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A Very Short Introduction to the History of Faith and Science in the Catholic Tradition

The Catholic tradition has much to say about the relation of science to the faith. In what follows I will discuss the development of that tradition, starting with its roots in Sacred Scripture and ending with some of the writings of St. John Paul II. A good place to start is with the Book of Genesis. Many people today see that book as an example of primitive mythmaking, which invented false supernatural explanations of things for which we now have true natural explanations, thanks to science. But this is to read Genesis in an anachronistic way. The first chapters of Genesis were an attack on false supernaturalism, not a defense of it.

To take an obvious example, when Genesis said that the sun and moon were lights placed by God in the heavens to light the day and night, it was not proposing an alternative to modern scientific explanations of how the sun and moon formed. It was, rather, opposing the pagan religions of antiquity in which the sun and moon were worshipped as gods. And when Genesis said that man is made in the image of God and is to exercise dominion over created things, it was opposing the pagan idolatry in which human beings worshipped created things or gods made in the image of created things.

In the pagan religions of Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Rome, the world was filled with supernatural forces, and populated by numerous deities—gods and goddess of the oceans and forests, of wind and fire and lightning, of sex and fertility, and so on. But the Old Testament taught that there is only one God, who is not a part of the universe, or located within its space and time or within its phenomena and forces, but a God who is beyond the universe, a God who is indeed the Author of the universe. In this way, biblical religion stripped the physical universe of divinity and supernatural elements and made it into a natural world, no longer the abode of gods, but merely the creation of the one God. Old Testament revelation did not mythologize the physical universe but contributed to demythologizing it.

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