Ancient (classical) and modern worldviews
Classical Greek thought provided Renaissance Europe with most of the theoretical equipment required to produce the scientific revolution: (1) intuition that the universe has a rational order, (2) Pythagorean mathematics, (3)The Platonically defined problem of the planets, (4) Euclidean geometry, (5) Ptolemaic astronomy, (6) alternative ancient cosmological theories with a moving earth (7) neo-Platonic exaltation of the sun, (8) atomists’ mechanistic materialism, (9) Hermetic esotericism, and (10) and the underlying foundation of Pre-Socratic and Aristotelian empiricism, naturalism and rationalism. Yet increasingly the modern mind rejected the ancients as authorities both in science and philosophy and depreciated their views as “primitive”. Why?
One of the most productive motives impelling the 16th and 17th c European scientists to engage in observation and measurement of natural phenomena derived from the controversy between orthodox Scholastic Aristotelian physics and the heterodox revival of Pythagorean-Platonic mathematical mysticism. It is no small irony that Aristotle, the greatest naturalist and empirical scientist of antiquity (whose work sustained Western science for two thousand years) was rejected by the new science under the impetus of romantic Renaissance Platonism (Plato was the speculative idealist who wished to leave the world of the senses). The trouble was that Aristotle’s transformation by contemporary academies into a stultified dogmatist left the humanist Platonists with an opening for the scientific imagination and a fresh sense of intellectual adventure. Of course, at a deeper level Aristotle’s empiricism was also extended, to the extreme, by the new scientific revolution even as Aristotle himself was rejected in that revolution (an oedipal reaction to the ancient father?).
For just as decisively was Plato overthrown and rejected. If Aristotle was deposed and yet maintained in the spirit of empiricism, so Plato was venerated in theory but overthrown and rejected in spirit.
The scientific revolution from Copernicus to Newton was inspired by Plato, his Pythagorean predecessors and neo-Platonists successors, (1) in the search for perfect timeless mathematical forms that underlay the phenomenal world, (2) the apriori belief that planetary movements conformed to continuous and regular geometric figures, (3) the instruction to avoid being misled by the apparent chaos of the empirical heavens, (4) a confidence in the beauty and simplicity of the true solution of the problem of the planets, (5) the exaltation of the sun as the image of the created godhead, the proposal of non-geocentric cosmologies, (6) the belief that the universe was permeated by divine reason, and (7) that God’s glory was especially revealed in the heavens. Euclid whose geometry formed the basis of both Descartes rationalist philosophy and the entire Copernican-Newtonian paradigm had been a Platonist. The modern scientific method itself as developed by Kepler and Galileo was founded on the Pythagorean faith that the language of the physical world was one of number which provided the rationale for the conviction that empirical observation of nature and the testing of hypotheses should be pursued through quantitative measurement. Moreover, all modern science implicitly is based on Plato’s fundamental hierarchy of reality in which a diverse and ever changing nature of the material world is ultimately obedient to certain unifying and eternal laws that transcend the phenomena they govern. Above all else modern science inherited the Platonic belief in the rational intelligibility of the world order, and in the essential nobility of the human quest to understand that order. But these essentially Platonic assumptions eventually led to a thorough-going naturalism and left little room for Plato’s idealist metaphysics. Gone were the numinosity of the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition as empirically unverifiable, and replaced by a direct scientific understanding of the natural world.
Of course, the explanatory power of mathematics was Pythagorean-Platonic (and was being vindicated by natural science) but this merely raised the question why should it be that mathematics works so well in the brute natural world? But after Newton this question was simply ignored in favor of a certain mechanical view of natural order without much deeper meaning. Gone here was any sense that this match between mathematics and nature was due to some revelatory Forms by which the mind of man was comprehended by the mind of God. Mathematics was simply the nature of things/mind and not viewed in a Platonic spirit. The laws of nature might be timeless but only because that was the nature of nature and had nothing to do with the divine.
