Christianity & Science

In an article on “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” Hillel Ofek describes and helps account for the great contributions of early Islamic scientists and mathematicians, but he then chronicles how ever-more-absolutist brands of Islam came to shut them down.  Ofek says that civilizations often abandon scientific inquiry–citing China and India–and that the West is the notable exception.  For this he gives Christianity lots of credit:

As a way of articulating questions that lie deeper than the Ash’arism-Mu’tazilism debate, it is helpful to briefly compare Islam with Christianity. Christianity acknowledges a private-public distinction and (theoretically, at least) allows adherents the liberty to decide much about their social and political lives. Islam, on the other hand, denies any private-public distinction and includes laws regulating the most minute details of private life. Put another way, Islam does not acknowledge any difference between religious and political ends: it is a religion that specifies political rules for the community.

Such differences between the two faiths can be traced to the differences between their prophets. While Christ was an outsider of the state who ruled no one, and while Christianity did not become a state religion until centuries after Christ’s birth, Mohammed was not only a prophet but also a chief magistrate, a political leader who conquered and governed a religious community he founded. Because Islam was born outside of the Roman Empire, it was never subordinate to politics. As Bernard Lewis puts it, Mohammed was his own Constantine. This means that, for Islam, religion and politics were interdependent from the beginning; Islam needs a state to enforce its laws, and the state needs a basis in Islam to be legitimate. To what extent, then, do Islam’s political proclivities make free inquiry — which is inherently subversive to established rules and customs — possible at a deep and enduring institutional level?

Some clues can be found by comparing institutions in the medieval period. Far from accepting anything close to the occasionalism and legal positivism of the Sunnis, European scholars argued explicitly that when the Bible contradicts the natural world, the holy book should not be taken literally. Influential philosophers like Augustine held that knowledge and reason precede Christianity; he approached the subject of scientific inquiry with cautious encouragement, exhorting Christians to use the classical sciences as a handmaiden of Christian thought. Galileo’s house arrest notwithstanding, his famous remark that “the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes” underscores the durability of the scientific spirit among pious Western societies. Indeed, as David C. Lindberg argues in an essay collected in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), “No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.” And, as Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark notes in his book For the Glory of God (2003), many of the greatest scientists of the scientific revolution were also Christian priests or ministers.

The Church’s acceptance and even encouragement of philosophy and science was evident from the High Middle Ages to modern times. As the late Ernest L. Fortin of Boston College noted in an essay collected in Classical Christianity and the Political Order (1996), unlike al-Farabi and his successors, “Aquinas was rarely forced to contend with an anti-philosophic bias on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities. As a Christian, he could simply assume philosophy without becoming publicly involved in any argument for or against it.” And when someone like Galileo got in trouble, his work moved forward and his inquiry was carried on by others; in other words, institutional dedication to scientific inquiry was too entrenched in Europe for any authority to control. After about the middle of the thirteenth century in the Latin West, we know of no instance of persecution of anyone who advocated philosophy as an aid in interpreting revelation. In this period, “attacks on reason would have been regarded as bizarre and unacceptable,” explains historian Edward Grant in Science and Religion, 400 b.c. to a.d. 1550.

via The New Atlantis » Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science.

Augustine indeed, on the basis of the classical science of his day, said there was no need to take the creation account in Genesis literally in every detail, while still affirming the truth of what it means.  Arguably, the worldviews of Christianity and those early scientists were in harmony–indeed, the former made possible the latter–whereas  they started to clash after the Enlightenment and 19th century materialism.  Still. . . .

HT:  Joe Carter

The diamond planet

The universe is just full of wonders, and here is another one:

Astronomers have spotted an exotic planet that seems to be made of diamond racing around a tiny star in our galactic backyard.

The new planet is far denser than any other known so far and consists largely of carbon. Because it is so dense, scientists calculate the carbon must be crystalline, so a large part of this strange world will effectively be diamond.

