How might Christians in the natural sciences articulate their aims and motivations? Finding bearings in the themes of faith and calling, Matthew Walhout argues that traditional answers to this question tend to bind Christian thinking too strongly to objectivist rationality. He reiterates a concern registered historically in the context of Renaissance humanism, namely that Christian faith not be identified with or reduced to any philosophy of “new learning.”He criticizes two current trends—the siding of Christians with objectivists in the “science wars,” and the uncritical presumption of faith-science compatibility. Borrowing from recent work in philosophy of science, he advocates conceiving of scientific practices in terms that are not fundamentally epistemological. Mr. Walhout is Professor of Physics at Calvin College.
Rationality and Christian Vocation
College students today enter an often polarized intellectual world, where they face the disciplinary and philosophical divisions that have developed between subjectivist and objectivist schools of epistemology, constructivism and empiricism, anti-realists and realists, relativists and absolutists, the humanities and the sciences, and so on. In the world of Christian academia, however, the divisiveness ofthe “rationality debates” has not been a primary educational concern. Certainly, it has seemed important that Christians enter the fray through scholarly writing,1 but the debates have earned no prominent curricular place beyond a few elective courses in philosophy and literary theory. A parallel trend shows up across the natural sciences: some faculty have earned high honors for serving their disciplines in the science wars,2 yet this contentious piece of recent history has not found its way into major programs in the natural sciences.3 These parallels go further in that Christian and scientific communities seem to have common interests and intentions in the rationality debates. Members of both communities have put aside mutual suspicion for the sake of opposing the relativism, anti-realism, subjectivism, and other threats associated with postmodern thought. Neither of the allies would have its students face such intellectual distractions during the intensive process of formation.
Many who stand together against the axis of postmodernism claim to stand for a rigorous rationality aimed at knowledge of real objects whose existence is independent of human perception and thought. They claim, therefore, to be allied in support of objective rationality itself. In this paper I shall be challenging a theological interpretation of science that often is deployed to justify this alliance, and therefore I shall be putting the alliance itself and a prevalent conception of rationality into question. My goal, however, is not merely to engage in negative criticism or to erect barriers that would protect Christianity from science. Rather, it is to understand how the conception of Christian vocation can make sense in the context of scientific work, the context in which my students and I find ourselves. Thus, my positive project involves submitting a scientific profession to a Christian confession and, in light of the gospel, gaining a clearer view of the range and form of vocational possibility. I must warn that anyone seeking specific vocational advice will be disappointed in the poor resolution with which I see such horizons. For the time being, my focus is on the freedom and responsibility of educated Christians to remain alert to the secular philosophical assumptions prevalent in the scientific practices of modern society, including those assumptions that hold the aforementioned rationality alliance together.
This way of laying out my project brings an important sub-theme into view: in conjunction with clarifying an understanding of vocation, I will be examining the possible risks of allowing the rationality alliance to inculcate a tendency toward syncretism. I worry specifically about the tendency to fixate on modern scientific rationality as if it lay at the core of Christian faith, for this fixation directs attention away from the freedom and responsibility that are fundamental to vocation. Indeed, I wish to advocate a sustained watchfulness with regard to problematic alignments of Christian faith and modern philosophical culture, for in recognizing its risks and threats, faith recognizes its promise and opportunities as well. Thus, in the context of Christian higher education, I would suggest that students be encouraged to study the rationality debates closely, for this effort may lead to a better understanding of both faith and science. At the global level of ongoing “science-and-religion” discussions, reflection along these lines could both ratchet up the level of philosophical analysis and possibly provide a renewed witness to the gospel of Christ.
Christian Calling and Cultural Critique
In my own Reformed tradition, faith is understood as both a gift and a calling. As a gift, faith does not become simply a property or a possession of the person to whom it is given. Its modality is covenantal; faith involves both creative divine action and responsive human action. It initiates a fundamental transformation of how one understands significance in the world, how one recognizes what matters, so that one is able to accept and to share God’s love. Within the gift of faith there is an expectation of a loving response, as well as the wherewithal of will and strength that makes the response possible. Though sin may dull the impulse and frustrate the efforts of responsive action, the gift of faith remains, and within it a call to participate in the sharing of that gift. What one is committed to through faith is the continuing acceptance of and the intentional response to this calling.
Given this characterization of faith, how should we think about scientific pursuits? The question can be considered in light of two Christian conceptions of work, which I shall borrow from Lee Hardy’s discussion in The Fabric of the World.4 Sharing a common origin in the Protestant Reformation, both conceptions describe work as the human-response component of the covenant of faith, the activity through which the Christian responds to God’s calling. In this sense, work is not an end in itself, but it is an activity with a telos. I shall use the term “vocation” to indicate this mode of active, Christian response; vocation will mean work pursued as an intentional response to the calling that comes within the gift of faith.5 This way of speaking may help tie the abstract notion of calling to specific forms of scientific work that people might pursue.
The first conception of vocation is one that Hardy traces to Martin Luther, whose momentous realization—that salvation comes by grace alone—tore away the special status of clergy and elevated the value of work done in the common stations of life. Luther understood vocations in terms of the call of the new covenant, the call to “love thy neighbor.” Faithful responses to this singular calling, he maintained, would take different forms for different individuals, depending on the earthly stations created for them. However, no matter their level of earthly prestige, workers in all stations had equal value in the heavenly kingdom, as long as they reflected God’s love in tangible acts of care and compassion. Whereas previously the “means of grace” fell under the purview of priests alone, in this conception God’s providence ensures that divine love may be manifested in all parts of creation, and that the productive activities of everyone in a society may help this to happen. A layperson’s work takes on value here because it is equivalent, or at least analogous, to the administration of a sacrament that is to be received by people in need of the love and grace it conveys.
In the second conception of vocation, which developed most clearly in Calvinist traditions, work is once again to be done for the benefit of others. However, it is not assumed that workers should simply accept the stations to which they are born. Rather, they should identify their gifts and talents and put those to use for the common good. Thus, a farmer ’s child need not be committed to a life of farming, especially if the child has pronounced interests and abilities that lie elsewhere. In so raising the priority of individual gifts over that of inherited stations, Calvinists also raised the question of how the latter should be modified to accommodate the former. An ongoing struggle with this question has led to a recurring theme in Calvinist theology, namely the criticism of social structures. Not only are we called to use our gifts in service of the common good, but we are also called to order our communities in ways that permit the best use of these gifts. Moreover, loving our neighbors involves shaping a community that cultivates and uses the gifts of all individuals. This requires that we keep an eye out for the kinds of cultural ignorance and bias that suppress the flourishing of our neighbors’ gifts. If we are instruments by which God administers grace, we must allow God to use each one of us, to direct our individual and collective understanding, and to rearrange the ways we relate to each other. Such rearrangements may even be understood as part of our vocations—that is, God may call us to transform the social world in which we work. In this conception, the call to manifest the fruits of the Spirit within given structures of the work world is expanded by way of the call to submit those structures to the principles of love, mercy, peace and justice.6
The motivations for this paper are anchored in this second conception of vocation. While the first conception may be more compatible with a professional focus on productivity in business or disciplinary research, I insist that Christian education and scholarship are about more than this kind of progress. They must be concerned additionally, for instance, with the turmoil arising from the rationality debates, for issues that create misunderstanding and acrimony are those to which peacemakers must attend. Christian responsibility here cannot be sidestepped. If it could be said that debates over rationality were merely academic, one could try to argue that the associated levels of peace or unrest might similarly be so—one might wish to ignore purely theoretical disagreements. However, the world of intellect and the world of embodied peace and justice are not separable. Ideas are enacted. Winning arguments become enforced policies. Our intellectual images of the world bear the seeds of intentional action. It is not surprising that many scholars engaged in vitriolic academic exchanges have pointed out the social stakes of the rationality debates. They have seen that thought and action are deeply intertwined. Certainly, Christian scholars must agree that intellectual commitments have consequences, and that the most consequential commitments are likely to be those in which the self-conceptions of individuals and societies take root.
