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What Connection Is There, if any, Between Christianity and Innovation?

Christianity and Innovation - 990x580

Is there a connection between Christianity and innovation? For many public intellectuals and academics the answer is obvious: religion, more specifically Christianity, inhibits innovation. Christianity, it is commonly assumed, has resisted novelty and change and has sided with dogma and tradition. A prominent feature of recent polemical writing is the claim that the history of Christianity is one of intolerance, religious persecution, and violence. Witness the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the wars of religion. According to this view, innovation in the realms of civil rights and political liberties only came with the gradual eclipse of Christianity in the West and advent of science, reason, and the Enlightenment, accelerated by the process of secularization.

I want to advance an argument that runs against the grain of such contemporary thinking: Christianity, at various junctures, has actually helped to generate innovation. To argue that Christianity has consistently inhibited innovation relies on a selective reading of the history of science and the rise of modernity and ignores significant evidence to the contrary. In what follows, I will cite a number of instances that call into question the caricatured assumptions about the relationship of Christianity and innovation and will present the contours of a more complex and compelling understanding. I will be drawing from the soon-to-be-published findings of some of the scholars who participated in Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs (RIHA) grants initiative of The Historical Society from 2011 to 2014, funded generously by the John Templeton Foundation (Donald A. Yerxa, ed., Religion and Innovation: Antagonists or Partners? (Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming in November 2015).

I offer as my first counter-example the work of political scientist Timothy Samuel Shah (“The First Enlightenment: The Patristic Roots of Religious Freedom,” in Religion and Innovation). Citing a number of influential scholars, Shah contends that the prevailing view in today’s academy is that doctrines of liberalism, democracy, and freedom of conscience could only emerge in direct revolt against Christianity. Contrary to this prevailing orthodoxy, Shah suggests that some of the earliest persecuted Christian communities incubated innovative doctrines of individual and institutional religious freedom, which themselves generated new concepts of political freedom. In the work of some of the earliest Greek and Latin fathers of the church (viz., Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, and especially Tertullian and Lactantius), Shah traces innovative arguments articulating a principle of universal religious freedom. These Patristic arguments for religious freedom, he argues, amount to the “First Enlightenment” and “constitute one of the most radical conceptual innovations in human history.”

Shah’s conclusion complements that of Oxford intellectual historian Larry Siedentop, who makes the case in Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (Allen Lane, 2014) that “Christian moral intuitions played a pivotal role in shaping the discourse that gave rise to modern liberalism and secularism” (359). Drawing from the moral revolution of the early church, canon lawyers, theologians, and philosophers in the Middle Ages advanced a number of moral intuitions in their struggle against an authoritarian model of the medieval church. These became central to Western liberalism and included such things as: belief in individual liberty, the fundamental moral equality of individuals, and equality as the basis of the legal system. In this respect, Siedentop contends, “liberal thought is the offspring of Christianity” (332).

The lynchpin of contemporary polemics against Christianity that has considerable currency in our intellectual culture is the notion that scientific naturalism is a primary driver of historical progress, while religion, especially Christianity, has played essentially an inhibitory role. According to one of our leading historians of science, Peter Harrison, this view has its roots in the influential nineteenth-century narrative of progress that identified religion—again, especially Christianity—with supernaturalism and regressive conservatism on the one hand, and to equated science with naturalism and progress on the other (“Religion, Scientific Naturalism, and Historical Progress,” in Religion and Innovation). Harrison demonstrates, however, that there are actually surprisingly positive connections between religion and naturalism. Monotheism, and certain forms of Western Christianity in particular, often “served as agents for the disenchantment of nature.” Indeed, a good case can be made that these forms of Western Christianity “provided the metaphysical foundations upon which that naturalism was constructed.” It follows, therefore, that arguments positing “a simple alliance between science and progress while attributing to religion a negative and role” are based on distorted readings of the historical record.

