It’s Raining Tacos?

Digital communication is powerful. As the late Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.

Postmodernism has had an incalculable effect on our world. From academia down to blue-collar workers, its lack of overarching, objective meaning, replaced with a focus on relative meaning found in ourselves or our culture, has called the idea of knowable, transcendent “truths” into question. It is no wonder then that postmodernism would not have the staying power as a satisfactory philosophy for the real world. People cannot consistently live what postmodernism preaches. We all intuitively know that some things are just true or false, so it would only be a matter of time before this movement faded and the Western world shifted another direction. Indeed, echoing Nietzsche, it might now be appropriate to say “Postmodernism is dead, and we have killed it.” In the arts, in the news, and in philosophy, people just aren’t taking the old postmodernism as seriously anymore, as a look at what is being printed and produced these days will show. I came across a wonderful piece by the philosopher Alan Kirby on the Death of Postmodernism  that beautifully addressed some concerns I’ve had about where our culture is now moving.

With postmodernism waning, what might post-postmodernism look like? This is our era and our time. It appears to me that this period in which we are currently living is moving more in the direction of modernism, the period that occurred before postmodernism, that was characterized by analytic, empirical, and scientific truth based on human progress, “pulling itself up by its bootstraps” as it were. But it does not seem to be exactly like modernism–the current cultural climate appears to have taken Postmodernism as a caution to the dangers of ignoring particulars in its quest for universal truth. The implications of this look promising, as people will be more open to discussing transcendent truths while remaining grounded in the particulars of reality. Unfortunately, the  balancing act ensues between postmodern and modern tendencies often tips one direction or the other, and both exist in weird ways in our post-postmodern age. As I see it, there are two (often overlapping) main groups, the super-modernists (typified by the new atheists), and the social media-inspired, postmodern-ish worldview (i.e. a lot of it found on Reddit) that’s not all that different from the old postmodernism, at its core. My favorite name for the new period is pseudo-modernism, as I think it captures this balancing act perfectly. Of course, all is not well with this post-postmodern period. It carries both the good and bad of its predecessors, modernism and postmodernism.  In his Wendell Berrry-esque critique of pseudo-modernism, Kirby notes the surface level engagement and “triteness” that combines the worst of both modernism and postmodernism in the period. This arises from the new “social media approach” to texts:

The pseudo-modern cultural phenomenon par excellence is the internet. Its central act is that of the individual clicking on his/her mouse to move through pages in a way which cannot be duplicated, inventing a pathway through cultural products which has never existed before and never will again. This is a far more intense engagement with the cultural process than anything literature can offer, and gives the undeniable sense (or illusion) of the individual controlling, managing, running, making up his/her involvement with the cultural product. Internet pages are not ‘authored’ in the sense that anyone knows who wrote them, or cares. The majority either require the individual to make them work, like Streetmap or Route Planner, or permit him/her to add to them, like Wikipedia, or through feedback on, for instance, media websites. In all cases, it is intrinsic to the internet that you can easily make up pages yourself (eg blogs).”

Continuing this line of thought, Kirby muses:

A pseudo-modern text lasts an exceptionally brief time. … Text messages and emails are extremely difficult to keep in their original form; printing out emails does convert them into something more stable, like a letter, but only by destroying their essential, electronic state. Radio phone-ins, computer games – their shelf-life is short, they are very soon obsolete. A culture based on these things can have no memory – certainly not the burdensome sense of a preceding cultural inheritance which informed modernism and postmodernism. Non-reproducible and evanescent, pseudo-modernism is thus also amnesiac: these are cultural actions in the present moment with no sense of either past or future. The cultural products of pseudo-modernism are also exceptionally banal, as I’ve hinted. The content of pseudo-modern films tends to be solely the acts which beget and which end life. This puerile primitivism of the script stands in stark contrast to the sophistication of contemporary cinema’s technical effects. Much text messaging and emailing is vapid in comparison with what people of all educational levels used to put into letters. A triteness, a shallowness dominates all … for now we are confronted by a storm of human activity producing almost nothing of any lasting or even reproducible cultural value – anything which human beings might look at again and appreciate in fifty or two hundred years time.”

