Disasters often lead to some of the most unpredictable changes in human culture. The bubonic plague struck Europe in the Fourteenth Century, killing about one-third of the population. Vicitms would notice rosy red boils that on their skin with circular discolorations around them. Eventually the disease would lead to sneezing and coughing as the body tried to fight of the disease. Many people believed the disease was airborne through vapors and odors. Fragrant flowers were thought to ward off the the disease, so people filled their homes and the pockets of their clothes with fragrant flowers. The poesy was a frequent choice.
In England, children developed a game that came to memorialize this time in history. They would gather around in a circle, join hands, and begin skipping to a little ditty that went like this: “Ring around the rosy, ring around the rosy, achu achu, we all fall down!” Then they would drop to the ground. This sounds incredibly morbid to us today but it is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for European cultures to make sense of this disaster. Centuries later, we still see the impact of these events.
A by-product of the plague in England was a radically reduced labor force. Land went unattended because there were not enough workers to care for the land. Peasants were in demand. Landowners had to bargain with peasants to retain there services. It virtually bankrupted many former manor owners. Some peasants became squatters on unused land. The land owning class tried to prohibit them from squatting but it was impractical. Over time, the distribution of wealth became wider giving birth to an English middle class. Similar events happened elsewhere in Europe.
Meanwhile, a trend began to emerge 200 years before this plague. Alfred Crosby in his Measurement of Reality shows that, by the Fourteenth Century, scholars were becoming virtually obsessed with the categorization and quantification of everything. Anselm and the rise of Scholasticism in the 11th and 12th Centuries surely played a major role in this. St. Thomas Aquinas’ Aristotelian influence in the 13th Century fueled the phenomenon. The plague seemed to give greater urgency to learning as scholars sought wisdom and understanding concerning their changing times.
Then, one hundred years after the plague, two things happened almost simultaneously: The invention of the printing press by Guttenberg (1452) and the fall of Constantinople (1453).
Considerable scholarship had been developing in Europe over past centuries but it was highly fragmented. It was very difficult for scholars to share information back and forth. There was no way to broadly circulate scholarly learning and most people were illiterate.
The printing press meant that information could be widely disseminated. It also dramatically improved literacy. The supply of reading material motivated many to become literate. With a rising middle class in many parts of Europe, there were a growing number of people who had the means to become literate and access information.
As for Constantinople, it was a treasure trove of ancient art and literature. Many scholars of Greek language and culture lived there. When the city was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, many of these scholars fled to Europe. The confluence of Scholastic thought, the rising middle class, the invention of the printing press, and the infusion of Greek scholarship (among other things) gave rise to the European Renaissance. This period gave birth to many great things, but the advent of science has to be at the top of the list.
Over the next few centuries, science supplanted the church as the final arbiter of truth claims. The white lab coat and microscope replaced the white collar and robe as the accoutrements of priestly authority. The hubris of the Church rendered it unable to adapt to the times. New ways of being and thinking relegated the church to subordinate status. Over the centuries, the major challenge for the Church was its relationship to science. Theological liberalism and conservatism both emerged as tandem partners to scientific-rational approaches to life and culture.
At the end of the 20th Century, the sacrosanct status of science began to crumble. The scientific world is experiencing the consequences of its own hubristic impulses. Ironically, it is taking theological liberalism and conservatism with it. I am not saying science is going away altogether. Christianity did not go away with the rise of science. What I am suggesting is that science will become a more marginalized players in the cultural milieu.
All that said, science is still very much a driving force in our time. As I reflect on the theological and social issues that are the most volatile in the public square, it is remarkable how many of them hinge on scientific understandings: Global warming, creation and origins, end and beginning of life questions, sexual orientation, and a host of economic and social issues.
I am going to spend the next few posts considering what science is, particularly from a sociological perspective. I will look at the issues of origins and global warming as two examples of how science and Christianity interplay. Then I will reflect on what this means for the church in the 21st Century. Strange as it may seem, I expect this to lead back to the “economics in the context globalization” thread I departed from last week.