In most areas of the world, these self-conceptions are shaped by a prevailing notion of scientific rationality that is influential in, even constitutive of, global economies, governmental structures, and cultural pursuits. The contested issue in the rationality debates remains therefore a critical matter for Christian scholarship and education. But engagement with this issue is not simply a matter of Christendom criticizing the rest of the world; it is an opportunity to put our own “Christian worldviews” to a new kind of test. It may teach us something about how notions of scientific rationality regulate our own world image and wield influence in our own attitudes, decisions, and actions. There may be much more at stake in this engagement than academic interest, more even than peacemaking. A shift in the Christian understanding of scientific rationality could challenge and refine some of our deepest cultural, political, ethical, and religious understandings.
So it is that the interests of Christian scholarship are propelled in the study of history and philosophy of science, cultural studies of science, theories of knowledge and language, and the ways in which religious traditions either have resisted or contributed to the modern mindset. From this perspective, my present aim is togive priority to the covenantal character of faith, so that it gives bearing to all other doctrinal concerns, especially those that might rely on or engender the longstanding philosophical habit of aligning epistemology with metaphysics, or knowledge with objects. There is no doubt that this habit owes much of its intellectual and cultural inertia to a world image in which objective science is the flagship of knowledge. My hope is that the habit-forming impulses that are fundamentally Christian might be disentangled from those that are not.
I will suggest that some disentangling may be accomplished, though not without opening the way to some surprising possibilities. For if we understand scientific work first and foremost as vocation, our world image may be transformed as follows. It may become possible to admit that Christians doing scientific work need not adopt the same realism that is generally sanctioned by most scientists; that scientific investigation need not focus necessarily on discovering pre-existing objects in the world and characterizing their essential properties; that the belief in such objects and properties is not even essential to Christian belief. Furthermore, loosening our philosophical grip on scientific objectivity may allow the intellectual spotlight to be turned toward the rightful concerns of faithful living, specifically toward the calling that Christ articulated, not as a call to know in the modern sense of this word, but as a call to love. This last statement should not be construed as a wholesale devaluing of knowledge, but rather as an admission that knowledge has value only because of its importance within the covenant faith. We may be better able to understand knowledge in this faith perspective after scrutinizing the concepts through which our modern world image has come into focus.
The contemporary views that I will be examining borrow considerably from the Neoplatonism that was influential in the university arts curricula of late medieval and early modern Europe. In the 16th century, the early philosophical education of Protestants like Johannes Kepler and Roman Catholics like Galileo Galileidrew heavily from the developments of Renaissance humanism. Humanism had produced a century of philological research and debate over newfound texts attributed to Aristotle, Plato, Hermes Trismegistus, and other sages of what D. P.Walker has called the “ancient theology.”8 Thus, excellence in knowledge and reasoning was an intermediate goal and a necessary condition for the pursuit of effective Christian scholarship. It was needed in the intellectual project of a reflective faith that refused to be corrupted or wrongly constrained by the new learning.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola was a foremost exemplar of liberal fifteenth-century humanism. A few years before his premature death in 1494, he experienced a personal rebirth under Savonarola’s influence.9 Pico’s wide reading and precocious knowledge, as well as his Neoplatonic fascination with cabbala, hermetic magic, and mysticism, became tempered with a reflective fideism. He came to recognize that the knowledge of a scholar, while certainly of service in the context of Christian faith, could never lead to the Platonic goal of a heightened or special knowledge of God. His personal transformation becomes evident in his short prospectus of 1492, entitled Of Being and Unity, which addresses an ongoing quarrel between Aristotelians and Platonists. In the midst of a discussion of Augustine’s notion of God’s transcendence, we find this striking outburst:
But see, my dear Angelo, what folly possesses us! While we are in the body we are able to love God better than we can know or describe Him. In loving there is for us more profit, and less labor, the more we obey this tendency. Nevertheless, we prefer constantly to seek through knowledge, never finding what we seek, rather than to possess through love that which without love would be found in vain. But let us return to our subject.10
Clearly Pico recognizes here that Christian faith takes the form of a loving relationship with God, and that without this relationship, knowledge leads nowhere. A reader might infer from this interjected confession that Pico is ready to make two concessions: first, hope is lost in the Neoplatonic quest for understanding the hidden thoughts of God; and second, given the folly of trying to ascend by reason to the knowledge of God, the intellect must be redirected with new goals. If these points are granted, it is fair to ask what goal might motivate Pico to enjoin the reader to “return to our subject.” To what end can his powerful intellect be directed now? One of his aims seems indeed to be a cautionary, negative argument against all limiting of faith by humanist syncretism. That argument culminates at a certain point as follows:
In the fourth degree, finally, we know [God] as superior not only to transcendentals such as the one, the true, the good, and being, but also to every idea which we could form, to every essence which we could conceive Him to be. Then only, with this total ignorance, does trueknowledge commence.
From all this we conclude that God is not only the being than which, according to St. Anselm, nothing higher can be conceived, but the being who infinitely transcends all that can be imagined, as David the prophet put it in the Hebrew: “Silence alone is Thy praise.”11
Pico’s suggestion is that faithful reflection should move beyond the ontological argument of Anselm, in which human categories and comparative structuresplay an important role. Ultimately all such avenues of thought merge into a singlevia negativa that denies the ability of human imagination and language to know God through any form of reason or rationality that can be articulated.12
How does this historical interlude relate to the question at hand regarding scientific vocation? To begin, it suggests that the challenges to Christianity in the modern scientific era are not altogether different in nature from those that were faced in the age of Renaissance humanism. In both periods we find new forms of learning and reasoning taking root in fertile intellectual soil. We see tensions between the desire to reap and enjoy new fruit and the need to control an invasive species. In neither period is a Christian intellectual culture able to choose one and ignore the other of these impulses. In both there is a need for careful deliberation to cultivate an enriched and renewed Christian intellect. However, I want to point out an important difference between the followers of Savonarola and the attitudes that I find to be common today among Christian academics. Whereas the learned fideists of 1500 were skeptical of the compatibilism proposed by Renaissance humanists, many Christians involved in contemporary science-and-faith discussions seem to start from the assumption of compatibilism.