So with the exception of mathematics, Platonic philosophy waned in the modern context, and science’s quantitative character was left with an entirely secular meaning (i.e., nature). Given its success as a mechanistic natural science, as well as the ascendancy of positivistic empiricism and nominalism in philosophy, any claim to Platonic metaphysics (the religious meaning of science) to the effect that the true meaning of the world resided in the transcendent was dismissed as imaginary. Paradoxically then while Plato served as the sine qua non for the modern worldview, this worldview controverted its very basis. Or, the mechanistic science/philosophy of the 18th c and the materialistic science/philosophy of the 19th c were ironically built on the mystical (Platonic) foundation of mathematics of the 17th c.
Furthermore, it is ironical that the giants of ancient thought (Aristotle and Plato) were also defeated by the minority traditions of ancients thought. Thus, in the course of the classical and medieval periods, the mechanistic and materialistic atomism of Leucippus and Democritus, the heterodox (non-geocentric/non-geostatic) cosmologies of Philolaus, Heraclitus, and Aristarchus, and the radical skepticism if Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus had been overshadowed by the philosophical triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (and the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology), but eventually, as a result of the Renaissance humanists’ retrieval, these minority views were validated in the scientific revolution. Similarly, the sophists would enjoy a restoration in the secular humanism and relativistic skepticism of the Enlightenment.
Nevertheless, the rise of the “new science” (its practical and intellectual superiority) overwhelmed any effort by medieval and Renaissance thinkers to recover the classical golden age luminaries. Thus, while recovering something of the literary and humanistic accomplishment of the classical period, the new age of science dismissed the ancient’s cosmology, epistemology, and metaphysics as naïve and scientifically erroneous.
Rejected entirely were the esoteric elements of the ancient tradition such as astrology, alchemy, hermeticism which had also been instrumental in giving birth to the new scientific era. Thus, the ancient birth of astronomy (indeed science itself) was intricately tied to astrological understanding of the heavens as a superior realm of divine significance with the planetary movements having implications in human affairs. Astrology’s tie to astronomy was essential to the latter’s progress for it was the astrological presuppositions that gave astronomy its social and psychological significance and well as its political and military utility in matters of state. Astrological predictions required the most accurately possible astronomical data, so that astrology supplied astronomy with a compelling motive for solving the problem of the planets. It is no accident that the science of astronomy prior to the scientific revolution enjoyed its most rapid periods of progress precisely during the Hellenistic, late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance when astrology was most widely accepted.
Nor did the protagonists of the scientific revolution sever this bond to the ancients. Copernicus made no distinction between astronomy and astrology (they were both the head of all the liberal arts). Kepler confessed that his astronomical research was inspired by the celestial “music of the spheres”. Both he and Brahe served as Renaissance astrologers to the Holy Roman Emperor. Even Galileo like most renaissance astronomers routinely calculated astrological birth charts. Newton too reported his own interest in astrology that stimulated his discoveries in mathematics, and he later studied alchemy. There was little difference between scientific and esoteric visions in these early pioneers of the scientific revolution.
In fact, the collaboration between science and the esoteric tradition was the norm for the renaissance and served to play an indispensable role in the birth of modern science.
Pythagorean and neo-Platonic mathematical mysticism and the exaltation of the sun was generally held by Copernican astronomers;
Roger Bacon who pioneered experimental science was devoted to alchemy and astrology;
Giordano Bruno who championed the Copernican universe was a polymath esotericist;
Paracelsus was an alchemists who laid the foundations for modern chemistry and medicine;
William Gilbert, who formulated the theory of the earth’s magnetism believed that the world-soul was embodied in that magnet;
William Harvey who discovered the circulation of the blood revealed the human body to be a microscopic reflection of the earth’s circulatory systems and the cosmos’ planetary motions;
Descartes was affiliated with mystical Rosicrucianism;
Newton was affiliated with the Cambridge Platonists and believed that he work was in the ancient tradition of secret wisdom dating back to Pythagoras, and in fact Newton’s law of universal gravitation was modeled on his sympathies with hermetic philosophy.
