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Catholic Epistemology

Since I was educated in a protestant seminary, I'm not at all able to explain the last 300 years of the Roman Catholic Church. However, the word "catholic" means "all-encompassing, general" so one might argue that these are the views of the majority of Christianity.


Saint Augustine was the giant of the early church. Educated in Greek philosophy, he nonetheless forsook a promising career in philosophy to pursue religion. His contributions are multiple, not the least of which was his understanding of knowledge (or "science" for this course).
faith ==> science ==> faith
There is a lot of profound emphases in this little statement.
  1. It's iterative, cyclic. They build on each other. The whole history of science might be seen as an unfolding of this cycle. Stanley Jaki argues that science could only have developed where Christianity had previously shown the way.
  2. All the advances of modern physics, biology, computer science, etc, cannot undermine faith. Think about it a moment. Augustine is saying that knowledge, say of Darwin's evolution, can only enrich faith. Or that faith in miracles, such as seeing Jesus walk on the water, only serves to enhance science.
  3. This view then, fits neither the separation view [o o], nor the incorporation views, rather it fits better with the overlapping view [OO].
Augustine focusses a lot on logic. Neo-Platonism sees the nature of Reality as embodied in God's word. That is, Nature is not god or a god, but a direct expression of God. As McGrath puts it, there are only 3 views on nature: it is divine; it is a product of divinity; it is neither divine nor a product of divinity. Augustine adopts the middle view, which is most consistent with the overlapping Venn diagram:
Jaki argues that this position is the only way that science can avoid the extreme pitfalls. To the right lies superstition. To the left is chinese medicine. Only down the center is real science possible. As we have discussed earlier, one has to hold the reality of the world out-there as certain, while holding our view of that reality as hypothetical, and subject to change, in order for science to progress.


Medieval scholastics struggled with both understanding faith and science together. One of the issues that divided them was the tradeoff between "reason / experience" and "revelation". That is, proofs of God's existence get you up to only the first stage of Aquinas' two stage world. In the end, after exhausting all our attempts to understand the universe with our own abilities, we need the extra-ordinary revelation of God to comprehend the order. Revelation is required because God is not constrained to be logical, or perhaps, our finite understanding cannot constrain God.
This two stage approach can be seen to persist in arguments today, just replace the Christianity with "Truth" or "Order". For example, in arguments about "change being inevitable", one should ask why this motto should remain unchanging.

Enlightenment Rationalism

During the Renaissance many took exception to this division. SOme argued that Reason was king.

This is what was implied by Descartes famous dictum "Cogito ergo sum." He even writes a passage in which he divorces knowledge of God from either science or divine revelation.
This approach to science is highly theoretical, and should you talk to a theorist, makes perfect sense. Paul Davies book "God and the New Physics" makes this point exactly--the theory of everything. But what is forgotten is how often the theorists are wrong! (Sort of like Babe Ruth's record number of strikeouts.) For example, Kant had an astronomy book that was laughable. Hegel figured out how many planets there should be based on logic. So in the end, Reason as king falters for all the same reasons.


As an alternative we have finally empiricism. John Locke's view of the world.

Here we have much of the lore of the illusive "empirical method", Observations -> Data -> Hypothesis -> Testing . The problem, of course, is that very little science follows this pattern. As Thomas Kuhn points out in his "Structures of Scientific Revolutions", scientific methods do not ever overturn old theories or create a groundswell for new theories. Rather, they are a weak support for established theories that amount to a bit of maintenance. One doesn't build a skyscraper with a dustpan and broom, but one maintains it with those tools after it has been built.

Religious Epistemology

Success of German Criticism

German liberalism was enormously successful, overtaking all the protestant seminaries in Europe, and making deep inroads into the more conservative American seminaries. The reasons for this success might include the following:

Darwin's impact

So when Darwin's 1859 Origins book arrived on the scene, it gave a humanist, anti-miraculous or naturalist answer to the theological question "Why are we here?", "Where did we come from?" and "Where are we going?". In England in 1860, the year after, a group of Anglican clergymen wrote a collection of articles called "Essays and Reviews" in which they assented with Darwin and presented a clearly humanist view of the church. This movement became known as "Broad Church" in England. America, with its Anglophile preachers, imported it to the colonies and for example Henry Ward Beecher in N.Y.C popularized this approach.

