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Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of ConvictionOthers have tried to do what Diogenes Allen, Professor of Philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary, does in his book but none with his breadth or effectiveness. That is, others have attempted to exploit for theism's benefit the hard times now befalling the modern world's emphasis on scientific reasoning and pure rationality, which for quite a while had placed Christianity (and religious belief in general) on the intellectual and cultural defensive. Many of these earlier attempts made use of the Wittgensteinian concepts of 'form of life' or 'language game' to show that both science and religion depended on unproven assumptions and therefore rested equally on grounds without firm foundations. These kinds of attempts, however, could most always aim no higher than to make the world safe for fideism. And fideism is not to defend the faith.
What makes Allen's contribution special and important is his effort to examine in a philosophically rigorous way what we mean when we say Christianity is true. He quotes Colossians 2:2 at the start of his book, but I Peter 3:15 is just as appropriate for what follows: 'Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.'Allen is very clear whom he is writing for and what his intentions are: 'to give those who have no faith compelling rational grounds to become seekers and to those who have faith a greater degree of assurance and understanding than they can attain while constrained by the modern mentality.' He divides his book into three parts. The first part begins with a mapping of our current intellectual terrain. In many ways, modernism committed the docetist heresy to human thought. It failed to see human thought as truly embodied and enculturated. Rather, human intellection consisted in pristine, pure rationality undisturbed by culture, bias, or the vagaries of historical situation.
Modernism valued evidence and empirical confirmation and therefore strived to remain valueneutral to mirror a phenomenal world that was itself held value-neutral. The author challenges this way of human knowing and finds it insufficient and incapable of meeting the deepest needs of being human. In so doing, he sheds light on the relation between science and religion. Much of this material is rather provocative intellectual history, including a particularly interesting analysis of the Galileo affair and how it was used for polemical purposes by those hostile to theism.The second part of the book examines faith, If there are good rational reasons to become a seeker, there are then good rational reasons to examine potential answers to the search. In this way, faith becomes 'a response that is wholly reasonable.' Allen borrows William James's language of faith as 'a forced and live option.' Yet, the author is quick to caution that faith is not what happens when evidence fails us.
The 'leap of faith' is not a broad jump away from the empirical, but rather a high jump toward another (higher) realm of knowing-the realm of the heart where our deepest needs are met and our deepest questions are addressed. If it is rational to ask these questions (and Allen argued it was in the first part of the book), then it is rational to make this leap once it is recognized that it affords the only hope for 'immense understanding of matters which concern us greatly.'These issues lead the author to examine biblical revelation. Since much of revelation includes descriptions of God's activity amid God's people-indeed the whole concept of revelation presupposes contact between creator and created-Allen is led to the broader topic of divine activity in the world. He does, however, avoid certain knotty philosophical issues such as how an eternal deity relates to time, including how God may be said to answer prayers and what the extent of God's knowledge is. Perhaps this is too much to ask for from one chapter, though it is not an entirely inappropriate request from one seeking to give the strongest possible philosophical defense of Christian belief. Moreover, the chapter on divine activity seems to presuppose a view of human freedom found deficient in another context. Given what the author says in other places about human identity and practice emerging from community, one must question why he now emphasizes the self-determining character of creaturely freedom.The last part of the book explores the relation between Christianity and other faiths.
Although much of the discussion here is indebted to Simone Weil, given Allen's project of showing how Christianity could be true in an increasingly pluralistic world that leaves many frustrated and leaning toward relativism, it is a necessary subject for him to address. The author is a clear writer conversant with a wide range of scriptural, literary, and scientific sources and proficient in his ability to move between them with graceful transitions. He is also especially helpful to the reader in recapping points just completed and in previewing those yet to come so that the book truly does function as one sustained argument for 'the intellectual viability of Christianity.' It may not, as Allen persuasively argues, redound to the benefit of Christianity that God fills gaps in our knowing; but it most certainly redounds to the benefit of Christianity that books do. His does.Joseph M. IncandelaTHE CHRISTIAN ROOTS OF MODERN SCIENCE.
. . . For many people science stands for rationality, evidence, knowledge, enlightenment. Religion in contrast, stands for backwardness, conservism, superstition, authoritarianism, and is regarded as the enemy and rival of science.
