From God to Newton and The Reconcilation of Science and Theology

By Tu Alex Mingchuan

It is common sense that in the so-called “Dark Ages” of the medieval Europe, theology predominated in all the area from theocracy to regalia and became the absolute authority in the spiritual world of European. Science was left no space in the magnificent palace ruled by theology and was seen as heterodoxy. At that time, the conflict in relations between science and theology was serious, or more exactly, the oppression theology put on science was cruel. For instance, Italian philosopher and scientist Bruno because of his insistence on scientific truth was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in Rome in 1600. Great physicist Galileo, for believing in and publicizing Copernicus’ heliocentricism, was put into prison for life.1 Under the great pressure and in the context of Western European fanaticism, there was hardly possibility and space for science to emerge. Up to 17th and 18th centuries, science began to advance rapidly and defeat theology eventually. God became “master not at home” and Newton became “chamberlaine in the world”. Why did it happen in Europe? The key is to find out the origins for the rise of modern science. To see it, we first look into Western traditional weltanschauung.

Western traditional weltanschauung is a kind of dualism. Toward no matter what in nature, morality or religion, Western people often has a dualistic attitude. For example, the classical two-valued logic based on true or false duality founded by Aristotle continued to use today. Moreover, the dualism of mind and body, subject and object, noumenon and phenomenon, ideal and reality, collective and individual and so on, could easily be found here and there in Western history and culture. Especially in religious beliefs and metaphysics, Western people adhered to a dualistic position so obstinately that the transcendent world and the real world were departed completely and heaven and earth were separated absolutely.2 No matter in significance or value, the former is always higher than the latter. Probing into the origins of the dualistic worldview, we could retrospect to ancient Greek philosophy (especially metaphysics) and Christian theology.

Plato’s theory of Forms asserted that the realm of Forms and the realm of things are opposed.3 “The Forms are those changeless, eternal, and nonmaterial essences or patterns of which the actual visible objects we see are only poor copies.”4 Although Aristotle tried to overcome Plato’s system of the dualism of Forms and actual things, he didn’t give up the dualistic idea of reality and phenomenon5, e.g. the distinction between matter and form.

Another element of Western traditional dualistic worldview is Christian theology. It is obvious that the city of God and the city of the world as well as faith and reason are resolvedly distinct in the Bible. Christian theology assured that any values and ideals that could not be fulfilled in the world could be achieved in paradise only if you affirm the existence of God and believe in God piously. If compared to the absolute Christian beliefs, any ethical or moral value or temporal ideal shows immediately insignificance in itself. For instance, Jesus’ response to the questions about paying tax – “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”(Matthew 22: 22) typically represented the dualism of Christian theology.

The Christian theological thought above mixed with Plato’s theory of Forms and Aristotle’s metaphysics latter constructed the voluminous system of scholasticism. In more than a thousand year of the medieval ecclesiastic system, the Christian theology was the dominant ideology of Western European.

In this context, although the scientific researches were never stopping completely, the scientific seeking and the exploring of nature and even all the secular concerns confronted with such a perfect, pure and transcendental realm constructed by Christian theology were suffering despisal, neglect and oppression. Christian theology became the unique absolute standard of Western people and persecuted those disobedient. Despite that theology nearly held all the power over all the secular and holy affairs and science seldom had space to develop, the theological worldview could not be necessarily ever-victorious and ever-valid. Once coming across holistic changes or encountering the assault of heterodox thought, the faiths of Western people would be lax, which would shake and even destroy the whole Christian theological worldview.

Renaissance in the 15th and 16th century first revolted. The sense of self-awakening catalyzed by humanism and the revival of ancient Greek and Roman cultures broke down the unified complexion under the reign of theology. Man as a scientific master instead of God in the theological world became the center of social life and academic researches so that science gained a valuable chance to grow.6 Then Reformation, against the moral corruption of the Catholic Church and the sham of the dualistic opposite of soul and body, advocated “justification by faith” and religious tolerance and rejected the absolute authority of and the spiritual control by the Church.7 Therefore, science got rid of the spiritual restriction of theology. Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century in Europe further fulfilled the ideological liberation of Western European.8 Reason replaced faith and theology receded into the background. Modern science emerged as the times require.

