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Overview

This book, in language accessible to the general reader, investigates twelve of the most notorious, most interesting, and most instructive episodes involving the interaction between science and Christianity, aiming to tell each story in its historical specificity and local particularity.

 

Among the events treated in When Science and Christianity Meet are the Galileo affair, the seventeenth-century clockwork universe, Noah's ark and flood in the development of natural history, struggles over Darwinian evolution, debates about the origin of the human species, and the Scopes trial. Readers will be introduced to St. Augustine, Roger Bacon, Pope Urban VIII, Isaac Newton, Pierre-Simon de Laplace, Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Sigmund Freud, and many other participants in the historical drama of science and Christianity.

 

“Taken together, these papers provide a comprehensive survey of current thinking on key issues in the relationships between science and religion, pitched—as the editors intended—at just the right level to appeal to students.”—Peter J. Bowler, Isis

 

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Editorial Reviews

Science & Theology News
An outstanding volume. . . . The book can certainly be recommended as an appropriate text for undergraduates.
Journal of the History of Biology
The contributors . . . offer the educated public some fascinating twists of plot characteristic of the newer 'complexity' literature.

— Ryan C. MacPherson

Annals of Science
Lindberg and Numbers, and their team, show how effective concentrating upon science and religion can be for getting scholarly history of science across. They write clearly, for ordinary readers, setting events in context, and supply formidable notes and bibliographies.

— David Knight

Journal of Interdisciplinary History
The well-written essays in this book cover material from the Middle Ages through the post-Darwinian debates. . . . Most of the essays are clear, and the excellent, annotated bibliography mentions many important readings.

— Margaret J. Osler

Catholic Historical Review
With its concise, clearly written essays . . . including extensive endnotes that refer the reader to primary texts and important scholarly studies, this volume is a superb introduction to some of the most fascinating episodes in the long history of the relationship between science and Christianity.

— James A. Wiseman

Endeavour
Clarity is a chief feature of all the contributions, each of which . . . has been chosen to illustrate ‘the most notorious, most interesting or most instructive instances’ of the encounter between science and Christianity. Clear and engaging: it is a winning combination. It should find favour with students and see the book listed as an essential text in many course reading lists.”

— Peter Broks

Christian Century
With its illustrations, extended endnotes and annotated guide to further readings, the book reviews old questions in a thoroughly enlightening scholarly and interesting way.”

— Carl S. Keener

Christian Century

“With its illustrations, extended endnotes and annotated guide to further readings, the book reviews old questions in a thoroughly enlightening scholarly and interesting way.”—Carl S. Keener, Christian Century

— Carl S. Keener

Endeavour

“Clarity is a chief feature of all the contributions, each of which . . . has been chosen to illustrate ‘the most notorious, most interesting or most instructive instances’ of the encounter between science and Christianity. Clear and engaging: it is a winning combination. It should find favour with students and see the book listed as an essential text in many course reading lists.”—Peter Broks, Endeavour

— Peter Broks

Journal of the History of Biology

"The contributors . . . offer the educated public some fascinating twists of plot characteristic of the newer ''complexity'' literature."

— Ryan C. MacPherson

Catholic Historical Review

"With its concise, clearly written essays . . . including extensive endnotes that refer the reader to primary texts and important scholarly studies, this volume is a superb introduction to some of the most fascinating episodes in the long history of the relationship between science and Christianity."—James A. Wiseman, Catholic Historical Review

— James A. Wiseman

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The well-written essays in this book cover material from the Middle Ages through the post-Darwinian debates. . . . Most of the essays are clear, and the excellent, annotated bibliography mentions many important readings."

— Margaret J. Osler

Annals of Science

"Lindberg and Numbers, and their team, show how effective concentrating upon science and religion can be for getting scholarly history of science across. They write clearly, for ordinary readers, setting events in context, and supply formidable notes and bibliographies."

— David Knight

Science & Theology News

"An outstanding volume. . . . The book can certainly be recommended as an appropriate text for undergraduates."—Science & Theology News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226482149
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

David C. Lindberg is the Hilldale Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Ronald L. Numbers is the Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Together Lindberg and Numbers edited God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science and are currently editing the Cambridge History of Science.

