The following is my summary of the main points and thesis of Dr. Capetz’s lecture for our meeting on May 12 regarding science and religion. I will also include points that others seemed to find and I found interesting. Our points and Capetz’s points are, I hope, clearly distinguished. If people remember bits that I forgot or note a mistake that I’ve made, please feel free to post a response with added info or correction. Other responses to the lecture summarized below are also welcome, of course. Dialogue away!
Thesis: Capetz contrasted the impact of the Reformation on Western culture with that of the movement of scientific thinking on it in order to identify the unique set of challenges that scientific thinking posed to Western culture: changes in the conditions for truth and meaning or purpose to existence.
Luther, out of fear of eternal damnation for his soul, set out to find a gracious God. He interpreted scripture on the basis of this concern (i.e., to find a gracious God), and saw in scripture much evidence for his interpretation, which he thought fundamentally contradicted some of the thinking and practices of the Catholic Church at the time. This led him to notice other aspects that he considered un-biblical, and thus, too, in need of reform. The basis of his appeal, in all this, was the authority of scripture.
Out of this overview, Capetz highlighted two key points. First, conditions of truth are related to that which is ancient and regarded as authoritative. Second, while Luther questioned the church’s understanding of God, he never questioned God’s existence, and by extension, humankind’s place and purpose in creation. While the Reformation created a set of problems that eventually turned tragic in Europe, Capetz used these two points to highlight the unique problem that scientific thinking introduced into the mind of Europe, which was initiated by Copernicus.
Copernicus devised the theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, which challenged the assumption that the earth was the center of the universe. This challenge implied that if the Earth was not the center of the universe, then perhaps humankind is not the center of the universe – and by extension, that humankind was not the focus of God’s attention or concern. This single challenging implication was, however, merely the tip of the iceberg as it related to Christianity. If Copernicus was right, it would suggest that scripture could be in error: Not just Joshua 10, where the sun stands still, but the depictions of God in the Bible in which God is consumed in dealing with creation, especially human beings. As scientific thinking progressed and entrenched itself into the minds of Westerners, their fears were confirmed: Many other contradictions between the sciences and scripture emerged to the point that even the existence of God was questioned.
What exactly was the fundamental problem with these contradictions? Recall the two key points that Capetz highlighted regarding Luther and the Reformation: the conditions of truth and God’s unquestioned existence. Scientific thinking challenged both of these deeply engrained notions. Truth, for the sciences, has nothing to do with ancient authority or the Bible; it seeks truth or verifiability on the basis of its empirical method alone. Furthermore, if truth is reduced to what the scientific method alone has to say, the issue of God cannot even be raised, which can lead one to doubt God’s existence, but doubting God’s existence is not simply a mere matter of truth for most people. It touches on equally as deep issues related to meaning and purpose to life generally, which despite all the upheaval and turmoil that the Reformation sparked, was never even a remote concern of the people of the time.
If there is no God, so the thinking of many went, there might not be any ultimate purpose and meaning to our existence. The sciences, furthermore, seem to suggest such a conclusion: Existence comes about through a random or contingent set of events with no discernible telos (i.e., no direction, purpose or end), making life, at best, only what we make of it. In this case, there is no ultimate reality, no inherent morality – and so no actual justice, no punishment for the wickedest, not even vindication for innocent victims and the oppressed.