Clearly the emergence of the new scientific revolution was filled with ambiguity.
Of course, the new universe that emerged from the scientific revolution was not ambiguous and rejected all astrological and esoteric principles. While the new astronomers were unaware or unconcerned about how their new formulations/theories clashed with astronomy, these clashes became soon apparent. The planetary earth undermined the entire foundation of astrological thinking since astrologers held that the earth had a privileged position as the center of the universe influenced by other planets/stars. The entire tradition of cosmography from Aristotle to Dante was shattered as a moving earth now trespassed into domains previously defined as the exclusive domain of specific planetary powers. After Galileo and Newton there was no division between celestial and terrestrial realms and without this dichotomy, the metaphysical and psychological premises that helped support the ancient astrology began to collapse. The heavenly bodies were now planets, material objects, moved by inertia and gravity (not archetypal symbols moved by cosmic intelligence). Before Newton there were few who did not adhere to astrological science; after Newton there were few who thought astrology worth examining and astrology went underground into small groups of esotericists and uncritical masses. After being the classical “queen of the sciences” and the guide of emperors and kings for 2000 years astrology was no longer credible.
[The rapid decline of Renaissance esotericism in Restoration England was influenced by the highly charged social and political environment that marked 17th c British history. During the revolutionary upheavals in the English Civil War and the Interregnum (1642-1660) esoteric philosophies such as astrology and hermeticism were extremely popular and their close association with radical political and religious movements was threatening to the established church and the propertied classes. Astrological almanacs outsold the Bible and influential astrologers like William Lilly encouraged rebellion. At a conceptual level, esoteric philosophies supported anti-authoritarian political and religious activism of the radical movements with direct spiritual illumination seen as alive and permeated at all levels by divinity and perpetually self-transforming. After the Restoration in 1660 leading intellectuals and clergy stressed the importance of sober natural philosophy – such as was part of the new mechanistic, materialistic science. Hermetic ideas were attacked and astrology ceased being taught at universities, and all this was supported by the Royal Society (established in 1660 as well) which favored a despiritualized world. While major figures in the Royal Society such as Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren continued to adhere to astrology in private (believing like Francis bacon that astrology should be reformed not rejected), the political climate became increasingly unfavorable towards astrology (Boyle did not allow his defense of astrology to be published after his death). This social-political context also influenced Newton to suppress the esoteric side of his science.]
With the exception of the Romantics, the modern mind also gradually outgrew the Renaissance fascination with ancient myth as an autonomous dimension of existence. Of course, from the Enlightenment onward little argument was needed to rid us of the gods as merely pagan fantasy. Just as Platonic forms (metaphysics) died out in philosophy (their place being taken by objective empirical qualities, subjective concepts, cognitive categories, or linguistic family resemblances, so the ancient gods became literary characters, artistic images, useful metaphors without any claim to ontological reality.
Modern science cleansed the universe of all human and spiritual properties previously projected unto it. The universe was now neutral, opaque, and material and therefore no dialogue with nature was possible – whether through magic, mysticism, or divine authority. Only the impersonal employment of empirically based rational intellect could attain an understanding of nature. Thus, while an astonishing variety of epistemological sources had made the scientific revolution possible [(1). the immensely imaginative and anti-empirical leap to planetary earth, (2) the Pythagorean and neo-Platonic aesthetic and mystical beliefs, (3) Descartes’ revelatory dream and vision of a new universal science, (4) Newton’s hermetically inspired concept of gravitational attraction, (5) all the serendipitously recoveries of ancient manuscripts (e.g., Lucretius, Archimedes, Sextus Empiricus, the neo-Platonists), (6) the fundamentally metaphorical character of various scientific theories/explanations], all these were later deemed to belong to the context of scientific discovery and not science proper. Science proper was “epistemological justification” in terms of empirical evidence and rational analysis.
