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A Stark Contrast

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Kishore has helpfully pointed out the discussions going on elsewhere about Rodney Stark’s piece and the related NYT David Brook’s op-ed. He derides some of the commenters for their lack of economic understanding, but I’d like to applaud one commenter’s post. He questions, as I do, the fundamental validity of Stark’s thesis (which essentially ignores such an important strand of Christianity as Eastern Orthodoxy). Among other astute observations, Christopher Sarsfield asks: “Was it the principles of Christianity that put the ‘goddess of reason’ on the altar of Notre Dame? Or rather was it the rejection of Christianity and the embracing of the Enlightenment?”

The historical phenomena of the Enlightenment is one fundamental place of failure in Stark’s piece (I have not read his book, perhaps he deals with it there. For now, I’ll have to restrict the conversation to the thesis as it appears in the Chronicle of Higher Ed article). In broad strokes, let’s say that I agree with Stark that Christianity is perhaps the single greatest influence on the flowering of Western civilization. As Scottish presbyterian theologian John Baillie has said, “The great shadow on the conscience of the modern West is the shadow of the Cross.”

Where we differ is in our estimation of the role of reason in Christian theology, and thus in our view of the contribution that the Christian view of reason made to the broader world. Stark’s claim that the Christian appreciation for reason was the basis for capitalism, and implicitly therefore technological and scientific advance, simply does not account for the complex historical antecedents and contexts of these systems.

With respect to theology, modernity (usually traced to Descartes) and the Enlightenment up through and beyond Immanuel Kant, is aptly (although simplistically) characterized by the triumph of reason over revelation, a truly Copernican revolution. As Sarsfield states, “Christianity is a religion of revelation. Our primary guide is not logic and reason, but faith in God’s revelation, which reached its fullness with the incarnation of Christ.”

The engagement of Enlightenment critical philosophy placed the relationship between faith and reason in an altogether different one than had dominated precritical times. The less-than-amicable reception of modernity by pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism attests to this. (As a side note, a debate over the reception of Immanuel Kant by Christian theology is now freely available in the Journal of Markets & Morality archive, beginning here with a piece by Derek S. Jeffreys, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and continuing with a response by Robert P. Kraynak, professor at Colgate University.)

Instances abound of a rationalistic Christianity, such as Cambridge Platonism (more broadly latitudinarianism) and the religion of reason itself. Indeed, the deistic religions, not Christianity, are those which best meet Stark’s definition of having a “fundamental commitment” to “reason and progress.” The placement of all these developments under the broad rubric of “Christianity” is simply untenable.

Don A. Howard laments that “explicit engagement with the philosophy of science plays almost no role in the training of physicists or in physics research.” The foundations of modern science in rational religion are all too often ignored these days, not only by those in the natural sciences, but also those in the social sciences.

If Stark is right, that Christianity’s most important contribution to the Western world has been a commitment to reason, if this is how “the West was won,” then that is cause for mourning and repentance, not celebration. It means that the church’s vocation has been usurped, our commission has been left unfulfilled.

The historic and theological relationship between faith and reason is a critically important one for study. But it deserves far more careful attention than what it appears to be given by Stark’s thesis. In general, the church has bordered on being far too accomodating of the modern world, and this is evident in its proclamation and apologetics. John Baillie wrote in the first half of the last century:

During the last several generations we who preach the gospel have been far too ready to assume that the modern man had developed an immunity against its appeal. We have approached him apologetically. We have made stammering excuses for our intrusion. For the old direct challenge we have substituted the language of debate. Where our forefathers would have confronted him with God’s commandments, we have parleyed with him over God’s existence and over the authenticity of His claims.

The fundamental commitment to revelation over reason is one that is shared by the great Christian tradition, represented by Augustine, Aquinas, and all the other great Christian theologians that Stark names. It is not a commitment that is shared by proponents of a rationalistic Christianity or reasonable religion, and this difference cannot be overlooked in any account of the rise of Western civilization.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Jack Appelmans

    Perhaps citing a few facts regarding the accomplishments of rational thought prior to Christianity, and the interaction between Christianity and reason and between Christianity and capitalism might illuminate the discussion further.

    The Greeks have undisputably laid claim to the first successful effort to explain natural phenomena using rational thought, and to inventing two systems to do so, mathematics and logic. Their accomplishments in science and medicine are also notable demonstrations of reason’s first triumph over spirituality.

    The Christianity of the time returned spirituality to primacy as the means of thinking. Of course, the Catholic Church dominated the picture of Christianity in Western Europe (I omit the Greek Orthodox Church here) during the period before the Enlightenment. The Catholic church had systematically eliminated alternative forms of Christianity (Gnosticism, Albigensianism, Arminianism, etc.) through the prosecution of what it deemed heresies, post-facto. It should be noted that it did so not through logic and reason, but through violent means. Given the availability of tens of alternate gospels at the time of the selection of the canon, and what we know of the process of its selection, it is not possible to prove that the Catholic church’s doctrine was the original, correct doctrine of Jesus _by rational means_. Therefore, it is not strictly possible to speak of the Catholic church (or any other) as the sole custodian of the Christian faith _using reason_. This is why fundamentalists claim that the authors of the Bible were God-inspired, as were those who selected the canon, _and_ those who translated the New Testament’s Aramaic into Greek.

