Aquinas: Religion and Science

So I’m reading Repetition, and I’m coming to the conclusion that Kierkegaard might not be best suited for the sort of thing I’m doing here on the blog. Because his writing is relatively indirect, you sort of have to chip away at it for a while – it’s not straightforward enough to be publishing things on weekly. Instead, I’ve decided to start in on Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. It’s nice because it’s easy to partition, all those articles and so on. Very easy to do in little bursts. There was one article that caught my attention today, on theology as a type of science. 

Aquinas basically describes theology as a type of science, arguing that it draws from divine revelation rather than independently observable phenomena – we don’t have to agree, but I’m setting the scene for what follows. He also talks about law as a ‘moral science’, contrasting theology as a ‘divine science’ – it might be worth remembering that this is from the thirteenth century and that’s just how they thought of things. Anyway, this is Question 1 (‘Christian theology’), article 6 (cited as 1a.1.6, ‘1a’ referring to the first third of the Summa). I’ll quote this chunk in full:

“Hence: 1. Holy teaching assumes its principles from no human science, but from divine science, by which as by supreme wisdom all our knowledge is governed. 

2. … Establishing the premise of other sciences is none of its [divine science’s] business, though it may well be critical of them. For whatsoever is encountered in the other sciences which is incompatible with its truth should be completely condemned as false…”

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Because theology is divinely revealed knowledge of God, Aquinas argues, it should govern all our knowledge. That’s a nice idea, but with the hindsight of Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, and others, I’m sure we’re a little more hostile towards religions running roughshod over scientific knowledge. The especially jarring phrase is in the second part of that quote – if you come across anything that’s incompatible with the Bible, or the ‘divine science’ of Christian theology, you should completely condemn it as false. Thus, for instance, Copernicus was rejected because when Joshua told the sun to stand still in the sky, it did so – implying that, in fact, the sun normally revolves around the Earth.

Today, the more reasonable among us might suggest that the Biblical language in that moment is figurative, rather than literal, and reflects the limited scientific understanding of the Israelites at the time. Thus it’s not so much an incompatibility between scientific knowledge and divine knowledge as it is an internal debate about meaning within the Bible. This does leave me wondering though – at which point might there be an incompatibility between science and religion? The evolution/creation debate might be one, but I tend to consider that more to be a battle over different methods of reading the Bible. Ironically, it’s possible to take the position that God’s divine revelation, the creation story, is figurative, and that any ‘scientific’ evidence (ie evidence presented by creationists) to the contrary is to be completely condemned as false. It’s the sort of position you’d only take if you were setting out to aggravate somebody, but it is funny.

At any rate, the editors/translators seem to be aware of the issue, because they set out to clarify it in the footnotes:

“Theology may pass judgement on the other sciences, negatively by correcting inferences that may be drawn from them, positively by interpreting them in the light of God’s dealings with men, for instance when history is read theologically.”

No smoking gun yet – the term ‘inferences’ is ambiguous enough to avoid condoning the contradiction of hard evidence.

“Yet their proper autonomy is to be respected; their field is not to be invaded or their evidence twisted; they are ruled ‘civilly’, not despotically. Note that theological condemnation does not amount to refutation, which means that a conclusion has been met on its own grounds and there disproved. There are historical cases of theologians making mistakes, either because they have not understood the science they have been talking about or their own science, or both.”

You don’t say. I’m not sure where this particular line of thought comes from – it may be an elaboration on Aquinas’s beliefs drawing on some alternate source, or it may be the translator’s interpretation of his argument. Regardless, it seems a substantial roll-back. Theological condemnation holds water only within its own domain; that is, it’s not to be seen as a legitimate form of biological or archaelogical evidence. At that stage, all the scientific community needs to do is ignore the Church (which it’s doing wonderfully) and get on with it. The nominal rule of theology over science holds negligible weight in society today, thankfully – again, we can draw a distinction between inside and outside of the theological domain, or the Christian faith.

Within the faith, we might say that the lack of scientific proof of God is not sufficient to dissuade us from our belief. In that sense, the ‘divine science’ does take priority. The revelation of God is seen as valid enough evidence of God’s existence, because it satisfies the demands of theology. In that moment, theology is given priority as a method of knowing over the scientific method. However, the integrity of the scientific method is respected within its own domain. That’s sort of the point that’s being made in the footnotes. What’s changed is that the social context is more consciously taken into account – well, it’s not that Aquinas wasn’t aware of the social context, but we are some 700+ years further down the line now, and things change. Society changes, culture changes, and wherever that footnote comes from, its intention is to respect the integrity of scientific work in the light of the nonsense we’ve put it through historically. It almost grudgingly acknowledges the shift in power – when it says that scientific domains are to be ruled ‘civilly’, not despotically, it’s sort of like the kid who got beaten up on the playground but is protesting that he let you win.

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