As I see it, the compatibility assumption has had some troubling effects. Rather than focusing Christian scholarship on important distinctions between Christian and pagan doctrines, it leads some scholars to defend and promote compatibilism itself, without much regard for these types of distinctions. (In this activity, such scholars actually may resemble the Renaissance establishment against which Savonarola reacted.) Moreover, since a thorough assessment of the compatibility of modern learning and Christian faith is likely to require a broad range of theological, philosophical, historical, and scientific considerations, one may wonder whether any defender of compatibilism could harness the erudition necessary to the development of a convincing case. I would go further and ask whether Christian scholars can find sufficient motivation for concentrating their efforts on defending the assumption of compatibilism as anything more than provisional or heuristic. I am ready to echo Pico’s admission that in faith, we encounter a God “who infinitely transcends all that can be imagined.” I suggest, therefore, that Christian scholars must attend to the limitations of the compatibility assumption and not pretend that such limitations are irrelevant.
This suggestion relates to my concern for the role of Christian faculty in guiding students. How we can live up to our calling as we help students understand the possibility of pursuing vocations in scientific fields? Offering measured assurance that science and faith might be found compatible seems appropriate, but the point must not be put too simply. An individual may, after all, find that a sufficient understanding of his or her vocation comes only at a point when conceptions of compatibility fail or have little bearing. To me it seems right that students should be encouraged to prepare for such a moment, and that faculty should push their thinking well beyond the comforting (and possibly false) promise of compatibility. As was recognized by Savonarola and his followers, the call of faith may require a Christian intellectual to engage in a countercultural critique that demands an excellence and breadth of learning that outstrips all forms of erudite syncretism. Where, besides in Christian colleges and universities, can students hope to begin learning in a way that might be sufficient to that task? To begin teaching students in an appropriate way, Christian faculty must recognize that focusing on compatibilism is unnecessary and potentially a waste of time.
There is a prevailing tendency to champion the “safety of the sciences” in the classrooms of Christian higher education. That effort, as far as I can tell, is intended to help Christian students understand that practicing scientists can and do deliver useful and trustworthy ways of perceiving, interpreting, and interacting with the created world. This is indeed a worthy aim, but it does not deserve to be the singular or even the primary focus of classroom discussions involving Christian students. Those students who already have confidence in scientific research will not be well served by an idealized story that glosses over the intellectual struggles, philosophical missteps, and near-heresies that have come with and through such research. Others, including students who doubt that scientific theory and the book of Genesis can be reconciled, will not take more than false comfort from compatibilist vignettes. My hunch is that, despite the pedagogical tidiness that it seems to offer, dogmatic compatibilism is generally unhelpful to the educators and students who want to think seriously about vocation.
An example will move this section of the paper to its conclusion. In many Christian college classrooms, texts and teachers tend to venerate Galileo as a tenacious and visionary Christian who stood up for the scientific truth and bequeathed to Western science the guiding image of Nature as a Book written in mathematical language. He is placed among Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, and Robert Boyle in a pantheon honoring the compatibility of Christianity and modern science.13 While ignoring the incompatibilities that arise in even the most elementary theological comparisons of these figures, a compatibilist teacher may point enthusiastically to their shared endorsement of a God who has chosen to create a scientifically knowable world. Somehow, with most other doctrinal points held in abeyance, the fundamental relationship between Christianity and science is distilled down to a minimal and commonly agreeable doctrine of Creation. In my judgment, the understanding of Christian faith is thereby reduced to the level of platitudes. Students would be better served if they were encouraged to develop (or retain) an integrated understanding of the doctrines that describe and support faith. They might also reap benefits from examining the inconsistent, unorthodox, or heretical views of early scientists, and from considering whether these might have fueled early scientific development as well.
A recent paper by Mario Biagioli might facilitate this sort of critical study of Galileo.14 Tracing the emergence of the Book of Nature metaphor in Galileo’s letters and publications, Biagioli points to the years 1611-1615 as a key period of development. Early on, Galileo actually emphasized the differences between (humanist) book learning and his (superior) way of learning through nature. Later, in order to counter the claim that no learning could rival that derived from divinely inspired Scriptures, he appealed not to a difference but to an apparent similarity between biblical and natural learning. The Author of Scripture and the Creator of Nature were understood by all Christians to be one and the same God. By capitalizing on this general understanding, Galileo was able to speak of the Creator as an Author and of Nature as a divinely authored Book. He treated these tropes as unproblematic while using them in a rhetorical strategy intended to raise the religious status of the investigation of nature. Given the possibility of flawed thinking at the root of the Book metaphor, I consider Biagioli’s article to be a good starting point for reflective class discussions of Christian conceptions of nature and revelation. I would also add that the metaphor of mathematics as the language of the Book of Nature seems to have drawn heavily from the Neoplatonic philosophy that was part of Galileo’s education. One of the underlying goals within Neoplatonism was a recovery of the pure, primeval language in which God first communicated with humankind. Despite its inconsistency with orthodox Christian doctrine, the lingering fascination with divine language may well have propelled Galileo’s imagery by enhancing its apparent importance and legitimacy. All of this highlights the need for Christians to be discerning as they adopt interpretations of science and its history. I submit that educators must cultivate an understanding of intellectual and religious history deeper than what is now offered typically. Without this effort, there is little hope that students who are interested in science-and-religion dialogue will learn to recognize either the subtle failures of compatibilism or the related opportunities for renewed faith and doctrine.
These historical reflections have helped give shape to my general concern for understanding scientific vocation. The discussion of Savonarola and Pico has highlighted the ongoing need for a degree of wariness when the compatibility of new learning and faith becomes a default assumption or a cause to be defended. I have suggested that Christians must not withdraw from academic scholarship and scientific learning, and also that no set of pat arguments that can ensure the security and safety of Christian faith by defining once and for all its relationship to natural science. Broad cultural knowledge and the skills of critical analysis are vital in all areas of Christian work, not by virtue of their utility as offensive or defensive weapons, but by virtue of their ability to plow through and aerate intellectual soils that become compacted so easily. With this metaphor in mind, I turn now to certain sediments in modern Christian thought that have long been undisturbed. In particular, I will examine the layered assumptions on which a dominant conception of science is built, that conception being precisely what gives unreflective compatibilism free rein in Christian classrooms and in many science-and-faith discussions.
An ODD Interpretation of Science
Most Christians, myself included, count it a blessing that humans can achieve scientific understanding of the created world. We recognize the good that can be achieved through applied science and engineering—through the treatment and eradication of diseases, for instance. We also value “basic” or “pure” scientific investigation aimed simply at increasing our understanding of the material universe, irrespective of practical applications. My focus here will be on the religious and metaphysical assumptions that allow Christians to believe and argue that basic science is good. How is it that one becomes convinced of this goodness? In the common image of science that I wish to discuss, the convincing begins through a pair of assumptions: first, that God used principles of order and structure in creating nature, and second, that God created humans with the capacity to recognize some of those original principles when they study nature scientifically. The first assumption gives theological rooting to claims of objectivity, so that, even though our methods may not yet yield the ultimately correct description of nature (a description that, as of now, only God knows) we can aim at such a description; the principles to be described are presumed to be “out there” awaiting discovery. The second assumption—about human capacities of understanding—identifies the product of scientific objectivity as the recognition and representation of God’s own principles of creational order. Scientific descriptions of empirically accessible objects, while admittedly flawed and incomplete, provide scientists with a way to express or translate the divine principles of creation using human ideas and language. Thus, this image of science is guided strongly by the assumption that objective principles of order have been built into and can be read out of Creation. I will call this the Objective Description as Decryption interpretation of science, or the ODD interpretation.