Classical culture would long remain an exalted realm in Western imaginative and aesthetic creations; it provided modern thinkers with inspiring political and moral ideals and models. Greek philosophy and Greek and Latin languages and literatures, the events and the personalities of ancient history still evoke in the modern mind a scholarly respect and avid interest even bordering on reverence. But humanistic nostalgia for classicism can not hide its increasing irrelevance for the modern mind – nothing could beat the intellectual rigor and efficacy of modern understanding. And yet the ancient Greek mind still pervaded the modern mind. In the virtual religious zeal of the scientist’s quest for knowledge, in his unconscious assumptions about the rationality of the world and man’s capacity to know it, in his critical independence of judgment and his ambitious drive to expand human knowledge beyond ever more distant horizons, in all this Greece lives on.
The triumph of secularism
Science and religion: the early concord
The fate of Christianity in the wake of the scientific revolution was not dissimilar to the fate of classical/ancient (Greek) thought, and it also included its share of paradoxes.
If the Greek supplied most of the theoretical sources for the scientific revolution, the RC church (for all its dogmatic structures) provided the necessary matrix within which the Western mind was able to develop and from which the scientific revolution emerged. The nature of that contribution by the church was both practical and doctrinal. From the beginning of the middle ages the church provided the monasteries within which classical culture was preserved and within which the spirit of this classical culture continued. From the end of the first millennium the church officially supported the cast Scholastic enterprise of scholarship and education without which Western modern intellectuality might never have arisen.
Ecclesiastical sponsorship was justified by a complex and unique constellation of theological positions. Thus, precision in Christian doctrine had to be accompanied by logical clarity and intellectual acuity.
With the recognition of the physical world in the high middle ages there arose a corresponding recognition of the positive role of scientific understanding in an appreciation of God’s wondrous creation. For all its wariness of the mundane life and “the world”, the Judaic-Christian religion nevertheless placed enormous emphasis on the ontological reality of that world and its ultimate relationship to the good and just God. Christianity took life seriously. It is in this seriousness that the significance of religion lay for the scientific quest which depended not only on human being’s active responsibility in this world, but also on the belief in the reality of this world and its order and, at least at the start of the modern science, its coherent relationship to the omnipotent and infinitely wise creator.
Nor was the Scholastics’ contribution merely an imperfect Christian recovery of Greek ideas. The Scholastics critically examined these ideas, created alternative theories an concepts (e.g., rudimentary formulations of inertia and momentum, the uniform acceleration of freely falling bodies, hypothetical argument for a moving earth) that allowed modern science from Copernicus to Galileo to begin to formulate a new paradigm.
Most consequential was not specific nature of the Scholastics’ theoretical innovations, nor their revitalization of the Hellenic spirit, but the more tangible existential attitude that medieval thinkers passed on to their modern descendents: the theologically founded confidence that man’s God-given reason possessed the capacity, and the religious duty, to comprehend the natural world. Man’s intellectual relation to the creative Logos, man’s privileged position of the divine light of the active intellect (St. Aquinas’ lumen intellectus agentis) was from a Christian perspective precisely what mediated our human understanding of the cosmos. Descartes’ natural light of reason was the secular inheritor of that medieval conception. It was after all Aquinas who had written in his Summa Theologica that “authority is the weakest form of proof” – a dictum that would be central to the independence so valued by the modern mind. Modern rationalism, naturalism, and empiricism all had Scholastic roots.
However, the Scholasticism that 16th and 17th c natural philosophers encountered was a pedagogically dogmatic and aging structure that no longer spoke to the new spirit of the age. Little new was emerging from its confines. It was obsessed with Aristotle and failed to submit theory to experimental test, and it was perceived as an outmoded, ingrown institution whose intellectual authority had to be overthrown if the new science was not to be smothered. After Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton that authority was impugned and its reputation never recovered. From then on science and philosophy would proceed without theological justification, without recourse to a divine light in the human intellect, without the colossal superstructure of Scholastic metaphysics and epistemology.
