The changing nature of science, theology, and medicine

At the outset of the millennium, religion was the queen of the

One of the most dramatic stories of the last thousand years is the evolution of Western culture from its medieval to its modern phase. This massive evolution of thought involved equally massive changes in Western science, theology, and medicine - changes that reached a crescendo at about the midpoint of the millennium and then gave our modern era some of its most distinctive characteristics.

A thousand years ago, theology was the

queen of the sciences, and only medicine, of these three, had an empirical and practical component. Gradually, however, as the medieval gave way to the modern, science detached itself from theology and drifted over into the same empirical and practical camp as medicine. This, in turn, marginalized theology, which became the discipline, left behind by changing ideas of science. It also changed medicine, the practical and empirical discipline as it became far more abstract in its embrace of impersonal science late in the millennium.

What was it about the massive shift from the medieval to the modern that brought about these changes in science, theology, and medicine? A major part of the answer must lie in what some scholars have called the "banishment of self."

Medieval thinkers saw the world as pervaded by self - the selves of men and women and the great Self of God. These selves were the only actors in the world with everything else passive and receptive. It was more than just an anthropomorphic sense of things. Personified motives were seen behind every activity. In such a world, theology was the queen of the sciences because it was a search for the great Self (God) behind all the world processes and behind all the lesser selves who also acted in this world. By mid-millennium, however, this medieval world view was already breaking down because of a shift to empirical observation and measurement. Men whom we now think of as early scientists - Galileo, Copernicus, Newton - began to view the world as an impersonal machine, rather than as the projection of some great Self or selves.

As a result, science during the second half of our millennium became the study of this impersonal machine, and medicine became the parallel study of a machine-like human body. This left theology either to continue alone in its medieval search for the great Self or to adopt an impersonal, law-oriented approach to the transcendent. In either case, theology had moved to the periphery of Western culture.

In fact, to a thoroughly modern sensibility, it might seem strange to link theology with science and medicine at all. But in fact the paths of these three disciplines did overlap and interrelate, with medicine and science growing together and religion largely going its own separate way.

Today, all this may be changing again. Recent debates over quantum theory and artificial intelligence may hint at a new kind of science. Furthermore, a growing interest in the holistic treatment of disease may presage a reintroduction of the human self into 21st-century medicine. But if what we know as the "modern" era is starting to break down, this story really belongs to the next millennium, not to this one.

The fact is that the thousand-year period now ending saw a major shift from medieval to modern in Western thought. Taking this millennium as a whole, the description of the world as a self-less universe of matter will be long remembered as the "modern" scientific ideal, and "modern" medicine will long be remembered for its treatment of humans as self-less bodies and processes.

This is not to say that something better is not on its way, but only to be fair to a thousand years of human history and to recognize it for what it truly has been.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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