How Jesus Shaped the West: Science

science

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginningor start here for how Jesus shaped Science.

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Richard Dawkins has declared, “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”

He may not speak for all, but he captures a mood now common in the West that faith—and especially the Christian faith—is a hindrance to inquiry. Is he right? Are science and Christianity at war?

The scientific worldview we live and breathe seems so normal. From car repairs to dieting, and from weather forecasts to the latest iPhone, we take science and all of its benefits for granted. In doing so, we forget that it’s an entirely unique way of perceiving the world.

“The ancients had astounding insights into nature, but a culture of science didn’t arise in the ancient world.”

India had great surgeons like Sushruta who wrote a textbook on medicine six centuries before Christ, but medicine didn’t develop in India. Another Indian introduced a revolutionary concept to mathematics: the number zero. Yet in India, maths didn’t go on to become the language of science, as it later would in Europe.

Over 2,000 years ago, Eratosthenes measured the earth’s circumference with eyebrow-raising accuracy. Ancients from Greece, Egypt, China and the Muslim world had astounding insights into nature. They observed facts, developed their skills, and accumulated knowledge to pass on to others. Despite all of this, a culture of science didn’t arise in the ancient world.

Science arose once in history: in Christian Europe. We could shrug and move on. Or we could inquire as to why that is.

“In India, maths didn’t go on to become the language of science, as it later would in Europe.”

A growing band of historians are drawn to Whitehead’s thesis, agreeing with John Lennox that, “human beings became scientific because they expected law in nature; and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”

We’ve become so accustomed to thinking of Jesus’ teachings as merely “spiritual” lessons. But Europeans of centuries past saw them as much more, believing Jesus spoke into every pursuit of life.

As such, Europe inherited from Jesus a set of assumptions about the nature of reality that no other culture had. See science only works if the following things are true:

Objective truth exists. Eastern faiths (and postmoderns) say that what’s true for you isn’t true for me. But who would bother experiment if the findings are true for some people and not for others? Jesus however insists that truth does exist and is knowable.

“Europe inherited from Jesus a set of assumptions about the nature of reality that no other culture had.”

The universe actually exists. Eastern philosophies taught that everything is an illusion. What point is there in studying an illusion? By contrast, the first declaration of Scripture is, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It actually exists, so it can actually be studied.

The universe is orderly. Greek, Roman and Hindu beliefs propose multiple gods competing to run the universe. But an enchanted world like this doesn’t lead people to search for “laws of nature”. If the planets are themselves gods, why would they follow established laws? The God Jesus spoke of, however, is a God of order, not chaos. And by inference, so is the world he created.

“Human beings became scientific because they expected law in nature; and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”

People have confidence to investigate the world. Indigenous faiths taught that there were spirits in the trees, rivers and mountains—that creation itself is divine. So poking around trying to study these things could anger the spirits—and this is one of the reasons many cultures never tried.

Christians also believe in angels and demons, but in Genesis 1:28 they read God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” Because of this, Christians had courage to study the natural world.

“Science rests on uniquely Christian ideas, and it can’t work without them.”

People have free will. Atheism—the idea that the material world is all that exists—leads to the inescapable conclusion that we’re just slaves to our brain chemistry, so we have no free will.

C.S. Lewis asked: “If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts… are mere accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true?”

Jesus’ teachings assume a free will given to us by God, so we can think and reason freely and arrive at trustworthy conclusions.

“It’s no coincidence that almost all of the founders of modern science were Christians.”

People need correction. Many in the East see humans as divine, and believe that enlightenment comes by mystical experience. Islam rejects the idea Jesus taught, that humans are born with a tendency towards error and sin. But it turns out that the Christian doctrine of original sin, despised by so many, was foundational to the scientific method. Because we’re fallen, early Christian scientists insisted, our findings are in constant need of objectivity, facts, peer review, and skeptical testing.

People see themselves as caretakers of creation. Most worldviews see humans as merely part of nature—a cog in the machine. Atheism views us as sophisticated, hairless apes. But the West’s passion for science began when Christians read the Bible and rediscovered God’s call to have caring dominion over the creation.

Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method said, “For man by the Fall fell from both his state of innocence and his dominion over creation. Both of these, however, can even in this life be made good; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences.”

“Atheism leads to the inescapable conclusion that we’re just slaves to our brain chemistry, so we have no free will.”

Embarrassing as it may be to the intelligentsia, science rests on these uniquely Christian ideas, and it can’t work without them.

Is it any coincidence then that almost all of the founders of modern science were Christians? Sir Isaac Newton, one of the most important scientists of all time, discovered the law of gravity, but also wrote over a million words about the Bible.

