Advent is a season of waiting, but it seems lately most Christians I know have been absorbed in the grim business of waiting for people to die. I don’t feel I have anything useful to add to all this, but amidst all the craziness it was interesting to read a couple pieces on the intersection of faith and reason.
Jason Rust of blip posts his latest paper (PDF file), which looks at whether Intelligent Design is really more compatible with Christian theology than standard evolutionary theory. He makes some good points about how we tend to assume that God acts in the universe, and argues that Augustine might have been fairly amenable to the idea of evolution. (He’s another one to go for the “cruciform nature” idea, though, which personally I don’t like any more than I did three years ago.)
Also, Rodney Stark, best known for writing about early Christianity, has a new book out called The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. He offers a preview of his argument here, and has a good time slaying a bunch of Western Civ shibboleths:
While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth. Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins. Similar assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions.
But, from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation. Consequently Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past. At least in principle, if not always in fact, Christian doctrines could always be modified in the name of progress, as demonstrated by reason.
For the past several centuries, far too many of us have been misled by the incredible fiction that, from the fall of Rome until about the 15th century, Europe was submerged in the Dark Ages â€” centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery â€” from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously, rescued; first by the Ren-aissance and then by the Enlightenment. But, as even dictionaries and encyclopedias recently have begun to acknowledge, it was all a lie!
Through all prior recorded history, slavery was universal â€” Christianity began in a world where as much as half the population was in bondage. But by the seventh century, Christianity had become the only major world religion to formulate specific theological opposition to slavery, and, by no later than the 11th century, the church had expelled the dreadful institution from Europe. That it later reappeared in the New World is another matter, although there, too, slavery was vigorously condemned by popes and all of the eventual abolition movements were of religious origins.
It’s intriguing stuff, and the book I’m reading now about early Christian thought supports the idea that our common assumptions about what aspect of Western culture came from Greek philosophy, and what from Christianity, are often wildly off. However, at least from this cursory overview I’m not buying into Stark’s facile connection between Christian belief in reason and progress and the rise of capitalism. Christianity does have a progressive view of history, in the sense that it believes the world is heading towards a good end. However, that end is theologically informed: it is progress towards the Kingdom of God, and not all changes move in that direction.
Take Stark’s example: medieval monastaries, finding themselves flush from their vast landholdings and a steady cash flow from simony, started coming up with ways to protect and maximize their funds. Traditionalists still took a dim view of commerce, Stark admits, but that could be overcome:
Given the fundamental commitment of Christian theologians to reason and progress, what they did was rethink the traditional teachings. What is a just price for one’s goods, they asked? According to the immensely influential St. Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), the just price is simply what “goods are worth according to the estimate of the market at the time of sale.” That is, a just price is not a function of the amount of profit, but is whatever uncoerced buyers are willing to pay. Adam Smith would have agreed â€” St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) did. As for usury, a host of leading theologians of the day remained opposed to it, but quickly defined it out of practical existence. For example, no usury was involved if the interest was paid to compensate the lender for the costs of not having the money available for other commercial opportunities, which was almost always easily demonstrated.
That was a remarkable shift. Most of these theologians were, after all, men who had separated themselves from the world, and most of them had taken vows of poverty. Had asceticism truly prevailed in the monasteries, it seems very unlikely that the traditional disdain for and opposition to commerce would have mellowed. That it did, and to such a revolutionary extent, was a result of direct experience with worldly imperatives. For all their genuine acts of charity, monastic administrators were not about to give all their wealth to the poor, sell their products at cost, or give kings interest-free loans. It was the active participation of the great orders in free markets that caused monastic theologians to reconsider the morality of commerce.
So what is this progress toward?