Yet despite the secular character of modern science that eventual emerged from the scientific revolution, the original scientific revolutionaries continued to act, think, ands speak of their work in religious terms. They perceived their intellectual scientific breakthroughs as foundational contribution to a sacred mission – awakening the divine architecture of the universe – revelations of true cosmic order. Newton’s exclamation “O God, I think hey thoughts after thee” was but the culmination of a series of such epiphanies marking the birth of modern science. Copernicus celebrated astronomy as a “science more divine than human”, closest to God in its nobility of character, and upheld the heliocentric theory as revealing the structural grandeur of God’s cosmos. Kepler’s writings were ablaze with the sense of being divinely illuminated as the inner mysteries unfolding before his eyes. He declared that astronomers were to be “priests of the most high God with respect to the book of nature”, and saw his own role as “the honor of guarding the door of God’s temple” in which Copernicus serve before the high altar. Galileo spoke of the telescope as made possible by God’s grace enlightening his mind. Even the worldly Bacon envisioned human progress through science in explicitly religious and pietistic terms with the material improvement of mankind corresponding to its spiritual approach to the Christian millennium. Descartes interpreted his vision of the new universal science, and a subsequent dream in which that science was symbolically presented to him, as a divine mandate for his life’s work: God had shown him the way to certain knowledge, and assured him of his scientific quest’s ultimate success. With Newton, the divine birth was considered complete: A new Genesis had been written.
As the poet Alexander Pope declares for the Enlightenment:
Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in the night
God said, ‘let Newton be” and all was light.
The great passions to discover the laws of nature felt by the scientific revolutionaries derived from the sense that they were recovering divine knowledge that had been lost in the primal fall. At last the human mind had comprehended the working of God’s principles. The eternal laws of creation, divine handiwork itself, now stood unveiled. Through science man had served God’s greater glory, demonstrating mathematical beauty and complex precision, the stupendous order reigning over the heavens and earth.
This was not a generalized religious sentiment. Newton was zealously absorbed in Christian theology and Biblical studies as he was in physics. Galileo was committed to saving his church from a costly error and despite the Inquisition he faced, he remained a devout RC. Descartes lived and died a devout RC. Moreover, their Christian presuppositions were intellectually pervasive, embedded in the very fabric of their scientific and philosophical theories. Both Descartes and Newton constructed their cosmological systems as the assumption of God’s existence. For Descartes the objective world existed as a stable reality because it stood in the mind of God, and human reason was epistemologically reliable because of God’s intrinsic veracious character. Similarly Newton’s matter could not be explained on its own terms but necessitated a prime mover, a creator, a supreme architect and governor. God had established the physical world and its laws, and therein lay the world’s continuing existence and order. Indeed, because of certain unresolved problems in his calculations, Newton concluded that God’s intervention was periodically necessary to maintain the system’s regularity.
Compromise and conflict
However, the early modern accord between science and Christianity was already displaying some tensions and contradictions. Apart from the creationist ontology that was still underpinning the new paradigm, the new scientific universe with its mechanical forces, material heavens, and planetary earth was not congruent with the traditional Christian conception of the cosmos. The early claim that the earth and humankind were pivotal to God’s creation was not supported by scientific evidence (which held that the earth and the sun were merely two planets among others moving in an infinite void). “I am terrified”, said the religious mathematician Pascal, “by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces”. Intellectual Christians attempted to modify and reinterpret their religious understanding to accommodate this new scientific universe that was so drastically different from ancient and medieval cosmology within which the Christian religion had evolved, nevertheless the metaphysical hiatus widened. In Newton’s universe, heaven and hell had lost their physical locations, natural phenomena lost their symbolic import, and divine intervention now appeared implausible in contradicting the clockwork order of the universe. Yet Christian faith could hardly be negated altogether.
So there arose the psychological necessity of a double-truth universe: reason and faith came to be seen as different realms. Scientific reality and religious reality were distinct. Joined together in the high middle ages by Scholastics culminating in Aquinas, then severed by Ockham and nominalism, faith had moved in one direction with the Reformation, Luther, and the literal Scripture, fundamentalist Protestantism, and counter-Reformation Catholicism, while reason had moved in another direction with bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume, empirical science, rational philosophy, and the Enlightenment. Attempts at bridging failed the preserve the character of one or the other (as Kant tried to do by delimiting religion to morality).