Science arose once in history: in the Christian universities of Europe. This isn’t because other cultures lacked ability: many individuals outside of Europe saw nature with a scientific outlook. But their civilisations’ belief systems didn’t allow a culture of science to flourish.

Peter Harrison, Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Bond University in Australia wrote, “It is commonly supposed that when in the early modern period individuals began to look at the world in a different way, they could no longer believe what they read in the Bible… [but] the reverse is the case: when in the sixteenth century people began to read the Bible in a different way, they found themselves forced to jettison traditional conceptions of the world. The Bible… played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the seventeenth century.”

Richard Dawkins couldn’t be more wrong. It was in fact the teachings of Jesus that drove Europe’s curiosity to study the world and view it scientifically. Centuries later, every culture—and Dawkins himself—has reaped the benefits.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Medicine.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Education

education

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Education.

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Peeling glad wrap from Anzac biscuits, ruling a thousand margins, tying soggy shoelaces with frozen fingers, counting down the seconds to the final bell. Like many kids, I often wondered when school would ever end and life would begin.

I now have another perspective. (I must have if I’ve since become a teacher myself). My life has been transformed because I have an education.

“Turn the clock back only 150 years and 80% of the earth’s inhabitants were unable to read or write.”

Somehow, school seems to just happen in Australia. I’ve been privileged to teach in other settings, where I’m reminded that for many communities, education is won by blood, sweat and tears. In such places, frequent failures in electricity and transport, bone-dry funding, civil unrest and isolation from the rest of the world make schooling feel like a pioneering project every day of the week.

But remarkably through such efforts, today over 4/5 of the world’s adult population is literate. Turn the clock back only 150 years and that statistic was reversed, with 80% of the earth’s inhabitants unable to read or write.

What caused this revolution?

The answer begins in the Middle Ages. Thanks to monks who preserved Greek and Roman classics, learning survived in Europe.

“Greece and Rome had brilliant teachers, but they never produced libraries or advanced centres of education.”

Augustine had taught that every science was helpful in studying Scripture, so monks learned every subject they could, sharpening their minds as they discussed the Bible’s grammar, language, theology and history. And being written in three languages by dozens of authors over thousands of years, the Bible was itself a library, whose hopeful storyline captured their imagination for centuries.

Greece and Rome had brilliant teachers, but they never produced libraries or advanced centres of education. It would be Christians in Europe, keen to study the Bible, who would transform monasteries and cathedral schools into the university.

It is without coincidence (but generally forgotten) that Oxford, Paris, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard—and almost all of the world’s leading universities that helped build Western civilisation—were established to teach the Bible.

Even as universities blossomed in Europe, literacy still wasn’t mainstream. The Reformation would provide the impetus for this. Infuriated by a corrupt church hierarchy, Luther and other reformers knew that spiritual revival was possible if the Bible was available in the heart languages of Europe’s people.

“Throughout history, followers of Jesus are notably overrepresented in the development of education.”

But mass literacy was too monumental a project for cathedral schools and even universities. So the reformers turned to the state, convincing governments that education was their responsibility. An unshakeable desire to read the Bible kept fuelling the fire for a more literate society in Europe.

As education spread in the modern era, three people deserve special mention. John Comenius (1592—1670), a Czech bishop, wrote nearly ninety books on education and founded the world’s first modern university, earning him the title the father of modern education.

A priest in Paris, Charles-Michel de l’Épée (1712—1789) founded the world’s first public deaf school, having developed a sign language for the hearing impaired that has since given rise to sign languages around the world.

“Christians point to a compassionate God who came to earth to restore our dignity as those made in his image.”

Louis Braille (1809—1852), a blind church organist, developed a dotted lettering system from the early Christian tradition of using raised wooden letter to teach reading to the sight impaired. Braille is now used worldwide.

Throughout history, followers of Jesus are notably overrepresented in the development of education. This shouldn’t be surprising. While in the ancient world, blind children were often used as slaves or prostitutes, and while Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” hasn’t and couldn’t inspire us to bring dignity to the disabled, Christians have pointed to a compassionate God who came to earth to restore our dignity as those made in his image. For them, education was simply another means to this end.

So much for Europe. What made education a global phenomenon?

Well-known for his lifelong campaign to abolish slavery, William Wilberforce also spent decades convincing the British parliament that it was immoral for India to be left in the hands of traders and soldiers, and that Britain had a role to play in dismantling the superstitions that lead to widow burning, untouchability, temple prostitution, and other evils.

“Western missionaries upset one culture after another by challenging the idea that people should be left to their fate or karma.”

So in 1813, after a twenty-year fight, Britain allowed missionaries in India. Like many of his Christian contemporaries, Wilberforce knew that if Britain’s subjects were educated, freedom for the colonies and the end of Crown rule would soon follow.

