You are here

On The Connection Between Science and Revealed Religion


After what I have said, it may appear superfluous to conclude that the Christian religion can have no interest in repressing the cultivation of science and literature, nor any reason to dread their general diffusion, so long as this is accompanied by due attention to sound moral principles and correctness of faith. For if the experience of the past has given us a security that the progress of science uniformly tends to increase the sum of our proofs, and to give fresh luster to such as we already possess, in favor of Christianity, it surely becomes her interest and her duty to encourage that constant and salutary advance. Yet, from the beginning of the Church there have been found men, who professed a contrary opinion, and they may be divided into two classes, according to the motives which have instigated their opposition to human learning.

The first consists of those well meaning Christians, who in all ages, have fancied that science and literature are incompatible with application to more sacred studies, or that they draw the mind from the contemplation of heavenly things, and are an alloy to that constant holiness of thought, which a Christian should ever strive to possess; or else that such pursuits are clearly condemned in Scripture, wherever the wisdom of this world is reproved. This class of timid Christians first directed their opposition to that philosophy which so many fathers, especially of the Alexandrian school, endeavored to join and reconcile with Christian theology. They were, however, strenuously attacked and confuted by Clement of Alexandria, who devoted several chapters of his learned Stromata to the vindication of his favorite studies. He observes very justly, that "varied and abundant learning recommends him who proposes the great dogmas of faith, to the credit of his hearers, inspiring his disciples with admiration, and drawing them towards the truth ["Stromata," Lib. i. cap. 2. Tom. i. p. 327, ed. Potter.] which is in like manner the opinion of Cicero, when he says, "magna est enim vis ad persuadendum scientiae." ["Topica," Oper. Tom. i. p. 173, ed. Lond . 1681]. Clement then illustrates his argument by many quotations from the Holy Scriptures, and from profane authors. I will read you one remarkable passage.

"Some persons, having a high opinion of their good dispositions, will not apply to philosophy or dialectics, nor even to natural philosophy, but wish to possess faith alone and unadorned: as reasonably as though they expected to gather grapes from a vine which they have left uncultivated. Our Lord is called, allegorically, a vine, from which we gather fruit, by a careful cultivation, according to the eternal Word. We must prune, and dig, and bind, and perform all other necessary labor. And, as in agriculture and in medicine, he is considered the best educated who has applied to the greatest variety of sciences, useful for tilling or for curing, so must we consider him most properly educated, who makes all things bear upon the truth; who from geometry, and music, and grammar and philosophy itself, gathers whatever is useful for the defence of faith. But the champion who has not trained himself well, will surely be despised." [Ibid. c. ix. p. 342].

These words, I must own, afford me no small encouragement. For if, instead of geometry and music we say geology, and ethnography, and history, we may consider ourselves as having, in this passage, a formal confirmation of the views which we have taken in these Lectures, and an approbation of the principles on which they have been conducted.

As this opposition continued in the Church, so was it met by zealous and eloquent pastors, as most prejudicial to the cause of truth. St. Basil the Great seems particularly to have been thought a most strenuous defender of profane learning, in his age. He himself earnestly recommends the study of elegant literature, at that age when, according to him, the mind is too weak to bear the more solid food of God's inspired word. He expressly says, that by the perusal of such writings as Homer, the youthful mind is trained to virtuous feelings; at the same time, however, that care must be taken to withhold all that can corrupt the innocence of the heart ["Basilii Opera," Tom. i. Hom. 24].

St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of him with great praise, because he practically brought these principles to bear upon religion, and illustrated them by his great learning. "Many," he writes, "present profane learning as a gift to the Church; among whom was the great Basil, who having, in his youth, seized on the spoil of Egypt, and consecrated it to God, adorned with its wealth the tabernacle of the Church," ["De Vita Mosis." "S. Gregorii Nyssenni Opera." Paris , 1638. Tom. i. p. 209].