These are extreme characterizations, but however much the extremes are toned down, the general impression is that some hostility, some incompatibility, some rivalry between religion and science exists. IStarting in 1934 with three seminal articles by Michael B. Foster, and with increasing tempo during the past twenty years, a study of the history of science has radically changed the picture of the relatioin between Christianity and science. We have begun to realize that for its very birth science owed a great deal to Christianity. Rather than being a rival, Christianity is one of the major contributors to its rise. Yet just the opposite picture has been dominant for more than two hundred years.
So let us briefly point out some of the ways Christianity contributed to the rise of science and the deep harmony between them, and then explain how the opposite picture--one of essential incompatibility--developed and why it continues to dominate the public mind, even among the highly educated. The rise of science is one of the great puzzles of history. We take its existence for granted, yet is is a very recent phenomenon. There have been several great civilizations, with highly organized cities, impressive achievements in poetry, drama and politics, yet nothing that we would call science developed in them. There was technical skill, for example, in metal work, ceramics, and perfume making, but no detailed understanding of the behavior of matter expressed in mathematical terms.
There was impresive observation and recording of the stars, but no comprehensive understanding of their motions. Classical science began to take a clear shape in Europe in the late sixteenth century. The result of the work of many individuals, it is a breathtaking achievement that makes Western civilization unique and has deeply affected every other extant civilization. The vision of the universe and the power it gives us are so startling that historians have been forced to ask, Why did science not arise in ancient Inida, Egypt, China, or Greece, especially in Greece? After all ancient Greece had many of the ideas we have used in our science, and the contribution of the Greeks was essential to the rise of science. Why did we succeed where they failed? Investigation of this and other questions have changed our estimate of the relation of Christianity and science.
The older picture of Christianity as the implacable enemy of science has begun to give way because it has been increasingly recognized that Christianity was a major factor, perhaps an essential ingredient in the rise of science. Many civilizations had some of the ingredients that seem to be necessary for the rise of science. For example, they had sufficient technology to make the apparatus needed for elementary experiments; they had sufficient mathematics for measurement and calculation. But what they did not have was a set of attitudes toward the material world, a set of attitudes which are vital for the development of science. Christianity had those attitudes. Some of those attitudes were native to Christianity itself; some of them Christianity found in the ancient Greeks. But Christianity perserved those insights.
More and more it seems that it was these attitudes which were part of the mental furniture of the people of Christian Europe, including a few geniuses, which enabled western Europe to create what no other culture has ever created--science. Matter is a good, not an evil Christinaity was the bearer fundamental attitudes . . . First, it is essential to be interested in the material world. Christians have a strong 'other worldly' sense, that is, they believe that the entire universe depends for its existence on a perfect being, but they also believe that nature is good, or more specifically that matter is good. This has not always been the case.
There is an ambivalent attitude toward matter in much of ancient Greek thought, and the Gnosticism of the early Christian era considered matter to be evil. But Genesis 1 makes abundantly clear that the creation is good. However much our world is marred by sin, the physical universe is innocent. It is the human will, not the natural world, which is at fault. Nature is consistentSecond, Christians believe that nature is orderly; that it behaves in a consistent and rational way. If something measures a certain size on day, it will be the same size the next. If a liquid freezes at a particular temperature, liquid of the same kind will always freeze at that temperture.
Nature is orderly because it is created by a good and rational God. Ancient Greek thought, most of which also stressed that nature is orderly, was significantly modified by Christianity. For Christians nature's order, though regular, does not have to be the way it is. It could have been ordered differently by God. Its actual order is just one possible out of many. This led to the gradual realization that we could not just think up a rational blueprint and then say that because it is rational nature has to be that way. Because there is more than one possible rational order, we have to examine nature closely to discover what order is actually in operation. Ancient Greek thought assumed that a single rational natural order could be discovered by sheer thought--or at least mostly by thought. Nature must be that way in spite of the fact that it might appear to be different. The Greeks failed to respect observed fact as having authority.
Even Aristotle who did respect observed fact, especially in biology, did not recognize the hallmark of modern science, quantitative fact. But Christianity, with its notion of a personal God as Creator, whose wisdom is reflected in the created order but not bounded by it, after much struggle in the Middle Ages to free itself from Greek rationalism, came to emphasize that the order we observe depends on the choice of an intelligence. We have to experiment, measure, observe to determine as best we can what order our universe actually has and to revise our theories inlight of observed facts. Christianity with its conviction of a wise and personal God encourages empirical science, and is more harmonious with empirical science that much of Greek rationalism. The operations of nature resemble the work of an artist more than that of an engineer or a craftsman. We cannot predict what a character in a novel will do because the actions of characters are not necessary, i.e., deducbile from previous actions.
