Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part V

Gatehouse and chapel of King’s College, University of Cambridge; Photo by Tim Alex on Unsplash

. . . continued from part IV

Sacramentalism provided the seedbed for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, especially in the high-medieval period of the birth of the universities (from the 11th to the 14th centuries). In part, it did this by birthing – and this is our fifth fact – a truly devotional, awe-filled approach to that pursuit.

Think about it: when we may look at the natural world not only as the arena of God’s work but as a physical reality that reflects his divine glory, then how else would we approach it but with awe and wonder? And since medieval and early modern followers of Christ indeed believed this, they approached their study of the world not only out of a duty to apply the gift of reason, but also out of a sense of awe that the world is a conduit to God’s presence and glory. Should it surprise us, then, that the natural philosophers of that age spent hours and days and years of their lives in meticulous proto-scientific experimentation and hypothesizing?

It’s an impulse that has had a long shelf life, as many modern scientists of faith are still motivated by this same awe and wonder. One such was the great American agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. He once said: “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” And at another time he said, “When I touch that flower, I am not merely touching that flower. I am touching infinity.”

Now our sixth fact is not an intellectual or devotional fact, but a social and institutional one: a crucial step toward modern science occurred in the late 11th and 12th centuries, when medieval Christians developed the institution that would become the incubator of the scientific revolution: the university.

And out of that institution would emerge our seventh and eighth facts, as the so-called “schoolmen” or “scholastics” of the medieval university came to understand both that Creation is inherently orderly and rational, thus susceptible to reasoned analysis and description, and that such rational analysis of the operations of nature can harmonize with theological understandings. Let’s now look at these three facts together: the university, the rationality of creation, and the close relationship between natural science and theology for the medieval scholastics.

In 1079, following on the new flowering of education in Christendom that had been led by Charlemagne, Pope Gregory VII decreed the regulated establishment of cathedral schools that would become the first universities—at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. And soon rulers and city governments all over Europe began to create universities to address a rising thirst for knowledge, and a sense that the pursuit of such knowledge was an important social good.

The Latin-language curriculum of these universities was soaked in the classical authors, especially in logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and medicine. Some universities became known for the teaching of law (such as Bologna), others for the arts and theology (such as Paris). By the 1300s, twenty-nine universities had already been founded in Europe, and many more would follow. And with these new institutions came a new interest in the scientific exploration of the universe. The thinkers of that time were just beginning to discover nature itself, as something that was real, present, active, and above all intelligible. It was like they suddenly found another being on earth (and, in fact, they often personified nature in their allegories of this time) who had power and handed down decrees that must be obeyed or challenged. At the same time, they discovered that they themselves were caught up within the framework of nature, as bits of this cosmos they were readying themselves to master.

The new, university-based Christian intellectual tradition of “scholasticism” sought to comprehend the whole sweep of human experience, including our experience of the natural world, in a single, theologically informed system. According to historian Eugene Fairweather, this was “the most daring constructive attempt in the Church’s history to think of grace and nature, faith and reason, Christianity and culture, God and his creation, in terms that would neither separate nor confuse them, neither strip God of his sovereignty nor do violence to the integrity of his creatures.”

Thus the university became the context for the seventh fact in our story of the rise of science, as the scholastic theologians came to see the world is a place of beautiful order and regularity, following the reason of God the Creator—and readable through independent, rational explanations. In his book The Discarded Image, C S Lewis describes the most characteristic literary mode of the whole Middle Ages as being not, as one might imagine, romantic legend of the Arthurian sort, but rather systematic, rational studies. Medieval people, said Lewis, just loved “sorting out and tidying up.”

Continued in part VI

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

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

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

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