Tag Archives: human flourishing

Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part VII (final)

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.

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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.

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Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part II

Continued from part I

Opening historical salvo

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.”

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On how, and why, whole sectors of modern work were birthed from the heart and mind of the Christian church

Been very busy over the past few years, and a bad blogger – not posting much at all.

Among other pieces I’ve posted elsewhere but forgotten to link here at the Grateful To the Dead blog is this one, featured at The Public Discourse blog – run by the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton. The piece is a fairly brief meditation on what the Incarnation has meant in Western culture. It contains some ideas that I first published in the Medieval Wisdom book, and that I’m looking forward to extending in my next book. That book will most likely explore how entire sectors of human work that foster and support the material and social dimensions of human flourishing emerged ex corde ecclesia – from the heart of the church (and informed by the mind of the church!):

Christianity is so much more solid, and real, and human, than the “spiritual, but not religious” imitations of today. Christian faith touches every aspect of our lives—material, social, cultural. It does so because our God was born as a human baby in a stable and nurtured by a teenaged girl named Mary.

. . .

Out of a desire to imitate Christ’s compassion for those suffering from bodily illness, they poured the work of their hearts into a new institution called the hospital, succored (especially) the poor sick, and so birthed not only modern medicine but also our whole non-profit sector.

Out of fidelity to Christ’s command to “love God with their minds,” they poured the work of their minds into a new institution called the university, and so laid the foundation for the scientific revolution.

And out of aching devotion to the beauty of God’s holiness, imaged forth in Christ, they poured their imaginations and craft and labor into the glorious, soaring beauty of the Gothic cathedrals, and so nurtured and fostered artists in all media from then to now.

Healthcare. Education. Culture. To us, who labor in every kind and corner of modern human work, medieval incarnational faith speaks a “word in season.” It tells us:

Our bodies matter.

Our minds matter.

Our relationships matter.

Our work matters.