Miniature from 1450 taken from a copy of “Horologium Sapientiae” written around 1330 by Constance Henrich Seuse, Bibliothèque Royale Albert 1er, Bruxelles
. . . continued (and completed) from part VI
But though intellectual curiosity or the expectation of a lawfulness in nature mirroring the rationality of God did help drive the rise of science, it was not the only factor. Another, more practical consideration also contributed, and this brings us to Fact #9. That is, that medieval Christians also saw their rational study of creation as helping fulfil the cultural mandate of Genesis by developing new tools for better living.
In other words, the pursuit of scientific knowledge was already, even among the medieval scholastics, a matter not just for speculative or devotional interest, but also a way of contributing to human flourishing. The scholastics understood that God wants us to live in full enjoyment of his creation as well as his fellowship. God will not allow this full enjoyment and flourishing to be completely destroyed by the disobedience of humans in the fall, and so he works with and through human reason to improve every area of human life through new technologies, advances in medicine, and every other field of material culture.
Thus medieval theological education fostered every science and art—the quadrivium of the maths and sciences (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) as well as the trivium of the humanities (grammar, logic, rhetoric). Though theology remained the “queen of the sciences,” every medieval university student, in order to earn a bachelor’s degree, had to study arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy as well.
By the twelfth-century rise of the university, as a result of this longstanding medieval attention to bodies of knowledge about how the world works, Western Europe had adopted an array of culture-shaping and life-changing technological developments – including the windmill, the waterwheel, the use of keel and rudder, and the mechanical clock. These inventions, often borrowed from other world cultures and then further developed in the West, revolutionized agricultural production, fostered trade, and rationalized work. Each innovation represented a new application of reason to Creation, in fulfillment of the Genesis cultural mandate.
One important area in which early and medieval Christians applied scientific knowledge to the development of technical solutions for human flourishing was that of healthcare. Bodily health had been seen as a positive good to be pursued and supported by the church ever since Christianity’s founding. From their earliest years, Christians had provided services of healing along with the distribution of alms through parish networks. Already by the mid-200s AD, the benevolence mission of the church had birthed a complex of minor clerical orders whose churchly functions included healing.
This medical mission of religious communities grew through the medieval era as monasteries across Europe became places of healing as well as prayer, in a real sense proto-hospitals, serving surrounding communities as well as the sick within their orders. Monasteries became places not just of medical practice, but also of research and innovation, noted for their libraries of medical books, their development of new cures, and their herb gardens for medicines. (It is no coincidence that the modern science of genetics sprung from one 19th-century monk’s experiments on pea plants in such a monastery garden.)
The 12th century polymath Hildegard of Bingen exemplifies this tradition. Declared in 2012 one of only four women “doctors (teachers) of the Catholic church” in history, Hildegard was the abbess of two communities of Benedictine women, and a renaissance woman. She studied the therapeutic value of nature; collected, identified, and tested herbs and other curative substances; and acted as an apothecary and healthcare provider to her communities.
In all of this, she affirmed God’s creational purposes for full human flourishing, saying, “God, for the glory of his name, gathered together the world out of the elements, fortified humankind and everywhere imbued them with the greatest strength, so that creation might assist them in all things . . . for humankind can neither live nor even exist without creation.”
This understanding has (then and now) motivated and supported Christian scientists who have sought in nature materials that support human flourishing—precisely the work that is continued today in pharmacology and similar scientific fields, as well as many other industries grounded in science.
Medieval Christians’ openness to natural explanations for illness and their search for related knowledge was a vital step toward the later development of many facets of medical science in the Christian scientific revolution—as in the work of Andreas Vesalius on anatomy and William Harvey on the circulatory system. And this same attention to the rational and innovative development of created matter in support of human flourishing has animated scientists of faith ever since, from the British Royal Academy of Science in which Newton and so many others labored, to such innovators as the devout Victorian Christian Michael Faraday, pioneer of the modern electromagnetics without which the literal engines of our current technologies would not run.
Our whole story culminates in a tenth and final fact: The popular and damaging modern story that theology and science have always been locked in warfare is a fiction. In fact, both the history of science, and the principles held by faithful women and men of science throughout that history, prove that scientific vocations are wide open to Christians. And more than this, they suggest that Christians have access to beliefs that can make them better scientists, as our faith provides us with tools and understandings for a more committed, integral, and effective pursuit of science—as one important road to serving the flourishing of our neighbor, toward which God ordered both creation and our own faculty of reason.