We get a glimpse of some of the complexities of the Christianity-innovation interface when we explore the English experience following the bloody civil wars of the mid seventeenth century. Historians William Bulman and Robert Ingram demonstrate how the English considered innovation and novelty to be inherently destabilizing (“Religion, Enlightenment, and the Paradox of Innovation, c. 1650–c. 1760,” in Religion and Innovation). Yet the Anglican Enlightenment, the very intellectual project meant to forestall the negative effects of innovation and novelty, inadvertently spurred intellectual and political innovation. In a richly textured argument, Bulman and Ingram provide an example of “the paradoxical, counter-intuitive ways in which religion and innovation can find themselves in a mutually-sustaining relationship.” They also conclude that the notion that Christianity “is in an inherently antagonistic relationship with modernity, Enlightenment, and secularization is itself an illusion.”

For a more recent example, I turn to historian Dana Robert, who argues that missionary Protestantism was a major source of social innovation and modern democratic notions at the beginning of the twentieth century (“Christian Transnationalists, Nationhood, and the Construction of Civil Society,” in Religion and Innovation). The innovative dynamics are evident in what Robert calls “Christian transnationalism.” She demonstrates how nonwestern Christian intellectuals—namely, Inazô Nitobé (Japan), Silas Modiri Molema (South Africa), and Philip Hitti (Lebanon)—wrote national histories in the early twentieth century that “envisioned a common global civil society.” These Christian transnationals “used ethnic nationalism as a tool for democratic internationalism.” Robert’s sophisticated argument “challenges interpretations of modern transnationalism that ignore the essential role of Christianity in its construction.”

The final example I will offer is historian Wilfred McClay’s brilliant examination of a current dilemma that cuts to the core of the Christianity-innovation question. McClay contends that despite its manifest achievements, modern science “cannot do anything to relieve the weight of guilt” that burdens people in the contemporary West (“Sin, Guilt, and the Future of Progress,” in Religion and Innovation). In fact, there is an “ominous linkage” between progress and guilt, and this, McClay warns, could fatally undermine “the energies of innovation that have made the West what it is.” He suggests that in order to be sustained human progress may need religion and “something very like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West.”

What can we conclude from these few historical examples? First of all, a few case studies certainly do not permit us to claim that Christianity has always been innovative. And—if I may—thank God for that! Contrary to the current ubiquitous view, innovation is not always a good thing. As Cambridge University historian G. E. R. Lloyd has noted, “[i]nnovation with no tradition at all would produce unintelligibility” (quoted in Armand D’Angour, The Greeks and the New: Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and Experience [Cambridge University Press, 2011], 24). There is no denying that Christianity has not always welcomed innovation. Some changes have been resisted fiercely.

Moreover, the few examples I have provided here, as well as other studies in the forthcoming Religion and Innovation: Antagonists or Partners?, give no warrant for claiming a global causal connection between Christianity and innovation. At present, the evidence is simply insufficient; we need further research in a wider variety of contexts. Indeed, because context matters enormously, the sheer complexity of the forces at work at the interface of Christianity and innovation may too substantial for such a general theory.

That said, these case studies do permit us to say something important about the relationship of Christianity and innovation. The scholarship I have cited successfully challenges the presumption that Christianity is invariably opposed to innovation. To argue such is to resort to a caricatured narrative, unsubstantiated by careful scholarly examination. In several specific contexts Christianity has played an important, albeit under-appreciated role in initiating and facilitating innovation.

Unfortunately, as is the case with the resilient warfare thesis of science and religion that persists despite substantial scholarship to the contrary, it could well be that the work on Christianity and innovation introduced here will not gain the traction in the larger culture that it deserves. As the Oxford theologian Alister McGrath recently argued, scholarship by itself may not be sufficient to counter the entrenched stereotypes of an intellectual culture that increasingly sees religion as retrograde and incompatible with the mindset of advanced societies (“Understanding Cultural and Theological Resistance to Special Divine Action” (lecture, St. Anne’s College, Oxford, July 2015, accessed February 15, 2015). Any future research exploring the relationship of Christianity and innovation would do well to devote some attention to why these stereotypes and myths persist in our culture. What purposes do they serve? How does scholarship such as is on display in this essay find its way into the marketplace of public awareness?

Discussion Questions:

1)    Why is historical context so important when considering questions like this?

2)    Unlike earlier periods when people were generally suspicious of innovation, today it enjoys almost universal approbation. Do we value innovation more than we ought?

3)    Why do negative stereotypes about Christianity resonate in contemporary intellectual culture?

