Tag Archives: science

C S Lewis and the translation of medieval Creation-focus for today


OutOfTheSilentPlanetIt’s always hard to do the cultural translation necessary to benefit from the lessons of a past age. We are not medieval people. We don’t believe that lions are born dead and resurrected by the breath of their parents three days later, or that pelicans revive their dead young by piercing their own bodies and feeding their blood to them. Nor are we as ready to see God in every roadside shrine, storm, or twist of fortune. So how are we to appropriate the sense of the wonder and “livingness” of creation, and the sacramentalism, of that earlier age? At the end of the creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I return to Lewis for answers

Finally, however, how are we to derive new practice from the age of unicorns and self-mutilating pelicans? Isn’t it a bit much to ask moderns to accept all this neoplatonic mysticism and fanciful symbolism? Once again we turn to our guide, C. S. Lewis. Lewis represented the medieval balance on creation nicely.

Lewis appreciated both the material world’s quiddity (‘thatness’) and its sacramentality (its quality of pointing beyond itself to another world). From his first Oxford friend, A. K. Hamilton Jenkin, he got, as he put it, an “education as a seeing, listening, smelling, receptive creature.” Walking about with Jenkin, he learned “in a squalid town to seek out those very places where its squalor rose to grimness and almost grandeur, on a dismal day to find the most dismal and dripping wood, on a windy day to seek the windiest ridge,” and so “rub one’s nose in the very quiddity of each thing, to rejoice in its being (so magnificently) what it was.” (199)

Not only was this quiddity of things something to be enjoyed, but it also pointed us to objective truth. The beauty of a waterfall was something inherent to the waterfall – not a trick of the subjective mind of a human. And Lewis was actually concerned for the souls of those who did not see this (in his Abolition of Man). He knew that when a person saw a he waterfall, they were seeing both water and something infinitely greater. Toward the end of his life he wrote to a friend about his aging and increasingly malfunctioning body: “I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap. Through it God showed me that whole side of His beauty which is embodied in colour, sound, smell and size.”

Continue reading

Out of the medieval darkness: The REAL story of medieval theology


English: Illustration of the spherical earth i...

English: Illustration of the spherical earth in a medieval manuscript. The figure shows two men walking around the spherical earth, one going to the East and the other to the West, and meeting on the opposite side. O. H. Prior, ed., L’image du monde de maitre Gossuin, (Lausanne & Paris: Librarie Payot & C ie , 1913), pp. 93-4. 14th century copy of a 12th century original (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK folks, still at it: the “theology chapter” of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis is nearly done. Having introduced it with clips from my introduction of the “modern problem” which I hope this chapter can help address and my two-part review of Lewis’s relationship to philosophy and theology (of the modern and medieval varieties), the time has come to jump into the medieval material. Here is the “medieval introduction,” which finds that it must clear away some stereotypes before positing the “four balances” that medieval theology maintained – from which we can learn much today.

I. Medieval faith in reason? Surely not!

Possibly the number one reason many (I hope not most!) modern Protestant Christians will not give this book the time of day is that they assume medieval people were ignorant haters of scientific knowledge who believed in a flat earth and were sitting around waiting for the Enlightenment to happen so they could finally crawl out of the darkness and into the clear light of reason.[1]

It’s a shame we have to do this, but in order to get back to the brilliance of medieval theology, we first have to overcome the stereotype that medieval people were, well, stupid. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

One source of such nonsense today is a misbegotten (and top-selling – according to Amazon sales rankings) book by one William Manchester called A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester is a historian, but he works way out of his field here.[2] And that is the most charitable reason I can think of for his straight-faced argument that even in Columbus’s time, and throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Historian of science (and editor of the 8-volume Cambridge History of Science) David Lindberg says “nonsense.”[3] Continue reading

Alvin Plantinga, apologist and pro-science thinker


English: Image of Alvin Plantinga released by ...

Alvin Plantinga

Reading the New York Times article that appeared today on recently retired Calvin College philosopher Alvin Plantinga almost (only almost) makes me want to join the apologetic fray. I’m just not cut out for it. But I’m glad that there are people like Dr. Plantinga around to point out that science and Christian faith, far from being incompatible, are in fact twins in the womb (or to be more precise, Western science would not have happened without Christianity):

On the telephone Mr. Plantinga was milder in tone but no less direct. “It seems to me that many naturalists, people who are super-atheists, try to co-opt science and say it supports naturalism,” he said. “I think it’s a complete mistake and ought to be pointed out.” Continue reading

Another layer of the onion: “Imperial accommodation”–all bad?


Cover of "Christ and Culture"

I'm a "Christ above culture" guy, but that doesn't mean I ignore the evils of a culture-accommodated Christianity

Reader David responded to the post with the following:

While I agree that Constantine is not the whole story of the development of Christendom.  In my understanding, he is but one step – a formative one –  in a longer slide toward Christendom (which is not the same as saying “perfect before/all bad after.” I think we need to at least characterize this shift as my friend Alan Kreider does from the imperial accommodation of Christianity (Constantine) to imperial adoption of Christianity (Theodosius). There is a  difference between declaring religious tolerance of Christianity and making it the Imperial religion.

To me, this is an important distinction. As I responded initially to David: Continue reading

“Do not feed the fundamentalists”: The Smithsonian manages to engage creationists in civil dialogue! Stop the presses!


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History appears to have posted an invisible warning–perhaps more for its staff than its visitors. The implied sign resembles the familiar zoo warning: “Do not feed the bears!” Only it is not bears that worry the custodians of this temple to science, but rabid creationist fundamentalists.

