Thursday, January 16, 2014

Back to the Middle Ages

Some claim that returning to Christianity would take us back to the Middle Ages. Now the obvious thing that brought about Middle Ages was the collapse of the existing government, the Roman Empire, and the inundation of the European continent by invading armies. Nor did it end there, for no sooner did Europe begin to develop organized nations than they were faced with attacks by the Vikings and the Muslims. It took about five hundred years for them to weather the storm and give their citizens some degree of security.

During this period it was Christianity, especially the Christian monastic orders, that worked to preserve literacy and learning. If there was a weakness in the scholars of this period, they were, as C. S. Lewis points out, too bookish. They were too quick to believe anything that was written in a book. They also worked hard to preserve everything they could of classical literature, even things objectionable from a Christian perspective. Now the lack of technical progress during the early Middle Ages has been exaggerated. But given that they had to work during a period of serious societal chaos, was it surprising if there was not as much scientific and technological progress as there might have been? To blame this on Christianity, which was the chief force preserving learning, is a distortion.

Now the condition of the later Middle Ages was more stable, and there is nothing to indicate they were opposed to learning. After all, they invented the university to further learning. Now they did hold a specific worldview based on Christianity and rejected things not in accord with this view. Every age has its own view, and those who do not agree will object to it. (I personally object to the theology that was prevalent in the Middle Ages, but that is another issue.) But the bigger problem was that, following their bookishness, they had adopted wholesale much from Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle. To produce modern science there needed to be a transition from the Greek approach of abstract reasoning to a more empirical approach of direct testing. Now I am convinced this change came from a Christian worldview. But even if it did not, it is silly to blame people for not having figured out what they have not yet figured out. This transition began early in the later Middle Ages, and Copernicus was a result, not the beginning, of the process. Now it is not surprising that such a transition would meet with a degree of opposition. But the main issue was with one man, Galileo, who hedged on his promise to the Pope and was probably seen as aiding and abetting Protestants. However, the idea that Christians and science are, in principle, contraries is not based on reality. And the idea that affirming Christianity would take us back to the Middle Ages in any significant way is groundless.      

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