Thursday, 8 August 2013

Great Things In The Middle Ages

Indeed so, Professor Dawkins. Indeed so.

Uniquely Christian is the rejection of humanity’s otherwise universal concepts of eternalism (that the universe has always existed and always will), animism (that the universe is a living thing, an animal), pantheism (that the universe is itself the ultimate reality, God), cyclicism (that everything which happens has already happened in exactly the same form, and will happen again in exactly the same form, an infinite number of times) and astrology (that events on earth are controlled by the movements of celestial bodies).

Science cannot prove that these closely interrelated things are not the case; it simply has to presuppose their falseness, first established in thirteenth-century Paris when their Aristotelian expression was condemned at the Sorbonne specifically by ecclesial authority, and specifically by reference to the Biblical Revelation.

This is why science as we now understand the term never originated anywhere other than in Medieval Europe. And it is why science did not last, or flower as it might have done, in the Islamic world: whereas Christianity sees the rationally investigable order in the universe as reflecting and expressing the rationality of the Creator, the Qur’an repeatedly depicts the will of Allah as capricious.

Although Arab science led the world between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries (above all in astronomy, mathematics and medicine), it then went into sharp decline as Christian Europe surged ahead at the start of the process that is still going on, and which has now spread throughout the world, including to the Arabs.

How and why did this happen?

In part, it was because the Catholic Church insisted on Her independence from the Sate, initially with regard to the appointment of bishops, but rapidly, once the principle had been established, in other areas as well. Under Her aegis, universities, cities and what we would now call professional bodies became legal entities in their own right, providing forums for free discussion. Islam simply did not, and does not, work like that.

But mostly, there was the impact of theological beliefs on the ability to do science. Many of the Arab scientists were in fact Christians, even if heterodox ones such as the translator ibn Masawagh of Baghdad, and his pupil Hunayan, who translated all the known Greek works into Arabic and Syriac, as well writing many medical treatises. The Christian physician ibn al-Quff of Damascus wrote one of the first treatises on surgery.

In Christianity, it is because God is both rational and free that His universe is both orderly and contingent. Since God is free, the universe is not necessary, and could have been otherwise: He need not have created it, and He might have created it any other way that He chose.

If God were rational but not free, then His universe would be necessary and could not be other than it is, so that there would be no need to conduct experiments in order to understand it. Or, if God were free but not rational, then His universe would be so chaotic that there would be no observable order within it, and so science would again be impossible.

In Islam, however, everything is directly dependent on the will of Allah, a view which weakens any expectation to observe rationality and order in the universe, even before considering how capricious that will is presented as being in several verses of the Qur’an.

Thus was science arrested in the Islamic world even as it soared away in Christendom. The contemporary resonance could not be clearer to and for those of us who care profoundly about science.

The answer to Islam is our own tradition of structured daily prayer, the setting aside of one day in seven, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimage, the global community of faith as the primary focus of personal allegiance and locus of personal identity, the lesser outward and the greater inward struggle, the need for a comprehensive and coherent critique both of capitalism and of Marxism, the coherence between faith and reason, and a consequent integrated view of art and science.

The answer to the challenge of the Sunna is Sacred Tradition. The answer to the challenge of the Imamate is the Petrine Office. The answer to the challenge of Sufism is our own tradition of mysticism and monasticism.

Liberal Catholics will be the last to see the point.

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