Faith and Learning

Faith and Learning: Does Christianity pose a challenge to intellectual inquiry?

 In June of 1633, Galileo Galilei Linceo was famously tried by the Roman Inquisition and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.[i] Galileo’s trial centered on his teaching of heliocentric theory (presented in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), which ran contrary to Catholic Church’s interpretation of certain biblical passages declaring the immovability of the Earth:

Tremble before him, all the Earth! The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.[ii]

He set the earth on its foundations. It can never be moved.[iii]

Galileo taught heliocentric theory in a way that challenged the Church’s interpretation of the above passages, offending Pope Urban VIII in the process and ultimately bringing about his own trial. Consequently, Galileo was censured, and his works were placed on the Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the Index of Forbidden Books – along with Copernicus’ works on heliocentric theory from earlier years.[iv]

Similar censures resulted from Protestant doctrines. In 1613, The Lutheran Church excommunicated Johannes Kepler, famous today for his laws of planetary motion.[v] Kepler claimed that the moon is a planetary satellite in apparent contradiction to Scripture that described how “God made two great lights – the great light… and the lesser light to govern the night.”[vi] Again, a bold scientific statement opposed what Christians of the time interpreted from the Bible.

Such evidence of Christian opposition to scientific inquiry naturally raises questions and concerns. Chief among these is the Church’s relationship with the academy; does Christian tradition preclude intellectual inquiry? On the contrary, close examination of Scripture, Christian theology, the historical record, and some instances of intellectual suppression reveal that Christianity is not an inherently epistemophobic tradition of faith.

The various texts of the Bible constitute the foundation of Christianity; because the conflicts with Galileo, Kepler, and others like them arose from clerical interpretation of Scripture, the Bible may yield insight into the Church’s historical stance on the advancement of knowledge. Specifically, Christians are encouraged to seek out knowledge for the purpose of wisdom and discernment of God’s character. From the Old Testament, Christians are told that, “the heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”[vii] In the New Testament, Saint Paul urges followers of Christ to gain knowledge so that they might determine the truth of their faith for themselves:

and this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.[viii]

Both of these biblical passages speak to the importance to Christians of seeking knowledge as a means of discerning the will of God. It is therefore unsurprising that the Church of the past did not always hasten to adopt new scientific theories – valid or not, it’s difficult to see what even a claim as striking as the heliocentric theory, for example, might teach the Church about the will of God. However, there is also little evidence that such a theory would interfere with a Christian understanding of the will of God, current or present. The pursuit of knowledge is emphasized not only in the above biblical passage, but also through theological principles proclaimed by the Church itself. Therein lies the path to a possible, rational answer in the negative to the question, “Does Christian tradition preclude intellectual inquiry?”

Saint Paul’s first letter to the Philippians refers, importantly, to “depth of insight.” Paul’s juxtaposition of the phrase with the concept of holy discernment in this passage highlights “knowledge” as an important tool for the pious Christian. But this is not the only hint that the Church did and does consider intellectual inquiry a holy venture. Saint Thomas Aquinas, a priest in the 13th century and among the most famous and highly regarded theologians, professed that reason and faith were complementary methods of studying the divinity of God. In fact, Aquinas described reason and faith as two modes of the same truth:

There is then a twofold sort of truth in things divine for the wise man to study: one that can be obtained by rational inquiry, another that transcends all the industry of reason. This truth of things divine I do not call twofold on the part of God, who is one simple Truth, but on the part of our knowledge, as our cognitive faculty had different aptitudes for the knowledge of divine things […] natural reason cannot be contrary to the truth of faith.[ix]

Aquinas’ dependence on reason as an approach and compliment to faith in the divine – though not a substitute for such faith – forms the basis of the Christian intellectual tradition. Indeed, Pope Leo XIII granted Thomism a central place in Catholic orthodoxy in his encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879. Dr. Richard Grigg, a modern theologian and professor at Sacred Heart University, says of Thomism and intellectual inquiry: “If reason is trustworthy and cannot conflict with faith, then reason can indeed be allowed, in the words of John Paul II […] to ‘search for the truth wherever analysis and evidence lead.’ Academic freedom can be grounded in the Catholic commitment to reason.”[x]

