BOOK REVIEW: Science Was Born of Christianity by Stacy Trasancos

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“Science, it must not be forgotten, lives by hope no less than does religion.”

— Rev. Stanley L. Jaki, Catholic Essays (1990), p. 27

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Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki, with a foreword by Rev. Dr. Paul Haffner, by Stacy Trasancos (The Habitation of Chimham Publishing Company: Titusville, FL, 2014 [e-book 2013])

Here’s a stocking-stuffer for you:

The birth of Christ was integral to the birth of science as we now know it.

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis which Fr. Stanley Jaki (1924-2009, pronounced “YAH-kee”) sought to demonstrate in dozens of academically sterling publications over as many years. Real View Books, the publishing house which he founded and which now seeks to popularize his works and other great works of the Catholic tradition, sketches his background thus:

Stanley Ladislas Jaki, a Hungarian-born Catholic priest of the Benedictine Order, was Distinguished University Professor at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. With doctorates in theology and physics, for over forty years he specialized in the history and philosophy of science. The author of over fifty books and over three hundred and fifty articles, he served as Gifford Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and as Fremantle Lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford. He lectured at major universities in the United States, Europe, and Australia. He was an honorary member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, membre correspondant of the Académie Nationale des Sciences, Belles-Lettres et Arts of Bordeaux, and the recipient of the Lecomte du Noüy Prize for 1970 and of the Templeton Prize for 1987.

Despite the boldness, rigor, and depth of Fr. Jaki’s research , there has been relatively little mainstream elaboration of Fr. Jaki’s work. The earliest work that I know of which summarizes and synthesizes Jaki’s work is Creation and Scientific Creativity: A Study in the Thought of S. L. Jaki by Paul Haffner (originally published in 1991 by Christendom Press, and then revised and expanded in 2009 by Gracewing in Hertfordshire, England). In 2006 I launched inFORM: A Catholic Quarterly, while in Taiwan, to expose a wider “lay” audience to Jaki’s work and the wisdom of Catholicism in general (though inFORM has been on hiatus since the inaugural issue–for which Fr. Jaki graciously wrote the editorial essay!–due to budgetary constraints). Additionally, there is The Duhem Society, founded on April 7, 2009 (the same day Fr. Jaki died in Rome), the purpose of which “is to study the writing of Pierre Duhem and Stanley L. Jaki, two great Catholic historians of science.” Significantly, the formation of a Duhem Society was a personal wish of Fr. Jaki himself.

Without getting too far afield, Pierre Duhem was a devout French Catholic layman and physicist who was effectively blackballed for his commitment to Catholicism, and ended up writing massive, groundbreaking histories of science based on long neglected medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. Much like Fr. Jaki, Duhem’s work in the history of science did not gain broad mainstream acceptance or notoriety until after his death at only 55 in 1916. Fr. Jaki went out of his way to emphasize how important Duhem’s scholarship and integrity was for his own, so it is fitting that a Jaki-Duhem Scoeity would carry both of their torches for future generations. The Duhem-Jaki thesis about the origin of exact science is discussed here by Eric V. Snow; Jaki’s research has also been favorably discussed in Donald J. Keefe’s, SJ, magisterial Covenantal Theology ([1991] 1996), Vinoth Ramachandra’s Gods That Fail (1996), Thomas E. Woods’s How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (2005), and Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason (2006), to name a few notable references.

In any case, the bad news is that Jaki’s work has still not achieved broad mainstream exposure, but the good news is that a growing web of research and fidelity is keeping his legacy alive. It is in this larger “Jakian” stream that Stacy Trasancos inserted her own contribution, Science Was Born of Christianity. In chapters 1, 2, and 3, Trasancos parses elements of the book’s title–“Science,” “Was Born,” “Of Christianity,” respectively–to illuminate Fr. Jaki’s main insights about the interface between real science and true religion.