From never-ending, looping Vines, to “tacos falling from the sky—no need to ask why,” the proliferation and popularity of often pointless internet memes  just beg asking “why?” Much of internet culture is reminiscent of filler. “Where did the time go?” we often ask after spending an afternoon mindlessly flipping through and “sharing” the internet’s products. It is not that these things are bad in themselves, but their popularity and obsessive enjoyment shows a lack of something better, in many cases. What Kirby is seeing in this second strain of the new era is a natural result of postmodern nihilism. If the truth is not knowable from impartial analysis of facts, but nevertheless obviously exists, then we must make it ourselves, in “community,” or more correctly, the pseudo-community typified by the internet that gives a sense of presence and companionship without the real thing. The shift in what constitutes meaning from the individual or the community to the interactive virtual world is still not based on transcendent, true truth like classic theism, or even Enlightenment objective truth. Instead, meaning is created (or at least extremely influenced) through interaction with other people on the web. This is not all that different from the cultural relativism of the 70s, except that now, the meaning-culture has shifted to the worldwide web. When society “lives” online, the nuances of the real world and the physical presence of others must be simulated, which confines users to the functions the social media programmers have defined. As a programmer myself, I can attest to the ultimate rigidity and forced guidelines software imposes on the user, whatever appearances of total freedom such software may provide. Furthermore, internet and social media users are not forced to confront people with whom they disagree or dislike. “Unfriending” a person or clicking away from a difficult web article means that you can create your own reality much more easily, not growing in intellectual or spiritual maturity as you think and pray through life’s important issues in genuine community with embodied persons. To sum up the similarity to cultural relativism that pseudo-modernism shares, I must agree with Kirby that

To a degree, pseudo-modernism is no more than a technologically motivated shift to the cultural centre of something which has always existed.”

What then should be the response of Christians to this new trend? While our pseudo-modern age has fractured into the super-modernism and digital relativism centered on the interaction of people to “make” truth, these systems still center on Man for their source of truth. I suspect that there are even deeper trends between the banality of pseudo-modern expression and the backlash move toward extreme modernism to provide a cohesive and objective reason for living. To clarify the problem of truth in digital relativism, it is helpful to remember that for truth to be non-arbitrary, it must be grounded in a sufficient metaphysical source. Modernists, postmodernists, and pseudo-modernists all try to place that source of truth in man- in the author, in the reader, or in the conversation. Yet man is finite, capable of making moral and mental mistakes and contingent on things outside himself for even his very breath. Not only does life have an external meaning, but that meaning is found in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who frees us from the pointlessness of living for ourselves, so that we can say that
“whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ…” (Philippians 3:7-8, NIV)

Worshiping the Creation?


Recently, I’ve been reading several articles on the topics of physics and faith, so I decided to share some of my thoughts about them here, especially on symmetry in nature and fine-tuning of the universe for life. Nothing in physics or life is separate from the new life found through faith in Christ, and I am concerned that we as scientists and science enthusiasts often fall for less than what we are made for in our approaches to science. We are too easily drawn into worshiping the impersonal creation rather than its personal Creator. To give some background for this claim, I’d like to reflect on several of these articles on science and faith below.

In “Anthropic Coincidences,” First Things writer Stephen Barr addresses the fine-tuning toward life of many physical constants in our universe.  Over the last century, physicists have discovered natural processes that “just happen” to balance, such as a resonance between the energy levels of carbon-12 and the three-alpha nuclear reaction that allows elements other than hydrogen (and thus life!) to exist. Or the huge mass difference between electrons and protons that somehow still have exactly equal and opposite electric charges, making atoms possible. Or the expansion rate of the universe… As these sorts of abundant, serendipitous coincidences cast doubt on the idea that life has no purpose or design in the universe, Barr investigates the implications of fine-tuning for theism. Several arguments objecting to the theistic explanation have been formulated, such as the many-universes response, the limitations-of-knowledge response, and conventional-science counter, which Barr admits have some weight, but do not defeat fine-tuning arguments for theism.

