of questioning and testing win wider acceptance, and in doing so it set in motion the greatest revolution in human civilization that there has ever been. It was inevitable that it should lead to conflict with the conservative elements in the powerful organization of the church. Yet this conflict has often been exaggerated and misinterpreted. Bruno, it is true, lost his life in the conflict, but at a time when thousands were martyred or killed in religious wars for either the Catholic or Protestant cause, this was negligible in comparison. Nor should the conflict be interpreted as the believing church versus the non-believing scientist. The first great exponents of the emerging scientific approach were all churchmen and some of them were clerics. The conflict was between something new, pioneered by a small minority, and the status quo, defended by the large majority, who naturally had control of the powerful ecclesiastical machinery, and who felt themselves clearly supported by tradition, common-sense and above all divine revelation. Over the next three centuries the conservative forces at one strategic point after another were forced to surrender something which previously they had claimed to be essential to the Christian scheme of things. This conservatism had the effect eventually of causing some to abandon allegiance to the church altogether, so that then the conflict did sometimes appear to be one of the churchman versus the scientist.

The grounds on which church authorities resisted the advancing claims of the sciences were in the first place simply that they were at variance with the accepted teachings handed down from ancient times. Knowledge received from the ancient world was more likely to be true than some newfangled notion that had not been heard of before. But the church in particular thought that its teaching possessed incontestable authority because it had been received in ancient times by divine revelation. It was confidently claimed that in the distant past, God had revealed the truth on various issues to men like Moses, the prophets, the apostles and above all through Jesus Christ His Son, and it was therefore impossible for puny man to pit his intelligence against God, and further it was blasphemous even to question truth that was divinely revealed.

In the Middle Ages the theologians had divided the universe into two areas of experience, the natural and supernatural. While both were under the control of God, He was thought to be most distinctively known through the supernatural. At any time He chose, He could over-rule the normal processes of the natural world by His supernatural power. Not only then could God upset the experiments of the scientists, should He so choose, but also He had already delivered to the church a supernatural body of knowledge to which the experimental scientist as such had no counter.

Because the Reformation had split the Western church just prior to this time, the appeal to supernatural revelation took somewhat different forms. The Church of Rome attributed divine authority to the general corpus of Catholic teaching, which included the Bible, traditions of long standing, and the belief that the Divine Head of the church would not allow His church to err on important issues. In the Protestant churches the appeal to divine revelation was focussed on the Bible alone. By the seventeenth century this had developed into a very rigid doctrine which regarded not simply the general sense, but the very text, words, vowels and punctuation to have been supernaturally revealed by God and preserved from all error. To confound the claim of the natural scientist it was sufficient for the Catholic to hear, "The Church teaches otherwise", and for the Protestant to read in the Bible that God in His holy word had spoken differently.

But the truths being discovered by experimental science could not be silenced. They gradually grew in their power of conviction. It became necessary for Christian teachers to reduce the boldness of their claims and to readjust their thinking to the slowly emerging body of new human knowledge being brought to light by the developing sciences. This process of readjustment is still going on, and several examples will appear in the succeeding chapters. But at this point we must confine our attention to the problem that we still have to wrestle with, when we have to make a judgment between the relative merits of the knowledge inherited from the past and the new knowledge that may be gained through the developing sciences and the related fields of study, especially when these two sources appear to be in conflict with one another. In particular we must ask in what sense the church can still speak of divine revelation.

The traditional attitude which venerated the past was gradually undermined, as experimental science proved itself and opened up the door to a new world which seemed to contain unlimited possibilities. Advancing knowledge, new ideas, fresh discoveries began to accelerate the speed of change. Men were now becoming aware of change in a way that was new to them, for it was making itself evident within a man’s lifetime. This has been particularly true in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It supplied the impetus which set the modern study of history on its feet.

As the developing sciences began to get into their stride, and that brings us into the last hundred years, there was a tendency for them, having refuted so much of what Christian orthodoxy took for granted, to establish their own form of dogmatism. The scientific hypothesis which stood repeated tests came to be regarded as the scientific law, and this soon attracted to itself an absoluteness and an authority which it was thought nothing could shake. Lesser men than the great scientists too readily assumed that all new knowledge must be made to fit the ‘scientific’ dogma, just as earlier it was expected to fit the ecclesiastical dogma. Indeed it has not been unknown for scientists to resist new theories on grounds which derived from the new form of dogmatism rather than those which belonged to experimental science. Something of a new cult, that has been called ‘scientism’, developed in the popular mind, which reflected how popular opinion had switched its allegiance from Christian orthodoxy to science and technology. The preface "The church teaches . . ." and "The Bible says . . ." came to be replaced by "Science teaches . . .", "The scientists have shown that . . ."

