Christian Perspectives: Historical Traditions

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Christian Perspectives: HISTORICAL TRADITIONS

The relation between science, technology, and Christianity has been subjected to varying interpretations. A popular impression inherited from the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is that the relationship is one of perpetual conflict. Science is opposed to religious belief and, by focusing on material phenomena, diverts attention from spiritual concerns. In reaction, some scholars contend that Christian theology provided the intellectual foundations for modern science and technology. Because nature was not sacred it was open to investigation and manipulation, activities that improved the human condition and were therefore compatible with Christian convictions. In distinction from both these analyses, other theologians contend that the relationship is characterized by neither hostility nor affinity. Science and religion represent two different forms of inquiry and discourse, and technology consists of neutral instruments that can be used for either good or evil purposes. These varying interpretations are reflected in the historical development of this relationship, which in turn informs contemporary assessments.

Premodern Christian Attitudes toward Nature, Science, and Technology

Early Christian interpretation of Scripture reflects ambiguous appraisals of activities associated with science and technology. Work, for example, is both extolled as a sacred vocation and portrayed as punishment for Adam's original sin. The grandeur and beauty of creation that humans cannot fully understand and master is juxtaposed with a dominion that they are called by God to exert over a world that is often inimical to their welfare, a mandate that can be accomplished only with the aid of tools and artifacts. There is, in short, no obvious endorsement or condemnation of what is now called science (episteme and logos) and technology (techne) in the Bible.

As recorded in the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth often alluded to nature in his parables and, except for the last week in Jerusalem before his crucifixion, confined his ministry largely to the countryside. Care should be taken, however, not to read too much into such general observations. It is not clear if these allusions imply a positive view of nature or if Jesus employed familiar scenes for his predominantly rural audience; nor should his death be construed as a blanket condemnation of urban life. Jesus, after all, was also a carpenter (tekton).

In contrast, Paul makes few references to nature, and spent his ministry almost entirely in cities along the Mediterranean. Moreover, he thanked God for the mobility and safety afforded by Roman roads and ships that assisted his missionary work. Caution dictates, however, against concluding that Paul valued human artifacts more highly than nature. Although he appreciates the ability to transform natural resources into useful tools, Paul also offers the enigmatic vision of creation groaning in futility awaiting its salvation, implying that nature has an intrinsic value and will be included in God's final redemptive act (Romans 8:18–25).

This ambiguity extends into the patristic period (the first few centuries c.e.). Although Tertullian (c. 155 or 160–after 220 c.e.), for instance, admits that natural philosophy may disclose some of the workings of creation, he insists that the knowledge revealed in Scripture is of far greater importance. The former deals only with temporal matters, whereas the latter is focused on eternity. The science of Athens has nothing significant to add to the faith of Jerusalem. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330–c. 389) was more open to what Athens offered, using the science of his day to expound the creation stories found in Genesis. But he too concludes that mystical experience is superior to natural knowledge.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) likewise insisted that revelation was superior to unaided reason, but he exhibited, to a greater extent than previous theologians, an appreciation of natural philosophy. He rebuked fellow Christians who were uninformed about the natural workings of the world that were well known to educated unbelievers, complaining that their ignorance brought the faith into disrepute. Moreover, Augustine argued that because the world is God's good creation, the material aspects of life should not be despised. In contrast to Greek philosophy, the physical world is not a place of vulgar necessity in which the craft of artisans is inherently inferior to contemplative pursuits. Augustine praised human intellect and ingenuity, singling out achievements in such areas as agriculture, architecture, navigation, communication, medicine, military weaponry, and the arts (City of God, Book XXII, Chapter 24).

Interest in science and technology waxed and waned among subsequent generations of theologians. It was with the recovery of Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.) by scholastic theologians that attention gathered momentum. This is particularly the case in the synthesis of Augustinian and Aristotelian themes by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Thomas argued that reason and revelation do not contradict each other, and grace perfects rather than negates nature. Knowledge about the world complements and amplifies religious belief.

The recovery of Aristotle also transformed the medieval university. Alongside the faculties of theology, law, and medicine, the arts and sciences grew in prestige and intellectual rigor. Inevitable tensions arose as rediscovered texts in Greek mathematics, physics, and astronomy were refined and elaborated upon, but a great deal of latitude was given to scientific inquiry so long as it did not challenge directly the church's core theological teachings.

Modern Christian Attitudes toward Science and Technology

Tension nevertheless grew more intense as scientists gained greater confidence in their methods of investigation. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), for example, was tried and convicted of heresy because his defense of a heliocentric universe displaced the earth from its central position. More importantly, this shift from the center to the periphery implied that humankind could no longer regard itself as the apex of creation. The case of Galileo, however, is not representative of the relation between Catholicism and science throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many Catholics, such as Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), René Descartes (1596–1650), and Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), made important contributions to science during this period.

Protestants, however, tended to view science and technology in a more accommodating manner. The ordering of creation was subject to God's providential governance, which though at times inscrutable was ultimately intelligible. Scientific inquiry could disclose the workings of divine providence, and scientists were thereby encouraged to explore the created order. Many Protestants, for example, were influential members of the Royal Society. This framework led scientists such as Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), Isaac Newton (1642–1727), and Robert Boyle (1627–1691) to investigate nature with relative freedom, leading to numerous important discoveries. More significantly, many discoveries contributed to inventive developments in commerce and industry.

