Christianity, History of Science and Religion

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Christianity, History of Science and Religion

The fundamental question facing the Christian scholar in any discipline can be seen as a specific form of a general query that was posed within two centuries of Christ's death by the Carthaginian father Tertullian (c. 155230): "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?"

Before the Renaissance

As the phrasing implies, Tertullian's attitude toward Greek philosophy was generally negative, though he acknowledged a legitimate role for reason within the bounds of religion. Other patristic authors looked more favorably on pagan philosophy and literature, especially Origen (c. 185254), who required his students to read nearly every work available to them at the time and found some truth in most of them. The moderate position of Augustine of Hippo (354430), who considered reason a divine gift resting on the foundation of faith, was by far the most influential on later Christian thinking. Although he cautioned Christians not to devote too much energy to the study of nature, which cannot lead to salvation, Augustine recognized Greek scientists as reliable authorities on natural matters and cautioned Christians against making nonsensical claims about nature, based on some presumed meaning of scripture, for this would only cause people to laugh at the ignorance of Christians. He also urged believers to study nature, "the great book . . . of created things."

Most patristic writers recognized two valid sources of knowledgescripture and reason, including most conclusions of reason about naturebut assigned a different status to each. Prior to the Renaissance, philosophy (including what is today called science) was considered a "handmaiden to theology," while theology was "queen of the sciences," where "science" meant knowledge in general and not simply knowledge of nature. This terminology was introduced by the Hellenistic Jewish scholar Philo of Alexandria (30 b.c.e.50 c.e.) and later was used by Christian writers such as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215), Augustine, and Bonaventure (12211274). On this view, the proper role of scientific knowledge was to help illuminate biblical references to nature, not to stand on its own as an independent domain of inquiry. This is clearly seen in the numerous commentaries on the six days of creation from this period, such as the Homilies on the Hexameron by Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (c. 330379), in which Aristotelian cosmology and physics were used to help interpret references to the heavens in the first chapter of Genesis.

For nearly twelve hundred years the handmaiden model escaped serious challenge, mainly because copies of most Greek scientific and medical texts were unavailable in northern and western Europe, and what little knowledge Christian scholars did have of such texts was usually obtained indirectly, from handbooks and encyclopedias rather than from the original sources. Consequently, Christian scholars were not confronted with the full force of Aristotle's sophisticated naturalism. On the other hand, they did have Plato's Timaeus, a dialogue about creation in which a god imposes mathematical form on undifferentiated matter. Although the differences between Plato's story and Genesis are significant, there are enough similarities that Plato was readily seen as a pagan prophet of Christianity. Plato's rejection of purely natural and unintelligent causes in forming the world, coupled with his belief in the immortality of the soul and the superiority of mind over matter, made him highly attractive to Christian writers. The relative ease with which Platonic elements could be incorporated into a Christian world viewand vice versa, depending on who was doing the philosophizinggave considerable support to the handmaiden model.

The situation changed dramatically with the reintroduction into northern and western Europe of a large body of Greek scientific and medical works. This process began around 1000 c.e. and led within two centuries to the appearance of universities dominated by Aristotelian natural philosophy, strongly flavored by the ideas of Islamic scholars who had worked with translations of Greek texts for hundreds of years. The influence of Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroës, 11261198), an extreme rationalist who elevated Aristotle over traditional Islamic teaching, was especially important in this connection. Christian scholars were now faced with a powerful, systematic body of natural knowledge, comprehensive in scope and secular in spirit, and they responded in various ways.

At the University of Paris, the leading theological faculty in Christendom, led by the conservative Bonaventure, grew alarmed at certain teachings promulgated by some masters on the faculty of arts, especially Siger of Brabant, a radical Aristotelian who considered philosophy to be an autonomous discipline, perhaps even superior to theology. Several times in the thirteenth century, Aristotle's books were banned at Paris, culminating in 1277 when the bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, condemned 219 specific propositions as heretical. These included several ideas associated with Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), a moderate Dominican who had taught theology at Paris and had carefully integrated Aristotle with Christian theology. Ironically, Aquinas was canonized in 1323 and his ideas later became the basis for one of the leading Christian systems of thought, Thomism. A further irony is that the condemnation inspired the important Parisian natural philosophers John Buridan (c. 12951358) and Nicole Oresme (c. 13201382) to consider what a non-Aristotelian science of motion might be like, including the possibility of a rotating Earth. Although their ideas probably did not lead directly to the scientific revolution (as Pierre Duhem and some others have claimed), they do show that theology can stimulate significant scientific insights.