“The evolutionary history and amazing density of the planet all suggest it is comprised of carbon — i.e. a massive diamond orbiting a neutron star every two hours in an orbit so tight it would fit inside our own Sun,” said Matthew Bailes of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Lying 4,000 light years away, or around an eighth of the way toward the center of the Milky Way from the Earth, the planet is probably the remnant of a once-massive star that has lost its outer layers to the so-called pulsar star it orbits.

via Astronomers discover planet made of diamond | Reuters.

Victory in Libya

It looks like the Libyan rebels, with the help of NATO planes and American bombs, have overthrown the Gaddafi regime.  All that remains is to find the guy.   No Americans were killed, the Libyans themselves did the heavy lifting to free themselves, and the terrorist-supporting dictator who has been the West’s nemesis for decades is out of power.  Does this vindicate President Obama’s stated policy of “leading from behind”?  You would think conservatives would celebrate an American victory.  And that liberals  would celebrate one of the administration’s success stories.   But we aren’t hearing much from anyone.   Not even the British and the French, who were the ones who went into combat.  Is everyone afraid of another “mission accomplished” moment, after which everything turns very bad?  Is it that Republicans don’t want to give the President any credit, while the Democrats, being peaceniks at heart, are ashamed of President Obama’s war?  Or is everyone so sick of all of these post-9/11 wars that the martial spirit has died out?

Human experimentation

Around the time Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was conducting his brutal medical experiments on human beings, some American scientists were doing pretty much the same thing:

U.S. government researchers who purposely infected unwitting subjects with sexually transmitted diseases in Guatemala in the 1940s had obtained consent a few years earlier before conducting similar experiments in Indiana, investigators reported Monday. . . .

At least 5,500 prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and children were drafted into the experiments, including at least 1,300 who were exposed to the sexually transmitted diseases syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid, the commission reported. At least 83 subjects died, although the commission could not determine how many of the deaths were directly caused by the experiments, they said. . . .

In one case described during Monday’s two-hour hearing, a woman who was infected with syphilis was clearly dying from the disease. Instead of treating her, the researchers poured gonorrhea-infected pus into her eyes and other orifices and infected her again with syphilis. She died six months later.

The ultimate goal of the Guatemalan research was to determine whether taking penicillin after sex would protect against syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. The question was a medical priority at the time, especially in the military. The Guatemalan experiments, carried out between 1946 and 1948, aimed to find a reliable way of infecting subjects for future studies.

The research included infecting prisoners by bringing them prostitutes who were either already carrying the diseases or were purposely infected by the researchers. Doctors also poured bacteria onto wounds they had opened with needles on prisoners’ penises, faces and arms. In some cases, infectious material was injected into their spines, the commission reported.

The researchers conducted similar experiments on soldiers in an army barracks and on men and women in the National Mental Health Hospital. The researchers took blood samples from children at the National Orphanage, although they did not purposely infect them.

In the studies conducted in Indiana, researchers exposed 241 inmates in Terre Haute to gonorrhea in 1943 and 1944. But there, the researchers explained the experiments in advance in detail and experimented only on the prisoners who volunteered. In contrast, many of the same researchers who began experimenting on Guatemalans a few years later actively hid what they were doing and never tried to obtain permission, the commission found. . . .

Susan M. Reverby, a historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, discovered the Guatemalan experiments while doing research for a book on the infamous Tuskegee studies in Alabama. Reverby found papers from John C. Cutler, a doctor with the federal government’s Public Health Service. Cutler had participated in the Tuskegee experiment, in which hundreds of African American men with late-stage syphilis were left untreated to study the disease between 1932 and 1972. Cutler died in 2003.

via U.S. scientists knew 1940s Guatemalan STD studies were unethical, panel finds – The Washington Post.

The King James Bible at 400

My long-time friend Leland Ryken has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal on the King James translation of the Bible, which marks its 400th anniversary this year.  After telling about how the new king of England granted only one of the Puritans’ requests–to make a new English translation of the Bible–and how 47 scholars completed the project in only 6 years, Lee discusses its impact:

The King James Version was not an original translation. It was a revision—technically of the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, but actually of an entire century of English Bible translations starting with William Tyndale. This history lies behind a famous statement in the preface to the King James Version: “Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one.”

