25 August, 2010

Wittenberg and the Sciences

Perhaps no more vexatious question, no question passed over in more silence, no question more [unpersuasively] pontificated upon, is that of the relationship between science and theology. The two don’t make easy bed-fellows. In fact, so the caricature goes, they’re more likely found sleeping in separate rooms, unwed. When the two do meet (Daniel Dennett, say, and Oral Roberts), it’s usually for an unsatisfying one-nighter in the alley behind the bar that both would rather forget, and it requires an ice-cold shower back in the safety of their own disciplinary apartment to wash off the filth. (Excuse the colorful image.) So it goes in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It has not always been this way. In Wittenberg, in fact, the sciences lived comfortably in what was at the time known as the Philosophical Faculty or the Arts Faculty, taken up by the master’s (M.A.) candidates and their teachers as the Quadrivium after they had successfully demonstrated mastery at the bachelor’s level (B.A.) of the other three arts. Indeed, there was no road to the higher faculties—to Law, Medicine, and Theology—but that that led through both the Trivium (B.A.) and the Quadrivium (M.A.). And in Wittenberg it is the case that by the mid 16th century, the humanistically-reformed curriculum that emerged was pointedly weighted toward the two elements that arose as central in the B.A. and M.A. curriculum: philology in the Trivium; science in the Quadrivium.

This historical fact and element of our intellectual heritage as Lutherans beckons us, it seems to me, to take the sciences seriously in the curriculum. But that raises hackles and comes with a set of questions that needs to be addressed before the sciences can find their home—not a place, but their home—in the curriculum of a Lutheran college radically dedicated to the Wittenberg way both intellectually and theologically.

Following are some of the questions that, at first blush, seem to be basic and preliminary to any further consideration:

Has so much scientific water flowed under the bridge since the 16th century that it is impossible today to make the sciences at home in a Lutheran curriculum?

Is there such a thing as a Lutheran approach to science? And if so, how does it differ from, how does it complement other views? How might it be regarded as better or deficient?

What need does the Church have of the sciences, if any? Put the other way around, what would be missing for the Church without the sciences? And are all sciences equal? Which are necessary, which are not?

What sort of philosophical or theological Weltanschauung is necessary to work under in order to have a healthy scientific community on a Lutheran campus?

Will 16th-century guide-posts be helpful or harmful in this discussion? If helpful, how can they be enlisted?

Can a science-less curriculum offer a responsible Wittenberg education?

Do the big quarrels, such as that between evolution and intelligent design, materialism and non-materialist views, matter? Do they drown out the healthy discussions, or do they create a context in which a healthy discussion may occur? Are they the only “going paradigms” that may be adopted?

In the coming weeks, I hope we can address this. I’ve enlisted the help of my friend, Stevin Gehrke, Professor in the School of Engineering at KU, pious Lutheran committed to classical, orthodox, confessional Lutheranism, and thoughtful interlocutor. Actually, this discussion finds its impetus in his proddings. Some things will get posted here on the blog. We can also use the Renascentes Musae Facebook page for less formal exchanges. If you have not yet joined us there, look us up, and welcome aboard.

But what’s your reaction, now, to this matter? Do you have any helpful things to say in addressing the questions above? Do you have other matters that you think can help the discussion along? Do you think that something like an intellectually and theologically rigorous and responsible science can be articulated from the Wittenberg perspective? Please weigh in!

[Image: Aritmetica; mosaic]


Steve Gehrke said...

Jon- These are an excellent set of questions with which to open a discussion - some that I think I can answer (or at least offer an opinion) and some that I think could be developed into a PhD thesis. I will probably have to wait until the end of the week to weigh in as I'm getting my classes off the ground this week among other deadlines. However, I look forward to any comments from the blog's readers regarding your questions in the mean time.

Thanks for you interest in the topic.


Anonymous said...

Wow, very exciting for me as a parent of a very high achieving son who may enter the sciences. I would love for there to be a place for him to study that isn't overtly anti Christian.

Most of the best science and engineering schools are not Christian and most of the Christian schools are not highly selective science and engineering schools. That leaves the demographic of high achieving Christians underserved.

Steve Gehrke said...

As someone with 34 years in science and engineering departments as a student, faculty and administrator at major state universities, including some with reputations as being very liberal, I can state with some confidence that students will run into limited anti-Christian sentiments from faculty and students in these departments, especially in the applied sciences and engineering. There are usually some faculty members in the basic sciences who may be evangelical in support of scientific materialism, but even those who are typically are respectful of students with conservative religious backgrounds and not confrontational about it.

Any hostility toward orthodox Christianity in secular universities emanates from the liberal arts departments, in my experience, not the sciences. On his blog, Gene Veith often highlights such examples.

As I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog in the comments sections, I am of the opinion that in the short term, the best option for orthodox Lutheran students interested in the sciences and engineering is a strong university in their discipline associated with a strong campus ministry. In my case, the University of Minnesota is one such institution with high quality engineering and science departments and an excellent campus ministry at the University Lutheran Chapel. I am certain there are others, it would be helpful to try to identify more.

Jon Bruss on Ren Mus is trying to coordinate a conversation on whether there is a better way to educate orthodox Lutheran students in an intentional way. I've raised the question of how the sciences (including mathematics) and engineering fit into this concept. I am trying to organize some thoughts of my own to respond to questions such as those he has posed questions above.