Renaissance to mid-nineteenth century

In the later middle ages and continuing into the Renaissance, partly in reaction to the hold Aristotelianism had gained on the universities, Platonism enjoyed a revival. Many Renaissance thinkers followed Plato by emphasizing mathematics as the key to understanding nature, but differed fundamentally from Plato in their belief that the physical world perfectly embodies God's geometrical design; Plato had taught that physical objects are only imperfect "shadows" of the perfect forms. The difference was a consequence of the Christian doctrine of creation: An omnipotent God would carry out the plan of creation to perfection. For Christian neo-Platonists like Nicolas Copernicus (14731543), Galileo Galilei (15641642), and Johannes Kepler (15711630), God was eternally thinking geometric thoughts. By the right use of geometry, one might literally read the mind of God and discover the deepest secrets of creation. Inspired partly by his neo-Platonist beliefs and strongly encouraged by church authorities to publish his ideas, the quiet and conservative Copernicus advanced a radical new theory of the universe that placed the Earth in motion about a stationary sun. Kepler found this theory attractive for several reasons, including his belief that the three parts of the Copernican universe symbolized the Trinitythe central sun with its emanating light representing God the Father, the starry sphere God the Son, and the intermediate space God the Holy Spirit.

There was no convincing proof for the new astronomy, however, and many scientists and theologians alike saw the hypothesis of the Earth's motion as a challenge to those biblical passages (about a dozen in all) that seemed to speak either of the motion of the sun through the sky, as if it were a real motion rather than an apparent one, or else of the stability of the Earth. In defense of the new astronomy, Kepler (a German Protestant) and Galileo (an Italian Catholic) both employed the Augustinian principle of accommodation to justify the figurative interpretation of biblical references to the motion of the sun. The Bible, they argued, speaks in a human way about ordinary matters in a way that can be understood by the common person, using ordinary speech to convey loftier theological truths. Thus, the literal sense of texts making reference to nature should not be mistaken for accurate scientific statements, but the wise interpreter could show how the book of scripture did not really contradict the book of nature. Citing rules established by the Council of Trent in response to Protestant reformers, Catholic authorities found this unacceptable and ordered Galileo not to teach the new astronomy. Galileo, who often treated opponents arrogantly, ignored this warning and published a vigorous attack on traditional astronomy in which he thoughtlessly insulted his friend, Pope Urban VIII, and Galileo was sentenced to house arrest by the Inquisition in 1633.

Those Christian thinkers who agreed with Kepler and Galileoand by 1700 a large number didwere implicitly raising the status of science from that of an obedient handmaiden to something like an equal partner in the search for trutha conception that had been explicitly endorsed just a few years earlier by the English statesman and essayist, Francis Bacon (15611626), who was ironically not a Copernican himself. Bacon held that nature served as a "key" to the scriptures, not only by "opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the scriptures," but mainly by "opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon his works." At the same time, however, he cautioned against "unwisely confounding these learnings together."

Because it offered relative autonomy for science while enhancing the authority of theology, the Baconian attitude was widely adopted by Protestants in England and America through the middle of the nineteenth century, and Roman Catholics were increasingly attracted to a similar attitude, partly seen in Galileo but ultimately derived from Aquinas. English natural philosopher Robert Boyle (16271691) epitomized this approach, promoting what he called the "mechanical philosophy"the explanation of natural phenomena in terms of matter and motionover Aristotelian and Galenic views, for its advantages not only to science (it provided clear, experimentally useful explanations) but also to religion: By denying any immanent intelligence to "Nature," which functioned idolatrously as a "semi-deity," the mechanical philosophy more clearly distinguished the creator from the creation, thus focusing worship where it properly belonged. Boyle further believed that Christian character was highly relevant to the scientific enterprise, such that he considered himself a "priest of nature" whose discoveries only enhanced his appreciation for the wisdom, goodness, and power of God. Like many of his contemporaries, including Isaac Newton (16421727), Boyle aggressively pursued an extensive program of natural theology while generally avoiding the use of the Bible as a scientific text.

