Tag Archives: science

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 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?

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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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Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part I

Illustration from C Armstrong, “The Pursuit of Science for God and Neighbor,” Common Good magazine issue #3, pp. 48-53

For many years I’ve attended – and sometimes spoken at – the Acton Institute’s annual four-day June meeting, “Acton University.” The 2022 meeting will happen June 20-23 both in-person in Grand Rapids and online. I’ll be giving a talk there titled “Christian foundations of science & technology innovation: A story in ten facts.” Here it is:

I’d like to start our reflection together with a question about finding Christian vocation in this tremendously important sector of modern work: science and technology.

Christians today are often told that we must bridge the so-called “sacred-secular divide” by finding divine purpose and mission in our daily work. And that sounds good in theory. It certainly has good support in both Scripture and tradition—from the Apostle Paul to Gregory the Great to Martin Luther and beyond. But where it often runs aground is in our actual experience.

Because, truthfully, our modern work contexts, and even the nature of the work we do in those contexts, seems to many of us—for many reasons—about as secular as can be.

So here’s the vocation question: How can we discover Christian vocation in fields of work that Luther could not have even imagined—let alone the Apostle Paul? In particular, how can modern people of faith experience work in the scientific laboratory or the high-tech firm as Christian mission?

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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.

Interview on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog

medieval wisdom coverMany 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 . . .

The book is out! So here’s a link to a whole website about it, and an interview clip introducing it . . .

So, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age, with C. S. Lewis is out, as of May 17th!

Check out www.medieval-wisdom.com (description, blurbs, first-chapter download, links to bookstores carrying it). Here’s the first of five clips from a video interview my publisher produced:

C S Lewis and the translation of medieval Creation-focus for today

OutOfTheSilentPlanetIt’s always hard to do the cultural translation necessary to benefit from the lessons of a past age. We are not medieval people. We don’t believe that lions are born dead and resurrected by the breath of their parents three days later, or that pelicans revive their dead young by piercing their own bodies and feeding their blood to them. Nor are we as ready to see God in every roadside shrine, storm, or twist of fortune. So how are we to appropriate the sense of the wonder and “livingness” of creation, and the sacramentalism, of that earlier age? At the end of the creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I return to Lewis for answers

Finally, however, how are we to derive new practice from the age of unicorns and self-mutilating pelicans? Isn’t it a bit much to ask moderns to accept all this neoplatonic mysticism and fanciful symbolism? Once again we turn to our guide, C. S. Lewis. Lewis represented the medieval balance on creation nicely.

Lewis appreciated both the material world’s quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). From his first Oxford friend, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, he got, as he put it, an “education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature.” Walking about with Jenkin, he learned “in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge,” and so “rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.” (199)

Not only was this quiddity of things something to be enjoyed, but it also pointed us to objective truth. The beauty of a waterfall was something inherent to the waterfall – not a trick of the subjective mind of a human. And Lewis was actually concerned for the souls of those who did not see this (in his Abolition of Man). He knew that when a person saw a he waterfall, they were seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”

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Out of the medieval darkness: The REAL story of medieval theology

English: Illustration of the spherical earth i...

English: Illustration of the spherical earth in a medieval manuscript. The figure shows two men walking around the spherical earth, one going to the East and the other to the West, and meeting on the opposite side. O. H. Prior, ed., L’image du monde de maitre Gossuin, (Lausanne & Paris: Librarie Payot & C ie , 1913), pp. 93-4. 14th century copy of a 12th century original (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK folks, still at it: the “theology chapter” of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis is nearly done. Having introduced it with clips from my introduction of the “modern problem” which I hope this chapter can help address and my two-part review of Lewis’s relationship to philosophy and theology (of the modern and medieval varieties), the time has come to jump into the medieval material. Here is the “medieval introduction,” which finds that it must clear away some stereotypes before positing the “four balances” that medieval theology maintained – from which we can learn much today.

I. Medieval faith in reason? Surely not!

Possibly the number one reason many (I hope not most!) modern Protestant Christians will not give this book the time of day is that they assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and 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.[1]

It’s a shame we have to do this, but in order to get back to the brilliance of medieval theology, we first have to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and top-selling – according to Amazon sales rankings) book by one William Manchester called A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester is a historian, but he works way out of his field here.[2] And that is the most charitable reason I can think of for his straight-faced argument that even in Columbus’s time, and throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the 8-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says “nonsense.”[3] Continue reading

Alvin Plantinga, apologist and pro-science thinker

English: Image of Alvin Plantinga released by ...

Alvin Plantinga

Reading the New York Times article that appeared today on recently retired Calvin College philosopher Alvin Plantinga almost (only almost) makes me want to join the apologetic fray. I’m just not cut out for it. But I’m glad that there are people like Dr. Plantinga around to point out that science and Christian faith, far from being incompatible, are in fact twins in the womb (or to be more precise, Western science would not have happened without Christianity):

On the telephone Mr. Plantinga was milder in tone but no less direct. “It seems to me that many naturalists, people who are super-atheists, try to co-opt science and say it supports naturalism,” he said. “I think it’s a complete mistake and ought to be pointed out.” Continue reading