The intellectual revolutions above are the main causes for the rise of modern science, but in the final analysis, the origins are from the collapse of Christian theological worldview and the rise of the scientific worldview. It is obvious that the collapse of Christian theological worldview was going with a series of the intellectual revolutions-Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. But generally speaking, it could be explained in terms of the inherent problems of Christian theological worldview within and the assault of “heterodox” thoughts from outside.

First, the system of medieval scholasticism that wholly made a stand for Christian theology, although it tried to shorten the huge gap between reason and faith, yet because of its insistence on “faith superior to reason”, finally could not keep the balance and harmony between faith and reason. On the one hand, J. D. Scotus’ theory of “double truth” accelerated the departure of faith and reason.9 On the other hand, mysticism contended a direct encounter and mystical union with God, such as J. Eckhart said “God and soul were neither unaquainted nor far away, so soul was not only consistent with God, but identical with God.”10 Mysticism distained all secular affairs, consequently, theological dualistic worldview was transformed into a transcendental monistic worldview which refused any intervention of human reason. W. Ockham’s nominalism argued against the doctrines made up by scholasticism and the arguments of God’s existence. His principle of simplicity known as “Ockham’s razor” contended that “what can be explained on fewer principles is explained needlessly by more”11, which became a “prodder putting medieval theological system into disintegration.”12 Consequently, Western European in the late Middle Ages lost their confidence in Christian theological worldview and began to resort to reason.

Secondly, Copernicus’ heliocentricism affected the worldview of the current scientists and philosophers in Renaissance and geocentricism of the theological worldview was seriously challenged. Human lost the superiority constructed by Christian theology in the cosmos and the dualistic relation between heaven and the world was loose. Scientists at that time e.g. Galileo only regarded God as prime efficient cause of the physical world and deprived God of the title of final cause. Therefore, the power and the omnipotence of God were questioned. Other scientists such as Bruno because of the influence of scientific explore, mostly adopted a pantheistic position as a substitute of the theological dualistic worldview. Meanwhile, a tendency in modern philosophy gradually emerged to cooperate with science to rationalize the world. For example, Descartes “first made use of God’s existence for the objectivity and actuality of the physical world and then locked God into coffer and explained the structure of the world in a scientific view.”13 As for the problem of the transcendental world in theology was “hanged” and became a “pseudo-problem”. The pantheistic metaphysics of Spinoza excluded the existence of the transcendental world, which also gave a deathblow to the dualistic theological worldview. On the other hand, the empiricism initiated by Locke developed to Hume became a radical positivism of skepticism, which ultimately denied spiritual substance and the existence of causal necessity and denied all the attempts of the arguments of God’s existence through human reason and empirical facts, which greatly fluctuated the basis of theology. Kant’s theory of the antinomies and critical rational theology contended that the transcendental world or noumenal world, the existence of God and the immortality of soul could not be proved, consequently, theology was excluded from human knowledge. Hegel’s rationalistic dialectic metaphysics regarded the variational process of the real world as the self-unfolding of absolute spirit and transformed the dualistic worldview into absolute idealism. The dualistic worldview was eventually discarded and Christian theological beliefs were evanesced in Hegel’s system. Thus, reason won the advantage over faith and the scientistic worldview instead of the theological dualistic worldview became the dominant ideology of Western European.

The rise of modern science could not begin until the traditional dualistic worldview was transformed, because weltanschauung is the ultimate understanding of the world or human life of people, which is able to potentially predominate the ultimate attitude toward and activities in life of thinkers, social workers and even the masses in a region. That is, only if the traditional theological worldview was replaced by a new reason-based worldview viz. the scientistic worldview, the rise of modern science could have ultimate assurance. In a word, the origins for the rise of modern science were the collapse of the theological dualistic worldview and the predominance of the scientific worldview.

The conversion from theology to science has both positive and negative impacts on Western history. After walking up on the fast lane of scientific development, the realistic life of Western European was greatly improved, the material civilization was rapidly progressed, the explore of nature and geography was continuously advanced and technology was dramatically reformed. Thence, Western countries made a continuous progress whereas Eastern countries fell far behind. The influence of the conversion from theology to science is unmeasurable, just as historian H. Butterfield pointed out on this problem: “The impact on the world culture of the rise of modern science in the 17th century could only be mentioned in the same breath with the rise of Christianity in the first century.”14 However, it does not mean that this conversion doesn’t have any negative impact on Western European. “Weltanschauung can be thought as a sort of comprehensive experience that most potentially affects the cultural atmosphere e.g. academic ideas, life styles, living attitudes and so on of any country and sociaty.”15 Accordingly, when the weltanschauung of the people in a region undergoes a right-about or fundamental conversion, the academic culture and life attitudes and behaviors will have holistic changes.

