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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 5.1 (2002) 139-155

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Faith, Science, and the Error of Fideism

Michael W. Tkacz

During the hot, dusty summer of 1248, a small band of Dominican friars traveled by foot down the old Roman road that led along the Rhine River to Cologne. Their leader was Brother Albert who had been ordered by his religious superiors to establish a school of theology at Cologne and to become its first professor. Consequently, Albert resigned his professorship of theology at the University of Paris and set out for Germany, taking with him a group of young Dominican men who would become his first theology students at the new seminary. Among them was a twenty-three-year-old named Thomas from the town of Aquino in Italy who was soon to emerge as the brightest scholar of the group.

His assignment to Cologne was a great opportunity for Albert, for it gave him the chance to design a theology curriculum from the ground up. The surviving records of his courses taught during those early years demonstrate that he took full advantage of the opportunity. 1 They also reveal something quite interesting about Albert's attitudes toward the relationship of faith and science. For example, in one term during the 1250s, Albert taught three courses. One was [End Page 139] a series of lectures on the holy Scriptures. Another course was based on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, a treatise on virtue. The third course was devoted to the study of Aristotle's History of Animals, a zoological treatise containing detailed morphological descriptions of more than 500 species of animals. Now, it is obvious why Albert would lecture on the Scriptures as part of a theology curriculum and, while the study of ethics and virtue is not exactly the same as theology, its inclusion certainly makes sense. Why, however, do young men studying for the priesthood need training in a natural science such as zoology? Does it not seem surprising that anyone would think such training necessary for a religious career? In fact, our surprise might only increase upon learning that Albert did not simply provide a general introduction to zoology from Aristotle's book, but also involved his students in his own cutting-edge research. For even though Albert was by profession a theologian, he was also one of the most accomplished scientists of his day, conducting research and doing experiments in the fields of zoology, botany, mineralogy, and other sciences. He put his students to work collecting, preserving, and studying plant and animal specimens, and even replicating some of Aristotle's original experiments.

Our surprise might be such that we would assume that Albert's interest in the natural sciences was simply an avocation and that he took advantage of his situation at Cologne to indulge his personal interests. Or perhaps we might be tempted to assume that this is an example of a strictly medieval predilection, based on outmoded notions of science or religion. Why, however, should we make such assumptions? Why should it seem so surprising to us that theology and science be integrated into a single curriculum and thought to be equally relevant to the work of a priest? Why should we find it strange or unusual that some people have apparently considered the life of faith undifferentiated from the life of reason?

The reason for our surprise, I would like to suggest, is that most of us are fideists; that is, we view faith and science as belonging to [End Page 140] separate categories of human experience and human cognition. There are, of course, differences among us about just how separate and in what respects, but, generally, this is the way many of us tend to think of these matters. Science is rational, public, and verifiable while religious faith is essentially nonrational, private, and unverifiable. Now, to say that faith is "nonrational" is not to say that we never make use of rational methods in articulating our faith or that we never reason about the contents...


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