But the illustrious friend of St. Basil has entered more at length into the merits of this question. St. Gregory Nazianzen had been his schoolfellow at Athens; where both, animated by the same religious spirit, had devoted themselves with signal success to the prosecution of study, considering truth, according to the expression of St. Augustine, "wherever found, to be the property of Christ's Church." Indeed, so well did their schoolmate, Julian, understand the value which they and other holy men of their time, attached to human learning, and the powerful use which they made of it to overthrow idolatry and error, that, upon his apostasy, he issued a decree, whereby Christians were debarred from attending public schools, and acquiring science ["Socrates Hist. Eccles." Lib. i. cap. 12]. And this was considered by them a grievous persecution. One passage, from St. Gregory's funeral oration over his friend, will be sufficient to satisfy you concerning his opinion.

"I think that all men of sound mind must agree, that learning is to be reckoned the highest of earthly goods. I speak not merely of that noble learning which is ours, and which, despising all outward grace, applies exclusively to the work of salvation, and the beauty of intellectual ideas, but also of that learning which is from without, which some ill-judging Christians reject as wily and dangerous, and as turning the mind from God." After observing, that the abuse of such learning by the heathens is no reason for its rejection, any more than their blasphemous substitution of the material elements for God, can debar us from their legitimate use, he thus proceeds: - "Therefore must not erudition be reproved, because some men choose to think so; on the contrary, they are to be considered foolish and ignorant who so reason, who would wish all men to be like themselves, that they may be concealed in the crowd, and no one be able to detect their want of education," [S. Gregor. Nazianzeni "Funebris oratio in lauden Basilii Magni," Oper. Paris , 1609, tom. p. 323].

The terms here used are indeed severe; but they serve to show, in the strongest manner, the sentiment of this holy and learned man, on the utility of human science and literature. Turning to the great lights of the Western Church, we find no less severity of reproof used in dealing with those that oppose profane learning. St. Jerome, for instance, speaks even harshly of those who, as he says, "mistake ignorance for sanctity, and boast that they are the disciples of poor fishermen." [Ep. xv. Ad Marcellam, Oper. Tom. ii. Par. Ii. P. 62. Ed. Marianay]. On another occasion, he illustrates the Scripture from many topics of heathen philosophy, and then concludes in these words: - "Haec autem de Scriptura pauca posuimus, ut congruere nostra cum philosophis doceremus." "We have alleged these few things from Scripture, so to show that our doctrines agree with those of the philosophers." [Adv. Jovinianum," lib. ii. ib. p. 200]. Which words clearly intimate, that he considered it an interesting study, and not unworthy of a good Christian, to trace the connexions between revealed truths and human learning, and to see if the two could be brought into harmony together.

His learned friend, St. Augustine, was clearly of the same mind. For, speaking of the qualities requisite for a well-furnished theologian, he enumerates mundane learning among them, as of great importance. Thus he writes: - "If they who are called philosophers have said any true things, which are conformable to our faith, so far from dreading them, we must take them for our use, as a possession which they unjustly hold." He then observes, that those truths, which lie scattered in their writings, are as pure metal amidst the ore of a vein, "which the Christian should take from them, for the rightful purpose of preaching the Gospel." ["Debet ab eis auferre Christianus, ad usum justum praedicandi evangelium"]. "Have so many of the best faithful among us," he continues, "acted otherwise? With what a weight of gold and silver, and precious garments, have we not beheld Cyprian, that sweetest doctor and most blessed martyr, laden as he went forth from Egypt? How much did Lactantiius, Victorinus, Optatus, Hilary, bear away? How much innumerable Greeks?" [De Doctrina Christiana," lib. ii. cap. 40, Opera, tom. iii. par. i. p. 42. Ed. Maur.].