More than a century later, however, Christian thinkers were much less reluctant to cite scripture on scientific matters, no doubt because the age and origin of the Earth had become topics of serious scientific discussion. Many natural historians and theologians saw in the books of nature and scripture essentially the same story, going beyond the general assumption of harmony to endorse a strong concordism, arguing for close parallels between Genesis and geology and sometimes inventing elaborate hermeneutical schemes to achieve harmonization.

Since the mid-nineteenth century

With the acceptance of Darwinian evolution, however, concordism fell out of favor, though some conservative Protestants still embrace it, and no single approach to theology and science has generated a wide enough following to function as its replacement. The first American Darwinian, botanist Asa Gray (18101888), thought that his acceptance of evolution had no bearing on his belief in the miracles of Christ and the doctrines affirmed by the Nicene Creed, thus holding a compatibilist or complementarian view of theology and science. At the same time, Gray tried to rebuild natural theology along evolutionary linesa combination that has never been common, although a number of orthodox and neo-orthodox thinkers in the following century held some type of complementarian position.

From the 1870s to the 1920s, many Protestant scientists and theologians and some Roman Catholics believed that higher biblical criticism, as well as natural science, mandated the formulation of a new theology stressing divine immanence, God's everyday working in and through the processes of nature. Some liberals took this further, including several modernists from the 1920s who denied miracles and special revelation and essentially identified God with the laws of nature, thus completely rejecting divine transcendence. Liberals saw morality as the essence of religion; asserting the fundamental goodness and perfectibility of humanity, many also believed that the science of eugenics would help them establish the kingdom of God on Earth. Both world wars had a devastating impact on such an optimistic view, leading Karl Barth (18861968) and other neo-orthodox theologians to reassert sin, revelation, and divine transcendence. Because he understood God as wholly other, and also because he deplored the ways in which the German churches had capitulated to the state, Barth denied that one can learn about God apart from revelation, thereby completely rejecting natural theology.

Around the same time, the English logician Alfred North Whitehead (18611947) argued that the very possibility of modern science depended upon the unconsciously held belief, derived from medieval theology, that the created order must be intelligible, thus finding an inextricable link between theology and science. He also developed a highly sophisticated process metaphysics that has profoundly influenced some important modern theologians, philosophers, and scientists. Motivated partly by a desire to embrace evolution and even more by a desire to mitigate God's responsibility for suffering, process theologians believe that God has only limited power to influence natural and human events, rather than the omnipotence needed to create the world ex nihilo. The world and God are seen as coeval entities evolving together, and many contemporary process thinkers follow Charles Hartshorne (18972000) in affirming panentheism rather than traditional theism. Ironically, perhaps the greatest challenge to process theology comes from the modern science it seeks to embrace, but from the evolution of the cosmos rather than the evolution of life. Since the mid-1960s, astronomers have discovered a wealth of evidence favoring the Big Bang theory of cosmology, evidence suggesting not only that the universe had a "beginning" but also that the laws of nature were exquisitely tuned for the presence of living things. Many think that a universe with these features seems more consistent with creatio ex nihilo than its denial.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a good number of leading Christian scientists and theologians, including some who combine that role, such as Ian Barbour (1923), Arthur Peacocke (1924), and John Polkinghorne (1930), are engaged in a growing international conversation about issues of interest to both communities, and the range of opinion reflects disagreements about the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and the nature of nature.

See also Christianity, Anglican, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Evangelical, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Lutheran, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Orthodox, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Pentecostalism, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Radical Reformed, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Reformed, Issues in Science and Religion; Christianity, Roman Catholic, Issues in Science and Religion; Science and Religion, History of Field


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