Discussion Summary


On one level, summarizing the online discussion that took place as a result of my essay on Christianity and innovation is an easy task. There was only one response asking for further information about Wilfred McClay’s “linkage between progress and guilt that could fatally undermine the energies of innovation in the West.” In reply I outlined McClay’s position on the relationship of guilt, progress, and innovation. It is not an easy argument to summarize, so it is best to allow McClay to speak for himself: “Perhaps human progress cannot be sustained without religion, or something like it, and specifically without something very like the moral economy of sin and absolution that has hitherto been secured by the religious traditions of the West.” Moreover, “without the support of religious beliefs and institutions, one may have no choice but to accept the dismal prospect envisioned by Freud, in which the advance of human civilization brings, not happiness, but an ever-mounting tide of unassuaged guilt, ever in search of novel and ineffective, and ultimately bizarre, ways to discharge itself. Such an advance will steadily diminish the human prospect, and little by little render it less and less sustainable. It will smother the energies of innovation that have made the West what it is and will fatally undermine the spirited confidence needed to uphold the very possibility of progress itself.”

So it falls on me to conjecture as to why the essay did not prompt many comments. One reason may have been that there is little interest in the topic. It simply may not have struck readers as a “big question” that merited engagement. I would like to think that is not the case, but it certainly is possible. Another possibility—one that a few people have shared with me off-line—is that given the relatively modest claims I made about Christianity and innovation, there was not much more to say. I did not attempt to go beyond the data to speculate about some sort of overall causal connection between Christianity and innovation. And in the light of the examples I provide, one would be hard pressed to argue that Christianity has been invariably opposed to innovation.

I cannot claim that the limited discussion of the past week advanced our understanding of the connection between Christianity and innovation. But I do believe my assertion, based on several historical case studies, that “in several specific contexts Christianity has played an important, albeit under-appreciated role in initiating and facilitating innovation” does help us understand the dynamics involved. It is necessary to clear away some of the misunderstanding before we can replace it with better explanatory narratives.

To move forward on this question, we need many more case studies. As I say this, I am reminded of discussions I have had over the years with a number of historians of science and religion on the how best to replace the tattered conflict narrative. It is fair to say that most believe we need more explorations (case studies, if you will) that analyze the complexities of differing contexts before we attempt any replacement narrative. As result of this understandably cautious approach, however, a de facto “complexity narrative” emerges, though historians tend to dislike the label. We find ourselves, I believe, in a similar situation with the question of religion and innovation, which admittedly is a subset of the larger conversation of science and religion. We need more data that only delving into a number of differing historical contexts can provide. While context matters enormously, dare I also say, as a historian, that it can matter too much? We need to move beyond a celebration of context. All historical situations possess an irreducible uniqueness. But we interrogate the past not only to examine the particulars of “this place” at “this time,” but also in part to determine whether patterns emerge that help us understand the past at larger scales of inquiry than individual case studies. When patterns emerge from careful scholarship, we need to draw tentative conclusions and advance explanatory schemes that we revise in the light of new data.

More specifically, we need to pay more attention to the fact that Christianity is a very broad category of analysis. There are so many variables of time, place, and context that need to be explored. Are certain Christian confessions more amenable to innovation than others? Are modern evangelicals, for example, particularly well-suited to be innovative, as opposed to, say, those embracing the Orthodox tradition? Are there specific circumstances—for example, times of political crisis or cultural turmoil—when certain Christian groups are more likely to embrace innovative ideas or practices?

I would like to suggest a few related big questions for further inquiry.

New Big Questions:

(1)  Beyond context, is there something fundamental about Christian faith that is innovative? If so, what is it? And why have there been times in which this innovative dynamic has seemingly been absent?

(2)  What patterns of innovation, if any, emerge if we focus on one particular Christian faith tradition—say, evangelicalism?

(3)  It would be very interesting to explore why scholars in a number of disciplines shy away from the notion of progress, while they approach innovation, by and large, with enthusiasm. Has our avoidance of progress been as excessive as our embrace of innovation? Do we value innovation more than we ought?

(4)  Why do negative stereotypes about Christianity resonate in contemporary intellectual culture?