With religion and science as discrepant yet both vitally alive, European culture bifurcated, reflecting a metaphysical schism that existed within individuals and within societies. Religion became compartmentalized seen as not relevant to the external world but to the inner world, no relevant to the contemporary spirit but reflecting the nobility of tradition, not relevant to this life but to the afterlife, not relevant to weekdays but to Sundays. Of course, most people still believed Christian dogma and, as if in reaction the new science, there arose many religious movements: pietism in Germany, Jansenism in France, the Quakers and Methodists in England, the Great Awakening in the US and all these received much support in the 17th and 18th c. These were also the years in which Western religious music reached its apogee in Bach and Handel born within months of Newton’s Principia. Amidst all this pluralism wherein science and religion followed very different paths, the overriding cultural direction was clear however: scientific rationalism was ineluctably on the ascent.
Within two centuries after Newton, the secularity of the modern outlook had fully established itself: mechanistic materialism (scientific materialism) had proven its explanatory power and utilitarian efficacy. Experiences that seemed to defy science (such as alleged miracles, faith healings, self-proclaimed revelations and spiritual ecstasies, prophesies, symbolic interpretations of natural phenomena, encounters with God or the devil) were now regarded as madness, charlatanry or both. Questions concerning God’s existence or transcendent reality ceased to have any role in the scientific imagination which was becoming the shared framework for the general public. Pascal already in the 17th c faced his own religious doubt and philosophical skepticism by making the leap of faith a wager – and he seemed to be losing the bet.
What then caused the shift from explicit religiosity of the scientific revolutionaries of the 16th and 17th c to the emphatic secularism of the Western intellect in the 19th and 20th c?
There was the metaphysical incongruity of the two outlooks, the cognitive dissonance resulting from the attempt to hold together innately different systems and sensibilities, eventually forcing the issue in one direction or the other. The character and implications of the Christian revelation simply did not fit well with scientific revelation. Essentially the Christian faith was the belief in Christ’s physical resurrection after death, an event that in its apostolic witness and interpretation had served as the foundation of Christianity. But the new science with its explanatory laws would have to reject all this (e.g., miracles, faith healing, divinity, virgin birth, manna from heaven, wine from water, water from rocks, parting of seas, etc.); these were increasingly improbable to the modern mind as did the many mythical and legendary concoctions of the ancient imagination.
Damaging criticism also came from the newly emerging discipline of Biblical scholarship which demonstrated that Scripture had many voices and a historical context. Both Renaissance humanists and Reformation theologians had pressed for a return to original Greek and Hebrew sources which led to a more critical reading and re-evaluation original texts and their meaning. Scripture in the course of several generations began to lose its divine inspiration. Textual criticisms were followed by critical historical studies of Christian dogma and the church, as well as by historical investigations into the life of Jesus. Methods developed to analyze secular history and literatures were now applied to the sacred foundations of Christianity itself with unsettling consequences for the faithful.
In the 19th c these developments were joined with Darwin’s theory of evolution making the entire Genesis story problematic. Man could hardly be made in the image of God if man was also a biological descendent of subhuman primates. The thrust of biological evolution was not spiritual transfiguration/fulfillment but biological survival. While right up through Newton science had in fact supported an argument for the existence of God based on the order/design of the universe, the evidence of natural history in the late 18th and 19th c replaced this concept of order with natural selection and random mutation rather than a Transcendent Designer. There were some Christian scientists who noted the affinity of the theory of evolution with the Judaic-Christian notion of God’s progressive and providential plan of history, and drew parallels between the NT conception of an immanent evolutionary process of divine incarnation in man and nature (even to the extent of supplementing Darwinism’s theoretical shortcomings with religious explanatory principles). Yet for a culture that was accustomed to understanding the Bible at face value there were glaring inconsistencies between the creation of species and their transmutation over eons of time. This led to massive agnostic defections. For at bottom, the Christian belief in a God who acted through revelation and grace appeared to be wildly incompatible with common sense and science’ claim about how the world worked. With Luther the structure of the medieval church had cracked, with Copernicus and Galileo, the medieval Christian cosmology itself cracked. With Darwin, the Christian worldview seemed to collapse altogether.
