This essay was published at National Catholic Register.
Central to the claim that science was born of Christianity is the flip side of the coin that modern science did not emerge in any other culture. Why? The short answer is that all the other cultures were influenced by pantheism. The explanation takes more ink though.
Definition first. The word “pantheism” is borrowed from Latin. “Pan” refers to the whole universe and mankind. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pantheism” is a belief that God is immanent in (existing within) or identical with the universe. It is the doctrine that God is everything and everything is God. Pantheism is essentially nature worship.
Shouldn’t nature worship be conducive to science? Pantheism is, after all, a reasonable conclusion based on observation of nature. As people searched for God, they noticed the cyclical regularity in nature, the days and nights, the moon, sun and stars, the seasons, the rhythms in life such as hearts beating, sleeping and waking, reproduction, and the birth and life cycles of plants, animals, and humanity. Ancient cultures reasonably concluded, in various ways, that the universe is one big eternally cycling organism. Except for the Hebrew culture of the Old Testament, which we will return to later, all of the major ancient religions espoused a form of pantheism. Let’s look at some examples.
The Hindus held the doctrine of the âtman. This is the Indian expression for the “cosmic person” or the “cosmic powers” of the “primeval Self”. The âtman bred and “bethought” himself (Thirteen Principal Upanishads, 294). The doctrine of the âtman represents the supreme principle of life in the universe, a perception of an eternal unity which underlies the phenomenon of ultimate nature, also called the Brahman, the highest Reality (Philosophy of the Upanishads, 85). The beginning of the Aitareya Upanishad (texts about the nature of reality) describes how the âtman is an endless cycle of births and decays: his mouth, nostrils, eyes, and ears become fire, winds, light, and the heavens; his skin and hair become the plants and trees; his heart the moon; and his semen becomes the water with his navel exuding corruption. The goal of the individual self was to lay hold of the cosmic Self. Notice how pantheism did not turn people to the physical realm, but away from it.
The Egyptian pantheism was expressed as animism. Egyptian religions worshipped spirits who govern the natural world. According to historians, ancient Egyptians thought living and non-living things had souls that could detach from their bodies and take on other forms, like animals. Egyptians came up with mythical hybrid anthropomorphic animals such as, among many others, Hathor, the star-bespangled Heaven-cow and Queen of the Underworld; Renenit, the celestial cobra nurse who suckled the Pharaohs; and the Jackal-god, Anubis, who conducted the souls of the dead to the “Field of Celestial Offerings” (From Fetish to God in Ancient Egypt, 56-77). They thought time and form emerged from a primal serpent, who took on the designing mind, the Indwelling Soul, and created the universe by self-generation. In a Coffin Text (formula on burial coffins), the serpent exclaims, “I extended everywhere, in accordance with what was to come into existence, I knew, as the One, alone, majestic, the Indwelling Soul, the most potent of the gods. He it was who made the universe in that he copulated with his fist and took the pleasure of emission. I bent right around myself…His utterance was what came forth from his own mouth.” This utterance—this creative Word—was the ancient Egyptian derivation of the Logos (Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, 51, 244). Again, notice how the creation account remains surreally tied to organismic cycling.
Chinese pantheism manifested as Taoism, Moism, and Confucianism. In a 1922 article in The International Journal of Ethics titled “Why China Has No Science: An Interpretation of the History and Consequences of Chinese Philosophy,” the author Yu-Lan Fung concludes that “China has not discovered the scientific method, because Chinese thought started from mind, and from one’s own mind.” Taoism taught a “return to nature,” but “nature” meant the natural state of things, including the natural tendency of man toward vice. According to Taoism, virtues and social regulations are against nature. Man was to focus inward. Knowledge was considered to be of no use because the Tao is inside humans (Fung, 241-242) A passage from Chuang Tse (an ancient Chinese philosopher quoted by Fung) says, “There is the universe, its regularity is unceasing; there are the sun and the moon, their brightness is unceasing…Be like these; follow Tao; and you will be perfect.”
Moism was more utilitarian. Universal love was taught as a doctrine for the benefit of the country and people, and anything that was incompatible with the increase of wealth and population was to be fought against (Fung, 244-248). Confucius taught that human nature is essentially good but people are not born perfect. To become perfect, the innate reason must be developed and lower desires shed, such that individual seek what is in themselves and leave external things to natural destiny (Fung, 249-253). Even the practical forms of religion sought to separate from the external world.
There is more, but those examples demonstrate the point. Pantheistic, animistic, cyclic accounts of the generation of the universe do not place significance on a systematic investigation of the natural world because they point to some ultimate reality sundered from it. Probably the most specific pantheistic error in understanding physical reality is found in ancient Greece.
The ancient Greeks held the doctrine of the Great Year. In contemporary terms, NASA defines the Great Year as the period of one complete cycle of the equinoxes around the ecliptic, about 25,800 years. Plato called the cycle the “perfect year” because it marked the length of time for the celestial bodies and stars to return to their original positions, and this view was steeped in eternal, universal cycles of birth-life-death-rebirth for all things.
Aristotle, Plato’s student, wrote volumes on logic, politics, biology, taxonomy, physics, and cosmology, and undoubtedly achieved the most mature form of science during Hellenic times, particularly in the biological sciences. His History of Animals turned biology into a formal discipline. His On the Parts of Animals laid the foundations for comparative anatomy. His On the Generation of Animals was the authority on embryology for centuries. But notice: biological sciences are not stifled so much by a pantheistic worldview because they deal with living things.