I could easily spend a blog post on each of these responses to the argument that the universe’s physical constants are finely-tuned to allow for life (and will, hopefully, at some point) but for now, the short version of these objections to fine-tuning are as follows: the many-universes response says that our universe would look fine-tuned if there were a huge number of other universes, each with different values of the physical constants. Some universes would be fine-tuned, some would not. The limits-of-knowledge responses are that we don’t really know what sorts of possible values the physical constants could take,  and the conventional science counter says that there are as-yet-unknown explanations that naturally follow from what we already know, but just haven’t discovered yet. There are also responses to these counters, but that is not the point I am trying to make here.

While physicists question the implications of fine-tuning, asking what relation our status as biased observers is (we can only observe a universe which supports life, for obvious reasons), the arguments for and against design in fine-tuning yet remind us how unlikely our existence is. When I consider fine-tuning, I do not see a rigorous proof of design, but instead, to channel Wigner, an “unusual effectiveness in the natural sciences” for supporting life. The fact that the proton and electron have the same charge while their masses differ wildly, or the happenstance of carbon-12 resonances give an impression of design, and are a cause of wonder. For the Christian, this is cause to worship. However, the particular fine-tuning arguments for theism (FTAs) put forth, while certainly not invalid, are not strongly persuasive by themselves either. They are probability arguments, and as such, relate to our knowledge states. The problem is that our knowledge states about the possible values of the physical parameters themselves, the number of universes, and the other evidences for the existence of God all play upon the probabilities in FTAs. That is not to say these are defeaters for the FTAs, but they do mean that FTAs should not serve as stand-alone arguments.

Instead, Barr’s treatment of the fine-tuning coincidences reminds me of the purpose and wonder of Creation, primarily as a means of marveling at nature in its study, and growing more in awe of its Creator, serving as reminders of God’s ingenuity as Creator, and providence as our Sustainer. I would like to further explore the individual formulations of the FTA in further posts and continue to probe their relative effectiveness as an intersection of modern physics with natural theology. I do believe after examining these arguments in some depth that they are logically valid and have merit, but am currently unsure about their degree of effectiveness as probabilistic arguments about hypothetical changes in parameters that we cannot directly test.

How instead should we view fine-tuning in light of theism and materialism? Barr gives us a clue in yet another First Things article, “Fearful Symmetries“. Seeing order as emerging from chaos, some materialists, such as Daniel Dennett, employ the metaphor of cranes whereby nature builds itself up from a basic level as opposed to unnecessary sky-hooks (i.e. “God”) building it from “up-there.”  However, this misses the way that those “cranes” work: only a deeper level of order allows apparent chaos to give rise to order, as evidenced by symmetry, a kind of order in physics. Using the example of marbles in a tilted box rolling into a tight-packed symmetrical pattern, Barr shows how this symmetry is actually a loss of symmetry inherent to the spherical nature of the marbles; generalizing, Barr develops the principle in physics of order from yet deeper order.

Unlike fine-tuning, which speaks to us of God’s providential care for our existence, symmetry reminds us of His transcendent power and beauty. Wigner comes to mind as Barr describes the mathematics of gauge symmetry in the fundamental forces, in which an expression for the energy of a system known as the Lagrangian does not change with changes to coordinate systems. Barr recognizes this strange effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences, and how it speaks to a universe where things that do not have to be beautiful to work nonetheless are. While fine-tuning thus says more about God’s care for man in creation, symmetry brings us to consider God’s sovereign beauty and our relationship towards Him.

Like fine-tuning, symmetry does therefor teach us something of God: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV) In other words, symmetry is not a syllogism proving that God exists, but a deeply affective expression of beauty that leads us to wonder at nature. For the reductive materialist, this wonder becomes idolatry— a worship of impersonal matter rather than an infinite-personal loving God. Upon encountering beauty built into the very fabric of reality, we can ignore it, worship it, or worship the One who made it, but we are never without excuse.

Science, Community, and Communion


Physics students at my Christian liberal arts school engaging science out of wonder and delight.

