“And that, my lord, is how we know the Earth to be banana-shaped.” “This new learning amazes me, Sir Bedevere. Explain again how sheep’s bladders may be employed to prevent earthquakes.” I couldn’t help but think of that quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail as I read David Lindberg’s essay on medieval science. Beneath the characteristic Python silliness lies a hint of what actually transpired among western European scholars of the Middle Ages. A New Learning was arriving in the form of classical texts and Arabic treatises, deepening interest and expertise on topics of nature and empirical study. Even if their conclusions were different from ours, the questions they asked and the methods they applied to resolving them should feel familiar.
We’re in the first week of our blog book club on When Science & Christianity Meet and taking a look at chapter 1. The book is a series of case studies looking at significant moments when European & American Christianity conversed with the science of the same cultures. Or more precisely, as the introduction reminds us, when specific individuals who confessed some form of Christian beliefs entered into dialogue with specific individuals studying various scientific disciplines. Sometimes that dialogue was an internal one, as many scientists have themselves been believers. The overall goal is not to support a particular broad conclusion, such as science and religion are fundamentally at odds, or science can only flourish in the context of Abrahamic monotheism. Rather, the authors take an approach that appeals to my fondness for details; they are delving into the specifics to give a flavor for the complexity and diversity that the history of Christian and scientific ideas has to offer.
In Chapter 1, David Lindberg uses Augustine of Hippo and Roger Bacon as examples of how Christian scholars approached science in the period following the decline of Rome but prior to the revolution we typically consider the beginning of modern science. Granted, that’s roughly a millenium so the thoughts and writings of two individuals can scarcely represent the breadth of discourse. But I gather Lindberg is less interested in a survey and more in demonstrating a continuity of ideas between the two men across a significant span of time. Further, Lindberg hints at how those ideas and the conversations around them have carried forward into the present. That’s not to say the discourse has been static all this time, simply that throughlines exist.
Understanding how ideas have changed and how they have stayed the same can be challenging. Our present way of looking at the world makes so much sense and seems so natural, we can scarcely imagine how it could have been otherwise. Thus we project backwards (and forwards) our current understanding. So it is jarring to reflect on Augustine efforts to explain how the waters of the firmament could exist above a layer of air in an Aristotelian cosmology, given everything we know about atoms, molecules, gravity, etc. At the same time, his discussion of how jars of air behave when submerged in water could easily accompany an interactive exhibit at a present-day science center.
Or consider that mathematical models of the heavens from Augustine’s day could already predict the future positions of stars and planets to a precision comparable to the precision of available observations. Sure, now we have general relativity and a very different mental image of those same heavens, but some of the basic concepts had already been worked out more than 2,000 years ago. But then consider that it was only 100 years ago that we learned about the existence of other galaxies, a fact most grade school students could tell you today.
We’ve discussed previously, and Lindberg mentions at the outset of his essay, the popular notion that the Middle Ages were scientifically backwards. If your standard is accurate descriptions of the world and the causes of various effects, then yes, some medieval science comes up short in ways that can seem just as absurd as a banana-shaped planet. Yet they were interested in making inferences from empirical evidence and using those inferences to make predictions. What sets us apart from our counterparts in antiquity is less the sophistication of our minds or our freedom from dogma and more the accumulated volume of our observations (which may now include images of planets in other galaxies). Collecting and having to reckon with an ever-increasing body of sensory data pushes the development and refinement of new scientific ideas.
Christian theology, on the other hand, doesn’t really get new data, at least in the sense of more scripture from which that theology is derived. Both Augustine and Bacon (and many others) recognized this difference between theology and science and the challenge of understanding both as part of one consistent picture of reality. Their solution was the handmaiden model, wherein science serves the needs of theology and is only worthwhile when it does so. Bacon seems to have taken a wider view of how science could be useful, but its value was still framed by reference to theological pursuits. I think I understand the logic of that approach, but I’m fairly certain it won’t appeal to everyone. So that’s where I’d love to hear from you, about how you would describe your preferred way to connect science and theology. And about whatever else struck you as interesting from this chapter.
Feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments below. And I hope you can join us in two weeks, on February 21 at 7:30pm EST, for a video chat to discuss this chapter and the next two. I’ll be back here next week with my initial reactions to chapter 2 on Galileo.