Among Christians who take science seriously, the ODD interpretation is not odd or unusual at all; in fact, it seems to be a commonly accepted starting point for discussions about the nature of science. Before I describe the problems I see with it, some indication of its widespread influence is in order. An essay by historian of science Edward Davis will help to put some of the issues on the table.15 Davis summarizes the views of Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, and Robert Boyle in the following excerpts:
Galileo’s ideal of a mathematical, a priori science of nature was grounded explicitly on a rationalistic, highly Platonic, understanding of God’s relation to created objects and created minds….Galileo realized that a truly demonstrative science would be possible only if God, as Author of the great book of the universe, guaranteed that nature displayed the same necessity as the mathematical language in which it was written, and further guaranteed that the human mind was capable of reading that language.16
Descartes’ God could not change his mind once he had chosen which truths to create, because he was perfect and his will and intellect were one. Thus if we could somehow gain knowledge of these truths, that knowledge would be permanent and necessary, not contingent. We could indeed get such knowledge, Descartes believed, for God had given us certain innate truths….God could have chosen to employ any one of an infinite number of possible mechanisms to produce a given phenomenon. Which one he had actually chosen could be found only from experimentation.17
Boyle emphasized that we were created, “as it pleased the almighty and most free author of our nature to make us.” Our mental abilities were “proportionable to God’s designs in creating us, and therefore may probably be supposed not to be capable of reaching to all kinds…of truths, many of which may be unnecessary for us to know here”….Whereas Galileo and Descartes reluctantly conceded that some things lay beyond the power of finite minds to know, Boyle practically gloried in our status as “purblind mortals,” and constantly reminded his readers that it would be “saucy rashness” for them to “presume to bound” God’s freedom to make the world as he saw fit.18
If Davis’s summaries are reliable, they can be used to point out ways in which the ODD interpretation made its appearance in the early modern period. In Galileo’s conception of the Book of Nature, God translated or encoded certain necessary truths into the physically manifested laws of natural phenomena; and from these natural phenomena, now we can read out or decipher the laws, often in mathematical terms that reflect the divine character of Nature’s Author. Descartes and Boyle, while differing in their prioritizations of rationalist and voluntarist theological themes, accept an objectivist basis for the epistemological questions raised in the context natural philosophy. While Boyle remains the more tentative about human capacities of knowing, he agrees with Descartes that God created the kinds of established “truths” at which empirical science might aim. Regardless of their individual views of voluntarism and rationalism in theology, the early modern scientists seem to have agreed on a fundamental goal of empirical study, namely the acquisition of knowledge approximating God’s knowledge (within human limits) of rational structures embedded within the physical creation.
The ODD interpretation is more than a topic of interest for specialized historical studies. It remains an unquestioned assumption in most contemporary conversations about Christianity and science. It transcends nearly every division that exists in the Christian church and stands among the most fundamental theological orthodoxies of our time. It is carried along in the terms and concepts that we use incommon speech. Commentaries on religion and science abound with phrases that reveal authors’ tacit commitments to the ODD interpretation of science.19 Among these phrases, I would count invocations of the familiar conception of the Book of Nature, slogans like John Polkinghorne’s “epistemology models ontology,” and references to scientists “thinking God’s thoughts” or “finding out how God did it.” In many commentaries, as we shall see next, the authors employ the ODD interpretation only incidentally in the process of making other important points or arguments. Like a paper currency, the interpretation allows Christians to trade easily in academic and public intellectual markets without having to think about the gold standard to which it refers or the stability of its value.
In the chapter from which the above excerpts are taken, Davis questions the thesis of Michael Beresford Foster, who argued in the 1930s that the presuppositions of modern science had a singular source in voluntarist Christian theology. I share Davis’s reservations about the Foster thesis, but I want to look at a different aspect of his essay. For my purposes, the way that Davis frames his discussion is as relevant as the discussion itself, since this framing shows how the ODD interpretation of science can function in contemporary Christian scholarship. Early in the essay, he indicates his belief that the religion-science connection is not mono-causal, as the Foster thesis says, but that it remains important nevertheless:
More modest claims about Christianity and science, however, can be much easier to support convincingly. John Brooke has identified several “levels on which statements about nature and statements about God have coexisted,” yielding a number of ways in which religious beliefs have influenced science: as presuppositions underwriting science, as sanctions and motives for doing science, as principles for regulating scientific methodology and for selecting acceptable theories, and as theological explanations for events that are otherwise inexplicable.20
The last lines of this quote give a list of the types of influence wielded by religious beliefs, a list generated by Brooke and endorsed by Davis. Lists like this are not uncommon in Christian discussions of science; Brooke and Davis are only representatives of a broad population of academics who use similar typologies in their work. Therefore, assessing the assumptions behind such lists may be generally worthwhile, regardless of whether my specific criticisms succeed.
Here I shall point out some assumptions that draw support from and lend support to the ODD interpretation of science. In fact, these assumptions are what allow lists to be made and categories to be distinguished, and I suspect that the undeniable need for lists and categories in teaching and scholarship may explain why so many Christian academics default readily to the ODD interpretation. In any typology of influence such as that given above, there are distillations of basic assumptions about influence and about typology. If the influence to be described is that of religious beliefs on science, then it must be assumed that both terms—religious beliefs and science—have intelligible, stable meanings that are not subject to change as one moves from one item in the list to another. Moreover, the use of the word “influence” points to an underlying assumption that the terms refer to two distinct and identifiable things, so that the effects of belief can be properly described as flowing into science. Beliefs may lie “outside of” or “within” science, but they must be just as distinguishable from science as a porous bag of dye is from a swimming pool. If the terms are not defined and distinguished sufficiently, it seems unlikely that the influence relation will be well represented in lists or tabulations. This is simply to say that tables are not generally more reliable than the distinctions that they assume. The ODD interpretation encourages an assumption of clearly distinguished notions of religious beliefs and science, for it identifies science as the specific means for achieving a kind of knowledge that has particular importance to religious belief. It must be acknowledged that this assumption maybe an overly simplified idealization.