    It was, then, this Catholic church, the sole representative of Christianity in Western Europe, that suppressed the dissemination of the Greek texts on science, logic, mathematics and medicine that it alone possessed. It also suppressed the spread of literacy, which was fundamental to the spread of rational thought, by restricting the Bible and liturgy to Latin, and the teaching of Latin to priests.

    These texts were, in fact, re-introduced to Western thought by the (Muslim) Moors during their invasion of southern Spain. Had it not been for Alexander’s expansion of the Greek Empire into Asia and Africa, and the adoption of science and mathematics by the Arabs, this might never have occurred. In fact, it is not at all clear that, absent Alexander, we would be using reason rather than revelation today. Thus the Greeks and the Arabs both have a greater claim to the spread of rational thought in Western Europe than the Catholic church.

    Science only resumed its fitful progress through the work of Copernicus and Galileo, after fifteen centuries of the church’s oversight during which reason made no progress whatsoever. We must recall that Galileo was forced to recant the obvious (and rational) conclusion that the Earth revolved around the Sun by the Catholic church, under penalty of death. Even if the church _had_ promoted rather than suppressed efforts toward rational thought at the time of the Enlightenment, it is incredible that it would have deliberately taken fifteen centuries to do so. In fact, this is far more incredible than Stark’s assertion that the suppression of reason during the Middle Ages is a myth.

    It was only after the invention of the printing press and the Protestant reformation that literacy began to spread, and with it the capacity for absorbing the information that would be needed to displace spirituality and superstition with rational thought. Neither was an artifact of the Catholic church. The Protestant church advocated work and discouraged idleness and entertainment as a means to frustrate the workings of evil, as it was then perceived. The connection to capitalism is purely incidental; such work did not have to be organized for profit, which is the primary tenet of capitalism.

    It should also be noted that several doctrines of Christianity do not yield to reason. The prime example is perhaps the concept of the Holy Trinity as a triune being, which allows Christianity to claim that it is monotheistic while maintaining the position that there are three persons involved. This is, simply put, illogical. ‘One’ cannot also be ‘three’, unless they are completely different things, and one is an aggregate of the other, and the verb ‘to be’ is given a Clintonian twist.

    In today’s parlance, any such aggregate would have to be a team. Theologians explain that the Holy Trinity is one of the mysteries of Christianity that cannot be comprehended by the human mind. Since all logic is within the scope of human understanding, that makes it illogical, Q.E.D.

    As for the interaction with capitalism, Mr. Ballor rightly points out that charging interest was considered usury. However, it was the Jews who acted as bankers, not the Christians, during the Middle Ages, and accelerated the growth of commerce. All merchants could charge a profit; banking was not the only foundation of capitalism. Mr. Ballor does not address the role of Christians in the mercantile trade, and I am not familiary with Mr. Stark’s view on the question.

    What can be said about the positive relationship between Christianity and commerce in the Middle Ages is that it served as a kind of public works program through the building of cathedrals and the conduct of pilgrimages, both of which spurred commerce for the routes and destinations involved. However, these enterprises were clearly not undertaken for the benefit of the populace, nor for capitalist motives.

    The Church was also the primary patron of the arts, but it must be added that Christian theology restricted the use of art to depicting religious subjects (including Michelangelo’s ‘David’). It was the Protestant Reformation that permitted the development of landscapes, still lifes, and other forms of art that substantially enriched this aspect of commerce. Protestantism did not so much foster capitalism in this sense as remove the prohibitions against activities that did, for theological reasons.

    The negative aspects of the relationship between capitalism and the church are, of course, famous. The Catholic church’s abuse of mercantile practices became one of the primary pillars of Luther’s 95 Theses. Foremost among these practices, perhaps, was the selling of papal indulgences, which could be purchased to absolve sins that had not yet even been committed, but were premeditated, in order to fund the papal treasury. Tolerating, if not fostering, the trade in icons and relics, much of it fraudulent, also ranked high in the catalogue of the church’s exploitation of capitalism. These activities would not be defended by anyone as Christian; many of the popes and bishops of the time were openly mercenary with their authority and privileges, and some were despots. Claiming any association between capitalism and Christianity as evidenced in these activities requires an extremely loose interpretation of both terms.

    There are those who would claim that the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages did not implement true Christianity, and therefore its actions are not representative. Since it had no contemporary Christian peers, as a proxy we could do worse than to consider what Christian theologians today might claim of the relationships between work, property, capitalism and _what Christianity would have been if it had been perfectly practised_ when reason repeated its triumph over superstition and spirituality.

    Capitalism and Christianity are, at best, strange bedfellows. The mechanism of capitalism is, of course, founded on the principle of personal property. However, the association between Christianity and personal property has always been problematic, not to say uncomfortable. The early church was communal in its approach to property to a degree we would consider extreme in today’s capitalist society. For example, Ananias was, according to Luke in Acts, executed for withholding from the church a portion of the proceeds from the sale of a piece of property (I concede that Sapphira’s execution was probably primarily for fraud, blasphemy and hubris).