What surprises scientist and Huffpost writer Alan I. Leshner is not so much that creationists go to the museum’s exhibit of early hominids as that the museum manages to draw them into (gasp) civil dialogue. Here’s a bit of his take from the article:

The exhibit — including a wealth of physical evidence, from fossilized skulls to stone tools — reveals without ambiguity how hominids have gradually evolved over millions of years. Of course, this evidence stands in sharp contrast with the creationist view that God created the Earth and all its inhabitants, virtually simultaneously, between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Continue reading

The supposed warfare between science and religion: A historian of science speaks out


The interview with eminent historian of science Dr. David Lindberg excerpted here first appeared in issue #76 of Christian History.

The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution: Christian History Interview – Natural Adversaries?
Historian David Lindberg shows that Christianity and science are not at war – and may never have been.
David Lindberg

Has Christianity always warred with science? Or, conversely, did Christianity create science? CH asked David Lindberg, Hilldale Professor Emeritus of the History of Science and currently director of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin.

And he should know. Lindberg specializes in the history of medieval and early modern science, especially the interaction between science and religion. His Beginnings of Western Science (University of Chicago Press, 1992) is an oft-translated standard in the field. He is also currently the general editor, jointly with Ronald Numbers, of the forthcoming eight-volume. Cambridge History of Science

Many people today have a sense that the church has always tried to quash science. Is this, indeed, the case?

This view is known as the “warfare thesis.” It originated in the seventeenth century, but it came into its own with certain radical thinkers of the French Enlightenment. These people were eager to condemn the Catholic Church and went on the attack against it. So, for example, the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), a mathematician and philosopher, assured his readers that Christianity’s ascension during the Middle Ages resulted in “the complete decadence of philosophy and the sciences.” Continue reading

Galileo’s trial NOT a clash between science and religion. Get over it.


Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Susterma...

Galileo Galilei

“The notion that Galileo’s trial was a conflict between science and religion should be dead. Anyone who works seriously on Galileo doesn’t accept that interpretation anymore.”

So says Thomas Mayer, a historian at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. Here’s a clip from the article:

Records riddled with holes
The Roman Inquisition began in 1542 — 22 years before Galileo’s birth — as part of the Catholic Church‘s Counter-Reformation against the spread of Protestantism, but it represented a less harsh affair than the previously established Spanish Inquisition.

Galileo’s first trial ended with the Inquisition issuing a formal order, called a precept, in 1616 demanding he stop teaching or defending the heliocentric model. His decision to ignore the precept ultimately led to the second trial 15 years later.

But some people have argued that Galileo never actually received the precept from the Inquisition. By their logic, the astronomer misunderstood the formal order as a mere rap on the knuckles. Continue reading

The Western scientist-missionary allowed entry to China’s Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci


Matteo Ricci "Painted in 1610 by the Chin...

One of my all-time favorite gospel-translating saints is the 16th-century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. By “gospel-translating,” I mean the apologetic and missionary move of entering a culture and finding the best points of connection to the gospel, thereby the better to present the gospel in a compelling way.

Here’s an excerpt from a sketch of Ricci that highlights this “translating” aspect of his ministry. Many thanks to Msgr. David Q. Liptak:

Father Ricci is especially significant because, as Pope Benedict explains, he represents in a missionary “a unique case of a felicitous synthesis between the proclamation of the Gospel and the Dialogue with the culture of the people to whom he brought it.” Moreover, he constitutes “an example of balance between doctrinal clarity and prudent pastoral action.”

Inculturation was his genius, therefore. Continue reading

Galileo as secularist hero . . . and Catholic saint


A museum in Florence, Italy is now displaying two fingers and a tooth from Galileo Galilei as “secular relics.” The relics, disinterred in the 18th century and until recently lost from public view, resurfaced recently and are now on display at Florence’s Galileo Museum.

What’s odd about this (typical) spin on Galileo as a secularist hero is that he was a devout Catholic whose motives, early research, and behavior during the ecclesiastical trial all stemmed from his deep faith. For a thorough Christian-historical account of the “Galileo Affair,” check out this article by Virginia Stem Owens. Here’s a taste:

Say the name Galileo, and most people picture the astronomer standing before scowling Inquisition judges, forced to recant his claim that the earth revolves about the sun.

To secular scholars, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was a martyr to religious bigotry, demonstrating how pious superstition can shackle human knowledge. To Protestant historians, Galileo’s fate is a sharp contrast to the freedom other Enlightenment luminaries, like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Johannes Kepler, enjoyed in Reformation regions.

But there’s more to Galileo’s story. Continue reading

Did medieval people believe the earth was flat?


One of the myths perpetuated by William Manchester in his atrocious book A World Lit Only By Fire is that even in Columbus’s time, and certainly throughout the Middle Ages, people actually believed the world was flat. Nonsense, said University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and historian of science David Lindberg, in an interview for Christian History magazine. (I’ll add that Lindberg is co-editor of the Cambridge History of Science, so he knows his apples.) The full interview can be found here, but this is the pertinent section:

What other myths about science and Christianity are commonly accepted today?

One obvious one maintains that before Columbus, Europeans believed nearly unanimously in a flat earth—a belief allegedly drawn from certain biblical statements and enforced by the medieval church.

This myth seems to have had an eighteenth-century origin, elaborated and popularized by Washington Irving, who flagrantly fabricated evidence for it in his four-volume history of Columbus. The myth was then picked up by White and others.

The truth is that it’s almost impossible to find an educated person after Aristotle (d. 322 B.C.) who doubts that the earth is a sphere. In the Middle Ages, you couldn’t emerge from any kind of education, cathedral school or university, without being perfectly clear about the earth’s sphericity and even its approximate circumference.