For the next two hundred years, with Jesus as their motivation, Western missionaries would upset one culture after another by challenging the idea that people should be left to their fate or karma. They put their neck on the line so that education could be multiplied throughout the non-Western world. Today we look back, and in their wake see universities by the hundreds, colleges by the thousands, and schools beyond number established, financed and nurtured by Christians.

“Wilberforce knew that if Britain’s subjects were educated, freedom for the colonies and the end of Crown rule would soon follow.”

In time, governments have played their part too, but mass education was both birthed and globalised by the church, leading to the education of millions and the transforming of nations. In the words of Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi,

“Neither colonialism nor commerce spread modern education around the world. Soldiers and merchants do not educate. Education was a Christian missionary enterprise. The Reformation, born in European universities, took education out of the cloister and spread it around the globe.”

Did Europe export education because westerners are smarter? Not in the slightest. The holy men of the east were at least as brilliant as their counterparts in Christendom. It’s beliefs that shape culture.

“By his written and incarnate Word, God has revealed the big picture of reality, making the human quest for knowledge one project with a single purpose.”

If the West believed that enlightenment comes by lying on beds of nails or taking drugs, history would tell a different story. But Christians were committed to the idea of university: unity in diversity. They held that by his written and incarnate Word, God has revealed the big picture of reality, making the human quest for knowledge one project with a single purpose.

Postmodernism has all but dismantled this. For many, drug-taking and nail beds are back in vogue. I’m deeply thankful for my tertiary education. But it’s clear from my time at university that while we still have diversity, unity is lost and now searched for in vain.

Jesus shaped education. Could it be that when he is forgotten, we lose the one who makes this project called university a meaningful, integrated whole?

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Science.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.

How Jesus Shaped the West: Heroism

Mosaic of Alexander the Great

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Heroism.

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You won’t often see the names Mother Theresa and Alexander the Great in the same sentence. They were worlds apart, in more ways than one. One laid her life down in humble service. The other took innumerable lives in pursuit of global domination. Yet strangely, each in their time inspired millions, who adored them as heroes.

The ancient idea of a hero as someone with tremendous power was almost universal. Augustus Caesar, who was worshipped as a god, became emperor by putting three hundred senators and two hundred knights to the sword.

Hindu epics praised the military prowess of their gods, and today most Hindu deities are still depicted with weapon in hand. Who founded Islam but Muhammad, a military commander who lead 66 battles and created an empire? Even medieval Europe defined a hero as a knight in shining armour.

“Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.”—The Apostle Paul

Clearly for us in the West, the concept of a hero has shifted dramatically through the ages. In the words of historian John Dickson, “Today, it doesn’t matter what your religious views are—Christian, atheist, Jedi Knight – if you were raised in the West, you are likely to think that honour-seeking is morally questionable and lowering yourself for the good of others is ethically beautiful.”

What changed us?

For a thousand years, church services had been conducted in Latin, a language foreign to the commoner. But thanks to the Reformation, ordinary Europeans now had the Bible in their heart languages, and were reading things about Jesus like Philippians 2:3-5.

“Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

“Clearly for us in the West, the concept of a hero has shifted dramatically through the ages. What changed us?”

“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being… he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”

Did you miss it? This God who breathes stars into existence became a peasant carpenter. He washed his disciples’ dirty feet, said things like, “the meek will inherit the earth,” and then laid down his life for his friends.

“A single, transforming idea wove its way through the centuries like a scarlet thread.”

Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi explains, “As masses sat meditating on the meaning of the cross, it changed Western consciousness from within. A brutal, triumphant knight could no longer be an inspiring Christian hero. He was the very opposite of a crucified, humiliated Messiah who died so that others may live.”

Preachers preached about it. Artists painted it. Smiths and artisans made a million crosses until the cross became the symbol of Christianity.

A single, transforming idea wove its way through the centuries like a scarlet thread, and it was this: if the greatest man who ever lived laid down his life for the good of others, then the path to greatness is one of humble, self-giving love.

“Hindu epics praised the military prowess of their gods, and today most Hindu deities are still depicted depicted with weapon in hand.”

According to John Dickson, “That is the influence of a story whose impact can be felt regardless of whether its details are believed—a story about greatness that willingly went to a cross.

“While we certainly don’t need to follow Christ to appreciate humility or to be humble, it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue were it not for the historical impact of his crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy. Our culture remains cruciform long after it stopped being Christian.”

The founder of Islam was Muhammad, a military commander who lead 66 battles and created an empire.”

If your heroes are world conquering warriors, I stand corrected. But if they’re humble, self-giving servants, regardless of your creed, you’ve been shaped by Jesus.

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Education.

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REASON / TECHNOLOGY / LANGUAGES / HEROISM / EDUCATION / SCIENCE / MEDICINE / LIBERTY / EQUALITY / MORALITY

 

In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.