Because the traditional dualistic worldview was the dominant ideology from the Aristotle to the late Middle Ages, in which Western European soaked themselves and took it for granted all the time, the spiritual crisis of Western European was coming on the just day the theological worldview collapsed. In the context that the theological worldview nodded to its fall and nihilism was widespread around, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche etc. in 19th century inaugurated the philosophical ideas of existentialism in coincidence to save the spiritual crisis and get back the lost psychic home of Western European.

Danish philosopher Kierkegaard’s existentialistic thought was a critical reaction to Hegel’s rationalism, which rejected Hegel’s neglect of theology and the problem of faith and contended that theological knowledge and Christian beliefs are subjective truth that can not be evanesced in universal objective knowledge. He thought that rationalist Hegel and the like holded the position of the supremacy of reason and reduced the transcendental world into abstract idea, which obliterated the paradoxicality (truth as subjectivity) of theology and the non-rationality (not congruent with reason but with feelings and faith) of the dualistic worldview. Russian novelist Dostoevsky discovered the problem of fate of existence after the collapse of the theological worldview. In his novels from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov, he discussed how to seek the spiritual way out after the comedown of faith in God. He implied that except Christian theology and beliefs, Western people could not find a savior for their spiritual crisis. Another initiator of existentialism and also a representative figure of philosophy of Will Nietzsche, though likewise criticizing rationalism, pushed the theological dualistic worldview into collapse at the same time. From the assumption of “God is dead” (Nietzsche really believed that Western European had lost the theological worldview.), he claimed that all traditional morality, philosophies and theologies must be revalued with the collapse of the dualistic worldview. New values and ideals should be established by the Superperson who can harmonize the animal nature with the intellect and keep a balance between Dionysian and Apollonian elements. His theory of the Will to Power is the foundation of his philosophy of the Superperson.16

From the argument above, it is obvious that the conversion from theology to science, though brought high material civilization to the Western world, yet also produced deep spiritual crisis for Western people. The scientistic worldview in the extreme would regard reason as the unique standard to evaluate all values and exclude any other “unscientistic” worldviews, which would further reject the value and meaning of faith and affection and completely alienate people from the consciousness of existence. Furthermore, the development of scientific theories would have stimulated the improvement of productive technologies, which would increasingly enhance the danger of the scientific technicalization. And the maximum danger of the scientific technicalization is to eliminate reason of value by value of instrument and let people to forget the problem of existence of themselves and become the average “massman” or the “common herd” degenerated from the true and individual existence in the mathematically mechanical process. In the context of religious externalization and secularization, the true Christian beliefs disappeared while the theological dualistic worldview lost its original meaning.

It is undoubted that there exist some incompatibilities between theology and science. Science (in narrow sense natural science) is the knowledge of the physical world, which mainly explains phenomena and laws of things; while theology is the knowledge of the immaterial world, which chiefly resolves the problem of faith and the transcendental world (God and heaven). Since the late Middle Ages especially modern times, “the contradiction and conflicts in relations between science and theology have been so serious that people always oppose them with each other that apparently cannot coexist.”17 We do not deny the cruel oppression on science exerted by theology in the Middle Ages and the tremendous impact on theology made by science in modern times, however, science and theology are not always “oil and vinegar” and not capable of being conciliated. In fact, a number of eminent scientists- Isaac Newton, M. Faraday, C. Maxwell, Albert Einstein and many academicians of the Royal Society etc. all have deep faith in Christian belief or interest in theology. Some scientists even consider that science and theology are coherent and they fulfill the same mission through distinct approaches.18 In recent years, the dialogue between science and theology have been paid increasing attention to both by scientists and theologians or philosophers of religion and various theories of the relations between science and theology or religion have been presented successively. Wang Pisheng of Hong Kong Baptist University claims that the dialogue between science and theology in recent years is not a new and rare phenomenon but a long and continuous tradition.19 He also indicated that many top scientists today are aware of the importance to learn from philosophy and theology, not only to have a deeper insight into the significance of the scientific work, but also to seek a breakthrough in their scientific research. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that science and theology have a basis of coexistence and harmonization. If the two both understand their limits and the conjunct significance to human existence, a phase of science and theology in harmony is hopefully to come.