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Read an Excerpt

When Science and Christianity Meet


By Ronald L. Numbers

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Ronald L. Numbers
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226482146

The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor

David C. Lindberg

The Problem

According to widespread popular belief, the period of European history known as the Middle Ages or medieval period (roughly the years 450-1450) was a time of barbarism, ignorance, and superstition. The epithet "Dark Ages" often applied to it nicely captures this opinion. As for the ills that threatened literacy, learning, and especially science during the Middle Ages, blame is most often laid at the feet of the Christian church, which is alleged to have placed religious authority above personal experience and rational activity, thereby snuffng out the faint sparks of scientific and other forms of intellectual creativity that had survived the barbarian invasions of late antiquity.

But this is a caricature, the acceptance of which has proved an obstacle to an understanding of the Middle Ages as they really were. It is true that the early centuries of the medieval period, like those of late antiquity, saw a great deal of political and social turmoil. It is also true that literacy and learning, in this early period, were in a state of decline. But an account that fails toacknowledge differences among geographical regions and change over time cannot do justice to the complex medieval reality. An accurate account will reveal that learning grew from small beginnings in the early Middle Ages to become a thriving industry in the later Middle Ages; that important scientific achievements emerged during this period; and that the church and its theology maintained a relationship to the natural sciences far too complicated to be captured by simple black-and-white categories such as adversaries or allies. Unquestionably, some portions of the classical tradition gave rise to suspicion, hostility, and even ecclesiastical condemnation. However, such cases were exceptional; far more commonly, critical reflection about the nature of the world was tolerated and even encouraged. In their quest to understand the world in which they lived, medieval scholars employed all of the resources at their disposal, including inherited scientific ideas, personal observation, rational inference, and religious tradition. And they did so with as much integrity as one finds today in the average university professor and with far less interference from the church than the caricature of the Middle Ages would suggest.

By way of developing and defending these claims, I propose to concentrate on two historical figures who have contributed mightily to the image of the Middle Ages: Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the early church father who did more to determine medieval Christian attitudes toward pagan science than any other person, and Roger Bacon (ca. 1220-ca. 1292), the most notorious scientific figure of the Middle Ages, widely acclaimed for his rejection of authority and his campaign on behalf of mathematical and what he called "experimental" science. (I employ the term "pagan" without pejorative intent, to mean simply non-Judeo-Christian.) I do not claim, of course, that the lives of Augustine and Bacon present us with the whole story of medieval encounter between science and religion, but I do believe that an examination of their careers will reveal the basic contours of that story.

The Middle Ages and the Classical Tradition

Several preliminaries must first occupy us. About 850 years separate Augustine and Bacon. What are the chronological divisions associated with this long period of European history? There were no catastrophes or achievements so decisive or conspicuous that we can use them as chronological markers, and the boundaries are therefore intrinsically fuzzy. But in round numbers the declining years of the Roman Empire run from about A.D. 180 to 450. Church historians know this as the "patristic period"--an era during which Christian doctrine was codified by a series of church councils and influential church fathers. The characteristics that strike us as distinctively medieval emerged gradually in the course of the fifth century. The early medieval period is customarily dated from about 450 to 1000. This was followed by a period of European recovery, 1000-1200, and the high or later Middle Ages, roughly 1200-1450. The story recounted in this essay runs from the closing decades of the patristic period to the first seventy-five years of the high Middle Ages.

Was there, in fact, any science worthy of the name during this long period? Certainly many of the ingredients of what we now regard as science were present: languages for describing nature, methods for exploring it, factual and theoretical claims that emerged from such explorations, and criteria for judging the truth or validity of the claims thus made. Moreover, it is clear that pieces of the resulting medieval knowledge were for all practical purposes identical to what is now taken to be genuine science (planetary astronomy and geometrical optics are good examples).

