“As everybody knows.” When we hear this phrase our first inclination should be to immediately question what everybody knows.
One thing that “everybody knows” is that science and Christianity are mutually opposed. Whether it is the schoolboy studying chemistry certain that science disproves the Bible or Richard Dawkins fulminating against the supposedly pernicious influence of faith we given with the impression that Christianity and modern science are irreconcilable. One professor of chemistry recently said “It is deplorable that in modern-day Oxford the study of theology is taken so seriously that there is a professorship. You might as well have a chair in fantasy.” Serious thinkers, it seems, have replaced the fanciful myths of Christianity with the hard facts of science.
However, when we look at the history of science we find that it was a distinctly Christian worldview which provided the foundation and impetus for modern scientific investigation. During the middle ages it was the rediscovery of the biblical concept of creation which motivated scientific enquiry and saw the birth of today’s scientific method.
How we think shapes how we look at the world. Today we see the world around us as worth study and think we can draw from it principles to help us understand ourselves and our environment. It was not always like this.
Before the Reformation in medieval Europe the way of thinking was essentially that of ancient Greece, just adapted for Christian use. The Greeks were more concerned with idealised forms and essences than ordinary material things. We still speak of ‘platonic’ love. This ideal love was considered much more important than the way in which we messy human beings usually fumble along in our relationships. In a world where ideals were more important than material reality what actually exists was less important that what ideally should be. This way of thinking did not encourage people to try to observe, investigate and experiment in nature, what actually existed. They concentrated on theory.
The general theory of creation was that it consisted of a hierarchy of beings. Beginning with the deity at the edge of the universe, they worked down through various grades of angels in ten crystal spheres encircling the earth, finally there was the cosmic centre, our earth itself. This view of the world was
attractive psychologically, it placed humanity at the centre of the universe,
truly important in a cosmic sense. Also, an authority based picture of the world fitted in well with an authority based hierarchical feudal society. The supposed terrestrial and celestial realms were very different. The terrestrial realm was composed of four elements, fire, earth, air and water, each with a straight-line motion with beginning and end. The heavenly realm, located above the moon, was composed of a perfect fifth essence and had a circular motion.
With the Reformation and the invention of the printing press there began to be a more widespread knowledge of the Bible. Two related beliefs in particular had enormous impact in the development of science. Firstly the realisation that the ordinary, everyday creation was of value to God and humanity had a responsibility in relation to it. Secondly it became apparent that the evidence of our physical senses was valuable and trustworthy. Perhaps the supreme example of observation and experiment is that after His resurrection Jesus showed His hands to Thomas who doubted and invited him to look and touch the wound in His side.
This different way of thinking about creation and the importance of sensory experience opened up new possibilities. Instead of speculating about the way the universe worked early scientists began to emphasise the importance of observation and experiment. They began to study natural events as a means of checking on theories. Theories could no longer stand on their own, no matter how attractive, they had to be backed up by observation and experiment. Science as we know it was born.
Early scientists began to unpick the fabric of the old way of looking at the world. The first bold step was taken by Copernicus who through observing the night sky concluded that the sun was at the centre of our system, making the earth just one of many planets. Kepler would then discover, again through observation, that the orbits of the planets were not circular but elliptical.
In 1572 a new, bright star appeared in the supposedly changeless skies of Europe. The event was a supernova, one of the last stellar explosions to be seen in our galaxy. Visible to the naked eye for about 16 months this event was so spectacular that it convinced Tycho Brae, the Danish scientist who lost his nose in a duel, that he must devote the rest of his life to astronomy only.
Not everyone accepted to the new biblical way of looking at things. According to the old view the heavens were supposedly changeless. Some eminent thinkers were so determined to stick with the old ways they claimed that the star did not exist but was a mere optical illusion. Because the observable facts did not fit with their theory they rejected the facts rather than change the theory.
But the cracks in the old ways were becoming ever more evident. In 1577 a comet appeared. By observing the brightening and dimming around the comet Tycho reconstructed the comet’s path revealing that the comet was situated beyond the moon. This meant that the comet must be crashing through the supposedly crystal spheres.
Impelled by the new way of thinking scientists like Nicolaus Copernicus,
Johannes Kepler, Tycho Brae and Galileo Galilei made huge advances in our understanding of the world. At the end of the seventeenth century Isaac Newton synthesised the views of previous scientists and demonstrated a unity of the heavens and earth all subject to the same mathematical laws. The old Greek Aristotelian domination of thought was gone and the way was open for our modern scientific exploration of the universe.
Far from Christianity and science being incompatible Christian thought inspired and made possible this new form of investigation. The philosopher C F von Weizsacker rightly concludes that modern science is a “legacy, I might even have said, a child of Christianity.”