The Age of Reason.

In the middle of my lecture about the Enlightenment (I introduce Intro students to the discipline by running through a little Sociology of Knowledge stuff), a student responded to my description of Copernicus thusly:

“Well, but doesn’t that say more about Christians than Christianity?  I mean, the Pope was just misinterpreting the Bible.  The problem wasn’t religious doctrine but the people in charge of it.  The bible explains and defends the heliocentric universe.”

Despite my many and varied experiences, this was a new one.  Biblical verse supporting Copernicus?  Is this in Luke?  Revelations?  WTF?

Of course, I stumbled out a “that’s a question of religious belief, not a sociological question” and then wandered into “if you are of the belief that texts have stable, transcendental meanings then we’d have to start the discussion debating that” and finally collapsed into “we’ll save that for another day.  Maybe it would be a good office hours conversation?”



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4 responses to “The Age of Reason.

  1. You’re not going to make any headway here because the student is right… sort of. The problem is that the bible is amazingly, impossibly self-contradictory. It has passages that support geocentrism, passages supporting heliocentrism, passages claiming the value of pi is exactly 3… it’s a mess. So, really, everyone has to pick some verses they regard as “real” and some to ignore. And anyone who disagrees with the selection can, therefore, simply state that the other people aren’t really basing their views on the bible, but on human authority.

  2. Jenn Lena

    Well, good, since I’m teaching sociology, not biblical interpretation. My impression was that he was experiencing some friction between domains of information…since his comment wasn’t directly relevant to the point being made. I would hate to have to be so vigilant.

  3. As someone who teaches to a relatively religious conservative community, I see that as the usual “Christians getting defensive”. Every time you attribute something negative to Christians using to Bible as justification, they instantly claim that “these” Christians were wrong.

    My answer? Doesn’t matter, for sociology. That’s how they interpreted the Bible and acted upon said interpretation. Whether theological debate would validate or not is irrelevant.

  4. my (very hazy) understanding is that Bible doesn’t anywhere directly say the Earth is the center of the universe and the late medieval doctrine to that effect mostly came from Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of Christianity and Aristotle. so basically, the church’s error was not dogmatic defense of scripture but of (secular) learning from antiquity. so blame Athens, not Jerusalem for this particular mix-up. (this is not to say that the Bible is a science textbook, you can argue that the “E” creation is metaphorical but the “J” creation with all the business about breath in nostrils is very obviously not.)
    the more interesting question is whether there is a meaningful distinction between Christianity as a rightly understood Platonic ideal and Christianity as an actual existing institution. i agree with the consensus of the thread that the former is a matter of theology and the latter of sociology. (which is not to say that theology doesn’t matter).
    a similar and more contemporary question is whether Islam supports suicide bombing. you can make a very strong case from the Koran that the Platonic ideal of Islam firmly rejects both suicide and war crimes against civilians, however unfortunately there a nontrivial number of people who sincerely consider themselves to be devout Muslims and who think this is hunky-dory.
    theologians are rightly concerned with what a religion actually means, social scientists are rightly concerned with what its adherents think it means.

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