In “What I Wish My Pastor Knew About… The Life of a Scientist,” Christianity Today writer Andy Crouch pens a science-and-faith manifesto of sorts, both widely applicable and intensely personal. Reflecting on the experiences of his wife, a Christian and physicist, Crouch details the insights and struggles that Catherine and he have shared because of her scientific vocation. Because people are deeply affected by the routines of their lives, the scientific life and its practices cannot be separated from the new life found in Christ and its practices. After examining the aspects of science that contribute to growing in grace and truth and those that do not, Crouch moves on to how we as brothers and sisters in Christ may encourage those scientists  in our community in their relationship with the Lord.

Scientists usually find their motivation to study nature rooted in a sense of wonder. The usefulness of scientific knowledge and the technologies that result from such inquiry do motivate science.  Yet for many (if not most) researchers, including Dr. Catherine Crouch, the deepest drive to understand is rooted in simple, jaw-dropping amazement at nature. The best expression of this sentiment I’ve seen is found in a cartoon of two characters each being asked about a recent discovery. The science advocate and popularizer, self-confident and snazzily-dressed, lists off the useful applications of the research. However, the scientist who works on the project, who is hunched over his lab monitor and clearly hasn’t shaved in days, explains (in less-than-appropriate but highly accurate language) his excitement for the discovery: “It’s f***ing awesome!” The wonder of scientific discovery motivates the frustrating lab failures, debugging code, and long, often isolated, hours to achieve a better understanding of how the world works, as this very secular cartoon demonstrates. For the Christian, though, this wonder doesn’t stop with math and matter. The beauty and wonder of nature is a call to worship. Unlike the materialist, the worship of the Christian is not given to inanimate matter, but to the personal Creator and Source of wonders. Worship is a personal, communal response to God’s personal and communal Presence that places us in the joy of praising the only One worthy of worship. Crouch recognizes the fundamental importance of worship to the scientist who is in Christ. His point about the wonder and delight of science helped to solidify my previous thinking about the interconnected relationships of man, nature, and God that had begun to develop from a sermon on the topic of nature as a call to worship.1, 2

From this starting point of why Christians ought to do science, Crouch moves to another overlap between physics and Christianity. Physics cultivates humility in ways that few other academic disciplines do. From the uncertainty and fundamental limits to what may be known in quantum mechanics, to the frequent falsification of (formerly) obviously true theories, physicists must blush with shame as they inherit Laplace’s boast. This humbling of the proud and reminder of our limits as time-and-space bound creatures fits nicely into the Christian life. “Where is the scholar of this age? … Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” the Scripture asks. Instead, the same passage reminds us that in all areas of life, including physics,

 …then you will not be puffed up in being a follower of one of us over against the other. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? (1 Corinthians 4: 6b -7, NIV)

Whether we follow the ideas of a Stephen Hawking or a Leonard Susskind, the Christian physicist is reminded that the knowledge we have is a gift, and our side on an issue may ultimately be wrong.

            While Crouch makes a few more points that the Christian community might take from the physics community, space limits this response to only the above two such points. Moving from the lessons we can learn from physics, he subsequently addresses the pastoral needs of physicists, and other scientists, of which he is so aware. Crouch notes that science

makes such demands on its practitioners that those who succeed in it tend to be either strikingly mature and wise persons, or sadly foolish and stunted—with relatively few in the middle. The stakes in a scientific vocation are high.

While he sees very little in the church that acknowledges, much less builds up, scientists specifically in Christian community, I think he makes his case a little too dire: “I can’t help noticing that in all these years, unless I am forgetting something, I do not remember hearing one thing, in church or a Christian Bible study or another Christian context, that even acknowledged most of the dynamics [Catherine] encounters every day.” Certainly, science has its spiritual dangers and rewards, but these things are not unique to science. In Christ we have been given all we need for life and godliness, so we do not need to directly address science in church to grow in grace in a scientific vocation. As Crouch observes, every vocation points us toward and requires death to self and trust in Jesus. The exposition of Scripture faithfully taught makes clear what to make of wonder and delight in nature (see Psalms 8, 19, ad 104, for instance), why we ought to be humble in our knowing, and how to pursue collaboration and healthy competition that are the hallmarks of modern science. (Philippians 2: 3) Those scientists in the Body of Christ must make those connections of the gospel’s outworking into their specific career, aided in seeing these connections between their faith and vocation by those walking alongside them. The businesswoman must come alongside the scientist in the working out of salvation, just as the scientist must do so for the businesswoman in the Body with her. That said, Crouch provides, both in his article and person, an excellent example of coming alongside the scientist, encouraging her as she grows in science and in Christ. Crouch’s exhortation spurs onward a life of deeper examination into how the faith that has been held in all times and all places by all Christians is sufficient now for approaching modern science and ministering to scientists in Christ. The categories of inquiry he suggests (like wonder and worship, humility, and collaboration) are not the end of such inquiry, but only the beginning.


