Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part III

Justin Martyr (Wikipedia)

. . . continued from part II

2.   Reason is a gift too, and an important part of God’s image in us

A second important fact for the historical Christian engagement in scientific and technological pursuits is that from the earliest years, Christians have understood human reason as a second gift, along with creation. This positive understanding of reason flourished, again, from the earliest years of the church. As historian Jaroslav Pelikan puts it, “When the Christian gospel came into the world, it succeeded in converting the most rational of men, the Greek philosophers, to its message; this was proof that the gospel was not to be dismissed as irrationality and ‘insanity.’”

Among those converted philosophers were such key early Christian leaders as Athenagoras of Athens, Justin Martyr, and Clement and Origen of Alexandria. Such thinkers continued to function as philosophical teachers, and in that role, they forged systematic Christian understandings of God, humanity, and the world – a tradition of Christian thought that has continued to today.

Now you may suspect that when I say this tradition of careful Christian thought about things “continued to today,” I’m passing too lightly over the medieval Church critiqued by Condorcet. Wasn’t that Enlightenment skeptic right? Weren’t medieval people ignorant haters of knowledge who were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason? That is what we so often hear.

Well, all right – what about that portrayal? Let’s get specific: Didn’t everyone in the Middle Ages believe the world was flat? And if so, then how could they have provided any positive impulse for the development of science?

In fact, this claim is just not true. It is actually almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 BC) who doubted that the earth is a sphere. In fact, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of medieval education, whether in a cathedral school or in a university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference. Medieval flat-earthers turn out to be just another Enlightenment caricature.

Or let’s take the typical period labels “The Age of Faith” for the Middle Ages and “The Age of Reason” for the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These labels imply, as historian Edward Grant puts it, that in moving from the first to the second age, “we have somehow emerged from an age of uncritical belief, and even ignorance, to one of knowledge based on the use of reason.” The problem with this blunt characterization, says Grant, is that “although faith was a powerful force in the Middle Ages, so was reason.”

Grant compares the pinnacle figure of medieval theology, Thomas Aquinas, to the paragon of the Age of Reason, the skeptical philosophe Voltaire. According to Enlightenment caricatures, Aquinas should have been an intellectually blind dogmatist, while Voltaire was the Enlightened man, open to evidence. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, on the contrary, those two thinkers shared “the profound conviction that their beliefs could be reasonably demonstrated.” The truth is that “medieval university scholars and teachers . . . placed a heavy reliance on reason.” In fact, Grant concludes, “in the history of civilization, they were the first to do so self-consciously on a grand scale.” [8]

Why would the greatest teachers of the so-called Age of Faith have relied so much on reason? Quite simply, because medieval Christians, following the early church fathers, believed human rational capacity to be a great gift from the Creator.

And not just a gift, but in fact God’s very image in us!

If I had understood this as a young adult, it would have saved me some misery as I struggled with the question of whether the disciplines of the mind can be of service to God. I wish someone then had explained to me what the best minds of the supposedly benighted Age of Faith had actually thought about reason. They argued as follows:

“If we are images of God, and if God is eternal, it follows that we cannot be images of God in our physical and corruptible flesh since flesh is not eternal. But if our flesh is not eternal, what is? The answer is obvious: our soul.

“The soul, however, was believed to have more than one part. The lower part served to animate the body and enabled it to move around. That is something we share with the animals. But the higher part enabled us to think rationally and comprehend abstractions, and that is something we share only with the angels and God.

“The church therefore maintained that human beings are images of God in the higher, rational part of the soul, and that reason is the greatest natural gift we have.”

Again, I wish someone had told me as a young man that for the middle thousand years of the church’s history, this understanding of reason as God’s highest gift to us – his very image in us – gave a tremendous theological push to medieval Christians’ desire to understand God, themselves, and their world in rational terms. For they concluded such an amazing gift must be given for a purpose, “not to be squandered or neglected, but used appropriately in the service of the Giver.” For medieval Christian thinkers, reason was far from the opposite of faith. Rather, it was a treasured instrument given to us to use in service of our creator. It was something like being given a Stradivarius violin: we must use this instrument with very great passion, care, and discipline.

Continued in part IV

One response to “Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part III

  1. Pingback: Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part IV | Grateful to the dead

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