“I beg you, my child, to look at the sky and the earth and see all that they contain, and to recognize that God did not create them out of things that existed. And in the same way, the human race was born.
So spoke the mother to her son who was about to be martyred for his faith. This passage from the second book of Maccabees expresses the fascination for the work of God that the ancient Jews had. Creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing, was brought into the consciousness of the world by the scripture of the Hebrews. The Church Fathers followed this belief, opposing the Neo-Platonists, who considered the world to be part of God.
The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope captured images of deep space that are even more impressive than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
One of the first telescope concepts originated with the 13th century Franciscan Roger Bacon. In a newspaper he wrote in 1260 he described the possibility of a magnifying instrument: “A small army may seem very large”, and he also prophesied that “man will be able to study the moon and stars in detail”. This amazing concept would not be realized until patenting and construction of telescopes began in the early 17th century.
When one studies the history of science, it immediately becomes clear that there is something in the western world that gave rise to modern science. But why is this?
This is a subject that deeply fascinated the Benedictine Father Stanley Jaki. Influenced by the pioneering work of physicist and science historian Pierre Duhem, Jaki has devoted his academic life to studying the relationship between faith and science, and more specifically, the rise of science and the involvement of Christianity in the process.
Jaki, in studying the entire history of science, identified what he called “stillborn” scientific moments – examples of scientific genius that never led to the establishment of the scientific method. as a discipline in a given culture. He found that this was the case in many ancient cultures: Egypt, Babylon, India, China, Greece and the Muslim world.
Jaki’s discovery was that it was the pervasive worldview of these cultures that stifled any development of science.
Ancient Egypt was consumed by animism, the pantheon of gods ruling over all aspects of the world. A lack of meaning was attributed to the cosmos due to the perceived unchanging and cyclical nature of reality, which prevented any continuing intellectual discipline from taking root.
Babylon, a culture entangled in mathematics and astronomy, could not separate its gods from the world. Their cosmology involved attributing celestial events to battles of gods – a fantasy that made their concept of “science” too abstract to be enduring. Investigations into a world imagined as a conflict of chaos and order were doomed.
A trap for India was the meaninglessness of life due to the belief that reincarnation would occur for unimaginable eternities. Even texts containing scientific truths were plagued with irrational claims resulting from a psychologically damaging Hindu cosmology that would have negative ramifications on secular studies, as it was nearly impossible to derive meaning from life.
China had Confucianism and Taoism. These philosophies, while differing in the definition of truth, emphasized truth in relation to the human self. Practitioners were concerned with finding inner truth, and the study of nature was deemed incompatible with this process. Concerned with ethics, the methodological sciences had no place in these competing worldviews that had man as their focus.
Greece is known for its impressive advancements in the study of philosophy, physics, mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and medicine, but these achievements were short-lived. But the fatal flaw in science having a real “birth” in Greece was the prevalence of a cyclical worldview. Just as with other cultures that hold to a cyclical worldview, this has dampened the opportunity for perpetual scientific observation, as it has proven that purpose is lacking in the world.
The Muslim world did better for a time because it had access to Greek texts, but eventually philosophy and reason were discarded by Islamic regimes to make way for the supremacy of Allah and the Quran as the sole explanatory of the world. The Quran contradicted philosophy and what appears in nature, so it was reasoned, therefore these disciplines had to be condemned, because the Quran was the ultimate arbiter of truth.
What separated these cultures from the West? It was Christianity.
Benedictine monasteries preserved ancient manuscripts amid warring barbarians for control of remnants of the Roman Empire. When the united kingdoms finally flourished, the promotion of education instilled a love for learning in the Christian West, inevitably leading to the establishment of universities around the turn of the millennium, one of the oldest being the University of Oxford, created around 1096. centered on teaching for priests, the freedom of debate allowed by the scholastic process was essential for the introduction of scientific fields. The acquisition of more Greek texts preserved by the Arabs facilitated this process.
Perhaps the most important date that allowed scientific study to formalize was March 7, 1277, when Bishop Stephen Tempier of Paris condemned 219 Aristotelian concepts. This was significant, as the condemnations resulted in the release of eternity and the purposelessness of creation, proposals which had stifled the growth of science in antiquity. Science could be separated from animist worldviews, with the distinction between God and creation solidified and the depersonalization of nature promoted.
Educated medieval Christians could cite scripture in support of a systematic study of nature. “He has ordered the splendours of his wisdom; he is from all eternity one and the same”, so we Lily in Sirach, and, “How desirable are all his works, and how sparkling to behold!” The Book of Wisdom also affirms that God “arranged all things by measure and number and weight”, implying an order in the universe that could be studied and quantified.
Recognition of the laws of nature was fundamental in the development of science, and it was only in the Christian West that the study of nature became a recognized and respected discipline. For this reason, we now have marvelous technological advancements, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.
Karin Öberg, a professor of astronomy at Harvard University specializing in astrochemistry, as well as a devout and devout Catholic, told this writer:
I find it wonderful that as we build new telescopes to reveal new truths about the universe, we also end up revealing a more beautiful universe than we could see if we only used our eyes. It is as clear a sign as any that truth and beauty go together and ultimately have their source in the same creator God.
Öberg also expressed his excitement about the scientific implications that could result from the James Webb Space Telescope:
The only JWST image that really stands out for me is one that shows a large cluster of extremely distant galaxies, capturing light from even more distant galaxies. [see above]. It is simply amazing that we now have the tools to look back to the beginning of our universe. It allows us to see again how great a place we live. The universe is truly the most wonderful icon of the infinity and eternity of God that I know of, and JWST shows us why.
The aspect of JWST that excites me most, however, is its ability to acquire spectra of exoplanets, as well as planet-forming disks that we know surround young stars whose planetary systems are still in the process of assembling. These spectra will reveal how often planets form from water-rich material and may give us our first glimpse of a habitable planet outside the solar system.
At the end of the day, I’m just grateful that we were given such a beautiful universe and the reason to peer into its hidden truths and beauties.