The Enlightenment and its aftermath placed severe strains on this Protestant framework. The problem was primarily philosophical. A number of philosophers claimed that the physical world could be described in naturalistic terms independently from theistic beliefs. Initially, many theologians invoked science as an ally in defending traditional doctrines against deist and atheist attacks. Natural theology in particular drew heavily upon science to argue that nature had been designed by a creator. The image of a watch and watchmaker was often used as a popular analogy. Yet the analogy required appeal to consistent laws of nature rather than an inscrutable divine providence to account for the rational ordering of the universe. Significantly, scientists could appeal to these same laws without attributing their legislation to the God of the Bible and Christian dogma.

Both theologians and scientists referred to nature in increasingly mechanistic terms. This in part reflected the rapid proliferation of inventions and other technological innovations associated with scientific discoveries. A growing knowledge of natural laws could be applied to improving the quality of human life by constructing more effective tools and artifacts. Progress thus displaced providence as the dominant conceptual framework for charting the course and destiny of human history. This progressive ideology introduced a tacit division of labor in which nature was a realm studied by science, whereas spiritual and moral concerns fell within ecclesiastical purview. Conflict was avoided so long as neither party crossed these jurisdictional boundaries.

In the nineteenth century this tacit division began to unravel. Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871) implied that even human nature could be explicated in naturalistic categories. Natural selection and not the presence of a soul shaped human behavior. In short, there was no longer a unique sphere that Christianity could claim as its own. It should not be assumed, however, that the ensuing battle lines were drawn evenly or predictably. Darwin had both his scientific critics and religious defenders, and it is arguable that new forms of biblical criticism (before Darwin) and Freudian psychology (after him) presented more severe challenges to traditional Christian beliefs than evolution.

Christianity in the Industrial Revolution

Nevertheless, Darwinian evolution influenced later developments in ethics and social theory related to the rapid industrialization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The image of nature red in tooth and claw captured both public and intellectual attention. Social Darwinists, such as Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) and William Graham Sumner (1840–1910), contended that what was true in nature was also true in society, namely, that competition over scarce resources promoted a strong and vibrant human race. Moreover, science and technology were key factors in ensuring the survival of the fittest. This was readily apparent in the economic realm, where the rapid development of new industrial, transportation, and communication technologies offered competitive advantages.

Although the Industrial Revolution generated unprecedented wealth and created new markets and employment opportunities, the ensuing economic benefits were unevenly distributed. Factory workers were usually underpaid and overworked, and endured dangerous working conditions. Rapidly growing cities suffered from overcrowded tenements, inadequate sanitation, stifling pollution, widespread poverty, and violent crime. These deplorable conditions inspired mounting social unrest. In defense of industrialization it was often argued that these conditions were regrettable but necessary in the short term, and would eventually be remedied through greater economic growth driven by technological innovation. Workers must be patient, for any attempt to redistribute wealth along socialistic lines would serve only to derail the necessary competition that would eventually provide greater material comfort to a wider range of people, especially those devoted to thrift and hard work.

Religious responses to industrialization and its accompanying ethical issues were far from uniform. Proponents of the gospel of wealth maintained that economic competition was not incompatible with biblical and Christian teaching. Indeed, the accumulation of wealth promoted a philanthropic spirit as demonstrated in the largesse of such industrialists as Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) and John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937). Critics countered that the plight of workers was patently unjust and dehumanizing. Laborers were little more than commodities exploited by owners driven by monopolistic greed instead of genuine competition. In response, the Social Gospel movement, drawing especially on the works of Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), advocated workers' rights, the formation of labor unions, large public expenditures to improve urban life, antitrust legislation, and at times more radical proposals for public ownership of various industries.

What was at stake in these disputes was purportedly the progressive trajectory and destiny of history. Although various protagonists tried to wrap themselves in the mantel of progress, the perception of science and technology as the twin engines driving the steady improvement of human life made a powerful public impression. This impression was reinforced by the publication of John William Draper's The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White's A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896), both of which portrayed a perpetual battle between science and religion. The popularity of these books helped create a public perception that the progressive forces of science and technology were once again struggling against their old foes of religion and superstition. Although the myth of perpetual warfare is a modern invention, it continues to influence popular perceptions. As other entries demonstrate, however, contemporary Christian assessments of science and technology are more varied and nuanced than the myth admits.


SEE ALSO Augustine;Natural Law;Thomas Aquinas.


Augustine of Hippo. (1984). Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books. A classic theological interpretation of human history and destiny in light of the Christian doctrines of providence and eschatology.

Basalla, George. (1988). The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A historical and philosophical overview of technological innovation and its influence on cultural development.

Brooke, John Hedley. (1991). Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A series of in-depth essays examining a broad range of historical events shaping the relationship between science and religion.

Kasson, John F. (1976). Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776–1900. New York: Penguin. A critical overview of industrialization in nineteenth century America.

Manuel, Frank E. (1983). The Changing of the Gods. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England. A historical overview of the rise of deism and atheism in the enlightenment.

Nisbet, Robert. (1980). History of the Idea of Progress. New York: Basic. A philosophical inquiry tracing the idea of progress through its stages of historical development.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. (1997 [1917]). A Theology for the Social Gospel. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. A treatise offering a biblical and theological foundation for the social gospel by the movement's leading proponent.

Tennant, F. R. (1928–1930). Philosophical Theology. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. A systematic attempt to reconcile key Christian doctrines with leading scientific theories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Turner, James. (1985). Without God, without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. An in-depth analysis of the rise of atheism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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