Monday, June 10, 2002

Christianity, Science and China-again Send this entry to: Del.icio.us Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

Christianity, Science and China-again I'm going to address a comment about my previous post about Christianity and China. Here's Steve Chmielewski's comment:
I think it is only recently that Christianity is seen as benefiting the development of Western science. I, at least, grew up thinking that Christianity from Galileo thru Darwin resisted science every step of the way. I think if theres any validity to the claim that Christianity benefited the development of science it is that monotheism brought into Western consciousness the idea of rational, transcendent laws accessible to human reason. But even then it wasn't until the reintroduction of classical learning and philosophy into the West that science began to take off and the other monotheistic religions Islam and Judaism did not develop a full fledged science of their own. My own personal bias is that the seeds of modern science were sown in pagan classical Greece. Where I think Christianity may have been more useful in the development of the West is in the moral realm. The value Christian moral teaching (though rarely Christian moral practice) placed on the individual allowed for the development of liberalism, which is largely the secularization of Christianity. Brink Lindsey had some interesting posts on the subject.
First-it must be remembered that many of the great scientific thinkers-Descartes, Leibniz and Newton for instance-were religious men. Until the 19th century-atheism was exceptional. Though certain institutional blocks seemed to have prevented the Church-whether Roman or Protestant (Luther rejected the heliocentric model) from embracing the new science, men like Copernicus and Mendel did come out of the religious orders. The idea that monotheism demystifies nature is rather common. And yet, it seems that Thales of Miletus began this trend in the 6th century before Christ. In fact, many of the pre-Socratics attacked the standard dogmas about the gods. Heliocentrism and atomism for instance were originally Greek ideas-"rediscovered" and refined in later times (I must add though that the Greek ideas were highly aesthetic and overly rational). Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism were the three dominant philosophies between the rise of Rome and the ascendency of Neo-Platonism and Christianity-and all of them tended toward a demystified view of the cosmos. Granted, their concerns were often more with ethics and less with natural philosophy (though Sextus Empiricus was a Skeptic). In the east, both Hsun-Tzu (the third great Confucian philosopher) & and the Carvaka's of India expounded a rational and materialistic worldview devoid of gods and mysteries. So why Christianity? A good analogy might be this: Ancient Greece was the caterpillar, the Christian medieval West was the pupae, and the modern West is the beautiful butterfly that emerges after the initial formative developments. Obviously the caterpillar is just as important as the pupae-so Chinese intellectuals arguing for a conversion to Christianity to foster science should perhaps also argue for a cultivation of the Greek classics (and the Greek and Latin learning distilled through St. Augustine and the Church Fathers didn't seem to matter a wit until the arrival of Byzantine texts, the printing press and the conquest of Spain). I would argue that perhaps there are multiple ways to metamorphisize-and that the confluence of historic events-the fall of Byzantium, the printing press, and so forth, are more important than Christianity. I do agree that liberalism is to some extent a secularized Christianity. But it is also a dollop of Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, Germanic tribalism, and so forth. It is an organic outgrowth of Europe. Whether it can be grafted onto other cultures-we shall see. Certainly the Chinese lack of respect for individual rights is appalling. But one thing that concerns me is the perception that China has no native humanistic tradition-that China is defined by a raw Legalistic philosophy. The Confucians in their own time were ridiculed by the other schools for their relative pacificism. Their rivals the Mohists even formed self-defense unions to protect the weak states against the large ones. Confucius and his followers taught a few general principles that might percolate upward toward state-craft, li (rites) and jen (good heartedness). It was in fact the case throughout much of Chinese history that the Emperors were puppets-the axis mundi around which the bureaucracy operated. While European modern liberalism evolved in the context of the the Divine Right of Kings-the Chinese political theory grounded in the Mandate of Heaven already accepted that monarchs might fall due to moral failings. Confucius taught that right was more important than might. While the martial ideal often ruled the West-in China the scholar-official was supreme. I am surprised that the dissidents quoted in Ian Buruma's book never mention this-that they are so dismissive of their own rich and successful political tradition. The Chinese did not accept the primacy of the state over family-one could not be arrested for shielding one's own father against the authorities even if the said father had committed a crime. Granting all this-the Chinese were too successful with their state-building. While we in the West talk of nation-states-the Chinese developed a nation-empire 2,000 years ago. This excellent track record seems to make them suspicious of decentralization, and without decentralization pluralism is much more difficult (where do the intellectuals flee when one polity expels them if there are no others?). Chinese nationalism concerns me greatly-I don't care how high the average IQ is in China, it seems that jingoism is boiling to the surface now that basic subsistence is a given. Throughout history, China has been the Middle Kingdom, other civilizations were peripheral and fed off its vitality and productivity. The Chinese aim to reclaim this legacy, that much is clear. Today the West faces Islam, a withering civilization that is likely on its last legs-its spasms and convulsions threatening the integrity of its neighbors. But in the next century, I believe it is a revived China we must confront.







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