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.
One of the myths perpetuated by William Manchester in his atrocious book A World Lit Only By Fireis that even in Columbus’s time, and certainly throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Nonsense, said University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and historian of science David Lindberg, in an interview for Christian History magazine. (I’ll add that Lindberg is co-editor of the Cambridge History of Science, so he knows his apples.) The full interview can be found here, but this is the pertinent section:
What other myths about science and Christianity are commonly accepted today?
One obvious one maintains that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church.
This myth seems to have had an eighteenth-century origin, elaborated and popularized by Washington Irving, who flagrantly fabricated evidence for it in his four-volume history of Columbus. The myth was then picked up by White and others.
The truth is that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) who doubts that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.
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