In the first place, what do we mean by “Science”? A faulty definition of this will either subjugate religion to an overweening scientism, Fr. Jaki’s lifelong bête noire, or will short-circuit science in favor of fideism. According to Fr. Jaki, “exact science” (as opposed to natural or theological science) is nothing less, and, crucially, nothing more, than “the quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of objects in motion” (Trasancos, p. 29). Of course, this definition of “exact science,” as Jaki insisted on calling it, “differs from the classical definition [of ‘science’, or scientia qua knowledge of causes)] in the medieval universities,” which is why it is so important to specify which kind of scientia one is seeking. Scientism (or positivism) contends that all knowledge is only empirical, quantifiable knowledge, thus disqualifying theology, morality, and metaphysics as domains of knowledge. All other considerations aside, scientism is false simply because the scientistic thesis itself is not empirically verifiable or quantifiable. Much to our shame, we live in a scientistic culture, driven by the four S’s that Fr. Jaki loved to poke fun at: Sport, Sex, Science, and Smile. As such, being able to put science “in its place” (literally and conceptually) not only frees devotees of scientism from empirical idolatry, but also opens the way towards higher forms of knowledge, ultimately and hopefully to knowledge of the Incarnate Word of God.

Second, Trasancos parses the phrase, “Was Born.” Again, to a scientistic culture like ours, this borders on heresy. Science is almighty and eternal! It is the way (to stability), the truth (about the world), and the life (of society)! In reality, though, “exact science” is a very delicate and finicky thing, subject to abuse, corruption, and delusion just like any other human endeavor. Consider works like Impure Science: Fraud, Compromise and Political Influence in Scientific Research (1992) by Robert Bell, Science, Money, and Politics: Political Triumph and Ethical Erosion (2001) by Robert S. Greenberg, Trust Us We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (2002) by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, and The Deliberate Corruption of Climate Science (2014) by Tim Ball, among many others. In a word, Lysenkoism is not a purely Soviet problem. Science was born and it can easily die. It is not a metaphysical given, but was a gift wrapped in very particular paper (of which more presently), and its continued progress is not an eschatological guarantee.

Just as a fetus requires proper conditions to survive birth, so it requires ongoing care to grow and ward off death through its entire life. Historically and logically, exact science required very precise social and, most importantly, conceptual (viz., theological) conditions in order to be born, and its vitality going forward depends on sustaining those same conceptual parameters. As Jaki wrote in one of his most important works, “Science cannot arise, let alone gain sustained momentum, without an articulated longing for truth which in turn presupposes a confident approach to reality” (Trasancos, p. 71).1 cf. Science and Creation (1986), p. 19 While something very much like exact modern science was “born” in other civilizations in the past (Egyptian, Babylonian, Mayan, Greek, Islamic, etc.), Jaki has marshaled extensive evidence of the “stillbirth” of science in those same civilizations. “He acknowledged cultural wombs that were capable of developing science even to the point of viability as a sustained discipline,” explains Trasancos. However, his “choice of the word ‘birth’ was to show that the final step from isolated dependence to universal independence was not taken in any culture before the Scientific Revolution in the Middle Ages” (p. 73).

This leads to the third phrase, “Of Christianity.” What were–and are–the specific conceptual features of Christianity that allowed for the birth and flourishing of exact science, according to Jaki (and Duhem). First, there was the belief that the world was orderly and reflected the good will of Divine Wisdom itself. In contrast, cultures such as the Babylonians saw the world as a chaotic battlefield of the gods and dark powers. No scientist can conduct his work if he believes his subject is inherently chaotic and inconsistent. Christianity rescued man from this delusion by positing an orderly, logical world, one created by the Logos Himself. Second, there was the Christian belief that man, made in the imago Dei, was created with the capacity to understand the world. As Adelard of Bath (1080-1125) wrote to his nephew,

[Exploring natural causes does] not detract from God. Whatever this is, is from Him and through Him. But the realm of being is not a confused one, nor is it lacking in disposition which, so far as human knowledge can go, should be consulted. Only when reason totally fails, should the explanation of the matter be referred to God. (Trasancos, p. 121)

Unlike the Hindu view that the sensible world is all illusion, “the Christian faith kept a realistic view of the world firmly in place,” which “demonstrates the naturalism of the Christian mindset, a realistic naturalism necessary for the vitality of scientific progress” (pp. 120, 121). In contrast to a pagan worldview that subjugated man, and his explorations of the world, to quixotic, magical, animistic, and astrological forces, as well as in contrast to an Islamic view of God in which Allah could alter natural laws at whim, the Christian God had illuminated mankind with his own light to explore the world, and had signaled His own fidelity by the consistency and intelligibility of nature’s ways. As Psalm 136 proclaims:

3 O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures for ever;
to him who alone does great wonders,
    for his steadfast love endures for ever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
    for his steadfast love endures for ever;
to him who spread out the earth upon the waters,
    for his steadfast love endures for ever;
to him who made the great lights,
    for his steadfast love endures for ever;
the sun to rule over [i.e., regulate] the day,
    for his steadfast love endures for ever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
    for his steadfast love endures for ever….

