At the risk of reducing history to similarly broad strokes, and of seeming overly ponderous, I would like to shed a reflective light on Christianity's last thousand years. Of course, a person could go mad trying to sift through such strata, but I'd like to bring up a few choice signposts that point out the push and pull of religion and science.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Among other things, Luther's bold declaration railed against the church's practice of selling indulgences--of absolving sins in exchange for material goods. The pathway to authentic religious discovery, Luther insisted, came from within; the redemptive power of God could not be bought or curried with favor. Luther also elevated faith above reason, the spiritual world above the material one. His ideas were so pervasive that they gave rise to the Reformation.
In 1610, Galileo gazed through his telescope and saw Jupiter. From this simple sighting, he turned the Western world on its axis. Galileo mathematically reasoned that Jupiter, and by implication the earth, revolved around the sun. The major implication was that man was no longer the center of God's universe. The Catholic church chaffed at this discovery, ultimately forcing Galileo to recant it. But the damage was done. From this simple observation came the idea that our place in God's universe was not so well ordered. Quite the contrary, we were awash in an arbitrary tide of celestial events, and we were not the center of them.
This was a crushing blow to man's ego and perhaps the embryo of what we now refer to as the human condition. No longer the center of God's universe, man could be seen as frightfully alone in this cringing world, his hand further removed from God's touch, with science filling the space in between.
In the 20th century, a famous short story by Isaac Asimov recounted a society's last sunrise, just before its sun goes nova. As envisioned by Asimov, that last sunrise represented an extraordinary confluence of religion and science. Religious mystics had long ago prophesied the date of their planet's demise. But their dogma fell by the wayside in a culture that increasingly viewed science as God's owner's manual. By the time the scientists stumbled on a plausible explanation for their planet's flameout, the sun had already begun to flare. In that last sunrise, both the scientists and the religious zealots were proved correct. The appearance of a scientific order to man's surroundings did not preclude the hand of God.
Six centuries earlier, St. Thomas Aquinas said as much when he reasoned that scientific rationalism did not discount the meaning or importance of religious faith. The presence of one did not eclipse the other. Aquinas further asserted that we could only be open to the beautiful possibilities of life through the loving contemplation of God. Rationalism, he seemed to indicate, could not answer the truly important questions. Placing all of our faith in the rational world is like a child cutting open his drum to see what makes it bang. The notion that science and faith can coexist has proved an essential influence on Catholic theology.
All of these examples represent the evolution of human egoism struggling against the notion of God. Being rational creatures, we have attempted to exert our rational will upon nature, to construct a world of right angles. Martin Luther railed against such thinking, Galileo perhaps inadvertently propelled it forward, and Aquinas attempted to resolve the conflict, melding rationalism and faith.
So in considering religion in this past millennium, Aquinas seems a logical end point. When reading him, we are forced to confront several questions: If you place your passion in beauty, what happens when beauty vanishes? If you spin your life around objects, what happens when these objects crumble? If you place your faith in a loved one, what happens when that loved one dies? It's only when we place our love in God that we create for ourselves an immutable foundation.
It is religion, not rationalism, that provides us with an absolute moral point of reference to help us discern right from wrong. Without this foundation, we merely live from whim to whim, our lives as amoral as science itself. Providing this foundation has been religion's greatest contribution of the past thousand years.