It is not difficult to reconcile with such passages as these, those many places where the fathers seem to reprobate human learning; as where St. Augustine himself, in one of his letters, speaking of the education he was giving to Possidius, says that the studies usually called liberal, deserve not that name, at that time honorable, which properly belongs to pursuits grounded on the true liberty which Christ purchased for us; or where St. Ambrose, to quote one passage out of many, tells Demetrias, that "they who know by what labor they were saved, and at what cost redeemed, wish not to be of the wise in this world." ["Epistolar." lib. iv. Epist. xxxiii. Oper. tom. v. p. 264. Ed. Par . 1632]. For it is plain that they speak, on those occasions, of the foolish, vain, and self-sufficient learning of arrogant sophists and wily rhetoricians, and of that science which void of the salt of grace, and of a religious spirit, is insipid, vapid, and nothing worth. And how can we for a moment, think otherwise, when we peruse the glorious works, and contemplate the treasure of ancient learning therein hoarded, and trace in every paragraph their deep acquaintance with heathen philosophy, and in every sentence, their familiarity with the purest model of style? Who can doubt, or who will dare to regret, that Tertullian and Justin, Arnobius and Origen, were furnished with all the weapons which pagan learning could supply, towards combating on behalf of truth? Who can wish that St. Basil and St. Jerome, St. Gregory and St. Augustine had been less versed than they were, in all the elegant literature of the ancients? Nay, even in the very letter to which I have alluded, St. Augustine, if I remember right, speaks without regret, and even with satisfaction, of the books on music which his friend had expressed a wish to possess.

The sentiments of the early Church have undergone no change from time on this, any more than on other points. Mabillon has proved, beyond dispute, that even among men of monastic life, learning was encouraged and promoted from the beginning ["Traité des'Etudes monastiques." par. i, cap. xv. p. 112. Par . 1691]. Bacon writes with great commendation of the zeal for learning which has always been shown in the Catholic Church. God, he writes, has always been shown in the Catholic Church. God, he writes, "Sent out his divine truth into the world, accompanied with other parts of learning, as her attendants and handmaids. We find that many of the ancient bishops and fathers of the Church were well versed in the learning of the heathens, insomuch that the edict of the Emperor Julian, forbidding the Christians the schools and exercises, was accounted a more pernicious engine against the faith, than the sanguinary persecutions of his predecessors. It was the Christian Church, which, among the inundations of the Scythians from the northwest, and the Saracens from the east, preserved in her bosom the relics of even profane learning, which had otherwise been utterly extinguished. And of late years the Jesuits have greatly enlivened and strengthened the state of learning, and contributed to establishe the Roman See."

"There are, therefore," he concludes," two principal services, besides ornament and illustration, which philosophy and human learning perform to religion; the one consists in effectually exciting to the exaltation of God's glory, the other affording a singular preservation against unbelief and error." ["De augmentis Scientiarum." Bacon's Works. Lond . 1818, vol. vi. p. 63].

Between the extremes which Bacon has named, the ancient fathers and the Society of Jesus, there is a long interval, during which, ins pite of ordinary prejudice, we must not allow ourselves to imagine, that the fostering spirit of the Church was not exerted in favor of profane learning. "I would observe," writes a learned and amiable author, "that to a Catholic, not only the philosophical, but also the literary history of the world is prodigiously enlarged; objects change their relative position, and many are brought into resplendent light, which before were consigned to obscurity. While the moderns continue, age after age, to hear only of the Caesars and the philosophers, and to exercise their ingenuity in tracing parallel characters among their contemporaries, the Catholic discovers that there lies, between the heathen civilization and the present, and entire world, illustrious with every kind of intellectual and moral greatness; the names which are on his tongue, are no longer Cicero and Horace, but St. Augustine, St. Bernard, Alcuin, St. Thomas, St. Anselm; the places associated in his mind with the peace and dignity of learning, are no longer the Lycaeum or the Academy, but Citeaux, Cluny, Crowland, or the Oxford of the middle ages." ["Mores Catholici, or Ages of Faith." Book iii. Lond . 1833, p. 277].