 Notes and Works Cited:

1. O’Kelley, Aaron. “Sermon on Psalm 104: God of Wonders.” Web. Retrieved 2/4/14 from  Cornerstone Community Church, Jackson at

 2. Howard, Ward. “What has Christianity to do with Science?” Web. Retrieved 2/3/14 from The Soapbox Guild at

Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that "faith seeks understanding."

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that “faith seeks understanding.”

This is the second part in a series on Faith and Science and medieval Christendom. (The first part is here, though most blogs in this particular series, including the current one, are standalone.)

Because faith and reason are not fundamentally at odds, Christian orthodoxy has a tradition of affirming that faith seeks understanding. While faith is not just knowledge, but is also an act of trust based upon that knowledge, a gift given freely in the Person of Jesus Christ, faith seeks after greater understanding of the One who gives it. This is not just an abstract theological statement—at least not as it relates to the existence of modern science (or a lot of other, more important things!) —because it is the very essence of the medieval University, and, I will argue, of science as well.

The medieval University viewed theology as “the Queen of the Sciences” because theology is aimed at understanding the Faith most directly, and because it ties together all the other academic disciplines into a coherent whole—a structure where everything relates to everything else (making interdisciplinary study not only possible, but theologically necessary) and ultimately, to the Source of knowledge Himself. A very good case exists that Christian theology provided the atmosphere that led to the creation of modern science—a lot of previous assumptions had to be built up that we take for granted as obvious today. As I continue to blog my way through historian of science James Hannam’s The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, discussing some of these intellectual building blocks seems the best route to go. There are four such categories into which Hannam fits these medieval stepping stones: institutional, technological, metaphysical, and theoretical. Each of these categories of scientific precursors could easily take a blog post (…or a book; many have been written!), so I’ll try to cover the latter categories of metaphysics and theories in this blog post, sharing the stories of the forgotten dreamers who contributed to the foundations of modern science.

The first of Hannam’s categories is the metaphysical foundation for science that allowed science to develop when there was no practical benefit to pondering the natural sciences in themselves, and no guarantee that they would work. This seems silly to us as moderns, looking back at hundreds of years of scientific success after scientific success, but medieval people had to have a very good reason to waste significant resources on the precursor to science, known as natural philosophy. There was no obvious “right side of history” about science for our ancestors, as the intuitions we have about science simply did not exist. So what made scientific thinking worthwhile? Since nature was created by God, and reveals something of Him, Hannam notes it must be deserving of study, and that natural philosophy has something to teach those who would listen. (348) Furthermore, since God has revealed Himself to be reasonable, orderly and consistent in His character, nature as His creation is also reasonable, consistent, and law-like. However, nature isn’t like Aristotle’s universe that is bound by necessity, where arm-chair theorizing can get you the answer. In medieval thought (and orthodox Christianity generally), God is not constrained by nature, but only by Himself, ultimately, and His promises. God is free to create natural laws however he wants— and knowing Him— they’re consistent and worth the experimenting and observing. To find out what nature is like, then, it makes sense to go look! That belief in consistent laws of nature that could be one out of many different possibilities but are discoverable through observation and experimentation is the core of the modern Scientific Method we all learned in high school. (349)

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D. Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D.
Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

The second of Hannam’s categories is the collection of theories that made a foundation for science. These are ideas that medieval or very early Renaissance thinkers developed out of the influence of the medieval worldview. Remember how interdisciplinary thinking has a solid justification in medieval theology? Many of these collected theories were arrived at in such a manner. For pre-medieval thinkers, areas of learning such as mathematics and natural philosophy were considered as distinct as most pre-postmodern thinkers would consider language and universal truth to be distinct fields of study. (The analogy isn’t perfect, but it gets the sentiment across.) (350) A perfect example of this fusion of mathematics and natural philosophy is the story of some fellows known as the Merton Calculators. Merton, a college of Oxford University, was a premier British medieval institution of learning and is the setting of very important advances in medieval thought leading to modern science.

