Science and theology are perceived, by some, as sitting on opposite banks of an abyss. They assume that the twain never can (or should) meet. But the separation between science and theology is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the West. Until the Renaissance, science was barely more than a descriptive discipline, while theology, considered the queen of the sciences, was a richly speculative and complex field of endeavor.
Fortunately, theology (yes—theology!) came to the rescue of science by providing it with a new understanding of reality. Theology (yes—theology!) provided science with the intellectual and conceptual tools it needed to get out of a deep rut and push forward with several important discoveries. These discoveries, in turn, allowed the development of technologies that now seem as essential to us as air or water. What–life without a computer? Without Wi-Fi? A cell phone? Pleeease!
This shift in human beings’ way of looking at reality occurred long enough ago that we’ve mostly forgotten that we haven’t always grasped reality the way we do today. Here’s a key illustration: there was a time when it was “common knowledge” that the earth moved around the sun. Peoples in the ancient world conceived of reality such that, for them, astral bodies such as the sun and moon rotated in orderly and eternally-static circles around the earth. Based on simple observation this view of reality made sense. The things they could see appeared to revolve around them while the ground on which they stood seemed solid and stationary. Today, of course, we know that while we tend to perceive motion relative to where we ourselves stand, we may, from the perspective of someone else, be moving.
So how did our mindset change? A 15th theologian by the name of Nicholas de Cusa (1401 – 1464) reached several novel conclusions about perspective. Some scholars still refuse to count his contributions as scientific because, technically-speaking, he was a theologian. But others, like philosophy professor, Karsten Harries, the author of Infinity and Perspective, credit him with destroying the belief in the geocentric theory of the cosmos inherited by pre-Renaissance science from the ancient world.
Thanks to Cusa, Harries argues in his book, Copernicus was able to break out of this mindset, a mindset that had persisted millenia.
So what was Cusa’s insight, exactly? It underwhelms us moderns but, in the 15th century, his insight was revolutionary. Cusa had been sent by the Pope to negotiate a reconciliation between the Greek Church and the Roman Church. On the return sea-voyage, his ship was heading home from Greece when he realized that if he couldn’t see the shore, he wouldn’t have any idea the ship was moving; instead, he would perceive the ship as sitting still in the water. He also realized that if he were not a passenger but, rather, someone standing on the shoreline watching the ship, he would, from his vantage point on land, perceive the ship as moving. Two perspectives (the one on the ship, the other on land) led to two experiences of movement.
In his theological work, On Learned Ignorance, Cusa wrote that the centers “by which we orient ourselves are fictions, created by us” to reflect the standpoint of the observer. Multiple centers of perspective, he realized, were not only possible but equally valid. Applying this insight to the universe, he argued that a person standing on Mars or on the moon was just as likely as an earthling to consider his or her piece of rock to be the center of the cosmos. Cusa concluded that the universe “will have its center everywhere and its circumference nowhere, so to speak; for God, who is everywhere and nowhere, is its circumference and center.”
By undermining the idea of a single-center based perspective, Cusa called into question any cosmology based on just one center. His clarity about the possibility of multiple centers and perspectives took him even further than Copernicus and Kepler would go a century later with their heliocentric cosmology. His influence was so sweeping and long-lasting that Kepler and Descartes acknowledged him as a precursor.
The Cusa-Copernicus-Kepler scenario offers more than just intellectual interest. If Harries is spot-on about Cusa’s contribution to science (historians of science, do you care to weigh in?), then there’s an important lesson to take away from this fascinating chapter in science-theology relations. The lesson is that if scientists like Copernicus and Kepler had refused to take seriously the theological writings of a pious genius like Cusa, then we might all have had to wait a lot longer for modern science.
Theologians and scientists live in the same world and, as fellow human beings, they’re charmed by mystery and seized by wonder. They ask many of the same questions about the world. They simply turn to different resources in their attempts to answer those questions, resources which need not be labeled incompatible. But as long as scientists and theologians sit on opposite banks of an abyss (created ex nihilo), no conversation will take place. Let’s start building a bridge, shall we?
References: Karsten Harries, Infinity and Perspective (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001); Nicolas of Cusa, Selected Spiritual Writings, trans. H. Lawrence Bond, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1997).