Further assumptions arise in the ODD interpretation’s way of dividing influence into types. In his essay, Davis maps the influences of religious belief onto a set of questions, including: Can science be done? Why should it be done? How should it be done? What sorts of theories should we accept from it? Religious beliefs, he says, guide us in answering these questions and thereby influence science. However, he leaves open the possibility that religious beliefs will not be our only guide; “the answers various people have given will reflect their religious or metaphysical beliefs, as well as their beliefs about the nature of science as a form of knowledge.”21 This statement, I believe, is the key to explaining why Davis is compelled to doubt the Foster thesis. Davis cannot allow for religious belief to be understood as the single or primary historical cause of modern science. Such an understanding would require religious beliefs to outweigh non-religious philosophical ones, when in fact the two “types” of belief cannot be distinguished adequately, much less weighed. My overall concern is comparable, in that I wish not to claim modern scientific rationality to be essentially Christian, largely because so many of its roots seem to lie in Neoplatonist philosophy. Davis’s rejection of the Foster thesis is based mainly upon the inextricability of religious and philosophical elements in the differing theological views of science articulated by Galileo, Descartes, and Boyle. I suggest that the blurred boundary between religion and philosophy runs also through the theology that these three figures (and many others) share in common, specifically the ODD interpretation of science. Emboldened by Davis’s doubt about the uniquely Christian origin of science, I am venturing to cast broader doubt upon the usefulness of the now-familiar, often-listed typologies of influence on which Christian discussions of science rely so often. The lists and tables that summarize these influences do not distinguish the influences of religion and philosophy, and this fact raises the question of whether the agent of influence (Christianity, presumably) belongs purely to either category. In the tradition of Luther and Calvin, I want to suggest that core principles of faith are at stake when too much religious authority is ascribed to a philosophy-laden theological image of the world.
Against the ODDs
Another noteworthy item appearing in Davis’s essay is the “classic triangle of relations between God, nature, and the human mind” (reproduced in Figure 1). The diagram begins to represent the ODD interpretation’s typology, although it is missing labels that would suggest the counterclockwise flow of knowledge proceeding from God, through Nature, and along the horizontal arrow of science. While Davis uses the triangle in Figure 1 primarily to explain the world image that guided Christians in the early modern period, he does not endorse this image explicitly as his own. He clearly recognizes, however, the regulative role of the image in historical thought, noting that it
determined the way in which [natural philosophers] viewed scientific knowledge: both the manner in which and the degree to which the universe could be understood depended on how God had acted in creating it and how God continued to act in sustaining it.22
In the essay’s conclusion, Davis returns to the question of “manner and degree” that relates most directly to the Foster thesis. This question can be posed as follows: How was the theological turn from rationalism to voluntarism related to the scientific turn from the necessary truths of Aristotelian philosophy to the contingent truths of empiricism? Foster claimed that the theological turn caused the scientific one; Davis denies the mono-causal connection. Nevertheless, Davis admits that there is a “strong consonance between modern science and a particular form of Christian theology.” I acknowledge his point, but I am left with several questions. How particular is the theology that Davis has in mind? Does he locate the science-theology consonance precisely in the voluntarist’s willingness to accept “contingent truths emergent from phenomena?” If that willingness were taken to be the reason for consonance, would it be assumed that created, objective truths are concealed in nature until (Lord willing) scientists discover them? Or need nothing be assumed about the prior status of the truths, so that even their existence might really “emerge” as a product of scientific investigation? These questions lead to one that is my central concern here: Does the science-theology consonance rely on the ODD interpretation of science or does it not? Davis avoids committing himself on this particular point, which he would probably consider only incidental or tangential to his main argument. Nevertheless, in many respects his essay provides an excellent starting point for understanding and raising key questions about the ODD interpretation.
I believe that the ODD interpretation of science, which is ostensibly a theological position, owes its stability to a weighty philosophical ballast. Furthermore, amid the buffet of questions generated by the rationality debates, the volatility of this philosophical content is of increasing concern. Recall that I defined the ODD interpretation in terms of a theistic form of simple objective realism, the type of realism on which the rationality debates have cast serious doubt. On its own, the ODD interpretation does not engage, but merely avoids, the vexing questions that pit objectivity against subjectivity. When presented with such questions, adherents of the ODD interpretation generally reassert the objectivism that they assume—God writes structure in, and we read it out. Thereby they stake out a vantage point from which the relevance of subjectivist arguments is obscured. It is no surprise that adherents of the ODD interpretation might dismiss such arguments, brushing them aside as mere relativist irrationality and postmodern claptrap, and allying themselves with the modernist defenders of science. Already I have mentioned my belief that this attitude closes off a worthwhile debate that could lead all participants toward a more adequate, less presumptive conception of both science and Christian faith.
Why are many Christians so heavily invested in the ODD interpretation? An answer to this question may become clearer if we examine how the interpretation functions rhetorically. Within the ODD interpretation lie two additional, corollary assumptions that I must question. The first one comes into play whenever the ODD interpretation turns a “can” into a “should”—that is, whenever our ability to understand divinely created structures scientifically is taken to imply a divine expectation or command that we do so. The idea is that, if God gave us the scientificability to know the objects of creation, then merely using the ability and gaining the knowledge must be intrinsically good. I call this the assumption of Divinely Ordained Scientific Objectivity (acronymized fittingly as the DOSO assumption). This assumption gives teachers something to appeal to—some normative or moral traction—when they want to inspire Christian students to study science. For those (like me) who do research in so-called basic science, it asserts that God will be pleased when we seek the secrets hidden in creation. For those who accept it, the DOSO assumption erases all doubt that the quest for scientific knowledge is a divine calling.23 It thereby offers scientists a gratifying self-image.
But I have misgivings about the logic and the world-image behind the DOSO assumption. First of all, it rests on a key premise of the ODD interpretation: supposedly, scientific objectivity is about discovering, describing, and knowing the objects that exist in the world. I have suggested already that the rationality debates have put this premise into question. Christians may think that they can transcend the debate by invoking the DOSO assumption and thereby solidifying the ODD interpretation’s version of what science is about. I would advise against this move, though not merely on the basis of its implicit circularity. My reason is this: the DOSO assumption presumes to establish a concept of vocation that has no clear links to the traditional understanding of faith and calling described earlier. It presumes to grant God’s blessing on a human activity that, according to a human interpretation, elevates human understanding toward (if not to) the divine level. The danger here is not just that we might try presumptuously to see things as God does (à la Eden or Babel), but that we might become blind to other relevant goings-on in the world around us.24 Recall that the conception of calling is consistent with a sacramental notion of human work, through which God’s gifts are brought down to earth for and through everyone in a community. Under the DOSO assumption, science gives special access to certain truths, and the good of knowing these truths is that such knowledge approximates heavenly knowledge. By restoring this sort of intrinsic value to knowledge, the assumption directs scientists preferentially to a modernized yet strangely Platonic vita contemplativa, while suspending the sacramental conception of the vita activa.
Besides the DOSO assumption, there is a second corollary assumption that is embedded within the ODD interpretation of science. This one plays an important role in much of modern philosophy as well. It is an assumption about what isgoing on when we make statements about the world. The assumption is that statements can represent what is “really out there,” that language can somehow pick out real entities, ascribe real properties to them, and plainly describe their real behaviors and relationships in an intelligible, communicable form. The role of science in the ODD interpretation is to run the subtler, more unwieldy objects of the world through the mill of experimental testing, so as to put clean edges—that is, precise definitions and distinctions—on our objective descriptions. I will call this the assumption of the Representational Efficacy and Aim of Language, or the REAL assumption. It is the assumption that language is capable of delivering the kind of objective description that the ODD interpretation of science demands.