At the time the Merton Calculators came on the scene, Aristotle was a big deal. To get an idea of how big a deal, check out the first post in this series, but for now, suffice it to say that even though people had known his natural philosophy had problems for over 500 years, it still hadn’t really been thoroughly discredited by the time the first Calculator arrived on the scene around 1330 A.D. or so. The basic problem was that Aristotle had a commonsense but highly incorrect view of motion. He said something along the lines that an object cannot continue to move without being pushed in some way. That sounds reasonable. If I throw a ball, it will eventually stop moving, right? However, it’s totally wrong, because if I threw that ball without air resisting it, it would really keep going forever. Several scholars objected to this idea of Aristotle’s, the most famous being William of Ockham, but much of Aristotle’s understanding of motion was still in effect and employed even in the calculations of the Calculators themselves.

Now onto the seemingly trivial but in effect enormous intellectual insight of the Calculators: Aristotle believed that mathematics was a thing and nature—well that was another thing. There is a lot of commonsense in being cautious about using conclusions from one discipline to justify conclusions in another discipline, so Aristotle certainly wasn’t stupid, but according to the Merton philosophers, he was wrong. The first of the Calculators at Merton was Thomas Bradwardine who worked there in the 1320s. He had this to say about Aristotle’s view of math and nature:

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters. Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom. (Bradwardine, qtd. in Hannam, 171)

Aristotle, the Philosopher.  384 - 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

Aristotle, the Philosopher. 384 – 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

While that might be going a little far, Bradwardine succeeded in expressing Aristotle’s (wrong) laws of motion in mathematical form, a huge step forward for the future development of physics, leading to Galileo and ultimately Newton. While Bradwardine’s general formula of motion did not work in the real world because it allowed Aristotle’s mistakes a foot in the door, another Calculator developed a formula that was much smaller in scope, but was one of the most important to the history of physics, as this Middle-Age theory was actually correct: the mean-speed theorem. Along with the other Merton Calculators, William Heytesbury (who lived from 1313-1373 A.D.) showed the nature of the theorem using math in hypothetical situations rather than in the experimentation of modern science, so his work was still medieval, though a huge advance. The mean-speed theorem, or Heytesbury’s theorem, states that if an object moves while constantly accelerating, the distance it covers will be the same as the distance the object would have traveled at its average speed during the same amount of time. (174-175)

In all, the work of the Merton scholars led to further advances in natural philosophy both at Oxford and later on the Continent, and what I’ve covered is but the tip of the iceberg of medieval pre-scientific scholarship that Hannam discusses. I hope it is enough, though, to demonstrate that in the areas of metaphysics and theories of natural philosophy, the Middle Ages made possible what was to come. As Newton himself said of his discoveries, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Bradwardine and Heytesbury are but two of those now oft-forgotten giants, along with many others in medieval Christendom who helped to birth modern science.

Reason Illuminates Faith (in the Middle Ages)

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Aquinas, symbolically integrating Christian Faith and intellectual inquiry.

Two of my favorite topics are science and the medieval world, so I’m really excited to do a blog series for the soapboxguild on some books related to these topics. What do the Middle Ages and scientific ideas have to do with each other? Quite a bit more than you might think. Unlike the thoughts brought to mind by words like the “Dark Ages,” the medieval period was not a totally backwards time of ignorance and superstition (though as in any era, both were present!), but one of intellectual formation that proved critically necessary for modern science to develop. I knew a little of this from various material I’d read in the past, but did not realize the extent of the importance of medieval theology, natural philosophy, and history to the development of science, or how much was accomplished before the Renaissance ever occurred. In the process of trying to learn more about medieval science, I picked up a book by Dr. James Hannam, a British historian of science. His work, The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, is incredibly readable for its length and depth, and is a credit to its author. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in science and the Middle Ages. This series of blog posts is my attempt to gain a deeper appreciation for the issues Hannam raises, and to think alongside him as he dives into the lost world of medieval cosmology, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy.

