For those who enjoyed my faith & science history series over the past couple of weeks, there’s a treasure trove awaiting: The recent Christian History issue(s) on the same topic. You can browse the issue in full color and download pdfs of individual articles here.
Which reminds me to say . . .
. . . if I had a nickel for every time someone has said they didn’t know that Christian History had re-started after its then 26-year run ended in the fateful year 2008 . . . well, I’d be able to buy a fancy coffee or two. And little did anyone know – leastwise the magazine’s editors and parent (non-profit) organization – that in 2022 we’d be cruising into CH’s 40th anniversary year (special anniversary issue coming – keep an eye out at this link!).
But since 2011, the magazine has indeed lived again – and what a run it’s been, under the indefatigable editorial leadership of scholar/editor/writer/priest extraordinaire Jennifer Woodruff Tait. Among the topics we’ve covered just in the past few years: America’s love affair with the Bible; CS Lewis’s friends & family and their influence on him; Christian support for the common good in science, healthcare, higher education, the public square, and the marketplace; Christianity and Judaism; plagues and epidemics; Latin American Christianity; the women of the Reformation; the Quakers . . .
And for those interested in topics churchly/scientific, check out the following issues:
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.
A reasonable place to start this “story in ten facts” might be with the scientific revolution—traditionally dated from the 1543 publication of Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres to the 1687 publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia. As soon as we look at this revolution – the seedbed of all modern scientific disciplines—we see some potential problems with the warfare thesis.
First, we notice that the scientific revolution happened before the secularizing Enlightenment—traditionally dated from the death of the French king Louis XIV in 1715 to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. In other words, modern science was born in a Europe still thoroughly Christian in its thinking and institutions. That being true, it’s not surprising that almost all of the scientists who founded modern scientific disciplines during that period were themselves Christians [see illustration at the top of part I]. You’ll see a few named here – and we could include so many others, from Nicolaus Copernicus to Johannes Kepler to Blaise Pascal. Every one of these innovators was a person of faith who pursued scientific and technological innovation out of Christian motives and understandings.
I know what you’re thinking. “Ah, but what about Galileo? Wasn’t his work on the solar system suppressed by the church? Didn’t he become a prisoner to religious bigotry?” Well, no. It turns out Galileo ended up on trial before the Inquisition more because of his political naivete and lack of tact than anything else, and that the trial was more a legal dispute than a clash of beliefs. Says historian Thomas Mayer, “The notion that Galileo’s trial was a conflict between science and religion should be dead. Anyone who works seriously on Galileo doesn’t accept that interpretation any more.”
The theological term for this vibrant medieval understanding of the material world, as Lewis well knew, is sacramentalism. This is a linked set of beliefs, first, that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual; second, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator; and third, that God is present in and through every square inch of his world. While these beliefs are linked with the more limited, liturgical sense of the word “sacrament,” they amount to an understanding of the whole material world.
The world-sacramentalism of medieval Christians was rooted in a lively engagement with the doctrine of Creation — through an even livelier engagement with the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation was the central preoccupation of medieval Christians. Art, theology, church life, and private devotion all focused on the incarnation. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ bodily life and death became the medieval “canon within the canon”; the puzzle of why he had to come and die was the great theological obsession.
And in the midst of it all came the insight that, as Christ raised humanity by taking on humanity, he also in some mysterious sense, by taking on created form in his own creation, also raised up the whole world toward its new-creation destiny — such that even the rocks cry out and creation groans as it awaits that fulfilment.
In light of that cosmic redemption, and quite contrary to modern stereotypes of barbarism and otherworldliness, medieval Christians affirmed the material and social dimensions of our created human lives (our eating, drinking, working, marrying, getting sick, being healed, and eventually dying) as transcendentally important.