But a character's actions will not be arbitrary either. Unexpected actions will occur but they will 'make sense' in terms of the situations and various other personalities involved in the story. Likewise, the Christian understanding of God as rational encourages a search for order in nature but an order that is not necessary. Rather, it is contingent, that is, dependent on the action of a wise God who could have created a quite different, yet orderly, universe. Nature can be knownThird, science is only possible if we think that nature can be understood by the human mind.
Christians believe that God's creation can be understood to a significant extent. A rational God does not create an irrational universe. So an order is there to be found . . .
Science is humane Finally, the results of our investigations are to be shared. Science is above all a communal affair. Christians inthe seventeenth century were aflame with the idea that we can serve one another with a better knowledge of nature . . .
A knowledge of nature would enable us to improve human life on earth. For example, Christian laypeople felt it their responsibility to study nature and so improve medicine, thereby reducing pain and saving life. Bacon went so far as to say that it was our taks to restore creation to its prefallen state by the application of knowledge . . .
The presence of these and other attitudes together in one culture is apparently unique. Ancient Greek thought was vital for the development of our science, and in the Middle Ages Christianity was the heir, preserver, and developer of Greek thought. In spite of severe tensions, there was enough harmony for Christianity to receive, modify, and finally absorb much of Greek thought and infuse it with its own native convictions into a workable, consistent outlook. A famous text, frequently quoted in the Middle Ages, symbolizes this receptivity: 'But thou has arranged all things by measure and number and weight' (Wisdom of Solomon 11.20) . Christianity was able to absorb the mathematical approach to nature which was favored by the Pythagoreans and Archimedes, thinkers who deeply influenced the great scientific pioneers Kepler and Galileo (1564-1642).
Christianity, by absorbing so much of Greek thought, provided the environment in which a few people of genius half-created and half-stumbled onto what we now call classical science. The positive role played by Christianity in the origins of classical science has only very recently been recognized in the academic community, but even there, eminent scientists can be found who still assert the earlier belief that the effect of Christianity onsicne was wholly negative. It is still not generally known to most educated people nor to those responsible for educating people nor to many who disseminate ideas. But it is making headway and is increasingly recognized by historians of science. It is now to be found in textbooks such as Ian Barbour's Issues in Science and Religion and White and Shapiro's The Emergence of Liberal Humanism.
One of Michael Foster's pioneering essays in Mind (1934) has recently been reprinted in an anthology used by the Open University in Britain, Science and Religious Belief, edited by C. A. Russell. IINonetheless, we must admit in all honesty that Christianity was also restrictive. And its restrictiveness gives plausibility to the picture of a fundamental antagonism between Christianity and science. Part of the restricitiveness was due to Aristotelianism. Aristotle's view of the heavens andhis entire theory of motion stood in the way of the rise of science.
Much of Aristotle's thought had become part of Christian thinking. It took some hard thinking on the part of some Christias, such as Galielo and Descartes, to separate what was essential to Christianity from the views of Aristotle. And many Christians were prejudiced against the new science largey because of their Aritotelianism. But this mixture of Christianity and Aristotle does not explain the powerful, deep, and widespread view in Western society that science and religion are foes, nor the widespread view the Christianity is really an outworn creed which opposed the enlightenment offered by science. To explain this we need to turn to the trial of Galileo by a special comission appointed by Pope Urban VIII.
The condemnation of Galileo: a false picture In 1633, after twenty years of increasing tension, Galileo was tried for heresy and forced to recant, and the Copernican or heliocentric hypothesis that the earth goes around the sun was condemned. The condemnation of the Copernican hypothesis did not come about however, because of an inherent conflict between science and religion. As we shall see, it is impossible to account for the trial of Galileo and the condemnation of the Copernican hypothesis in terms of an inherent clash between religion and science over the heliocentric hypothesis Galileo, 1564-1642 It has been fregquently said that there was such a clash because the new Copernican theory removed the earth from the center of the universe. As Sir James Jeans, a major physicist, put in his Physics and Philosophy (1936) 'his home was not the majestic fixed centre of the universe round which all else had to revolve.' The theory seemed to reduce people's importance. But this is untrue. However often it is repeated in textbooks and by eminent people like Jeans. In Aristotle the earth is indeed the center of the universe, but it is also the lowest place in the universe.