But patristic and medieval approaches to nature also differed from ours in significant ways. Knowledge about the world of nature was then an integral part of the larger philosophical enterprise--a characteristic that modern scientists would find alien. Theology and religion were regarded as legitimate participants in the investigation and formulation of truths about the natural world far more frequently than they are today. Observational evidence, though regularly employed in the validation of theoretical claims during the medieval period, had a profile considerably lower than in modern science. The motivation for pursuing science and the institutions where that pursuit took place were quite different from the modern ones. The governmental support that drives big science today would have been inconceivable during the patristic and medieval periods. And the mechanisms now available for disseminating scientific knowledge are far more efficient than were those operating in a culture that antedated the printing press and electronic media.

Given these similarities and differences, are we justified in calling this patristic and medieval effort "science"? This question is a matter of dispute among historians of science. Some prefer the cautious expression "natural knowledge." Others speak of "natural philosophy," in order to call attention to the integral relationship in that earlier era between the pursuit of natural knowledge and the pursuit of other forms of understanding. And some boldly use the expression "science" or "natural science," declaring thereby that the objects of their scholarship, although not identical to modern science, are the ancestors of modern scientific disciplines and practices and therefore are entitled to claim the family name. This seems to me a pointless debate. The important thing is to agree on what we are talking about and to employ terminology that facilitates communication on that subject. In the following pages, I will employ all three of the aforementioned competing locutions indiscriminately, as synonyms. I will also employ expressions denoting specific branches of the pursuit of natural knowledge, such as "mathematical science," "astronomy," "cosmology," "optics," "meteorology," and "medicine." The reader should understand that at no point do I wish to maintain identity between the patristic and medieval enterprises thus named and their modern descendants.

Augustine and Bacon encountered the natural sciences as elements of the classical tradition; and if we wish to understand their attitudes toward the natural sciences, we must look briefly at the whole of which these sciences were a part. The classical tradition consisted of the accumulated learning of ancient Greece, transmitted vertically through time and horizontally across geographical, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, adjusting itself in the process to new cultural and linguistic circumstances and undergoing significant modifications. The classical tradition included poetry, drama, history, political theory and ethics, metaphysics or theology, and the natural sciences. It also included the rules of effective reasoning, writing, and arguing. Prominent within the portion of the classical tradition devoted to nature were the writings of the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, members of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophical schools, the mathematician Euclid, the astronomer Ptolemy, the physician Galen, their followers, and their critics--writings that addressed topics ranging from medicine and the mathematical sciences to meteorology, cosmology, and the relationship of all this to the gods. It is critical to bear in mind that these were pagan writings, produced outside the Christian fold, sometimes inconsistent with Christian doctrine, and potentially the objects of hostility from a Christian audience.

The transmission and fate of the classical tradition is a subject to which we could easily devote a book-length analysis. But the short version is this: As Rome extended its power over the Mediterranean basin in the centuries after 200 B.C., broad cultural contact between Greeks and Romans (encouraged by widespread bilingualism among the Roman upper classes) introduced a thin, popularized version of the classical tradition into Roman education and Roman culture. A few Greek works were translated into Latin; but as bilingualism and the conditions that had favored scholarship diminished in the declining years of the Roman Empire (after about A.D. 180), Roman audiences (initially pagan but gradually becoming Christian) were increasingly limited to pieces of the classical tradition that had been explained, epitomized, or otherwise appropriated by Latin authors. The Western church fathers of the patristic period and Christian authors of the early Middle Ages were forced to rely on this derivative, Latinized (but still philosophically vigorous) version of the classical tradition.

Meanwhile, a far richer, more complete version of the scientific portions of the classical tradition followed a roundabout itinerary that allowed it to burst onto the scene in Christian Europe in the twelfth century. This version, which included many original Greek sources, was first carried eastward into western and central Asia, where (after the rise of Islam, generally dated to A.D. 622) it was translated into Arabic and assimilated by Muslim intellectuals. It moved across north Africa to Spain with the expansion of the Islamic Empire (seventh and eighth centuries). Finally, as a result of the reconquest of Spain by Christian armies, these original sources, along with the extensive Arabic literature inspired by them, were translated from Arabic into Latin (primarily in the twelfth century and first half of the thirteenth) and entered at last into the mainstream of medieval Christian culture. About the same time, many of the same materials were translated into Latin from original Greek versions to which Western Europeans had gained access.