History is rife with manifestations of Christian interest in the academy. By the 4th century, Christian teachers were prominent in Classical education. Following Saint Augustine’s treatise De doctrina Christiana, followers of the young faith sought literacy and formal training in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy in order to more rigorously study Scripture.[xi] After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Christian monasteries became a stronghold of literacy, preserving the skills of reading and writing along with Greek and Latin texts on philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. Bishops founded schools for young laypeople. In the 12th century, a “medieval renaissance” saw the creation of urban schools that began instructing clerics; schools in Paris taught logic while others in Chartres taught the sciences. Greco-Arabic texts on cosmology, mathematics, and physics were translated and studied in Italy and Spain. Theology, ethics, navigation, medicine, and more were taught at Christian institutions.[xii] When Pope Gregory IX declared Toulouse the first studia generalia by papal bull in 1233, the modern university was born. Each studia generalia formed by papal or royal bull was widely recognized with the ability to authorize its doctoral or mastership admits with license to teach anywhere. (Note: a handful of older academic institutions such as Oxford became de facto studia generalia by force of reputation alone).[xiii] In the 16th century, the Reformation wrought great changes on Western education as well, with Martin Luther promoting universal education, and Sir Francis Bacon championing the scientific method.[xiv] At the same time, the Jesuits began a Counter-Reformation that focused largely on education. By 1615 – only 81 years after the order was founded – the Jesuits had 372 colleges, and by 1755, they had 728.[xv]

Scripture, apologetics, and the history of education reflect a harmonious relationship between Christianity and the pursuit of knowledge. The Church has accepted rational thought – and by extension, intellectual inquiry – as consistent with, and even necessary in, pursuit of a Christian understanding of the divine. Yet, the cases of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler suggest a religious suppression of academia, or at least of scientific progress. However, historical sensationalism has perhaps underlined such cases and downplayed numerous counter examples. Of note in this discussion are (in no particular order): Sir Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal, Michael Faraday, George Washington Carver, Gregor Mendel, James Clerk Maxwell, Louis Pasteur, Leonhard Euler, and many more renowned scientists who practiced some form of Christianity.[xvi] Furthermore, self-identifying Christians comprise 72.5% of Nobel Prize recipients in chemistry, 65.3% of those in physics, and 62% in medicine. Individuals within the 33.2% of the world’s Christians have collectively received 65.4% of Nobel Prizes since the prizes began in 1895.[xvii] In other words, Christians are outnumbered by non-Christians 2:1, yet the international community has recognized individuals’ excellence in academia at a ratio of 2:1, Christians to non-Christians. Such a comparison bears no intention of competition, but rather the affirmation that intellectual inquiry even at the highest level is alive and well amongst the Christian community.

Yet these revelations again fail to address known instances of the Church suppressing intellectual inquiry, clearly at odds with the evidence supporting Christianity’s positive relationship with the academy. Christians have certainly suppressed new and challenging ideas in the past, but there is often more to these instances than classic dogmatism, including personal sentiments like fear and pride that may cloud an individual’s judgment. One is reminded, for example, of the larger scientific community’s rejection of the theory of continental drift as recently as the 1950’s. Perhaps the most striking act of intellectual suppression was Marie Tharp’s dismissal from her position at Columbia University when she chose to pursue the theory.[xviii] Yet the theory of continental drift is now widely accepted, and actions taken against Thorp and others are seen as errors in judgment rather than the scientific community’s rejection of new ideas. Similarly, past misunderstandings regarding faith and science may have had more to do with individuals than an entire institution or religion.

Galileo’s trial is a prominent example of how personal affairs can affect Church matters. As mentioned above, a closer examination of Pope Urban VIII’s role in the trial of Galileo reveals nuances important to this discussion. Prior to writing his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo had spoken at length with Pope Urban VIII regarding the heliocentric theory. Pope Urban, a friend of Galileo’s and an initial supporter of the heliocentric theory, took personal offense when his words were used by the character Simplicio in Galileo’s dialogue (“Simplicio” roughly translates to “simpleton”).[xix] So great was the offense that it formed a portion of the Church’s formal charge against Galileo when they summoned him to Rome in 1632; he was accused of “having, in the body of the work, put the true doctrine in the mouth of a fool, and having approved it but feebly by the mouth of another interlocutor.”[xx] It is quite possible that Galileo’s strained relationship with Pope Urban VIII ultimately cost him his freedom after a trial that might not have happened at all had Galileo been more diplomatic in his writing. Similarly, the cases of Copernicus, Kepler, and others censured by Christians may be viewed as wrongdoings born out of fear, misunderstanding, and personal conflict, not fundamental conflict between the Church and intellectual inquiry. Just as Christianity recognizes the necessity of reason as the lesser counterpart of faith, so too does it acknowledge that individuals often fall to temptation, including errors in judgment made from pride and stubbornness. From the Christian perspective, no human and certainly no Christian is exempt from these failures in the face of temptation – what the body of Christ refers to as sin. As Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[xxi] In the light of these shortcomings, Christians can only ask forgiveness of God and of their fellow man for mistakes of the past.

