What Has Christianity Ever Done for the West?
by Tamer Nashef
Filed under History
As Christmas and the holiday season draw near, it is time to take a pause and think deeply about the benefits that Christianity, particularly Catholicism, has conferred upon Western civilization. As a non-Westerner and non-Christian who has no ax to grind in this issue, I believe I can offer a fairly objective assessment of the impact that Christian ideas (some of which had pagan/Jewish precedents) have had on the evolution of Western civilization and their key role in the West’s spectacular ascent to scientific and technological supremacy in the past millennium. This brief essay shall throw light on some of these ideas, which are now taken for granted but are intrinsic to the Christian tradition.
One spurious idea, which continues to have a strong hold on the views of so many, is that Christianity functioned as an impediment to scientific progress and that only when the West threw off the “shackles” of Christian dogma, did it rise to towering heights in science and technology and achieve global preeminence in virtually every intellectual endeavor. In his scathingly anti-Christian book The Antichrist, the famous 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche charges that Christianity is antithetical to science, reason, life, and reality: “A religion such as Christianity which never comes once in touch with reality, and which collapses the very moment reality asserts its rights even on one single point, must naturally be a mortal enemy of the ‘wisdom of this world’—that is to say, science” (51). In his equally critical Letter to a Christian Nation, American philosopher Sam Harris asserts that “the conflict between religion and science is unavoidable. The success of science often comes at the expense of religious dogma; the maintenance of religious dogma always comes at the expense of science” (63).
Both of these views are clearly off the mark. Far from constituting a handicap to scientific activity, Christian presuppositions encouraged exploration of the physical world and aided scientific progress. The Christian conception of God and of His physical creation has proved immensely conducive for the flowering of science. How so? Christianity conceives of God as a rational and benevolent creator who brought into existence a universe endowed with rationality, order, and purpose. God’s handiwork is not dominated by chaos or mystery or randomness, nor is it too complex for human comprehension. Rather, it functions in accord with invariable, consistent, and rational laws that are accessible to the inquiring mind and to observation. Since God created man in His own image, human beings are blessed with the gift of reason and are possessed of the ability to investigate and understand the rational, fixed, and divinely set patterns according to which the universe operates. Indeed, as Dr. Peter Hodgson, the late lecturer of nuclear physics at Oxford and an avowed Roman Catholic, once said, “Christianity provided just those beliefs that are essential for science, and the whole moral climate that encourages its growth” (Young 144).
Hence, it should come as no surprise that some of the greatest scientists in history, including the stars of the Scientific Revolution, were devout Christians, some of whom wrote on theology as well as science. Suffice it to mention medieval theologian-natural philosophers such as Robert Grosseteste (died in 1253), Albertus Magnus (died in 1280), Thomas Bradawrdine (d. 1349), Jean Buridan (1295-1363), Nicole Oresme (1325-1382), as well as Nicolaus Copernicus (died 1543), Johannes Kepler (died in 1630), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Isaac Newton (1642-1727), Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Gregor Mendel (died in 1884), and countless others. Max Planck, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1918 for his work on Quantum Theory, believed faith and science were in partnership rather than at loggerheads: “Religion and natural science are fighting a joint battle in an incessant, never relaxing crusade against scepticism and against dogmatism, against disbelief and against superstition, and the rallying cry in this crusade has always been, and always will be: ‘On to God!’” (156).
Another key Christian idea that facilitated the West’s success is related to the concept of time as linear rather than cyclical; history is suffused with purpose because it moves forward rather than round in circles. Christianity, in other words, is a progressive and forward-leaning religion. Dominican preacher Fra Giordano encapsulated Christian belief in progress when he said in 1306 that “[n]ot all the arts have been found; we shall never see an end of finding them [my emphasis]” (Grant’s Foundations of Modern Science 160). Centuries before, St. Augustine celebrated the "wonderful—one might say stupefying—advances human industry made in the arts of weaving and building, of agriculture and navigation!" (117). In light of this belief that great inventions lie ahead, there is no wonder that the medieval Catholic Church did not express any opposition to the use of new technologies such as eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, telescopes, microscopes, and printing press, etc. Christian belief in progress was not confined to technology but extended to theology as well. Augustine was certain that human understanding of God’s will would increase over time, stressing that although there were “certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation that we cannot yet grasp…one day we shall be able to do so” (Stark 9).
