February 23rd 2019

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News Weekly, February 23, 2019

SCIENCE WAS BORN OF CHRISTIANITY: The Teaching of Fr Stanley L. Jaki

by Stacy Trasancos

Habitation of Chimham Publishing, Titusville, Florida
Paperback: 208 pages
Price: AUD$35.99

Reviewed by John Long

Twenty-six years ago, a Benedictine priest named Stanley Jaki visited the NCC and gave a talk on the relationship between science and the Christian faith. Father Jaki held doctoral degrees in physics and theology, was awarded the Templeton prize in 1987, and wrote numerous books on the relationship between science, theology, and Judeo-Christian thought. At the time, Peter Westmore described his message in an article in AD2000. One message was that science, dealing only with physical matters, has nothing useful to say philosophically about how the universe came to be, why it is ordered, and whether God exists or not.

Father Jaki died in 2009. The tremendous intellectual legacy he left behind is only now beginning to trickle down from deep within a few universities to a more public audience. A few scholars are trying to get his message out to a broader public.

A recent book by Stacy Trasancos goes a long way towards bringing Jaki’s ideas to a more general audience. Science was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki is her attempt to explain and examine how Jaki connected Christian thought with the birth of science in Europe towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Chiefly, Trasancos takes the reader through two of Jaki’s most important books: The Savior of Science, and Science and Creation, and does a good job. Based on a thesis she wrote for a Masters degree in theology, it contains plenty of detail and analysis of Jaki’s writings, yet explains the ideas in such a way that an average educated reader can follow the explanations without first needing academic degrees in physics or philosophy.

Judeo-Christian roots

The book takes up one of Jaki’s central themes: that the discovery and resulting revolution of science in general, and physics in particular, came about chiefly because its philosophical foundations are rooted in Judeo-Christian thought, and some very specific Christian propositions, which are held as given. In other words, they are believed on faith.

Among these are that the physical world does indeed exist, it is ordered, and it is intelligible. That is, we can make sense of it. Another, is that one can des­cribe how things behave physically with numbers, mathematics. Almost equally important is the idea that the physical world moves through time in a linear fashion, and the cosmos is not cyclical in nature.

Trasancos presents Jaki’s thought in three sections. After a brief biography of Father Jaki, she explains how Jaki defines science. Then she presents how and why science was born in the cradle of Christianity and grew there but failed to grow in all the other great cultures of history.

Jaki maintains a narrow definition of science: “Exact science is the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of objects in motion.” For Jaki, science is about measuring physical things, and measuring things requires numbers.

That science by Jaki’s definition is about using numbers to count and describe things in motion means that science has little to say about philosophy and nothing at all to say about theology. Thus it is nonsense to make the claim, as many authorities on science do, that science disproves the existence of both God and mankind’s purpose in the universe. Jaki noted this in his talks when he visited Australia.

Next Trasancos traces Jaki’s discussion of the fertile ground necessary for science to develop as a long-term, self-sustaining enterprise, not merely advancing by trial-and-error, with one discovery here and another there. Science, according to Jaki and as Trasancos explains, needed a long-term incubator, a womb of sorts in which the tiny seeds of science, starting with confidence in nature, could be protected, nurtured and grow.

Tracing the great cultures of antiquity, she describes what Jaki calls the “stillbirths” of science in each of the great civilisations: Egypt, India, China, and finally Greece. Each of these gave humanity important, particular, discoveries in mathematics, science, and technology. But in spite of this, science did not develop as a long-term, continuously growing endeavour as it did in Christian Europe.

Jaki suggests two reasons for these “stillbirths”. One was the widely held animistic and pantheistic model of the cosmos, and the other was the firmly held belief that the cosmos moves eternally in cycles, called Yugas in ancient Hinduism and the Great Year in ancient Greece. The Great Year is just under 26,000 years, and the Mahayuga, one complete cycle of the Hindu cosmos, is over four million years.

These ancient concepts led to the more familiar ideas of predestination and astrology. Jaki called the cultural belief in eternal cycles the “cosmic treadmill”, and these beliefs, once firmly rooted in a culture, stifled any notions that one could come to an understanding of the laws of nature, let alone master them. Rather, to quote a well-known Disney movie, they encouraged people to accept their place in the “circle of life”.

The universe, cyclic in nature, was itself divine and eternal. Pantheism dominated philosophy, worldviews and, in the end, the psychology of ordinary people.

Escape from the treadmill

Contrasting this worldview is that des­cribed in the Bible. In the beginning, God created the world (universe), ex nihilo, from nothing, in space and in time, and declared it to be good. The Old Testament, including the psalms, repeatedly reminded the Hebrew people of God’s absolute fidelity as witnessed by the regularity and order of nature. Furthermore, as the Book of Wisdom states, God had “ordered all things by measure, number, and weight” (11:21).

These words were passed down by the Jewish patriarchs, and then mulled over by numerous Christian Fathers, including St Augustine, who often quoted this verse in his writings.

Many of the early Christian apologists contrasted common cultural beliefs in a cyclic, animistic universe with the Judeo-Christian universe belief in an ordered, measurable universe with a very specific beginning and a linear concept of time. These included Clement of Alexandria, who wrote in his Exhortation to the Greeks: “Let no one deify the universe; rather let him seek after the creator of the universe.” Others who denounced the Great Year include St Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and St Irenaeus.