In an era of reason and science, the “good news” of Christianity seemed less convincing as a metaphysical structure upon which to build one’s life – it was less psychologically necessary. The whole that idea that an infinite God would come into the world/history as a particular events taking place within two millennia on a tiny piece of rocks in the middle of nowhere seemed entire implausible. It seemed entirely implausible that such an event would have any meaning in a universe whose proportions were enormous and lawful. Christian belief began to wither. The reason the Judaic-Christian God persisted, in the eyes of the modern intellectual, was a peculiar combination of wish-fulfillment fantasy and anthropomorphic projection to bear the suffering of existence. In contrast, the unsentimental reason clinging as it does to observation of the world required no such projection. The natural data suggested overwhelmingly that the natural world and its history were merely an impersonal process. The ancient concerns with cosmic design and divine purpose (with metaphysical issues of the WHY of phenomena) ceased to engage scientists. Their concern was with the how of material mechanism, the laws of nature, and the concrete data that could be measured and tested. Spiritual causes and teleological designs could not be tested and hence it was better to stay with empirical evidence. With its apocalyptic prophesies and sacred rituals, its deified human hero and world savior motifs, its miracle stories, moralisms, and veneration of saints and relics, Christianity seemed at best a singularly successful folk myth – inspiring hope, giving meaning and order, but without ontological foundation. Christians may be well-meaning but credulous. With the victory of Darwinism (celebrated at Oxford in the debate between Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley in 1860) science had unequivocally achieved its independence from theology. After Darwin there seemed little further possibility of contact between science and theology, with science having authority over nature and theology relegated to small groups of intellectual believers. Faced with an intelligible universe over against spiritual verities, modern theology adopted an increasingly subjectivist stance. Thus, the early Christian belief in the fall and redemption pertained not just to man but to the entire cosmos. If this belief was already fading with the Reformation, it now disappeared altogether. The process of salvation if it had any meaning at all was solely one between God and man. The inner rewards of the Christian faith were now stressed, with the consequence of a radical discontinuity between the religious experience (subjective) and knowledge of this world. God was wholly other than man/world and therein laid religious experience. The “leap of faith” substituted for a self-evidence creation and the objectivity of Scripture.
Under such limitation, modern Christianity assumed a new and far less encompassing intellectual role. Of course, Christian ethics remained (the moral ideals of Jesus were as admirable as any) but Christianity had nothing to say about the visible world or the universe as a framework for Western culture. Christian revelation, the infallible word of God, the divine plan for salvation, the miracles, etc., could no longer be taken seriously. Compassion for humanity was till upheld as a social and individual ideal but its basis was now secular ands humanistic not religious. The humanitarian liberal adhered to certain tenets of the Christian ethos but would have nothing to do with its foundation. In the same way as the modern mind admired the spirit and moral tone of the ancient Greeks but rejected their metaphysics and epistemology, so Christianity continued to be tacitly respected, and even followed, for its ethical concepts, but rejected in its metaphysics and epistemology.
It is also true that in the eyes of not a few scientists and philosophers, science itself contained religious meaning, or was at least open to religious interpretation. The beauty of nature’s forms, the splendor of its variety, the extraordinarily intricate functioning of the human body/brain, the evolutionary development of the human eye/mind, the mathematical patterning of the universe, the unimaginable magnitude of the heavenly spaces, etc. all these seemed to require the existence of a divine intelligence and power of miraculous sophistication. Of course many others argued that all this was simple the random result of the natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. Their claim was that the human psyche merely longed for the security of a comic providence susceptible to personification of man’s own values and purposes. Poetic perhaps but not scientific. God was an unnecessary hypothesis.