The REAL assumption may seem natural enough, but it must be acknowledged as an assumption. In my estimation, it is not clear that this assumption is required by, or even consistent with, the essential commitments of Christian faith. Those who cling tightly to it, I suspect, do so out of philosophical habit. There are movements currently afoot that would make the REAL assumption the basis for a Christian apologetics in which statements of faith and even biblical passages are understood as propositions.25 I believe these efforts to be sorely misdirected. They attempt to place the belief of propositions at the core of faith, not recognizing that they have already filled this core with commitments to a metaphysics of language and a rationalist epistemology. I object most of all to the modality of this propositional literalism, for I do not accept the notion that faith must find intrinsic value in any accurate, objective, linguistic mapping of “the way the world is.” Faith andvocation can flourish even if the REAL assumption is abandoned. Whether ultimately they might be stifled or misdirected by the assumption is an open and increasingly important question. As I see it, there may be reason not to place ultimate hope or confidence in the so-called correspondence theory of truth, which is largely beside the point in a covenantal understanding of Christian faith.
Perhaps this point would be better stated in terms of a hierarchy of concerns. If, through the gift of faith, one is called above all into loving relationships with God and others, concern turns first to the possibilities of these relationships and only later (if ever) to the philosophical grounding of these possibilities in necessary conditions. Recognition of faith as a covenant fundamentally and permanently subjugates the felt need for objective grounding to the assured hope of a calling. Calling and hope are intrinsically diachronic concepts; they relate a present to a future. As the hopeful human response to divine calling, vocation too is fundamentally future-oriented. In our work, we anticipate the possibility of sharing and receiving God’s grace further. Grounding this anticipation in a theory of knowledge is not necessary; grace itself is sufficient.
Of course, our specific vocational possibilities depend on how we (presently) understand what is. Understanding constraints and structures objectively is therefore a pragmatic and ethical requirement. It would be irresponsible not to speak in the realist tones of Newtonian physics when designing bridges. However, this “provisional realism” is couched within a fundamentally covenantal concern for the creation, perpetuation, and enhancement of relationships. It does not entail a meta-physical picture that secures in eternity its synchronic assessment of the world. Abandoning such a picture would pose no harm to the conception of faith as a covenant; furthermore, I am proposing that doing so may offer some benefits. If we do, confidence in technical or scientific predictions must derive from confidence in a God who is, moment by moment, responsive, active, and creative. Our scientific explanations for how it is that our actions go as planned must be prefaced, at least implicitly, with the admission that God is enabling it to be so through his own continuous action. Without the objectivist metaphysics, this admission cannot be denied. Rather, what is denied is all recourse to an image of our tapping into laws and conditions that lead necessarily to specific end results.
This last point relates to my deepest worry about the ODD interpretation of science, which asserts that objectively real constraints and structures have been built into the world (prefabricated, as it were), that science uncovers and deciphers these ontological structures, and that they are what determine the possibilities of action. There is no doubt that the image of the prefabricated world suffices in most scientific contexts (though some areas of quantum physics seem to challenge this conception). The image comports well with many Christian ways of thinking about creation care, world hunger, physical health and issues of justice as well. It becomes a weakness in a Christian world image, however, when it accedes unreflectively to modern philosophical distinctions such as those between the secular and the religious, the factual and the valuable, the natural and the supernatural, the law-like and the miraculous. These may be useful distinctions in particular contexts, but each of them erodes or limits the fund of concepts from which we must draw when discussing the covenant of faith. Nevertheless, the ODD interpretation accepts at least some of them. With regard to the science-and-faith dialogue, I worry that Christians who rely on or become mired in these distinctions will never break free of a conceptually reduced world image in which the gospel can be circumscribed and obscured. Transcending the reduction can be accomplished only in the way that Savonarola and his followers advocated—by a theological step along a via negativa, by denying that God and the covenant can be understood under the distinctions favored by “the new learning.”
A REAL Alternative
I am seeking to understand scientific vocation in a way that avoids the pitfalls that the REAL assumption may entail. This search has led me to consider certain themes in the interpretation of science offered by philosopher Joseph Rouse of Wesleyan University. Rouse thinks it important for philosophers to break out of various dualisms that sustain the hostilities underlying the rationality debates. In his most recent book, How Scientific Practices Matter,26 he focuses particularly on the dualism of nature (or the world of cause and substance) versus normativity (or the world of meaning and significance). He wants to eliminate the tension between our supposedly irreconcilable ways of understanding nature through the natural sciences and understanding “right” and “wrong” through personal and cultural dynamics. Rouse believes that these ways of understanding are interdependent, that “right” and “wrong” make sense only because they emerge from engaged, human practices in the so-called natural world, and that our conception of nature has developed through ongoing discussions of what is right or wrong about that conception.
While Rouse places himself in the philosophical tradition of naturalism and for the most part is unconcerned with religion in his work, he is not a materialist, and he has little sympathy for mainstream evolutionary accounts of morality. His naturalism is different, in part because he acknowledges that the current concept of nature may have to be expanded in order to give normativity a rightful, natural place. This open-ended ontological commitment is part of what makes Rouse’s work inviting to Christians who may be looking for something beyond the ODD interpretation of science.
Like many post-positivist philosophers of science,27 Rouse focuses on scientific practices, but he does not simply equate the meaning of this term with objective regularities that are discernible in the things that scientists do or presuppose. Rather, he insists on a normative conception of practices, in which “something belongs to a practice if [it is] answerable to norms” of what is correct and incorrect. Such normative practices are varied across different communities and subject to reinterpretation over time. In Rouse’s words, “(W)hat a practice is… is bound up in its significance, that is, with what is at issue and at stake in the practice, [and] to whom or what it matters.”28
There is no “essence” of science for Rouse; there are only practices that can be identified as scientific, and these do not even comprise a well-defined class. Scientific practices are just extensions and refinements of more common human practices. Special epistemological justification for the specific practices of science is unnecessary, because sufficient justification is inherited from a broader context. The joint task of philosophers of science and science-studies scholars is not first of all to analyze science into essential elements or to defend science against ideological attacks, but to situate the stakes and concerns of scientific practices within more general human stakes and concerns.29
Much of what I would like to propose in the context of Christian scholarship has parallels in Rouse’s program in philosophy of science. Of course, given his commitment to a form of naturalism, Rouse makes do without a teleological notion like the one that I rely on in the concept of a covenant. Nevertheless, his work offers a very helpful way of beginning to understand how material and intellectual practices relate to human interests, values, and directed action. Returning to Figure 1, one might say that Rouse’s approach modifies and enriches the relationships that the figure aims to represent at the lower, horizontal level. A triangle will no longer suffice. In order to allow human knowledge to be part of the natural world, and in order for this knowledge to take shape as humans interact in the world in various ways, the cone-shaped diagram of Figure 2 may be more suitable. The bottom, horizontal circle represents a single world of human intentions and actions, or what Rouse may prefer to call the space of practices and “real possibilities.” This space is not characterized by a polarization between the natural and the human. Scientific knowledge does not consist in the accurate representation of natural objects, as the ODD interpretation would have it, but it amounts to provisional commitments that are meaningful within practices. These practices take shape in the horizontal space through interactions that happen to be understood in provisional terms of cultural and natural constraints. But “mapping” these constraints in such terms always involves a conceptual reduction.
