If you ever watched an old movie, you’ll see behavior that to our minds seems utterly bizarre. For example, you may see in an old war movie a medic offering a soldier a cigarette right before he goes into surgery. Didn’t they know that smoking was unhealthy? Yes, they did. Cigarettes were called coffin nails since the early 1880s!
Try giving a person on a gurney a cigarette before surgery today. People will think you’re insane! But why is it insane today and not forty or fifty years ago? It’s the way we are. Conventions and mainstream opinions tend to be part of the background noise of life, and we’re blind to them unless they’re presented to us to be evaluated. But once they are, and if they happen to be rejected, an intellectual revolution begins, and things that were once accepted become unthinkable.
In the early days of Christianity, this new religion had to compete for legitimacy with paganism. Over the course of this competition, Christian revelation introduced new insights that began to revolutionize the West. Eventually, paganism became unthinkable.
For example, as an organized religion, Christianity kick-started modern science, supplying the religious imperative and realistic worldview needed to ignite scientific investigation as a self-sustaining enterprise. Biblical texts like Sirach, Wisdom, and 2 Maccabees made unique contributions to the foundations of modern science. Second Maccabees, for example, explicitly affirmed that God created everything from nothing (ex nihilo). The books of Wisdom and Sirach anchored belief in a universe that is intelligible and knowable in its totality. The most important and frequently quoted text from this period is Wisdom 11:20, which links abstractions with creation when it states of God, “But you have arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Wis. 11:20).
Numbers, measure, and weight are not physical objects, but intellectual objects. You can’t go to the store and buy a two or trip over a three while hiking. But when we see a pair of stones, our minds can understand them to have a two-ness.
Measure and weight are comparative statements. A comparison doesn’t exist as a thing, but it is something our minds recognize and use. The same is true with weight.
Wisdom 11:20 teaches with the certainty of inspired revelation that our minds know the language in which the nature of all things—visible and invisible—are made. Physical things, therefore, can be known and understood through math, measurement, comparisons, and so on.
Greek philosophers recognized the link between nature and abstractions. But the philosophy of Pythagoras was just that—the philosophy of Pythagoras. People were free to accept it or reject it. What the Church possessed that these other philosophies lacked is the religious imperative—these things must be so and cannot be otherwise. Nature doesn’t just seem to be comprehensible by abstraction; it is disposed to be understood in this way. The confidence this imperative instilled enables the Christian West to investigate nature with the expectation that all of it is intelligible.
As the physicist and theologian Stanley Jaki points out in several of his works, the innate genius of human intelligence is present in every age and in every nation. Each contributes to the advancement of human knowledge. All cultures, from the East (Chinese, Indian) to the West (Babylonian, Greek, Muslim, etc.), contribute something unique to this venture. But what these cultures lack is a worldview that reflects reality. Put another way, they supplied the ingredients necessary to produce modern science, but they didn’t have the recipe necessary to put all the different elements together. It is the Church as an institution that supplied the recipe and the religious ought that gave birth to modern science.
Organized religion kicked off the scientific revolution when the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) asserted as dogma (something necessary to believe as a Christian) that God created all things at once out of nothing. It is this definition, along with the Condemnations of 1277, that impelled Jean Buridan (1300-1358) to create the first scientific revolution of thought. As Stacy Trasancos notes:
Buridan was not a theologian, but a man with a brilliant scientific mind. While confident in his faith to guide his thinking and lay boundaries for reality, he was most interested in explaining natural phenomenon [sic], particularly the motion of objects, and, even more particularly the beginning of all motion. His assent of faith to the tenets of the Christian creed guided him to assert the most critical breakthrough in the history of science, the idea of inertial motion and impetus.
Buridan’s impetus led to the modern idea of inertia and cleared the way for Newton’s first law of motion. The rest is history. It is the religious imperative that supplied the motivating force to investigate nature, because it was viewed as another way to see and to adore God’s wisdom, which nature reflects.
This article is adapted from Gary Michuta’s new book, Revolt Against Reality, available now at the Catholic Answers Shop.