Ironically, this detachment sometimes looks like worldliness or materialism: the typical modern Western mode of effectively living for material pleasures and material accumulation. Though Christians are unlikely to profess that wry modern creed, “He who dies with the most toys wins,” we are quite capable of sacrificing a great deal to the idols of career success, in order to ensure that our families have all the comforts of middle-class life, all the latest iDevices, regular vacations, and good schools and future good salaries for our kids. And these habits, too, separate the material world of jobs and careers from the spiritual world of the church. Because, as Saint Augustine taught, when we treat material goods as ends in themselves, we decouple or disconnect them from their true value and meaning in God.
A generation after Augustine, believers of the Middle Ages, unlike our contemporary Western moment, did indeed find ways to keep the spiritual and the material together. And at least one very prominent modern Christian thinker followed that age’s integrative lead. So let’s enter that age through that modern figure.
Born in 1898 in Belfast, the son of a lawyer and a cultured, linguistically gifted mother who died when he was nine, this man read voraciously and omnivorously from his earliest years. By the age of eight, he was writing stories about “dressed animals” with his brother. In his teen years, learning classics under an Irish schoolmaster, he learned to appreciate the quest for truth not as an idle intellectual exercise, but rather as a search for the truth about what is real and true in the world — and for the wisdom necessary to live the good life. And that quest led him first to a lifelong concern for moral philosophy, and then, eventually, to a vocation as a professor of medieval literature.
I commend to you Common Goodmagazine. There is nothing else like it out there. And yes, though there is an online version, it contains only a modest part of what appears in the (beautiful and award-winning) print version. Seriously, you should subscribe.
In the current issue, #08, I have an article titled “The Work of Genesis: How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations.” Since my pieces tend not to make it into the online version (not sexy enough, I guess??), I’ll share this as a prod to subscribe:
The Work of Genesis How the doctrines of creation and incarnation shine light on our earthly vocations
Though many of us seem to have forgotten it in our post-Christian age, “vocation” is a Christian word. And by “vocation,” the historic church — especially the Protestant tradition — has meant something like this: Meaningful work that fulfils both the Genesis mandate to cultivate and keep the earth and the great commandment to love God and love and serve our neighbors. Taking this definition, vocation finds its roots in the doctrines of creation and incarnation.
Skipping ahead, from the 11th through the 13th century, a new phase of Christian humanism arose – in the thought and work of “scholasticism” – a movement in Christian thought that is understood by historians to have its intellectual foundations in Augustine, its early formulation in the work of Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, and its pinnacle in the grand system of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th.
The medieval scholastics continued and intensified the high humanist evaluation of human reason. As historian of science Edward Grant has comprehensively shown, no line can be drawn between the Middle Ages as a supposed “age of faith” and the 17th and 18th century “age of reason,” for both ages shared “the profound conviction that their beliefs could be reasonably demonstrated” and “medieval university scholars and teachers . . . placed a heavy reliance on reason,” and in fact, “in the history of civilization, they were the first to do so self-consciously on a grand scale.” Building on over a millennium of Christian thought about the Genesis portrayal of the imago dei, passed on from patristic thinkers such as Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo, the scholastics argued like this:
Many thanks to Scot McKnight for hosting Dave Moore’s interview with me on my new book, posted here today: at his Patheos.com blog. Patheos friend Kathleen Mulhern even featured the interview on the front page of www.patheos.com, which is “not chopped liver,” as they say–given that site’s millions of viewers monthly. It is tremendously gratifying to see folks picking this book up and engaging with it.
I also look forward to my visits to MacLaurinCSF at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis-St Paul) and Tyndale House College & University (Toronto) this fall, and to Upper House at the University of Wisconsin, Madison next spring, to explore these themes with students. I guess I’m a real author now, what with “book tours” and all . . .
C S Lewis described himself as a “dinosaur” – a relic of the ancient and medieval past, stomping around in the modern world. In this last clip of an interview about my new book (which takes C S Lewis as its “docent” into the medieval world), I look at how this “medieval perspective” led Lewis to think differently – sacramentally, incarnationally – about the world around him.
This blog contains over 720 posts as of Oct 2020 (also over 518,000 views from 210,000 unique visitors since inception in June 2010). If you read something you like, odds are there are at least one or two other posts dealing with similar topics. Which is why there’s a search box right below this message. :)