To begin, then, we should start with one of the most influential figures in medieval thought, on one of the most important issues raised by the period. The man is the Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, and the question is the relationship between reason and faith. Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 A.D. to upper-class, wealthy parents in Italy. He entered the clergy as a poverty-sworn Dominican while at university, to the displeasure of his parents, who expected him to become a powerful and wealthy Benedictine monk. (We know this because they  subsequently kidnapped him from college for the purpose of putting some worldly sense into him. According to an early biographer, this included hiring a prostitute to tempt him to leave his life of holiness. It only succeeding in causing the captive Aquinas to cast her out of his room.) (Hannam 85-86) After this, Aquinas “transferred” to the University in Cologne to study under one of the most famous philosophers of his time, Albert the Great (as opposed to Alfred the Great, who was an educated king of pre-England who lived much earlier). Aquinas earned his degree and gained a reputation as a skilled thinker, eventually teaching at the University of Paris, a hub of medieval scholarship. There he encountered the Averroists, and there our story of faith and reason really begins in earnest.

Siger of Brabant (upper right, wearing red) appears in this 15th-century illustration of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The writings of classical antiquity were only partially known, thanks in part to the fall of Rome, for much of the Middle Ages. Shortly before Aquinas came on the scene, a Muslim commentator on Aristotle, named Averroes, had been translated into Latin and was causing quite a firestorm. Averroes held to things like determinism, a lack of personal moral responsibility, and an eternal rather than created universe. Needless to say, people concerned about theology had an issue with this interpretation of Aristotle. In the Middle Ages, the ancient authorities Plato and Aristotle were taken very seriously, and different Christian scholars attempted to deal with Averroes in different ways, as usual. Siger of Brabant, a thirteenth-century professor  of philosophy at Paris, accepted to some degree the conclusions of Averroes’ reasoning process. However, he dealt with this in a way we might find very familiar in our modern science and faith discussions. According to Hannam, he posited that we can know by faith that Christian doctrine is true, even though reason shows something else. This is a problem if we are to hold to Christian orthodoxy, or even if people of faith want to engage in truth-seeking. Thus Aquinas- like his forbears Augustine and Anselm-  realized he needed to engage Aristotle with a “faith that seeks understanding,” walking in the confidence that the Author of Faith is also the Author of Reason. In his subsequent grappling with Aristotle, Aquinas went on to create the Summa Theologica, one of the greatest works of theology ever written. As Hannam humorously notes:

Thomas wrote direct rebuttals to some of Siger’s work but concentrated on producing his own synthesis of Christian and pagan philosophy. This found its definitive expression in his Summa Theologica. It is a massive work and, despite the fact he never quite finished it, it remains the highest accomplishment of medieval scholarship. What he had achieved was such a successful amalgamation of Aristotle’s philosophy with Christian doctrine that some Catholics have since failed to distinguish between the two. (91-92)

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

Augustine, influential early Church Father, inquires and questions with his heart aflame with Veritas (truth).