The reign of God is the basis for the regularity (or, lawfulness) of nature, which is an integral assumption for scientific progress.

In a similar vein we read in Wisdom 7:

16 For both we and our words are in his hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
17 For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;
18 the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
19 the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
20 the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts,
the powers of spirits and the reasonings of men,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
21 I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
22 for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.

And, to cite a passage that Fr. Jaki cited in nearly every discussion of this issue, Wisdom 11:20 proclaims that all:

men could fall at a single breath
when pursued by justice
and scattered by the breath of thy power.
But thou hast arranged all things by measure and number and weight.

Behold! A world that could be blown apart by the breath of an otherwise fickle God, is in fact subject to His created order, and, moreover, intelligible for mortals in terms of scientific “measure and number and weight”! Truly, the birth of Christ was the impetus for the birth of exact science, freeing mankind from subservience to erratic celestial powers, and liberating us from the pessimism of cyclical worldviews.2 I do not want to drag this review out too long, so I will merely mention in passing that impetus and the futility of cyclical (Greek, Hindu, Mayan) worldviews, as opposed to the linearity of the Christian Heilsgeschichte, are two other key points in Fr. Jaki’s analysis. The Incarnation of the Divine Logos was a universal message that the empirical world was rooted in and destined for a larger rational order. This is the only view of the world which can sustain exact science, otherwise it will succumb to Platonic idealism (à la unbridled string theory or the just-so-story of the multiverse hypothesis) or to a self-stultifying pessimism that sacrifices finite human autonomy on the altar of cosmic determinism (à la hard determinism or nihilistic ontologies of consciousness).

In chapter four Trasancos engages with critics of Fr. Jaki’s work, some of them fellow Catholics. Since, however, I believe you should familiarize yourself with Fr. Jaki’s writings before dealing with his critics, and since I don’t want to make this review too long, I will not discuss that chapter.

Rather, I will end on two personal notes.

First, please note that “Royalties from this book go to a friend [of Mrs. Trasancos’s], a United States military veteran and single mother, beginning on its publishing date … and extending for as long as she accepts the gift” (p. 7). So, by purchasing Science Was Born of Christianity, you are not only helping to keep Fr. Jaki’s legacy alive, but also doing a good deed to someone who needs it.

Second, I can say without any doubt that Fr. Jaki helped bring me into the Church, and I was blessed to meet him shortly before his death. He had a reputation for being pugnacious, no doubt, not least because one of his spiritual mottoes was Sirach 4:28–“Strive even to death for the truth and the Lord God will fight for you.”–but all who knew him knew a tender Servant of God, who bent his all his mighty physical and intellectual powers to the service of man and the glory of God.3 When I first saw Fr. Jaki, striding to the back of the chapel in Princeton where we had arranged to meet, I was taken aback at how sturdy and energetic he was, even at 84. In conversation over lunch I learned that he and I had both rowed in our teens. “No wonder he’s so amazing!” I joked to myself. By “destroy[ing]  arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and tak[ing]  every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5), Fr. Jaki had a remarkable and abiding power to draw others to the Church, and thus to the Sacred Heart of Christ, that he loved so dearly. Do yourself the favor of learning from this brilliant shepherd, beginning perhaps most profitably with Science Was Born of Christianity.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. cf. Science and Creation (1986), p. 19
2. I do not want to drag this review out too long, so I will merely mention in passing that impetus and the futility of cyclical (Greek, Hindu, Mayan) worldviews, as opposed to the linearity of the Christian Heilsgeschichte, are two other key points in Fr. Jaki’s analysis.
3. When I first saw Fr. Jaki, striding to the back of the chapel in Princeton where we had arranged to meet, I was taken aback at how sturdy and energetic he was, even at 84. In conversation over lunch I learned that he and I had both rowed in our teens. “No wonder he’s so amazing!” I joked to myself.