One might ask whether my vertical extension of Rouse’s project obscures his vision of the horizontal unfairly. His goal is to find out how notions of purpose and meaning, right and wrong, and so forth might be understood eventually as “natural to” scientific practice. So far, he has aimed to explain normativity as naturally emergent within those practices, but I have jumped in and offered a kind of telos that belongs originally, “always already,” to any practice. This Christian telos comes in the form of a calling that is part of the gift of faith. I take it that the seeds of telos, thus planted, must grow within the seedbed of practices; Rouse, however, wants practices to serve as both seed and seedbed. For him, it remains to be seen whether scientific practices can find a suitably flat alternative to my implanted telos, whether they must churn forever with no ultimate direction, or whether they can latch into a vertical dimension. Since all of these outcomes remain “real possibilities,” he leaves plenty of room for discussion.
Rouse and I can agree that, within an individual life, transformation by faith involves some kind of “leap” that is not subject to the kind of norms that he has considered thus far.30 But Rouse need not (and does not, in my understanding) dismiss this kind of transformation, since, strictly speaking, the appearance of a Christian telos remains possible in his general account of normative practices. Heleaves open the question of how we are to understand religious practices. On my side, the general calling of faith also leaves a lot of questions open. The Christian faces a vast range of possibilities that might be realized as responses to this calling. It is a challenge to make decisions that respect both the natural limits of possibility and the culturally situated constraints on what is right and wrong. Rouse provides a convincing account of human practices shaping the world of real possibility and of the dynamics through which human stakes and stakeholders come to be identified. His horizontal picture is very helpful as one attempts to sort out the kinds of work and action that might be possible and desirable as vocation.
Given my dissatisfaction with the ODD interpretation of science, I cannot suggest to my students in good conscience that a “call to be a scientist” can ever come down all at once to anyone as a single promise or expectation that they will think God’s lofty thoughts. Rather, like all other Christians, they must be responsibly studious and attentive in their efforts to discern how the general call to love will take specific forms in their work. They should recognize that the assurance of faith translates not into a complacent satisfaction with static knowledge, but into an untiring concern for how scientific knowledge might matter. There is the sense of assured urgency in this concern; to use words from poet Lionel Basney, there is “that deep unease which is my rest.”31 Describing this urgency in terms that indicate the covenantal character of faith, W. H. Vanstone once commented on what is at stake in our work:
We cannot state in general terms a pattern of response in which appears the triumph of the love of God, nor a pattern in which appears its tragedy: but in the concrete situation of crisis, with its finely balanced possibilities, we can see in which direction triumph lies, and in which direction tragedy.32
Vanstone’s point is that while the Christian telos may come to us vertically, as a gift, this very calling directs our attention and utmost concern horizontally. The love that Christ commands is an incarnate love that washes the feet of those who walk the earth. We can take the metaphor of dimensions and directions seriously, admitting that from where we stand, there are more ways to look horizontally than vertically. Could it be that the transcendent God, whom the ODD interpretation aims to please, is more significantly an immanent God who calls across to us continually through the things and people we meet in the contexts of our lives? As I understand it, this is the form of help, direction, and urging that my tradition attributes to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the fruits of the Spirit are identified precisely as love and its comportments, and none of these depend fundamentally on objective knowledge. It is only after annexing and gutting the notion of vocation that theology could conceive of faith in purely epistemological terms. I maintain hope that the intellectual winds of the age will loosen our fearful grip on this philosophical pole, and that thereby we will come to recognize that the weight of faith is sufficient to ensure the security of our traction in the world. If this is a real possibility, Christian students will do well to direct their thoughts horizontally, across the academic disciplines, in order to understand the complexity of the rationality debates. It would be a mistake to ignore the kinds of understanding that have begun to emerge from these debates. It is significant to modern philosophy generally, Christian or not, that scholars like Joseph Rouse have begun to recognize, even within naturalist projects, the need for a renewed understanding of science. For in the next generation of both scientific and religious practices, the pursuit of vocation may involve a new conception of rationality and make manifest a new image of the world.
Cite this article
- In a sense, Christian scholars have engaged in their own rationality debates, arguing mainlyover whether postmodernism represents a threat or an opportunity in Christian thought.Among the many who see primarily threats are Millard Erickson, J. P. Moreland, and DougGeivett. Those trying to follow the possible opportunities include Merold Westphal, JamesK. A. Smith, Stanley Grenz, and John Franke.
Most have defended modern scientific rationality by attempting to weaken the positions ofits critics. High-profile efforts have included Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Super-stition (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1994); and Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense(New York: Picador, 1998). The recent release of Paul Boghossian’s Fear of Knowledge (Oxford,2006) shows the continuation of such attempts.
- One notable exception may be the program directed by Joseph Rouse at Wesleyan Univer-sity. Rouse’s conceptions of science and scientific rationality will play an important, guidingrole later in this paper.
- Lee Hardy, The Fabric of this World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990).
- Hardy does not distinguish between calling and vocation, since his project does not reach apoint of requiring a critical distinction between what is “received” and what is “pursued” inthe working life of faith. My intent is only to add nuance to, not to undo, his presentation.
- This conception can be identified in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans.Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), Book III, Ch. VII, Sects. 4-7; Book IV,Ch. XVII, Sects. 5 and 38; and Book IV, Ch. XX, Sects. 31-32. Its propagation through six-teenth-century pamphlets and poetry are discussed in a recent article by Kenneth J. E. Gra-ham, “Distributive Measures: Theology and Economics in the Writings of Robert Crowley,”Criticism 47.2 (Spring 2005): 137-158. Calvin himself was certainly not the only (nor the mostvociferous) champion of the socially concerned, reform-minded vision, but his theology andecclesiology were influential in England and the Netherlands, where debates raged overpolitical power-sharing. See Quentin Skinner’s chapter on Political Philosophy in The Cam-bridge History of Renaissance Philosophy, eds. Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner (Cam-bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 446-450.
- D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eigh-teenth Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), 1.[.efn_note] The religious questions raised by these developments had created doctrinal divisions along lines that ran through most of the intellectual leadership of Europe. The institutions of university, church, and government were all affected. Arts faculty were teaching young students new interpretations of Aristotle blended with various readings of Plato; theologians and clergy were responding either by attempting to retrench within traditional Thomismor by arguing for the compatibility of Christianity and the new learning; princes were granting favors and protection to learned men with certain political affiliations. It was on this varied and unstable intellectual landscape that both Kepler and Galileo had to find some footing. That each of them came to stand with religious confidence on the shoulders of mathematical Platonists is not entirely surprising, for often humanists had emphasized Neoplatonist themes in the New Testament, in the writings of Greek church fathers, and in St. Augustine’s work. Conceptions of the Creator as a geometer, of the Logos as a rational Mind in the world, of religious truth as knowable through divine illumination of the human intellect—these were typical of a popular notion that ancient theology and biblical Christianity converged upon a single and absolute truth. While this “compatibilist” alignment was never without its critics, their objections do not have much of a place in the history of science and religion. Such quibbles, it seems, had no direct link to the major developments thought to be most relevant to the incubation of modern science, developments such as geographic exploration, the Protestant Reformation, and the emergence of Copernican astronomy. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to revisit some of the warnings against compatibilism that had been registered already before 1500.
