Musings of a Christian Geek about the Word, Geek Culture, Science, Music, Movies, and anything that is deemed noteworthy.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

When Christian Reform Met Classical Theory

Originally posted in Christian Apologetics Alliance: Go There!  

Have you ever been called a “Flat-Earther,” or compared with the Catholic Church persecuting Galileo? Well, no matter how inaccurate these ad hominem attacks are, they still can be damaging. It is a foregone conclusion in many circles of Academia that Christian thought is the enemy of scientific rationality. However, I would love to ask the question, “Where did scientific rationality actually grab a foothold in modern Western culture?” In addition, let’s explore why scientists believe scientific inquiry and advancement should be used for the betterment of mankind. The answer to these postulations might surprise you.

We start our little investigation where all good stories begin: Ancient Greece. For all intents and purposes, Ancient Greece is the birthplace of Western society and culture. Democracy, civil planning, warfare, and many forms of entertainment find their origins in the Greek city-states. Though, for this article we turn our attention to classical mastery of science. It is easy to argue that the Greeks were peerless to any other civilization in history when it came to mathematical and scientific theory. Even the Bible acknowledges this fact in Acts 17:21, “For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing,” and in 1 Corinthians 1:22, “For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom.”

Many examples abound of scientific prowess among the Greeks. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth and the distance of the sun from the Earth with alarming accuracy. Hero of Alexandria is credited with inventing many different devices, not least of which includes the steam engine and the vending machine. Hippocrates is considered “the Father of Western Medicine.” Pythagoras, to the chagrin of many an algebra student, developed the Pythagorean Theorem and translated musical notes into mathematical theory.

Why mention all of these ancient men of science? I do this for two reasons: (1) to show the Greeks as truly amazing scientists and (2) to ask an important question. With all the scientific discovery and inquiry during antiquity, why has tangible advancement only been witnessed within the last 700 years? The answer to this question is multi-faceted. Many theories abound as to why the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions happened in more modern times rather than in classical times. One view is that the Greeks viewed science in a very philosophical and theoretical sense as compared to a modern practical sense. Ancient scientists did not usually think of ways to apply their discoveries and their pursuits were based mostly on the accumulation of knowledge. I would agree with this assessment and I would like to explore another avenue of thinking.

History shows us something very interesting and monumental in reference to the beginning of modern scientific thinking. The advent of knowledge coincides with many important events within the Christian Church and European history. One of the precursors to the so called “Scientific Revolution” is the Renaissance which is French for “re-birth.” The Renaissance is a time period when Europeans rekindled their interest in the classics and began to intellectually transform themselves from the Middle Ages into the time of the Industrial Revolution. An interesting thing to note is that this renewed interest in classical work fits into the time period of the Turkish conquests of Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire) culminating in the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453. During this time period Greek scholars from Byzantium took their works and fled to Western Europe.

The fleeing of Byzantine scholars was just one piece of the puzzle. The invention of the printing press around the same time helped to spread Greek ideas to the public. Yet another event happened just over 60 years after the fall of Constantinople: the Protestant Reformation in 1517. With the Reformation, came the availability of the Word of God to the masses and this, in turn, brought a whole new understanding to Christianity. The printing press also helped to bring the Bible to the public like never before. A Counter Reformation by the Catholic Church led to more reform and further freed Christianity from a superstitious and Religious prison.

Without the preceding events, it is doubtful a scientific revolution could have happened under the climate of a Europe in medieval limbo. With the advent of new Christian thought came attitudes and ethics straight from the Bible which could be seen as advantageous for a burgeoning intellectual culture. Proverbs 1:7, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7 and similar passages of the Word provide us examples of the relationship of God and knowledge. I believe these scriptures were very influential in bringing about a new air of rational inquiry in combining both Christian thought with a scientific mindset. Thus, many of the scientists of the time could justify exploring theories and the like because they knew God and knowledge went hand in hand.

1 Thessalonians 5:14, “Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men.” The passage in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 is, in my opinion, one of the verses instrumental in changing Western views of humanity toward each other. This more compassionate worldview helped to usher in a new era where science was not just some theoretical endeavor but a way to better humankind. This view of compassion even extends through modern society because the sentiment is engrained so tightly into Western thinking that even non-believers have the want to better the world.