Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pelicans, the Bible, and the rise of Science

What on earth do the three have to do with each other?
In 2005 Peter Harrison gave a Christians in Science - St. Edmunds College lecture, The Bible and the Emergence of Modern Science, in Cambridge. The lecture involves some bold and original hypotheses. Hence, after the lecture there was a lively discussion by a distinguished group of scholars, from both science and the humanities. It all makes fascinating reading. Here is the abstract of the lecture:
The Bible played a significant role in the development of modern science. Most obviously, its contents were important because they could be read in ways that seemed either to conflict with or to confirm new scientific claims. More important, however, were changes to the way in which the Bible was interpreted during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The move away from allegorical readings of Scripture and the new focus on the historical or literal sense – a development promoted by humanist scholars and Protestant reformers – contributed to the collapse of the symbolic world of the Middle Ages and paved the way for new mathematical and taxonomic readings of nature. Biblical hermeneutics was thus of profound importance for those new ways of interpreting nature that we associate with the emergence of modern science.
An example of the incredibly complex and symbolic interpretation of nature in the Middle Ages was that of the pelican and in a common "natural history guidebook" known as a bestiary.

The Pelican Lectern in Norwich Cathedral. It was not destroyed in the Reformation because it was buried in the Bishop's garden. Ironically, it is used daily for the reading of Scripture in evensong.

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