At its zenith, fifteenth-century humanism received strong support and generous patronage from within the Roman Catholic Church. During this same period, a small number of critics began to suggest that Church leaders, especially those close to the house of Medici, had taken such a liking to (and spent such sums of money on) pagan-themed art and literature that they had become distracted from core truths of the gospel. One such critic was Girolamo Savonarola, who remains famous today for overseeing the 1497 bonfire of the vanities in Florence, on which Sandro Botticelli burned some of his own paintings. While I do not want to condone or judge Savonarola’s specific actions, I do wish to recover his general concern: that an uncritical love for new learning might dilute (or pollute) Christian faith with pagan (possibly heretical) doctrines. It is important to note that Savonarola enjoyed the company of accomplished humanists and maintained a guarded enthusiasm for learning. As described in Walker ’s Ancient Theology, his was the voice of sober judgment, affirming that Christian scholars could study the world images of ancient religion fruitfully, and that true faith could be helped thereby. However, discursive caution was to be used whenever interpretation gave a foothold to the pagan tradition. Ancient theology could be allowed to have traction only so long as Christian theology was anchored firmly in biblical doctrines, especially those relating to God’s transcendence. While the ancient notions of Spirit, Soul, Mind, Intelligence, World, Unity, Being, Truth, and Goodness might help in the construction of an intellectually satisfying system, no such system (indeed no combination of the ancient theological notions) could render a Christian world image. God was beyond the metaphysical concepts of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. At best, those concepts could be used to discuss what Walker calls the “preambles of faith,” or the most general ideas about persons and God. The positive function of ancient theology went only so far. Nevertheless, like Paul on the Areopagus, Christian humanists could discuss the idols of ancient theology in order to orient unbelievers or seekers toward the “unknown” God.
Unbelievers, however, were not the main concern of Savonarola and his followers. Far more worrisome was the complacency of unreflective belief, which might allow pagan concepts to define or circumscribe a Christian’s understanding of God and of faith inadvertently. There was a need for protecting Christian doctrine from the taint of paganism, and this could be done only if arguments could be made against the sophisticated forms of syncretism that were being advanced. In the role of intellectual guardian, a Christian humanist had to argue knowledgably about ancient theological ideas in order to delimit the range of their validity. For, while those ideas might be tolerated as starting points in a program of evangelism, they had no place in reflective Christian apologia. In other words, having acknowledged God’s utter transcendence, a reflective believer would have no reason to entertain the notion that the god of ancient theology and the Holy Trinity might somehow be equal. Savonarola and his followers sought to ensure that Christian reflection would continue to deny such an equality, no matter the erudition with which it might be proposed. Their form of argument therefore had to be both apophatic and steeped in classical humanist learning. The group knew that they could be intellectually justified in rejecting pagan ideas only if they understood those ideas thoroughly. “The policy [was] to beat the presumptuous humanists and the dangerous, Hermetic Platonists on their own ground.”7D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology, 62.
- Pico Della Mirandola, Of Being and Unity (De Ente et Uno; 1492) trans. Victor Michael Hamm(Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1943).
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 26.
In his discussion, Pico seems still to rely heavily on the Neoplatonic idiom of his day. It isdifficult to judge whether he may have recognized any tension between some of his morepositive theological statements and his apophatic argument. The conclusion of Of Being andUnity implores the reader not to be ensnared by desires of the flesh, and, “If, on the contrary,by grace of truth, we do not fall beneath our model, we have only to move towards Him whois our model, through goodness, in order to be united with Him in the afterworld” (34). Itmay be that “our model” should be interpreted as the incarnate Christ, in which case humancategories can help orient moral behavior; however, it is easier to read Pico as relapsing intoPlatonic idealism that allows contemplative access to a purely divine and eternal exemplar.
- Historical discussions based on books such as Charles Hummel’s The Galileo Connection(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986) can fall easily into this pattern.
- Mario Biagioli, “Stress in the Book of Nature: the Supplemental Logic of Galileo’s Real-ism,” MLN118 (2003): 557-585.
- Edward B. Davis, “Christianity and Early Modern Science: The Foster Thesis Reconsid-ered,” in Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective, eds. D. N. Livingstone, D. B. Hart,and Mark A. Noll (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999), 75-95.
- Ibid., 81.
- Ibid., 83-84.
- Ibid., 87.
- The following are examples of work that allow for, rely upon, or defend the ODD interpre-tation implicitly: R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI:W.B. Eerdmans, 1972); Donald MacKay, Science and the Quest for Meaning (Grand Rapids, MI:W.B. Eerdmans, 1982); John Polkinghorne, Beyond Science (Cambridge: Cambridge Univer-sity Press, 1996); William A. Dembski, Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsityPress, 1999); Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism and Science,” in Lectures on Calvinism (GrandRapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994); and Howard J. Van Till, “Is the Universe Capable of Evolv-ing?” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B.Eerdmans, 2003).
- E. Davis, “Christianity and Early Modern Science,” 76-77.
- Ibid., 77.
- Ibid., 78.
- One of my main concerns as a teacher is that I not truncate the development of self-criticalreflection by offering my students the DOSO assumption as an “easy out.” Christian educa-tion can and should encourage students to examine the possibility that vocations in sciencemight require them to work toward the reformation, not just the affirmation, of scientificwork and thought.
- The idolatry of knowledge is a recurrent theme in the Augustinian tradition that can betraced through Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard. I am trying explicitly to reinsert theseconsiderations into the thinking of contemporary would-be Calvinists who affirm the workof humans in “all things” but no longer articulate coherent reasons for doing so.
- For some examples, see Millard J. Erickson, Postmodernizing the Faith: Evangelical Responsesto the Challenge of Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998); Douglas Groothuis,Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove,IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000); and Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodationin Postmodern Times, eds. Millard J. Erickson, Paul Kjoss Helseth, Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL:Crossway Books, 2004).
- Joseph Rouse, How Scientific Practices Matter (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
- In Engaging Science (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), Rouse makes this identifi-cation: “I take the postpositivist tradition to have been inaugurated by the influential worksof N. R. Hanson, Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Toulmin, Paul Feyerabend, and Michael Polanyi.Its subsequent development runs through the work of Imre Lakatos, Dudley Shapere, MaryHesse, and Larry Laudan, among others” (1).
- Joseph Rouse, “Understanding Scientific Practices,” in The Science Studies Reader, ed. MarioBiagioli (New York: Routledge, 1999), 442-56.
- On this point, Rouse is in alignment with Arthur Fine’s “Natural Ontological Attitude,”which offers philosophers of science an alternative to the usual forms of scientific realism.See Fine’s The Shaky Game, 2nd Edition, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
See, for instance, Soren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Frag-ments. Ed. and trans. H. V. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
- From an untitled poem written in 1999, with the opening line, “Listen, he said.” The poemcan be found through the web link http://clubs.calvin.edu/chimes/990910/features_04.html.
- W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavor Love’s Expense (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977),92.