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Medieval Christians Were the First to Pursue Knowledge for God’s Glory

COMMENTARY: A Register Series on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit


| Posted 5/28/13 at 3:30 PM


As we noted last time, Jesus teaches us that when you seek first the Kingdom of heaven, all sorts of earthly goods are added to you, as well. A classic case in point is the birth of science, due to the Church’s pursuit of the gift of knowledge to the glory of God.

Most ancients had no confidence that nature made sense. Sumerians, for instance, believed the gods were chaotic, so there was no point in trying to figure out the chaos of nature. For the Romans, nature was a thing to be occasionally exploited, but they undertook no sustained program of trying to analyze it. In pagan antiquity, science, as such, did not exist.

There were, to be sure, all sorts of attempts to make connections between things. Indeed, there existed no hard and fast categories such as we have today between what is now called “religion,” “art,” “superstition,” “science” and “philosophy.” So Pythagoras could pursue mathematics, but see no contradiction between that and his mystical beliefs in reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. (Indeed, given that numbers and spirits are both things that don’t rely on time, space, matter or energy to exist, it’s not hard to see why he might do so.)

Likewise, the Babylonians tried to fathom the connection between the stars and our earthly fortunes. Romans guessed there was a connection between sheep entrails and world events, and so forth. Humans have been trying to figure out the connections between things since the dawn of time.

But, in no small part due to polytheism, they took a very long time to conceive of the chaos of sensory experience flung at them as anything like a “universe,” just as you or I might have a hard time making any sense of things should a radio blare 200 stations at us all at once.

With the exception of one people — the Jews — virtually all ancient humans everywhere opted for the simple explanation of polytheism: The world was a chaos of warring gods and that events just happened for no particular reason, so why bother trying to figure it out?

In a haphazard way, humans figured out things such as planting seeds or forging iron or devising sufficient geometry to build the Parthenon.

But the main project of antiquity was devoted to trying to placate, not systematically understand, the forces of nature.

Only Aristotle, at the height of the pagan tradition, plowed ahead with his eccentric idea of a Prime Mover and of a nature that all made sense if you took the trouble to try to understand it.

Now, you might think that the key to inventing science was, therefore, monotheism. Not exactly.

Islam is as intensely monotheistic as you can get, but wound up persecuting those who might have founded an Islamic scientific tradition. Why? Because the winners in the Islamic philosophical struggle insisted that creatures had no delegated powers at all and that God acts upon all creation absolutely directly. So, they insisted, the paper is not blackened by the flame consuming it. Rather, God blackens the paper, and the flame just happens to be there at the same time. If you believe that, there is no point in trying to trace the connections between creatures, which is what science is all about.

So something more than mere belief in one God was vital. You also had to believe — as medieval Latin Christians did — that though God was the primary cause, there was also such a thing as secondary causes.

And because Latin Christians believed that and believed God had placed us in the world to know him through the things he had made, they invented science as a sort of byproduct of their faith.

To be Catholic, then, is to be a complete thinker about both heaven and earth. Of which, more next time.

Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.

Follow the links for Introduction: Part 1; Wisdom:  Part 2Part 3; Understanding: Part 4Part 5Part 6;

Counsel: Part 7Part 8; Fortitude: Part 9Part 10Part 11; Knowledge: Part 12Part 13 and Part 14.