Wednesday, April 30, 2014

God's Philosophers by James Hannam

God's Philosophers: 
How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science,
by James Hannam, Icon Books, 2009, Kindle edition, £4.79. 

In an article entitled Even Christianity is not really Christian in Saturday's edition of The Times, A. C. Grayling weighed in to the 'Christian Nation' debate sparked by David Cameron's sudden conversion to the virtues State-sponsored evangelism. It's one of those 'What has Christianity done for us?' pieces. While writing with an air of grave expertise, Grayling's use of the historical evidence is, in fact as selective as a bag of good of Woolies' Pick & Mix. He trots out the tired old cliché that the Early and Medieval Church suppressed learning and inquiry with the effect that scientific progress was retarded and human ingenuity stifled. Grayling alleges that Christianity banned study of Greek and Roman philosophy, and so plunged Europe into a Dark Age that only ended with with the rediscovery of the classical wisdom at the Enlightenment. The writer opined, "There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christian dominance because it had suppressed inquiry". 

However, as Hannam shows in God's Philosophers, if anything, the Medieval world wasn't held back by its ignorance of Antiquity, but by too much deference for the philosophers of old. It was only when Medieval medics began to question Galen's four humours-based quackery that medicine began make progress. Early natural philosophers tended to accept Aristotle's ideas without question, not realising that many of them were incorrect. Aristotle argued that that a heavier weight will fall faster than a lighter one. That was empirically disproven by John Philoponus in the sixth century. Even then, some chose to believe Aristotle rather than the empirical evidence. Early Merton Calculator Thomas Brawardine (c.1290-1349), propounded a theoretical basis for what Philiponus had discovered experimentally, thus blowing Aristotle's theory out of the water. 

In an odd section Grayling argues that because words such as medicine, technology and telescope are derived from Greek and Latin that the ideas and inventions they describe also derive from that culture. But since when had etymology been a sound guide to the origin of concepts? Anachronistic, or what? The telescope was originally invented by Hans Lipperhey of Holland (d.1619) and further refined by Galileo. But Lipperhey and Galileo would have got nowhere had not spectacles been invented in Venice in the 1300's. As Hannam points out,
the people of medieval Europe invented spectacles, the mechanical clock, the windmill and the blast furnace by themselves. Lenses and cameras, almost all kinds of machinery and the industrial revolution itself all owe their origins to the forgotten inventors of the Middle Ages. Just because we don’t know their names, this does not mean that we should not recognise their achievements. (Hannam, James (2009-08-07). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (p. 5). Icon Books. Kindle Edition.)
Grayling of course mentions the case of Galileo, claiming that the Church shut him up for championing the heliocentric view of the universe propounded by Copernicus as contrary to Scripture. Hannam offers a fair and nuanced account of the trial of the great man at the hands of the Inquisition. Contrary to Grayling's article it was not so much the teaching of the Bible that was at stake, as the Roman Catholic Church's deference for the Greek philosopher Ptolemy's vision of an earth-centred universe. Once more, it is a reminder that while classical civilisation had much to offer in terms of Pythagoras' mathematical theories and so on, the ideas of Greece and Rome could sometimes be an impediment rather than a stimulus to the advance of scientific understanding. 

Now, Hannam doesn't pretend that what used to be called the Dark Age was in fact a glittering Golden Age. The Church wasn't always an ally of progress. Medieval natural philosophers were often as interested in magic and astrology as exploring the wonders of nature. But the Christian belief that God created an orderly universe encouraged natural philosophers to explore and understand the world in which they lived. In doing so they laid the foundations of modern scientific inquiry. Theology was a friend rather than an enemy of natural philosophy. As Hannam writes,
However, the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable. They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense. Their central belief that nature was created by God and so worthy of their attention was one that Galileo wholeheartedly endorsed. Without that awareness, modern science would simply not have happened. (Hannam, James (2009-08-07). God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (p. 336). Icon Books. Kindle Edition). 
Grayling doesn't seem to appreciate that point. In fact his understanding of Christian theology is as lamentable as his grasp of history. He alleges that Paul taught that the faithful dead will "see no corruption", but will sleep in their graves until the last trump and the resurrection of the dead. Quite the contrary. Paul believed that Christ uniquely saw no corruption while he lay in the tomb prior to his resurrection (Acts 13:35-37). But of the believer the apostle wrote, "the body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption" (1 Corinthians 15:42). 

Also, Grayling is wrong to suggest that early Christians borrowed the idea of an immortal soul from Plato as a way of getting around the inconvenient truth that the bodies of believers did in fact return to dust in their graves. In the New Testament the language of immortality is reserved for the resurrection body, 1 Corinthians 15:53-54). That is about as un-Greek as you can get. Plato believed that that physical matter was evil and the body a prison house for the soul, of which it is well rid at death. The idea of bodily resurrection made no sense at all in the world of Greek philosophy. Note the reception that Paul received when speaking to intellectuals at Athens, Acts 17:31-32. The resurrection of the body makes perfect sense However, in the Judeo-Christian worldview, where God created the spiritual and material realms and declared them very good. Jesus came not simply to 'save our souls', but to rescue complete human beings from sin and its deadly effects. In Christian teaching eternal life means not simply the soul of the believer going to heaven when they die, but the resurrection of the body to immortal glory at the return of Christ.

Having said all that, I agree with Grayling that Britain today is not a Christian country. David Cameron was wrong to suggest that it is (see here). But it is foolish to deny that the Christian faith has had a positive impact on world history. As David Bentley Hart has shown in his Atheist Delusions, the Classical world wasn't quite as full of light, love and virtue as Grayling suggests. Many of our most cherished values such as the unique dignity and personhood of every human being were Christian in their origin, not pagan. Moreover, Hannam's God's Philosophers decisively puts the lie to Grayling's claim that, "There was little learning worth the name in the first seven centuries of Christian dominance because it had suppressed inquiry". Hardly. 

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