The Early Church and the Classical Tradition

The process of assimilation, however, was fraught with difficulties. The classical tradition, owing to its pagan origin, clashed with Christian doctrine on fundamental issues, including the nature and identity of the divine being, the problem of good and evil, the relationship between creator and creation, and the sources of religious authority. The early church fathers (who, we must recall, had access only to the thinner version of the classical tradition) found much to fear in it.

The church father who has come to symbolize this fear was Tertullian (fl. 195-215), a highly educated critic of the classical tradition, who converted to Christianity after completion of his own superb classical education. Tertullian wrote extensively against heresy, attacking the classical tradition as its incubator. He lashed out at logic and dialectic (the art of constructing logical arguments) and specifically at "wretched Aristotle," who "invented dialectic . . . , the art of constructing and destroying, elusive in its claims, contrived in its conjectures, harsh in argumentation, prolific in contentions, a nuisance even to itself." And his often-quoted warning against curiosity ("No curiosity is required of us after Christ Jesus, no investigation after the Gospel") is regularly interpreted as an expression of the opinion that the Christian requires no knowledge beyond that which biblical revelation furnishes. Not only is this a caricature of Tertullian's true position, but it is also not representative of patristic attitudes (although this has proved no obstacle to its wide dissemination).

This attitude imputed to Tertullian is at an extreme end of a broad spectrum of patristic opinion. If the pagan learning embodied in the classical tradition appeared dangerous, it also proved indispensable, and the level of hostility expressed by Tertullian in his moments of rhetorical overkill was the exception rather than the rule. Total repudiation of the classical tradition by the church fathers was, as a practical matter, impossible. Many had been educated in the classical tradition before converting to Christianity and had acquired habits of rational inquiry that could not have been easily tossed aside. Moreover, the tools of rational discourse and some of the assumptions of Greek philosophy were required for the development of Christian doctrine and defense of the faith against its detractors. And finally, there is the simple fact that much of the content of the classical tradition was theologically benign. It would have been absurd for educated Christians to repudiate the intellectual riches of the classical tradition in everything from botany to physics and medicine to metallurgy--thereby dooming themselves to a state of barbaric ignorance. From the fact that Christians were wary of theological dangers in Greco-Roman philosophy and religion it does not follow that they were prepared to renounce all aspects of the larger Greco-Roman culture that (we must never forget) was also their culture.

Consequently, many of the church fathers expressed at least limited approval of the classical tradition. For example, the second- and third-century writers Athenagoras, Clement, and Origen all found Greek philosophy a useful tool in the defense of Christianity. Athenagoras marshaled the authority of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics in favor of monotheism. Clement attacked the earliest Greek philosophers for their atheism. But he also acknowledged that certain philosophers and poets bore testimony to the truth, and that within the philosophical tradition there is "a slender spark, capable of being fanned into flame, a trace of wisdom and an impulse from God." Tertullian himself viewed Christian religion as the fulfillment of Greek rationality, and he both advocated and engaged in philosophical activity.

Augustine and the Natural Sciences

The church father who most influentially defined the proper attitude of medieval Christians toward pagan learning was Augustine. A leading teacher of rhetoric, subsequently (in 386) a convert to Christianity at the age of thirty-two, and eventually (after 395) bishop of Hippo in North Africa, Augustine was a prolific writer of books on theological and philosophical topics (more than a hundred of which survive). Many of these works contain passages that suggest quite a cautious, or even a negative, attitude toward pagan learning. In his Confessions, Augustine warned against the dangers of curiosity: "Besides that lust of the flesh which lies in the gratification of all senses and pleasures, . . . there pertains to the soul, through the same senses of the body, a certain vain and curious longing, cloaked under the name of knowledge and learning." In the same treatise, Augustine expressed regret for the effort he had devoted to mastering the liberal arts (including logic, geometry, and arithmetic)--effort, he wrote, that "served not to my use, but rather to my destruction."

