Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part IV

Johann Wenzel Peter (1745-1829), Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise, Wikimedia Commons

. . . continued from part III

But there is more: A third foundational fact in the Christian development of science and technologies was that the early and medieval Christians understood that God intended they apply the gift of reason to understanding and ordering the gift of Creation—for our flourishing. They saw this important role of reason in the cultural mandate already in Genesis—for example, in the task assigned to Adam and Eve of naming the animals, or God’s charge to them to cultivate and keep the garden.

That the medieval church was not afraid to exercise this mandate of applying reason to the world is illustrated in the story of the man who became pope just before the turn of the millennium – in 999 AD. Of humble origins, Gerbert of Aurillac – who was perhaps relieved to be able take the papal name Sylvester – had developed through talent and education into Christendom’s foremost mathematician. A teacher of arithmetic, astronomy, and harmonics, Gerbert’s knowledge in these fields was admittedly hampered by his inability to read Greek—and therefore to read the best of the ancient pioneers of those fields. But his career showed that even in those so-called “dark ages,” the study of natural philosophy (what we have called “science” only since 1834) was no impediment to a highly successful career in the church. And why should it be? For early and medieval Christians adapted that field of study, “natural philosophy,” from the Greek philosophers, only now understanding it as the study of God’s wisdom as reflected in his creation.

In fact, a couple of hundred years after Gerbert, another Christian scholar, Hugh of St. Victor, described the natural world as a book written by God’s finger – and therefore just as appropriate for Christians to study as the Bible.

For medieval natural philosophy to develop into science as we know it today, however, it needed two more understandings.

The first of these understandings – our fact number 4—has to do with the relationship between Creation and God. This was the ancient Christian principle that Creation is neither itself God (pantheism) nor anti-God (dualism), but rather reflects God. And this understanding was followed and complemented by another one – our fact number 5 – which was the related idea that nature could and should be studied not just out of curiosity or duty, but also out of awe, wonder, and even devotion to God. In other words, to pursue knowledge of the world could be a kind of religious seeking to “think God’s thoughts after him.”

So, starting with the fourth fact—that way of seeing the world as a reflection of God himself: Throughout history, humans have been tempted to two errors about the material world. On the one hand we have the error of the early Platonists, the Gnostics, and all other dualists. This is the error of observing the fallenness and difficulties of life in the material world, and deciding that material stuff, itself, is evil; in fact, it is anti-God. For those caught in this way of seeing the world, the only way to human flourishing is to seek (it must be said, with various degrees of futility!) to transcend the material in search of the purely spiritual.

On the other hand we have the error of the ancient Epicureans and the modern materialists—both those philosophical materialists who deny the existence of a spiritual reality and see physical and biological causes as “all there is,” and those “lifestyle materialists” who buy the Ecclesiastes embrace of the physical world as our only end: “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

Now, it’s easy to see that the Gnostic, ancient or modern, devalues the material world. But in fact ironically the materialist devalues it too, even while making it ultimate. How? By separating the pursuit of material goods from their origin and meaning in God.

Obviously, neither of these incomplete approaches to the material world provides the impetus needed for human pursuit of scientific and technological knowledge—and so science did not develop either among Gnostics or among materialists. Rather, it emerged in a culture that took a third approach to the material world—an approach that turns out to be one of the most central theological ideas of the Middle Ages: sacramentalism.

By definition, sacramentalism is the idea that physical matters and actions can be vehicles of spiritual or divine activity and presence. In short, material things can be God’s love, grace, and glory made visible.

In a moment we’ll get to the question of why Christians would believe this. But meanwhile, we can see that such a belief would lead to a very different relationship to the world we live in. If transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, then all creation is in some sense a reflection of the Creator. And if this is true, then God is present in and through all the material world. Well – we can begin to see how such an understanding might motivate scientific investigation!

But first, why should Christians affirm sacramentalism? The most central answer is quite simple, and it goes to the heart of the Christian Gospel. We may believe materiality can communicate divinity not only because the creation bears the imprint of the creator – though that’s true enough. No, there’s a much closer relationship between God and his creation than that. For the Christian faith teaches that God in fact came and dwelt in his creation, making himself part of it as he incarnated himself in the physical, historical man Jesus.

Late medieval Christians, far from seeing the Incarnation as a kind of one-time, bizarre aberration, understood it as the paradigm, the model, for everything that follows. The Incarnation was the linchpin of medieval theology. The Gospels were by far their favorite part of the Bible. The moment at which the angel announces this stunning miracle to Mary – the so-called “Annunciation” – was their most-painted devotional subject. And sacramentalism was their most typical mode of seeing the world.

Of no other world event can it be more correctly said, “This changes everything.” In the Incarnation, God’s mysterious presence in and through the created world was solidified and made vividly real. And sacramentalism grew out of Christian reflection on that event. Ever since the coming of Immanuel, God-with-us, God has remained for us not only transcendent but also immanent. Ever since, “no part of life remains untouched by his presence.”

Continued in part V

2 responses to “Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part IV

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

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s