C. S. Lewis wrote an imaginative novel called The Great Divorce, publishing it in 1945. In that novel, he describes a fascinating bus trip from hell to heaven. But I’ve been thinking about a different divorce, the separation of the Christian church from objective information, including science. I saw a report that evangelicals in America are some of the most susceptible people to anti-science, conspiracy theories, and false information. Why is that? I always go to history to look for answers to such questions.
I wish I could have the power to rewrite history and describe how this sad divorce is a recent phenomenon, but it’s not. But it has not been a continuous state within the Christian church’s history either. It is like one of those couples that marry, divorce, marry and divorce again, over and over, such as Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson. Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, twice married, twice divorced
A better term than “divorced from science” is to broaden it to divorce from objective truth. Objective truth is that which is observed in the material world. However, this rejection of objectivity is not comprehensive. Christian people, just like all people, use objective reasoning all the time in their daily lives. For example, “Bob’s back in town. I saw him at the hardware store.” That statement involves observation of the universe (seeing Bob) and the deduction that means Bob is back in town.
With that said, the original church grew up in a thoughtful society. It was a Greco Roman in nature. Much of the philosophy and knowledge was from the ancient Greeks and the political arrangement of the first 500 years, Roman. The early Christians considered the Apostle Paul a learned man in the Greek tradition, and when he converted to Christianity, they accused him of letting his great learning drive him into madness. In that age, the early church did not reject science or reasoning. In that first century, I suspect that if a philosopher had an observation about the material world, the stars, or nature the christian would not have felt threaten, but would have fully embraced it after examining it, making sure that it did not contradict Christianity.
If a philosophical theory contradicted the basic Christian teaching, the early Christians would have rejected it. For example, the Hedonistic philosophy, that states the highest purpose of life is to fulfill your own desires, was rejected by the early Christians because it was the opposite of the message of Christ, putting the needs of others first. In some ways, modern Christianity is friendly to this philosophy, but that’s another story.
The Divorce # 1
One philosophical Greek concept that large segments of the early church did adopt, and shouldn’t have, is the Platonic view of metaphysics, the idea of dualism. While the mainstream church realized it as a false teaching, colloquial Christianity embraced it. It was so widely adopted that Augustine of Hippo declared Plato a de facto Christian in the early fifth century. This dualistic view divides reality into two realms, the seen and the unseen. In that model, the seen is inferior to the unseen. Some early gnostic sects even believed that Satan created this material world and that the only things of God were unseen. Platonic dualism was in sharp contrast to the teachings of the Jewish scriptures, telling us that God created the material . . . and it was good.
As a sidebar, I will say here that the church has always been corruptible simply because it is a human institution and humans are corruptible. There is a spectrum across history of atrocious churches and those that are rather benign. There are good things to gleam from church life, but I see only the very simple teachings of Christ as infallible. I state this because some people see the church as infallible as is its history.
The early church fathers fought aggressively against Platonic Dualism and was the point of the major church creeds. However, Platonic was popular among the masses and in many of the Christian sects that arose during those years, such as Manichaeism. However, soon those within the institutional church saw how this false teaching could empower them and they started to condone and then magnify those beliefs. If the church holds the keys to the unseen, it makes them more powerful to declare that the seen has no value and you can not gather information or truth from observing the seen, only what the church declares to be true, which only it can gather from the unseen.
For example, the church had adopted the Greek-Aristotelian view (established ca. 320 BC) that the earth was the center of the universe at the time Christianity was open to the observation of the seen to find truth. That was in its first centuries. But the Church was able to mesh it with their theological views that man was the center of the universe, thus you could conclude the place men and women live is the center. The Bible has no view or comment on the metaphysics of the solar system.
By the time Gallio, using a telescope and mathematics, wrote his book in 1610 supporting a heliocentric view of the solar system, the church had fully adopted the Platonic view that all truth is from the unseen (spiritual) thus owned by the church and specifically the Aristotelian view that the earth was the center of the universe so no contradicting views could be entertained . . . without the threat of torture and death.
The School of Athens, painted in the Vatican, depicting Plato (in red) pointing up, meaning only the unseen has value, and Aristotle pointing down, that observations of the material or seen has value.
With that attitude, the church left the open-mindedness on finding truth by observing the seen, of its early days, and became a rigid dictator of “truth.” Anyone can observe the seen. Only the church could observe the unseen. This led to the Dark Ages, starting in the mid-fifth century. They are called dark because, as compared the thousands of years before and after this period, art and science became grossly muted. But that only makes sense if you no longer believe the seen has value or that you can gleam truth from making observations about it. But all of that dramatically changed.
Material – all that is able to be measured in the physical world.
Seen – same as material.
Unseen – all that cannot be measured, from human emotions to spiritual matters.
Metaphysics – the grand description of all that exist from Meta (grand or over all) and physics (material or measurable).