    Christianity has also always been run as a non-profit organization, rather than a commercial concern. Outside of the Catholic Church, it has not undertaken any business activities to generate revenues. However, it depends on financially-successful donors for its financial health. This presents a conflict of interest between the teachings of Jesus regarding materialism, and the health of the church itself. The balance lies in moderation between capitalism and philanthropy. This also requires that the church tolerate the concept of personal property for its own preservation.

    It should be noted that the Florentines and Venetians were the most prosperous traders at the time prior to the Enlightenment, and that it was not the church that commissioned, funded or oversaw their work. Even Spain’s devout Catholic King Philip II sponsored voyages to the Americas not to develop them, but to plunder them. So, there is no evidence I can find to defend the position that Christianity sponsored or supported either capitalism or reason, and a substantial body of evidence that indicates that it sought to suppress or exploit them.

    The link between Christian theology and work is also tenuous. “Prosperity Theology”, the notion that God showers material blessings on those who work hard and are faithful, certainly has its adherents. However, it conflicts with the tenet that God challenges us with trials (including financial ruin and poverty) in order to foster our growth no matter where we stand or are going, and is not considered sound by most Christian theologians. In fact, one of the key problems that is resolved by the doctrine of an afterlife is the material success of evildoers, and the sense of injustice this creates.

    Arminianism, founded on the principle that it is possible to lose one’s salvation by not working hard enough to fulfill God’s plan, has long been refuted by orthodox interpretation of the many references in the Bible regarding how salvation is won – by repentance and a declaration of faith in Jesus as the Savior, and by no other means, _including good works_.

    So, we cannot deduce that there is a conscious effort by contemporary Christianity to support capitalism merely because of it places an emphasis on work (as opposed to idleness or dissolution).

    Regarding the relationship between the Christian faith and reason, none of the Christian churches operating today that I know of repudiates miraculous healing, speaking in tongues, revelations, angels, demons, Satan, and other manifestations of the spiritual (not physical) world. These are wholly spiritual, and conversely completely irrational, concepts and phenomena.

    As Stephen Joy Gould argued, rationality breaks down when it attempts to deal with spiritual phenomena, and spirituality breaks down when it attempts to overrule reason in the physical world. At best, we can only aspire to a partially-holy alliance. It is necessary to find a balance between rationalism and spirituality where each explicitly concedes certain arenas to the other, and agrees not to stray over the boundaries. This means that Christianity should not, and cannot, successfully sponsor or otherwise influence rationality. The reverse is also true.

    I should add that I am omitting a discussion of churches that claim to be Christian while repudiating all or portions of the Bible; any organization can make such a claim, and the litmus test must be whether it follows doctrine that is defined as Christian. Although from a rational point of view (apologies to Josh McDowell) no doctrine can be proven to be the original doctrine that Jesus taught due to the extensive editorial work involved in the creation of existing versions of the Bible, there is no better frame of reference at the moment.

    Having established that the Catholic church opposed reason, that rationality and spirituality are mutually-exclusive, and that capitalism and the principle of personal property on which it is founded are either ambiguously addressed or were openly discouraged in fundamental Christian teaching, we must conclude that Stark’s claims for Christianity are unfounded and poorly reasoned. It would take a miracle for them to be actually true.

  • David Michael Phelps

    I will not attempt to respond to all that is here. But to start, I have a comment and a question: First, I think we ought to be more careful about laughing off the Church’s excommunication of Gallileo; a careful look at the situtaion shows the situtaion is much more complicated than is often portrayed and that the issue at hand was not the obviousness of the earth revolving around the sun. (The Discarded Image by CS Lewis offers a good introduction into the issues that were really at hand then). Second, the question I have for Mr. Appelmans is this: how does St. Thomas Aquinas figure into your supposition that the Catholic Church suppresed reason?

  • Kevin

    This is a neat narrative of the opposition between Christianity and reason, but fortunately (for Christians) the historical reality was considerably more complicated. The essay needs to be challenged at numerous points, but I’ll take one example: the mention of Galileo and Copernicus. The view that the Galileo affair was a conflict between, simply, the Church on one side and secular science on the other, has long been abandoned by historians, Christian and not. That Church authorities were mistaken in their condemnation of Galileo is freely admitted, but in fact Galileo had many supporters within the Church (including the hierarchy) and one of his patrons was the pope himself. In other words, the Galileo affair was a dispute *within* the Church over the theological implications of Galileo’s claims; it was not a contest between the Church and science. The Church was the sponsor of scientific inquiry, including Galileo’s.

    As for Copernicus, he was a religious (possibly a priest), trained in the Christian academies of the day and supported by Catholic authorities. His theory was promoted by some churchmen and opposed by others. Again, those on all sides of the debate were devout Christians. To portray the situation instead as a conflict between the Church and anti-Church scientists is to distort history.

  • Today’s BreakPoint commentary by Chuck Colson gives a brief review and survey of Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason.

    Concludes Colson: “This book will you give you some very good ammunition to answer those critics who come up with t