I will only refer you to his rich and glowing page for sufficient proof that classical and philosophical pursuits were zealously and ably followed in the solitude of the cloister by - "The thoughtful monks, intent their God to please, For Christ's dear sake, by human sympathies poured from the bosom of the Church." ["Yarrow revisited." 2d ed. p. 254]. But I cannot withhold from you the opinion of one who was a bright ornament of those calumniated ages. Among the exquisite sermons of St. Bernard on the Canticles, is one on this very theme; "that the knowledge of human learning is good:" in which the eloquent father thus expresses himself. "I may, perhaps, appear to depreciate learning too much, and almost to reprove the learned, and forbid the study of letters. God forbid. I am not ignorant how much learned men have benefited, and now benefit the Church, whether by confuting those who are opposed her, or by instructing the ignorant. And I have read, 'because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will reject thee; that thou shalt not do the office of the priesthood to me.'" ["Serm. xxxvi. super Cantica." Opera, p. 608. Basil . 1566].

Such then has been the feeling and conduct of the Catholic Church regarding the application of profane learning to the defence and illustration of truth: and perhaps the best answer which can be given to such inconsiderate Christians as say that religion needs not such foreign and meretricious aids, is that of Dr. South; "if God hath no need of our learning, he can have still less of your ignorance."

The second class of writers who assert that religion is not interested in the progress of learning is actuated by very different motives. For it comprises those enemies of revelation, against whom these Lectures have been principally directed, and who pretend that the onward course of science tends to overthrow or weaken, the evidences of revealed religion. I have had so many opportunities of practically confuting these men, that I shall not stay to expose any further the folly of their assertions. I will only observe that this ungrounded reproach was not made, for the first time, by the modern adversaries of Christianity, but is in fact the oldest charge brought against it. For Celsus, one of the most ancient impugners of its truths, whose objections are on record, especially taunted us with this hostility to science, from a fear of its weakening our cause. But he met with an able and victorious opponent in the learned Origen, who triumphantly rebuts the calumny, and draws from it a conclusion which I cannot refrain from quoting. "If the Christian religion shall be found to invite and encourage men to learning, then must they deserve severe reprehension who seek to excuse their own ignorance, by so speaking, as to draw others away from application." ["Contra Celsum." Lib. iii. Opera, Tom. i. p. 476, ed. De la Rue ]. This remark, while it shows the security felt by Origen, that Christianity could not suffer by the encouragement of learning, is also a just rebuke to that timid class of friends who are alarmed at its progress.

More than once I have had opportunities of vindicating Italy, and Rome especially, from silly calumnies in this regard. I have proved that this city has been the foremost in encouraging and aiding science and literature, the tendency of which was to probe the foundations of religion to their very centre, without jealousy and without alarm. There is no country, perhaps, where the higher departments of education are so unreservedly thrown open to every rank, where the physical sciences are more freely pursued, and where oriental and critical literature have been more fostered than here. This city possesses three establishments in the form of a University, in which all branches of literature and science are simultaneously cultivated under able professors; and there is a chair in the great University of a character perfectly unique, wherein the discoveries of modern physics are applied to the vindication of Scripture. In my own case, I should be unjust to overlook this opportunity of saying, that on every occasion, but principally in reference to the subject of these Lectures, I have received the most condescending encouragement from those whose approbation every Catholic will consider his best reward on earth [I feel a pleasure in relating the following anecdote. A few years ago, I prefixed to a thesis held by a member of my establishment, a Latin dissertation of ten or twelve pages, upon the necessity of uniting general and scientific knowledge to theological pursuits. I took a rapid view of the different branches of learning discussed in these Lectures. The Essay was soon translated into Italian, and printed in a Sicilian journal; and I believe appeared also at Milan. What was most gratifying, however, to my own feelings, and may serve as a confirmation of the assertions in the text, is, that when two days after I waited upon the late Pope, Pius VIII, a man truly well versed in sacred and profane literature, to present him, according to form, with a copy of the Thesis prepared for him, I found him with it on his table; and in the kindest terms he informed me, that having heard of my little essay, he had instantly sent for it; and added, in terms allusive to the figure quoted above from the ancient fathers, "you have robbed Egypt of its spoil, and shown that it belongs to the people of God."].

Conclusions from the Twelve Lectures on the Connection Between Science and Religion (New York: Gould and Newman, 1837), pp. 384-392.