“The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums (CNS Photo/Paul Haring)

Perhaps the most famous image in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, painted around 1511, is The Creation of Adam, the moment when God is a divine breath away from imparting life to Adam with the near touch of their outstretched fingers. Yet before God created human beings, Scripture tells us, he created the sun, the stars and “the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,” an act depicted in a previous panel, The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants. In this dramatic scene, the radiant ball of the sun is the focal point. The depiction of the Last Judgment on the chapel’s altar wall also places Christ and the solar disc at the center of the universe. The sun’s preeminence in the chapel’s famous artwork has led to speculation that Michelangelo, with the approval and acknowledgement of his papal patrons, incorporated into his painting the contemporary theory of Copernican heliocentrism which placed the sun, and not the earth, at the center of the cosmos.

But hold on. Wasn’t Galileo dragged before Vatican authorities a century or so later and placed under permanent house arrest for defending the very same theory? Had the Church’s opinion on the science of astronomy changed so radically in the years between Michelangelo’s inspired brush strokes and the 1630 publication of Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo’s defense of Copernicus’s refutation of geocentrism? Or was there less distance than we think between the teachings of the Church and lessons of the laboratory?

This is the question that author Nicholas Spencer, a fellow at London-based Christian think tank Theos and the International Society for Science and Religion, explores in Magisteria, his intelligent, often surprising history of the relationship between science and religion throughout the centuries. This relationship was indeed sometimes contentious, but he argues that it was more often cooperative. Spencer begins his story in Alexandria, Egypt in 415 CE when a “mob of enraged Christians” dragged the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia into the streets and flayed her alive with razor-sharp oyster shells before burning her to death. Her crime? The study of ancient Greek mathematics, geometry, and astronomy—rather than orthodox Christianity—as a “way of grasping what was immutable and holy.”

While the gruesome account of her death was probably an exaggeration, the truth was that Christian bishops sat in on her lectures, not to gather damning evidence, but to gain access to the sort of classical knowledge that the Church ultimately treasured. During the Middle Ages, in scriptoriums from sunny southern Italy to the frigid reaches of Northumbria, monks busily copied and preserved “the decaying manuscripts of antiquity, Christian and pagan alike.” Thanks to their diligence, the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Plato, Ptolemy, and other natural philosophers (as they were called before the word “scientist” was coined in 1834) not only survived but filled libraries and formed the bedrock curricula of Europe’s cathedral schools and earliest universities. “In actual fact,” Spencer writes, “for much of history, religion wasn’t just ‘not at war’ with science, but it actively supported it, serving to legitimise, preserve, encourage and develop scientific ideas and activities.”

Was there less distance than we think between the teachings of the Church and lessons of the laboratory?

This support was not without scriptural foundation. “The heavens declare the glory of God: and the firmament sheweth his handywork,” Psalm 19 proclaims. In his letter to the Romans, Paul advised that God’s “invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature” may be perceived “from what has been made.” By this reasoning, the dedicated, scientific study of creation was nothing less than “an exaltation of the creator” leading to “the perfection of our souls,” as the thirteenth-century French bishop William of Auvergne wrote.

This philosophy was hardly unique to Christianity, and Spencer devotes a respectful amount of space to Judaism and Islam in his discussion. He gives credit where credit is due to the likes of revered Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages, for his efforts to “bring theology into harmonious dialogue with Greek philosophy and science.” During the Abbasid caliphate (roughly 750–1250 CE), astronomical observatories and libraries/translation centers, such as Baghdad’s famed Bayt Al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) popped up across the Muslim world, side by side with mosques and madrasas (Islamic theological schools). In Islam, science and religion also met on a practical plane: calculating the correct direction of Mecca at prayer time, in an era when the caliphate stretched across thousands of miles, required an understanding of astronomy, geometry, and trigonometry. The sheer number of surviving medieval Arabic manuscripts on astronomy alone outnumber their Greek and Latin counterparts.

