The Dark Ages Weren’t So Dark (But Maybe We Are)

I just read an article about the myth of unicorns over at Mental Floss, and I had to leave the author a correction after he accused the middles ages of being a time when “science famously took a back seat to illogical hunches.”

This is a problem.

I’ve been reading the works of St. Bede, lately, for my M.A. Thesis, and his works on natural science are fascinating. Sure, he was limited by the confines of a civilization that lacked telescopes and x-ray machines, but his scientific observations were done with the sort rigor and objectivity that would make a modern-day scientist proud.

It’s true that medieval European minds took revelation at face value, but they also believed that reason and logic were necessary to find the truth. The works of Aristotle were revered (Tertullian described the Trinity in Aristotelian terminology, and his definition is the one that stuck around) and natural phenomenon were to be understood through observation, not merely superstition.

These thinkers believed that natural reasoning and theology were both required in order to understand our world. St. Augustine, for example, left the religion of the Manichaeans in part because they’re religious texts made scientific claims that he knew to be false. After his conversion to Christianity, Augustine would write about science and faith, finding ways to combine the two into a comprehensive worldview that made sense of both disciplines. (Not unlike the ancient Greek philosophers who made great strides in science while also discussing the soul and life after death.)

In the 13th century, a medieval monk named Roger Bacon would write up something that we now call The Scientific Method, even though he was known as a renowned theologian. In the 16th century, a priest named Copernicus, who did mathematical work for the Pope, would write a twelve volume work explaining that the sun was the center of the solar system – not the earth. Galileo would later prove this claim with his uniquely powerful telescopes, leading to a life of persecution from the church (even though the pope thought his work was just fine). Galileo’s writings clearly show him to be a man of faith who had managed to threaten a certain powerful segment of the church – not the entire church. When Franciscans later visited China to establish some of the earliest Christian missions there, they brought copies of Galileo’s works with them so they could exchange something from their culture that they were proud of.

Until recent times, Christianity and science were not enemies. In fact, the church was the only institution that kept science alive in Europe during those “dark ages,” but things are different, now. People outside of the church sometimes try to use science to attack God, while some people within the church feel a need to antagonize the scientific community, feeling threatened by it.

Founders of the Christian religion would not have understood this opposition. It’s time to remove the border in between faith and science and see how the two can help each other, once again.

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