After experiencing the tragedies of the two World Wars and the spread of nihilism and hedonism after the Wars, people in the New Century can still not enjoy the peaceful life from the flying development of science. The threats of the weapons of massive destruction and nuclear warfare and the crime of terrorists who killed the innocent through modern scientific technology, all of these have strengthened the uneasiness, insecurity and anxiety of people directly or indirectly. And that the tsunami aroused by the earthquake on the Indian Ocean devitalized thousands of lives at the end of last year and a trail of disasters-Pakistani earthquake, hurricanes in North America, hog cholera and birds’ flu and so on latter, have made it clear that science is not omnipotent confronted with those fearful disasters; while the global humanitarian succors unprecedented since the beginning of this year have just indicated that faith and affection are the spiritual springs of human peace and solidarity. It gives us a profound revelation: the tensions and conflicts between science and theology are not beneficial to human peace and development while the mutual-complement and reconciliation between them are probably the best salvation to help people above water. Just as Paul Tillich says in his Culture of Theology, “They should not be separated from each other; they should be aware that their isolated existence is dangerous.”20

A. N. Whitehead thinks that religious symbols endow human with the meaning of life; scientific modes endue people with the capability to reform nature. The influences of religion and science are so tremendous that the orientation of human history in the future is decided by how modern people look on the relations between science and religion. It shows clearly that theology and science are both the spiritual pillars indispensable of human development. We need ‘God’, as well as ‘Newton’. Both of them are rooted in the basis of human inner world and point to the ultimate concern for human beings. Been aware of this, conflicts between science and theology would be overcome and science and theology both would rediscover their true existence in the mental life of human and endow man with ultimate meaning, creative wisdom and courage to love.

Note:

1 F. Engels in Dialectic of Nature(zi ran bian zheng fa): “Natural science sent its martyrs to the stake and the prison of Inquisition.” Exactly speaking, it is Christian church that sent scientific martyrs to the stake and jail.

2 Fu Weixun, From Western Philosophy to Zen Buddhism, 1989, p158.

3 As Bertrand Russell says in A History of Western Philosophy: “Plato’s philosophy is based on the distinction between reality and phenomenon.”

4 Sammuel Enoch Stumpf & James Fieser, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond A History of Philosophy, Seventh Edition, 2003, p55.

5 Aristotle believed that God as pure idea, happiness and complete self-actualization is eternal and doesn’t have any purpose that is not fulfilled; contrarily, the sensible world is unperfect, has life and desire, and belongs to the impure idea. The idea as well represents his dualistic outlook.

6 It is asserted in A History of Europe written by 11 European historians that God and heaven were seen as the center of thought in the Middle Ages, but Renaissance drew the attention of people to man and the real world. This conversion had an impact on science. Since then, theology lost its superiority and the interest in human and nature prevailed.

7 Luther says: “Each Christian can interpret the Bible in his own way”, which is against ecclesiastical authority, because only the Church has the power to interpret the Bible and its interpretation is the unique right one.

8 It is claimed in A History of Europe that nature according to its own law of development will result in a perfect world, so the religious and political interventions of human should be minimum…reason requests man to develop in nature, which shows the importance of reason in the research of nature.

9 Wollf comments on Scotus’ theory of “double truth” that it undoubtedly promoted the worldly research enterprise.

10 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, 1988.

11 Samuel Enoch Stumpf & James Fieser, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond A History of Philosophy, 7th Edit., 1966, 2003, p. 185.

12 Fu Weixun, From Western Philsophy to Zen Buddhism, 1989, p.161.

13 idem, p. 162.

14 Wang Pisheng, “Science seeks God: the new phenomena of the dialogue between science and theology”, Report of the Research Center of Chinese Christian Religions, Second Issue, 2002.

15 Said by Fu Weixun.

16 Nietzsche writes, “I regard Christianity as the most fatal and seductive lie that has ever yet existed – as the greatest and most impious lie”, which is a fatal blame on the slavish morality of Christianity.

17 Dong Xiaochuan, “Science and theology: the two pillars of Modern American Civilization”, [http://xueshu.newyouth.beida-online.com/data/data.ph3]

18 idem.

19 Wang Pisheng, “Science seeks God: the new phenomena of the dialogue between science and theology”.

20 Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture.

Alex Mingchuan Tu, Postgraduate of Research Institute of Chinese Intellectual and Cultual History, Wuhan, China P.R. 430062

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