But it would be a mistake to infer from such fragments that Augustine renounced rational activity in general or the classical tradition in particular. That he opposed false or heretical reasoning and the philosophical systems that gave rise to it is not in doubt, and he was skeptical of any large-scale investment in the classical tradition. However, rational activity properly grounded in a life of faith and applied to appropriate objects (especially the articles of the faith and their rational underpinnings) was indispensable. Heretical reasoning about the Trinity, he pointed out, "is to be shunned and detested, not because it is reasoning, but because it is false reasoning.... Therefore, just as you would be ill advised to avoid all speaking because some speaking is false, so you must not avoid all reasoning because some reasoning is false."

What legitimacy, then, did Augustine attach to rational activity directed toward objects having limited or negligible religious relevance? And in particular, what was his attitude toward the rational and empirical investigation of the material world in which we live? Certainly Augustine placed low priority on such investigations. In his Literal Commentary on Genesis, he noted that scholars frequently present long discussions of the form and shape of the heaven, matters that "the sacred writers," in their profound wisdom, "have omitted." "Such subjects," he continues, "are of no profit for those who seek eternal happiness, and, what is worse, they take up very precious time that ought to be given to what is spiritually beneficial." Augustine elaborated in his Enchiridion (a handbook of basic Christian doctrine), cautioning that we should not be alarmed if Christians are ignorant of the natural knowledge contained in the classical tradition. It is sufficient for them to understand that God is the only cause of created things. In On Christian Doctrine, he argued that within pagan learning, "aside from the history of things both past and present, teachings which concern the corporeal senses, including the experience and theory of the useful mechanical arts, and the sciences of disputation and of numbers, I consider nothing to be useful." Augustine proposed the compilation of handbooks to provide Christians with all that they need to know of each discipline:
I think it might be possible . . . to collect . . . and record . . . explanations of whatever unfamiliar geographical locations, animals, herbs and trees, stones and metals are mentioned in the Scripture. The same thing could be done with numbers so that the rationale only of those numbers mentioned in Holy Scripture is explained.
In the opinion of this most influential theologian of early Christendom, natural philosophy was of very modest religious utility.

But modest religious utility, it turns out, was no cause for dismissal. In his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine made clear that although scriptural knowledge is vastly superior to knowledge gained through the senses, the latter is inestimably superior to ignorance. Moreover, he worried that Christians, naively interpreting Scripture, might express absurd opinions on cosmological issues, thus provoking ridicule among better-informed pagans and bringing the Christian faith into disrepute. "Even non-Christians," he wrote, know

something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth.... Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.


So we see that there were contexts in which Augustine's attitude toward pagan works on natural philosophy was relatively favorable. In On Christian Doctrine, he admonished: "If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use." Pagan learning contains not only "superstitious imaginings," but also "liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth." A good Christian, he concluded, "should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord's."





Continues...

Excerpted from When Science and Christianity Meet by Ronald L. Numbers Copyright © 2003 by Ronald L. Numbers. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction
1. The Medieval Church Encounters the Classical Tradition: Saint Augustine, Roger Bacon, and the Handmaiden Metaphor
David C. Lindberg
2. Galileo, the Church, and the Cosmos
David C. Lindberg
3. Christianity and the Mechanistic Universe
William B. Ashworth Jr.
4. Matter, Force, and the Christian Worldview in the Enlightenment
Thomas H. Broman
5. Noah's Flood, the Ark, and the Shaping of Early Modern Natural History
Janet Browne
6. Genesis and Geology Revisited: The Order of Nature and the Nature of Order in Nineteenth-Century Britain
Mott T. Greene
7. "Men before Adam!": American Debates over the Unity and Antiquity of Humanity
G. Blair Nelson
8. Re-placing Darwinism and Christianity
David N. Livingston
9. Science, Miracles, and the Prayer-Gauge Debate
Robert Bruce Mullin
10. Psychoanalysis and American Christianity, 1900-45
Jon H. Roberts
11. The Scopes Trial in History and Legend
Edward J. Larson
12. Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs
Ronald L. Numbers
Notes A Guide to Further Reading Contributors Index

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