The King James Bible is familiarly called the Authorized Version, but the king who lent his name to the translation never officially authorized it, even though he hoped that the new translation would help to unify a politically and religiously divided kingdom (a kingdom that would erupt into civil war not long after his death in 1625). Nor did church officials authorize the new translation. The King James Version in reality was authorized by the people, who chose it over others. For three and a half centuries, when English-speaking people spoke of “the Bible,” they meant the King James Version.

The King James translators believed their task was to take readers as close as possible to what the original text says, and in doing so they created a great work of literature. Its style is part of its magic. Yet that style is hard to define.

Modern readers are too quick to conclude that with its now-archaic language and grammar, the Bible’s style is embellished and formal. But thee and thou pronouns and verb endings like walkest and sayeth were a feature of everyday speech in the early 17th century.

However imitated or parodied, the language is dignified, beautiful, sonorous and elegant. “Godliness with contentment is great gain”—six words and unforgettable. “Give us this day our daily bread.” “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” The King James style is a paradox: It is usually simple in vocabulary while majestic and elevating in effect. . . .

For more than three centuries, the King James Bible provided the central frame of reference for the English-speaking world. Former Yale University Prof. George Lindbeck well claims that until recently “Christendom dwelt imaginatively in the biblical world.” During the years of its dominance, the King James Bible was the omnipresent force in any cultural sphere that we can name—education (especially childhood education), religion, family and home, the courtroom, political discourse, language and literacy, choral music and hymns, art and literature. For more than two centuries children in England and America learned to read by way of the Bible. . . .

The influence of the King James Bible is perhaps most profound in the realm of literature. From Milton’s “Paradise Lost” to Toni Morrison’s “Paradise,” it is a presence quite apart from the author’s religious stance. In his book “The Bible as Literature,” British literary scholar T. R. Henn said it best: “The Authorized Version of 1611 . . . achieves as we read a strange authority and power as a work of literature. It becomes one with the Western tradition, because it is its single greatest source.”

Rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. It is consistently, year after year, either second or third on the list of current Bible sales in the United States. Furthermore, the King James Version lives on in two modern translations that perpetuate the translation philosophy and style of the King James Version while updating its scholarship and language. They are the New King James Version and the English Standard Version.

via Leland Ryken: How We Got the King James Bible – WSJ.com.

Not tasting death until Christ comes in His Kingdom

There is that passage in Matthew 16 in which Jesus says that there are among those listening to him at that moment who will not taste death until He comes in His kingdom.  Liberal Bible critics say, “See, Jesus and the early church thought that the Second Coming would be imminent, and of course they were wrong.”   Some more conservative Bible scholars say, “See, Christ’s  Second Coming happened with His resurrection, or was some kind of spiritual event that happened before the Romans destroyed  the Temple,” while others explain it in other ways.

But look what our pastor, Rev. Douthwaite, did with it in his sermon on Sunday (part of the sermon I linked to yesterday):

You are among those who will not taste death until you see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. For the Son of Man and His kingdom is coming not just in the future, on the last day – His kingdom is coming already now, and is here, where His Word and Spirit are working, gathering, forgiving, sanctifying, and strengthening. For as the catechism teaches us to understand the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, Thy kingdom come: How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity (Small Catechism: Explanation of the Second Petition).

And so as our heavenly Father gives His Holy Spirit here in baptism, in the preaching of the Word, in absolution, in His Supper, His kingdom is coming. Coming to you. It is His work, the work of the cross, for you. For the cross is how Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God for you. The cross is everything. Or as Luther put it around the start of the Reformation: The cross is our only theology.

Jesus must go to the cross. You must bear your cross. This talk should not surprise us. For it is how your Father in heaven loves you and saves you. Which doesn’t make it easy, but does make it good.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 11 Sermon.

Many people treat the Bible as just an assemblage of facts, history, and doctrine.  Of course it includes such things.  But consider another dimension:  It is God’s Word; that is, God’s voice personally addressing those who hear it, with the purpose of bringing them to repentance and faith.

A lot of texts we fight over, perhaps with good reason (the details of creation; the last days), and yet what does it do to them to read them as means of grace?


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