Such acts of repentance have in fact begun. Literature on the heliocentric theory has long since been removed from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, along with many other works. In 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a public apology for the Church’s treatment of Galileo, as well as for historical attacks on women, native peoples, and Jews.[xxii]

Though many people still struggle with the dynamic between faith and science, Church-endorsed censures are a practice of the past. Today, Christianity continues to play a significant role in intellectual inquiry, with at least 13,000 Christian schools and 570 Christian universities in the United States alone – not counting universities founded as religious institutions that have since become secular, such as Dartmouth College and six of the seven other Ivy League universities.[xxiii]

So Christian tradition does not preclude intellectual inquiry. On the contrary, Christians have long been leaders in theology and philosophy, innovators in science and technology, and advocates of learning on all fronts. All such effort – despite failures, sins, and difficulties – amounts to one ambition:

Do not be conformed to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will.[xxiv]

Central to the above passage is the imperative to not conform. This warning encourages all of us to consider both our acceptance of and opposition to various traditions of faith and belief. Both Christians and non-Christians often misunderstand each other’s worldviews. As Thomas Aquinas believed, intellect is crucial to the comprehension of spirituality. Upon reflection, Christians and skeptics alike will hopefully embrace an understanding of spiritual and moral beliefs separate from our own as an inherent part of intellectual inquiry.
i. Francis Wegg-Prosser, Galileo and his Judges (London, U.K.: Chapman and Hall, 1889), 87-88.
ii. 1 Chronicles 16:30 (NIV).
iii. Psalm 104:5 (NIV).
iv. Wegg-Prosser, 87-90.; For more information regarding the complexities of the Galileo affair, see the Apologia’s “Galileo Revisited” (Part 1 at, Part 2 at
v. Dermott J. Mullan, “Excommunicated for Scientific Beliefs,” National Catholic Register, 30 November 2003, < excommunicated_for_scientific_beliefs/>.
vi. Genesis 1:16 (NIV).
vii. Proverbs 18:15 (NIV).
viii. Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV).
ix. Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 9. < htm>.
x. Richard Grigg, “What is the Catholic Intellectual Tradition?” Sacred Heart University Review 13, no. 3, art. 4 (1993).
xi. James Bowen and Henri-Irénée Marrou, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Education in Classical Cultures: Ancient Romans,” last accessed 31 July 2015, < education#toc47476>.
xii. James Bowen and Pierre Riché, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Europe in the Middle Ages:
The Medieval Renaissance,” last accessed 31 July 2015, < the-Middle-Ages#toc47507>.
xiii. James Bowen and Pierre Riché, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “The Medieval Renaissance: The Development of the Universities,” last accessed 31 July 2015, < Europe-in-the-Middle-Ages#toc47507>.
xiv. James Bowen and Ettore Gelpi, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “European Renaissance and
Reformation: Education in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation,” last accessed 31 July 2015,
< European-Renaissance-and-Reformation#toc47548>.
xv. James Bowen and Ettore Gelpi, Encyclopedia Britannica Online, s.v. “Education in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation: The Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation,” last accessed 31 July 2015, < European-Renaissance-and-Reformation#toc47548>.
xvi. Rosalind W. Picard, “Sample of Famous Artists and Scientists who were Christians,” last accessed 15 August 2015, < great_xians.php>.
xvii. Baruch A. Shalev, 100 Years of Nobel Prizes (New Delhi, India: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2003).
xviii. David A. Grimaldi and Michael S. Engel, “Why Descriptive Science Still Matters,” BioScience Vol. 57, No. 8 (September 2007): 646-647.
xix. Weggs-Prosser, 51.
xx. Weggs-Prosser, 80.
xxi. Romans 3:23 (NIV).
xxii. “The Galileo Affair,” The Vatican Observatory, accessed 20 July 2015, <http://vaticanobservatory. org/research/history-of-astronomy/54-history-ofastronomy/ the-galileo-affair/370-the-galileo-affair>.
xxiii. “Private School Universe Survey,” National Center for Education Statistics, 2007-2008, accessed 16 July 2015, < table_2008_14.asp>; David M. Quinn, “Christian Colleges in the United States,” 5 July 2012, <http:// are-there.html>.
xxiv. Romans 12:2 (NIV).
Trevor Davis ’18 is from Raleigh, NC. He is a prospective Computer Science major with a minor in Math.

Faith and LearningImage: Whirlpool Galaxy – Alyssa Barlis, The Williams Telos, Spring 2013.

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