Everything above the earth is greatly superior, in fact made of a superior kind of matter. To be at the center is no honor. It is to be at the bottom. Yet book after book, even today, says that Copernicus upset Christianity by displacing the earth from the center of the universe. The philosophes The problems introduced by the new astronomy, and later by the new mechanistic physics are far more subtle and far-reaching, as we shall see, than this simple-minded approach reveals.
I only mention this frequently repeated mistake to suggest that the trial of Galileo was not caused by Copernicus' theory that the sun is the center of the universe. The trial was indeed shameful, as the article on Galileo in The New Catholic Encyclopedia freely admits. It was a major event at the time; it did, for example, cause Descartes to withhold publication of his new cosmology. Still, it was the way Galileo's trial was used in the next century by the French philosophes, or social critics, that stamped it so deeply and firmly in the Western mind as evidence of an inherent conflict between Christianity and science. The philosophes, a group which included Voltaire, claimed that the trial was a prime example of Christianity's opposition to reason and of the church's opposition to free inquiry, and an attempt by the church to preserve its privileges. They pictured Christianity as essentially oppressive, authoritarian, and supersititious; science as the unveiler of truth; and Galileo as a humble, honest, noble servant of humanity. This incorrect picture, created in the eighteenth century, has proved to have great endurance in the academic community and among Marxists.
The philosophes used the trial for political propaganda against thepower and wealth of the ruling classes and the Roman Chruch in eighteenth century France. They were political reformers, captivated by the idea of creating heaven and earth. Newtonian mechanics convinced them that because physical nature could be understood, so too could human nature and society. We could discover the laws by which the human mind and society operate. Then, through a scientific education, we could produce a better world--even utopia.
The only things which stood in the way were the tyranny of despotic rulers and their supporters, which included the nobility and the Roman Catholic Church. The church was especially an enemy because of its doctrine of original sin, which seemed to imply that progress was iimpossible, and because its 'superstitions' darkened people's minds. The philosophes claimed that the church and the nobility, each with their vast holdings of land, conspired to keep the people in ignorance so that they could be ruled more easily . . .
The philosophes' picture of Christianity as the inherent opponent of progress was adopted in the next century by Karl Marx. He continued the crusade against religion in the name of science. Science for him included not only physics and the new Darwinism, but also his own laws of history and society. Just as Newton had found the laws of motion, and Darwin the laws of biological evolution, Marx had found the scientific laws of history and society. Progress was now seen to be inevitable, and religion was a barrier to and an opponent of scientific and human progress which had to be and would be removed. What is the truth about the trial of Galileo? Scholars have gone over the data again and again. There are still many unanswered qeustions, but it does seem clear that there was no fundamental clash between Christianity and the theory that the universe revolves around the sun.
Arthur Koestler in his outstanding popular history of science, The Sleepwalkers, admits that he is no more capable than anyone else of writing an objective history of the trial. Before he discusses it, he openly states his biases. 'Among my earliest and most vivid impressions of History was the wholesale roasting alive of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition, which could hardly inspire tender feelings toward that establishment.' Koestler also admits that he finds thepersonality of Galielo equally unattractive, partly because of his insufferable behavior toward Kepler, the only major astronomer who at some riks supported him publicly at an important time. Koestler continues, It seems to me, then, that insofar as bias enters into this narrative, it is not based on affection for either party in the conflict, but on resentment that the conflict did occur at all . . .
It is my conviction that the conflict between Church and Galileo (or Copernicus) was not inevitable; that it was not in the nature of a fatal collision between opposite philosophies of existence, which was bound to occur sooner or later, but rather a clash of individual temperaments aggravated by unlucky coincidences. In other words, I believe the idea that Galileo's trial was a kind of Greek tragedy, a showdown between 'blind faith' and 'enlightened reason,' to be naively erroneous. A series of accidents and incompatible personalities led to a miserable clash--and the stronger party won. But it has been made to appear that Christianity is an oppenent of science and that there is an inherent conflict between science and Christianity. This became a cornerstone of modern culture, which still huants us today and is officially sponsored by Marxist governments. The relations of Galileo to the Roman Catholic Church are very complex and there is no need to go into them deeply here.
But a few of the major points will help substantiate and illuminate the interpretations I have given to the controversy and its significance. Copernicus' book, On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres,, was published in 1543 (the year he died). It attracted very little attention, partly because it was unreadable and partly because, as he himself recognized, the orbits he assigned to the planets were hopelessly i ...
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