Christians are not Christians!

Jim Harrison from ‘inanis et vacua’ posted the following comment on my post Two Quote for Christians,

Since Christianity permeated the culture of Europe during the emergence of modern science, the question isn’t whether it played a role in the advent of science but what that role was. If you look at everything polemically, of course, you may cavil at this rather obvious observation, which is offered in defense of objective historical understanding and not in praise (or criticism) of religion.

As far as it goes the first sentence of his comment is very sensible and would seem to justify an answer but unfortunately it suffers from a subtle flaw that is reflected in the title of this post, in the context of the emergence of science in the Early Modern Period the term Christian is virtually meaningless. When one talks about Christians and Christianity it implies that there is something that is common to and binds together all of those individuals who are indicated by the terms used, however in the context of academic intellectual activity, and science in particular, this is far from being the case. Even before the Reformation in Europe when all Christians were at least nominally members of the Holy Roman Catholic Church the unity implied by the use of the concept Christian did not exist in the pursuit of, what we would now term, scientific knowledge.

As I wrote in my very first internet blog post on the ideas of Rodney Stark when every single member of society in supposedly a Christian to talk in terms of a Christian role in the advent of science is meaningless, one must instead examine the proponents of natural philosophy according to the various schools of philosophy that they adhered to. Here, we don’t have a unified Christian thought propelling advances in science but various groups, Thomists, Ockhamists, Realists, Nominalists, Averroeists and a whole artist’s pallete of all shades to all sides and in-between, as well individualist loose cannons some of whom despite being outside of all cliques and group exercised a lot of influence. The very fact that there were so many shades of opinion and open conflicts produced an atmosphere of intense discussion that almost certainly played a significant role in the furtherance of scientific inquiry.

To understand the evolution of science in the early modern period the concept ‘Christian’ is useless; the historian has to dig deeper and examine the philosophical concepts of each group and each individual in order to see how those concepts contributed to or hindered the advance of science.

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4 Comments

Filed under Mediaeval Science, Renaissance Science

4 responses to “Christians are not Christians!

  1. Since I’m a splitter rather than a lumper by temperment, I’m all in favor of getting beyond generalities about “Christianity” or any other word that names a complex, long-lasting tradition. As Nietzsche wrote someplace–I’m quoting from memory–only that which has no history has a definition. On the other hand, Christianity may not have been coherent, but it was stringy; and one can take nominalism too far. We don’t need to posit eternal essences; family resemblances suffice.

    You write that the “historian has to dig deeper and examine the philosophical concepts of each group and each individual in order to see how those concepts contributed to or hindered the advance of science.” I’ll go you one better. You need to go beyond examining concepts if you don’t want to fall into an implausible form of idealism. At a minimum, if you don’t want to consider the history of feelings and interests, you do have to consider how practices, including discursive practices evolved. For example, the emergence of something like modern science with the Royal Society involved new ways of reading and writing that put the emphasis on the plain and the literal that effectively applied the canons of Protestant hermeneutics to secular purposes.

    By the way, you wrote in your original piece “That the world/universe is rational and mathematical and can as such be encrypted was a concept held by many Christian scholars in the European High Middle Ages and Renaissance but it was not a ‘Christian concept’ but rather a Platonic one.” I found that comment somewhat puzzling. Couldn’t you also have written “That a just an angry God decides the fate of nations was a concept held by many Christian scholars but if was not a ‘Christian concept’ but rather a Jewish one?” I mean it is pretty obvious that Christianity got lots of its concepts from Greek philosophy—many Christians were well aware of that fact themselves—but any tradition has a mix of ancestors. Or does a pagan idea have a pagan essence that remains pagan wherever it turns up?

    • I mean it is pretty obvious that Christianity got lots of its concepts from Greek philosophy—many Christians were well aware of that fact themselves—but any tradition has a mix of ancestors. Or does a pagan idea have a pagan essence that remains pagan wherever it turns up?

      My statements were written as part of a series of comments aimed at those modern Christians who claim that modern science came about because of this concept of the world and that this concept is/was uniquely Christian in origin, which as I pointed out it wasn’t!

  2. Pingback: Plain and Simple Language. « The Renaissance Mathematicus

  3. Jeb

    I don’t think the term implies unity to the extent you are suggesting. To give an example; Bede and Gildas are both christians. This does not infer that their were not major diffrences between the British and Anglo Saxon churches.

    I don’t think think the use of the term suggests that the easter controversy was not a major issue (it certainly was for Bede at least) or the council of Whitby in 664 a.d. was the major manifestation of such diffrences in a very political setting.

    Unity is not a word I particularly associate with the history of Christianity. Power, politics and control are just to much apart of it.

    If they do get happy clappy round the bonfire it generaly suggests a heritic is about to be thrown on it in a bid to tighten identity and political control.

    I think Jim’s remark with regard to family resemblance is a very well made point.

    I don’t see the need to vet terms in response to a modern lunitic fringe, which will distort, lie and invent however things are phrased if it is not in line with their narrow and naive perspective.

    I see no need to pander to nuts when I write or concern myself with their irrational perspective.

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