restricted access Science and the Christian Tradition: A Brief Overview
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Science and the Christian Tradition A Brief Overview JOHN HEDLEY BROOKE Two stories are commonly told about the relations between science and Christianity. At one extreme the story is all about conflict.1 The trial of Galileo by the Roman Catholic Church and continuing battles between Darwinians and creationists often make the headlines. At the other extreme we find the contrary claim that there would have been no modern science without Christianity .2 This sometimes surprising argument has taken different forms, but it depends on a simple idea: that a search for laws of nature only makes sense if creation has been ordered by a rational Creator, by a transcendent lawgiver. Isaac Newton saw this connection when he suggested that science had only prospered in monotheistic cultures. The mathematics of the solar system pointed to a deity no less brilliant than Newton himself, or in Newton’s own words a ‘‘deity very well skilled in mechanics and geometry.’’3 The many fine achievements of Muslim scientists from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, recently discussed by Ahmad Dallal, are consistent with Newton’s remark.4 Understanding the universe as a creation certainly did regulate thinking in much of early modern science. But the view that Christianity alone provided the necessary presuppositions is an exaggeration, recently classified as a ‘‘myth’’ in the book Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.5 For historians of science there is a wonderful richness and diversity in the relations between different sciences and different religious traditions. There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion, and there has certainly been no such thing as the relationship between science and Christianity.6 It has been constructed and reconstructed 7 8  surveys in many different ways within different Christian traditions and in many different social and political contexts. Diversity is found, for example, among the fathers of the Christian church. Some like Tertullian saw little value in the study of nature and in the achievements of the Greek natural philosophers: ‘‘Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!’’ Tertullian wanted ‘‘no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel!’’ Having that faith, ‘‘we desire no further belief.’’7 Tertullian was not typical of the church fathers, although all believed there were higher priorities than the investigation of nature. One of the reasons given by Basil of Caesarea for disregarding pagan scientific speculations was grounded in the observation that the Greek philosophers disagreed among themselves: no sooner was one theory proposed than it was succeeded by another and then another. What confidence, then, could be placed in them?8 Interestingly, that argument from the history of science still surfaces from time to time in critiques of realist philosophies of science. In St. Augustine, however, there is a more positive estimate of the value of physical science. There will always be more urgent matters for the Christian disciple than the study of nature, but Augustine also warns that it would be embarrassing and disgraceful for Christians to be caught out talking nonsense on scientific topics. In his commentary on Genesis, Augustine even drew on Stoic philosophy to solve an exegetical problem. The Stoic concept of ‘‘seeds’’ allowed him to say that, when the world was first created, it was complete— and yet not completely complete. It would take time for living things to develop from the seeds implanted by the Creator. With reference to the origins of humankind, he put it like this: God ‘‘created man in the sense that he made the man who was to be, that is, the causal principle of man to be created, not the actuality of man already created.’’9 A consequence of this approach was that the six ‘‘days’’ of the Creation narrative were not to be taken literally.10 In Augustine’s understanding of potentiality in the world, there is a greater subtlety than we sometimes find among the young-earth creationists of today. The critical point, however, is that Augustine illustrates an attitude toward the sciences that has reappeared many times in the history of Western Christianity. It manifests itself in what I like to call the selective role of religious belief because Christians (and they are not alone in this) have usually been happy to select from current bodies of science those features that reinforce their faith, science and the christian tradition  9 dispensing with the...


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Subject Headings

  • Religion and science -- Congresses.
  • Christianity -- Doctrines -- Congresses.
  • Islam -- Doctrines -- Congresses.
  • Bible -- Criticism, interpretation, etc. -- Congresses.
  • Koran -- Criticism, interpretation, etc. -- Congresses.
  • Christianity and other religions -- Islam -- Congresses.
  • Islam -- Relations -- Christianity -- Congresses.
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