Thus, by the time the Middle Ages arrived, a uniquely Christian culture, which formally renounced many of the cosmological notions common to other cultures in mankind’s history, had developed. This proved to be fertile ground for the cultivation of science.

The denunciation of the Great Year and its associated pantheism continued into the Middle Ages from scholars such as William of Auvergne, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas. At the same time, Christian thinkers began to explore how nature, if not divine, but created by God, could be understood rationally, without recourse to God or scriptures. Adelard of Bath, writing early in the 12th century, proposed that the intellect could study nature directly, referring to God only as a last resort when reason fails.

About this time, scholars began to reject the Greek, Platonic view that the motion of the divine heavens was essentially different from the motion of objects on earth. Others began to propose that the motion of celestial bodies, such as stars, might not be much different from the motion of objects on earth, such as a stone thrown into the air.

Trasancos points out: “Those who held a firm belief in a transcendental Creator, a creation out of nothing, an absolute beginning and end of time, and the rationality of the universe and of man were able to reject the astrogeology and pantheism of the Greeks.”

In 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, formally condemned 219 propositions found in Greek and non-Christian thought. Included in this list were the ideas that heavenly objects (stars and planets) are divine, and have a will of their own; that the world is an organism; that planets and stars cannot move in straight lines; that time is infinite in both directions; and that the cosmos moves in eternal cycles.

Interestingly, Aquinas pointed out that rejection of the eternity of the universe is based on faith and cannot be proven by reason alone. Yet faith and reason form our understanding of truth. We need both. As Trasancos puts it, the “refusal to separate the truths of faith from the truths of reason is of utmost significance in understanding what led to the birth of science in Christian Europe because it is a distinction that isolates that religious culture from all others”.

The utterly unique Word

Perhaps the one uniquely Christian doctrine which clearly put the final nail into the coffin that contained the notion of cosmic cycles can be found in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. Christians believe on faith that the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, at a very specific time and place in history, were one-off events, never to be repeated. If the cosmos runs in eternal cycles, then wouldn’t Christ’s life on earth be repeated over and over again, whether it be every 26,000 years or every four million years? But if the Incarnation of the Word Made Flesh happened once and only once, then the rest of creation follows suit.

Plato and the ancient Greeks thought that the physical world was generated, or, as Jaki puts it, begotten, from a divine substance. Christians hold that the only being begotten from the divine is the Son, consubstantial with the Father, who is the Creator.

By the 14th century, natural philosophy (what we now call “science”) began to take shape as its own field of study. The theory of impetus, regarding the motion of projectiles, had been a subject of discussion for at least 100 years by then. John Buridan, writing at this time from the Sorbonne, proposed the impetus theory as a reaction against the mechanics taught by Aristotle.

Concerning a stone thrown through the air, Aristotle taught that its motion was due to being continuously pushed by the air through which it passed, as the stone’s natural desire was to be at rest at the centre of the earth. In contrast, Buridan proposed that the moving stone has an impetus given to it by the person who threw it, which keeps it in motion. Buridan also suggested that celestial bodies have motion in the same manner.

Trasancos, following Jaki, quotes a famous passage from Buridan’s commen­taries on Aristotle’s physics and astronomy: “God, when He created the world, moved each of the celestial bodies … and impressed in them impetuses which moved them without His having to move them any more except by the method of general influence whereby He concurs as a co-agent in all things which take place.”

Jaki interprets this passage as an early form of Newton’s first law of motion, and quotes it often in his writings. Buridan’s impetus theory was further developed by his student, Albert of Saxony, who later strongly influenced Galileo.

After a chapter discussing Jaki’s critics, Trasancos concludes her book with the question, what now? She is careful to point out that Jaki does not claim that Christianity created science. Rather, “he argued that Christianity provided the nurturing psychology most compatible with the sustained discovery of physical laws and systems of laws”. She also states that using terms such as “nurture” and “cradle” ring very true to her as mother of several children.

Her final word is a call for Jaki’s thought to be made more widely available, while at the same time keeping the study of science in Jaki’s sense in its proper place and unencumbered by ideology, whether it be religious or atheist. One needs to remember that the Bible is not a physics textbook. Nor should a physics book be used to make theological or philosophical propositions.

That being said, there is no harm in putting as a heading on a year-7 science book in a Christian school a statement praising the God, who has “ordered all things by measure, number, and weight”.

Stanley Jaki wrote over 30 books and numerous shorter tracts on aspects of science, physics, philosophy, theology, and their interrelationships. I have read about 10 of them, and am just getting started on understanding his thought and central themes. His thought is deep and his arguments thorough. I would argue that Jaki’s works should be studied in every university that calls itself Christian. This is all the more necessary in today’s age where first, the applications of science are everywhere, from the satellites to the amazing devices used in every hospital, to the smartphones in everyone’s pockets; and second, science is too often used as a stick with which to beat Christians.

Science was Born of Christianity is the book I wish I had written. For anyone interested in learning about how in Jaki’s mind Christianity is related to science, Stacy Trasancos’ book is a great place to start. Then he should set out to read Jaki himself.

John Long has undergraduate qualifications in physics and philosophy, and a PhD in physics from Monash University. He has taught physics and engineering at an Australian university for over 20 years.

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