The problem came when inanimate objects were also assumed to be living. In On the Heavens, Aristotle extended his animistic views and made a serious error that went uncorrected for seventeen hundred years. In holding so firmly to the belief that all things have a soul and therefore seek their final cause for which they are best suited, it was assumed that physical objects act according to desire. Rocks, for example, desire to move to the ground because that is their resting place. Aristotle concluded the following: “A given weight moves a given distance in a given time; a weight which is as great and more moves the same distance in a less time, the times being in inverse proportion to the weights” (Book 1, Part 6). In other words, he thought that if two rocks—say one five times heavier than the other—are dropped from the same height, the heavier one takes five times less time to hit the ground because its soul has five times the inclination to be there. You can walk outside and test this for yourself to see that is not what happens; the rocks hit the ground at roughly the same time.
It is perplexing that no one noticed this error in daily life, not just among the ancient Greeks but among the Arabian scholars (monotheists) who followed Aristotle’s teaching into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (another story). Apparently the grip of pantheistic orthodoxy would not allow scholars to see that the free fall of objects had nothing to do with their spiritual unrest.
Who refuted this idea? The medieval Christian scholars did when they combed through the Greek scientific works to straighten out any ideas that contradicted Christian precepts. They rejected the idea of an eternally cycling cosmos because it contradicted the Christian dogma that God created the universe with an absolute beginning in time. This rejection, in turn, caused them to look for other explanations about physical motion.
Fr. Jean Buridan, the priest who became rector of the University of Paris in 1327 and taught there for three more decades, had the critical breakthrough that could be taken as the beginning of modern physics—his impetus theory (more here). Fr. Buridan introduced the concepts that would lead to Newton’s first law of motion, that a body at rest would stay at rest and a body in motion would stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by another force.
The pantheistic mindset is not conducive to such a theory because it is fundamentally and institutionally opposed to inanimate forces. Christianity, however, is not. We believe in a creation, not an emanation. We do not worship nature. We worship the Creator of nature.
There is one other important detail to note here: Remember I said that pantheism is reasonable based on the observation of nature and natural cycles? Well, the belief that the universe has an absolute beginning in time and is created out of nothing was a belief based on faith, not reason, not observation, so says St. Thomas, “By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist” (ST.I.46.2) So you can say that science was born of faith in Christ.
Now we can address the psychological impact of pantheism. The gods, according to Plato in Timaeus, are made in the form of a circle, and the world is made in the likeness of an animal. According to Aristotle, time is also a circle. If time is a circle and the cosmos eternal within this circle, emanating like an animal from the pantheistic god, then the gods are ultimately un-aging, un-alterable, and un-modified. Consequently, all change, including human knowledge, is cyclical and unchanging too. Whether you are a brilliant scholar or the least accomplished servant, Aristotle concluded that all people’s thoughts and innovations are cyclical too: “The mere evidence of the senses is enough to convince us of this, at least with human certainty. For in the whole range of time past, so far as our inherited records reach, no change appears to have taken place either in the whole scheme of the outermost heaven or in any of its proper parts…The same ideas, one must believe, recur in men’s minds not once or twice but again and again” (On the Heavens, Book 1, Part 3).
But enough of antiquity.
Imagine for yourself the psychological impact of pantheism. If you were born into a culture infused with pantheism, might you feel powerless to impact your destiny? Why would you have any motivation to understand how the physical world works? Why would you have any reason to think you could improve your lot in life? Why would anyone think in terms of progress? Progress to where? Perpetual cycles do not progress.
Certainly, individuals and groups achieved scientific skills and ideas in mathematics, physics, and biology in the ancient cultures, but modern science as a universal discipline of physical laws and systems of laws did not emerge in any of them. Pantheism can hardly inspire intellectual curiosity or confidence, at the cultural level, to organize a mathematical investigation of the laws of nature.
In a pantheistic mindset, you are stuck in whatever point in the cycle you live. If you are born in an age of despair, what can you do but live in despair? An ancient Hindu Upanishad expresses the attitude poignantly, “In the cycle of existence I am like a frog in a waterless well” (Maitri Upanishad, 244).
If you are born into a golden age, perhaps like some people today find themselves, what can you do but exploit it and ponder the doom that is to come? Indulge me a minor extension here, because the point of studying history is to better understand the present and future. Obviously British boy bands do not worship star-bespangled Heaven-cows or self-generating serpents, but there is a hint of pantheism’s attitude sung in the words of the Tears for Fears 1982 hit, soaring as these artists were with their first chart topper:
“I find it hard to tell you
Cause I find it hard to take
When people run in circles
It’s a very, very
The late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, a priest, physicist, and historian whose life’s work was dedicated to communicating these ideas, nailed it with his characteristic terseness in his 1988 book the The Savior of Science. “Both attitudes cry out for salvation, although the second may be the less receptive to it” (44). But I want to leave you with a more optimistic thought.
Belief in a Creator and creation out of nothing is radically different from any pantheistic worldview. Christians do not see God as “immanent” in or identical with the universe. We understand that God is “transcendent” (the antonym), and that He created the universe with order and wisdom. We take this biblical worldview for granted today, as does most of the scientific community, but this outlook was literally codified in the ancient Hebrew culture, defended by the early Christians, and guarded by the Church ever since. Like I said before, this belief forms an unbroken thread all the way back to Genesis, which is why the first step to navigating science (and life) is to profess the first line of the Christian Creed in a primal, pervasive, and authentically progressive confidence—for Christianity certainly does not stifle the study of Creation.
Want to learn more? See Stanley L. Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1986). A new edition of this monumental work is coming this fall from Real View Books.
Thank you to Christian philosopher, Michael Cantrell, PhD, for asking: “In your view (or in that of Stanley Jaki), exactly what is it about the belief in a cyclical universe that stifled the development of science?” A most relevant question.