But dogmatism no more befits the findings of science than it does the proclamations of theology. The scientific method of study and inquiry, important and indeed essential as it is to us, does not lead us to absoluteness of truth any more than the supposed divine revelation did. All our human knowledge is subject to further correction and change, and must be adhered to with some degree of tentativeness however small. It may be likened to the frozen surface of a pond. Just because it will support a skater one day, there is no guarantee that it will do so the next. Just as fresh atmospheric conditions mean that the ice surface must first be tested afresh to see if it can be judged as safe, so our knowledge and working conclusions must be continually re-tested in the light of fresh data to see if we may still trust ourselves to them.

There is no source to which we can turn for knowledge which is absolute, final and unchangeable. Neither the alleged source of divine revelation, nor modern science can make this claim about the knowledge to which they lead us. What we call knowledge is our own human evaluation of what we have observed, studied, experienced, or received, and it is subject to the limitations which our own reason and language impose. We find ourselves in the paradoxical situation today where we know much more than ancient man about ourselves and our world, and yet we acknowledge we do not have the degree of certainty which often he believed he possessed. In the Middle Ages it was possible for a university man to feel himself a master of the whole body of knowledge. Today the horizons of human knowledge and inquiry are vastly extended and are still rapidly accelerating. One man can master only a tiny segment. We depend more and more upon the integrity of others for the conclusions we must accept in trust from them. Man, as a race, but not man, as an individual, is today in possession of a staggering body of reasonably reliable knowledge. Yet with all our advance, new problems have taken the place of those we have temporarily solved, new and previously unknown vistas lie beyond the peaks we have scaled, the limits of the universe seem further away than ever, and the purpose and destiny of man are not one whit clearer.

This is the situation in which we must now make some tentative judgment about the relative merits of the old and the new. Our judgment should be this -- that it is false to set them over against one another as exclusive alternatives. We need both the insights of the old and the fresh truth from the new.

We must welcome the rise of the scientific method as the most valuable tool we know for the testing of existing knowledge, and for the widening of our horizon of knowledge. It has brought about a revolution in the human situation which no thinking man can ignore. Yet we must remember that the so-called laws in the natural sciences, and all knowledge derived from this new source are always subject to modification, change and replacement. The genuine scientist is always ready to question and re-test his most assured conclusions. All his knowledge is to be held with some degree of tentativeness for it is subject to reinterpretation in the light of fresh evidence.

But neither can we afford to ignore the Christian heritage which formed the basis of the European culture from which the new world and its scientific methods developed. Many things from the past may now be seen to be irrelevant, inadequate or even wrong, but not all that made the Christian heritage what it was, is false by any means and it is for this reason we are still concerned with it. Admittedly the appeal to divine revelation can no longer be made with the sure confidence that was once associated with it, for on too many occasions it has proved a faulty argument. Indeed the very term ‘revelation’ is today being strongly challenged as an essential term of Christian theology. In any case the Christian theologian has had to recognize that such knowledge as he may have inherited is no more absolute or final than that of the scientist. All forms of knowledge in which Christian faith and experience has expressed itself must also be continually subject to re-examination and reformulation. This is why theology at the present time is in the most fluid state it has been since the period of Christian origins.

Thus the commonly cited conflict of science versus religion, or divine revelation versus empirical science is misleading. Certainly there have been conflicts, but there have also been conflicts between different religious doctrines on the one hand and between opposing scientific theories on the other. The theologian, it is true, has had to surrender any claim to an infallible source of divine revelation, but the scientist has had to learn to resist the temptation of thinking that that is exactly what he has stumbled upon. If the word ‘revelation’ can still be used, then it may apply equally well to those unexpected flashes of insight received in any field of study. Theologian and scientist find that they have much more in common than is often realized. They must both be men of faith, imagination, and integrity, who are ever ready to reformulate the truths which are their chief concern in the light of that new evidence that each new day may bring. Yet they both believe that (here is a constancy in the truth of man and his world that they seek to understand more clearly. The theologian describes that constancy by saying that God is the ultimate source of all truth and God is one: He is the same yesterday, today and for ever.