Not everyone got on the bandwagon, however, one theologian at Princeton Seminary (then a conservative seminary in America--you've heard my story about its founding) named Charles Hodge correctly saw that the potential heresy of Darwinism lay not in its claim of common descent (e.g. that humans may be descended from monkeys), but rather in its view of natural selection occurring only by chance. This aspect, he argued, made a dramatical break with Christianity. All the accomodation of religion to Darwinism couldn't remove this crucial difference with Christianity. It was either God or Chance.

So among conservatives, there was consensus that Darwinism wasn't Christianity, but many in the liberal elite flirted with variations on a theme. Theistic Evolution, Evolution as evidence of God's interaction with life, etc. What changed this rosy picture was World War I. The effect was, for obvious reasons, much more dramatic in Europe than in America.

World War I

Remember, the three pillars of German liberalism were: Implicit in all of these is a highly optimistic view of man, society and nature. Thus WWI was a devastating blow. Several books have tried to show links between Darwinism, and in particular his view of "survival of the fittest" as applied to society, and WWI. Vernon Kellog, and Benjamin Kidd both argue in their books that the German militarism that led to WWI was fueled by "social Darwinism". The link with Nietzche was even stronger, but made more explicit in WWII. Thus there was not only a theological reaction to liberal theology, but a sociological reaction to a foreign philosophy that had just destroyed Europe. Who would want to import this explosively dangerous philosophy into America? Wasn't WWI proof positive that such innovations were dangerous and diabolical?

What were the consequences for conservative Christians? The first and most immediate was a reactionary response. In the early 1910-1920 time frame, conservatives published a series of articles in a collection called "Fundamentals", listing the theological beliefs that could not be compromised without loss of faith. The concept of making a collection of definitive statements is nothing new, for over the centuries the church had developed "creeds" that were succinct theological summaries intended to capture the important issues of faith in response to some heretical controversy. If one reads the Nicene Creed, written in 325 AD at the Council of Nicea in response to the Arian Heresy, one has a hard time understanding the issues involved "I believe in God the Father Almighty, ... God from God, light from light, true God from true God..." (Nor could anyone change the words of a creed, as exemplified in the Roman Catholic insertion of a single adjective "filioque" that caused the split from the Orthodox Church.) So it is entirely traditional, that in response to the (mostly) protestant heresy of German liberalism, the conservatives developed a new creed and allegiance to that creed made one a "fundamentalist".

A different tack was taken in Europe, as Karl Barth responded to the WWI Prussian belt buckles that read "Gott Mit Uns", God with us, claiming divine support for bloody war. He developed a theology known as Neo-Orthodoxy, that stressed the utter transcendence of God, and the inability for culture or theologians to accurately understand God, much less appropriate Him. While very popular in the middle half of the 20th century, neo-orthodoxy seems to have been absorbed back into the polarized conflict between conservatism and liberalism. Nonetheless, we should not overlook the fact that Karl Barth counter-attacked with a new theory of knowlege, with epistemology. The understanding of absolutes, of truth, seems to be an important response to liberalism on both continents, a topic I call religious epistemology.

Religious Epistemology

Another approach to understanding the Fundamentalist movement, is to consider the different ways that modern religious movements understand God. I call this religious epistemology, because it makes some assumptions about our understanding of God, absolutes and Truth. That is, it elevates one particular way or method of knowlege over the others, leading to some similarities that might not be expected.

Medieval Synthesis ==> 3 options
  1. RATIONAL: Liberal protestant, Deism, Unitarian
  2. EXPERIENTIAL: Pietism, Pentecostalism, Revivalism, Hippy
  3. CREEDAL: Neo-Orthodoxy, Fundamentalism (Roman Catholic?)
Without going into all the details of religious epistemology and its effect on the Religion vs. Science debate, we want to focus on that lightning rod of American culture, the conflict between Fundamentalism and Naturalism in the sciences.
Last modified, February 7, 2003, RbS