Beneficiaries and inheritors of many of these diligently translated and interpreted documents were churchmen such as twelfth-century German Dominican friar Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great) who composed empirical studies of plants, minerals, and the animal kingdom. Albert’s education was grounded in the teachings of Aristotle, as well as the writings of eleventh-century Persian physician Ibn Sina (father of early-modern medicine) and twelfth-century Andalusian philosopher and polymath Ibn Rushd. Albert’s most famous pupil, fellow Dominican Thomas Aquinas, leaned heavily on Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle when writing his own magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, which utilized Aristotelian logic to scientifically prove the existence of God. Around the same time, at Oxford University, scholastic philosopher and bishop Robert Grossette wrote extensive treatises on astronomy, rainbows, tidal movements, mathematics, and the nature of light (De Luce). The university’s interdisciplinary Ordered Universe project, established in 2010, continues to translate and analyze Grossette’s writings to this day.

It’s not that the Church has historically been opposed to new ideas. Never prone to alacrity, however, it preferred to let go of old ones in its own good time.

Bishops and monks weren’t the only members of the Church who carried the torch of scientific knowledge. Readers may be surprised to learn just how many famous figures in the history of science have been people of faith. Copernicus received his doctorate not in astronomy but in canon law and served as a canon at Frombork Cathedral in northern Poland. His intellectual descendent, German astronomer Johannes Kepler, once wrote that he “wanted to become a theologian” and set out to show in his first book, The Sacred Mystery of the Cosmos (1596) that it was God, the cosmic mathematician, who “determined the order of the celestial bodies.” Catholic friar Marin Mersenne, a contemporary and correspondent of Galileo, introduced the Italian astronomer’s work to France and honored Galileo’s work by building working models based on his theories. Ultimate skeptic René Descartes was happy to leave matters of faith to the Church, yet he dedicated his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) to the Sorbonne’s faculty of theology. His famous dictum, cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”) may have affirmed his earthly existence, yet he freely admitted that “[m]an cannot achieve correct knowledge of natural things so long as he does now know God.” The charter of the Enlightenment Era’s preeminent scientific think tank, London’s Royal Society, stated that it was devoted “to the glory of God the Creator.” Meanwhile, one of its most famous presidents, Sir Isaac Newton, whose “science did not banish God from the universe” (as Spencer observed), believed the study of theology was more critical than that of mathematics or science. Even some of the most prominent early-modern scientists whose discoveries upended our understanding of the physical world maintained deep theological convictions. Chemist Michael Faraday (another Royal Society president), a pioneer of the study of electromagnetism, was a deeply devoted member of a Church of Scotland sect. For him, the “beauty of electricity” as he put it, was that it is governed by laws which “God has been pleased to work in his material creation.” Even Charles Darwin himself—whose theory of evolution was perhaps the most consequential leap forward in the history of science since Copernicus—entered Cambridge in 1828 with the intention of becoming an Anglican priest.

This is not to say that the long relationship between religion and science has always been chummy, and Spencer readily acknowledges this. When the two have come into conflict, the issue, more often than not, has been over authority, or, as Spencer puts it, who maintains “the right to pronounce on nature, the cosmos, and reality.” This is where Galileo ran afoul, asserting his right (and the right of independent scholars) to judge for himself how the heavens operated. It’s not that the Church has historically been opposed to new ideas. Never prone to alacrity, however, it preferred to let go of old ones in its own good time.

The Protestant Reformation was another blow to the Catholic Church’s authority, though there was resistance from both Protestants and Catholics to the eventual abandonment of the Aristotelian understanding of the universe. Ultimately it was Protestants, in particular fundamentalist Christians, who dug in their heels on the most threatening scientific reevaluation of creation: the theory of evolution. To these believers, accepting Darwin’s theory meant rejecting the literal truth of Genesis, which even most Jews regard as allegorical. The pushback gained momentum in the early twentieth century as Evangelical parents demanded that evolution not be taught in schools. They brought their case to court in Dayton, Tennessee in the summer of 1925 when fundamentalist firebrand William Jennings Bryan argued against evolution in the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Bryan’s opponent, Clarence Darrow, lost the case but won in the court of public opinion. In his opening remarks at the trial, Darrow’s co-counsel Dudley Malone stated that “there are millions of people who believe in evolution and in the stories of creation as set forth in the Bible and who find no conflict between the two.”

Science’s threat to faith, in other words, and as Spencer recounts in this eclectic and informative history, is actually no threat at all.

Tom Verde is a freelance writer who has lived and traveled in the Middle East. His work has appeared in the New York Times, on National Public Radio, and in AramcoWorld magazine.

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