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Thoughts on Christianity and science
In the imposing Munster Church of Strasbourg, France there is a clock which stands over two stories tall. Built in 1359, it shows not only hours and minutes but also motions of the planets and the phases of the moon. But through its moving figures and adorning paintings it also tells a message, namely, that time began with the creation and is heading toward the judgment of God at its end. This view of time was deeply embedded in the mind of Europeans before the Strasbourg clock was built.
We see few things as being as truth-telling or meaning-giving as time. We claim the right to vote on the basis of age. We celebrate athletes because they covered a distance in record time. We honor couples who have been married 50 years. People’s lives depend on how experts calculate according to minutes and seconds on the clock: airplane flights, space flights, train-track switches and hospital operations, just to name a few. Even Einstein’s theory of Relativity, which presents time-dilation, requires a constant related to time: the speed of light (299,792,458 meters per second).
The beginnings of science
All of the success of modern scientific venture goes back to the idea of the Strasbourg clock: a worldview based on the creation story. Alfred North Whitehead, hardly a believer in biblical Christianity, wrote (Science and the Modern World, 1925) that the basis of modern science is found in “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher.”
Before the spread of Christianity civilizations believed in the cyclical view of time and history: birth → growth → apex → degeneration → cataclysmic destruction → rebirth, and so on. In addition, they believed the world was filled with and dominated by spirits whose activities in nature were often despotic.
Even for Aristotle the earth and heaven were divine and eternal. Time itself was to be regarded as a circle. Christianity has been spreading the Jewish world view for over 2000 years. The Jewish world view is found in the Bible, beginning in Genesis 1. There time, matter, motion, and history begin. The earth turns in a 24-hour cycle. The earth and the heavens are not divine, nor are they eternal. They are created entities. Since creation has a starting point, effects in nature can be traced back to their causes. In her recent book, Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey writes, “by exorcising the gods of nature, biblical monotheism freed humanity to investigate it without fear. It taught them to think of nature as regular, predictable, and open to systematic study.” (p.106)
It took over a thousand years after Christ for people to understand how to apply biblical monotheism to the study of nature. The European people of the middle ages were caught in the web of fatalistic thinking. Outwardly Catholic, many were personally pantheistic, agnostic and atheistic. “The high middle Ages,” says Stanley Jacki, “were intellectually a turbulent era. While orthodoxy could be imposed through patently unevangelical methods, man’s inner assent proved itself to be doggedly elusive to enforcement.” (Science and Creation, 220) Most people, being fatalists, were followers of astrology. Again, to cite Jaki, “Medieval investigators of nature fell short of their goals in the measure in which they fell under the sway of the fundamental tenets of astrology.”
The end of fatalism
Beginning in the 1100s, some of those investigators began to challenge tenets of astrology and the maxims of Aristotle about the universe. They used the Bible to make those challenges. The turning point from fatalism to a biblical view of investigating the world took place at Paris in 1277. There, Bishop Etienne Tempier assembled a group of intellectuals to deal with the growing tensions in theology and philosophy. The end result, according to Pierre Duhem, was that “Without exception, these theologians condemned every proposition that refused God the power to accomplish an act, under the pretext that the act is in contradiction with the physics of Aristotle and Averroes.” (Medieval Cosmology, edited by Roger Ariew, 181) Or, more simply, God created and controls the universe. He can cause any action in it that He desires. Fate is not in control. It was this council that proved to be the starting point for the scientific venture.
Until the days of the Enlightenment, scientific thinking was never in conflict with the Christian faith. In AD 1230 Jordanus Nemorarius formulated the law of lever movements. By 1300 Theodonis of Fribourg had explained rainbow formation. John Buridan (d. 1358) proposed the concept of gravity as innate in all bodies. In 1494, Giovanni Pico wrote a massive refutation of astrology. In 1543 Andreas Vesalius published the first accurate textbook on human anatomy. From 1609 to 1619 Johannes Kepler formulated his three laws of planetary motion. In 1628 William Harvey published his De Motu Cordis (The Circulation of the Blood). All these, and many other, discoveries happened ahead of the Enlightenment. With few exceptions, the founders of modern scientific method and discovery were firm believers in Christianity and the truth of the Bible. The idea that modern science is a product of Enlightenment thinking is commonly repeated, but it is a complete distortion of history.
The result of the Enlightenment
So how did the Enlightenment philosophers take a product of Christian thinking and turn it against the Christian faith? Peter Gay explains:
The philosophes [sic] liked to visualize themselves reenacting historic battles, to denounce religious fanaticism and popularize Newton wrapped in the toga of Cicero or Lucretius. This is how they gave their polemics the dignity of an age-old struggle between reason and unreason, a struggle that had been fought and lost in the ancient world and was now being fought again, this time with good prospects of success. (The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, 32)
Devout Christian thinkers had exorcized the spirits from nature. The Enlightenment philosophers banned God from nature. They were propagandists, and they knew it. And they had the idea “that until the time of Bacon, Newton and Locke people had lived for almost two thousand years in utter darkness” (James Livingstone, Modern Christian Thought, 9). For the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the priests of the church were scoundrels who suppressed the truth. They were determined to overturn the priests’ authority. Enlightenment scientists became something that earlier scientists like Isaac Newton never foresaw: the new priests who were the channels of truth.
Europe, tired of centuries of religious warfare—of killing, atrocity, devastation and torture in the name of God—was ready to listen to the philosophers. But despite its hijacking by the Enlightenment philosophers and scientific materialists afterward, the scientific enterprise has worked very well: a tribute to its biblical basis. An atheist does not self-destruct when he denies God. The Bible critic doesn’t court disaster when he follows Bible principles in spite of himself. Modern science succeeds in spite of being practiced by unbelievers.
The impact of Immanuel Kant
One man who was thoroughly saturated with the ideas of the Enlightenment was Immanuel Kant. In his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” he wrote the following:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of enlightenment.
As Michael Polyani shows in his book, Personal Knowledge, what Kant gives us is an impossible proposition. Every PhD graduate in the natural sciences has gained ninety-five percent of his knowledge not from the laboratory, but second, third or fourth hand. Essentially, scientists gain knowledge because they put their trust in other scientists. Pity their “lack of resolve”! But knowledge progresses in no other way.
Even Kant could not fulfill his admonition. His mind was saturated with Newtonian physics, and he wrote a treatise on the formation of the solar system on the basis of this help from Newton. Given his reliance on the work of believing men, Kant should have looked beyond the rationalists who had been teaching him to the faith of Newton and the faith of the men responsible for the scientific enterprise. It was an unflagging faith in the truth of Scripture that gave the pre-Enlightenment scientists their impetus to examine and interpret nature. They were convinced that Genesis 1 is literal history, and that was their starting point. For centuries scientists had already “dared to know,” but they had put their minds under the authority of Scripture. That is what made them successful.
We deplore the perversion of scientific knowledge for immoral means. We call it arrogance when some claim that natural science will one day answer all questions and establish utopia. The pompous and erroneous pronouncements of Albert Gore and his followers in the name of science are absurd. Richard Dawkins’ application of disproven scientific arguments to belittle the Bible is deceitful. But Bible believers should embrace the practice of scientific discovery: a practice which begins with the idea that we are able to encounter, test, and measure the realities of God’s creation.
We can do all these things because the world and space are created entities. They are neither eternal nor divine, and fate does not rule their movements. They had a beginning in time, and they movie irresistibly toward the goal of God’s coming judgment. Scientific discovery is after all, a biblical pursuit.