In contrast, the ancient Greeks viewed the universe as eternal, uncreated, and “locked into endless cycles of progress and decay” (18). Such a view renders history meaningless; decay or decline is bound to follow progress. Aristotle, indisputably the greatest Greek philosopher, believed that “the same ideas recur to men not once or twice but over and over again” and that everything had “been invented several times over in the course of ages, or rather times without number” (19). In the words of American sociologist Rodney Stark, Aristotle reasoned that ”since he was living in a Golden Age, the levels of technology of his time were at the maximum attainable, precluding further progress. As for inventions, so too for individuals – the same persons would be born again and again as the blind cycles of the universe rolled along” (19). In the same vein, the Stoics thought that the “difference between former and actual existences will only be extrinsic and accidental; such differences do not produce another man as contrasted with his counterpart from a previous world-age” (19).
Christianity has faith in man’s ability not only to unlock the secrets of the universe but also to reach universal moral truths, distinguish between right and wrong, and decipher the hidden meaning of Scripture, unaided by revelation. This remarkable idea looms large in St. Paul’s following assertion: “Even when Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, instinctively follow what the law says, they show that in their hearts they know right from wrong. They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them, for their own consciences either accuse them or tell them they are doing what is right” (Romans 2:14-15).
The Christian belief in free will has rescued man from sinking into fatalism, encouraged him to be active, and instilled faith in one’s ability to alter his destiny and take matters into his own hands. Augustine affirmed that human beings “possess a will,” adding that “from this it follows that whoever desires to live righteously and honorably, can accomplish this” (Stark 25). Similarly, the great theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) said: “A man can direct and govern his own actions also. Therefore the rational creature participates in the divine providence not only in being governed but also in governing” (25).
A key Christian concept that has figured prominently in Western, rather Eastern, Christendom is the separation of church and state. This separation derives from Jesus’ ingenious reply to the Pharisees: “[G]ive to Caesar what belongs to him. But everything that belongs to God must be given to God” (Matthew 22:21). Christianity views the secular and ecclesiastical authorities as two distinct and independent entities with their own separate jurisdictions. True, medieval popes and emperors often jockeyed for domination, but they recognized that in principle each reigned over separate realms. This distinction between the secular and religious enabled the legislation of both civil and ecclesiastical laws, and more importantly, set the stage for the creation of a free domain in which science could be practiced relatively unhindered by secular or religious constraints. In the words of historian of science Edward Grant, the separation of church and state in the West
“proved an enormous boon to the development of science and natural philosophy. The church did not view natural philosophy as a discipline that had to be theologized or made to agree with the Bible...[the separation of church and state] made numerous institutional developments feasible that might not otherwise have occurred. Indeed, the very separation of natural philosophy into the faculty of arts and the location of theology in a separate faculty of theology reveals an understanding that these are different subject areas that require very different treatment. The great benefit for science and religion is that each was left relatively free to develop independently of the other, although every individual scientist or theologian was free to incorporate ideas and concepts from the one area into the other” (Science and Religion 247-8).
One common misconception is that Christianity is an inherently otherworldly religion that encourages its adherents to turn away from the material world, to renounce worldly possessions, and to give precedence to spiritual pursuits at the expense of worldly concerns. It is grossly simplistic to refer to the monks and their ascetic lives in order to corroborate the fabrication that Christianity is inimical to earthly life and material progress. In addition to prayer, religious contemplation, and of course charity, the monks in the early Middle Ages transcribed the priceless manuscripts of the Greco-Roman legacy, thus saving it from oblivion. Monastic orders in the countryside turned into centers of learning and scholarship, with the monastery of Vivarium (founded by Cassiodorus) translating Greek works into Latin and teaching the seven liberal arts, including a surprisingly large number of pagan texts. From the sixth century onward, the monasteries of Ireland devoted much attention to classical pagan authors and the mathematical arts of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy). Medieval monks also engaged in manual labor and agricultural activity, which had an enormously beneficial impact on their physical surroundings. Moreover, they made stunning technological achievements (in metallurgy) and even invented champagne.
Christianity has contributed a host of other values such as equality and freedom. Certainly, wrongs have historically been committed in the name of the faith, but these should not blind Westerners, irrespective of whether they still believe in the tenets of the faith or not, to the eminently salutary influence Christianity has had on their magnificent civilization.
Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
____________. Science and Religion 400 BC- AD 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus. The John Hopkins University Press, 2004. Print.
Harris, Sam. A Letter to a Christian Nation: A Challenge to Faith. Bantam Press, 2007.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Antichrist: A Criticism of Christianity. Translated by Anthony M. Ludovici. 1895. Barnes and Nobles, 2006.
Saint Augustine of Hippo. The Essential Augustine. Edited by Vernon Joseph Bourke., Hackett Publishing Company, 1974.
Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. The Random House Publishing Group, 2005.
The Bible. Gift and Award Edition, Tyndale House Publishers, 1998.
Young, John. Teach Yourself: Christianity. Hachette Livre UK, 2008.
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