This account doesn’t square well with what we tend to assume about the Middle Ages. After all, backwards, pre-Renaissance religious people run away from philosophy, science, and reason. We know this from experience, right? How many of us were told that philosophy and science were antithetical to religious belief at their core, and we had to choose one or the other? (Now, there may very well be genuine discord between science and religion on some points these days, but I’m talking about the very natures of scientific inquiry and religion here.) If I had to choose, that choice is made. I will follow Christ, however foolish that might appear to the world. But (surprise surprise!) that choice assumes wrongly about nature’s Creator, according to the long history of Christian orthodoxy. The assumption that Christians bury their heads in the sand comes from our own cultural experiences (or stereotypes, perhaps?) of faith where we or our parents grew up, causing us to project our own experiences- or often prejudices- onto the broader tradition of Christianity. But this simply is not warranted: our forbears, from the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus of Greek philosophy, to Augustine and Aquinas, and on into the 20th century with Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis, would all say that they have confidence that Christian belief can stand up to its opponents in the marketplace of ideas. This is because reason illuminates faith. Since God is a God of truth and the very standard of truth, reason and faith are not mutually exclusive, but find their unity in the reasonable, consistent, non-arbitrary Source of wisdom. In other words, faith in Christ Jesus seeks understanding, in order that we might wonder and worship Him better– it cannot bear to remain ignorant of the redeemed soul’s greatest Desire. Augustine famously stated that our hearts are made for God and are restless until they rest in Him. It is just as true that our minds are made for God and are unsatisfied with any lesser answer to their questioning than that of the unanswerable I AM.

What has Christianity to do with Science?

Summer night sky from a dark site

Summer night sky from a dark site

I lay in the thick summer grass under a lone pine on a recent evening, looking upward through the silhouetted needles. It was unusually clear for our local weather, probably due to a recent storm, and once my eyes adjusted, the brighter summer constellations pierced the city light-haze. Fainter stars supplemented the brighter ones to form the constellations– the Swan, the Harp, the Eagle, the Scorpion– each a familiar friend from summers gone by. As I lay admiring the expanse, with its delicate reds, blues, and yellows scattered throughout, I had no choice but to wonder. I had, and have,  no choice but to be amazed, realizing I was looking at light unimaginably far away, though seemingly near enough to touch. And it is so big, while I am so small, like a great canvas that encompasses the whole Earth that is made for wonder in its viewers.

And this brings me to the question of what the natural world has to do with faith in Christ. Unless a person has had their heart so shriveled  that they have lost their capacity for amazement, for noticing beauty all around them, anyone who takes time to look at the order, complexity, and simplicity of the world all around them cannot help but wonder. Everyone does this– men, women, old, young, moderns, ancients. It used to be called worship, though fewer people think of this activity in those terms than they used to here in the West. As a Christian, when I look up at the night sky, I do not worship the stars. When I look at physical laws, I do not worship Paley’s clockwork. As a Christian, I worship the only thing befitting worship. Worship is a personal, communal activity, so placing the ultimate object of that worship in unthinking matter is utterly foolish. Personal worship ought to point toward a personal Object. The God of Christianity provides the only adequate object of worship for the wonders of nature. God is pre-existing, eternal, infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, and infinitely good. Unlike us, He deserves worship. In doing science, then, we should do it for the purpose of exploring this wonderful world, not just for our own utilitarian benefits or to wonder at nature alone, but to glory in the Father of lights who spoke it all into existence in a display of imaginative Creation.

What I am not saying is that this thought is meant as some rigorous piece of scientific evidence for God’s existence. I strongly suspect such specific evidence based on individual theories or laws exists, and think I know what such lines of evidence look like (like here too), but I do not yet have the technical understanding of quantum physics or space-time physics (or practical time in the space of my calendar!) to work through such arguments for God’s existence at the level I’d like to. That takes thorough training in mathematical logic, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of science, making it  folly to think because of an article on the internet, one is well-versed enough on a specific scientific argument to fully understand it and its (real or apparent) flaws.

What I am saying is something more basic than that, something for anyone who looks and wonders: we live in a wonderfully miraculous world where elegant simplicity just works when it doesn’t necessarily have to. But it does, and it allows us to probe the very structure of our beautiful reality, inspiring awe in the student of nature. Awe results in praise, and as a Christian, I have the biggest object of praise– not an impersonal clockwork universe, nor an eternal quantum bubble, but a personal, infinite Creator who loved his creation enough to enter it by taking on a physical body and becoming human, to redeem human beings who were made to wonder and worship their Maker and Sustainer. Having fallen into evil and turned away from the very source of Wonder, to “worship and serve created things rather than the Creator,” God’s greatest act of wonder in the physical world was to enter it as the God-man Jesus, saving by grace all who turn from their wicked ways to Him, trusting His death and historical Resurrection alone to bring them back into the proper relationship with such a great and Wondrous God.